Life changing events.

 

A few days later, Hope woke in her den after a long sleep. Cuddled up to Kuruk, she felt warm and safe, Kuruk’s paws around her and warm fur warming her. yawning and stretching, Hope closed her eyes and thought about her life. Since Tiguak told her the tale of the boy who cried wolf, she’d not pressed her pendant once. Plus, last night, she’d met Ellis for the first time, the little cub and she literally bumping into each other, Ellis squealing with fright and backing off in fear. Hope had managed to calm him down, then managed to get paws on and once she’d done that, the cure was complete, Ellis no longer feared her. Hope realised she couldn’t go exploring until Kuruk released her. his paws, embracing her firmly but gently, would alert him if she tried to wriggle free.

        “Kuruk?”  Hope whispered, gently touching his ear with her paw. Kuruk shifted, grunted slightly, then settled back to sleep.

        “Kuruk, please, wake up!” Hope whispered, gently cuffing his shoulder this time. Kuruk woke suddenly, snorting alarmingly and staring round him in the half darkness.

       “What wrong Hope?”  he asked groggily.

       “I want to go to the relieving place,”  hope said, “and I thought that, well, if I wriggled free of your embrace, and you woke to find me no longer there, you’d panic and I’d get into trouble.”  Kuruk grunted:

       “Kuruk panic for he love you,”  he mumbled, still half asleep.

        “I know,”  Hope said, the memory of the tale of the cub on the mountain still very fresh, “I know you do Kuruk. Now, I’m busting for the loo, must go.”  With that Hope crawled from the room and along to the relieving place. Kuruk, thinking back on the tale he’d told Hope, settled sadly onto his rug:

        “My poor little one,”  he thought miserably. Hope went to the relieving place, then crawled back to the lie up. Finding Kuruk lying sobbing into his paws, she settled down and snuggled up to him, kissing his ear and tear soaked paws.

       “hello little one,”  Kuruk choked, embracing Hope in his wet paws, Hope snuggling up to Kuruk and stroking his face with her paws.

        “Kuruk still grieve for dead cub,”  Kuruk choked. Hope kissed his nose:

        “that story you told me,”  she said, “when you were asleep, I got to thinking about it, and it made me cry.”  Kuruk looked at Hope:

        “You caring cub little one,”  he said, “make sure you no forget how be so caring.”  Hope smiled at Kuruk’s misuse of English.

         “if Kuruk teach hope cub as he be taught by mama Kamchatka, then she remain caring cub, and become caring adult like papa Kuruk,”  Hope replied smiling.

      “You no make fun of Kuruk speak!” Kuruk said. Hope giggled:

      “Kuruk speak, that’s what I’ll name your language, Kuruk speak! Yippee!” Hope replied, clapping her paws.

       “You impossible cub,”  Kuruk said gruffly, his eyes shining with love for Hope.”

        “So we have a half sister now?”  Houdini asked, crashing in with Kuruk Junior, who stopped dead with a sliding of claws and fumbling of paws at the sight of Hope.

       “Yes you do,”  Hope replied regally, turning her head and staring at the two male bears, who found they couldn’t look her in the face.

         “Oh, she’s, um, fisty ain’t she,”  Houdini said, looking anywhere than at Hope.

       “she’s a wonderful cub,”  Anook replied.

        “I heard she got more freedom at her age than we did mama,”  Houdini challenged.

       “We kept an eye on her at all times thanks to the cameras and an alarm system,”  Anook replied, “and yes, she got more freedom because her eyes opened earlier, and she can see to get about.”

       “What if she was like Ekaterina, would you then lock her up?”  Kuruk Junior asked.

       “I’d be less inclined to let her roam alone,”  Anook admitted.

         “but here is safe, isn’t it?”  Hope asked, “I’ll bet Sita’s [paws weren’t tied when she was young.”

        “She wasn’t cared for and loved like you are Hope,”  Anook replied.

      “Try telling her that mama, that’s horrid!” Hope snapped, “Patch loved her, even if noone else did, and he looked after her as best he could, everyone knows that, even me, and I’m only a week old!” Anook knew she’d put her paw in it.

       “I’m sorry,”  Anook replied.

       “I think mama Anook need go sit with you in history classes with cubs,”  Kuruk grunted.

       “I’m not doing that,”  Anook snarled, “that’s cub stuff!”

       “Learn about Sita mama, she’s got a very interesting tale,”  Hope replied.

      “Sita’s tail isn’t interesting, it’s horrid, it’s long, and banded, and looks like a racoons’!” Anook yelled.

       “Not that kind of tale mama!” Hope laughed, “you are so silly!”

      “Don’t call me silly!” Anook roared, now furious.

       “But you are mama, you are as Hope says!” Houdini replied, rolling about on the floor laughing helplessly while waving his paws in the air.

       “Stop that now!” Anook snarled, “you look silly!”

       “Oh mama,”  Kuruk Junior said, “you really did sound so silly!  It was funny!”

       “I can’t cope any more, these cubs are too clever!” Anook roared, stamping her feet, then charging out of the lie up.

        “She’s so silly!” Hope said. Anook, feeling out of her depth, walked out into the woods.

         “Anook be silly mama,”  Kuruk grunted.

        “She says some silly things, but loves her cubs,”  Patch said, padding into the lie up.

       “mama Anook’s comment about Sita’s tale was so funny!” Hope said.

        “Kuruk think so too little one,”  Kuruk whispered to Hope, “but he no tell mama Anook, if he say thing, she go bonkers.”

       “She’s bonkers already,”  Hope said.

        “Now that not nice,”  Kuruk replied.

 

Meanwhile, in another part of the house, Androcles stroked Sushanti’s paws. Sushanti, having met Androcles some time ago, was now in labour with his cubs. Remembering her sister’s labour with little Tigger and naira, was terrified her own labour would be long and horrendous. Sushanti, now in the second hour of her labour, felt her teeth clenching and toes curling spontaneously. Breathing deeply, she felt Androcles massaging her paws as she growled and moaned in discomfort.

         “Things are slow at the moment,”  Sushanti panted, “but here I am, whimpering and crying like a wimp.”

       “You’re whimpering and crying like a mama in labour,”  Androcles said.

          “the contractions hurt,”  Sushanti mewed, “they really hurt Androcles, “they squeeze me so hard!” Androcles hugged his mate tenderly, Sushanti panting hard and pawing at him with her forepaws, Androcles feeling her curled toes pawing at him.

       “I’ll be with you even when you’re screaming and crying, curling into a ball and roaring with the agonies of fast labour,”  Androcles whispered gently.

         “It already hurts enough to put me off ever having cubs again!” Sushanti wailed. Androcles watched Sushanti wriggle and paw at the air as she endured another contraction.

       “she even gives birth gracefully,”  he thought, his toes curling with emotion.

        “you are graceful, even in labour,”  Androcles said. Sushanti laughed:

       “I don’t feel it,”  she replied, “but I’m glad you think so. Androcles lay down and watched Sushanti’s face, seeing her closed eyes and clenched teeth, then shifted his gaze to her paws, watching curling toes and bunching pads, as well as straining legs and pedalling paws.

        “Taking a good look are you?”  Sushanti asked. Androcles admitted he was.

        “Good,”  Sushanti panted, “I want you here Androcles!” Androcles took Sushanti’s right forepaw in his, feeling her sweating pads and curling toes as she tensed her body against growing pain.

       “Ow! Ow!” yow!” Sushanti yelled lustily. Androcles watched Sushanti clenching her teeth and screwing her eyes tight shut.

       “Maybe if we walked a bit it would help?”  he asked.

       “And risk me having a cub on the track?”  Sushanti asked, “no Thanks!”

       “Walking might ease your pain though,”  Androcles replied.

       “I don’t, ow, ow, oooah!” Sushanti replied, her paws pawing at the air.

        “What’s all this noise?”  Hope asked, crawling into their lie up.

       “Sushanti’s having cubs,”  Androcles said to the little bear cub.

         “That’s wonderful!” Hope Enthused. Sushanti growled:

      “No it’s not, it hurts!” Hope crawled up to Sushanti, who grabbed her in her paws and yowling, rolled onto her back and rolled about from side to side, screaming and kicking the air with her hind feet, before rolling back onto her side and flinging Hope away.

      “Wow!” Hope panted, landing hard and rolling.

        “You hurt my cub I’ll tear you apart!” Anook roared, pounding into the lie up.

       “I’m all right mama,”  Hope replied, “Sushanti didn’t mean to hurt me, and she didn’t. she showed me what pain she was in, I wanted to know, I really did!”

        “I want to push, now! Right now!” Sushanti yelled, gripping the ground with the toes of all four paws and screaming at Hope, who’s face was inches from hers.

        “aowwwwwwww, Oaoaoaoaw!” Sushanti screeched.

        “Your contractions aren’t coming very regularly yet, and they are light, so you shouldn’t be feeling much pain or discomfort,”  Anook observed.

       “You didn’t know you were in labour mama Anook, so shut up!” Hope replied, making Sushanti laugh, her merriment cut off by a contraction which made her curl up in a ball, grab her right hind foot in her paws and crush her toes.

       “oaoaoaoaoaoaaow! Aaaaaaaaow!” Aaaaaw!” she screamed. Panting, Sushanti whimpered and wriggled in discomfort.

          “That was dreadful!” she panted.

        “I’ll get even with you later my girl!” Anook snapped, cuffing Hope hard with her paw, “and that’s just for starters!”

      “And this will end it!” Sid yelled, smashing a frying pan down on Anook’s shoulder, the she bear roaring and turning round to face him, Sid bringing the frying pan down on her nose, Anook screaming and collapsing onto the floor.

         “You leave your cub alone, right?”  Sid said. Anook rubbing her nose with her paw, whimpered she’d get even with Sid too.

        “you didn’t know you were in labour,”  Sid replied, “Hope is right, so you have no authority to comment on Sushanti’s contractions, her reaction to pain, or anything like that. Now go, you are not wanted here, though I think Hope is.”

        “Can Hope stay?”  Anook asked in a whimpering voice.

       “Yes, let her see what happens,”  Sushanti replied, “it’ll be good for her to see what happens.”

       “Sushanti’s toes curl so tightly mama,”  Hope said to Anook, who snorted.

        “Want to touch my paws little one?”  Sushanti panted, “go ahead, feel my toes curl if you want.”  So Hope did, cradling Sushanti’s right hind foot in her forepaws, the tigress curling her toes with urgency when she felt her contraction coming.

      “this hurts!” Sushanti screamed repeatedly, “hurts, so much, so very much!  My legs ache, my toes ache, everything aches, and I haven’t even started really pushing yet!”

      “You have no real right to be watching this,”  Anook told Hope.

        “I was involved once,”  Hope replied airily.

        “yeah,”  Anook snarled, “and I wish you weren’t so interested in all this!”

        “I’m fine with Hope watching everything, it’s okay,”  Sushanti gasped, clenching her teeth and curling her toes tighter than ever.

       hooooawauauumph!” she screamed, “uah, oooooauoph, hooooawauauumph

       “It doesn’t hurt Sushanti, shut up!” Anook grumbled.]

       “have you ever delivered a feline cub?”  Androcles asked. Anook shook her head impatiently:

       “Just tell your mate to get pushing,”  she snarled, and stop screaming.”  Androcles swore, wishing Anook could feel his mate’s pain.

       “ow, shit, shit ow!” Anook yelled, rolling about on the floor, holding her stomach and drawing up her hind legs.

        “What?”  Androcles asked. Anook, grimacing, breathed deeply.

       “I’m getting urges to push down into my tail!” Anook roared, “my pains are the same as Sushanti’s I think!” Anook wailed, “ow, ow, ow, hooooawauauumph!” Androcles smiled as Anook, driven crazy by being plugged into Sushanti’s nervous system and mind, crawled away to sulk.

       “Switch it off!” Anook begged, “your time is yours Sushanti, go with hope, let her see what you want her to see. I give up.”  Sushanti groaned, then tore up her rug with her bare toes, her claws sheathed.

       “My labour will be for me, Androcles, my cubs and Hope,”  she panted.

        “I wish Sooleawa could see it too,”  Hope replied.

       “I can, from Sushanti’s nose to her pads,”  Sooleawa said smiling, padding into the room and kissing the labouring tigress’s nose.

        “take deep breaths mama,”  Sooleawa said gently, “everything’s fine.”  Sushanti moaned deeply, the sound drawn out and seemingly coming from her whole body, a groan of pure pain, without the hysterical fear.

       “oooooooaoooowaow. She moaned, shifting her paws on the remains of her rug which she’d ripped up earlier.

         “I want to sit down now, got to sit, I want to wriggle while sitting.”  Sushanti panted, fitting actions to words, sitting down, clamping herself to the ground with the toes of all four paws, then wriggling madly, bouncing on her haunches and thrashing the air with her tail, all this accompanied by growling and mewing. Hope listened to Sushanti’s voice, the tigress’s growling deep and meaningful, rising to a yowl of pain from time to time, then back to a grunt and growl of pain again. Sometimes, when Sushanti tried to push, the growl would be one of intense concentration, then rise to a scream as Sushanti exerted herself. Hope watched and listened intently, wondering how it felt to deliver a cub. the look on Sushanti’s face was one of concentrated inner focus. Sometimes the tigress would open her eyes, only to close them tightly again as she growled deep in her throat in preparation for clinging to the ground with her toes, wriggling, bouncing on her toes, then straining hard down into her tail.

         “I want to feel what Sushanti’s feeling,”  Hope thought, “only for a bit though.”

      “No Hope, you can’t,”  Sooleawa said, Hope not surprised she’d caught her thoughts.

       “Does it hurt as much as it looks?”  Hope asked.

       “it does, and more,”  Sooleawa replied, “Sushanti wants to pin herself to the floor with her toes, and that’s what she’s doing. Sitting is most comfortable for her at the moment, but she’ll deliver her cubs lying down I should think.”

       “Are you all right Sushanti?”  Hope asked in a lull between contractions. Sushanti got to her feet, shook herself and padded round the lie up.

        “it’s okay now, for a bit,”  she said, “contractions have eased, but they’ll start up again.”

      “I was watching your face and your feet,”  Hope said, “both expressed your pain.”  Sushanti smiled and leant down to kiss Hope’s nose, a contraction making her open her mouth and yowl with pain, her mouth inches from Hope’s face. Hope looked into the tigress’s gaping mouth and then took in her closed eyes and desperately gripping forepaws.

       “Aoaoaoaoaoaoaaoaoaoew!!” Sushanti yelled into Hope’s face, the cub touching Sushanti’s nose, feeling her panting breath against her pads.

           “sorry, so sorry, it’s, it’s ow, ow, it’s coming again  , I can’t stop it! Aoaoaoaoaoaoaaoaoaoew! hooooawauauumph!” Sushanti complained, sitting down suddenly, adopting the same posture she’d been in for the last two hours, sitting with her toes gripping the rugs.

       “I’m sorry I’m making so much noise,”  Sushanti whimpered.

       “It’s fine, I’d be making that much noise too,”  Hope said, “and more I don’t doubt too!” Sushanti smiled:

        “You are a lovely cub,”  she groaned, getting ready for another contraction.

        “Aaaaaw!!” Sushanti complained. Then “hooooawauauumph, hooooawauauumph, hooooawauauumph!” Hope looked at the struggling tigress, wanting to help her.

      “What can I do to help?”  Hope asked, crawling closer to Sushanti.

        “Get out of the way you silly cub!” Anook snapped, watching from the doorway.

       “No, no!” Sushanti replied, “I, I want her here, I want her here!  If, if she’ll stay.”  Hope bounced on her toes a bit as she tried to contain her excitement.

       “I’d like to stay, I like that,”  she replied, her eyes intense.

       “Please stay,”  Sushanti gasped. Hope touched the tigress’s right forepaw, feeling her hot paw beneath hers.

      “Things are gonna get noisy and stressed,”  Sushanti said, “Hope, if you want to go, please don’t think I’ll be offended.”  Hope kissed Sushanti’s nose.

      “I’ll stay,”  the bear cub said.

       “What help can she give?”  Anook asked, “she’s too small, you could hurt her Sushanti!”

        “Hope will be okay,”  Sushanti panted. Then she crouched down, lowered her head and roared with pain, Hope seeing closed eyes, gripping toes, and a straining tail. Then, as Sushanti recovered, she lashed her tail from side to side, panting and stamping her paws.

       “Things are getting more intense,”  Sushanti growled, “the cub’s coming closer!”

          “Hope, you come out, now!” Anook commanded.

       “No mama, I want to stay, Sushanti, can you push harder?”  Sushanti smiled.

       “I’m trying all I can,”  she replied, “but I can’t rush my body. My cub will come when it, when it wants to, like now! Ow! Oooah, hooooawauauumph!” Hope watched the tigress’s paws scrabbling for purchase, then Sushanti lost her balance, and screaming, rolled towards Hope, her paws kicking the air as she rolled onto her back, Hope nearly crushed by the tigress’s body as Sushanti rolled back and fourth, kicking the air with all four paws and roaring with pain and emotion.

        “come away now!” Anook replied, rushing in and scooping up hope, who’d just about managed to stay one step ahead of Sushanti’s rolling body and kicking paws.

      “Is this normal?”  Anook asked, “is the cat all right?”

      “Sushanti’s labour is normal, she’s expressing her pain, and doing what she wants,”  Petra replied, padding in, “nothing’s wrong.”

       “Sorry about that, that was awful!” Sushanti panted, now lying on her side, “everything opened up suddenly, now, now, now I can push, there’s room!” Sushanti caught her breath and Hope watched as she pushed into her tail, her stomach muscles straining as she pushed. Sushanti groaned, curled her toes and pedalled the air with her paws as she pushed, but everything seemed strangely calm. Hope, feeling her chance, leapt from Anook’s grasp and landed on her paws, losing her balance and falling to a crawling posture and crawling towards Sushanti’s hind paws. Anook, now  powerless, watched with indignant fury.

      “Push when you feel real pain Sushanti,”  Petra said. Sushanti pushed down hard into her tail, feeling a tiny set of paws taking her right hind foot in a gentle embrace. Hope felt Sushanti’s toes curling round those of her right forepaw, the tigress’s grip tightening as she pushed down hard. Hope clenched her teeth in pain as her toes were crushed, but managed to stay quiet and best of all, keep her eyes open, for she saw, beneath Sushanti’s tail, a set of paws emerging as Sushanti exerted herself.

       “I saw paws, I saw paws!” hope yelled.

       “What are you doing there Hope!” Anook asked. Sushanti curled her body and kissed Hope’s nose, then lay back down to push harder than ever. Mewing, then Growling, then roaring, Sushanti pushed three times, building up to a massive effort. With the fourth contraction, Sushanti gave her all, hope’s eyes wide with delight as she witnessed the birth of Sushanti’s cub with sight, sound and touch, for she was drenched in fluid, then, seeing the cub emerging, she reached out and touched its head, then grabbed hold of it as best she could, the cub delivered into Hope’s tiny paws.

       “Get away from there, now!” Anook roared.

       “mama,”  Hope said, laughing, “I can’t go now, I have a cub in my paws.”  Sushanti, knowing the cub was a big one, pushed for the final time, feeling the cub’s hind legs and paws delivered into the world. Groaning with triumph, Sushanti lay back exhausted and happy as Petra helped Hope carry her large cub, Petra making sure Hope herself handed the cub to Sushanti.

        “I think this is your cub mama,”  Hope said, her eyes blurred by tears. Sushanti smiled and cleaned the cub up, then, once her cub was nursing busily, Sushanti turned her attention to Hope.

       “Thank you little one,”  Sushanti said, kissing Hope’s right forepaw, the one her toes had crushed.

       “I’m not crying from pain, my toes hurt, but my tears aren’t from that!” Hope replied crossly.

         “I know little one,”  Sushanti said, her eyes sparkling, “you caught my cub. the way I was pushing, it would have shot out of me and hit the wall.”

        “It was coming slowly!” Anook snapped, “the cub was huge and you were pushing with all your might just to deliver it Sushanti, don’t give me all that rubbish!”

        “I know how I felt, so shut up!” Sushanti snarled, her large cub growling with fear.

       “Now you’re upsetting the little cub mama, get out!” hope snapped, making go away motions with her fluid covered paws. Sushanti, laughing so hard she could hardly speak, gathered hope to her with her sweat drenched paws and, in a gesture which made Petra sit down and stare open mouthed, fed Hope from her own milk.

       “it’s not bear’s milk, sorry,”  Sushanti said, But Hope, recognising the gesture, nursed gently.

        “thought you’d know how to do that,”  Sushanti said contentedly.

       “Why?”  Anook asked.

       “because it feels good, is that enough of a reason?”  Sushanti replied. Anook looked away, completely baffled.

        “now you go back to your mama,”  Sushanti said after Hope had drunk her fill.

        “My mum’s an idiot,”  Hope replied.

       “She might be, but that’s not a nice thing to say out loud,”  Sushanti replied.

       “I’m sorry Shandy, but Sire Kuruk told me always to speak the truth, so I am following what he says,”  Hope replied.

       “Oh, and my name’s not Shandy,”  Sushanti replied.

       “I can’t say your name, my mouth can’t say it properly!” Hope whimpered.

       “you can already say Shandy, instead of that, say shanty, then put us in front of it, and you’ve got my name,”  Sushanti said gently.

     Su, shanty, Sushanti, ah got it now, thanks,”  Hope said, smiling with relief, “though I still think my mum’s an idiot.”  Sushanti shushed her.

       “You can’t say that, even if I do agree,”  she whispered.

       “I’ll never forget catching your cub mama Sushanti,”  Hope said. Sushanti smiled:

       “I won’t either,”  she replied, “and Hope, if there’s another cub to be born, I’ll make sure Anook lets you know before it’s born. I’ll have some warning.”  Hope’s eyes lit up:

       “Do you mean there could be more in there?”  she asked.

       “Might be,”  Sushanti replied, “though I don’t think there is. Let’s wait and see though.”

      “I won’t let her know,”  Anook snapped, “Hope shouldn’t have been where she was and she knows it!  Just wait until Kuruk hears what you did Hope, He’ll beat you so hard you’ll never sit down again!”

       “now that not fair,”  Kuruk roared, charging in and confronting Anook, “you speak shit mama Anook, and you know thing too. Kuruk no hit Hope cub for helping at Sushanti cub birth, why he do thing anyway?  Hope cause no harm, she catch cub is all. Curious cub catches curious cat. There, all fine.”

       “I don’t understand,”  Anook replied.

     “No, you wouldn’t, you idiot,”  Kuruk grunted, making Hope laugh.

       “I’m not an idiot!” Anook yelled.

      “You no see what’s going on in front of your eyes does you,”  Kuruk snarled, “Anook, you be big pest, now leave here, you not wanted by mama Sushanti or by her cub either. You more blind than Sita is!  You silly bear not fit to be called bear, as you act worse than week and half old cubs do. Now go, go!” Kuruk shoved his mate out of the lie up, then turned back to Hope, who looked scared.

        “Kuruk dam proud of what Hope cub do,”  Kuruk said gently, “Hope cub stick by mama tiger and give her support even when own paws crushed in toes of screaming cat. Kuruk and Sushanti tigress very proud of Hope cub.”

        “I shouldn’t have been there,”  Hope replied, almost crying, “Kuruk, I shouldn’t have got paws on with that cub, it wasn’t my place!”

        “how it be not your place?”  Kuruk asked, “you imagine you born to Sushanti now, mind you, she be better and more with it mother than Anook at moment anyway, but if you born to Sushanti as first born, you would be where you was when little tiger cub come squeezing out into world, and it big squeeze, Kuruk see thing. He curl toes and groan with mama Sushanti, scream too, though don’t tell Anook that.”  Sushanti looked at Kuruk.

       “Did you?”  she asked, begging for truth.

       “Kuruk do thing yes mama,”  Kuruk replied gently, Sushanti covering her eyes with a paw to hide a rush of tears.

        “Thank you,”  she replied hoarsely, swallowing hard.

       “Kuruk want push to help you like Patch help Haimati, but he no got key into Sushanti’s mind.”

      “If I have another cub, will you help then?”  Sushanti asked.

      “Kuruk push with mama yes,”  Kuruk said, padding over to Sushanti and kissing her nose. Hope waited, but Sushanti didn’t go into labour again. Kuruk watched the video of Sushanti’s labour once more, his eyes shining with pleasure at the sight of Hope catching Sushanti’s cub.

        “Kuruk want lie down, pedal air with paws, curl toes and scream when he see Sushanti tiger doing thing,”  Kuruk said.

        “Why not if it makes you feel better,”  Sushanti asked.

      “it be like mocking pain of mama Sushanti, to act like she do,”  Kuruk replied.

       “I know you’re not mocking me,”  Sushanti replied.

        “You have cute paws Sushanti,”  Hope said suddenly.

        “Even when they’re gripping your paws and crushing them?”  Sushanti asked.

       “Especially then,”  Hope replied, “I think you have beautiful paws.”  Sushanti grinned.

        “I’m glad about that,”  she replied smiling, “I want you to remember this forever Hope,”  she added.

      “So do I,”  her cub said, “mama, is Hope your cub too?”  Sushanti hesitated:

        “What do I tell him?”  she asked herself.

       “Hope isn’t my cub, she’s someone else’s,”  Sushanti said, “but I let her drink, as she, she, well.,,,”

        “she caught me as I was squeezed into the world, that’s what she did,”  the male cub said. Hope smiled.

       “I did little one, but I shouldn’t really have been there,”  Hope replied.

        “mama and I wanted you there, well I did.”  The cub replied. Hope kissed his nose and tiny paws, the cub laughing and batting at her nose.

        “What shall we name our cub?”  Sushanti asked. Androcles, having taken everything in, padded round and lay down so that Hope and his cub were enclosed in the gap between his body and Sushanti’s. Sushanti took his forepaws in hers, and Androcles her hind paws in his hind, the two cats locking toes and pressing pads together.

     “here is where we could do with some glue to fix our paws together,”  Sushanti said., Androcles smiling and pressing his paws hard against Sushanti’s, gripping her toes with his.

        “I’m now very warm indeed,”  Hope yawned, “I think I could sleep here.”

      “Sleep then, I am,”  the cub replied smiling.

      “I think we should name him Baako, it is an African name and means born first,”  Androcles said, “but then, we want him to have an Indian name too, as you my dear are of Indian descent.”  Sushanti smiled in agreement.

       “I think Baako is a nice name, we’ll give him an Indian name soon enough,”  she replied, though we must find a name for Hope too, as she’s, well, now part of our family too.” 

        “I’m not, not really,”  Hope protested.

        “Try telling Baako that,”  Androcles replied, “he’s convinced you were born before he was.”

       “but I was, well, not from Sushanti, she didn’t,”  Hope whimpered, Poor Baako might get a shock when his eyes open and he sees, well, me.”

        “I could pretend I had,”  Sushanti mewed.

       “maybe push like you’re going to have another cub, and then it’ll be right with you?”  Baako suggested. Sushanti smiled and shook her head:

        “it’s not fair on Anook,”  Sushanti replied.

        “mama Anook very silly bear at moment,”  Kuruk grunted, “she acting silly suddenly.”

       “Maybe she thinks you don’t notice,”  Sushanti replied.

      “Kuruk might seem slow, but he not slow really,”  Kuruk said, “he see mama Anook being pain in tail. She boot Tiguak up backside when Tiguak say something she no like.”

        “I think she should enjoy what she got,”  Hope said, “mama Anook need learn what good things she has.”  Kuruk sat down and hope scrambled into his lap. Hugging her, he thought back over the last few hours. Kuruk looked at Sushanti, who settled her cub with Androcles, and got to her feet, padded to Kuruk and sat down, gripping the rugs with the toes of all four paws, she looked at Kuruk.

       “Try to move me, go on,”  she said.

       “But you no in pain now,”  Kuruk replied, “you no have strength you did when you in labour. Kuruk move you easily, he strong!”

       “the spirits will give me the strength I’m sure,”  Sushanti said. Kuruk settled Hope on the rugs beside Baako, then approached Sushanti, who sat on the rugs, seemingly in some kind of trance.

       “You ready now?”  Kuruk asked. Sushanti mewed and growled as her body remembered the sensations which had triggered the massive strength in her paws. whimpering, she settled down, then Kuruk  tried to push Sushanti off her paws. she bounced and wriggled, swayed left and right, and a little back and fourth, but her grip never changed, her fore and hind paws never moved, no matter how hard Kuruk pushed at her with his forepaws..

       “this is intense,”  Sushanti gasped as Kuruk’s touch thrilled her, “I like this. I must have secretly enjoyed the fight to deliver my cub. it’s frightening to think I enjoyed it, but I must have.”  Kuruk kissed her nose.

         “Kuruk no able to push tigress off her feet, you win,”  he said. Sushanti shook herself out of her trance, and carefully freed her paws.

         “that was draining,”  she mewed, “Everything aches!”

        “Kuruk no want make you ache all over,”  Kuruk said. Sushanti smiled:

        “it’s not my paws, well not much, it’s more inside me, pushing Baako into the world hurt me a good deal. Not that I wouldn’t go through it all again.”  Hope looked at Baako, then she grabbed hold of him and explored him with her paws, the newborn tiger cub wriggling, mewing and laughing helplessly as Hope tickled his pads and tiny toes.

        “You have cute paws little Baako,”  Hope said.

       “What are cute paws?”  Baako asked.

      “Hope likes your paws,”  Sushanti replied.

       “oh,”  Baako replied, that’s all right then.”

        “My paws hurt!” Sushanti mewed, “everything hurts!”

         “My paws feel squashed too,”  Baako replied, “mama, you squashed me!”

        “I had no choice,”  Sushanti replied, “I’ll massage your paws a bit, maybe that’ll help.”  Sushanti sat down and began massaging Baako’s paws, the cub mewing and purring with pleasure.

       “There are three more paws to stroke mama,”  Baako said, Sushanti smiling at him.

       “You want me to go round and round all four paws don’t you,”  she said. Baako giggled:

       “Oh yes please!” he replied.

        “I’ll do that, I want to do that,”  Sushanti replied.

        “I felt you kicking the air with your feet while you were pushing me into the world mama,”  Baako said. Sushanti smiled and arranged Baako’s legs so he could kick the air.

       “Kick and wriggle now,”  she said, and Baako did, laughing merrily.

       “You made sounds like this mama,”  Baako said, groaning and growling like Sushanti had earlier that day.

        “You’ll remember it for the rest of your life little Baako,”  Sushanti said. Baako smiled and kicked his mum’s forepaws with his hind when she put them in from of his hind feet.

       “You have cute paws,”  Sushanti said to her cub, blowing on the pads of his kicking paws, Baako laughing helplessly.

      “That tickles!” he mewed, “but it feels great!” Hope looked at Baako, then at Kuruk, who still sat watching them.

        “Kuruk’s got strength, even if he doesn’t think he has,”  Hope thought.

       “Kuruk not strong bear really Hope,”  Kuruk said, catching her thoughts.

         “But you seemed that way, until, until, well, until the time you told me that tale,”  Hope replied faintly.

       “Kuruk keep hard shell but inside he as he brought up, big cuddly bear with no hard shell at all,”  Kuruk replied, “Patch more strong than Kuruk, but even he cry like cub sometimes.”

         “Patch?”  Hope asked, “surely not.”

       “Patch seen more bad shit than Kuruk ever see,”  Kuruk replied, “in history you be told of tale of Jess, it all true when you hear she and Patch stay in room together for days, noone else with them. Patch steal food for them, that until humans get them out and give them good home, but then bloody council come along and find bear in house. They no want bear in house, so they tell Jess, either have bear, or lose house. So she threw Patch out. He come here, then Jess come here short time after.”  Hope’s eyes widened:

        “sounds rather desperate,”  she replied.

       “it was,”  jess said, padding in and sitting down beside Kuruk, who looked at her:

        “it’s always a bit strange when I tell other humans where I live and with whom I live,”  jess said.

       “This place no secret now,”  Kuruk grunted, “Humans see things they never dreamed of I’ll bet. Though for that they leave us alone, which is what we want.”

        “We are a curiosity that’s for sure,”  Jess said.

       “A great big goldfish bowl,”  Tarker yinnied, padding into the room, “the humans stare and point, we’re in a bloody zoo here.”

       “We’ll never be wild, that’s for sure,”  Sushanti replied, “but then again, we can do wild things here without the stress of knowing our cubs are going to be killed by rampaging creatures who think of little cubs as food.”

        “Kuruk no eat cubs,”  Kuruk mumbled, “even when first cub die he no eat her remains. He bury her.”

        “I know,”  Hope said, touching Kuruk’s right hind foot with her paw, “I couldn’t sleep much after you told me that tale Kuruk, my head was full of so much,”  Hope’s eyes filled with tears, Kuruk gathering her to him.

        “Kuruk sorry he upset you so much,”  Kuruk said softly.

       “My paws were so cold, freezing cold!” Hope sobbed.

        “but you no tell me this,”  Kuruk replied, “you sleep well after Kuruk tell tale.”

      “No Kuruk, you slept well, I didn’t,”  Hope sniffed, “I tried, but, but, oh, I don’t know what happened!  I felt cold, very cold, my paws stiff and mind confused. I felt as if cold was all around me, freezing my paws and my nose, and my toes, and everything! I couldn’t move, it was so cold.”

        “I’ll bet that was Kuruk’s cub’s spirit showing you what it had been like for her,”  Tarker replied, “I’ve heard of such tales, though haven’t ever encountered a spirit myself.”  Hope stared into Kuruk’s face, the male bear’s eyes horrified.

        “Kuruk no should have told you that tale,”  he said gruffly.

        “I don’t blame you,”  Hope replied, “it wasn’t you who trapped your poor cub Kuruk. Maybe all the cold was my imagination, maybe that’s just too good.”

        “No, that no imagining thing,”  Kuruk replied, “that serious stuff, serious trouble.”

         “It was a feeling, no more than that,”  Hope replied, “just a cold feeling, but that started my mind thinking about how lonely it would be buried under the snow. Then, then things got worse.”

        “Kuruk send you to Patch to help you get over thing,”  Kuruk grunted, “you no need feel this stuff Hope, it not right,”  Kuruk exclaimed.

         “I’m all right now,”  Hope replied, but Kuruk wasn’t so certain.

        “Kuruk know what happened to Hope cub,”  Kuruk said, “he meet spirit of cubs before, spirits of cubs who die, and they tell their tales as you felt. No Hope, you go to Patch and tell him what you tell me!”

        “I’m okay, honest I’m fine,”  Hope replied. Kuruk wasn’t convinced.

        “If you feel cold paws again, you go straight to Patch, he help you get rid of this,”  Kuruk said.

        “Maybe your cub is warning me not to go wandering,”  Hope mused, “warning me not to do what she did?”  Kuruk choked on a sudden rush of tears, throwing his paws up to cover his face.

         “I’m sorry Kuruk,”  Hope said, as Kuruk coughed and fought for breath, the emotions eventually making him physically sick.

         “I’ve said too much!” Hope whimpered as Kuruk was helped by jess, who cradled him in her strong arms as he vomited copiously.

          “I’m sorry!” Hope wailed as she was lifted up by buck and taken away.

 

“you are going to Patch, so he can deal with this nonsense!” Buck snapped, “who ever heard of a spirit infusing their feelings into a living creature?  The only time I heard of that was when a creature was possessed by the devil!  Are you a devil bear? Are you the cub of the devil?”  Hope, terrified, didn’t reply. Buck ran to patch’s lie up, and literally threw Hope at the grey bear, Hope flying through the air and landing hard in Patch’s lap.

         “What was that?”  Ekaterina asked as her bowl of tea was knocked out of her paws.

        “someone just threw Hope into my lap,”  Patch replied.

       “Maybe that’s a good thing,”  Ekaterina replied, a squeal told her of her mistake.

       “Ah, that hope,”  she mumbled to herself.

         “What’s going on little one?”  Patch asked, ignoring Buck, who was making gagging sounds near the door.

        “Buck thinks I’m a devil!” Hope wailed, “I, I felt the cold snow on my paws Patch, the cold snow of harmony’s tomb!”

      “What?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “Kuruk told me the tale of his dead cub, and, and when he slept after, I, I felt all cold and alone,”  Hope babbled, “I could feel the cold snow on my paws, and I felt fear, real numbing fear, despairing fear.”

        “You were badly named!” Buck screamed suddenly, “your name should have been fear and despair, not Hope you disgusting cub!”

        “Tell on,”  Patch said softly, ignoring Buck’s outburst.

        “I, I told Kuruk, and, and he told me I was mistaken, but, but, oh Patch, Patch!  Kuruk looked so sad, as if he knew, as if he knew the truth of what I was saying to him!  He choked, and vomited, and now, now buck’s calling me a devil cub!  I don’t know what I felt, I know it was scary, that’s all!”

        “Kuruk is closer to the spirit world than he knows,”  Patch replied, “poor fellow, he felt his cub’s fear, he knew her fears on the mountain, not that he’ll ever speak of what he knows.”

         “You mean, you mean, that, I was telling his cub’s last tale?”  Hope asked. Patch stroked Hope’s ears with a gentle paw.

       “Do I really need to tell you that,”  he replied gently. Hope, gasping, buried her face in her paws, her body shaking with sobs.

       “it is right to cry little one,”  Patch replied, “for you and Kuruk both know what little Harmony cub felt on that mountain.”

           “Buck, come here,”  Patch commanded after a pause in which he’d stroked Hope’s ears and back, “Come, don’t disobey me now.”  Buck approached.

        “You will not speak again like you did today,”  Patch said, “you will go from here, and you will not speak of what you have heard here. You will admit you were wrong to call Hope a devil cub, and leave it at that. Kuruk needs to come to me in his own time to reconcile his mind with what he knows. He needs understanding, not punishing, as does Hope. Now go Buck.”  Buck went.

      “I’ll settle Hope, then tell you about it Ekaterina,”  Patch said. Ekaterina, her mouth wide with dawning comprehension and horror, sat quietly.

        “Don’t leave me Patch!” Hope begged, “the cold might come again, and, and I might die like poor harmony did.”

        “You no die, for Kuruk no let you,”  Kuruk said, padding into the lie up, his eyes red rimmed and sore from crying.

        “you’ll know what to do,”  Patch said to Kuruk, who lay down and gathered Hope to him.

         “What’s happening Kuruk, I don’t understand,”  Hope whimpered.

       “You cold little one?”  Kuruk asked. Hope hesitated:

        “Yes, I am, it’s like it was in the dream, but worse!””  Kuruk embraced Hope tenderly, both soon falling asleep.

        “Kuruk knew his cub’s last tale,”  Ekaterina said softly. Patch touched her paw:

        “yes he did,”  he replied gently, Ekaterina burying her face in her paws.

        “all that about Kuruk knowing what he needed to do?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “Comfort a freezing cold cub,”  Patch replied.

         “but he won’t be comforted from that Will he?”  Ekaterina asked.

         “yes he will,”  Patch replied.

        “I don’t understand all this,”  Ekaterina said, massaging her forehead with one paw, “I have a headache!”

        “Buck doesn’t know what he’s saying,”  Ekaterina said, “devil cub? just because he doesn’t understand what goes on, he calls Hope a devil.”

        “Have you ever been approached by a spirit?”  Patch asked Ekaterina.

        “I was once,”  she replied, “and that led to me being led astray. It was only a suggestion, but it was so powerful I went with it, and, well, we know where that led.”

       “yes, I forgot,”  Patch replied, embracing Ekaterina with gentle care.

       “I heard Sushanti had a cub,”  Ekaterina said.

       “She did, and Hope was there to catch the cub,”  patch replied. Ekaterina rubbed her nose with her paw:

       “I wish, but no, I can’t be paws on at the birth of every cub,”  she said.

      “I watched it, and it was wonderful to see another life come into the world,”  Patch said.

        “I was there when Conrad died,”  Ekaterina replied, “no wonder blackberry can’t handle it any more. Births are far easier to handle than deaths. Have they named Shanty’s new cub yet?”

       “No, they named him Baako, not yet,”  Patch replied, Ekaterina snorting with exasperation.

        “You know what I mean!” she snapped. Patch grinned and hugged his mate.

       “Dear Ekaterina,”  he said kissing her nose.

       “I love you Patch,”  Ekaterina said softly.

      “How if we walk in the woods now?”  Patch asked. Ekaterina got to her feet stretched her spine and stamped her feet to get circulation back into her legs and feet.

         “I’m sluggish and slow,”  she yawned, “I used to be fast, but not now, not since, since I lost my sight.

       “I’ll guide you if you want,”  Patch said, Ekaterina strapping a read rope to her right forearm, Patch strapping the other end to his left.

        “What on earth are you doing?”  Moses asked, walking into the room.

        “Who are you asking?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Either of you,”  Moses replied.

        “We’re going for a walk in the woods,”  Ekaterina said, “Patch can guide me with this rope thing. I can walk on my own but, well, I’m a bit slow sometimes, and, well, I can’t run. With this though, I can, sort of.”

       “oh, I almost forgot,”  Moses said, “I forgot you are blind Ekaterina.”

       “I haven’t,”  Ekaterina said, the expression in her eyes tearing at patch.

        “I could show you my viewpoint,”  Patch suggested, Ekaterina swallowing hard.

         “I don’t know,”  she replied, “I, I don’t know if I could cope when it was withdrawn. If I hadn’t lied, if I’d been honest, believed in you Patch, I’d be some use to you now. Now I’m no use at all. I can’t go out alone further than the woodland around the house, I daren’t go out near the road, I fell in the flume twice yesterday.”

       “That looked funny,”  Moses said incautiously.

        “it wasn’t!” Ekaterina snapped, “it hurt!  I got myself out of there, and hoped noone would notice, but they did I suppose. Sita’s happy in her world, playing with the cubs and all, but I’m very unhappy, I used to see so much, now, I can’t see a dam thing, and am reliant on others to take me places,. I can walk around the house okay, but that is because I have a safe place, and can get directions via GPS. If I didn’t have that, I’d be stuffed. The woods aren’t safe, and I can’t walk alone there.”

        “Do you wish Patch didn’t help you?”  Moses asked. Ekaterina turned away, Patch moving towards her and kissing her nose, Ekaterina choking back her tears.

        “I wish we could walk together again like we used to,”  she choked, “right now we can’t, and it’s not fair on him!”

         “we could do something about that Ekaterina,”  Patch replied, “we could get a white stick for you.”

      “But they’re made for humans, I’d have to walk on my hind feet, and I’m unsteady on them as it is, without the addition of a long stick thing,”  Ekaterina replied, “I can’t do it Patch, it wouldn’t work.”

        “if I get you a rolling support that you can lean on with one arm, you could use the cane in your other paw.”

        “I’m not so sure,”  Ekaterina said faintly, “I would do a lot of damage to others with the stick.”

      “They’d have to learn to watch out for you,”  Patch replied, warming to his theme.

        “I couldn’t learn, I’m too old!” Ekaterina whimpered.

       “Bollocks!” Patch replied laughing.

        “That is an awful word!” Ekaterina squealed.

       “it’s true enough though,”  Patch replied, hugging his mate, “here, I’ll lead you to a place where I’ve got some bits to show you.”  Trina, bemused and a little scared, padded with Patch to a room she’d last set paw in when she’d found out about his training with guns and stun grenades.

       “Stand yon your hind feet,”  Patch said. Ekaterina did, and Patch padded away, a rolling sound, like something on wheels came towards Ekaterina and she felt something shoved under her left paw.

       “Lean on that,”  Patch said, “to go left, squeeze left, to go right, right, and to go straight ahead, just push the support forward with no left or right, okay?”  Ekaterina shuffled forward, her left hind leg fitting snugly into a indentation in the thing she pushed forward with her left forepaw. With this, she was able to walk around with much more stability than if she’s been without a support.

       “now this is the bit you’ll need training for,”  Patch said, “use of the long cane, it’s not a stick.”

       “You’re as mad as Sire Koda was,”  Ekaterina said smiling.

       “I’m using one of his old sticks from the time he was human, and I’ve read a lot,”  patch said, thrusting a rubber grip into Ekaterina’s right paw, “hold that,”  patch said, checking the length by eye. Ekaterina was around six foot tall when standing on her hind feet, patch around seven foot two. Ekaterina could feel Patch’s enthusiasm for his work through his touch on her paw as he positioned it to extend the stick out in front of her.

         “I’m not qualified to train you,”  Patch said regretfully, “but I have read a bit.”

       “You’ve probably got all but the bit of paper,”  Ekaterina said grinning.

         “I know a little,”  patch said.

        “have you been planning this?”  Ekaterina asked. Patch paused:

        “I’ve been thinking about it,”  he replied, “there have been times when we’ve been out together that you have said things which made me thoughtful.”

        “What could I do with all this?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “um, go up and down stairs, oh yes, for that, just grip the entire handle of your support stick, and the wheels will lock, walk unaided on the flat without fear of crashing into things, um, go out independently, of course after you’ve learnt routes that is. Walk in the woods, avoided falling into the flume, um, walk unguided beside me, so you can walk at your own pace. Now, try, with the cane in front of you, moving the cane from side to side as you walk Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina did, finding the wall with the stick. She turned left and, sweeping the cane from side to side, found she could walk around the room. Patch, grinning like a cub, silently placed a box right in Ekaterina’s path. The stick cracked into it, and Ekaterina squealed as the handle flew out of her paw and jabbed her in the belly.

       “slow down,”  patch said smiling, gently returning the cane to his mate’s paw, Ekaterina tapping her way around the box, then finding herself enfolded in Patch’s embrace, for he too stood on his hind feet.

      “Oh patch, you lovely thoughtful bugger!” she exclaimed half laughing half crying.

        “I told you I’d love you till the end of time,”  patch whispered gently, “now Ekaterina, though you can’t see to get around, I’ll make it possible that you can go out independently if you wish. It’ll take time, but once you’ve learnt the route, you can go places whenever you want to go.”

        “What if the route changes?”  Ekaterina asked.

      “Then someone will help you, but for the most part, you will be able to do it alone,”  Patch replied.

       “”I’d want you with me,”  Ekaterina replied, “I wanted to walk independently but with you, not guided by you Patch.”

       “I know, and for the first few weeks, I’ll walk with you, but then, one day, you’ll feel the need to go out alone.”  Ekaterina transferred her cane to her left forepaw and shook out the right.

       “My paw aches,”  she whined.

       “It will,”  patch replied, “mine did when I trained.

       “So you do know, you have done it,”  Ekaterina asked eagerly.

        “Ekaterina love,”  Patch replied softly, “I, I have something to tell you.”  Ekaterina heard Patch’s tone and swiftly put two and two together, making a dreadful five.

         “You have been training with this before haven’t you,”  she replied softly, “Patch, what happened?”

        “I’m losing my sight Ekaterina, Initially, I trained to hep you, but, but, when,  oh dear, this is all very hard,”  Patch paused, and Ekaterina heard him audibly swallow, “as part of the training we had to have, I had to have my eyes checked, it’s a standard thing. They found I was losing my sight, that my vision wasn’t what it had been. I’d been under a vet for years when I was living with jess, and he was used to my funny requests for treatment Jess went through. I got my eyes checked, my pulse and all that stuff checked, and it was during one of these before my training began that I was told I was losing my sight. Well, that I had it confirmed. I’ve been suspecting something was wrong for ages, my peripheral vision isn’t what it once was. I have to look straight at something to see it properly now. They call it glaucoma, and they say it’s incurable, though I have drops to slow the disease down.”

        “How long have you suspected something was wrong?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Two months or so,”  Patch replied, “I spoke to Charles Fullbeans, and, and he got me a vet check. Then I knew I wasn’t seeing things, as it were., that was yesterday”

         “”how can you joke about this?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “if I don’t I’ll cry,”  ;Patch replied, “I’m learning things by touch, for when, when it becomes necessary for me to live life that way,”  patch replied softly. Ekaterina, I didn’t want to tell you like this, I wanted to show you the stuff I’d learnt, then tell you some other time, but you beat me to it.”

        “You told me you’d trained, that’s not just reading books now is it,”  Ekaterina said. Patch whimpered slightly as he realised he’d bust things wide open.

         “You’re still able to see enough to walk and be safe, fly helicopters and do things like that?”  Ekaterina asked. Patch shook his head:

       “No, I handed back my licence, they insisted,”  patch replied, “all that’s gone, and, and my fire arms licence too. I can’t hold a licence for those stun grenades any more either. It’s happened fast, so quick.”  Ekaterina felt her own mood change.

       “Show me what you know Patch,”  Ekaterina said.

       “first of all,”  Patch said, his voice hoarse, “let me show you something that will never change.”  Patch held Ekaterina tightly in his paws, Ekaterina leaning into him.

          “How do you feel?”  patch asked.

        “Safe,”  Ekaterina replied, “Patch, I’m not just saying that either.”

         “I went to the air ministry and they took my flying licence away, then to the police who revoked my gun licence and weapons handling permit,”  patch replied, “then, getting out the white cane I’d stored for the job, I tapped my way back to Charles Fullbeans car and we drove back here.”

        “you said you’d be back late and told me not to worry,”  Ekaterina replied, ,Patch, you were hoping you were wrong.”

       “I was Ekaterina, I was,”  patch replied, “you weren’t to find out like this. I was going to tell you later on today, but, but, when you spoke of wanting to be more mobile, my need to show you what you could do, and how I could help you surfaced, and I couldn’t fight it down. It was only a matter of time then, a matter of time before you worked out that my training was not just to help you. Initially it was, initially I looked into training with the cane and using a cane with a support for your other paw, but then, then when I thought things weren’t going too well at my end, I started training to see what it was like, and whether it was possible, and it was. Then, then I went to the vets, and now, now I know why I can’t see as well as I could see once.”

         “That’s why you said someone will teach me routes, because maybe one day, you won’t be able to,”  Ekaterina said. Patch nodded.

         “I’ll help you all I can,”  he replied.

        “and me you patch,”  Ekaterina said, “patch,”  Ekaterina said, touching his face with her paw, “I’m sorry for bitching,  I feel so shit now.”  Patch kissed the paw which had just touched his face, having to turn his heed to see it. Then cursing silently, he closed his eyes and repeated the kiss to Ekaterina’s paw.

       “use the sight you have Patch,”  Ekaterina said softly. Patch smiled and kissed Ekaterina’s nose.

         “I will,”  he replied, “but if it becomes unreliable, I won’t depend on it, I think that’s why I’ve been learning how to do things without sight.”

      “You wash your paws before you pour my tea,”  Ekaterina said, “is that because you feel when the liquid has hit the toes of one forepaw?”

      “yes,”  patch replied, “I’ll show you how to do that if you want.”

        “I’ve buttered toast and things, but never got involved much with the hot drinks,”  Ekaterina replied, “I’ve been a bit chicken there.”

       “I’ll show you how,”  Patch replied. Ekaterina kissed his nose.

         “You are my rock,”  Ekaterina said.

        “I’ll try not to crumble,”  Patch replied. Ekaterina could feel his uncertainty through her paws.

         “Hug me Patch,”  Ekaterina begged, Patch wrapping his paws around her, kissing her nose.

       “I love you Ekaterina, and when I can no longer see you, I will still love you,”  Patch said softly, Ekaterina snuggling up to him.

       “Now let’s work together to help each other, okay?”  Ekaterina said softly. Patch smiled broadly and nuzzled her ear.

        “Shall we get paws on with each other?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “yes, that would be nice,”  Patch replied. Ekaterina and Patch curled up together on Patch’s run Ekaterina shivering with pleasure as patch ran his paws from her nose to her paw pads.

       “You’ve got rough pads Ekaterina,”  Patch said. Ekaterina took his left forepaw in her paws.

       “yours are smoother, you’d be useless in the arctic,”  she replied.

       “My paws wouldn’t help me there, but they’d help me to communicate with my mate,”  Patch said softly. Ekaterina pressed her body tightly against Patch’s, his warmth and scent soothing her mind.

        “deciding to love you was the best choice I ever made,”  Ekaterina said.

        “the feeling’s mutual,”  patch replied softly.

        “I know, I truly know,”  Ekaterina replied, “I love you patch, I love you so much!”

       “I couldn’t have mated with Dorothy,”  Patch said to Ekaterina, “truly my love, I couldn’t have brought myself to do it.”

       “I know, I felt it. I knew you war struggling to do your duty, and that it hurt you to do it.”

         “Never again will I let female bears put me in that position,”  Patch replied softly.

        “here is where my mobility is unrestricted by my disability,”  Ekaterina said, stroking patch’s ears with her paw. Patch gently drew the digest of his left forepaw down Ekaterina’s cheek, the she bear laughing:

      “That tickles, stop it!” she said. Patch smiled and kissed her nose.

       “I love you from your nose to your toes ?Ekaterina,”  Patch said.

       “I too you from nose to toes also,”  Ekaterina replied. Patch got to his feet and stretched languidly.

         “I’m certified with that stick,”  he yawned, “got mine some time ago. You’ll have to be certified yourself before you can use it on the roads.”

         “How did you hide all this?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “I trained secretly, partly from a wish not to Burdon you, and partly from guilt and shame,”  Patch replied.

       “Guilt over what?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “that I couldn’t do what I’d promised,”  Patch replied, “that I could no longer protect you.”

         “Oh Patch, Darling Patch,”  Ekaterina said, embracing him tightly.

         “I promised you when we first met that I’d look after you, and now I can’t,”  Patch wept, “I feel useless now.”

        “You aren’t useless to me Patch, I want you to know that,”  Ekaterina replied, “I love you how you are now, and will love you however you are in the future.”  A fearful whimper made Patch look round, Hope sat in the door way, clearly having heard everything and understood enough to be frightened.

      “Are you going to be like Sita Patch?”  Hope asked. Ekaterina felt Patch literally collapse, his wail of anguish frightening Hope into running away.

        “what it all goes and I can’t see anything?”  patch asked, “What if my sight goes altogether?”

       “Then you will be as I am,”  Ekaterina replied, “I can’t see anything patch, but it won’t come to that.”

         “Hope asked the question as if being blind was just another thing that happened, as if it was normal,”  Patch sobbed, “it’s not normal, it’s dark, and scary and horrible, and awful!”

        “it’s gonna be okay,”  Ekaterina said gently, “I’ll make sure it is okay.”  patch sniffed and wiped his face with his paw.

        “I had a dream once,”  he said, “and it frightened me so much I lay awake all night, I soiled myself with fear!  I dreamt that someone told me not to shed tears for what I was losing, for if I did, crying would make my sight leak away. So I’ve tried not to cry since, but sometimes,,,”  he stopped, Ekaterina feeling his torment in the touch of her paw on his shoulder.

        “Who told you that>?”  she asked, “they are wrong.”

        “I don’t know,”  Patch whimpered, “I can’t remember. Patch suddenly shook Ekaterina off him and snarled at her:

     “ Ekaterina, just go away and leave me in peace for a bit will you?  Go, now!” Ekaterina stood her ground, a bad move she found later, for Patch shoved her out of the door, nearly running her into a wall, which she heard just in time and fended off with a paw, Patch slamming the door behind her.

       “he wants time alone,”  Ekaterina thought, padding along to the shower room and showering herself with lots of soap and cream shower gel as she usually did. Ekaterina loved her shower time, she’d turn it up full power and lie under the spray her paws held into the harsh downpour. Many a time other community members found her there an hour after she’d started, just lying sprawled on the tiles. This time however, Ekaterina couldn’t relax. Yes she was anxious about patch, but her unease wasn’t that. She knew what it was, if only she didn’t focus too hard on the feelings she had. Lying comfortably on her back under the shower, with four jets a stinging torrent on the pads of all four paws, Ekaterina let her mind take its own path. She found her mind full of Patch. He was lying, or so it felt, on a rug. He was terrified, but not for himself, for others, for her and for his community when he could no longer lead it.

          “Come to me Patch, if you want strength, come to me. I know I was bitching about not being mobile, but that’s all rubbish now. I can help you, if you’ll let me. You will be okay here, safe, loved, protected as we all are.”  Ekaterina felt a clumsy paw take hers, and a heavy body settle beside her in the lashing spray from the showers. Ekaterina got to her feet and found soap and shampoo, without a word, she massaged it into Patch’s body fur and paw pads, the male bear submitting to a public washing where he’d normally insist on private oblations of this type.

        “How’s that,”  Ekaterina asked. Patch, unable to speak, embraced his mate in the pounding spray.

       “Come now, let’s dry you off,”  Ekaterina said softly, as it was clear patch was beyond making choices. Patch followed her dumbly, Ekaterina reflecting on how Koda had said his journey with Mishka had affected him. Wherever Mishka went, Koda felt he had to follow. Patch followed Ekaterina by crawling, following her hind paws by touching them with his fore. Though he could still see, he didn’t trust his eyes to tell him where to go. Patch felt as he had when he’d drunk a bottle of wine once. The only time he’d drunk a whole bottle, and that had been a bad time. He’d been disconnected from reality for days, or so it had seemed. Now he was drunk again, but this time he wanted to be so. Patch held onto the heels of Ekaterina’s hind paws with the toes of both forepaws, his grip desperate and begging for strength. Ekaterina led him to the drying place, where she handed him a towel. Patch’s whimper of fear as she spun round and sat down before handing him the towel was heart rending.

         “Your sight hasn’t changed since you were all powerful, showing me how to use that stick and the support has it?”  Ekaterina asked. Patch stared down at his shaking paws.

      “No Ekaterina,”  he mumbled,” but the fear makes me blind, I can’t cope with it!”

         “I’m sorry,”  Ekaterina replied, “that was a bit harsh, but you aren’t where I am yet, use your sight, enjoy what you have left. Learn to cope with all that you have. Go into the woods, fill your mind with whatever you want, scent, touch, sight, all that.”

       “come with me Ekaterina, please,”  Patch begged, “I don’t’ want to be left alone, not like last time. When I realised I’d told you, told you to, to, well it wasn’t just go away was it. That was awful, and I’m sorry, more sorry than I can tell you.”  Ekaterina smiled, Patch catching his breath when he saw it.

        “I’m going to miss that too,”  he thought. Ekaterina got up and Patch followed her. she returned to the room, found the stick she’d adopted as her own, and also the support, rearing onto her hind feet, she grabbed the support and positioned it as if she’d known the aid all her life. Patch did the same for a stick and support he had, and both bears headed for the doors, clashing canes as they tried to go through together.

         “this won’t work,”  Ekaterina said, hanging back a little to allow Patch through, placing a paw on his shoulder to guide him through the door. Once he was an arm’s length away, she followed, listening to Patch’s paws on the tiles, gauging the distance so her stick would not trip him. Patch, using his eyes as well as his cane, guided them out of the house, the unfamiliar tapping and scraping of the sticks making other community members peer from their lie ups in curiosity. Tommy, smiling to himself, padded from his lie up and stalked the two bears on silent paws. Sita, hearing him leave, padded after him on her equally silent paws. Tommy tracked the two bears into the woods, while Sita, sure Tommy was up to no good, tracked him. The male tiger was so clumsy pawed Sita could have rattled pans behind him and he’d be unaware. Tommy’s cover was given by the heavy tread of the two bears, and the scraping and clacking of their sticks as they walked. Tommy angled off to the right of where the track opened out into a clearing and waited for his chance to spring on the unsuspecting bears. Patch, having to look straight ahead to see anything, was concentrating hard on where he put his feet, oblivious of his surroundings. He’d not, as Ekaterina had, got used to listening instead of seeing. Ekaterina tried thinking her way into Patch’s head, telling him to stop, which he did.

        “We’re being followed,”  Ekaterina told him silently, “Tommy and Sita. Sita’s friendly, Tommy’s trouble, I can smell his sweating pads, he’s under stress.

         “You sure?”  Patch asked.

       “yes,”  Ekaterina replied telepathically, padding up to Patch and touching his paw.

       “Tommy!” Ekaterina called, “come out from your skulking place you disagreeable skunk!” Sita, sitting not far behind Ekaterina, choked with laughter as Tommy, whining, emerged from his hiding place. Ekaterina, furious, strode up to him and belted him across his head with her paw.

       “Ah shit! Ow!” Tommy yelped, lying down to massage his head with both forepaws.

       “Thought you’d track Patch did you?”  Ekaterina asked, her fury growing, “and what were you going to do when you’d caught him?  Answer me! Now! Now! Answer now!”

        “I thought it would be nice to track patch,”  Tommy replied, “see if he had learnt anything yet.”

       “learnt anything about what?”  Ekaterina asked.

         “Nothing,”  Tommy replied sulkily.

       “I know what you mean you horrid creature,”  Ekaterina snarled, “learnt anything about being blind and is what you meant wasn’t it, wasn’t it!”

        “he doesn’t deny it,”  Sita observed.

       “Oh god, not you Sita, not you!” Tommy whimpered.

       “What?”  Ekaterina asked.

      “I warned him that if I ever caught him stalking disabled community members I’d twist his tail,”  Sita replied, “I promised mama Bianca I’d keep paws on this rogue.”

       “I won’t, I won’t do it again, please Sita, leave me alone, please!” Tommy begged. Sita stepped to Tommy’s rear and, gently pinning down his long tail with one paw, raised her free forepaw to deliver a smashing chop. Tommy, seeing this, screamed for mercy.

       “no Sita, no!  please no!” Sita picked up the end of Tommy’s tail, and rolled it in her forepaws like she was rolling out dough, Tommy screeching with pain.

        “That’ll teach you!” Sita growled, “next time I’ll chop it off!” Tommy, squirming free, fled the way he’d come. Patch watched him go with a look of deep sorrow.

         “Oh dear,”  he said with genuine sorrow.

        “it’s only gonna get worse,”  Patch mused half to himself, “I’ll have to tell the other community members, and Sita, who told you I was, um,,,”  Patch’s voice trailed away, and he motioned to his eyes with a paw, forgetting neither Sita nor Ekaterina could see his gesture.

       “wavering your paws about isn’t any good you know,”  Sita said softly, “Patch, I felt you were in distress, you’ve been worried for months now, months and months. Now I know for sure. I’ve listened to you training with the stick, I know what you were doing.”

        “it’s hard, hard to accept, that, that I might lose all my sight,”  Patch replied, “when that day comes, I’ll go mad, I know I will.”

        “You can’t talk like that!” Ekaterina snapped, now furious.

       “Because you coped doesn’t mean Patch will,”  Sita replied, “you knew a world of darkness before, Patch can’t remember when he was more blind than a newborn cub, because he wasn’t. even newborn cubs see a little light, or so it is said.”  Patch turned away, and was physically sick. Sita padded up to him and touched his paw, the male bear coughing and crying.

       “Cough and spit, don’t swallow,”  Sita said, patch spitting onto the grass.

       “I’m going Mad Sita, I’m so scared!” Patch sobbed, Sita stroking his shoulder with her paw.

         “I’m here, and Ekaterina is too, though she was thoughtless back there.”

         “Thoughtless?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “yes,”  Sita growled, “thoughtless, without thought, you know?”

       “yes I know what it means thank you miss raccoon tail, now please enlighten me as to, ow!” Patch heard a sound like a leather whip cracking over a branch, then Ekaterina’s pained whimpering.

       “What happened?”  he asked.

       “Ekaterina felt my tail,”  Sita replied softly, “now Ekaterina, if you want to be treated like a cub, I will do so!” patch turned in time to see Sita pick Ekaterina up, arrange her hind legs in a sitting position, and slam her firmly on the ground, Ekaterina yelling with indignation.

       “Get off me!” she screamed.

       “You Ekaterina have known what it is to have no sight, so have I. we have no light perception, nothing. This is a situation that no cub faces in their life if they have functioning eyes, not even the day old cubs. Yes they are called blind, but they still see some light. Otherwise they’d be dazzled by bright light of day when their eyes opened fully, and there would be sight issues among bears, which there isn’t, as far as I know. Now Patch is facing the fear of losing his sight to where it is near useless. It is more dangerous to have seriously defective sight, than for that sight to be completely useless, as he wouldn’t be fighting to use a defective sense, but would be cut off from all he’d known in his visual world. Now Ekaterina, it is for you to help him to understand that the transition is going to hurt him, but that you will be with him, as his mate, to help him through the emotional torment. Do you understand?”  Ekaterina, humiliated and crestfallen, mewed a response.

      “”speak ursine, you can’t speak Tigrine or leonine,”  Sita snapped.

       “I said, yes I understand,”  Ekaterina replied gruffly.

        “Now up on your feet little cub,”  Sita said, her tone patronising enough to make Ekaterina huff with anger.

        “I was on this earth long before you!” she snapped at Sita, who patted her on her head with her paw, Ekaterina launching herself at Sita, both rolling on the ground, clawing and slapping, Sita overwhelming Ekaterina and pinning her down beneath her paws.

        “submit?”  Sita asked. Ekaterina swore harshly and submitted. Sita levered herself off of Ekaterina, who scrambled to her feet and shook leaves out of her fur.

       “You’re heavy!” Ekaterina whined.

      “You’re a pest,”  Sita growled.

        “You squashed me!” Ekaterina whined.

       “You pissed me off,”  Sita mewed, “I don’t like that.”

       “Meek and mild Sita showing her claws?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “Only when I have to,”  Sita replied. Ekaterina grabbed her stick and padded away, leaving Patch with Sita.

         “I’m so scared!” patch sobbed.

       “I know Sire Patch, my dear sire, my friend, I love you so much.”  Patch snuggled close to his cub, kissing her nose and paws.

        “You know how I feel,”  he replied, “Ekaterina, sometimes, she forgets, I love her, but she is insensitive sometimes.”

         “She isn’t connected like you and I are,”  Sita replied. Patch looked at Sita, taking her in from nose to tail, visually fixing her in his mind while he still could.

         “Look at your mate too patch,”  Sita said softly, “use the sight you have, but don’t be afraid of asking for help when you need it.”  Patch kissed Sita’s paw, then left the clearing, Sita padding back to her own lie up. Entering the house, her ears were assaulted by the most horrendous screaming. Running to the kitchen, she found Hope lying on the floor, her paws over her mouth, snorting and crying.

       “What’s wrong?”  Sita asked, feeling something roll against her right hind foot. Turning slowly, she found a glass jar, which Hope had, by the scent on the jar, just thrown away. Sniffing at the jar, Sita began to realise what the cub must have done, and dipping a paw into the jar proved it.

        “have you eaten a lot of this?”  Sita asked the snorting cub. Hope, unable to speak, crawled over and thrust her head into Sita’s paws, nodding vigorously.

        “Can you open your mouth?”  Sita asked. Hope shook her head violently.

         “Let’s go and get you sorted out,”  Sita said, carrying Hope to the fridge where she got a can of beer out of a special locker.

       “Wash your mouth with this,”  Sita said, “but don’t drink it.”  Hope managed to open her mouth and Sita helped her by holding the can while she took a mouthful of beer.

      “Wash it around your mouth then spit it out,”  Sita said. Hope washing and then swallowing.

       “I told you not to drink it!” Sita snapped, hope grabbing the can and taking another mouthful.

        “This is great stuff!” Hope said, drinking the entire can before Sita could stop her.

        “You’ll pay for it later,”  Sita replied, “that was to help naturalise the sting and burn of the curry sauce you ate. Now you will be a drunk cub, and Anook will go crazy.”

        “I’m gonna be all right,”  Hope mumbled, the alcohol buzzing her brain, “I’m gonna be okay.”  Sita felt Hope rest her head on her shoulder.

       “Don’t you go to sleep, Oi!” Sita snapped, twisting Hopes ear with her paw.

        “Ow, sod you!” Hope whimpered, “I want to sleep, must sleep, I’m floating away, sleep, got to sleep, now.”  Sita carried Hope to Blackberry:

       “Hope’s drunk a can of beer!” Sita mewed, “I used it to soothe her mouth after she’d eaten curry sauce, and, and now she’s pissed!” Blackberry sprang into action, and soon Hope was vomiting the contents of her stomach into a relieving place, despite feeling miserable and very tired. Having got rid of her tipple, Hope staggered to her lie up, and collapsed in a miserable heap.

       “I feel so ill!” Hope whimpered.

        “What did you drink?”  Anook asked. Hope, sensing no danger, told her mother everything.

       “Sita used what?”  Anook demanded.

       “She called it beer, it helped soothe my mouth, but I drank the lot mama, Sita told me not to, it wasn’t her fault, it was mine, I disobeyed her and drank the beer, Sita told me just to wash my mouth with it, but the beer tasted so good, now, now I’m feeling awful!” Anook raced out of the lie up, found Sita and demanded she tell her what happened. Sita told Anook everything.

         “the can of beer was a small one, but she’s a small cub,”  Sita said, “I’ve never known a cub drink so fast Anook!”

         “Hope told me she drank the beer,”  Anook replied, “she was adamant it wasn’t your fault.”

        “I’m the supervising adult,”  Sita replied, “I’ll show you the video.”  Sita showed Anook the video, and Anook saw what Sita and Hope had gone through, Hope had indeed swallowed the contents of the can in two massive near silent gulps. Anook saw Sita didn’t stand a chance of hearing, or stopping Hope.”

        “You didn’t stand a chance,”  Anook said heavily.

        “No,”  Sita replied, “Anook, I feel awful about it.”

       “Hope accepted the blame for drinking the beer,”  Anook replied, “she’s confessed.”  Sita looked so unhappy Anook took pity.

       “I don’t blame you,”  Anook said.

        “but Hope is so young, it was my fault!” Sita said.

        “this is turning into a case of false confession, leave it,”  Anook replied. Returning to Hope, Anook found the cub sitting with Sooleawa, the latter cradling Hope’s head on her shoulder, Hope looking very unwell..

       “The room is spinning round mama,”  Hope whimpered. Anook scowled and raised her paw to strike Hope, Sooleawa scowling at her.

       “Leave Hope alone!” Sooleawa snapped, “Anook, she’s suffered enough. She knows she did wrong.”

         “Okay,”  Anook replied. Hope let Sooleawa help her relieve herself, then wash her and settle her warmly in a blanket socks and mittens.

         “I thought I’d left all this behind,”  Hope yawed, “but now, now it feels so good to be back in a blanket, and wearing mittens and socks, my poor paws!”

         “You won’t drink the beer again will you,”  Anook snapped.

       “No mama,”  Hope replied.

         “I think we should all have a huge cup of tea, Sita said, padding into the room and picking up the phone to Sid, who ran in soon after with tea, toast and jam.

       “You’re a welcome sight,”  Sooleawa said smiling. Sid, grinning, rested his paw on Sita’s shoulder.

        “Hi sweetheart,”  he whispered, Sita grinning broadly.

        “You are mated with jet Sita!” Anook snapped.

        “I’m mated with him yes,”  Sita replied, “but I think Sid might want me to give him a cub.”

        “You can’t!” Anook squealed.

       “If Jet agrees I can,”  Sita replied, “and it’s my body anyway. Oh, and by the way Qingshan has impregnated Freckles, they, um, got together a few months back.”

       “that’s wonderful!” Sooleawa said. Sita smiled broadly, glad her sister was about to have a cub.

         “I look forward to watching the birth of her cub,”  Sooleawa said.

          “Patch might not be able to see it though,”  Sita thought miserably.

 

Patch, wishing to be alone, walked through the woods. Padding slowly, watching where he put his feet, he found walking difficult. Leaving his cane in the clearing was not a good idea, and this he was rapidly recognising. His mind was taken off that miserable thought by a sound, a wailing for help. The sound pricking him deeply, Patch padded through the woods, deeper and deeper, following the sound. Patch homed in on the sound, crossing the road into a part of the wood he hardly knew. Padding further and further from known territory, Patch didn’t think of finding his way back. Eventually he found the source of the sound. He saw Titania lying on the floor, her right forepaw caught in a foot trap.

        “Patch!” Titania whimpered, “thank eohippus you’re here!” Patch knelt beside Titania, cradling her head in his paws.

        “I have been shouting for help for ages,”  Titania wept, “were you sent to find me?”  Patch admitted he hadn’t been sent.

       “I just followed your shouting,”  he replied.

         “I can’t walk out of here,”  Titania said. Patch released her paw, the cub sitting down beside Patch.

        “I can’t walk,”  Titania said.

       “I’ll carry you,”  Patch replied, “could you please tell me where to go?”

        “What?”  Titania asked.

         “Titania,”  Patch said softly, hugging the cub, “I, I can’t see very well now. I’m lost.”

         “You carry me, and I’ll guide us,”  Titania said, “but I don’t want to go yet.”

      “Why not?”  Patch asked.

       “your paws are too warm and safe,”  Titania said, “if we go back to the house, the chimney of which I can see through the trees, “you’ll let me go, and I don’t want that just yet.”  Patch embraced Titania with gentility, the cub feeling his love for her surging through her, comforting and warm.

       “I don’t want to go back to the house, and if I don’t tell you where the house is, we can’t go back there,”  Titania said. Patch looked down at Titania, his eyes cloudy and sight failing.

         “What happens when the whole community realise I’m unable to see?”  Patch asked. Titania reached up and touched patch’s face with her paw:

         “They didn’t choose you as leader because you can see them Patch,”  she said, “they chose you because you are steady in morels and ethics, you are true to yourself, and loyal to others. You are what the community needs in a leader. the fact you can’t see so well now is not a problem. I promise you that.”

        “I’m okay, sort of,”  Patch replied, “I need to find the way back to the house sometime soon though.”  Titania smiled and kissed her leader’s nose.

        “I’ll get through this,”  Patch replied. Titania guided Patch back to the house, the large male bear giving her a ride on his back..

        “When I’m back at the house, I’ll call a meeting and tell everyone,”  Patch said. Titania ruffled his ears.

       “You’ll do well,”  she said, “I’m sure all the cubs will sit around you, and on you too.”  Patch dropped Titania off at the entrance to Blackberry’s , then went to his own lie up. Picking up the phone, he pressed a button which enabled him to talk to the whole house.

        “This is patch,”  he said, knowing all the screens would be defaulting to a view of his face live from the camera in his lie up.

        “I want to arrange a meeting with you all to tell you something,”  Patch said into the microphone, “be at the great room after sundown.”  Patch put the phone down and sighed heavily.

 

That night, Patch went to the great room and sat down in the great room. There were two community members there already, Sooleawa and Hope. Seeing Patch, they padded over and sat down beside him. Resting their paws on his hind legs, they smiled and rubbed their paws with his.

       “I need to tell this whole community, I’m less than whole,”  Patch said. Hope cuddled up to Patch, actually scrambling into his lap. Patch closed his eyes, holding Hope with gentle care. His ears told him other community members were padding into the room, Patch feeling others settling down around him.

         “We’re all here,”  Petra said, having patrolled the whole house with her team, booted Koda out of bed, and told Pakshalika, who was swimming with little Samson, that there was a meeting with Patch in the great room. Samson had complained, but Pakshalika had cuffed him and told him to follow her.

 

Once all were assembled, Patch, who’d been dreading this moment, stood on all four paws and looked around him as best he could.

        “he can’t see us,”  Tommy observed.

       “Indeed you are right,”  Patch replied miserably, “and it is because of my failing sight that I have called you here today, to tell you, and to ask you if you still wish me to lead this community.”

         “our first leader was blind,”  Petra observed, “patch, have you forgotten?”

        “I feel so useless,”  Patch said.

       “I’ll bet if some of the cubs bundled on top of you you’d be a good climbing frame,”  Nutt said, “I remember doing that when I was young, it felt wonderful!”

        “I remember that,”  Patch said smiling.

        “Lead us Patch,”  Sooleawa said, “go and do the job we elected you for. There is more to you than the fact you can see us.”

         “I thank you for your confidence,”  Patch replied, “I thought you aught to know the situation though.”  Patch sat down, and cubs piled in, sitting on him, snuggling up to him, lion cubs, bear cubs, liger cubs, all piling in, taking his paws in theirs, sitting in his lap, cuddling up tightly.

       “You’re soft, warm and cuddly,”  Hope said, Patch laughing merrily.

       “your paws make you so,”  Ellis said, cuddling close to Patch. Grace looked at Patch, then got to her feet, padded round in a circle, and sat down again.

       “I’m glad you still trust me to lead you,”  patch said, “now, now I must go from here.”  All the cubs scrambled away from him, clearing a path for him, all except one, Amy, who stubbornly sat in Patch’s path until he crashed into her.

       ?”Bloody sod!” she snapped.

       “Sorry,”  Patch said, “I didn’t see you there.”

       “You didn’t want to see me,”  Amy snapped. Tommy padded up to Amy, cuffed her hard, and dragged her away.

        “I’ll make your life hell!” Amy screamed. Tommy, dragging Amy by a hind foot, dug his claws in, making her scream.

        “You bastard!” Amy yelled. Tommy snarled and cuffed her round the head.

        “go carefully Patch,”  Tommy said. Patch turned his head to the tiger, who shook his:

       “Later,”  Tommy said, refusing to look at Patch.

        “Okay,”  Patch said, confused and bewildered. Padding carefully back to his lie up, Patch felt his paws heavy and cumbersome. Lying down, he closed his eyes and rubbed them with his paws. Opening them, he tried to imagine what it would be like when his sight failed completely. Patch heard someone padding into the room, it wasn’t a bear, he could hear the step was lighter than a bear’s heavy tread, also there were no claws on the padding paws. Then the owner of the paws making the sound lay down beside Patch. Patch could tell to whom the paws belonged.

        “Patch,”  Tommy whispered. Patch moved his head, realising the tiger’s head was resting against his.

       “What brings you here?”  Patch asked. Tommy swallowed hard and took Patch’s right forepaw in both of his.

        “I want to apologise Patch,”  Tommy replied, “apologise for stalking you.”

       “Sita punished you for that well enough I think,”  Patch replied.

       “No, there was more, much, much more.”  Tommy replied, “I truly stalked you because I knew you couldn’t see me. I used my Tigrine instincts to stalk you, to take advantage. A community tiger shouldn’t do that, and I am a community tiger.”

         “I am glad you have seen the error of your ways,”  Patch said. Tommy whimpered slightly.

         “You don’t know how true that statement is,”  he replied, “Patch, I saw into the future, I know how much you will lose.”

         “I’ll lose the lot,”  Patch replied, “I know it, I’ve expected it. The vet says I won’t, but I know I will. My grief is not for me, it’s for my community, and for my mate, who’s window on the world I once was.”

       “You would show her how the births of cubs went wouldn’t you?”  Tommy asked. Patch nodded.

        “I used to,”  he replied, “can’t see enough to see the screens now.”

         “the spirits showed me,”  Tommy whimpered, “they showed me what your sight was when I stalked you, and what it will become.”  Tommy shook with fright.

         “it isn’t your life,”  Patch said, “your life is with the light and the sunshine Tommy.”

        “I know,”  Tommy replied, “Now I know what your sight is like. I was gripping the ground with my toes, with my claws, my body stiff with fear and terror!  When, when it was all over, I came into the light after a long sleep, I was so grateful to see my world again.”  Patch felt Tommy’s body shaking, and realised the tiger was sobbing quietly.

          “I won’t stalk you again Patch,”  Tommy sobbed. Wiping his eyes, Tommy took a deep breath, struggling to regain his composure.

         “I screamed and roared with fear when I was forced out into the woodlands,”  Tommy said, “Sita was with me, but that was no comfort. I stumbled and tripped over my own paws. I only had a few hours of sight loss, but my disconnection from the world was total. My paws gave me so little information. Now, now I am glad I’m back in the world of light.”

        “I’m sure Ekaterina would disagree,”  Patch thought, rubbing Tommy’s ears, the tiger smiling slightly, acknowledging his kindness.

       “Amy was horrid to you,”  Tommy said, “she deliberately got in your way, so you had no way of avoiding her.”

        “Bitch,”  Patch snarled, “I know she’s a cub, but she’s a bitch all the same.”

        “I feel dreadful for stalking you Patch,”  Tommy mewed.

       “Now let’s move on from that,”  Patch said softly, “Tommy, let’s move on.”  Patch ran his paws all over Tommy’s body, the tiger stretching out on his side, stretching his legs and flexing the toes of all four paws as Patch ran his paws from his nose to his tail. Tommy wriggled with pleasure, his eyes closed in bliss.

       “now I must go,”  Tommy said, getting to his feet after an hour. Shaking himself, he walked from the room deep in thought. Patch got to his feet, found his eye drops and administered them. The drop ran down his tear ducts and out of his nose, the taste of the salty drops foul to him.

        “I didn’t see Amy until I’d fallen over her paws,”  Patch admitted to himself. Sighing deeply, he put the bottle of eye drops away and sat down with a cup of tea. The sound of swishing paws announced Ekaterina’s arrival, Patch feeling her sit down beside him.

         “Amy’s in trouble for deliberately tripping you patch,”  Ekaterina said, touching his paw.

       “I didn’t see her Ekaterina,”  Patch said. Ekaterina kissed his nose.

        “You need to trust your paws now,”  Ekaterina said, “trust your ears, trust your paws.”

        “But I can’t hear a stalking tiger,”  Patch replied, “not yet anyway.”  Ekaterina hugged Patch tightly, trying to reassure him.

       “I won’t be able to help you understand the world any more,”  Patch said to Ekaterina, “I won’t be able to see it much longer.”  Ekaterina kissed his nose:

        “Thank you for all your help,”  she said, “now it is your turn to ask for help from me. I will do all I can Patch.”

        “Can I get paws on with you Ekaterina?”  Patch asked. Ekaterina kissed Patch’s paws, Patch returning her kiss.

       “Get paws on with me Patch,”  Ekaterina invited, “Kiss my paws, hug me, all that.”  Patch kissed her nose and paws, Ekaterina smiling and rolling onto her back, waving her paws at Patch.

         “You’re so cute!” Patch said, catching Ekaterina’s paws and kissing each in turn. Ekaterina kicked the air with her hind feet, Patch patting them as she kicked.

        “now explore my hind paws, carefully now, miss nothing,”  Ekaterina said, Patch exploring her right hind foot with his forepaws, from toes to heel.

       “I love that!” Ekaterina said smiling broadly and wriggling with pleasure.

       “You have gorgeous paws,”  Patch said to his mate, Ekaterina giggling and tightly curling her toes.

        “your paws are so cute,”  Patch said. Ekaterina jerked her right hind foot free of Patch’s grip and chased patch round the room, catching his right hind foot with her forepaws and holding on, allowing herself to be dragged by him. Patch lay down, beat the floor with his paws and screamed about his foot being trapped, to which Ekaterina kissed the pads of Patch’s right hind foot, Patch curling his toes and then relaxing them forcibly.

        “That felt good!” Patch gasped.

        “your pads are smooth and sturdy, but sort of soft too,”  Ekaterina said, “your pads are tough without being unpleasantly so.”  Patch loved Ekaterina describing what she could feel in his fur and paws.

       “your pads bunch up cutely,”  Ekaterina said, kissing the sole pad of Patch’s right hind foot. Patch grinned with pleasure, curling his toes, feeling Ekaterina’s paw take hold of the toes of his right hind foot and gently try to uncurl them, Patch curling his toes tighter, resisting her attempt.

        “Fight you,”  Patch said smiling. Ekaterina and Patch gently fought each other for control of Patch’s toes, Ekaterina winning. Patch let her straighten his toes, Ekaterina rubbing them with both paws. Patch spun over onto his back, then sat up, Ekaterina letting Patch’s right hind foot rotate in her paws, until he was able to sit up. Patch watched as Ekaterina massaged his toes and stroked the pads of his right hind foot, his toes involuntarily curling.

        “Your paws are so cute,”  Ekaterina said, gently squeezing patch’s toes, Patch curling the toes of his free left hind foot, first slightly, then more tightly, and tighter still as Ekaterina massaged and caressed his right hind foot in her paws.

         “I can’t believe paw massage could be like this!” Patch said, wriggling with pleasure, gently tugging at his right hind foot, Ekaterina holding on tighter, which was exactly what Patch wanted. Ekaterina traced his pads and counted his toes, Patch feeling his forepaws clenching and the toes of his free hind foot curling tightly with emotion..

        “I love you Ekaterina,”  Patch said. Ekaterina grinned broadly and kissed his nose.

      “I loved that,”  Ekaterina said, “it’s almost as good as, well, real mating.”

        “You said you didn’t want to,”  Patch replied, “in case, well, the cub died when you were in labour.”  Ekaterina snuggled close to Patch.

        “I know,”  she replied sadly, “sometimes, sometimes I forget, well, not forget as such, but push it to the back of my mind.”  Patch kissed her nose, then got to his feet, padded to the kitchen and Ekaterina heard a grinding sound, followed by the sound of the kettle boiling. Then patch pouring water, then a spoon going round in a pot, then the clatter of mugs and the slosh of milk going into a jug. Ekaterina could smell something too, the scent of fresh coffee, a scent she associated with good times. Patch pressed down the plunger on the coffee pot, and poured the rich black coffee into mugs. Patch padded to Ekaterina and handed her a mug of coffee, smiling broadly as Ekaterina inhaled the strong scent, her mind soothed by Patch’s presence and the reassuring taste of the coffee. Patch settled back, his cup in his paw, Ekaterina settling back on the beanbag sofa they now used. Patch embraced his mate as they drank their warm drinks.

        “This is lovely,”  Ekaterina said softly.

       “Sorry, did I walk in on something?”  Sooleawa asked. Patch put down his coffee and said:

      “Sooleawa, come here will you?”  Sooleawa padded to Patch and the huge grey bear embraced her tightly.

          “Oh Patch, you big softy,”  she said. Patch rubbed Sooleawa’s back and held her tightly, the young she bear smiling and holding onto him with gentle paws.

       “How is Roxy doing in her play sessions?”  Ekaterina asked. Sooleawa smiled:

       “Why do you think I’m alone most of the time now?”  she asked, “Sita and her crew have taken Roxy to their hearts, and they to hers. I’m only here to give updates, I must go back really, though I have been asked to plead, beg you Patch, to come and play with the cubs.?”  Sooleawa laughed, “Sita needs an extra set of paws!” Patch hesitated:

         “I can’t, I’m leader, I have to be available in case things need fixing.”

        “Your licences for firearms and other things are revoked Patch, you can’t use those now,”  Sooleawa said, “Jess and Royston will take that responsibility on if the worst happens, which it won’t. we are well loved in the outside world now, I’ve seen polls. Please Patch, come now, come and do what you’re good at.”

        “I will,”  Patch replied. Patch padded to the relieving place, then on to the soft playroom where he washed his paws one last time, then padded onto the soft flooring, the padded door thudding shut behind him. Patch got four paces into the room before he was ambushed with such force he had no choice but to lie down to protect the cubs scrambling all over him. Then he felt some of the larger cubs pushing at his body, rolling him over onto his back, then the cubs were all over him afresh, grabbing his paws, sitting on his belly, touching his ears, face and hind paws.

      “Don’t sit on him!” Sita warned, “he needs to breathe.”  The cubs who were sitting on patch vacated their seats and Patch rewarded them by catching each one in turn in his forepaws and holding them close.

       “I’m glad Patch is here now,”  Roxy said when she got her turn held in Patch’s paws.

        “I brought him here so he could teach you all to count,”  Sita said, the cubs groaning with boredom.

       “Not maths!” they yelled in unison. Amy made sounds of vomiting at the mention of maths.

        “Amy, stop it!” Sita snarled, going to her and cuffing her. Amy spat at Sita, Sita losing her temper and walloping Amy on her backside. Amy lay down on her back, kicked the air with all four feet screaming in protest. The other cubs, seeing her antics, turned away, embarrassed.

      “Now you are looking stupid!” Georgia yelled at Amy, who kicked and screamed some more.

       “Patch, please tell us how you were going to teach us maths?”  Roxy asked. Patch smiled:

        “How are you at counting?”  he asked.

        “You couldn’t teach us a thing!” Amy yelled mockingly.

        “Let him show us what he knows shall we?”  Sita asked. Amy spat and flailed about with her paws.

        “We could go somewhere else to learn this,”  Georgia said.

        “I’m all up for that,”  Koda replied, snorting at Amy’s antics.

         “I think Amy’s a pest!” Hope announced.

      “Who taught you that language?”  Sita demanded.

       “Kuruk says it all the time,”  Hope replied, “he really tore a strip off mama Anook when I was with Sushanti after she’d delivered Baako into the world. Mama Anook went mad, and Kuruk told her she stupid and thick, and a pest too!”

       “Kuruk should be well hided!” Sita said in a posh voice which made Patch smile.

        “All you need to do Sita is stand on your hind feet, put your paws on your hips, and you’d be the proper school mama,”  Patch remarked laughing. Sita fitted actions to words, and Hope laughed so hard she nearly choked.

       “You do look so funny!” she said. Sita dropped onto all four paws looking concerned:

      “Do I?”  she asked, “do I look silly?”

        “I wouldn’t cross you mama Sita,”  Koda said soberly. Sita smiled and put on a fierce expression, lowering her head and lashing her tail, an act which made Koda cover his face with his paws to hide a huge smile.

        “You look so funny Sita!” Georgia laughed. Sita curved her tail over her back and twitched her ears, Koda spluttering into his paws as he tried to maintain his composure.

       “You look silly!” Amy said in a superior voice, which made Hope want to run and hide. Whimpering, she ran to Patch, who sat down and embraced her tightly.

        “She’s horrid!” Hope sobbed. Koda, who’d had enough, strode over to Amy, picked her up, and flung her hard into the foam pit.

         “That’s what I think of you!” he snapped, stamping about, though his paws made no sound on the rubberised flooring. Amy, floundering and angry, fought her way free of the foam pit and chased Koda, who ran up the ladder to the top of the climbing frame near the zip wire. Finding some plastic balls in a net bag, Koda turned and took careful aim, pelting Amy with the plastic balls.

     “Ow, ouch, ow!  Koda, stop it!” Amy screamed, as Koda’s missiles struck home. Koda knew he only had a few balls, so he made them count, hitting Amy on her nose, on her forepaws when she threw them up to protect her face, and then on her belly, making the ball hit the floor and bounce up. Amy twisted this way and that, trying to avoid Koda’s attentions, but wherever she went, his missiles would follow, one even hitting her on her backside as she turned to run.

       “Leave me alone!” Amy whined.

       “You would do well to take your own advice,”  Koda shouted, leaping onto the zip wire and screaming down, zooming over Amy’s head, while yelling at the top of his voice, the sound horrendous to Amy, who hid her head in fear.

        “Okay Koda, that’s enough,”  Sita said sternly, though Koda could see the beginnings of a smile.

         “Sita’s all right,”  Koda thought smiling.

        “How can you take guidance from one who can’t see to guide herself?”  Amy snapped at Koda.

        “Depends what you mean by can’t see,”  Koda replied. Sita’s sense of sight never was, but it doesn’t make her less worth following. Would you say Furcone or any of the other badgers were unworthy of being listened to just because they were not around at the time to experience the tales they tell?”  Amy snorted:

        “That’s not the point!” she snapped.

      “In a fire, I know who’s tail I’d be clinging to,”  Koda replied smiling.

        “In a fire,”  said Hope, “there would be smoke and it would be dark, we’d all die, including Sita, as she couldn’t find her way out, as we couldn’t, for the smoke is so dense and black.”

         “Sita can’t see at all already silly,”  Georgia replied, “it doesn’t matter if there is smoke or not, she can navigate through it if she knows the route.”

        “I know the emergency route out of here,”  Sita replied, “I’ve practised it often, from all parts of the house.”

        “I still think Sita is bitter and twisted!” Amy screamed.

        “plus I’ll bet you Sita wouldn’t panic like we would,”  Sarafina said.

       “Maybe it’s that which Amy can’t stand?”  Ellis said.

         “I’d be a whimpering wreck if smoke entered here,”  Patch thought, but said nothing, “I remember when Kamchatka burnt the toast, smoke filled the kitchen then, and I was terrified. Mishka got us out of that one. He was so little then, a few weeks old, but so with it, it frightened me a little. Now I’m like he is, or getting that way, though I’ll never be as hardy as he is, never ever.”  Patch sat down, realising for the first time how much he could no longer see of his world. “Glaucoma wasn’t meant to be like this, I thought I’d controlled it,”  Patch thought miserably. Sighing deeply, he felt his paw taken in a larger one, one even larger than his. Sita’s paws were enormous, Patch had forgotten that.

      “I need your strength,”  Patch thought desperately.

        “You have me here,”  Sita responded silently, Patch feeling her warmth spreading from the contact with his paw, all over his body, comforting him.

        “Your spark is dulled at the moment patch,”  Sita said, “but it won’t go out, I know, for you are stronger than to let it. At the moment you doubt your worth to others, you are grieving the loss of your place in life, but you will find another place Patch. There is more to you than just your eyes my sire.”

       “His paws are lovely too,”  Titania said dreamily, “I told him I wouldn’t show him the way back to the house because if I did, I’d then lose the touch of his paws.”  Sita growled deep in her throat:

       “that was a dreadful thing to do!” she snapped, “when did you do that?  Patch, why didn’t you tell me?  I would have whipped her backside!”

     “She was honest about her intentions, and her reasons were rather sweet I thought,”  patch replied. Sita snorted:

        “She was denying you your right to be taken where you needed to go, she was taking advantage of your disability!” Sita roared.

       “I know Sita, I know,”  Patch replied, “and that is wrong, and she should be told off for that, but maybe my paws did soothe her very much, and she was enjoying my touch so much, that she wished to keep me with her as long as she could.”  Sita called out to Titania:

     “Where are you?”  Titania, realising what Sita was about to do, threw her ankle bell away, and ran. Unfortunately, Georgia, feeling Sita might slip on the bell, picked it up, the bell tinkling in her paws. Sita, hearing this, ran to Georgia and walloped her before she realised she was beating the wrong bear.

      “Oh, um, sorry,”  Sita said when Georgia complained, Georgia whacking Sita hard in return.

      “Don’t hit Sita!” Koda yelled.

       “I know what Titania did now,”  Sita mewed, rubbing her nose, “it’s devious!”

       “You can’t catch me Sita!” Titania yelled, scampering away.

        “I’ll get her for you,”  Koda said, running after Titania and catching her easily.

       “I’m sorry Georgia,”  Sita said, kissing the she bear’s nose.

        “Why did you hit me?”  Georgia asked.

       “You picked up Titania’s bell, so I thought you were her,”  Sita replied honestly, “I never thought she’d do that to me.”

      “So you can’t even trust what you hear now either,”  Georgia said sadly.

       “now I feel bad for hitting you,”  Sita mewed. Georgia kissed Sita’s nose.

       “in reparation for hitting me, you can roll onto your back and let me look at and touch your paws,”  Georgia said. Sita rolled onto her back, Georgia examining her paws by sight and touch.

       “would you curl your toes please Sita?”  Georgia asked. Sita did as she was asked.

     “now, keeping your toes curled, wave all four paws in the air?”  Georgia said. Sita did so.

       “cute that,”  Georgia remarked.

      “Anything else?”  Sita asked.

       “this!” Georgia said laughing, tickling Sita’s paws, Sita laughing and rolling about on the floor, Georgia tickling and tickling until Sita was exhausted, the cubs laughing and clapping their paws with delight.

       “Stop it now, please!” Sita begged, thoroughly worn out. Georgia stopped tickling Sita, her revenge taken. Titania padded up to Sita and spat at her, Georgia flooring the black bear cub and beating her hard with her paws.

      “Ow Georgia ow!” Titania yelled, Georgia biting Titania’s ear and cuffing her across her face with her paw.

       “I hate what you did to fool Sita, you horrid runt!” Georgia yelled, pummelling Titania with her paws.

        “I’m feeling dented!” Titania whimpered when Georgia left her alone.

       “Now I will leave here to wash my paws,”  Georgia said, walking to a relieving place attached to the play room to wash her paws.

       “Cute paws you have Georgia,”  Sooleawa said smiling.

       “You always say that,”  Amy snarled, “you got a thing about paws or what Sooleawa?”

       “I like paws, and I’m not ashamed to say it,”  Sooleawa replied.

        “why do you like paws so much?”  Koda asked.

       “I suppose because a paw was the first thing I saw coming towards me in the dark squeezing place, it was the first thing I felt too. So I like them very much.”

       “that’s rather cute,”  Koda said.

        “I think paws are beautiful things,”  Sooleawa said, “they tell you about the world, can give comfort, show anger, show pain, give pleasure and receive pleasure too.”

        “They are also dirty and horrid,”  Amy snapped.

      “yours might be,”  Sooleawa said smiling, “but Sita’s?  they are lovely paws, big paws with big pads and expressive toes.”

         “Paws can be used to hug too,”  Sita said, rolling over and embracing Sooleawa.

         “You daft thing,”  Sooleawa said, snuggling close to Sita, who embraced her tightly.

        “I love your paws,”  Sooleawa said, “Sita, can I say you have thick pads and large toes, and fat paws all round?”  Sita laughed merrily at this.

       “Want to continue your description Sooleawa?”  she asked.

       “Ah, um, well, you are fat all round, well, heavily built,”  Sooleawa gabbled.

        “Fat?”  Sita asked, “heavily built?  Why don’t you just say I’m a slob?”

      “But you’re not, you’re not!” Sooleawa whimpered, “you’re big, you can’t help that, and your tail is long, and your paws are heavy and lovely, oh god, I’ve put my paw in it, all four paws in it, sorry Sita, sorry, dear, mama Sita.”  Sooleawa babbled.

        “Start at my nose and finish with my toes,”  Sita laughed. So Sooleawa did.

       “You are big all over mama Sita,”  Sooleawa said, “you are well padded, a real cuddly padding though, not fat, not really fat, not sickeningly fat.”

       “okay, now go into details,”  Sita said eagerly.

         “You have a tiger’s head, a bear’s body, tiger’s ears, whiskers, a bear’s legs, and bear’s paws. you have a long tail, and thick pads on all four gorgeous paws. your pads are brownie black, and you have no claws on your paws,”  Sooleawa said.

        “lovely!” Sita said smiling, “I’ve seen my body in a mirror, thanks to Patch, oh, oh dear.”  Sita’s  voice trailed away.

         “I won’t be able to show you anything any more,”  Patch said sadly, overhearing her and Sooleawa’s conversation.

       “You told me what colours were patch, and for that I am very grateful.”  Patch covered his face with his paws, overcome with emotion.

       “May your memory hold those thoughts,”  he choked.

       ?”it will,”  Sita said smiling. Sooleawa smiled as Sita rolled onto her back and waved her hind feet in her direction.

       “Cute paws,”  Sooleawa said, Sita laughing merrily and wiggling her toes at Sooleawa, who grabbed her right hind foot, kissed her pads, and then tickled her toes, Sita shrieking with laughter.

      “your paw fur is soft, your pads thick and leathery,”  Sooleawa said smiling, counting Sita’s toes. Sita, wriggling with pleasure, curled her toes and then stretched them, waving her free forepaws and laughing helplessly with delight.

       “You are the most beautiful creature,”  Sooleawa said excitedly, “I nominate you for community greeter, for you are soft, cuddly, and have interesting paws and a gentle expression.”

       “but I can’t see who I’m greeting,”  Sita said.

         “You can ask whom ever you meet to make contact with you by touch, then they will know you are genuine,”  Sooleawa said. Sita got to her feet, bounced on her toes, then crawled about like a cub, mewing and growling. Sooleawa chased Sita’s hind feet, tickling her pads and toes, Sita squealing with delight and throwing herself forwards, beating the floor with her forepaws while laughing helplessly.

       “I love your paws!” Sooleawa said, scrambling round to embrace Sita, who hugged her tenderly.

        “Play with paws is wonderful!” Sita purred. She got to her feet and padded about a bit, a slight squeaking sound making the cubs stare at her.

        “You creak as you walk Sita,”  Georgia said.

        “I probably drag my paws a bit,”  Sita replied, “that sound is my pads on the rubber flooring, it’s worse on tiles. I really make a racket then.”

       “show us, show us!” Koda pleaded. Sita smiled and padded to the shower room off the play room and padded about on the tiles, indeed, her paws did make a creaking sound as she padded about.

      “I think the creaking is coming from your sole pads,”  Koda said, “your toes couldn’t make that sound.”

       “I think you drag your feet a bit Sita,”  Patch said. Sita smiled and turned this way and that, her pads making a creaking sound on the floor.

        “You’re so funny Sita,”  Patch said. Sita went to him and hugged him.

 

Patch woke early the next morning, opening his eyes, he saw spots and flashing lights, plus he felt very unwell, as if he was on the roller coaster from hell. Closing his eyes steadied his whirling brain, breathing hard, he opened his eyes again, and the roller coaster started. Whimpering, Patch vomited copiously, and the whirling continued. Patch, unable to move, gripped the rugs with all four paws and vomited four times before Ekaterina, woke by the sound of Patch being violently ill, ran for help. Blackberry ran in and took control, screaming at Patch to close his eyes, which the screaming bear did, his roller coaster ride slowing and eventually stopping. Patch told Blackberry what he could see, and Blackberry phoned through to the vet. Patch was given a sedative, the vet coming and loading him onto a trolley to be wheeled away. The community, all watching, held their collective breath as their leader, now heavily doped, was wheeled away.

        “What do we do now?”  Sita asked.

       “Wait for his return,”  Ekaterina said, “I think Patch will return, I hope so.”  Hugging Ekaterina, Sita felt her body shaking as she sobbed.

        “patch will return,”  Sita mewed, kissing Ekaterina’s nose.

      “he was screaming and vomiting,”  Ekaterina wept.

         “We’ll see what happens, that’s all we can do,”  Sita mewed.

 

The next thing Patch knew was waking in the vet’s ward. He was surprised to find he could open his eyes, reaching up with his paws, he touched his eyes, they were hard, though they moved under his paws like his eyes used to. Patch remembered the roller coaster ride he’d had, and sighed deeply, the sedition calming his mind a little so he could consider things without prancing.

        “My eyes were removed, and glass ones fitted,”  he thought, “how long have I been out of it?”

      “Hello Mister Patch,”  the vet said. Patch turned his head towards the voice, his ears twitching.

      “yeah,”  patch mumbled, “what?”

        “I’ve come to check on you, I’m the vet’s assistant,”  the voice said, “your operation went well, we excised your eyes, then replaced them with prosthetics. You’ve been out of things for a week now,  we kept you in an educed coma to aid your healing. Now you are here, and awake, and you can go home.”  Patch stretched his paws, then settled back on the warmed rugs.

       “Are you in pain?”  the vet’s assistant asked.

      “No,”  Patch replied.

      “I’ll tell the community how you are doing,”  she said, “they’ve been asking all the time, and I’m sorry, but we’ve kept them in the dark somewhat.”

      “You bet you have!” someone yelled, then Patch heard heavy paws, and the assistant screaming something about a cat bear thing.

       “I’m here to take you home,”  Sita said, opening patch’s cage and letting him step out.

        “What are you?”  the vet’s assistant asked.

       “My name’s Sita, I’m Sita, got it?”  Sita asked. Patch followed Sita out of the vet’s place, following her scent. The vet’s office signed patch out from their care and let him go home.

      “if you get pain in your sockets, let us know,”  they said, “and please, don’t play tricks with those false eyes.”  Patch grinned.

 

Sita led Patch back to the house through the woods, her sense of direction well developed. Patch followed her, holding her tail in his mouth. Sita led him to the house, and into the great room. She twitched her tail free of his grip, then stepped said. Sitting down, she put the digits of her right forepaw into her mouth and whistled shrilly. Suddenly Patch was ambushed from his right, bowled over and jumped on by Ekaterina, who held his paws in hers, kissing his nose and paws.

        “Sita said she’d get you back, noone’s told me anything!” Ekaterina squealed, Patch grinned:

        “I was told nothing either,”  Patch said, “I was meditated, then, then, well I woke up in the vet’s place.”

       “I was told you were doing well, but that was it!” Ekaterina replied, “so much for being kept informed. I’m disgusted!  What happened?”

       “They said my retinas had detached, then, when they got inside my eyes, my eyes were so badly damaged they couldn’t save them. They kept me in a coma, then replaced my eyes with false ones. Now I’m unable to see conventionally, but my paws will help me.”  Ekaterina kissed her mate’s nose, then touched his eyes with her paws, Patch letting her touch his closed eyes.

        “I’m here now, for you, forever,” Patch said to Ekaterina, who leant down and kissed his nose and forepaws.

       “I’m glad you’re back now,”  Ekaterina said, “I am sorry I wasn’t kept informed by the humans, but glad you are back now with me. Time for you to learn to climb, to crawl, and to navigate by touch.”  Patch suddenly sat up, pushing Ekaterina off him and pinning her beneath his paws.

       “Well you can show me mama Ekaterina,”  he said smiling. Ekaterina crawled with Patch to the large playroom, where she turned and stopped him with her forepaws, Patch bumping into her.

       “Now I want you to follow me through sand, over stones, through water, and over rubber, to stimulate your paws,”  Ekaterina said.

      “I’m up for that,”  Patch replied. So Ekaterina took Patch on a tactile trail, walking through sand, over stones, through water, and over rubber and tiles, patch exploring each sensation carefully with all four paws, curling his toes into sand and stones, feeling the smoothness of the sand, the sharp stones, as well as smoother stones which made him slide about, though Patch did find that bare paws made his footing sure and balance better than he’d thought possible. Water washed his paws, then tiles became more fun, as his paws dried enough to allow them to grip, but moisture made his pads squeak and suck a little on the tiles as he walked. The sound made him smile.

       “I feel like a cub again,”  he said airily, “but it’s nice to feel like this again, as if things aren’t taboo any more, as if my paws are playthings again.”

       “your paws are playthings yes,”  Ekaterina said.

        “Stones under my paws feel different to how they used to, before, well, before I lost my sight completely,”  Patch said, “I seem to be able to feel each individual stone, my paws seem to wrap around the stones.”

        “your balance will be better now you can focus through your paws,”  Ekaterina said, “Sita does the same thing, though of course her paws are extra sensitive, even more sensitive than mine or yours will ever be.”

       “She has an amazing heritage doesn’t she,”  Patch replied smiling.

      “She does,”  Ekaterina said. Patch padded with Ekaterina across the tiles, his paws sticking slightly as he walked, patch grinning happily at the sound they made.

        “This is so cubbish,”  he said smiling, “but the sound my slightly damp paws make on the tiles is kind of interesting, that I find the sound of my paws on the tiles interesting must sound so silly to you.” 

       “not as silly as you might think,”  Ekaterina replied, “I find the sound of my paws, and those of others interesting too, it is interesting to listen to how others walk. Sita drags her right hind foot, Sooleawa drags all four paws, actually, she drags her right hind foot, and the toes of her left forepaw a bit too.”  Patch smiled and padded to Ekaterina, who turned and touched noses with Patch.

        “I love you,”  she said gently, kissing his nose.

       “I love you too Ekaterina,”  Patch replied, “I’m sorry you were left behind when I was hospitalised, it all happened so fast. I’m glad the roller coaster has ended though, that was horrible.”  Ekaterina kissed Patch’s paw.

        “I was so worried,”  she replied, “I was sick with fear once or twice, actually losing my breakfast once. I felt exhausted most of the time, crying, dreading the worst news. Wondering how I was going to cope without you patch.”

       “I lost a week of my life,”  Patch replied, “I suppose they made me heal faster so I wouldn’t be inconvenienced too much. Now I’m here, my mind is here, my paws are here, and I’m yours from nose to tail Ekaterina. Touch me, kiss my nose, squeeze my toes, tickle my pads, rub my ears, hug me, all that, and then I’ll hug you too.”  Ekaterina smiled broadly:

       “I love you, can you feel that?”  she asked. patch shuffled forward so he could rest his head on Ekaterina’s shoulder.

       “I can feel it Ekaterina, I can,”  he replied softly, leaning against her, Ekaterina spreading her legs to support his weight.

        “lean on me Patch, go on,”  Ekaterina said, patch taking her at her word and leaning hard, Ekaterina struggling to support his weight, patch hearing her paws slipping a little, and lifting his weight off her.

         “I was about to fall over,”  Ekaterina said ashamedly.

       “I heard your feet slipping, so I stood off,”  patch said.

        “I dug my toes in, but that wasn’t enough,”  Ekaterina admitted, “Patch, get paws on with my paws, they’re dug into the tiles now.”  So patch did, touching Ekaterina’s fore and hind paws as she curled her toes into the gaps between the tiles for purchase.

        “That’s kind of cute,”  patch said. Ekaterina bounced on her toes a bit, Patch touching her paws as she bounced, putting the toes of his left forepaw beneath the heel of her left hind, Ekaterina’s weight landing on his paw.

       “Sorry!” Ekaterina said.

      “No problem,”  Patch said, “now if only you could lift your weight off that foot just a little,”  Ekaterina did, leaning forward a bit on her forepaws, feeling patch’s touch on the pads of her left hind foot, the sensation thrilling her.

       “I didn’t hurt you did I?”  Ekaterina asked.

      “No,”  Patch replied, “you didn’t’ land that heavily. Patch pressed his toes into Ekaterina’s pads, Ekaterina gasping as she felt the thrill of his touch.

         “sit down and I’ll massage your pads more easily,”  Patch said, so Ekaterina did, and Patch massaged the sole pad of her left hind foot, Ekaterina crying out with surprise and exits as patch’s paws filled her world with pure pleasure.

      “It’s never been like this before, never!” Ekaterina said, feeling her toes curl spontaneously as Patch massaged the sole pad of her left hind foot. Ekaterina’s toes curled tighter and tighter, Ekaterina fighting to curl her toes more and more tightly, until she gave up from exhaustion, whimpering and rocking with suppressed anger at herself for not trying hard enough.

        “You can only curl those toes so tight for so long before you tire your toes,”  Patch said.

      “But I wanted to curl them tighter for longer!” Ekaterina whimpered angrily, “I couldn’t do what I wanted!”

       “You curled them so cutely,”  Patch said.

       “but I want to do it again, now!” Ekaterina panted.

       “I’ll change my attention to your other hind foot, and you can find out if your toes want to curl like that again, that’s if you want to.”  Ekaterina, her adrenalin fired up by desire for her mate’s touch, wriggled excitedly.

       “yes, yes, please, please Patch!” she begged, unashamed by how she sounded. Patch kissed his mate’s nose, hearing her panting breath.

        “Take deep breaths Ekaterina, three deep breaths,”  patch said, “or you will faint.”  Ekaterina took four deep breaths, calming herself.

       “I was close to passing out,”  she admitted, “but it felt so dam good, your touch felt so dam good to my paw!”

       “Once you are recovered, I’ll touch the pads of your left hind foot,”  patch said. Ekaterina smiled, though Patch couldn’t see it. Patch found Ekaterina’s left hind foot and touched her pads, the she bear curling her toes slightly, Patch rubbing her bunching pads with gentle care, Ekaterina finding her toes needed no prompting to curl tighter and tighter.

       “Oaoaoaoaw!” Ekaterina whimpered as she felt her pulse quicken. Patch held her tightly in his paws, Ekaterina panting and clinging to him with her forepaws, her left hind foot tingling with the memory of his touch.

       “wow, oh wow!” Ekaterina gasped, “patch, how on earth do you do that?”  Patch smiled and kissed his mate’s ear:

         “Maybe you can do the same for me,”  he replied, “and I don’t know how I do it Ekaterina, I wish I did.”

       “making love on the tiles is so scandalous!” Ekaterina laughed. Patch smiled:

       “it happens like that sometimes,”  he replied, “it felt wonderful from my end.”

        “Indescribable from mine,”  Ekaterina replied, “you wore me out Patch!” Patch helped his mate to her feet and they padded slowly back to the main corridors, Ekaterina pressing a button on the wall by the entrance to the play room. Patch heard a beeping sound coming towards them, then something drawing to a stop in front of them, then the sound of a bell as a door opened.

      “Get in,”  Ekaterina said, Patch exploring the thing in front of him, which seemed to be some sort of vehicle. Feeling his way inside, he embarked, sitting down on a seat, Ekaterina clambering in clumsily behind him.

        “don’t tell me they built this already,”  patch said, his mind clearing, “this was the monorail so blind and mobility impaired community members could get about to their individual lie ups.”

      “I led you through the house to a back corridor,”  Ekaterina said, “I was given the keys to the system as you, well, you were in hospital at the time this was ready to be used.”

       “So how do you ride this thing?”  Patch asked, exploring in front of him with his paws and finding a joystick and two buttons, one with a raised cross on it, the other without. Patch pressed the button with the cross on it, but nothing happened.

      “I don’t know,”  Ekaterina replied, “they didn’t provide me with instructions I could listen to. Though they said it could be driven without sight.”

      “Typical,”  patch thought, “think of everything but the instruction manual.”  Patch pressed the flat topped button, and a voice asked:

       “Where would you like to go?  Say the name of the owner of the lie up you’d like to visit, or the place you’d like to visit. And if you just want a random destination, say, take me on a tour.”  Ekaterina gripped patch’s paw with hers.

        “I didn’t hear anything,”  the machine said in a pleasant voice.

      “Patch’s lie up,”  Patch said.

       “Patch’s lie up?  Say yes, or no,”  the voice replied.

       “yes,”  Patch said.

      “Please mind the doors, they are closing five, four, three two one,”  the voice said, Ekaterina and Patch hearing the doors slide shut and lock. Then air conditioning switched on, and the car began to move, gathering speed as it raced down a guide way with no sound at all.

      “Do you want speed test?”  the voice asked.

      “yes,”  patch said.

       “Ok, speed test in five, four three two one.”  The machine replied. Ekaterina screamed as the car sped up dramatically, rocketing along the guide way, hurtling around corners, down slopes and up hills, eventually slowing down gently and announcing:

        “you are now at Patch’s lie up.”  Patch clapped his paws as the doors opened, Ekaterina shaking so much she could hardly walk. Patch, clambering past her, told the car to:

      “Stay here until I say you can leave, I have a disabled passenger.”  The car responded by applying air breaks and Patch heard the motor fall silent. Ekaterina, still in shock, flapped her left forepaw at Patch, who lifted her out of the car and carried her into the lie up, settling her down on the bean bag sofa. Returning to the car, which told him of its presence with audible beeps, Patch pressed the button which usually summoned the car, the car coming to life in front of him.

       “What do you wish to do now?”  the car asked, “embark and tell me a destination, or, if you have reached your intended destination, and you no longer need my services, say, leave.”

      “Leave,”  Patch said, “and thank you,”  he added without thinking. The car slid closed its doors and with a warning to:

     “stand clear!” it departed quickly.

        “You thanked a computer!” Ekaterina squealed, clapping her paws with delight.

        “Oh no, oh dear, I didn’t did I?”  Patch asked. Ekaterina, highly amused, hugged her mate tightly.

       “You big daft sod!” she laughed.

        “I forgot, a bit,”  patch replied sheepishly.

        “that system is wonderful though isn’t it?”  Ekaterina asked, “we can go anywhere in the house, even if we don’t know where it is. We just call a car, get in and go. All we need to know is where we want to go.”

       “Fine,”  Patch replied, “sounds wonderful, though who commissioned this?”

        “Sire Koda did,”  Sita said, padding into the room, “he had an idea that everyone would be able to get about independently around the house. The monorail is the next incarnation of that. It’s fun to use, I’ve used it, though there’s nothing like using one’s paws to get about if one can.”

      “I want you to touch my paws again Patch,”  Ekaterina said. Sita giggled:

       “I know what happened on the tiles,”  she said, “that was so cute!” Ekaterina snorted:

       “You weren’t listening were you?”  she asked.

        “Not deliberately,”  Sita replied, “but the soft play room is my domain, so I was there, just testing out the sensory path when you two were, um, making love at the end of the path on the tiles.”  Patch looked nervous.

      “Sita,”  he said, “did you hear me making my paws squeak on the tiles?”  Sita laughed:

       “I did, now that was just so cute,”  she replied, Patch groaning in misery.

        “I wanted that to be private!” he whimpered.

        “I know what you mean when you get your pads wet enough to make them squeak and stick to the tiles slightly, it’s cute,”  Sita said, “I do it all the time, and my cubs do too. They play, then we shower down to freshen up, and they love checking each other’s paws for wrinkles, counting wrinkles on soles of paws, it’s their favourite post play pastime.”

        “A wrinkled pad contest, that’s cute too!” Ekaterina enthused, “I really must check my pads for wrinkles.”

       “You have wrinkled pads Ekaterina,”  patch said, “now I don’t, mine are smoother, which is unusual for a bear. Though I suppose my paws were meant to be like that for a reason.”

       “Your pads are a little wrinkled,”  Ekaterina said, “but they are smoother enough for me to run my paw down with smooth gentility. Your paws interest me greatly Patch.”

       “And your paws me,”  Patch replied, “talking about touch as I used to about sight is unusual,”  Patch observed, “but it feels all right.”

       “Can I touch your paws Patch?”  Ekaterina asked. Patch settled down on the beanbag sofa, stretching out luxuriously.

        “My paws are yours,”  he said. Ekaterina grinning, took Patch’s left forepaw in her paws and examined it. Then she got down on the floor and picked up his left hind foot.

        “Your paws can’t be mine,”  she said, they’re too big!  I’d trip over if I had paws like yours.”  Patch smiled:

       “How if we put shoes on your paws that made them as big as mine?”  he asked, “then you can pretend to have big paws.”

     “that would be fun,”  Ekaterina replied, “Patch, have you ever wondered what it would be like to have smaller paws?”  Patch thought for a minute:

        “yes, but there’s no way of making that happen. The closest I can get to imagining I have small paws is to act like a cub.”

      “Which you do very well most of the time,”  Ekaterina said. Laughing, Patch ruffled her ears.

        “I touched little Roxy’s paws yesterday,”  Ekaterina said, “they are so small patch, she’s got lovely paws.”  Patch smiled:

       “Did she mind?”  he asked.

        “she doesn’t mind, I told her how it is for me, for us now, Patch, I told her you’d lost your sight, I didn’t want it to be true of course I didn’t, but I thought after all that happened in the lie up, you would lose all sight you had left.”

        “You were preparing her for the worst,”  Patch replied.

      “no,”  Ekaterina replied, “I couldn’t tell her what I feared the most. Sita asked me if I thought you’d come back, and I said you would, but, I was convincing myself as much as reassuring her. I was worried sick Patch!  I know this sounds awful, clingy and needy, but if you died, I don’t know what I’d do. I’d go mad, get depressed all that.”

          “You mustn’t pin your life on mine,”  Patch replied, “Ekaterina, dear Ekaterina, I’m nine years older than you, I will die before you. Please, don’t go down this route, I’m not immortal, I will die sometime.”

       “You loved me as brother, then as mate, I can’t cut away just like that, my paws are joined to yours in so many ways Patch,”  Ekaterina said plaintively.

        “I’m not dead yet,”  Patch said, “Ekaterina, please, think of others when I’m gone.”

       “throughout all this, your thoughts have been for what you won’t be able to do for others when you lose your sight,”  Ekaterina said.

        “I know you rely on me Ekaterina,”  Patch said.

        “I haven’t done much to help myself in all this,”  Ekaterina admitted ashamedly, the realisation hitting her hard.

        “I will go out alone, I will find my way alone,”  Ekaterina said.

        “I can talk to you, but I can’t physically guide you now,”  Patch said sadly.

       “You need guiding yourself now,”  Ekaterina said, “guiding physically I mean, not emotionally.”

       “how do you know he won’t need emotional help too?”  Sita mewed, “Ekaterina, just because Patch seems strong, doesn’t mean he doesn’t cry and wring his paws when he’s alone.”  Ekaterina hesitated, Sita’s words shocking her.

     “I hadn’t considered that,”  Ekaterina said faintly.

       “Patch might be more sensitive than you think Ekaterina,”  Sita replied, “he’s not the impervious rock you think he is.”

         “Oh, is that how I treat him?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “Sorry Patch,”  Sita said, touching Patch’s right hind paw with her forepaw, “I thought Ekaterina should hear it right here and now.”

        “Do you get upset about this?”  Ekaterina asked. Patch sighed heavily.

       “no, I’m perfectly fine with it, for Eohippus sake Ekaterina, how the hell could you ask that?”  Patch snapped. Getting up, he padded towards the door to leave, tripping over the rug and nearly falling. Whimpering, he stumbled out of the door, crashing headlong into Petra, who was walking into the lie up.

        “Sorry,”  Patch whimpered, wishing the world wouldn’t go so fast.

        “Patch,”  Petra said, gently laying her paw on Patch’s, “what’s up?”  Patch explored Petra’s face with his nose, finding her ear and whispering into it:

        “Ekaterina’s being so stupid!”

        “I know,”  Petra replied, “she doesn’t listen.”

       “She can be so good sometimes, then she destroys everything,”  patch said angrily.

       “Go and swim a while,”  Petra advised, “punch a bag or two, you can still do that.”  Patch padded away, finding his way to the room he used to use for so much else than punching bags. Sighing, he entered the room and found a punch bag or two. Rearing onto his hind feet, he swiped at a bag with a paw, then cried out with surprise as the bag swung back and hit him in the face!” Screaming, he beat the bag up, killing it with all the anger and emotion he’d stored up since his discharge from hospital. Crying, Patch tore up the bag, then exhausted, he sat down on the padded flooring. Dimly he felt a body cuddle up to him, it was warm, and paws embraced him tightly. He then felt a nose with whiskers brushing his ear, then heard purring, deep purring, though the paws were a bear’s paws.

       “hello Sita,”  Patch said softly, sniffing hard.

        “What can I do for you?”  Sita asked.

        “just be with me Sita, hug me, let me hug you. That’s all,”  Patch replied softly.  Sita stroked patch, letting him know she valued him and loved him for who he was.

       “I’ll help you Patch,”  Sita said, kissing his nose and paws.

       “Ekaterina is so bloody straight up and down with everything,”  Patch said, “she has always been used to her world, now, now I’m here, and I’m used to being her help.  To take that away is a huge thing.”

       “She needs to help herself now,”  Sita mewed, “patch, you need the support of others.”

       “I don’t know where my life is going now,”  Patch replied sorrowfully, “I was once a good leader, and now, now I’m unable to see the community I lead.”

        “well get paws on with the community then,”  Sita said, “ask them all to show you their paws, for you can’t keep track of them any other way.”  Patch kissed Sita’s nose and paws, her scent alive to him, her fur softer, her pads more interesting, her touch more communicative than he could ever remember.

       “Let your paws and your ears guide you now,” Sita said softly.

 

“Um, Patch,”  Koda said, padding into the room and touching his brother’s paw, “we have a strange situation.  A bear has just brought two rabbits with him.  He’s huge!  The bear that is, but, well he refuses to deal with anyone but our leader.  I tried saying you were busy, but, well, he wouldn’t have it.”

      “And neither should he be put off from meeting me either,”  Patch said, getting to his feet, “you say this bear is huge?  As big as me?”

      “Bigger, much bigger!”  Koda replied, “um, sorry patch.”  Patch smiled:

       “Why not lead me to him?  Or bring him here?”  Patch asked.

        “There’s no monorail here,”  Koda said, “how if you go back to your lie up Patch, there he can meet you.”

        “Take me to him,”  Patch said, shaking himself.  Koda padded out of the room, Sita padding out after Patch, who followed the clicking sound of Koda’s claws on the tiles.  Koda stopped, and Patch veered round to his right to get on his other side.  Koda reached out a paw to press the button, to find Patch’s paw already there.  Huffing, Koda withdrew.

         “now we wait,”  Patch said, listening for the beeping sound of the car’s approach.  The car arrived, and the door slid open.  Patch and Koda embarked, Sita following.  Koda, impatient, pressed the door close button, Sita screaming as her tail was caught in the door.

        “Sorry,”  Koda said, as the door, having felt pressure, opened quickly.

          “You idiot!”  Sita snarled, Patch gently touching the bruised part of her tail.

        “No broken skin,”  Patch said, “Sita, can you move your tail?”  Sita lashed about with her tail, Patch directing her so her tail smacked Koda around his head.

       “”ow!”  Koda roared, having tried to avoid Sita’s lashing tail.

        “Good shot Sita,”  Patch said grinning, Koda huffing with anger.

       “let’s go to the lie up,”  Sita said.  Patch gave the commands, Koda grumbling to himself.  The car sped along the track, Patch settling back for the ride.  The car stopped, and announced the destination.

        “here we are,”  Patch said.  Leaving the car, Patch sensed something large standing in the middle of the room.  The large thing sighed heavily and shifted its paws.

       “Um, hello?”  Patch asked.  Then, thinking the newcomer would not understand community dialect, he tried in old and modern ursine, then finally in English.

        “Hello,”  the large creature replied in modern ursine.  Patch, glad he knew which language to use, padded forward and touched noses with the newcomer.

        “What is your name?”  Patch asked.

      “My name is Chumley, well that’s my last name, my given name is Orbon, I was a bear who circled the world in a plane.  I am a globe trotting bear.  Now my paws are sore, and I want to settle down.”

       “Do you know any bears here?”  Patch asked.  Orbon looked at Patch, noticing his eyes were unfocused.

        “I know Dorothy,”  Orbon said.

        “patch, patch!”  Mishka yelled, padding into the room, “you’ve met Orbon then, he’s so great, we’ve been tickling his paws, Hope and me that is.”  Orbon grinned:

        “They found me in the woods,”  he said, “I was sleeping under a bush when Mishka found me.  Hope, barely on her paws, was following him.  They mistook me for a community bear, at least that’s what Mishka said after he and Hope had bundled with me for a bit.”

      “Um, yeah, sorry about that,”  Mishka replied.

       “I thought he was a community bear,”  Hope replied miserably, coming up with Mishka.”

       “Well he is now,”  Mishka replied, “Orbon was gentle enough to play with us, it was only afterwards we realised he wasn’t part of our community.”

     “Can I get paws on with you Orbon?”  Patch asked.  Orbon smiled:

       “Mishka said you’d ask,”  he replied, “of course Patch.  Patch reared onto his hind feet and traced Orbon from his nose to his paws.  Orbon sat down and let Patch touch the pads of all four of his paws, trying to take things seriously, but Patch could tell he was enjoying his exploration.

        “Sorry,”  Orbon said as the toes of his right hind foot curled around patch’s left forepaw.

       “That’s okay,”  patch said softly.  Orbon smiled broadly, then laughed helplessly as Patch tickled the sensitive pads of his right hind foot.

       “I love that!”  Orbon laughed, wriggling with pleasure.  Patch laughed as Orbon, throwing all inhibitions to the winds, rolled onto his back and grabbed his hind feet in his forepaws, patch getting paws on with the large bear’s fore and hind paws.  Orbon let go of his right hind foot, patch catching it in his forepaws and tracing the large bear’s pads.  Orbon curled his toes slightly as Patch gently drew the toes of his right forepaw down the large sole pad of his right hind foot, Hope describing what Patch was doing for the benefit of Sita and Mishka.

        “Your pads are thick and rather tough,”  Patch said, Orbon curling his toes tightly to make his pads bunch up, Patch drawing circles on the sole of the bear’s foot, Orbon giggling with pleasure.

       “I love paw play,”  Orbon said, Pausing, he looked ashamed, “should I have admitted that?”  he asked.

       “We can tell you love paw play Orbon,”  Mishka said, “we think it’s good that you do.”

       “Are my paws good to play with?”  Orbon asked anxiously.

       “They are,”  Patch replied smiling, rubbing the tops of Orbon’s toes with his left forepaw.  Orbon sat up, grabbed his left hind foot in his forepaws and squeezed his pads and toes, patch tracing his right hind foot, Orbon bouncing about unashamedly.

       “This is such fun!”  he said, “I feel like a cub again!”  patch grinned and rubbed noses with Orbon, the grey bear smiling broadly and returning Patch’s affection.

       “Would you kiss my paws too?”  Orbon asked.  Patch smiled and gently kissed Orbon’s forepaws, and then smiling, traced the pads of his hind paws too.  It was only when Patch had finished that Orbon realised what he’d asked.

       “Sorry,”  he replied, burying his face in his forepaws.

        “it’s okay,”  Patch said smiling.

      “I asked you to kiss my paw pads,”  Orbon whimpered, “that was so wrong.”

       “Your paws are soft and warm, and clean too,”  patch said.  Orbon looked down at his forepaws.

         “I’m sorry,”  he replied, almost crying.  Patch knelt and embraced the huge male bear.

        “It’s okay,”  Patch said, “there’s nothing to be sorry about.”

        “Acting the cub?  asking you to stroke and kiss my paws? all that?”  Orbon asked.

        “If I didn’t want to kiss your paws, I wouldn’t have done it now would I?”  Patch asked.

       “it was the touch of your paws on my hind paws which startled me,”  Orbon said, “it felt so good, it must be so wrong!  I am sorry.”

        “If it felt good, it meant I wanted to touch your paws too,”  Patch replied, “it works two ways Orbon.”

         “Thank you Patch,”  Orbon said smiling.

        “Orbon’s a lot bigger than you are,”  Koda said to Patch, “I’m surprised he can let you play with his paws like that.”

       “Size isn’t everything Koda,”  Hope remarked, “and you should know that, you can be big and good, or stunted and a pain in the tail.”  Mishka laughed at her remark, Koda huffing with fury.

        “Shut it!”  he growled.

       “all I’m saying is that size means nothing,”  Hope replied.

        “How much do you weigh Orbon?”  patch asked.  the huge bear rubbed his nose with his paw, the short hairs rasping beneath his pads.

         “Um, about one thousand two hundred pounds,”  Orbon replied, “I suppose I should lose some.”

        “You’re great as you are,”  Hope said, Orbon smiling at her.

       “that’s nice to hear,”  he said, “I was always a bit concerned about how I looked, with my big paws and all.”

       “Your big paws are fabulous,”  Mishka said, “Orbon, I found one of your hind paws with my forepaw and you curled your toes around mine before we’d even spoken!”

       “Yeah, sorry about that,”  Orbon replied.

       “It was cute, so cute!”  Hope enthused, Orbon smiling slightly.

        “I couldn’t stop what my paw did,”  Orbon replied ashamedly, “my toes just curled around Mishka’s, my toes wanted contact, and, well so did I, if I am honest.”  Mishka laughed happily as Orbon, letting his emotions show, crawled to him and embraced him tightly in his big warm paws.

         “You daft thing,”  Mishka said laughing as Orbon stroked his back.  Mishka threw his paws around the huge bear’s neck and kissed his nose, the toes of Orbon’s hind paws reacting to this by curling tightly in time with Mishka’s hug, Patch giggling as his forepaws told him what the toes of Orbon’s hind paws were doing.  Patch felt Orbon’s pads bunching as he tightly curled his toes in reaction to the emotions running through his body.

        “Curl those toes Orbon,”  Patch thought, “they are so expressive.”  Patch drew the toes of his right forepaw down the sole pad of Orbon’s right hind foot from heel to tightly curled toes, Orbon gasping as he felt Patch’s touch.

       “This had to be wrong!”  he gasped, Mishka giggling at Hope’s description of Orbon’s face:

        “he looks so confused, half pained, half pleasured,”  Hope said, “as if he doesn’t know what he should feel.”

       “Pleasure, go on Orbon, it won’t hurt, I promise,”  Mishka said softly, kissing Orbon’s nose, the male bear clenching his teeth to stop himself crying out.

        “three of my four paws are giving me pleasure,”  Orbon panted, “I don’t know what to do!”

        “Roll onto your back and wave your paws in the air, pedal the air with them while lying on your side?”  Mishka suggested.  Orbon released Mishka and buried his face in his paws.

       “that would be so cubbish!”  he whimpered, “but if Patch keeps stroking the pads of my right hind foot, I might have to do that!”  Mishka touched Orbon’s paws, the male bear wriggling with discomfort.

         “the cub in me is fighting to get out!”  Orbon wailed.

       “let him show himself then,”  patch said.  Orbon sat up and grabbed his right hind foot in his forepaws, patch transferring his attentions to Orbon’s left hind foot, rubbing the large bear’s toes.

         “the cub inside me is bursting to show his playful side!”  Orbon whimpered.

       Well let him,”  Patch replied softly, kissing Orbon’s nose.

        “Roll onto your back and kick the air with your hind feet, go on, you’ll love it,”  Hope said.  Orbon smiled, and did what she suggested, kicking the air with his huge hind feet, patch catching his left hind foot and kissing his pads, Orbon laughing and whipping his foot away, grabbing his hind feet with his forepaws, wriggling, then releasing his feet to kick harder and faster.

      “I want to do this now, so much now!”  Orbon yelled, feeling himself lose control.  Patch sat down and raised his forepaws, Orbon’s hind feet kicking at his forepaws.  Patch caught each of Orbon’s hind feet in turn, traced the bear’s pads, and gently scratched the sensitive skin between the large sole pads and thick toe pads, Orbon whimpering and wriggling with pleasure.

       “This is too much!”  he gasped, “it’s like everything mama told me and my cubhood friends not to do with our paws when playing!”

        “it’s great isn’t it,”  Mishka said.

       “oooah yeah, wonderful!”  Orbon said, laughing as Patch tickled the toes of his right hind foot.

         “This feels so dam good!”  Orbon said, sitting up to embrace patch’s forepaws in his.  Patch leant down and kissed the top of Orbon’s right forepaw, the male bear smiling at him.

       “Touch your hind paw pads to mine, and they’ll stick fast,”  Orbon whispered.

        “I think they might,”  patch replied softly.  Orbon looked at Patch, then closed his eyes and explored the grey bear from nose to toes with his paws, arranging patch’s hind feet so his own pads touched patch’s, Patch laughing as he was manipulated into the position Orbon wanted him.  Hope, smiling, told Sita and Mishka what was happening.

      “I’ll bet Orbon will curl his toes around Patch’s,”  Sita said.

       “Orbon’s paws are much bigger than patch’s,”  Hope said, “Patch’s toes reach to the tops of Orbon’s sole pads when his heels are on the floor, so yes, Orbon will be able to curl his toes around Patch’s.”  this Orbon did, squeezing patch’s toes with gentle care.

        “have you played the trapped paw game before Patch?”  Orbon asked.

       “if I haven’t, I will be soon,”  patch replied, tugging at his left hind foot, “my hind feet are stuck firmly to yours!”

        “Did they explore each other’s hind paws with their fore before playing?”  Mishka asked.

      “They did,”  hope replied, “you and I know what Patch’s and Orbon’s hind paws feel like, though Sita doesn’t.  woops, I didn’t describe Orbon’s paws for Sita!”

        “if I free myself, Sita can touch my hind paws, and my forepaws, and me from nose to tail too!”  Orbon replied laughing.  Sita padded to Orbon, who kissed Patch’s nose, then turned away to let Sita take hold of his fore and hind paws.  Sita tracing thick pads and mobile toes on Orbon’s hind feet, and warm embracing pads on his forepaws.  Sita smiled, kissed Orbon’s nose in thanks, then kissed the pads of all four of his paws, Orbon gasping with emotion.

       “I want to hear you playing completely with Patch, amerce yourself in the game, feel the glue sticking your paws to his Orbon,”  Sita said.

       “it will, and I will,”  Orbon said, turning back to Patch, who eagerly pressed his hind feet against the larger bear’s, Orbon curling his toes around patch’s, patch pressing his hind feet hard against Orbon’s, while Orbon reached forward with his forepaws and ruffled Patch’s ears.

         “I think I know you,”  Orbon said, “patch, your scent is familiar.  It is a mix of your own scent, and mine, and one of a female bear named Aga.  Do you know her?”  Patch looked sightlessly at Orbon:

        “Aga is my mama,”  he said, feeling he was in a dream, “I don’t know if she’d recognise you now.”

        “how the hell did you get here?”  Aga squealed delightedly, running in and throwing herself at Orbon.

         “Hello Aga dear,”  Orbon said, “If you don’t mind, me and Patch here were about to play the trapped paw game.”  Aga looked at Orbon, then kissed his nose.

      “I see you’ve met your cub,”  she replied, “you do know he can’t see you don’t you?”

         “I don’t care,”  Orbon said, picking patch up and settling him on his lap, Patch letting himself be handled by this huge bear.

         “I want to let go of everything,”  Patch said softly, “Sire Orbon, please hug me, play with my paws?”

       “I will do all that, and then you can play with my paws, as I wanted you to play when you were born all those years ago,”  Orbon said, “Patch, you are fifteen now, I am twenty three years old.  Though I do believe something, I will be here forever, here is my home now.”  Patch buried his face in his sire’s thick warm fur.

        “You can take over, it is my prerogative to give the leadership to whom I want, Orbon, please, take over the leadership, will you?”  Koda stared angrily at Patch.

        “I am leader now!”  he roared.

       “No you’re not,”  Mishka said, “I think Orbon would make a good leader, plus I think once we know his tale, he will be worthy of the position.”

       “I will tell my tale to the community,”  Orbon said, “tonight, in the great room.”

       “You know about that?”  Patch asked.

       “I studied the community for years patch,”  Orbon replied,  “of course, I was hesitant to adopt the free pawed way of things at first, as I prefer formality when meeting for the first time, but now, oh now, I can be what you want and I want to be here.”

        “So that is why you asked to meet the leader of this place,”  Koda replied, “you knew he was your cub!”

        “I was almost certain yes little bear,”  Orbon replied, “I knew of Patch’s recent history too, and for that I am very d, but I know he is no lesser leader because of his sight loss.  Now though, I know his desire to hand things over to me is genuine too.”

         “Does this mean I’ll have his help full time?”  Sita asked, “to be quite honest Orbon, my paws are more than full with the cubs in the playtime.”  Orbon looked at Sita.

        “Dear bearcat,”  he said, Sita gasping at the gentility in his tone, “this community needs no outward leader any more, for we all know what is right.  Yes I will emerge from a ball pool and set my paws on the leader’s path when I need to, but until then, let me play as Patch will?”  Sita knelt and kissed Orbon’s left forepaw, for his right was embracing Patch.

        “How can the leadership be handed over just like that?”  Koda asked.

       “Come to the great room and Orbon will show you,”  Patch said, “I know he will, the cubs won’t be able to resist his fur, or Sooleawa his paws.  Sooleawa loves paws sire Orbon,”  Patch mimicked Sooleawa”, “cute paws!”  she’ll say, then grab one of your hind feet in her paws.”  Orbon grinned hugely.

       “I’m looking forward to it,”  he replied, “and to playing with the cubs too.”

        “Can I wash your paws Orbon?”  Patch asked.

       “I washed them when I came in to the house, walked through a paw bath if I remember rightly,”  Orbon replied.

       “I know, I didn’t mean they were dirty,”  patch replied, “it’s the ritual washing of fur and paws I mean.”

      “Maybe the whole community will want to dunk Orbon in the pool,”  Aga said, “he’s big enough for everyone to get a paw to I think.”  Orbon laughed at this:

      “So you are going to have a mass, “let’s shove Orbon in the pool,”  session?”  he asked.

        “not if you don’t want us to,”  Hope said anxiously, “though if you want it, we will do it.”

        “I would rather all the cubs sit on me than shove me in the water,”  Orbon replied.

 

 

So that night, Orbon sat in the great room, on a beanbag.  As ever, Sooleawa was at Hope’s side, and both sat near bathe beanbag.  Sooleawa, eager to get another point of view, lay down on her belly and looked up at Orbon as he padded towards her.

       “Ah, the cub who likes paws?”  Orbon asked, Sooleawa feeling her toes curling with shame.

       “yes, sir,”  she whimpered, covering her face with her paws.

        “Don’t be ashamed of it,”  Orbon said, “for Patch, from whom you get your love of paws and touch, got it from someone else, me.”

         “I love touching other’s paws, that is all,”  Sooleawa whimpered.

       “how about others touching your paws silver one?”  Orbon asked, sitting down on the beanbag.

         “yes that too,”  Sooleawa replied, “I, I was looking forward to you and Patch playing the stuck paw game, but things happened, wonderful things, and your game was never played.”

        “Patch and I will play some time later,”  Orbon replied, “our paws are looking forward to being in contact again very shortly.  Right now, my paws are the community’s to touch, to stroke, to play with.”

        “Can I?”  Sooleawa asked, sitting up.

      “Can you what?”  Orbon asked smiling.

        “touch your hind paws, please?”  Sooleawa asked.  Orbon waved at his right hind foot.

       “Try touching my pads, see what happens,”  he invited.  Sooleawa sat down opposite Orbon, then took his right hind foot in her forepaws, feeling the paw’s weight.  Sooleawa stroked Orbon’s pads, the male bear curling his toes slightly, then more tightly as she continued her stroking.

        “I like your paws,”  Sooleawa replied, “your pads bunch up cutely.  Sooleawa smiled and scratched the sensitive skin on the roots of the toes of Orbon’s right hind paw, Orbon curling his toes, catching Sooleawa’s toes in his.

       “You have cute paws,”  Sooleawa said, Orbon laughing merrily.

       “Sooleawa paling with paws again?”  Amy snapped.

      “yes, and we’re both enjoying it too,”  Orbon replied firmly.

        “I love your big soft pads and large toes, they’re just so cute!”  Sooleawa said smiling.

        “I hear this big pawed bear is gunning for leader,”  Amy snapped, “is he for real?”

       “he is, and we call him leader now,”  Petra said to Amy.

      “You cats call him leader?”  Amy asked.

       “We do,”  Petra replied, “for he has deposed patch in the time honoured pride manner, coming in and sweeping him off his paws.”

      “Tickling them too!”  Hope laughed.

        “so we give the leadership to an unproven bear?”  Amy asked.

        “he is unproven, but I think he has another style of leadership in mind.  Orbon will tell us I’m sure.”  Amy snorted:

       “I’ll bet he’s a fraud, a waste!”  she jeered.

       “Wait and see,”  Nuru mewed, padding into the room, Androcles and Sushanti joining him with their three week old cub Baako.

       “Are we all gathered?”  Patch asked, sitting down beside his sire.

       “We are,”  Theo said, padding into the room with Koda, who had to be dragged to the meeting.

         “Good,”  patch replied, “now, all of you, I have an announcement to make.  You know I have lost my sight,  Well, I have lost the confidence of you too it seems.  I do not feel confident any more.  Having decided I no longer want to be leader, I passed it on as is my right.  I passed it to Orbon.  Orbon is like me in so many ways, call him leader, he will show you he can lead, as I did once.  Now I have lost the confidence of the cubs, and of the adults in the community too.  I cannot make eye contact with you, I cannot see you at all.  I hear some of you cubs talking even now, you didn’t do that before, because I could look at you and silence you.  Now I cannot.  You are showing your contempt for me.”

        “We need eye contact,”  Morag said.

      “Rubbish!”  Hope yelled, leaping to her paws and struggling to look over the heads of the older cubs, “Morag, that is rubbish!  You just want another leader than Patch, as he is disabled now!”

       “Thank you Hope,”  Patch replied, “but now, now I will hand the floor to Orbon to let you know why I think he will be good as leader.”

        “Thank you Patch,”  Orbon said, then, feeling Sooleawa drawing circles on his pads, he gently withdrew his right hind foot:

        “I must stand up on my hind feet, sorry,”  Orbon said.  Sooleawa smiled and released her hold, Orbon getting to all four paws, then to his hind feet.

      “Oh wow, just wow!  Orbon’s huge, enormously huge!”  Hope yelled.  Hope looked at Orbon’s hind paws, they spread as he stood on the tiles.  Orbon, seeing her examining his paws at close range, bounced on his toes, Hope gasping with amazement.

        “I’ll bet he can dance,”  she whispered.

      “I can dance,”  Orbon said, “but that comes later.  We are here to discuss Patch’s proposition, that I become leader.  I am big, I have big paws, and it seems everyone likes my paws, including you dear Sooleawa.”  Sooleawa buried her face in her forepaws, embarrassed.  Hope settled down to watch Orbon’s hind paws as he spoke to the community, the male bear bouncing on his toes a bit as he talked, Hope fascinated by how he moved his hind feet.

       “I wish to show you another way of leading a community, a way where there is no defined leader, the leader is not hidden away in the plush flat, he is with the cubs, playing and rolling about on the floor with the community,”  Orbon said, bouncing on his toes a little, almost dancing, hope thought.

        “I’d love to roll about with Orbon and play with his paws, I’d love to do it again!”  Hope thought.

       “I can be strong and firm if I wish to be.,”  Orbon said, “now I think I can lead and play at the same time.  Patch is a good leader, though his lack of eye contact with you distresses you to a point where you can’t deal with him.  Therefore you will deal with me, though Patch will help me in all decisions re the community.  Now if that will appease your need for eye contact, which I believed was not a pre requisite for living and working here, we will carry on in this new way.  Talk with me, make eye contact with me, but Patch will guide the community with gentle paws.”

        “So you will be a figurehead?”  Tarker asked.

       “I will be if you wish,”  Orbon replied, “I can speak English, old ursine, modern ursine, Tigrine, Leonine, and community dialect.  I just didn’t let on I could speak all four to Patch.  Now if you don’t like this proposed style of leadership, where Patch is leader but I am the public face as it were, then depose him completely, and we will then elect a new leader outright, if it is just the fact he can’t see that you hate, then look at me, but trust his wisdom, for I will trust him with all four paws.  You all are shallow if you cannot trust someone who cannot see you.  Patch can problem solve, he is good and kind, and gentle, and you trusted him until he lost his sight.  Now I hear you can’t trust him any more, not because he did anything wrong, but because he cannot see you.  Now are you as shallow as all that?  Would you like me to take over completely?  Or to be a collaborative leader with patch?”  Orbon asked.  Hope looked up, seeing Orbon waving his paws about, gesturing to the community with his paws, though his mouth was persuasive enough.

        “You’ve convinced us,”  Petra said.

       “Though have I, Koda?”  Orbon asked.  Koda looked down at his forepaws, unable to meet the large bear’s eyes.

       “Now you won’t let me see your eyes you silly cub!”  Orbon yelled, “Koda, if you can’t let me see your eyes, then why do you have to see Patch’s?”  Koda got to his feet to run, but Kenny pinned him down.

       “You stay!”  he snapped.

       “Now I put it to the vote,”  Orbon said, “do you want Patch to remain as leader, with me as his eyes, or do you want him to step down and to elect a new leader?”

       “Who is this bear anyway?”  Amy asked, “Patch, do you know him enough to trust him?”

      “I do,”  Patch replied, “he is part of me, and I am part of him.  He is my sire.”  Georgia clapped her paws delightedly:

      “I knew it, I knew it!”  she laughed.

        “Now make your choice, and one member of each family come up and tell me your choice,”  Orbon said.  the lions and tigers, bears and woodlanders huddled together, talking animatedly.  After a while, they broke up, Nuru padding to Orbon.

       “There is a unanimous decision,”  Nuru said, “we would rather Patch stay on as leader.  We love him dearly, and the eye contact thing is not really an issue. Though we all want you too Orbon.”

       “You want my paws don’t you,”  Orbon said laughing.  Nuru looked down at Orbon’s huge hind feet.

       “yes,”  he replied, “those too,”  Orbon laughing helplessly at Nuru’s expression.

       “Even the lions love my paws,”  Orbon said grinning.

      “but I don’t want to be leader any more, Orbon, please, I hand it over to you.  I have that right.  I’m finished now!”  Patch protested, scrambling away.  Orbon looked at the assembled community.

       “We are leaderless now!  Now look what you’ve done you great big oaf!”  Amy yelled.

       “No you are not leaderless you fool!”  Mishka snarled, “Amy, shut up!”

      “I will lead you now,”  Orbon said, “I was hoping to tell you my story before patch broke down, but now I cannot ask for your trust before stepping into his shoes with my big hind feet.”

        “Why did Patch crack?”  Georgia asked.

      “He lost his purpose in life,”  Sita said softly, “the purpose he thought he had that is.”

       “Poor Patch,”  Hope replied.

 

Patch scrambled down the corridor, crashing into the glass door which separated the passage from the monorail guide way.  Screaming, Patch beat the glass with his paws in frustrated anger and rage.  Sinking down onto the floor, Patch burst into tears.  Feeling a set of paws lift him up, Patch felt himself carried into a car, then the car flying, at least it felt that way, down the passage.  Patch felt himself lifted, then carried to his lie up, the strange paws placing him carefully on the beanbag sofa.

       “I can’t cope with it any more!”  patch screamed, “Koda usurping my authority, trying to override me, knowing he can, it was, was only thanks, thanks to Orbon’s persistence he met me at all.  Koda tried to prevent that!  He doesn’t like me being leader, for one reason, and one reason only, though he accepted Mishka’s leadership while he was in the dark.  Why won’t he accept mine?  Maybe it is because I’m not a miracle cub, I’m not seen as powerful like Mishka is.  Now I’m washed up and down the bloody plug hole, all because I can’t see a thing!”  Patch felt his body taken in a set of huge paws, enormous paws, and then a gentle kiss was placed on his nose and right ear.

       “Hug me Orbon, please!”  Patch begged.  Orbon kissed his cub’s nose and paws, embracing Patch tightly, kissing his nose and paws.

         “Come,”  Orbon said, carrying Patch to a bed and settling him down.

        “how can Koda do this?”  Patch asked, “does he hate me so much as all that?”

        “I think he’s a stupid cub!”  hope yelled, slamming into the room and flopping down beside Patch, “he told me he couldn’t see you as leader if you couldn’t make eye contact, and that’s from one who values his paws!”

        “he doesn’t value his paws,”  Orbon said, “he was taught to value his paws, he doesn’t instinctively know to.”

        “But you do, I know you do,”  Hope said desperately.

        “I do, and so does my cub,”  Orbon replied, “Patch always knew how to talk with his paws, hence why he could talk to Jess when they had no spoken language in those dark days where he saved her life every day.”  Hope sat up and looked at Orbon.

        “So are you now leader?”  she asked, “I didn’t understand the end of that meeting.”

       “I am leader now,”  Orbon said, “though Patch will be a close adviser of mine, he can think, and be gentle, and use his paws to soothe, even though he doesn’t believe he can.”

       “I believe he can,”  Hope replied.

       “I can’t, I’m washed up!”  Patch whimpered.

        “not so,”  Orbon replied, “you can play patch.  Try playing the stuck paw game with me for instance, enjoy your paws Patch, you know you can.”  Patch explored Orbon’s hind feet, the large bear’s toes curling and stretching with pleasure, Patch stroking his sire’s bunching pads and curling toes, Patch finding Orbon’s toes very interesting.  Patch measured his hind feet against his sire’s, finding his toes reached to the bottom of Orbon’s toes.  Patch smiled and curled his toes, using them to gently scratch the soles of Orbon’s hind paws in turn, first his left hind foot, then his right, Orbon smiling broadly and curling his toes so his large toe pads rested on the furry tops of Patch’s toes.

         “Use your paws Patch, touch, feel, explore,”  Orbon said.  Patch felt Orbon lift his right hind leg, the toes of Patch’s left hind paw drawing themselves down the sole of Orbon’s right hind foot, falling off at his heel.

        “Sweet,”  patch said as his heel hit the floor.  Orbon settled his right hind foot back on the floor and guided Patch’s left foot to his.  Patch grabbed Orbon’s right hind paw in his forepaws and explored all over, touching furry top and naked sole, Orbon curling and stretching his toes with pleasure.

        “You have huge hind feet sire Orbon,”  Patch said smiling, “I thought mine were big.”

         “yours are cubs paws when set against mine,”  Orbon replied.  Patch squeezed his sire’s right hind foot in a fierce embrace.

       “I wish they still were,”  patch said, his embrace driven by longing for an old time he’d never known.

         “Hold onto my hind foot little one,”  Orbon said, patch gripping hard, his emotion pouring from his paws.

         “Pour your fear into my paws Patch, play with them, stroke my pads, play with my toes.

        “If I get a twig and a marble, will you hold them in your toes? Will you roll onto your front and let me roll a marble down the sole of your foot from heel to toes and try to catch the marble with your toes Orbon?”  Patch asked.  Orbon laughed:

        “I’d love to,”  he replied.  Patch found one of sire Koda’s old drumsticks and clamped it in the toes of his own right hind foot, half the stick visible from the right side of his paw.  Orbon shuffled over on his backside and took hold of the stick with the toes of his own left hind foot, feeling the wood fit neatly into the space between his thick toe pads and large sole pad.  Wiggling his toes, Orbon managed to work the stick through his toes so he could grab one end of the stick in the toes of his right hind foot, while Patch all the while explored his sire’s paws.

       “You’re an expert at catch the twig!”  patch laughed.  Orbon grinned.

         “I’m no good at catching marbles though,”  he replied.  Patch took the stick from the toes of Orbon’s right hind foot and drew the smaller end down the sole pad of his sire’s paw, Orbon giggling as he was tickled by the stick.

        “Now your paw play is good, very good,”  Orbon said.  Patch smiled and scratched the sole of Orbon’s right hind foot,  Orbon rolling onto his chest, Patch running the toes of his left forepaw from Orbon’s heel down to his toes, Orbon catching his son cub’s toes in hiss, squeezing hard.

         “now explore my paw, upside down as it were,”  Orbon said.  Patch did, running his paws over the soles of Orbon’s hind paws in lines, then in circles, Orbon wriggling with pleasure he couldn’t contain.

        “Feels great this,”  he gasped, patch smiling and increasing his effort to make his sire feel good, Orbon’s pleasure soothing Patch in his turn.

        “You have lovely fur and paws Orbon,”  Patch said.

      “Who’s fur and paws do you think you have Patch?”  Aga asked, padding into the room.  Patch turned to her, to find Aga sitting beside him, offering him her right hind foot to touch.

      “Your fur is course, your pads are rough,”  Patch said, exploring his mother’s hind foot, from furry top to her pads and toes.

      “now touch Orbon’s hind foot, then yours,”  she instructed.  Patch did, finding soft fur and smooth pads on Orbon’s right hind foot, and soft fur, and smooth pads on his own hind foot.

       “I’m more Orbon than I know,”  Patch said, Aga laughing merrily.

        “I’m glad of it,”  she said, “I love your sire, and that is partly why I didn’t mate again.  Orbon, you were so good to me, I wanted you forever, but we got separated.”

        “I heard the humans did horrid things to you mama Aga,”  Orbon said softly, Aga swallowing hard.

       “They did,”  she replied.  Getting tea for all, Aga sat down and told Orbon everything, the male bear cradling her in his lap as she talked, stroking her during the telling of how her labour with Freckles had hurt her, how she’d wriggled and strained hard to deliver a huge cub, then how she’d run away when Freckles was weaned.

      “Freckles came here, and she’s Sita’s sister, they were conceived similarly, Patch helped Sita into the world, that’s why she’s bear like, and Freckles was the result of bear and cat DNA being mixed.  Now I’m safe, Freckles is safe, and so is Sita.”

        “I know Patch helped Haimati,”  Orbon said, “she is very beautiful.”

       “You made her very happy by calling her dear bearcat,”  Patch said softly.

       “I love her as my own,”  Orbon replied, “she looks so sweet, I want to get paws on with her, as she got paws on with me.”

        “I can arrange that,”  Sita mewed, padding up to Orbon and kissing his nose,”  well come on then, get paws on,”  Sita urged, Patch laughing.  Orbon helped Aga to vacate his lap, and Sita sat down in his lap, Orbon exploring her like he would a newborn cub, Sita soon mewing, pawing and wriggling with pleasure.

       “Oh dear, this is all going too fast, I’m going all cubbish!”  Sita laughed, as Orbon kissed her nose and paw pads.

         “Good,”  Orbon replied, as Sita lay in his lap kicking the air with all four paws and mewing like a cub.

       “So you are outright leader now?”  Aga asked Orbon.

        “I think they lost confidence in Patch because he couldn’t make eye contact with them any more,”  Orbon replied, “it’s sad, but they don’t want him any more, the community runs itself pretty much, and they want a strong leader, and to them, strong means strong in all senses, no imperfections.  Koda saw Patch’s weakness and has sided with Amy in this dreadful stuff, and some of the others have questioned why Patch is still leader if he can’t defend his own mate, let alone the community.  I have seen it, though the discussions are behind closed doors for the most part.  Koda got to hear of them, and tried to make out he was leader, when I asked to see the leader of this community.  He didn’t realise however, that I knew who the leader was.  It is Patch’s life changing situation that has triggered this change of leadership, not a change in Patch himself.  Fundamentally, he’s the same cuddly, caring, beautiful bear we all know and love.  It is confidence in himself that is lacking, and if you have no confidence in yourself, others won’t have confidence in you.  Patch argued with Koda, but Koda, not seeing him as serious, wouldn’t take him seriously.  Patch is disabled in Koda’s eyes, and for that he is to be taken less seriously than I am, who is seen as non disabled.  Patch, in his crisis, reached out to me, and I caught his paw and hold it now.  I am leader, outright as they want me to be, but I will be advised by many, one of which will be my dear son cub.”

        “I hope we can get you playing with the cubs,”  Sita replied, “it would be great if you could Orbon.  You have the right paws for it.”  Orbon laughed helplessly at this.

       “now I will do my best to be a good role model to the cubs and to the community in general,”  He said, pushing Sita off his lap and getting to his feet.  Hope looked at Orbon:

       “your paws are lovely,”  she said.

       “Not you as well,”  Orbon laughed, sitting down and scooping Hope onto his lap.

      “yes, me too,”  Hope replied, “I watched your paws dancing on the carpet.”  Orbon laughed merrily:

      “Did they do well?”  he asked.  Hope smiled and nodded.

       “Your paws are amazing,”  she said.  Orbon smiled and kissed Hope’s nose.

       “You found good friend then Hope cub?”  Kuruk asked, shambling into the room.

       “yes, his name is Orbon, and he’s so great!”  Hope replied smiling.  Kuruk looked at Orbon.

       “you got big paws!”  he said.  Orbon, laughing, waved his right forepaw at Kuruk.

      “Kuruk hoping to see big hind paws,”  Kuruk grunted, so Orbon shoed him his hind paws..

      “Them huge!”  Kuruk said, surprised.

       “Patch’s paws were set to be big, but Aga’s paws weren’t so large as mine, so his came out smaller than they would have,”  Orbon said.

      “thank Eohippus they did,”  Aga said, “patch’s arrival took hours and hours, and hurt a lot!  I was in labour for two days solid!  Ow, ow, and ow again!”  Patch kissed his mama’s nose, Aga hugging him tightly.

        “I love you Patch,”  Aga said, kissing his nose and ruffling his ears.

        “I didn’t see Patch born,”  Orbon said softly, “I wish I had.”

       “it’s not right in the wild for male bears to be with their mates,”  Aga said, “Orbon, you know that.”

      “I listened to you moaning and scrabbling about, panting and roaring in your pain though mama, and it upset me, upsets me even now thinking about it years later!”  Orbon replied.

        “No wonder our patch is so sensitive,”  Aga said half laughing, but her eyes were serious.

        “I heard you whimpering and whining, then roaring and screaming mama!”  Orbon said, his face distressed.

        “not pushing hurt, and pushing hurt even more,”  Aga admitted, “I had to push though.”

       “it’s a bit difficult not to isn’t it mama,”  patch said.  Aga drew up her hind legs a little at the memory:

       “yeah,”  she replied, “it is difficult, impossible really.”

       “I heard the tale of Patch delivering a cub,”  Orbon replied, “and nothing seemed more possible.”

       “I am that cub,”  Sita said.  Orbon looked at her afresh, his eyes loving her from her nose to her toes.

       “I wish I could see your paw pads,”  Orbon thought, Sita smiling and rolling onto her back, waving her paws at him.

       “You wanted to see my pads?”  she asked, Orbon unsurprised she caught his thoughts.

       “I did, and do,”  Orbon said, “how do I greet you Sita?  Shake a hind paw?”  Sita laughed helplessly at this.

       “Daft Orbon,”  she replied.

       “I wanted so much to catch my cub as he was born,”  Orbon said, “to be with Aga, to help her during her labour.”

       “We could re-enact Patch’s birth,”  Aga said, “you don’t forget things like that.”

      “it won’t be the same,”  Orbon replied.

       “No, sorry,”  Aga said, “but if I knew then what I know now, how good it is to have your mate with you during labour, I’d have done it then.”

       “have you had a mate here?”  Orbon asked.  Aga smiled and told him about Conrad.

        “he was very ill at the end of his life,”  she said sadly, “I wasn’t there when he died, he went into the woods to die alone.  I know he went to die alone!”  Aga wept into Orbon’s long fur, the huge bear rubbing her back to comfort her.

        “he wasn’t alone though, his shadow was with him, the silver one,”  Orbon replied.

        “yes,”  Aga said softly, “she was there with him at the end.”

        “I’m glad you had another mate,”  Orbon said.  Aga touched Orbon’s shoulder with her paw.

       “Can I have a hug?”  she asked.  Orbon smiled, placed Hope on the floor, scooped Aga into his lap, and embraced her tightly.

        “I love you!”  Aga said to Orbon, who kissed her nose and paws.

        “I too you,”  Orbon said.  Orbon’s fur was so thick Aga could bury her paws in it, and she often had during their long days in the den after their mating.  In truth she’d not wanted Orbon to leave her when labour started, but convention was strong in her, and said that male bears weren’t to be present at the births of their cubs.

        “I’m sorry you didn’t see Patch come into the world,”  Aga said, “now I wish I had let you stay with me.”  Orbon kissed the top of Aga’s head, the she bear swallowing hard, fighting not to weep.

         “are you going to shake my hind paws then?”  Sita asked.  Aga laughed as Orbon took her at her word, crawling over and shaking her right hind foot in his paws, Sita roaring with laughter.

        “You are so cute,”  Orbon said.

       “please hug me, kiss my nose and paws,”  Sita asked.  Orbon hugged Sita, Sita snuggling up to him.

       “You have thick fur and lovely paws,”  Sita mewed.

        “My paws are old and fat,”  Orbon said.  Sita smiled and picked up Orbon’s right hind foot in her massive left forepaw, touching his pads with her right forepaw, pressing sole and toe pads.

        “my toes want to curl,”  Orbon said.

     Well let them then,”  Sita said smiling.  Orbon curled his toes tightly, catching and squeezing the toes of Sita’s right forepaw with amazing strength.

       “hey!”  Sita yelped as her toes were squeezed.

       “Sorry!”  Orbon replied, evidently shocked by the reaction her touch caused in him.

           “You have strong toes!”  Sita laughed, tugging at her right forepaw.

         “Sorry,”  Orbon said, forcing his toes to relax.

       “I liked that,”  Sita said, kissing Orbon’s pads, feeling the increased blood flow to his paw.

        “You liked that a lot didn’t you,”  Sita said.  Orbon grinned:

         “yes,”  he replied.

         “how long has it been since your paws were played with so much?”  Sita asked.  Orbon took her left forepaw in both of his.

        “I often played with my toes,”  he said, “but as for others playing with my paws for fun?  It didn’t happen as often when I was alone as it does now.  I would find a lost cub and help it, then maybe we’d play, but other than that, since Aga left my area to seek Patch, my forepaws and especially my hind feet got little play.”

        “We can solve that one!”  Sooleawa said, running in and pushing Orbon onto his back, before grabbing his left hind foot in her forepaws and tickling his toes.

        “Stop it Sooleawa!”  Orbon laughed, waving his forepaws.

       “your hind feet are very cool,”  Sooleawa said.

      “I’m glad you like them,”  Orbon said, his eyes shining.

       “You love others touching your paws and feet don’t you,”  Sooleawa said.

        “I do, I really do,”  Orbon replied.  Sooleawa grinned:

         “I know another bear who looks like you, who also happens to like his paws and feet touched,”  Sooleawa said.

        “Sounds like you Patch,”  Sita said.

     “Oh, you don’t say!”  patch said grinning.

        “Orbon has patch like paws,”  Sooleawa said, Patch laughing merrily.

        “I love both yours and Patch’s paws Orbon,”  Sooleawa said, Orbon smiling at her.

       “So Patch is still leader?”  Georgia asked, running in and jumping onto Patch’s lap.

        “I’m not the one they see,”  Patch replied, embracing the small she bear, “but yes, I will advise Orbon.  As he knows, this place runs itself, with families and committee structures, the leader is just a figurehead, though he is visible, he takes no day to day decisions.  Of course, they wanted to change the figurehead, so Orbon set his paws to that role.  Now I’m a playful bear, I can roll about on the floor with the other cubs, and maybe my sire will join us.”

       “I will Patch, I will,”  Orbon said smiling.  Patch sat in front of Orbon, Patch pressing his hind feet against his sire’s, Orbon curling his toes around his son cub’s                                  .

        “your pads are so warm and soft,”  Patch said to Orbon, who smiled, though Patch couldn’t see him.

        “I massage oils into my pads and toes,”  Orbon said, “I believe you do too Patch?”  Patch smiled as Orbon’s toes squeezed his.

        “yes I do,”  he replied sleepily.

         “I’ll check your pads over before we play the stuck paw game,”  Orbon said.  Patch smiled and settled back, letting his sire handle his hind feet.  Orbon massaged patch’s pads and toes, Patch gasping as he felt Orbon’s years of experience pour into this very personal time.

      “My hind feet love your touch,”  Patch said, wriggling with pleasure.

       “I love soothing your hind feet,”  Orbon said smiling.

       “It’s not just my hind feet though,”  Patch replied, “you soothe more than just them.”  Orbon grinned..

       “I think your paws are so cute,”  Sooleawa said.

       “how about if we go to the playroom now,”  Sita said, “there Patch can learn how to explore with his paws, crawl, touch, investigate his surroundings.

       “I’m willing to give my paws a go,”  Patch said smiling.  He tried to get to his feet, but Orbon’s hind feet touched his, stopping him, as the glue of friendship was working well.

      “My feet are stuck!”  Patch whimpered, tugging at his right hind foot with both forepaws.

        “Mine are too,”  Orbon said, tugging at his left hind foot with his forepaws.

         “My feet are really stuck now, I can’t move them at all!”  Patch wailed.  Orbon tried to pull his own right hind foot away from patch’s, patch whimpering, then whining, then begging him to stop.

      “it Hurts!”  he complained, “your pads are pulling at mine Orbon!”  Orbon bounced about on his backside, then worked the toes of his left forepaw into the gap between his and Patch’s sole pads, working from the left side of his right hind foot, Patch working at the left side of his own left hind paw, so the toes of their scrabbling forepaws would hopefully meet in the middle.  Grunting with the effort and whimpering with pain, Patch pulled at his left hind foot, trying to free it from his sire’s.

      “this is hard work!”  Patch whimpered, “I can’t do it Orbon!”  Orbon curled his toes with urgency, patch grunting as his toes were squeezed, Orbon pulling at the heel of his right hind foot with desperate paws.

       oooumph!”  Orbon gasped as he tugged and worked to free his foot.

        “Your pads are warm,”  Sooleawa said to Orbon.

       “I’m really trying to free my foot, it won’t budge an inch!”  Orbon gasped.

        “Aught you to be doing this at your age?”  Amy asked.

       “I’ll free my hind feet, then kick you in the tail you horrid cub!”  patch yelled.

        “It’s okay Patch,”  Orbon panted.  Patch eased his left hind foot away from Orbon’s, pressing his toes into the sole pad of Orbon’s right hind foot.

      “My foot’s coming free, it’s coming!”  Patch gasped.

      “Just a bit more!”  Orbon encouraged, patch clenching his teeth and feeling the furry top of Orbon’s left forepaw slipping between their touching pads.  Patch wriggled and tugged, and then, with a squeal from Orbon as his toes released Patch’s, Patch’s foot came free!

     “Done it!”  Patch gasped.

       “That was amazing!”  Orbon panted, Patch smiling.

      “It was,”  he replied, “now though, I want you to make my right hind foot even more difficult to free.  Can you?”  Orbon smiled:

       “I’ll try,”  he replied, “but the difficulty level is set by you too, remember that, if there aren’t two, our paws won’t glue.”  Patch giggled cubbishly, loving his sire’s attentions.

       “Now explore your right hind foot with your forepaws,”  Orbon said, “I’ll explore my left hind.”

      “Will you take hold of my toes with yours again?”  Patch asked.

      “I will,”  Orbon replied.  Amy jeered and spat:

       “Will you take hold of my toes again?”  Sooleawa, fed up with her antics, rushed at her, knocked her down and belted her around her head with her paw.

        “my pads are getting warm again,”  Patch gasped, while Orbon wriggled slightly.

      “My toes want to curl, I can’t stop them!”  he yelled suddenly, Patch feeling his toes squeezed by his sire’s.

       “Go on, squeeze my toes with yours, tight too,”  patch implored, “Orbon smiled and let his inner cub control his hind foot, and sure enough, his toes curled tighter than they ever had, patch gasping with delight.

       “I want my paw glued, fixed to yours Orbon!”  Patch gasped.

       “It will be,”  Orbon replied.

        “Push against my foot Orbon,”  patch said, Orbon complying.

       “oooah, this is great!”  Patch exclaimed, pressing back as hard as he could.  The toes of Orbon’s left hind foot gently embraced the toes of patch’s right hind foot, Patch rubbing the furry top of Orbon’s toes with his forepaws.

        “I like this, I know it’s all pretended, all the stuck paws and stuff, but it’s cool too,”  Patch said.  Orbon smiled, braced his freed right hind foot against Patch’s left hind, then leant fore award and kissed his son cub’s nose, moving patch to tears.

        “I’ve wanted to play with my sire ever since I can remember,”  he said hoarsely, “now I can, and it’s wonderful!”

        “Enjoy every second,”  Orbon said, “then, after we are free, someone needs to wash my paws I think, isn’t that the rule for a new member of the community?  To have their paws washed?”  Patch nodded.

       “yes,”  he replied, “but now, right now, one of those paws is stuck to mine, and I can’t wash it if it’s stuck there,”  he tried to move his right hind foot, finding that even though Orbon had relaxed his toes, he still couldn’t move his foot one millimetre.

      “I’m well and truly stuck!”  patch said seriously.

         “how can you keep it up?”  Koda asked, padding in, “I have terrible trouble remembering things to that intensity.”

       “it’s easy!”  Patch said, “easier when your playmate wants your foot to be stuck to his as much as you want your foot to stick.  Orbon wants his foot to stick to mine too, which helps.”

        “Now we have to free ourselves, which can cause the glue to become even stronger,”  Orbon said, Patch giggling with delight at the simplicity of the game.

       “I love this more than I can say,”  he said.

      “So do I patch,”  Orbon replied smiling.  Patch grinned broadly.

       “Now let’s free our hind feet and we can then wash you Orbon,”  Patch said.

       “You know what?”  Orbon said, “I don’t want to be washed yet.  How would another round of this game feel to you?”  patch laughed:

        “I’d love it,”  he said, “I’m feeling cubbish, as if repeating this game over and over would be the best thing ever.”  Orbon ruffled his son’s ears, patch laughing delightedly.

        “Now to free my right hind foot!”  Patch said, working furiously with his forepaws at the pads of his right hind foot, levering away energetically at the heel of his hind foot.

     “oooah, umph,  erhrhrhrooof!”  he gasped as he wriggled and worried at his hind foot, his foot clearly not wishing to give up the bond between it and his sire’s.

       “Pull Orbon, pull!”  Patch said, Orbon pulling at his left hind foot with both forepaws, he and patch rocking back and fourth as they struggled to free themselves.  Patch yelled with triumph as his right hind foot came free, then he cradled it in his forepaws, rubbing his supposedly sore pads.  Orbon and patch checked each other’s hind feet over, pressing each other’s pads and toes, loving the physical contact.

        “That was amazing!”  patch said, then, to Aga’s delight, patch knelt and embraced his sire, throwing his paws around him in a huge hug.

        “I love you,”  Patch said softly into Orbon’s ear, the huge bear rubbing his grown cub’s back with his paw and whispering to him:

       “I love you too Patch, from your nose,”  he said, kissing his cub’s nose, “to your paw pads,”  Orbon said, leaning round and touching the pads and toes of Patch’s right hind foot with his paw, which he could just about reach, patch curling his toes, Orbon drawing his toes from patch’s curled toes, across bunched pads, to his heel, as he straightened his back.

       “That’s so sweet!”  Georgia said, her voice choked up.

        “Now let’s wash your fur Patch,”  Orbon said softly into his cub’s ear, Patch clinging to his sire’s fur, his toes curled into Orbon’s fur  with the desperation of a terrified cub.

      “you’re safe now Patch,”  Orbon said softly.

       “I feel safe when my hind feet are touching yours,”  patch said desperately, “not just my forepaws, my hind feet, my hind feet, and my forepaws!”  Patch pushed with his hind feet, bracing the toes of his hind feet against the rugs and pushing hard into Orbon’s embrace.

        “What’s going on?”  Ekaterina asked, padding into the lie up.

        “Patch is distressed,”  Georgia replied, “leave him Ekaterina, he needs to touch his sire now, to make up for lost time.”  Ekaterina sat down to listen to patch and Orbon’s talk.  Patch settled onto Orbon’s lap, the larger male bear rocking him in his huge paws, Patch making the contented motor like purr that Ekaterina associated with cubs.

        “That’s a lovely sound,”  Sooleawa said smiling.

         “it is,”  Ekaterina replied, “I have never heard an adult bear make that sound, maybe they usually aren’t content enough to make it.”

        “I’ll introduce you to Orbon in a bit,”  Sooleawa said to Ekaterina, “once Patch is soothed.  Ekaterina had heard Orbon’s speech, and also got reports of how large he was, but hadn’t got paws on with him yet.

       “I’m looking forward to it,”  she replied.  Patch, hearing his mate, turned his head towards her:

         “I’ll be okay in a minute,”  he said.  Ekaterina crawled over to him and touched his paw.

        “it’s okay,”  she said, “you have every right to fall apart patch.”

        “”Orbon’s great to me,”  Patch said.  Ekaterina was about to ask whom Orbon was, when she felt a huge paw rest other left forepaw,, then engulf it.

         “Oh, um, wow!”  Ekaterina laughed, the huge paw well padded and very warm.

        “I’ll let you touch my forepaws and hind feet in a minute,”  Orbon said.  Ekaterina, smiling, took Patch’s left forepaw in her free right forepaw.

        “We played the stuck paw game Ekaterina,”  Patch said, sounding like a cub.

       “You and Orbon?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “yeah,”  Patch replied, “it was nice to play that.”

        “I could never get the hang of it,”  Ekaterina replied, “I have little imagination.”

       “Imagine your feet wanting to get really close to the paws of the bear you’re playing with,”  Patch replied, “your pads will stick firmly.”

        “I can’t do that,”  Ekaterina said, “my imagination is not as good as it once was.  I used to get into mock cubbings, but even now, I can’t do it properly.”

      “Cubbings I can understand, but the stuck paw game doesn’t carry all that baggage does it?”

      “No,”  Ekaterina admitted, “I’m just no good at it any more.”

       “Patch’s feet looked glued to Orbon’s,”  Sooleawa said, “it looked so real Ekaterina.  I touched Orbon’s paws, they were sweating, he was really struggling!”

       “I used to sweat while recreating births,”  Ekaterina said, “it was strenuous work.

      “I wish I could play the stuck paw game.,”  Sooleawa said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seriously played that game before.”

        “I’m feeling better now, so I’ll let Ekaterina get paws on with Orbon, and I can play with you Sooleawa,”  Patch said.  Patch sat down opposite Sooleawa and took her right hind foot in his forepaws.

      “No not yet,”  she said, “first I want to give you something else.”

      “What?”  Patch asked.  Sooleawa removed her right hind foot from Patch’s forepaws and then shifting round, she paused then said:

     “This!”  Throwing her paws around him in a huge embrace.  Patch, startled, yelped with surprise, then returned her embrace, both bears making the motor like purr which means ursine contentment the world over.

        “I love your hug,”  Sooleawa said, Patch stroking her ears and back.

        “and I yours,”  Patch replied.  Sooleawa buried her face in patch’s long thick fur.

          “Hug me tight,”  she begged, patch embracing her as tightly as he dared, marvelling as Sooleawa still managed to push with the toes of her hind feet to press herself even harder into his embrace.

         “Push with those toes little one,”  patch whispered, Sooleawa pushing harder than ever.

        “I am pushing with my feet!”  she gasped, “now if only I could get more of my foot to the floor, I could push harder!”  Patch smiled and tickled the heel of Sooleawa’s left hind foot, Sooleawa giggling with pleasure.

        “Softy,”  she said.

       “I love you Sooleawa,”  Patch said softly.

        “Now can I check your hind feet for thorns?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “You can,”  Patch said.  Sooleawa sat back and took Patch’s right hind foot in her forepaws, tracing his pads and counting his toes with careful deliberation.

      “Five toes and one sole pad, very nice,”  Sooleawa said, “and these pads are,”  she pressed firmly on Patch’s sole pad, Patch curling his toes, “very firm, but then not so firm as they bunch up, for their owner is curling his toes now, which is also so cute!”  Patch giggled with pleasure, stretching his toes as far as he could.

       “they were cuter curled,”  So0oleawa said, patch curling his toes slightly, then tighter still.

        “so cute,”  Sooleawa said.  Patch smiled and Sooleawa traced the sole pad of his right hind foot, drawing circles on his pads, Patch curling his toes tighter and tighter.

        “How tight can you curl those toes?”  Sooleawa asked.  patch remembered the pain of Sita’s birth, expressing it through the toes of his right hind foot, his claws nearly digging into the sole pad of his hind foot.

      “Wow!”  Sooleawa gasped.  Patch relaxed his toes, Sooleawa rubbing his damp sole pad with her paw.

       “Now let’s check your left hind foot over,”  Sooleawa said, taking hold of Patch’s left hind foot in her paws and stroking the furry top and naked pads.  Smiling, she flexed his toes, Patch resisting her.

        “Go on patch, stop me curling your toes,”  Sooleawa said, patch trying hard.

       “it’s difficult,”  Patch whimpered.  Sooleawa smiled and released her hold on his toes, patch flexing them experimentally while Sooleawa stroked his sole pad.

        “I like your firm pads,”  Sooleawa said.  Patch smiled, Sooleawa releasing his foot and giving him her left hind paw.

        “You have smaller paws than mine, but they are very similar to mine in many ways,”  Patch said, “Sooleawa, I’ve seen my pads on Camera, and yours are very similar, of a very similar colour too if I remember rightly.”

      “I am very similar to you in many ways,”  Sooleawa said.  patch smiled and traced her pads, Sooleawa curling her toes with intense pleasure.

       “My hind feet will stick tight to yours, I just know it,”  Sooleawa said.  Patch smiled and groomed Sooleawa from nose to paw pads, Sooleawa laughing delightedly and snuggling close.

      “Groom my pads, please!”  Sooleawa begged, rolling onto her back and presenting Patch with all four paws, Patch kissing her pads.

        “Cute paws,”  he said, kissing the toes of Sooleawa’s right hind foot, Sooleawa giggling and waving her paws in the air, Patch blowing on her toes, Sooleawa squealing with delight and dabbing patch’s nose with the toes he’d just blown on.

       “Silly!”  Patch laughed, kissing her toes.  Sooleawa let Patch sit her up and arrange her hind feet so they pressed against his.  Feeling a need to, Sooleawa pressed her hind feet against Patch’s.

        “My toes don’t even reach half way up your sole pads patch!”  Sooleawa laughed, bouncing about with excitement.  Patch smiled and curled his toes tightly, Sooleawa pressing her toes into the wrinkled pads of Patch’s hind feet.

        “now try to free your feet, one at a time,”  patch said.  Sooleawa trying and finding both feet stuck.

       “My pads are glued to yours!”  she squealed.

      “And mine to yours,”  patch replied, tugging at his left hind foot with his forepaws.

       “your pads are so soft!”  Sooleawa said, “so soft, there’s nothing to brace against, so freeing my feet from yours is,”  she tugged hard at her right hind foot with both forepaws, grunting with effort, “is almost impossible!”

        “work the toes of your left forepaw down the left side of your right hind foot,”  patch said, “where the slight gap between my pads and yours is.  Sooleawa scrabbled at the inside edge of her right hind foot, feeling for the gap, then, finding it, she jammed the toes of her left forepaw into it and began levering away desperately.

        “Pull, wiggle paw, pull at foot, wiggle paw, pull at hind foot!”  Sooleawa gasped, wriggling and whimpering with effort, while Patch, feeling her efforts, growled and whimpered:

       “it Hurts Sooleawa!  Your pads are stuck to mine, and you tearing them apart from mine hurts!”  Sooleawa kissed her sire’s nose, then rubbed the curled toes of his hind feet, patch smiling at her.

        “now let me plug the digits of my left forepaw back into the gap between my right hind and your left hind feet,”  Sooleawa said, “the faster I get this done, the less it will hurt you.”  Sooleawa explored her right hind foot, finding her pads had stuck fast again.  Squealing like a cub, she worked furiously at her foot, her paw slipping in her haste.

      “it’s not working!”  she roared.

      “let me have a go from my end,”  Patch said, jamming the toes of his right forepaw in the gap between his daughter cub’s right hind foot and his left hind.

      “oooah! Oooah!”  Sooleawa gasped as Patch levered away at his own paw.

      “it’s coming free!”  Sooleawa gasped.  Patch wiggled the toes of his forepaw deeper and deeper into the gap between his and Sooleawa’s hind feet, easing them apart as gently as he could, Sooleawa accompanying every effort with whimpering and little tugs on her own behalf, trying to help as much as she could.

       “Pull your foot away as I work my toes under your pads,”  patch gasped.  Sooleawa pulled her foot away as Patch wiggled the toes of his forepaw beneath her pads, Sooleawa wailing with effort as she pulled, her cry rising in volume and pitch as she increased her effort.

       “It’s coming, but I need to rest!”  she gasped.  Patch felt his forepaw pressed between Sooleawa’s hind foot and his.

     “The glue is trying to stick our hind feet together through your forepaw!”  Sooleawa whimpered.

      “it is,”  Patch replied panting, “but we won’t let it, the glue doesn’t stick pads of forepaws to the pads of hind feet!”

      “I’ll pull now!”  Sooleawa said, dragging the heel of her right hind foot away from Patch’s right forepaw, Patch working his paw further and further between his pads and hers.

       “it’s coming free, now!”  Sooleawa gasped, tearing her foot away from Patch’s.

     “Done it!”  Sooleawa yelled.

      “yes, wonderful!”  Patch said, flexing his toes.

       “now for that other foot, my left hind foot!”  Sooleawa said, “the glue’s gonna be even stronger on that foot, I know it, I know it!”

        “You and I will work together,”  Patch said.  Sooleawa felt her toes gripped in Patch’s, then felt his left forepaw seeking out the gap between her left hind foot and his right hind foot.

      “Pull like you did before Sooleawa,”  Patch said, Sooleawa tugging and wriggling, pulling at her left hind foot with her forepaws, feeling Patch’s forepaw slip between her pads and his,  Sooleawa setting up the same rising wail as she pulled harder and harder.  This time, when her strength gave up, Patch felt fierce pressure on his forepaw as Sooleawa’s hind foot pressed hard against his paw.

     Ooooahowumph!”  Sooleawa yelled, “the glue is even stronger on my left hind foot!!  It wants to make contact with your foot!  We can’t let it Patch, we can’t let it, if we do, we’ll never free ourselves!”  Patch felt Sooleawa’s foot pressing hard against his left forepaw, and marvelled at her imagination.

      “My foot pads want to make contact with yours!”  Patch yelled.

       “I can’t let them, not when they have this much glue on them!”  Sooleawa yelled, “let’s try to free ourselves before it gets too hard,  come on!”  Patch worked at burrowing with his left forepaw into the gap between Sooleawa’s left hind foot and his right hind, Sooleawa tugging hard at her left hind foot, her rising wail telling patch she was trying hard.

       “keep working with your paw Patch, you’re helping!”  Sooleawa urged, patch gasping and pushing the digits of his left forepaw deeper into the growing gap between the pads of his right hind foot and Sooleawa’s left hind.

       “owwwo! Umph!”  Patch grunted as, with a squeal of triumph, Sooleawa pulled her foot free of his.

      “Done it, we did it Patch!”  she panted.  Patch smiled and gathered Sooleawa onto his lap, hugging her.

     “We did, and it was wonderful doing it too,”  he replied.

        “I loved freeing my hind paws from yours,”  Sooleawa said, “your love for me is so strong I nearly couldn’t do it.”  Patch smiled and hugged her tighter.

        “your love for me is so strong, I nearly couldn’t work the toes of my forepaws between the pads of my hind feet and yours,”  Patch replied.

      “Good,”  Sooleawa said laughing at the play they’d just enjoyed.

       “That was lovely,”  she said, “I never enjoyed anything so much.”  Amy spat on the floor.

       “it’s cub stuff, all this paw play,”  she whined, “it’s not real, the glue isn’t real glue is it?”

      If you ever touch paws with someone you truly love, you’ll find that glue, and for you it’ll be real,”  Sooleawa replied.

        “it’s all silly, all very silly!”  Amy snapped.

       “I only wish I could get my paws to glue to Patch’s,”  Ekaterina said, “I can’t just let go like he does.  I don’t know why.”

        “maybe you are too cautious,”  Orbon said, “Patch and Sooleawa let themselves go completely, loving their play and each other’s touch.  Their paws lead the play.  Maybe some day your paws will touch patch’s, and stick so hard you’ll spend most of the night tiring to free yourself.” 

       “I hope it happens soon,”  Ekaterina said.

        “It will, I’m sure,”  Orbon said, lifting Ekaterina onto his lap and hugging her.

         “I like this,”  Ekaterina said as Orbon held her close.

        “I know your tale,”  Orbon said gently into her ear, “patch understands you more than you realise.  He knows more than you would ever believe possible.”

        “I know that deep down,”  Ekaterina replied softly, “but I do sometimes put my paw in it Orbon.”

       “You and he used to play a lot I think,”  Orbon said, “you used to pretend your paws were stuck once,”  Ekaterina, realising her paws were telling Orbon all sorts of things, replied:

       “yes, I used to, and I want to now.  It’s so hard.”

      “No it’s not,”  Orbon replied, “just let your paws be your guide, they won’t lead you astray.”

       “Can I really let my paws get stuck,”  Ekaterina said, “Is the glue real Orbon?”

       “it is Ekaterina, it is,”  he replied earnestly.

        “I threw my lot in with Patch years ago,”  Ekaterina replied, “now I need to throw my paws in too, all four of them.”

       “You do need to,”  Orbon said, “for he has thrown his paws in with you.  He loves you Ekaterina, I know that, and so do you.”

       “So you are saying I need to get paws on more?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “when Patch plays with someone, he plays with his whole being, paws, body and imagination,”  Orbon said, “Ekaterina, he played with Sooleawa with everything he had.  He wants to play with you, and you, I know, want to play with him.”

       “I heard patch and Sooleawa playing,”  Ekaterina replied, “but was it realistic?  The stuck paws and everything I mean?”

        “yes it was,”  Orbon replied softly, “it was amazing to watch their play.”

        “I want to play like that!”  Ekaterina said, “I want to so much! But I can’t let go of my adult paws and let my inner cub’s paws play!  I just can’t do it!”

        “Noone will mind if you LAUGH and roll about on the floor,”  Orbon replied gently, rubbing Ekaterina’s back with his paw.

        “I’ll look silly!”  Ekaterina said.

        “You’ll look like a playful cub, I promise,”  Orbon replied gently.

      “I suppose I will,”  Ekaterina replied uncertainly.

         “Enjoy your paws,”  Orbon replied gently.

        “I will do so,”  Ekaterina replied softly.

       “Your paws will play if you want them too,”  Orbon said.  Ekaterina smiled and left Orbon’s side, padding to Patch’s side and touching his paw.

         “Patch?”  she asked.  Patch smiled and hugged her tightly.

       “yes my love?”  he replied, kissing her nose.

         “Please, would you help me, help me learn to play?”  Ekaterina asked, the words tumbling out.

        “how if we go to the soft play room and you show me the sensory trail?”  Patch asked.

        “But I’ve shown you that once, oh dear, now that came out all wrong!”  Ekaterina replied, angry at herself.

        “show me again, please?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina smiled and took his paw.

      “Follow me,”  Ekaterina said.  patch padded after Ekaterina, following her using a rope attached to her right hind leg, the other end attached to his own right foreleg, so he followed behind her.  Ekaterina led Patch to the monorail, where he detached the cuff from her right hind leg, padded up beside her, and kissed her ear.

         “Come,”  he said, pressing the button to call the monorail, “let’s ride.”

       “Who’s guiding who?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “We’ll work on this together,”  Patch said kissing her nose.

         “I wish I could see you again Ekaterina,”  Patch said.

         “I know Patch,”  Ekaterina said gently, the monorail arriving and opening its doors with a hiss of compressed air.

          “Patch, I don’t know how it is for you,”  Ekaterina replied, “you lost your sight faster than I did.”

         “I lost more than that Ekaterina love,”  Patch replied, “I’m having to find my paws again.”

      “I will help,”  Ekaterina said.

       “You can help by not holding up the monorail too!”  Titania snapped, smacking patch on his rump, Patch lashing back with a hind foot, catching her on her left foreleg.

      “ow!  You bugger!”  Titania yelled.

       “Let’s go now,”  patch said to Ekaterina, both of them entering the car and slamming the door in Titania’s face.

       “Let’s go!”  Ekaterina said, punching the console in frustration.  The car sped them to the soft play room, both bears tumbling out into the room to be greeted by cubs who began clambering all over them.  Kendal and Harvey rolled Patch onto his back, then clambered all over him, touching his belly and paws.

       “You are a wonderful climbing frame,”  Kendal said.  Patch laughed, tipped Kendal off him, and tickled the grey cub’s toes, Kendal shrieking with laughter.

         “you have big fat hind feet Kendal,”  patch said,  Kendal laughing and kicking the air with his hind feet, patch blowing on his toes, Making him wriggle and wave his forepaws about, at which all the cubs laughed.

        “now I wonder if I can make patch kick the air with his hind feet?”  Roxy asked.

        “careful,”  Toby said, “he’s got big hind feet.”

         “I could roll onto my back and kick the air if you’d like,”  Patch replied gently.

       “You do have cute paws,”  Sooleawa said, padding round to Patch’s head and kissing his nose.

        “Our paws are very similar,”  Sooleawa said gently to Patch.

       “We do have similar paws, and hind feet too,”  Patch replied.

      “I know,”  Sooleawa said, placing a marble in the gap between patch’s toe pads and sole pad of his right hind foot, Patch gripping the marble with his toes.

       “the marble is cold to my toes,”  patch said, “cold and hard.”

         “let it go then silly!”  Sita said.  Patch let the marble go, the ball rolling down the sole of his foot, Sita catching it in her paw.

        “I’ll bet you can play the trapped paw game very well,”  Sita said to Patch, kissing the toes of his right hind foot.

       “I can,”  Patch replied smiling.

        “Would you play the stuck paw game with me?  Please?”  Sita asked.  patch smiled and sat up, hugging Sita tightly.

       “I love you my dear cub,”  he replied, kissing Sita’s nose.

 

Sitting in his lie up, Kuruk opened up a can of beer.  His fourth in one hour, he was determined to get drunk.  Realising Patch had lost his sight, Kuruk had cried himself to sleep, and now, morose and grieving for Patch’s loss, he was drowning his sorrows in alcohol.

 

Sita sat opposite Patch, feeling for his hind feet with hers.  Feeling her pads make contact, she felt his toes curl round hers.

         “Squeeze my toes Patch,”  Sita said smiling, Patch fitting action to her words.

        “Your birth was a magical time Sita,”  Patch said, holding her forepaws in his.

       “now you have hold of my paws and hind feet,”  Sita said.  Patch squeezed Sita’s forepaws and toes, Sita laughing and pressing her toes into Patch’s pads, the male bear relaxing, Sita feeling tension flow out of him.

        “Don’t relax your toes Patch,”  Sita said, “I want to feel your touch.”  Patch, smiling, curled his toes tighter.

      “Good!”  Sita laughed, bouncing about on her backside.  Patch released his hold on Sita’s paws and feet and shuffled round so he could get paws on with her.  Sita, feeling this, squealed like an injured cub, flailing the air with all four paws.  Patch embraced Sita, then explored her from nose to tail, touching her face, her ears, neck, shoulders, body, forelegs and paws, then from her hips, down her hind legs to her hind feet, Sita all the while mewing and whimpering in complaint, first loudly, then subsiding, as if Patch’s touch soothed the hurt caused by broken contact between her hind feet and his.

       “What’s all this noise!”  Amy snapped, “Sita mewing like she’s in pain or something.”

        “I, unlike you Amy,”  Sita said, sounding every bit of her five years, “have an imagination.  If you want to know what I was feeling, you can ask, though if I tell you, you probably won’t believe it, so if I were you, and I’m glad I’m not, I wouldn’t bother asking in the first place.”  Amy listened in astonishment, then spat on the floor.

        “You are very eloquent today miss scruffy fur.”  She scoffed.

       “Clear that up,”  patch snarled.

      “No blind boy, I won’t, will you make me?”  Amy goaded.  Patch realising he couldn’t chase her, turned away sadly.

        “It’s okay,”  Sita said, touching his paw with hers.

       “No it bloody isn’t,”  patch sniffed, “I can’t even diesoline a cub any more,”  Patch sobbed, while Sita held him close, “They could all walk out, and I would have no control over them, for their respect for me has gone, and for what reason?  None I had any control over.”

         “It’s okay, I promise,”  Sita said again, Patch hearing the sound of a mop being moodily thrust back and fourth over the plastic flooring.

       “Who’s mopping?”  Patch asked.  Sita giggled:

        “Who do you think?”  she asked.

       “But Amy was dead against cleaning up her own mess,”  patch replied.

        “No,”  Sita replied, “she’s just trying it on.  She knows I’ll give her a hiding later, so she’s on a massive damage limitation exercise.”

        “how do you command respect from the cubs?”  Patch asked.

        “I act like they should do,”  Sita replied, “I roll on the floor with the ones who are doing good things, and ignore those who are doing bad things.  Amy cuts with her words, but she’s no real threat, not a physical one, as Hope found out.  Hope challenged her to a fight, and she, Amy, wimped out, running away with her tail, what tail she has of course, between her legs.”

         “Do you want me to play with your paws Sita?”  Patch asked.

       “I’d prefer you play with my hind feet,”  Sita replied, “My forepaws like your touch, my hind feet love it even more.”  Patch smiled, taking Sita’s right hind foot in his forepaws and tracing her pads, Sita laughing delightedly.

       “has your mama described your birth to you patch?”  Sita asked.

       “No, she hasn’t,”  patch replied, “it wasn’t something we spoke about, well mama Aga, she never wanted to talk about it.”

       “Not then,”  Aga said, padding into the room, “but I will now Patch, if you want me to.  I’ll re-enact it too if you’d like.”

        “Can you remember everything?”  Sita asked.

       “From first contractions to last heaving, straining effort Sita dear,”  Aga replied, “I treasured Patch’s birth, even though it took me two days to push him into the world.  Well, actual pushing was about half a day.  The rest was spent rolling around the den, digging holes in the walls and floor with my teeth and claws, and curling my toes so tight they ached for a week afterwards.

       “I remember mama groaning and rolling about,”  Patch said, “I was thrown this way and that, and some of her big groans were accompanied by squeezing of my body from my head to my feet.  I could also hear her panting and whimpering, it was, well, like being in a big drum, everything was amplified.  I could also hear mama’s paws on the earth, she sometimes stamped her feet, I could feel that too.”

       “I rocked back and fourth on my bum too,”  Aga said, “I even squeezed my right hind foot in my forepaws, so very hard that, that I nearly broke the toes on that foot.  Rubbing pads turned to squeezing my foot in both forepaws, hunched over my hind feet, my back arched while I fought to push hard enough to deliver Patch into the world.  Then grunting, I felt Patch coming into the world, lying back, I felt him coming, then I lay down on my side and bore down hard, so very hard!”

      “I remember being shoved out into the world,”  patch said, “it was freezing!”

       “I lay on my side, grunting, groaning and screaming lustily as Patch emerged,”  Aga said, writhing at the memory, “I made every sound I knew, from purring to ease my pain, to screaming the den walls down.  I whimpered, whined, growled, roared and groaned.  I rocked, rolled about, braced my back and feet against the walls and floor and roof.  The den was so cramped, I could , while lying on my back, comfortably reach the roof with my forepaws and hind feet, and yes, I dug chunks out of the roof with my forepaws and toes.  The den was a wreck after Patch’s birth.  I was alone, but I knew Orbon was close by, though he never came in, even when I was screaming and roaring.  Now I wish he had held my paw during those times when I thought my pushing was achieving nothing.”

        “I’m here now mama,”  Orbon said, padding into the play room.

       “yes you are,”  Aga said, hugging him when he sat down beside her, “but I can’t deliver Patch into the world again, that time is lost to me and you now.”

        “the spirits can make you think you are having a cub, then I can help you when things get rough,”  Orbon said.

       “I could try, I think,”  Aga replied.

          “I will help you,”  Orbon said.

       “Will it last as long as it did?”  Aga asked.

       “If you want it to,”  patch replied.

      “I’m older now,”  Aga said, “but yes, I could go through it again.  I want to deliver Patch into the world, and enjoy it, rather than feeling fear and terror.”

        “How did you feel during freckles birth?”  Patch asked.

       “Fear for her, not for me,”  Aga replied, “the pain and how to push, I knew all that, but my fear for how she’d be when born, if  she would still be alive was uppermost.  I left Freckles when she was weaned, I couldn’t cope!  I loved her then as now, but I couldn’t cope with what the humans had done to me and her.  I will go through Freckles birth too, one after the other if you like, so you patch, can get an idea of how it was.”

        “only if you’re sure,”  Patch said.

       “yes, “I, I want to.”  Aga replied positively.

         “Sita,”  Freckles said, padding heavily into the soft play room, “I’m in labour.  I thought I’d better tell you, as you wanted to be present at the birth of my cub.”  Aga stared at her daughter cub.

       “Who?”  she asked.

     “Qingshan,”  Freckles replied.  Sita hugging her sister tightly.

         “Did you realise Patch is your half brother?”  Sita asked.  Freckles smiled:

       “I know, it’s great isn’t it,”  she said, “now, if he would get paws on too, I will be happy.  Qingshan doesn’t want to be present at the birth of the cub.”  Patch felt his paw taken in Freckles damp one, and pressed against her belly.  He felt a contraction beneath his touch and heard freckles panting a little.

         “It’s not time yet,”  patch said, “I used to do Ekaterina’s Job.  Though my big paws got in the way when delivering difficult cubs.”

          “Ekaterina could help with that,”  Sita said.

         “No,”  Freckles replied, “if, if things do get stuck, “I want Patch to help.”

         “My paws are too big!”  Patch protested.

       “They won’t be,”  Freckles replied, “I’m sure the spirits won’t let them be too big.”

         “I hope the spirits will give you a trouble free labour,”  patch replied.

         “and I hope that if I need help, you will have small enough paws to help me,”  Freckles said.  Patch got to his feet and hugged Freckles, then sat down and gathered her onto his lap, the cross bred cat bear enjoying his hug.

         “I feel safe here,”  Freckles said, sighing with contentment.

       “So is Freckles patch’s half sister?”  Sita asked, “I thought you said she wasn’t Aga?”

         “I’m afraid she is,”  Aga replied, “it was my DNA they used for the experiment.  My DNA, my labour to push her out into the world, all that.  No wonder I ran away!  Now though, now Freckles is trusting her half brother to help her deliver her own cub.”

        “Oaoaoaoaw!”  Freckles complained suddenly, wrapping her paws around her belly, “contractions are getting harder now.”

       “Open your mouth and pant,”  Patch said, rubbing Freckles back with his paw.  Freckles panted hard, rocking slightly in Patch’s lap.

        “This is gonna get worse isn’t it?”  Freckles asked.

       “yes, but you’ll be fine,”  Patch replied softly, “scream, roll, punch the air, kick with your hind feet, curl your toes and feel your cub’s passage into the world.”

       “I will,”  Freckles said, her eyes closed tight shut and mouth open wide as she panted.  Freckles crawled around the soft play room, Patch following her, stroking the pads of her hind feet, Freckles groaning and puffing as contractions came and went.

        “Can you press your toes into the gap between my toe pads and sole pad when I feel a contraction?”  Freckles asked.  patch stroked the sole of Freckles left hind foot, then when she groaned with pain, he pressed his toes into the gap between her toe pads and sole pad, rubbing and pressing hard, Freckles whining with pain and curling her toes around Patch’s, squeezing them with desperate strength.

        “oooah! Ow! Oaoaoaoaw!””  she gasped.

         “if patch pressing his toes into yours hurts, then ask him to stop,”  Amy snapped.

        “No, no, it wasn’t that, it wasn’t him! He helped!  It’s the cub coming which is making me complain,”  Freckles gasped.  Patch rubbed Freckle’s heel and sole pads, Freckles wriggling with pleasure at his touch, discomfort caused by the cub’s passage into the world.

        “I hope my pads are interesting to your touch,”  Freckles said, sitting back on her heels.

        “Never mind that,”  Patch said, kissing her ear and stroking the toes of his right forepaw down the sole of her left hind foot from heel to toes, Freckles whimpering with intense physical sensations and tightly curling her toes.

       “Patch’s touch on my foot is soothing me, my cub is hurting me!”  she panted.

        “I know,”  Patch replied gently, “concentrate on your cub Freckles.”

         “I like your touch,”  Freckles panted, “it soothes me so much, “if you weren’t touching the soles and toes of my hind feet, I’d be screaming and crying, kicking the air and rolling about on the floor by now.”

        “Climb all over me, use me as an aid to your labour if you like,”  Patch said.  Freckles turned, grabbed hold of Patch, snuggled up to him and squealed into his fur.

      “ow, ow, ow!”  she howled.

          “It’s okay,”  patch said gently, stroking Freckles back and ears.

        “It’s uncomfortable Patch,”  Freckles whimpered.

       “I know Freckles,”  Patch said gently, “I know it more than you think.”  Freckles clung to him with her forepaws.

        “I know you know,”  Freckles whispered into Patch’s ear.

       “I wriggled and whimpered just like you are doing now,”  Patch said softly.

        “Did you scream, curl your toes  and kick the air?”  Freckles asked.

       “What do you think?”  Patch asked.  Freckles moaned deeply as another contraction gripped her.

       “yes you did,”  she moaned.

        “Would you like some help with pushing?”  Patch asked.

         “I would,”  Freckles replied, “but I’m not exhausted yet.  I’ll wait a while, what I really, really really would like is for you to stroke my hind feet patch!”

        “I’ll do that for you,”  Patch said softly, kissing Freckles nose.  Freckles sat back on her heels, Patch stroking the soles of her hind feet, pressing hard into her pads and digging the toes of his forepaws into the space between her sole and toe pads, Freckles gasping and groaning with discomfort and pleasure as she felt Patch exploring her hind feet, massaging, stroking, soothing her.

        “Oaoaoaoaw, Aaaaaaaaow, guraoaoaoaoaow!”  Freckles complained as her body increased its efforts to expel her cub.

         “I want you, and you alone to help me Patch,”  Freckles gasped.

         “Can Sita get paws on too?”  Patch asked.

         “Patch,”  Sita said, “use your memory to remember everything Freckles did, and you can tell me about it later.”  Patch knew what she meant.

       “I will,”  Patch replied, “and thanks Sita.”  Sita smiled:

      “patch, you will be a midwife to Freckles and her cub, because you can be.  Big paws and all, you can help her.”

         “I will,”  Patch said.  Freckles sat down and grabbed her right hind foot in her forepaws, Patch exploring carefully, just as Freckles squeezed her hind foot hard.  Patch explored curled toes, fiercely gripping forepaws, and a screaming rocking mama cat bear.

       “that’s it, get paws on, totally paws on!”  Freckles moaned as she wriggled and rocked, “it does more than inform you Patch, it’s soothing me too!”  Patch embraced Freckles tightly, the cat bear snuggling up to him.

          “I like that, hug me tight Patch, please hug me tight!”  Freckles begged.  Patch held Freckles tightly, Freckles wriggling hard in his grip, though her pain was inside her.

          “Oaoaoaoaw! Aaaaaw!”  she roared into his shoulder.

       heuuuuuumph! Huuuuuuuuuuuuaumph!”  she complained.

        “Everything’s okay,”  Patch said, the cub’s spirit talking to him, telling him it was fine and that his touch was helping it.”

      “Your cub is fine mama,”  Patch said, “it’s spoken to me, and says you are doing well too.”  Freckles laughed delightedly at this, her cub kicking with excitement, causing Freckles to grab her belly with her paws and moan lustily.

        “Told you!”  Patch said laughing, “your cub is excited about what’s happening.”  Freckles panted a little, feeling a shift in her body, a defecate opening up of things.

       “Here’s my right hind foot Freckles,”  Patch said, placing his right hind foot in the panting bear’s forepaws, Freckles gripping it fiercely.

       “Squeeze away,”  patch said, but Freckles massaged his pads and toes, her touch light and patch could tell she was expert at paw massage, even when in pain.

        “You aren’t meant to be massaging my foot, go on, squeeze it,”  Patch said.  Freckles smiled and counted the toes on Patch’s right hind foot.

        “One two three four five,”  she panted, patch realising she was using the distraction of massaging his foot to ease her own pain.

        “oooah, ow!”  Freckles whimpered.

        “is it time to push yet?”  Sita asked.  Freckles sat back, Sita sitting behind her and cradling her in her forepaws.

         “I want to push!”  Freckles whimpered, “aowwwwww, aoooooow!”

      “Push down into your bottom Freckles, right down, right down,”  Patch said gently, massaging the pads and toes of the labouring  mother’s left hind foot.

       Huuuuuuuuuuuuawumph!  Aoooawuuuupmh!”  freckles complained, bearing down as hard as she could.

      “That’s it,”  Patch said.  Freckles squealed as her waters broke, showering Patch in fluid, Patch hardly noticing.  Then, exploring gently, he felt a set of tiny paws, then the cub’s head, then as freckles pushed, the cub’s body, Freckles wailing with pain and fear.

      “it’s okay Freckles,”  Sita whispered into her ear, “it’s working well, reach down and touch your cub.  Freckles reached down with her forepaws and touched the emerging cub, pushing hard as she did so, feeling it slip into the world.

       “I’m doing this, I’m pushing it out!”  Freckles yelled.

      “You are, you are,”  Patch said gently, “push Freckles, push steadily.”

     “But I wanted you to help me push,”  Freckles replied, “and now its all over.”  Patch felt Freckles relax, the cub’s hind feet still inside her.  Patch smiled at her, rubbed the toes of her right hind foot with his paw, and tapped into her system, feeling her body, then, employing the same muscles as she did, he pushed down hard, Freckles feeling his contribution, whimpering and wriggling, piling on her own pressure, Patch and Freckles grunting with effort.

     “Push patch!”  Freckles moaned.

      “I am!”  Patch gasped, “right down into my tail!”

       “I’m pushing too!”  Freckles roared, the cub emerging slowly, the cub’s huge paws sliding free pad by bumping pad, both freckles and Patch bouncing about as they pushed and relaxed, pushed and relaxed.

       “These paws are enormous!”  Patch gasped.  Freckles whimpered and bore down hard, freeing the cub with one final heaving effort.

        “That was amazing!”  Freckles exclaimed.  Patch, drenched in sweat, smiled and cleaned the cub up, the cub roaring and pawing at its surroundings.

         “That was lovely!”  it said, “I wanted you both to help me free my hind feet, and you did!”  patch laughed and kissed the cub’s nose.

         “A cub who wants to direct his own birth?”  Freckles replied.

        “He felt the efforts you were making,”  Patch said, “he wanted my help like you did.”  Freckles smiled and took her cub from patch, feeding him with gentility.

       “What will you name your cub?”  patch asked.

        “I don’t know,”  Freckles replied.

       “how about if you name him Conrad?”  Patch asked, “I’m sure the spirits wouldn’t mind that.”

       “This cub is huge!”  Freckles exclaimed as she ran her paws all over him, “how come I could push him out?”

         “You let your body do it’s thing,”  Patch said, “you weren’t anxious or anything, and your body went that extra inch to let you push him into the world.”

        “I had my cub in the soft playroom though,”  Freckles said, “with all the other cubs watching too!”  patch had forgotten where they were, and now felt dreadful.”

        “We’ll clear up any mess,”  Patch said to Sita.

        “No,”  Sita replied, “I’ll ask someone to help us.

       “We loved it Freckles,”  Georgia said, “it was amazing to see you give birth to your cub.”

        “I’m glad you weren’t scared,”  Freckles replied.

       “I think it’s disgusting!”  Amy said haughtily.

        “You shut your mouth!”  Georgia growled.

      “You shut your mouth!”  Amy mocked, then screamed, as Georgia whacked her across her face with her paw.

        “You make me feel sick!”  Georgia yelled.

 

Kuruk, feeling sick after drinking several cans of beer, blearily watched the goings on in the soft play room.

     “Did Kuruk see brother Patch deliver Freckles cub?”  he asked himself.  Rubbing his eyes, he fumbled with the joystick, rewinding the video and focusing hard on the screen, his ears telling him there were labour like sounds coming out of the speakers, but his eyes refused to show him the detail he was used to.

        “Kuruk hope brother Patch help Freckles,”  Kuruk thought, “if he do thing, Kuruk be very happy, but Kuruk too drunk to watch video.”  Feeling unwell, Kuruk lay down to rest his aching head..

         “Kuruk?”  Patch asked, shaking the large bear’s shoulder.  Kuruk, opening his eyes, felt the world sway alarmingly.

        “Kuruk feel shit,”  He grumbled.

        “What have you been doing?”  Patch asked, though his nose gave him a good idea.

        “Kuruk get drunk, bloody drunk, want forget things,”  Kuruk mumbled into the rugs, “leave me alone.”  Patch sat down beside his brother and stroked his ears.

         “Kuruk,”  Patch said, “do you know what happened earlier?”

       “yeah,”  Kuruk replied, almost sobbing, “you no see things no more, that’s what happened!”  Patch felt cork try to get to his feet, sway and nearly fall, Patch catching and holding him as the male bear roared and wept like a cub.

        “It’s all right now Kuruk,”  Patch said softly.

       “No it bloody isn’t!”  Kuruk roared, “Patch lose his sight and he say it okay? but Kuruk se him cry, why now okay if so torn to bits only a day or so back?”

       “Kuruk,”  Patch said, “you probably didn’t see what happened, couldn’t watch the video probably, considering the state you are in now.  But I helped Freckles deliver her cub into the world.  I got paws on with her, and with her cub too, and both are doing wonderfully.”

     “how paws on?”  Kuruk asked, sniffing hard and swallowing back his emotions.

         “I will tell you how Paws on,” Freckles said, padding up and kissing Kuruk’s nose, “your brother stroked my hind feet, let me hit him, grip his fur and scream into his ear when I was in pain.  He pressed his toes into mine, and I’ve gripped his toes with mine.”

        “how Paws on?”  Kuruk asked.

        “he only knows it by touch, so if you want to know, he’ll have to touch you Kuruk,”  Freckles said.

        “What you mean by this?”  Kuruk asked.

       “pretend you’re me, in pain about to deliver a cub,”  Freckles suggested.  Kuruk put his paw to his head:

      “Kuruk too pissed for that,”  he mumbled.

     “Well at least sit back on your heels with your forepaws flat on the floor,  Like I’ve heard Anook did during her labour,.”  Freckles said, “then patch can stroke your hind feet as he did mine.”  Kuruk, feeling unsteady, sat back on his heels, gratefully placing his forepaws on the grogs in front of him to steady his whirling world.  Patch crawled behind his brother cub and began stroking the pads and toes of Kuruk’s right hind foot with the toes of his left forepaw.  Kuruk gasped, then curled his toes tightly, Patch digging his toes into Kuruk’s pads and pressing his toes against the grizzly’s toes, the male bear roaring with the intensity of  sensations he’d never felt before.

        “That’s it Kuruk,”  Freckles said smiling, recognising sounds she’d made.  Whimpering, Kuruk  felt Patch stroke the sole of his right hind foot.  Then the grizzly bear felt Patch pressing his toes into the gap between the sole pad and toe pads of his right hind foot, Kuruk growling, then roaring with the pleasure of it all.  When Kuruk calmed down, he found his headache had gone.

        “You get very paws on then,”  Kuruk panted, “and that before cub come into world, and Kuruk suppose you catch cub too Patch?”  Patch laughed:

       “That was only half the paw massage I gave Freckles,”  he said, touching the sole of Kuruk’s left hind foot, Kuruk unable to suppress a wriggle of pleasure.

       “Stop it Patch,  Kuruk mumbled, “Kuruk go through roof again if you touchhole and toes of left hind foot like you do right hind, Kuruk know he want it, but it too much.  Patch get more than paws on with paws of Kuruk when Patch touch sole pads and toes of Kuruk, though patch know thing already Kuruk think.”  Patch smiled and kissed Kuruk’s ear, this simple action almost moving the big male bear to tears.

        “Soppy old bear,”  Patch whispered, Kuruk crying onto the rugs.

        “I think he wants you to touch his paws but is too frightened to ask,”  Freckles said.  Patch smiled:

        “I know he does,”  Patch replied, “and touch his paws I will, but now is not the time for that.  Patch crawled round and embraced Kuruk, the huge male bear cuddling up close.

          “It’s gonna be all right,”  Patch said gently.  Kuruk embraced patch, feeling the grey bear’s strength and life.

        “Kuruk want you touch pads and toes of his left hind foot too,”  Kuruk whispered.

       “I will,”  Patch replied gently.

        “Kuruk went mad!”  Freckles exclaimed, placing her cub in Kuruk’s paws, to the astonishment of the grizzly bear.

        “he cub yours?”  He asked, staring down at the healthily roaring cub.

      “Yes, I had little Conrad aided by Patch, well, the delivery was,”  Freckles replied laughing.  Kuruk looked at the screen, then rewound the tape to watch Freckles and Patch.

       “I see now what you do to hind foot of Kuruk,”  Kuruk grunted, “Patch, you touch heel of Kuruk’s right hind foot with toes of your forepaw, then run toes down to just above toes of Kuruk, then rub there.  it send Freckles mad, and do me too!  who tell you thing like that make me into jelly?”

        “mama Kamchatka said you and she used to play that way,”  Patch replied.  Kuruk’s eyes clouded at the memory of his mama.

       “Kuruk used to play like that, all paws, all touch,”  he mumbled, “but that not good way to play as adult, or so Kuruk think, until now that is.”  Kuruk kissed little Conrad’s head, then handed him back to Freckles.

       “Kuruk want Patch touch PADS OF his hind paws again,”  Kuruk said.

       “I would like to touch your toes again too,”  Patch said, Kuruk laughing merrily.

       “Kuruk want you to touch his toes too,”  he said.  Patch settled Kuruk down, then stroked his right hind foot, from furry top to rough naked pads and large toes.  Kuruk sat back on the rugs, Freckles sitting down with little Conrad to listen to Patch and Kuruk enjoying each other’s company.  Kuruk sat opposite Patch, pressing his hind feet against patch’s, Kuruk’s toes pressing against patch’s, Patch pressing his toes against his brother cub’s.

        “Will my hind paws stick to yours?”  Patch asked.  Kuruk grinned:

       “if Patch want them to,”  Kuruk replied, “Kuruk want his paws stick to brother Patch’s, good and hard too.”

        “have you touched my paw pads?”  Patch asked.  Kuruk admitted he hadn’t.

        “No,”  he replied, “Kuruk too nervous to ask.”

         “Well why not touch them, now,”  Patch suggested, “they are different to yours Kuruk.”  Kuruk took patch’s right hind foot in his forepaws, exploring Patch’s pads and toes, feeling soft furry tops and smooth naked pads.  Patch curled his toes tightly, making his pads bunch up, Kuruk tracing the suddenly furrowed sole pad, Patch stretching and curling his toes, making Kuruk smile and draw circles on patch’s pads.

      “How many toes do I have?”  Patch asked.

        “Five,”  Kuruk replied, counting the toes of Patch’s right hind foot.”  Patch laughed, bouncing about on his backside, Kuruk smiling shyly.

         “Patch have pads and toes Kuruk would like,”  he said, “Patch have cub like paws.”  patch took Kuruk’s left hind foot in his pads and explored it gently, stroking wrinkled pads and strong toes, Kuruk unable to stop his toes curling with pleasure.

       “Sorry,”  Kuruk said, trying to relax his toes, his toes refusing to obey him.

        “Your toes show what you really feel,”  Patch said, rubbing the furry tops of Kuruk’s toes, Kuruk whispering:

       “yes patch, they are right, Kuruk express himself better using his paws than using his mouth to make words.”

         “your paws are expressive, just like your mamas were,”  Patch said, Kuruk feeling his toes curling tighter and tighter.

       “Let your toes do their own thing,”  Patch said, Kuruk whimpering with shock and emotion.

         “Kuruk want curl toes as tight as Patch did when having Sita,”  Kuruk said, “Kuruk see this, and want his toes curl as hard.”  Patch gave Kuruk the urgent sensation he’d felt, Kuruk closing his eyes, gasping and curling his toes tighter than ever.

       huroooomph!”  Kuruk gasped as his toes curled as tightly as they could.

        “That’s it, that’s good!”  Kuruk panted as he relaxed after a minute of intense effort.  Kuruk felt a kiss placed on the relaxing toes of his right hind foot.

       “Cute paws,”  Sooleawa said smiling.  Kuruk looked at the half grown she bear.

        “You kiss Kuruk’s toes?”  Kuruk asked.  Sooleawa smiled and caught Kuruk’s right forepaw in hers.

        “I love your paws,”  Sooleawa said, Kuruk laughing delightedly.

       “Can Kuruk touch your hind feet Sooleawa?”  Kuruk asked.  Sooleawa scrambled into Kuruk’s lap, Kuruk now pressing his hind feet against patch’s.  Sooleawa smiled and laughed as Kuruk tickled her toes, Sooleawa curling her toes with pleasure, Kuruk drawing circles on her pads as she curled and stretched her toes.

        “Why are paws, especially hind feet so amazingly sensitive and wonderful?”  Sooleawa asked, “surely this is illegal?”  Kuruk laughed and kissed her nose:

        “Hind feet are wonderful because they are meant to be played with,”  he said, “forepaws are meant to play with hind feet.  Why would hind feet fit so well into forepaws if they weren’t meant to be played with?”

       “I must say, my hind paws and fore do fit each other wonderfully,”  Sooleawa said.

        “Good,”  Kuruk replied smiling, “Sooleawa, do you play with your own toes?”  Sooleawa giggled:

       “yes, I do,”  she replied, “I explore my sole pads too.  I’ll show you how I do it.  With that she sat down on the rugs facing Kuruk, Kuruk watching her as she took her right hind foot in her forepaws and played with her own toes, gently tickling the sole pad of her right hind foot, Sooleawa smiling gently with pleasure.

        “You look so cute,”  Kuruk said smiling.

        “Patch,”  Sooleawa said softly, “would you like to get paws on with my paws and hind feet while I play with my toes?”

       “I’d love to,”  Patch replied.  Sooleawa scrambled off of Kuruk’s lap, Kuruk stroking her hind paws as she crawled clumsily off his lap.  Sooleawa smiled and rolled onto her back, drawing up her hind legs and grabbing her hind feet in her forepaws.  Patch got paws on with her, Sooleawa smiling and pressing her hind feet against her forepaws, pulling back with her forepaws against her hind feet, alternating the pressure from hind feet and forepaws, rocking back and fourth slightly, Patch laughing at her antics.

       “Daft thing,”  he laughed.  Sooleawa let go of her hind feet and kicked the air with them, Patch helping her into a sitting position, Sooleawa grubbing her right hind foot in her forepaws, pressing her sole pads with the digest of her forepaws, squealing and massaging her toes while flexing them, curling her toes tightly, then massaging them straight again.  Patch got paws on, Sooleawa wriggling with pleasure as she felt his touch.

         “I’m trying to explore like I have never touched my toes and pads before,”  Sooleawa said, “my toes like my touch, and they curl easily, far too easily sometimes!”  patch grinned broadly.

        “your birth was a wonderful time,”  Patch said.  Sooleawa smiled:

       “Bramble pushed hard to deliver me, Ekaterina helping me into the world,”  she said.

        “I’ll re-enact Sooleawa’s birth if you would like,”  Ekaterina said, “I can remember everything she did, from crawling about to lying on her side, her hind legs drawn up, her toes curling with every contraction.  I kissed her sweating pads, and touched her bunching pads and curling toes.  I’ll never forget that.”

       “how about if you re-enact it as if you were Bramble,”  patch suggested.  Ekaterina smiled:

        “But that would take away from Bramble’s effort wouldn’t it?”  she asked.

       “No,”  patch replied, “she handed Sooleawa over to us, so it is only right you re-enact her birth.”

         What fascinates me is how the pads and toes of the same hind foot can change if they are heel down or toes down towards the ground,”  Sooleawa said,  “same foot, different pads and toes every time.”

       “I think it’s because you can’t see what’s going on if you are lying on your front,”  Patch said, “your pads become more sensitive then.”

      “Right they do,”  Sooleawa replied smiling.

       “My hind feet certainly get more sensitive if I’m lying on my side or my front rather than sitting up,”  Ekaterina replied, “and I can’t see a thing.”

        “So maybe it’s not a sight thing,”  patch replied.

        “it’s a control thing,”  Freckles said, “if you are kneeling or lying down, you have no control over your hind feet, if you are sitting up, you have control.  I prefer facing away from the masseur who is stroking my pads and toes.”

       “Kuruk love that way too,”  Kuruk said.

       “I thought you never let anyone touch your hind feet?”  Freckles asked.

        “patch touch them from time to time, we both in private place, and say nothing afterwards,”  Kuruk grunted, “Kuruk touch Patch’s hind feet too, stroking his pads and playing with his toes.  We also play stuck paw game, his feet stick to Kuruk’s dam quick, we struggle for ages to free ourselves.”

        “Will you play in public now?”  Freckles asked.  Kuruk smiled:

        “if Patch now working in soft play room, then yes,”  Kuruk said, “for Freckles deliver Conrad cub in soft play room, and if she do that, then Kuruk can play stuck foot game there.”

         “I had no choice Kuruk,”  Freckles said, “anyway, I liked the traction the rubber flooring gave my paws and hind feet.  My pads stuck to the floor, giving me pushing power to my feet.”

         “how you forget you in play room anyway?”  Kuruk asked.

       “My world shrank to the size of my forepaws and hind feet Kuruk,”  Freckles replied, “my world is only as large as my paws and feet, while my ears were focused on Patch.  I’d forgotten where I was.  I was focused on my feet and paws, and on my cub and Patch.  The rest of the world didn’t exist as far as I was concerned.”

       “Kuruk wish he could forget world and just focus on his own and other’s feet and paws,”  Kuruk replied.

       “Play will allow you to do that,”  Freckles said”

        “Focus on what you and your playmate want, not what the world thinks,”  Patch said, “be it re-enacting the birth of a cub, or playing stuck foot games, or just plain playing with each other’s toes and hind feet.”

       “So noone minds me playing with other’s hind paws?”  Kuruk asked.

       “As I said, only you and your playmate need concern yourselves, as long as both want to play, then it’s all fine Kuruk.”

      “Good,”  Kuruk replied, much relieved.

        “Enjoy your feet and paws, touch with your paws and feel with your feet, grip with your toes.”

        “Kuruk use his eyes a lot,”  Kuruk admitted, “he try using his feet and paws more now.”

       “explore with your forepaws and your hind feet, touch with your heels and toes, curl your toes into the floor, grip with your toes, slide your feet a little, if you slide them sideways and they’re a little damp with sweat or water, and the floor is tiled, you might get a little squeaking sound from them, which is sort of funny to hear,”  Sooleawa said.  Kuruk grinned happily at Sooleawa’s evident enjoyment of her paws.

         “how long you liked other’s paws then little one?”  he asked.

         “I don’t know,”  Sooleawa replied, “ever since icon remember I think.  I just find them lovely to look at, and better to touch, though I ask first, well usually, if I can touch a paw that is.”

         “You didn’t ask me when we were in the great room while I was about to tell my story,”  Orbon said, walking in, leaning down and kissing Sooleawa’s ear:

       “No, sorry,”  Sooleawa said, much ashamed.

       “It’s fine,”  Orbon replied smiling, “I wish more cubs would take hold of my paws as you did.”  Sooleawa looked relieved.

        “I suppose, well, paws and feet, both fore and hind paws, they tell you more than eyes do.  If a mama is in pain with the birth of her cub, she will often deny pain with the words she says, but her sweat dampened pads and curled toes tell a different story.”

     “apparently you found sire Conrad’s paws cute,”  Ekaterina said.  Sooleawa covered her face with her forepaws to hide a rush of tears.

        “I did,”  she choked, “we would laugh about it, though he knew why I said his paws were cute.  We’d communicate using our paws, when his toes were all curled tight in a spasm as he endured one of his seizures, I’d massage his pads, dropping a little alcohol on them to cool his paws as he sweated and panted.  Conrad’s paws and hind feet wouldn’t relax for ages after he’d woken from his collapse, and he’d cry with the pain of it.  I’d massage his bunched pads and curled toes, trying to help him,”  she swallowed hard, sniffed and tried to control her emotions, but her tears wouldn’t dry.  Ekaterina padded to Sooleawa and hugged her.

        “I miss him too,”  she whispered.

         “I’m sorry Ekaterina, I’m, so, so sorry,”  Sooleawa sobbed.

         “You made him so very happy Sooleawa, don’t you forget that,”  Ekaterina said, “he loved you like his own cub.  he truly did, I know he did.”

       “I felt so close to Conrad it frightened me,”  Sooleawa admitted, “in the dark days just before his death, he’d come to me because he couldn’t sleep, we’d play, play the stuck paw game over and over.  We’d then check each other’s paws for thorns, then we’d play again.  We loved each other through our paws.”

       “I know,”  Ekaterina said, “I’ve spoken to Conrad’s spirit, and he told me all this.  he, he suggested, but what he suggested was so strange I had to ask him twice, he suggested I learn to play as he did.  He re-enacted my birth for you didn’t he Sooleawa.”  Sooleawa almost screamed with shock.

        “that was meant to be private!”  she yelled.

        “I don’t mind it,”  Ekaterina replied, “and mama Kamchatka would have loved the idea of him remembering my birth in such detail.”

        “yes,”  Sooleawa replied, “Conrad did.  He got really into it too, I think, think it helped with his own condition, even though it was putting him under stress to re-enact that.”

        “it was a different type of stress though, one he could control,”  Ekaterina replied, “I’ll bet he loved every minute.”

       “he did,”  Sooleawa said, “he said he often re-enacted your birth, as he couldn’t ask Kamchatka now she was no longer here.  He said all he had to do was think about you as a cub, and his stomach would tighten, and he’d feel the urge to roar and kick the air.”

        “Conrad crawled and whimpered, roared and kicked the air as he re-enacted what he could remember, he loved it Ekaterina.”

        “Would you show me?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “okay,”  Sooleawa replied, “but we must examine each other’s paws and feet first, in case, in case there are thorns and things which might be driven into our sole or toe pads by the strength of our toes curling with emotions,”  Sooleawa said quickly.

        “I wouldn’t expect anything else,”  Ekaterina replied, “Conrad was always one for checking paws over for thorns and stones.  He’d plant a stone in the toes of one of his hind feet, and ask me to tell him which foot it was which was lamed by walking past me.  I’d then gently remove the stone from the gap between his sole pad and toe pads, and to finish, I’d rub the sole of his right hind foot, for it invariably was his right hind foot where stones got caught,”  Ekaterina laughed, “Conrad said he dragged that foot a little, and when picking it up he’d curl his toes a little, picking the stone up in them and somehow could not get rid of it.  I think he liked doing that, I suppose it was like those with sight looking at the sun to see how long they could do it for.  He’d walk about for hours with a stone between the toes of one hind foot sometimes, just to see what it felt like.  Then when I removed it, I’d rub his pads.  He never let things go too far in case he injured himself, but he was one for sensations, exploration in touch and emotion.  Then we lost touch as I grew up, and finally he found you, and could enjoy playing with a cub who liked tactile things, just as I had.  Bruin didn’t like tactile things, his feet and paws were just for walking on, he told Conrad that in stern terms, and asked him never to ask him, Bruin, to play with his paws.  yes Conrad loved to play games with his feet and  paws.”  Ekaterina paused, gathering her courage in her paws.

         “Sooleawa,”  Ekaterina said, “would you play with me like you did Conrad?”

        “he totally sunk himself into the game, head under the water as much as his paws were,”  Sooleawa said.

       “I know, I’ve heard that,”  Ekaterina replied, “I can too, I used to be able to do that, before, before I lost my cub, and lied about his death.  Now I’m ashamed to re-enact a cubbing.”

        “I would love to help you deliver a cub,”  Sooleawa said softly.

        “I could pretend,”  Ekaterina replied, “but would it become too real?”

        “I don’t know,”  Sooleawa said, “you’d have to try and see what happens.”

       “I could have a go,”  Ekaterina said, “crawling, breathing deeply, moaning and pedalling the air with my paws.”

       “Try lying on your back and kicking the air with all your paws,”  Sooleawa said.

      “now tell me,”  Ekaterina said, “are my hind paws really known as  paws, or are they feet?”

       “Hind feet, forepaws,”  Sooleawa replied,  “Horses have four feet, Bears have forepaws and hind feet, humans have hands and feet, okay?”  Ekaterina smiled and hugged Sooleawa.

     “forepaws and hind feet then,”  she said softly.

        “So lie on your back, and let’s get waving our paws,”  Sooleawa said.

       “Who’s the cub here?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Who wants to roll onto her back and wave her paws and feet in the air?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “I do, and you do too,”  Ekaterina said.

       “So we’re both cubs then,”  Sooleawa replied smiling.

       “let’s both wave our paws in the air,”  Sooleawa replied, rolling onto her back.  Ekaterina rolled onto her back and waved her paws, Kuruk laughing merrily at her antics.

         “Those paws look cute,”  Sooleawa said.

      “Do they?”  Ekaterina asked, “my paws you mean?”

      “yes, your paws,”  Sooleawa replied smiling, “They are so cute.”

       “Cute paws!”  Amy mocked.

      “Shut your mouth!”  Kuruk grunted.

      “I hate Sooleawa,”  Amy snapped, “she’s all, “paws this, paws that!  It’s horrid!”

        “I think it’s kind of cute,”  Orbon replied, “Amy, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.”

       “My paws tell me a lot about my world,”  Sooleawa said.

       “Mine too,”  Patch replied, “though as Freckles said, the rest of the world didn’t exist while she was in labour.”

        “I think we should all try minding our own business,”  Orbon said, “isn’t that right Amy?”  Ekaterina snorted, stuffing her paw into her mouth to stop herself laughing.

       “yes, I agree,”  Patch replied, his fight to stifle laughter evident.

       “you’re laughing at me!”  Amy whined.

       “Well if you don’t give them cause, they won’t,”  Kuruk said, padding over to Amy and patting her patronisingly on the head.  Amy, realising Kuruk was having fun at her expense, tried to bite him, Kuruk whacking her with his paw.

       “Get off me!”  Amy whimpered.

        “Kuruk no pinning you down with paws, so he not on you,”  Kuruk grunted.

       “Shut up!”  Amy yelled, “shut up Kuruk!”

        “Silly cub,”  Kuruk grunted, Patch snorting into his paws.

          “I’m gone!”  he said, padding carefully from the room.

        “I think we all need a bit of downtime,”  Orbon suggested, “time with our families, time to touch each other, stroke fur and paws, and be gentle.”

       “I’m all up for that,”  Sooleawa said.

       “You would be,”  Ekaterina said smiling, “especially touching paws.”

        “You like it too,”  Sooleawa whimpered.  Ekaterina sat down with Sooleawa and hugged her.

         “Why do I like paws so much Ekaterina?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “Because focus through the paws and on the paws of others is not considered normal Sooleawa dear,”  Ekaterina said softly, “I, and Patch, and Sita, we all have to focus through our paws, and on the paws of others too, touching, playing with and loving through the paw.  Mishka too, not to forget him, does the same thing.  I suppose, as you still have use of your eyes, some think it strange you should like paws so much.”

        “I can’t help it Ekaterina,”  Sooleawa said, “my first contact with another person was through the paw, I’ve been held by paws in times of hardship, I’ve been comforted by paws.  I’ve seen paws express pain and pleasure.  I love what paws are, and what they can be.  Patch’s eyes tell me nothing now, but his paws, they are the window into his world, and your paws tell me what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling too.  Why is it we massage paws when a mama is in pain having her cub?  her eyes are closed, so the only way to communicate is through touching and stroking her paws.”

      “True,”  Ekaterina replied, “and I agree completely, it’s hard for me too.”

         “I think Orbon knows a lot about what we are talking about,”  Sooleawa said, “it is said patch is very like him, and indeed he is.”

        “How about if we give you a job where you can use your interest in paws to help others?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “What job would that be?”  Sooleawa asked.

         “You know we check pads and paws for thorns and things?”  Ekaterina said, “well you could check paws over, help ensure paws are washed at entrances, that sort of thing.  I note some cubs don’t wash their paws as they should.”  Sooleawa snorted:

      “But that’s dreadful,”  she replied, “washing paws is part of this.”

        “I know,”  Ekaterina replied, “so you could be part of a team to enforce that.  I’ll help, as will Patch.  Noone is exempt from being checked either, from Orbon, right down to the cubs in the play room.  Clean paws are very important.”

        “Let’s start as we mean to go on then,”  Orbon said smiling, “I agree with that Ekaterina, and submit my own paws for examination, right now.”  Orbon sat down and while Sooleawa watched, Ekaterina got paws on with Orbon’s forepaws  and hind feet, checking for thorns and sore places.

       “Your pads are brown, is this because of mud?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “I can wash my paws and feet and see if that improves their look,”  Orbon said, padding to the bathroom and running a bath.  Smiling, Ekaterina hugged Sooleawa.

       “his paws were clean,”  she said, “but he’s playing along, Orbon loves paw play as much as Patch does.”

       “I need paw washing advice!”  Orbon yelled from the bathroom, Sooleawa laughing helplessly.

        “Make sure your pads and toes get washed carefully!”  Ekaterina yelled.

      “that’s just it, I don’t know how to wash my paws, let alone wash my hind feet!”  Orbon pleaded.  Sooleawa, now overcome, laughed so helplessly she couldn’t speak.

        “He’s so funny!”  she choked.

        “help!”  Orbon wailed, Ekaterina laughing so hard she nearly cried.

         “let’s go and rescue him,”  Sooleawa said, padding into the bathroom.  Orbon sat staring down at his paws and hind feet.

       “how do I wash these?”  he asked.

       “Are you serious?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “Sooleawa dear,”  Orbon replied, “some newcomers here might not know how to wash their paws, that’s not instinctive like delivering a cub is.  Treat me like a newcomer, which indeed I am here.  Show me how to wash my paws, explain why clean paws and feet are a good thing.  Go on.”  Sooleawa realised her leader was challenging her.

      “Well um, why have clean paws?”  Sooleawa asked.  “clean paws help to keep the house clean, wash your paws and the whole house remains cleaner than it otherwise would.  Plus, clean paws and feet help to keep your feet and paws healthy, and a regular check of pads and toes mean thorns don’t get wedged in the pads.”

      “How do I wash my paws?”  Orbon asked, “I need to have clean paws and it seems clean feet too.”

      “both your paws and your hind feet need to be clean,”  Sooleawa said.  “Look, go into the woods, get your feet and paws dirty, then come to the door of the house.”  Orbon ran out of the house, chased by Sooleawa, and Hope, who appeared from nowhere, and yelled at him.

      “Get out, get those paws and feet dirty, then we’ll help you clean them!”

        “I’m going, I’m going!”  Orbon protested, running so hard he nearly tripped over his own feet.

       “Go be like a cub!”  Hope yelled, chasing Orbon out into the woods.  Sooleawa, watching her, smiled to herself.  Orbon, rolling onto his back in the clearing, kicked the air with all four of his paws, Hope laughing delightedly.

     “Now you have dirty paws and fur, let’s go back and see what Sooleawa does when you try to enter the house with those dirty paws and feet.”  Hope said.  Orbon gave her a ride back to the house, where they met Sooleawa, who stopped them by literally getting under his feet.

         “Stop!”  Sooleawa commanded, Orbon stopping and looking at Sooleawa.

        “yes?”  he asked.

      “where do you want to go?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “Into the house,”  Orbon replied, “I live here.”

       “Indeed you do,”  Sooleawa replied, “or at least I saw someone looking like you go into the woods and roll on the ground.  Now though, I need to ask you a few things.  First can I see your paws and feet?”  Sooleawa asked, “your pads, not just the tops?”  Orbon snorted:

      “Why?”  he asked, “I heard this community was easy going, and that they never washed their paws.”

       “We wash our paws on entering the house, and after using the relieving place, but otherwise, we don’t,”  Sooleawa said,  “now, would you let me look at your paws and feet?”  Orbon grunted grudging assent.

       “You too little one,”  Sooleawa said to Hope, who tried to make herself invisible behind Orbon.

      “you too,”  Sooleawa said, “you too little one, come, I have to check your paws and feet too.”  Hope, playing the reluctant cub, squealed indignantly as Orbon shook her off his back, then grabbed her and presented her to Sooleawa, Hope sprawling on her back, her small paws and hind feet sticking skywards.

       “now you can check her paws and feet,”  Orbon grunted to Sooleawa.  Sooleawa, smiling, stroked Hope, who screamed and protested, until Sooleawa tickled her toes, which made Hope laugh helplessly and warm to Sooleawa.

       “let’s get a good look at these paws and feet,”  Sooleawa said, picking up Hope’s right forepaw.

          “What do you think?”  Orbon asked.

        “These paws need a wash, as do your feet little one,”  Sooleawa said, looking at Hope’s hind feet.  Hope got to her feet and watched as Orbon was asked to lie on his back and show Sooleawa his paws.

         “These definitely need a wash,”  Sooleawa said to Orbon, who huffed with exasperation.

        “Ok, okay,”  he grunted, getting to his feet and following Sooleawa into the house, leaving hope, who, seeing she was being left out, ran after Orbon, screaming and begging not to be left outside.  Orbon padded to the nearby bathroom, down a tiled corridor near the main door.  Hope, following, watched Orbon’s hind feet, noticing he dragged his left hind foot a little.  Orbon found himself in a new shower room with a bath and a shower.  Orbon stepped into the bath, feeling warm water caress his paws and feet.  Sooleawa smiled and helped Hope into the water alongside Orbon.

       “now both of you sit down and wash your paws,”  Sooleawa said.  Orbon sat down heavily and looked at Sooleawa.

       “how do I wash my paws and feet?”  he asked.  Sooleawa grabbed some soap and showed Orbon how to wash his paws and feet by washing her own.

       “You wash your feet, then paws,”  she replied, “rub the soap on your paws, then massage it into the pads of your feet.  Get between your toes, and all over your pads.  Also wash the furry top of your paws and feet too.  then wash the soap off.  After that, dry your paws carefully, making sure you get between your toes with the paper towels.  Then, to finish off, go to the drying room to dry your paws and feet thoroughly.”

       “What a carry on,”  Orbon groaned, but Sooleawa was firm:

      “No,”  she said, “it’s necessary for keeping the place clean.  Wash your feet and paws after being in the woods, here before coming into the house, and also after using the relieving place.  There will be spot checks of paws and feet to make sure they are clean, as with an increasing population, we must keep things clean.  Jess and Janet help us clean the corridors and relieving places, though Bramble is responsible with Bruin and Mishka for washing the rugs on the floors of the lie ups.  Being clean is very important now.  Gone are the days where we can pad about with dirty paws.”

        “The truth is we were clean like this in the past,”  Patch said, padding in and washing his face, paws and feet with care, scrubbing with soap and rinsing with lots of water before padding over to Hope and helping her to wash her feet and paws.

        “is this a communal washing?”  Orbon asked.  Sooleawa grinned:

      “It could be,”  she replied.

       “I think it should be,”  Patch replied, “it’s much more fun, and if we are to get the cubs to wash their paws and fur, it should be fun.  Um, Sooleawa, you terrified hope, that’s not good.  Make the washing of faces, paws and feet fun.”

        “I wasn’t terrified, not really patch,”  Hope protested, “it might have sounded like it, but I wasn’t, really I wasn’t.”

       “Glad about that,”  Patch said, “now how about if we get all the cubs in here and wash their paws and feet?”  Hope leapt out of the bath, shook herself dry and ran from the room.

       “Come back!”  Sooleawa screamed.

      “No!”  Hope yelled, skipping out of the door to find more cubs.  Patch, realising what had happened, laughed so hard he mannerly fell into the sunken bath.

        “That was really funny!”  he guffawed.

       “She made a bloody mess!”  Sooleawa roared.  Orbon, feeling Sooleawa’s bad language was too much, dipped a bar of soap into thaw after, then casually shoved it in her mouth, Sooleawa spitting and roaring with rage.

        “That’s what happens to cubs who swear,”  Orbon said.  Sooleawa washing her mouth out with fresh water from the tap.

      “ugh, yuck, that was horrid!”  she complained.

        “You can’t swear when cubs are about,”  Orbon said.  Sooleawa looked downcast and said nothing.

       “I’ve found cubs now!”  Hope yelled, trotting in with Baako and Roxy, the liger cub and bear cub staring at Orbon and Patch.

        “Hope said she wanted to wash our paws,”  Baako said, “and I’m up for that.  Mama Sushanti plays with my paws often, and washes them too, which I kind of like.”

          “And how about you Roxy?”  Orbon asked.

       “Mama Ekaterina told me to follow Baako,”  Roxy replied, “she said I needed my paws washed, but I washed them earlier, Patch helped me!”

        “I did,”  Patch replied, “but have you been out in the woods since?”

        “I have, and had just got back when Hope found me and mum,”  Roxy replied.

      “There you go,”  Sooleawa replied, “you need your paws washed.

        “You need your mouth washed Sooleawa!”  Hope exclaimed, “I heard what you said about the mess when I ran out of the door.”

        “What did she say?”  Baako asked.  Hope turned to him and whispered into his ear, the liger cub roaring with laughter.

         “Now you can’t say that!”  he laughed.

       “Sooleawa did,”  Hope replied, “she called it a bloody mess!”

        “Oh, oh dear,”  Patch laughed, covering his mouth with his paw.

        “Now this is getting silly,”  Orbon said smiling, “come to the tub Baako and Roxy, let’s wash your paws and hind feet.”  Baako ran to Orbon and leapt into the water.

       “Wash me then Orbon, please!”  Baako begged.  Orbon washed Baako’s paws and feet, then the liger cub splashed about, washing Orbon’s right hind foot.

      “Now your right hind foot is so clean I feel safe doing this!”  Baako yelled, Orbon laughing helplessly as Baako tickled his toes with his whiskers.

        “Lovely that,”  Sooleawa said laughing.

      “Lovely what?”  patch asked.

       “What Baako was doing,”  Sooleawa replied.

       “What was Baako doing?”  patch asked.

        “using his whiskers to tickle Orbon’s toes,”  Sooleawa replied.

        “ah ok,”  Patch said flatly, feeling left out of the initial laughter.

        “I remember when you used to find that sort of thing cute patch,”  Hope said.

       “I still do,”  Patch replied, “but second paw, as it were, it loses it’s cuteness a bit, especially if you’ve had to drag out of someone what happened.  Then the moment is gone, and the instant impact is not there.”  Hope saw patch’s expression, which the grey bear tried to hide behind one large paw.

        “Sorry,”  Hope said contritely.

        “I remember seeing cute things like you playing with your toes when you thought noone was watching Hope,”  Patch said hoarsely.

        “Sorry Patch,”  Hope said, padding up to him and touching his right hind foot with her paw, “I forgot you could see once.”

       “it wasn’t that long ago!”  Patch sniffed, “and now I get everything second paw, and it’s bloody hard to take.”

         “Would you rather we kept quiet?”  Hope asked.

        “I don’t know,”  Patch sobbed, “to say yes would be selfish, as you want to share things with me that you can see, but to hear these things after the fact is so difficult for me.  The impact is gone for me now.  I can’t witness, to take an extreme example, the intense concentration and pain on a mama bear’s or tigress, or lioness’s face when she’s pushing for all she’s worth, to deliver her cub, with sweating fur, closed eyes, clenched teeth  and curled toes, and then, as the cub slips free, the relief and then excitement as she opens her eyes and hears her cub’s first cry.  That doesn’t come across that well by touch.  I loved helping Freckles, but the full impact I knew should be there when Freckles delivered her cub into my paws wasn’t there any more, and I miss that so much.”

        “how did I look when I was playing with my toes?”  hope asked faintly.  Patch’s face lit up at the memory, saddening Sooleawa, hope and Orbon even more:

        “you had your right hind foot in your forepaws, playing with the toes of your right hind foot with your left forepaw, supporting your hind foot in your right fore,”  Patch replied, “you were bent a little forward, your eyes half closed as you concentrated on nothing else in the world than the touch of your forepaws on your hind foot, it was lovely to watch you, you played for as long as I watched, and that was a good five minutes.”

       “I’ll bet that was so cute,”  Sooleawa said.

      “it was,”  Patch replied, “and the worst of it is, that even if someone tells me a cub is playing with their toes now, I can’t get paws on, as they’d stop playing the minute I get close enough to touch them.”

        “I won’t,”  Hope said, “I won’t stop playing with my toes Patch.”

        “yes you will, it’s not the same if you know someone’s watching you Hope,”  Patch replied.  Hope looked round her at Sooleawa, who looked deep in thought, Roxy and Baako confused and anxious, and Patch distraught.

         “I’ll use my eyes and my paws,”  Hope thought, “what happened between Baako and Orbon was funny because it was spontaneous, and Patch can’t be that now.  I’ll look around me, be light on my paws and try to catch sight of others playing with their toes.  Maybe, maybe Patch can get a little of what I see through the spirits, maybe they’ll help him in some way.”

        “The concentration on the face of a mama delivering a cub is something to see,”  Orbon said, “as is the relief on her face when all goes well.  Truly wonderful.”

        “Did you get paws on with Freckles face when she was straining to deliver little Conrad?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “No,”  patch replied, “I was helping her, I couldn’t desert my post to do that.  Maybe next time, if I am present at the birth of a cub I’ll get totally paws on.”

         “Maybe Amafu will let you get paws on with her,”  Simba said, padding into the lie up, “she’s due to have my cubs any day now.”

         “is she?  How wonderful!  Patch said.

        “I’ve been telling Amafu all’s going to be fine, but she says she’ll scream and yell like her own mama did while delivering her into the world,”  Simba replied.  Patch smiled:

       “There’s no harm in that,”  he replied, “it’s all part of the process.  You should have heard Petra when she delivered you Simba, scream and roar she did, roll about and moan with pain, shrieking with pain whenever she pushed into her tail to deliver you.  Then Petra whimpered and whined as you stretched her, her paws pedalling the air like pistons as she lay on her side as you stretched her to her maximum.  I remember all that Simba.”

       “Patch?”  Amafu said, padding into the lie up, “Ekaterina told me you’d be able to help me deliver my cubs.”

        “You shouldn’t need any help, but I’ll hold your paw while you push,”  patch said, “but why didn’t Ekaterina take on the job?”

        “She said it’s your turn,”  Amafu said, “and as I’m in labour now, there’s not much time for negotiations I fear.”

        “You’re in, labour?”  Simba asked, his face registering terror.

       “A little, little contractions,”  Amafu replied, at least that’s what Ekaterina said, they’re quite painful to me, making me want to make an o with my mouth and shift my paws about, that kind of pain.”

        “How often do you get these pains?”  Patch asked.

       “one’s coming now!”  Amafu gasped, straddling her legs and whimpering, then, panting, she composed herself.

       “Sorry,”  she panted, “it grips me like that sometimes.”  Patch padded to Amafu and touched her shoulder with his paw:

       “Can I touch your belly my dear?”  he asked.  Amafu lay down on her side in assent, Patch gently touching her belly, while Simba looked sick.

          “two cubs,”  patch remarked, “maybe three, but definitely two.”  Amafu smiled:

        “I like that,”  she said, “the touch of your paws on my belly is nice.”  Patch stroked Amafu’s ears, then felt her tense her body.  Gently stroking her face with his paw, he felt her eyes close and teeth clench, drawing her lips back from her teeth, Amafu growled, then, wriggling, she opened her mouth and yowled her protest at the pain she was feeling.

       “That’s it,”  patch said gently, as Amafu panted, her mouth gaping.

      Oooooauoph!”  she whimpered.

        “it’s fine, you’re fine, the cubs are fine,”  Patch replied gently.

        “Sorry about that,”  Amafu said, “it hurt.”

        “I know,”  patch replied gently.

         “Get paws on if you like, you need to,”  Amafu replied.

        “I can get someone who can watch you,”  Patch said.

        “No, I don’t, don’t want that, really I don’t,”  Amafu replied.  Paws on is best, Freckles said so.  I want it too!  Paws on with my belly, paws on with my ears, paws on with my feet, paws on with my body, paws on with my legs, paws on with my cubs.  Please Patch, will you?”  Patch leant down and kissed Amafu’s nose.

        “I will, and thank you Amafu,”  he whispered, kissing her ear.

       “Good,”  Amafu purred, the sound deep and contented.

         “She will be all right won’t she?”  Simba asked anxiously.

        “Amafu will be fine,”  Patch replied, “she’s in labour, she’s not in danger.”

      “Even if I were, you could probably save the cubs,”  Amafu said.

       “I could,”  patch replied, “first with drugs to speed things up, then if all else failed, I’d call a human vet in.  We’d knock you out and deliver your cubs through your belly.”

         “I’ve heard that can happen,”  Amafu mewed, “though I want a natural birth for my cubs if I can manage it.”

       “There’s no reason why not,”  patch replied.

        “so my last sight won’t be of my newborn cubs then?”  Amafu asked.

        “I won’t do what Ekaterina did to mama Roxy,”  patch replied, “mama Roxy was already dead.  We don’t deliver cubs like that with living, healthy mamas.”

        “Ekaterina told me my mama might still be here if someone had found her sooner,”  Roxy said.  Patch kicked himself.

        “yes Roxy love,”  he replied, “for that I am more sorry than I can tell you.”

         “I know Patch,”  Roxy said, “mama said she often finds you crying for my mama.”

        “She shouldn’t have died Roxy dear,”  Patch said.

        “And you won’t let Amafu die if she gets into trouble will you,”  Roxy demanded desperately.

        “No,”  patch replied, “but we should not talk of this now Roxy dear, it’s not a good time.”

        “sorry Amafu,”  Roxy said, kissing the lioness’s nose.

         “I’m sorry about your mama little one,”  Amafu said, giving Roxy her paw as another contraction gripped her.  Curling the toes of all four paws, Amafu roared and yowled with all her voice, curling her toes tightly.

          “There, good!”  Amafu gasped when she came down from her effort, “that felt wonderful!”

       “the pain?”  Roxy asked.

       “No, screaming and yelling and curling my toes!”  Amafu laughed, “it’s such a relief!”

        “Good,”  Roxy replied gently, “you’re not like my mama, she was stressed, you’re not.”  Amafu looked at the brown bear cub:

        “Your mama was badly served by this community,”  Amafu said, “my mama wasn’t, and for that I’m grateful, though because of that, it makes your mama’s treatment even worse.”

         “Perdita should have called someone,”  Roxy said.

       “I know,”  Amafu replied, “she didn’t though, and your mama died.  Now though, I’ve got to deliver my own cubs, and it’s going to hurt.  I will scream and roar like your mama did little one, so if you don’t want to hear it, I’d go far from here.”

          “I want to,”  Roxy replied, “Amafu, I’ve got to see a birth going well, and a mama who is enjoying her labour.”

         “I am enjoying it,”  Amafu replied honestly, “I’m bloody loving it!”

        “Amafu!”  Orbon snapped.

         “let her alone Orbon,”  patch replied, “she doesn’t need the lingo police snapping at her tail.”

         “I hope you continue bloody loving it,”  Roxy whispered into Amafu’s ear, the lioness’s smile giving away the fact she’d heard every word.

         “I need to say ow again, very ow, a big ow!”  Amafu said, sounding like a cub.

       “Aaaaaaaaow!  Aaaaaaaaow!  Aaaaaaaaow!”  she squealed lustily.  Roxy hugged Amafu, lying down and cuddling close to her, slipping her paws around the lioness’s neck and resting her head on the floor, Amafu’s head resting against hers.

         “if I scream you’ll get an ear full,”  Amafu giggled.

        “Maybe that’s what I want,”  Roxy replied.

        “but what does Amafu want?  She’s having the cubs dam it!”  Simba snarled.

         “I’m fine here,”  Amafu said sleepily, “I am not being stopped from pushing, from breathing, from moving my paws, or from screaming and roaring.  It’s not time to walk about yet, despite what my cries might suggest.  Roxy, put your ear to my cheek, then you can hear if I begin to growl and whimper.”  Roxy did so, and Amafu tried an experimental growl, Roxy grinning.

         “it’s coming from deep inside you,”  she said.

       “Good,”  Amafu replied.

         “I don’t like all this experimentation!”  Simba yelled.

       “Who’s experimenting here?”  patch asked.

        “it’s Amafu, experimenting with the lives of our cubs!”  Simba yelled into Patch’s face.

        “the cubs are fine, and so is Amafu,”  Patch replied, “it’s Amafu’s choice what she does, and I will only veto her choice if she’s hurting the cubs, which, if the truth be told, are enjoying the calming atmosphere, which is not being helped by your constant complaining and yelling, so please, shut up, there’s a good chap.”  Amafu roared with laughter at this, her laughter cut short by a contraction as the cubs joined in, applauding by kicking with their tiny paws, Amafu wriggling, then roaring and screaming into Roxy’s ear.

        “Aaaaaaaaow!  Huaaaaaaaaaaooooowauw! Aaaaaaaaaw!  Aaaaaaaaaw!”  Amafu yelled as the contraction set up by the cub’s celebrations gripped her and she added to their discomfort by pushing down hard.  once they’d been shown that celebrating in such an exuberant manner caused them to be squeezed hard, they calmed down, much to Amafu’s relief, which she expressed by whimpering and sobbing.

        “That was intense,”  she panted, “Patch, please, if you’re going to say anything like that again, warn me first.  It was very funny, but the cubs got the joke too, and celebrated a little too much for my liking, which caused me pain, and then made me push.”  Patch promised he would.

        “You scream like that again, I’m off!”  Simba moaned.

        “Well close the door when you go out,”  Amafu replied, “for scream like that I will, especially when I start really feeling the cubs coming.”

       “Oh god,”  Simba groaned.

        “This is fun,”  Amafu said, “I feel peaceful, and I’m just obeying my body.  If I want to scream I will, curl my toes, I do, clench my teeth, fine, wriggle, good too.  everything’s fine at my end.”  Patch smiled broadly and stroked Amafu’s neck.

        “take it gently Amafu,”  he said smiling.

       “Amafu’s got brown eyes, cute pinkie black nose and paw pads Patch,”  Hope whispered, Patch smiling.

      “Thanks,”  he replied softly.

         Hurooooooawumph!”  Amafu complained, Patch feeling her wriggle and kick the air with her paws.

       “Ow, that hurt!”  Amafu gasped.  Patch massaged the curled toes of Amafu’s right forepaw, the lioness smiling and kissing his paw.

         “I’ll be screaming and roaring soon enough,”  Amafu said, “I’ll be climbing the walls too.”  Patch smiled and kissed Amafu’s nose and paws.

        “Will you wash my paws Patch?”  Amafu asked, “I heard something about clean paws being enforced here now.”

       “it’s a health issue really,”  Patch said, “with an increasing population we have to be careful about dirt and things like that.”

       “It’s common sense to wash paws when coming into the house,”  Amafu groaned, “I like that idea, teach the cubs too.  My two will, ow, ow, ow!”  Amafu shrieked in agony as her first real hard contractions took hold. Wailing, she braced all four paws and strained, screaming lustily.

         “it’s hurting!”  she yelled, wriggling and kicking.

         “Everything’s fine,”  Patch said, stroking the lioness’s sweat soaked neck and shoulder.

        “I wish you’d stroke my paws!”  Amafu screamed.  Patch sat down, Amafu scrambling into his lap and rolling onto her back, giving him access to all four of her paws.

        “Pushing like that is gonna be difficult,”  patch said.  Amafu growled:

       “I want paw massage, go on, I’ll push extra hard to make up for the awkward position.”

         “Okay,”  Patch replied, taking each of Amafu’s paws in his, massaging her sweating pads and curled toes before kissing her nose.  Amafu wriggled convulsively, then stretched out on her side, her paws pressed into Patch’s belly fur, her toes gripping fiercely.

          “That’s better!”  Amafu moaned, as a contraction gripped her and she was forced to bear down strongly.

         “it feels like I’ve really got something to push against now, I really want to push down so very hard!”  Amafu grunted, bearing down hard.  Patch heard a squelching sound, then a burst of fluid, Amafu roaring and moaning as her first cub emerged.  Patch, catching the cub as Amafu eased it out into the world, smiled down at the labouring lioness, who couldn’t see him, as she’d closed her eyes.

       huoooooooouooomph!”  Amafu groaned as she pushed, curling her toes with effort while bearing down into her tail with all her might.  Then whimpering, she panted hard and flexed her toes faster and faster as the cub stretched her.

       “Ow, ow, aaaaaow!”  Amafu screamed as her first cub was born.  Patch, cleaning the cub, gave it to Ekaterina, who’d padded in at the sound of Amafu’s cries.

         “I’ll keep the cub warm while you hold mama Amafu’s paws,”  Ekaterina said.  Patch felt Amafu’s paws pressing into his belly, her toes, claws sheathed, curling into his belly fur for support.

         “Aoaoaoaoaoaoaaoaoaoew! Aaaaaaaaow!”  Amafu screeched, then she gave vent to a long groan, “huoooooooouooomph!”  then more whimpering and whining announced the arrival of her second cub.”

          “That’s it Amafu,”  Patch said, cradling the mama lioness’s sweating body and smelling her strong scent, “you did it my dear, you were wonderful!”

         “I screamed and cried like a cub,”  Amafu replied.

        “You were wonderful Amafu!”  Ekaterina said, “and so were you Patch.”

        “I have never watched life come into the world while sitting in a warm bath before,”  Orbon replied, “it’s very nice.”

       “Bet your pads are wrinkled now though,”  Patch replied, while Amafu scrambled off his lap and rounded up her cubs, who were screaming for milk.

         “I never knew lion cubs could make so much noise!”  Simba shouted above the din of two hungry cubs proclaiming their need for food.

       “they are just so cute!”  Sooleawa laughed, Patch feeling one of the newborn cubs scramble into his lap.  Catching it, he stroked the cub’s back and head, the cub purring with contentment.  Amafu found them a few minutes later, having chased her eldest cub twice round the bathroom while screaming at him, and watched helplessly, as the cub had taken an impromptu dip in the sunken tub, Orbon supporting the cub until he was on the other side, before lifting him out of the water, the cub laughing delightedly at his own antics.

       “You are only a few minutes old and you are swimming!  That’s not good!”  Amafu mewed.  The cub laughed helplessly at the goings on, waving his paws in the air to dry them off.

       “My feet are all wet!”  the cub yelled.

        “You’re a pain!”  Simba yelled.

       “this is lovely,”  Sooleawa said.

       “What happened?”  Patch asked.

       “My eldest ran round and round and round, then leapt into the tub!”  Amafu panted, “I thought lions hated water?”

        “They are meant to, but here, anything’s possible,”  Ekaterina replied smiling broadly.

        “giving birth to my cubs was easy,”  Amafu said gruffly, settling down with her two cubs, who began drinking busily.

         “How long have I been sitting in this bathtub?”  Orbon asked.

        “Oh, about three hours,”  patch replied, “Amafu’s labour took three hours, and you’ve been in the tub for longer than that.”  Orbon stared down at his forepaws.

      “My pads are wrinkled,”  Orbon said, “what will my hind feet be like?”

       “Well let’s get you out of the tub, and we can find out,”  Ekaterina said.  Orbon clambered out of the tub, settling himself on the tiles.  Ekaterina examined his wet hind feet, finding very wrinkled pads.  Smiling, she got a towel and rubbed his hind feet to dry them, sprinkling talcum powder over them, Orbon staring at her work, his mouth wide open in shock.

       “What on earth are you shaking all over my hind feet?”  he asked.

        “it helps dry paws out,”  Ekaterina said,  Orbon snorting with fear.

        “I’ve never seen that,”  he replied.

       “Well neither have I, though I’ve used it often,”  Ekaterina replied, Patch roaring with laughter, others not getting the joke.

        “Good one Ekaterina,”  Patch said,  Grinning, Ekaterina rubbed the talc into Orbon’s hind feet , then his forepaws.

       “Is there anything you won’t use on me!”  Orbon complained.

       “yeah, explosive, aspic, nuclear weapons,”  Ekaterina replied.

       “What?”  Orbon asked.

       “You’re safe,”  Ekaterina replied, kissing his nose.

         “I’m out of my depth,”  Orbon sighed.  Ekaterina rubbed Orbon down with a towel, the male bear’s eyes shining.

         “She’s Patch’s!”  Simba snapped.

       “I know,”  Orbon replied, “though I still think she’s beautiful.”

        “I couldn’t produce cubs safely now anyway,”  Ekaterina replied sadly.  Orbon seeing her devastation, embraced her tightly.

         “it was horrid,”  Ekaterina said to Orbon.

        “Have you told Patch about it?”  Orbon asked.

       “yes,”  Ekaterina replied.

        “I wish I could have hugged my cub,”  Patch replied, “and in Mishka, I sometimes feel I do hug him.”

        “I’ve met Mishka, he’s a lovely bear,”  Orbon replied.

        “I love him dearly,”  Ekaterina replied, “I think my cub’s spirit helped him live, for he suffered the same problem my cub did.”

       “I heard you pulled him from mama Kamchatka,”  Orbon replied.

       “I did,”  Ekaterina replied, “it was a hard birth for both Kamchatka and me.  Kamchatka had no strength left, she just drew up her hind feet, held them out of the way with her forepaws and let me pull Mishka into the world.  Mama Kamchatka screamed and wriggled but held on until the end.”

       “She is now no longer here,”  Orbon said.

       “Indeed not,”  patch said sadly, “but she’s part of Koda, and Mishka, and of course Ekaterina.”

        “All names ending in A,”  Orbon replied, “sweet that.”

       “I hadn’t thought of that,”  Ekaterina replied smiling.

        “I don’t mind if you find Ekaterina sweet or cute,”  Patch said, “for I do too.”

         “I always wondered why mama bears grabbed their hind feet with their forepaws when they’re in labour,”  Orbon mused.

       “Because it gives us something to hold onto when roaring and straining,”  Ekaterina replied, “I’ve done it, and so has Patch when he delivered Sita.”

         “Freckles didn’t,”  Orbon said.

       “Some mamas don’t,”  Ekaterina replied, “but some do.  Grabbing your hind feet with your forepaws and holding on tight is a relief to mamas, as is playing with their own toes in early labour if they have no outside help.”

         “it looks so cute when they do that,”  Sooleawa said.

         “Does it?”  Aga asked, padding into the bathroom and staring at Amafu and her newborn cubs, “I grabbed my hind feet in my forepaws and held on tight, as I was going through hell.”

       “I would have rubbed your paws Aga,”  Orbon said.  Aga looked at Orbon with such devastation Orbon padded to her and hugged her.

         “Conrad got paws on with you when you delivered Bruin into the world I hope,”  Orbon whispered.

     “he did,”  Aga replied.

        “Patch,”  Amafu asked, “did you get paws on enough with me?”

       “I did,”  Patch replied, “I felt everything Amafu love, from your closed eyes and clenched teeth, to your curled toes and kicking paws.”

      “good,”  Amafu purred, drawing the word out as if it were some exquisite flavour, “I wanted that, I wanted you to know how I felt, and that I was loving every minute of your attentions., for you didn’t just explore me to make sure I was all right, you soothed me too.  I know I whimpered and whined, but I couldn’t help it, I really couldn’t.”

       “You were amazing Amafu,”  patch said, picking up one of her cubs and sitting it down on his lap before exploring it with his paws, the cub mewing and purring with pleasure.

        “I think you’ve made a little friend there too,”  Amafu laughed.  Patch smiled and tickled the cub’s belly, feeling it wriggle and wave its paws.

       “You have my male cub there,”  Amafu said, “I’m naming him little Aslan, after my sire, and the female cub, little Amafu.

        “Lovely,”  Patch said, “now who came into the world first?”

        “Little Aslan did,”  Amafu replied smiling.

      “but I wanted to come first!”  little Amafu yelled, “We fought, paws against paws, just before we were squeezed down the Tunnel!”

         “So that’s what all the pushing with paws was about,”  Amafu said to her youngest cub, “you and your brother were having a scrap at my expense!”

      “You pushed us into line though mama, you really pushed!”  little Aslan said.

       “I did,”  Amafu said smiling, “and you two tested me, though I regret nothing, and would do it all again.”

       “I wanted to scream like you did mama,”  little Aslan said, “I got squashed! My poor paws!”

       “I know little one,”  Amafu said, “I couldn’t help it.”

       “I know mama,”  little Aslan said with surprising gentility, kissing his mum’s paw, Amafu moved to tears.

      “oooah,”  she whimpered, sniffing hard.

        “Your cubs will do many things like that in your life Amafu,”  Sooleawa said.

        “did you kiss your mama’s paws?”  Amafu asked.  Sooleawa smiled and nodded.

       “Nose, paws and ears,”  she replied, “Ekaterina is lovely, as you know.”

         “Why did Ekaterina ask me to go to Patch?”  Amafu asked, “Not that I’m complaining or anything.”

       “I wanted Patch to comfort a mama in labour, to show him he could still do it,”  Ekaterina said.  Amafu looked at her.

        “So you set him up!”  she snapped.

       “I wanted it, deep down,”  Patch replied gently, “Amafu, if I didn’t want to help you, you’d have known it straight away.”

      “yes,”  Amafu said softly.

       “Now can I kiss your nose and paws Amafu?”  Patch asked.  Amafu rolled onto her back and waved her paws at Patch.

      “he can’t see you waving at him,”  Aga said, “Amafu, call to him.

      “I’m waving my paws at you,”  mama Amafu said.  Patch patted and stroked Amafu’s paws, the lioness purring and wriggling with pleasure, mewing delightedly as Patch kissed Amafu’s paws.

        “Your scent is strong mama,”  Patch said.

       “I haven’t washed since I had my cubs,”  Amafu said, “I’m sorry Patch.”  Patch embraced Amafu tenderly.

        “I love this,”  Amafu purred contentedly.

       “Thank you for letting me get paws on with you during the births of your cubs dear mama Amafu,”  Patch said horsely, “it was an honour for me.”

        “I will never forget it,”  she replied, “you gave me strength and reassurance Patch, I felt I could push and wriggle all day and not get tired.  I loved your touch on my body, especially my paws,I especially remember your touch on my paws.

        “I remember guiding your cub into the world,”  patch replied, “that was very special.”

         “Good,”  Amafu said, kissing his nose.

        “You sounded almost apologetic when you replied to Amafu,”  Ekaterina said, “Patch, tell me this, how else would you have helped Amafu if you couldn’t get paws on with her?  Getting paws on is what you and I must do, as we can’t see the mama in labour.”

      “Agreed,”  Patch replied, “I feel though that paws off is the way we do things.  Let mama get on with things.”

       “The labouring mama guides our paws,”  Ekaterina said softly.

      “I wanted you to get paws on, I really, truly did!”  Amafu mewed, “so no more apologising Patch.”  Patch grinned and hugged Amafu tightly.

        “let’s see how big your paws are compared to mine,”  Ekaterina said, measuring her paw against Patch’s.

       “your forepaw is the same size as Ekaterina’s,”  Orbon said, “so Ekaterina can fit her paws in the same tight places you could.”  Mine though, hmm, my paws are gigantic.”

       “small forepaws, big hind feet! Ooh yeah!”  Ekaterina laughed.

        “I thought my paws were much too big,”  Patch said.

       “No,”  Ekaterina replied, kissing Patch’s left forepaw, “they’re fine.”

         “I want to get paws on again,”  patch said, “it was wonderful!”

        “I think I’ll recommend you to other mamas to be,”  Amafu replied, “you are one reassuring midwife Patch.”  .”

        “I used to do that job,”  Patch replied.

       “Well get paws on again,”  Ekaterina said, “You can help a big cat, you can help a bear too.”

        “I think you should try getting paws on again Patch,”  Ekaterina said.

      “I will,”  patch replied earnestly.

        “You will do fine,”  Ekaterina replied.

       “I want to pretend I’m having a cub, is that okay?”  Hope asked.  Ekaterina laughed merrily.

       “Re-enacting what you’ve seen already?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “it’s better than beating each other up,”  Patch grunted, “I saw humans re-enacting what they’d seen on their televisions, and delivering a cub is less violent than that.”

       “so I can pretend to have a cub?”  Hope asked.

        “not here,”  Patch said gently, “somewhere else.”

        “So it is okay to re-enact the birth of a cub?”  Hope asked.

        “yes it is,”  Ekaterina replied, “I’ll bet you’ll have a lot of questions about yours Hope.”

        “yes,”  Hope said, “mama was very uncomfortable, and so was I, for a long time before I was born.  I felt dreadful!  I didn’t want to move, I felt sick!”

        “mama Anook was constipated,”  patch said, “no wonder you felt unwell Hope.”

        “it was her unblocking as it were, that allowed me to be delivered,”  Hope said suddenly, “I know that, someone told me that, though I can’t think who now.”

       “Was it a spirit?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “I was asleep,”  hope replied, “yes, it was a polar bear cub, well, a cub who had greyish white fur, and rough pads.  He said it was his duty to keep cubs alive when their mama’s weren’t able to, I didn’t understand him then, and I don’t know if I really do now.  He said he tried to give me the strength to live while the adults got themselves sorted.  He said cubs knew best about birth, that to allow them to come naturally was the best way, that he’d come naturally into the world, but hadn’t lived long in it as his mama had done wrong things, but was determined to make sure other cubs lived., even when their mamas did wrong things”

         “oooooooaoaoaoah!”  Ekaterina shrieked, covering her face with her paws and bursting into tears.

       “What’s wrong?”  Hope asked.

         “That cub you spoke to is Ekaterina’s dead cub,”  patch replied, “I’ve spoken to him, and yes he believes mama Ekaterina did wrong things and that if she’d delivered him into my paws, he would have survived.  He could not cry out to me, for Ekaterina didn’t open the door to her own spirit for me.  She shut me out that day.”  Ekaterina, now weeping freely, rocked back and fourth on her backside in misery.

         “So you can talk to the spirits of cubs?”  Amafu asked.  patch, now hugging Ekaterina, replied:

        “yes, and I will ask the spirits from across the bridge if they know of any cubs being born in the woodlands in future.  Then maybe, if they are in trouble, or their mamas are, I can help them before it’s too late.”

         “My cub was alive when he was born into the world,”  Ekaterina sobbed, “he was, I know he was, if only for a few minutes,  I, I did something so terrible!”

        “I don’t know what to say about that,”  Patch replied heavily.  Deeply upset, Patch padded from the lie up into the woods, and finding his way to the lagoon, he swam across it and found a moored up inspection boat, Cutting it loose, he scrambled in and lay down to think.

        “Tell me what happened little one,”  he asked in a whisper, “tell me what you felt, I won’t be angry or upset with you, for you did nothing wrong.”  Patch felt a body settle down beside him, it was warm and he felt a paw take his.

         “I was born barely breathing.  The birth sac had separated, but I was able to hang on until I felt the air on my face.  Mama left me to die, for she hated me.  I was like Mishka, so I knew Mishka could live, Ekaterina helped mama Kamchatka and I helped Mishka.  You could have helped Ekaterina, and me.”

        “I thought so,”  Patch replied, “I thought I could have helped.”

       “you could have reached inside and pulled me out, just like Ekaterina did with Mishka,”  patch’s cub’s spirit said.  Patch, inconsolable now, rolled over and embraced the owner of the paw which had held his throughout.

         “I’m here Patch,”  Sooleawa said, kissing the weeping male bear’s nose.

         “I don’t want Ekaterina to know I’m here,”  patch sniffed.

       “She won’t,”  Sooleawa replied, “though she knows what she did was more wrong than she ever let on to you.  She let her cub die, why was it she did everything she could to save Mishka?  She knew he was saveable, for she’d had the same experience as Kamchatka had.”

        “So My cub would have been able to live with a little help,”  Patch mumbled.

       Yes,”  Sooleawa replied softly.

     “oh shit!”  Patch sobbed.

      “Ekaterina let her cub die because she thought you’d be angry with her for who’s cub it was,”  Sooleawa said.

        “he wasn’t mine?”  Patch asked.

       “No Patch, he wasn’t,”  Sooleawa replied, “he was Kojack’s.  Sooleawa was, um, well, raped by him.”

       “Poor Ekaterina,”  Patch replied softly, “to make her atone for her lies seems cruel.”

       “She should have known you would not punish her if she’d come clean,”  Sooleawa replied.

        “So she let her cub die to cover up a crime against her,”  Patch whispered, “I don’t know what’s worse, the rape of Ekaterina by Kojack, or Ekaterina’s treatment of the resulting cub.  I do know though that she should know me well enough that she can come to me and tell me everything and anything.  I am hurt that she felt she couldn’t trust me enough not to blame her for what happened.”

        “You and she will have to come to terms with her lack of faith in you, and her deliberate neglect of her cub.”

      “Ekaterina knows what happens in this community if a cub is born due to illegal conquest,”  Patch replied.

      “Call it rape,”  Sooleawa spat, “for that’s what it is.”

      “Okay,”  Patch replied, “rape then.  Anyway, she knows that if it can be proven she is the victim, the cub will be adopted from her if she wants it to be.  She didn’t have to kill the cub.”

        “No,”  Sooleawa replied, “I know that, and so does she.  They say the truth comes out in the end, and it has just done so.”  Patch rested his chin on the rail running round the side of the boat.

        “I will have to talk to Ekaterina,”  he said, “and I don’t know what to feel, should I be sorry for her, but also angry with her to the point of beating her with a stick for what she did to the cub?”

       “Maybe she could do something to atone for her sins,”  Sooleawa suggested, “Ekaterina knows what she did, go to her Patch, go to her and tell her what you’ve found out.”

 

Patch felt the boat move beneath a heavy set of paws.  then he heard Sooleawa slip off the boat and swim away almost noiselessly.  Ekaterina, driven to Patch by a force she didn’t understand, lay down in the boat.

       “Ekaterina, tell me what happened,”  Patch said, “from beginning to end, tell me what happened, [please my love.”  Ekaterina, her paws shaking, swallowed hard.

       “I killed the cub Patch, the cub wasn’t yours Patch, Kojack, he, he raped me, I delivered the cub in the clearing, and I was going to tell you what had happened, but younger Brunetta made me think badly.  I buried the cub, and convinced myself he was yours, because, because I couldn’t bare to think of what had really brought him into the world.  My cookie eating was due to my shame at the rape, and at not being able to bring the cub to you for treatment Patch.  I didn’t think you’d help me, as I’d been raped by Kojack.  My faith in you was shaken, but you did nothing to shake my faith.”

       “Ekaterina, you know I’d help you through anything don’t you?”  Ekaterina choked back her tears.

        “I know, I know, I know Patch, I know in my heart, but my heart didn’t rule my head that day.  Now though Patch, I wish I’d come to you and told all.”

       “I wish you had too,”  Patch replied horsely, “please Ekaterina, please, don’t feel responsible for the rape.  What you are responsible for though is the death of that cub.”

        “I didn’t know what I was doing,”  Ekaterina replied, “I surfaced to find myself having buried the cub, mud on my paws from the burial.  Patch, I didn’t want to remember the rape, the birth, or anything, so I lied, though I knew I could never let a cub die ever again.  I knew I’d fight for every cub I got paws on with in my job, but I was so scared I’d mess things up, I dared not touch another labouring mama.”

         “You’ve hurt me Ekaterina,”  Patch said simply.  Ekaterina rested her head on Patch’s shoulder and burst into tears.

        “I deserve all my punishment and more,”  Ekaterina wept, “I know that now and knew it when I let the cub die and buried him.  Now, now I’m broken and wretched.”  Patch left Ekaterina on the boat, swimming back to dry land and padding back to the house.  Entering the house, he felt a paw touch his.

         “Ekaterina let the cub die Hope,”  Patch said.

       “Why?”  Hope asked.  Patch told her everything.

       “but, Sooleawa told me, she told all of us, that cubs were safe here,”  Hope replied.

       “They are, only nature should take a cub from its mama, and Ekaterina neglected her cub so it died.  She need not have done that.”

        “I want to meet that cub and give him a big cuddle,”  Hope said.

       “So do I,”  Patch replied, “but that’s not possible now.”

        “Couldn’t Ekaterina deliver the cub again, like jess did hers?”  Hope asked, “I’m sure Ekaterina would do that.”

        “I don’t think that’s possible Hope,”  Patch said sadly.  Hope hugged patch, snuggling up to the grey bear.

        “Poor Ekaterina,”  Hope said, “and poor you too Patch.  You would have helped her if she’d come to you after what Kojack had done wouldn’t you?”  Patch gulped hard:

       “yes Hope,”  he replied softly, “I would have helped her.  helped her deliver the cub, helped her cope with what happened to her, held her paw the whole way through.  I love her Hope, I can understand why she blocked the birth from her mind.  Though it’s not the cub’s fault, and it shouldn’t have been left to die.  I’m sorry for that cub.  I want to wrap my paws around him and hug him so tight.”

        “I think Ekaterina would too,”  Hope replied, “she wouldn’t have deliberately killed the cub, she was made irresponsible under stress.  She was so ashamed by what happened, she tried to block everything.”

       “I know,”  Patch said softly, “I am hurt that she didn’t come to me, and tell me everything.”

        “Now I will Patch,”  Ekaterina said padding into the house.  Her fur soaked from her swim, Ekaterina dried her fur and paws, then she padded to her lie up and sat wearily down on the rugs.

       “I need a drink,”  Ekaterina said, padding to the coffee pot and pouring herself a huge mug of the steaming black liquid.  Collapsing into her favourite beanbag chair, Ekaterina drank her mug of coffee, holding the handle of the mug in one paw as Patch had always done.

       “Ekaterina’s not lapping from the mug any more Patch,”  Hope observed, “she drinks coffee like you do now.”  Patch grinned.

       “Cultured now are you Ekaterina?”  he asked.  Ekaterina grinned.

      “Drinking coffee like this is wonderful,”  Ekaterina said, “lapping from the bowl is not so nice to do now.”

        “Ekaterina,”  Patch said, “can I sit with you for a bit?”  Ekaterina pulled him down beside her.  Hope, sensing they wanted to be left alone, left the room, but curiosity kept her listening at the door.

       “Why do you ask if you can sit with me Patch?”  she enquired, “you have as much right to sit with me, no, more right than anyone else.”

        “I don’t know why I asked,”  Patch replied softly, “I’m confused I suppose, I’m feeling as if I’m swimming through treacle at the moment.”  Ekaterina hugged Patch tightly.

         “I love you Ekaterina,”  Patch said softly, “please, if you get into trouble again, come and talk to me.”

        “I was so ashamed,”  Ekaterina replied, “how could I admit to being raped by Kojack?”

       “You’re not to blame Ekaterina,”  patch replied, “I wish you’d told me, we could then have delivered your cub in comfort and adopted him out to another mama if you felt you could not look after him.”

        “I knew that in my heart,”  Ekaterina replied, “but my head told me I was in trouble, that you’d hate me for being weak.”

       “I promised I’d look after you Ekaterina,”  Patch replied softly.

        “I know, I know!”  Ekaterina replied sobbing into Patch’s fur.

       “Hug me patch!”  she begged.  Patch embraced Ekaterina, stroking her back and ears, then kissing her paws.

       “Ekaterina,”  Patch said gently, “would you ever think about delivering the cub into the world as jess did peter?”  Ekaterina shook her head.

        “I couldn’t do it,”  she replied.

       “What if you could do it?”  Patch asked, “would you do it for your cub?”

       “I would do it for the cub,”  Ekaterina replied, “but that will never happen.”

        “it happened for Jess and Peter,”  Hope said, padding in to the lie up, “Furcone told us the tale today.”

       “I will see if the cub wants to live this side of the bridge,”  Patch said.

       “I’d like to meet your cub Ekaterina,”  Hope said.

       “I regret letting the cub die now,”  Ekaterina said.

        “He knows that Ekaterina,”  Patch said gently.

        “How do I apologise to him Patch?”  Ekaterina asked.

     “lie quietly in your lie up, and open your mind up to the spirits,”  patch advised.  Ekaterina kissed his nose:

        “I wish I could speak with the spirits,”  she said, “but it’s not so easy for me.”

       “go somewhere quiet, lie down and let your mind drift,”  Patch replied softly.

         “I’ll do that,”  Ekaterina said, padding away into the woods.  Finding herself a quiet spot in the midst of some bushes, she settled down to think.  Sitting on the leaves, she crossed her paws over her belly and thought about her dead cub.  Ekaterina replayed the sights sounds, sensations and emotions of that day years ago, so long ago it seemed.  Ekaterina relived the birth of her cub, and the events after, she dimly remembered biting her cub’s paw, then finally coming back to her senses with mud on her paws and a dry mouth, feeling hatred for herself in her heart.

        “I wish I’d taken you into the house little one, I truly mean that,”  Ekaterina whispered.

 

Ekaterina was brought from her reverie by the sound of a branch cracking, and a pained whimper.  Ekaterina twitched her ears, hearing the sound of four paws, well three paws and one stumbling paw, left fore, Ekaterina thought.  Ekaterina twitched her ears some more, her paws sweating.

        “Who’s there?”  Ekaterina asked.  the shuffling, scuffing sound came closer, the whimpering also, What ever it was seemed in considerable discomfort.

        “help me, please!”  a voice whimpered.  Ekaterina swallowed hard and crawled from her refuge, stopping the limping newcomer.  Instantly she recognised the newcomer’s scent, and nearly ran away.

         “I need help, I’m lost, alone, and feeling unwell,”  the newcomer mumbled into Ekaterina’s coat as, unable to stop herself, Ekaterina hugged the newcomer tightly, his paws clinging to her.

        “I’ll take you indoors,”  Ekaterina whispered, “how did you survive all this time?  I buried you!  I thought you were dead!”

         “I dug my way out, and stumbled around the dark part of the woods, hiding from anyone, now though, now I need help, please help me mama!”  the half grown cub sobbed.

       “I will help you, I’m sorry I didn’t before,”  Ekaterina whispered.

      “My paw hurts,”  the cub whimpered, “it’s very painful.”  Ekaterina reached for the cub’s left forepaw instinctively, the cub whimpering with the fear of pain.

        “I did this,”  she said, “I’m sorry little one,”

       “Why mama?”  the cub asked.  Ekaterina told him everything.

         “Patch sounds a lovely bear,”  the cub said, “if you’d gone to him, you’d not be crying now, and I’d not be cold and wet with a sore paw.”

        “yes little one,”  Ekaterina sobbed.

       “maybe he will be able to cure my paw and your tears?”  the cub asked

        “he won’t find us here,”  Ekaterina replied, “I don’t know where I am in the woods.”

       “he will find us,”  the cub said, “I am sure of that.”  Ekaterina hugged the weeping cub to her, stroking his dirty fur and kissing his wet nose.

         “I can’t find my way home,”  Ekaterina replied, “now we both need rescuing.”

         “I am freezing cold!”  the cub whimpered, “I don’t know how I survived this long, it’s been a miserable time.”

        “For both of us little one,”  Ekaterina whispered.

       “Now come home you two,”  patch said, resting his paw on the back of Ekaterina’s injured cub.

       “I can’t walk very far,”  the cub said.  Patch picked the cub up and padded with him to the house, Ekaterina following him.

       “I feel a little unsafe being carried by a male who is not my sire,”  the cub said.

         “I won’t harm you,”  Patch mumbled.

      “My left paw hurts,”  the cub whimpered.

       “I will help you,”  Patch said.  Patch laid Ekaterina’s cub on a soft bed, then set to checking him over.

       “One crushed paw, but that’s it, nothing else, a bit thin maybe,”  Patch mused.  Smiling, Patch set to washing the cub with gentle care.

       “hang on, this is sow’s work!”  patch grunted, Ekaterina laughing at his antics.

       “Now I’ll take over,”  she said, getting into the tub to wash her cub.

      “Scrub the cub in the tub,”  Ekaterina chanted, her unnamed cub laughing merrily.

       “You have the most gorgeous fur and paws,”  Ekaterina said.  Ekaterina’s cub snuggled up to her, kissing her nose and paws.

        “Howe did you survive?”  Ekaterina asked, “I didn’t give you milk or anything.  So who did?”

      “I don’t know,”  her cub replied, “but I got fed somehow.”

       “Why come back to me after all this time?”  Ekaterina asked, “I am the last bear you’d want to see I think.”

        “you asked for a chance to meet me,”  the cub replied, “I knew you were sorry for what you did.  So here I am.”

       “I shouldn’t have abandoned you little one,”  Ekaterina replied gently, grooming her cub from nose to paw pads.

        “I knew you couldn’t really hate me,”  the cub said, “for you’d not damaged me at all, apart from biting my paw.  indeed, it was that which woke me up a little, the pain was awful!”

       “I’m so sorry!”  Ekaterina wept, her cub stroking her face with his paw.

       “now I will do the best I can for you,”  Ekaterina said softly to her cub.

       “I want a hug,”  the cub whimpered.  Ekaterina dried her cub off, then fed him with warm, sugary milk.

        “the milk is nice mama, but a hug would be even better,”  the cub said.  Ekaterina smiled and hugged her cub.

        “I’m sorry I left you to die,”  she whispered.

        “I have been told why you left me,”  the cub said, “and I accept your apology.”

       “now I’ll never leave you,”  Ekaterina replied, “I punished the wrong bear.”

 

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