Powerful paws.

 

 

Ekaterina and Patch slept deeply into the morning, Ekaterina waking before her mate, finding herself enveloped in his warm, comforting embrace.

       “he does love me,” Ekaterina thought,” Patch does love me from nose to tail.”

       “Patch does love you from nose to tail Ekaterina,” a voice whispered in her ear, a nose gently brushing her ear as the voice spoke.  Ekaterina smiled broadly as her paw was engulfed in his larger one, Patch’s grip warm and comforting.

      “I love you pure blossom,” patch whispered, Ekaterina laughing as she recognised the meaning of her full name, Ekaterina Adsila, a name she’d never used, but hadn’t forgotten.

       “And I love you Pihoqahiak,” Ekaterina replied gently.  Patch grinned.

      “My paws don’t wander any more,” he replied.

     “Oh yes they do,” Ekaterina said smiling, “and we all know where they wander.”  Patch laughed.

      “My paws know where they are going,” he replied softly.

       “Mine do too,” Ekaterina replied softly.

       “Okay my princess,” Patch said gently, “and a princess you are.”  Ekaterina giggled:

        “You flatter me much,” she laughed.

       “You are my deputy, you can represent the community if your paws are on the spot,” Patch replied softly.  Ekaterina sighed:

      “But I am blind, noone will take me seriously,” Ekaterina said.

       “They will take you seriously if you want them too,” patch said gently, “your mamas take you seriously, a mama in labour takes you seriously when she’s in pain and you soothe her with gentle paws.  Ekaterina Adsila, your paws are your communication tools.  You speak volumes with your paws.”

       “Maybe one day, one day I’ll learn to speak with my paws again as I used to,” Ekaterina said wistfully, “right now, my paws are confused and upset, much like their owner.”

       “I know they are,” Patch replied, “I will try to help you Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina kissed patch’s nose with tenderness and love.

       “I will trust my paws more often,” Ekaterina said.

       “Your paws are beautiful, from tops to pads,” Patch replied.  Ekaterina smiled and touched Patch’s nose with the toes of her right forepaw.

       “You are able to see patch,”  Ekaterina said, “so why are you so in touch with your paws, whereas I, who was blind, then could see, and am now blind again, lost touch?”

        “I don’t know Ekaterina love,” Patch replied, “I’ve just been very tactile all my life.  Climbing, playing, exploring with my paws.  I hardly used my eyes at all when jess and I played, as we found we could be gentler if we played in the dark.  We’d play by touch for hours and hours.”

       “So that’s it!”  Ekaterina exclaimed, “You learnt from birth, and kept it up for the whole of your life, unlike me, who learnt from birth, then forgot how to play with gentility when I got sight.  Now I need teaching all over again.  Patch, in the playroom, when you and I were playing, I felt my tension leave me in waves, and the tension left through my paws into yours.  I hope, hope you aren’t feeling unwell because of that.”  Patch smiled and hugged his mate:

      “Do you think I’m feeling unwell?”  He asked.  Ekaterina shook her head decisively.

       “No,” she replied gently.

        “I love you literally from nose to toes Ekaterina,” Patch said softly.  Ekaterina smiled and buried her face in Patch’s thick warm fur.  His scent, warm and a little spicy to her nose, thrilled her completely.

        “You are always so clean and smell so dam fresh!”  Ekaterina said.  Patch smiled and ruffled her ears, a sensation which made Ekaterina instantly want to curl into a ball and suck her paw like a cub, though she resisted the temptation easily.

        “Curl up and suck your paw if you like,” Patch said suddenly.  Ekaterina almost choked with surprise.

       “I forgot,” she said, “you are telepathic sometimes.”

       “It is that I suppose which allows me to sense when a mother is in labour,” patch replied.

       “I wish I had that gift,” Ekaterina said, “it would come in useful.”

       “You need to find out what gifts you have already,” Patch said softly.

       “I threw them away, almost,” Ekaterina mumbled.  Patch ruffled Ekaterina’s ears again, the she bear catching her breath.

       “Don’t do that,” she begged half heartedly, “I don’t want to look silly sucking my paw.  Patch smiled and nibbled her ear.

       “Do you know you suck your paw when you’re asleep Ekaterina?”  Patch whispered.  Ekaterina snorted:

       “I don’t!”  She snapped, “Do I?”  Patch smiled and replied:

       “Yes Ekaterina, you are turning into your mother.”  Ekaterina giggled and then sighed sadly.

       “Mama Kamchatka was a beautiful bear,” she replied softly, “I wish I could live my life as she did hers.”

      “Live your life as yourself, not as others want you to live it,” Patch replied.

       “What I mean is be good and kind, a loving mama, the one with the gentle paws, you know?”  Ekaterina asked.  Patch kissed her nose:

       “I know,” he replied softly.

       “I’m glad you two are getting on well again,” Mishka said, touching patch’s right hind foot with his paw.

       “I love Patch, and he loves me,” Ekaterina replied, unconcerned at Mishka’s intrusion.

       “I know you suck your paws when you sleep mama Ekaterina,” Mishka said, “I’ve touched you while you’ve been at it.  It’s your right forepaw you suck on.”  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

        “I don’t know,” she sighed, maybe I am turning into my mother.”

      “Not a bad thing,” Mishka replied, “your mama, mine too, was a lovely bear.”  Ekaterina swallowed hard.

        “Mama Kamchatka would never have lied about a dead cub,” she said, “I feel awful that I did.”

       “Well you’re setting your paws on the path to sorting things now,” Mishka replied, “and that’s a good thing in my book.”

       “Now I’m hungry,” Ekaterina said, getting to her feet and bouncing on her toes to get circulation into her paws.  Sitting down, she began to massage her hind paws, trying to massage them into life.  Baingana padded in with his mother, Nala smiling at Ekaterina’s paw play.

      “You look so cute mama,” Baingana said to Ekaterina.  Ekaterina smiled, Baingana padding up to her and kissing her nose.

        “Thank you little one,” Ekaterina said softly.  Ekaterina got to her feet and padded from the room, Patch stretching out on the rugs in the place where she’d lain a minute before.

        “Just like a cat you are Patch,” Nala mewed, “seeking out the warmest place.”  Patch grinned hugely and closed his eyes relaxing completely.

        “”Patch?”  Ekaterina said some time later, “I’ve brought you some food.”  Patch woke, rubbing his eyes with his paws.

       “Hmm?”  He asked sleepily, “oh Ekaterina, thanks love.”

       “You lie!”  Baingana growled, “Ekaterina, you didn’t bring the food, Sid did!”

        “Shut up!”  Nala snapped, “She asked Sid to bring the food because she could not.  The thought was there, and that’s the main thing, so shut your mouth!”  Sid grinned at Nala and set the tray down, Ekaterina sorting the tea and toast, Patch’s nose telling him she’d remembered his favourite topping, peanut butter.

       “Thanks Ekaterina love,” he said, reaching out with his huge right forepaw for a piece of toast.  Ekaterina, going for the same piece, found she had one side, Patch holding the other.  Grinning, she pulled, the toast tearing in half.

        “Sweet,” Sid said, Ekaterina grinning at him.

       “That was hardly worth it!”  Baingana snarled.

      “It’s the thought that counts,” Nala mewed, getting fed up with her son cub.  Ekaterina and Patch ate the scraps of toast, then drank tea.  Ekaterina, exploring the contents of the tray with her paws, found another flask on the tray.

     “What’s in this?”  She asked.  Patch smiled and replied:

      Orange juice, taste it, it’s sharp and good.  Ekaterina poured some juice into her bowl, now empty of tea and lapped carefully, the sharp taste of the orange juice clearing her head, waking her up.

      “Wow!”  She exclaimed, “It’s fantastic!”  Patch laughed merrily and poured himself a glass of juice.

      “How come you can pick the glass up like a human, whereas Ekaterina can’t?”  Nala asked.

     “Ekaterina could,” Patch replied, “she hasn’t been shown how, that is all.  Remember, I lived with humans for years, picking up most of their mannerisms along the way.”  Nala looked sick.

      “I don’t like the sound of that,” she mewed.

       “I remained true to myself,” patch said, “though I managed to pick up a few party tricks, if you see what I mean.”

       “Disgusting,” Nala growled.

       “And you never performed for the humans?”  Ekaterina asked, “Nala, you lived in their park for years.”

        “I did,” Nala replied, “but I wasn’t a circus animal, for that you’d need to talk to Lilly.  She lived in a circus, poor thing.”

 

 

Indeed, Lilly lay in her den, talking to her cub Cinders about her previous life.

       “I didn’t dislike the circus life,”  Lilly said, “I wanted more though, I was tormented by dreams of another place, of being free, not in the wild, I didn’t want that, hadn’t been born to it or anything like that, but I wanted something more.”

        “This place do you think mama?”  Cinders asked.

       “I think it must have been,” Lilly replied, embracing cinders and stroking her back, “I had a dream of a bear, of Patch I found out later, which would take me from my cage and let me do my own thing.  Of course, he did, and now, now I’m free to do what I choose.”

       “Have I met patch?”  Cinders asked, “I know I’ve met his mate, Ekaterina, but patch?”

      “He’s a big bear with soft paws and a rather motherly manner,” Lilly replied.

       “But you told me all male bears were hard pawed and bullies,” Cinders replied, “that Kuruk, oh dear, he’s very hard pawed.  He sounds so awful!”

       “He’s not hard pawed at all,” Lilly laughed.

      “I can hardly understand his language!”  Cinders whimpered, “He’s loud and clumsy and awful.”

       “Kuruk isn’t anything of the sort,” Lilly said sharply.

        “So how did Patch find you?”  Cinders asked, changing the subject.

       “He saw me in a dream,” Lilly replied dreamily, “he saw me in his sleep and came to find me.”  Cinders looked up as a massive polar bear entered the room.  Knut, now half grown, looked upon cinders as a younger playmate, even though he was much older than she.  Cinders, seeing Knut, ran to him, Lilly snorting with fright and putting herself between Knut and Cinders.

       “Hey!”  Knut grunted, “what’s all this?”

      “Keep away from my cub!”  Lilly yelled.

      “Oh come off it mama,” Knut said, sitting down, “I’m not going to hurt little cinders.

       “We’ve played before mama,” Cinders said incautiously, Lilly staring at her, then lashing out at Knut.

      “Keep, your, paws, off, my, cub!”  Lilly yelled, slapping Knut with her paw.  Knut took the beating with good humour, then grinning, he pinned Lilly down under his paws in a swift attack which had Cinders squealing with fright!

       “No!”  Cinders screamed, as Knut kissed her mother’s nose, drummed on her belly with the flat of his forepaws, then let her go.

       “Get up mama,” Knut said, the brown bear mother struggling to her feet.

       “You had me scared,” Lilly said shakily.

        “I had you beaten too,” Knut said conversationally.  Lilly gasped with realisation and shock.

       “You did, you did,” she mumbled.

      “Were you going to hurt my mama?”  Cinders asked Knut.  Knut shook his head:

        “Now why would I do that little one?”  He asked.

         “I don’t know,” cinders replied, “mama looked like she was frightened, really frightened.”

       “I was,” Lilly said gruffly.

      “Now can we play?”  Cinders asked.  Lilly, feeling weak and out of sorts, looked at her cub:

        “Me play with you?”  She asked, “Cinders, I can’t, I’m,”

      “No, not you mum,” cinders replied, “me and Knut I mean.”  Lilly covered her face with one paw, confused and anxious.

       “Please Knut,” Lilly begged, “please, look after my little one,” her voice cracked with emotion, “she’s all I’ve got.”  Knut smiled, knelt and kissed Lilly’s nose and paws.

        “I will treasure your cub’s life as my own,” he said gravely.

       “It sounds like you already have made paw contact with her,” Lilly roared.

       “Yeah,” Knut said smiling, “you have one sweet cub there Lilly.”  Lilly, now furious, slapped Knut with her paw.

      “You rogue!”  She yelled.

       “No,” Knut said smiling, “playful cub I think.”  Cinders danced about on her toes, for she’d been long on her paws by now, skipping around the lie up, making her mother dizzy.

       “Be off with you both!”  Lilly said, chasing Knut and Cinders out of the lie up.  Knut laughed as he ran, Cinders sprinting to keep up.

       “I’ve only got short legs Knut, slow down!”  Cinders gasped.

        “I don’t want your mama to change her mind and stop us from playing together,” Knut said.

        “Slow down!”  Cinders panted.

       “Come,” Knut said, letting Cinders clamber on his back.  Then he ran to the soft play room and dumped her in the foam pit.

       “Silly that,” Patch said padding into the room.

     “Have you taken off your adult paws?”  Knut and Cinders asked.  Patch laughed merrily and ran back to the door to remove his adult paws.

       “You have cubbish paws all the time patch, so no need to remove your adult ones,” cinders said.

       “Knut squashed me Patch!”  Lilly yelled, running in after her cub.

      “Did he?”  Patch asked, having watched the whole thing.  Smiling, he tripped Lilly, the she bear landing on her back with a squeal of indignation.  Patch kissed Lilly’s nose then helped her to her feet.

       “You bully!”  She yelled, though knew her heart wasn’t in it.  Patch waved to cinders, who was clambering out of the foam pit.

        “Play well you two,” patch said.  Lilly now furious, reared onto her hind feet and squared up to Patch.

      “Fight me will you?”  She asked.  Patch grinned, bowed to Lilly, casually picked her up in his paws, and slung her into the foam pit.

        “Oi!”  She yelled, sprawled on her back in the pit, Cinders and Knut waving their paws and laughing at her.

       “I’ll get you both, all three of you actually!”  Lilly yelled, floundering her way from the pit.  Patch dragged Lilly from the pit then helped her to her feet.

       “I feel humiliated and degraded!”  Lilly roared, “I can’t even protect my own cub!”

       “That’s because your cub is not in danger, and you know it,” Patch said warmly.  Lilly snorted and turned her back on Patch, who kissed her ear and rested his paws on her shoulders.

        “Would you give me a cub Patch?”  Lilly asked suddenly.

       “What?”  Patch asked.  Lilly turned to him and asked again:

      “Would you give me a cub? Like Qingshan did?”

        “I won’t,” patch replied, “Lilly,  think of Ekaterina here, I won’t do it.  I love her with all my heart, my paws and my being.  I can’t do what you ask of me.”

       “Sod you patch, you could, your mate is barren she can’t have a cub!  I’m not asking you to raise the cub!”  Lilly screamed.  Patch turned away from Lilly, his eyes distressed.

         “I won’t do it Lilly,” he replied.  Ekaterina, having heard everything from the doorway, padded to Patch and took his paw in hers.

         “Thank you,” she whispered into his ear.

        “Come,” Patch said, leading Ekaterina out to the woods and down the track to the outside den where she’d had her first cub.  Ekaterina recognised the outdoor den, the memories of Rowena’s birth and early life flooding back into her mind as her feet touched the soft quilted flooring.

       “I remember this place,” she said to Patch, who sat down, gathering her into a huge embrace.

        “Now you and I need to get back to what we were,” Patch said.  Ekaterina snuggled into his hug:

      “I think you’re so sweet Patch,” she said.

      “Only think?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina blushed:

      “You know what I mean!”  She said half seriously.

        “I’m sorry,” a voice said, “sorry to bother you both, “where can I find the leader of this community?”  Patch nudged Ekaterina.

       “I need to relieve myself,” he said, “could you talk to the newcomer while I do that.  Ekaterina thought of protesting, but she gathered her wits just in time.

      “Yes Patch,” she said, getting to her feet and padding to the door.

       “You can’t see me can you,” the newcomer said.  Ekaterina had to admit she couldn’t.

       “No,” she admitted.

        “That other bear could see me though,” the newcomer replied, “why did he leave a crippled wretch alone with a newcomer, after all, it doesn’t give a good impression does it?”

       “My mate needs to use the loo,” Ekaterina said, “I’m deputy to him while he does that.”

       “I won’t talk to you!”  The newcomer said.

        “I’m going to be unavailable for some time!”  Patch yelled, “So you’ll have to talk to her!”  Ekaterina smiled, realising what Patch was doing.

       “Where have you come from?”  Ekaterina asked, “oh, but I’m forgetting my manners, come in, and I’ll whistle up some tea and something to eat, how would that be?”

        “I, I, it is cold out here,” the newcomer replied, “Yes, I suppose I’ll come in.”  Ekaterina drew back from the doorway, hearing the newcomer’s paws on the rugs.  She patted a place on the floor where the newcomer could sit, and was glad when the newcomer sat down.  Ekaterina reached out a paw to a phone on the wall and put in a call to Sid, who agreed to bring tea, toast and orange juice.

       “Tea, hot toast with butter, and orange juice on its way,” Ekaterina said.  The newcomer looked Ekaterina up and down, and then looked around at the lie up.

       “It’s rather cosy in here,” she said.  Ekaterina smiled and asked:

      “What’s your name?” 

      “My name’s Candy,” the newcomer said, “I’m a bear.  Ekaterina smiled broadly, hearing Candy gasp.

       “What?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Nothing,” Candy gabbled, “nothing at all.”

        “The toast should be here in a minute,” Ekaterina replied, “I’ll serve.”  Patch padded back from his toilet and sat down apart from his mate and the newcomer.  Candy saw he was watching her, though he didn’t intrude.

       “What’s your name?”  Candy asked.

      “My name’s Ekaterina,” Ekaterina said, “ah, and here comes Sid with our toast and tea.”  Sid padded in, poured tea and juice, and buttered the first slices of hot toast.

        “Enjoy,” he said.  Then he looked at Patch, who shook his head and mouthed his thanks.

      “Let’s eat!”  Ekaterina said, “I’m famished.”  Candy looked at the toast in front of her, then at the jars of jam, and one which held something yellow.

       “What’s this?”  She asked.

     “What’s what?”  Ekaterina asked, “hand whatever it is to me, and I’ll tell you, or guide my paw, here,” Candy, feeling slightly silly, guided Ekaterina’s paw to the jar.

      “Ah!”  Ekaterina said smiling and whipping off the lid, “this dear Candy is honey!”  Candy stared in fascination then watched incredulously as Ekaterina got a spoon from the tray and covered her piece of toast with honey.

     “There,” Ekaterina said.  Candy stared open mouthed.

       “Have you never seen honey covered toast before?”  Ekaterina asked.  Candy took a tentative bite of her toast.

       “It’s lovely,” she said when she could speak again.  Ekaterina smiled once more, Candy gasping with shock once again.

      “What’s the matter?”  Ekaterina asked.  Candy looked into Ekaterina’s sightless eyes.

     “Can I hold your paw?”  Ekaterina asked.  Candy gave Ekaterina her paw, knowing she couldn’t keep her thoughts secret for long.

        “You look like a mother to all lost cubs,” Candy blurted.

       “Maybe,” Ekaterina replied.  Ekaterina pulled a piece of toast from the rack, buttered it, and then spread honey on it.  Candy stared at her, then smiled as Ekaterina handed her the toast.

      “Eat my dear cub,” Ekaterina said softly, Candy eating the well buttered and honeyed toast.  Candy closed her eyes, her whole sense focused through her mouth as her brain was thrilled by the honey, bread and butter.

       “Tea?”  Ekaterina asked, candy watching as Ekaterina poured tea.

       “Now drink,” Ekaterina said, holding the bowl for Candy, who finished her toast and drank deeply of the tea.

        “That was amazing!”  Candy said.  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

       “I am so glad,” Ekaterina said softly.  Candy looked at Patch, who moved across to sit beside her?

        “You forced me to deal with Ekaterina didn’t you,” Candy said.  Patch nodded:

        “You are better for it I think,” he said.  Candy nodded.

       “Where is your home?”  Ekaterina asked.  Candy buried her face in her paws, then, whimpering, she ran to Ekaterina, threw herself bodily at the mama bear and clung to her.

      “What’s wrong?”  Ekaterina asked the weeping bear.

        “My mama got killed on the road!”  Candy sobbed.

       “How long have you been roaming alone?”  Patch asked.

        “Days,” candy wept, “my mama was killed outright on the road.”  Patch nodded, he’d not felt any distressed spirits recently.

        “Now you are safe,” Ekaterina said softly to Candy, rubbing the half grown cubs back with her paw.

        “Now let’s get you washed, then you can sleep,” Ekaterina said.  Candy followed Ekaterina and Patch to the house, and up to Patch’s lie up, where he ran a bath before both he and Ekaterina helped candy into the tub.

       “Let’s wash you Candy,” Ekaterina said.

      “I need to relieve myself,” Candy said, “where can I do that?”

       “Come,” Patch said, helping the dripping bear from the water and along to the relieving place.  Candy relieved herself then washed her backside and paws as Patch directed.  Once this was done, she padded back to the bathtub.

       “Take two?”  Ekaterina said smiling.  Candy sat in the tub, the warm water soothing her nerves and unscrambling her brain.

        “Now I’m feeling better,” Candy said, snuggling up to Ekaterina in the bathtub.

        “What’s going on in here?”  Mishka asked, padding into the bathroom.

        “We found a lost half grown bear cub,” Ekaterina said.  Mishka clambered into the bathtub, touching Candy’s right hind paw with his forepaws, Candy feeling her toes curling beneath the water.

        “Oooah, wow!”  Candy gasped.

      “What’s he doing with your paws?”  Ekaterina asked.  Candy bounced about with pleasure:

       “Something wonderful,” she said, “stroking my toes and rubbing my bunched pads.  I’ve curled my toes, or rather they curled themselves, and I can’t stop them!  It feels good anyway.”  Mishka rubbed the tops of Candy’s toes with his paw from his position at right angles to her right hind foot, Candy giggling and bouncing about even harder, spraying Ekaterina and Patch with water.

        “Paws off my hind feet!”  Candy laughed, but Mishka and she knew she didn’t really want him to stop massaging her right hind foot.

        “Can you wash candy Mishka?”  Ekaterina asked.  Mishka smiled and nodded:

       “I’ll do that,” he replied, Candy embracing Mishka when Ekaterina left the tub.

        “Your paws like mine,” Mishka ventured.  Candy laughed:

      “They do,” she said, “they’re sticking to yours quite well, even with the water between our pads.”

       “So you feel it too?”  Mishka asked.  Candy nodded and kissed Mishka’s nose.

       “I was rather hesitant when first meeting your mama,” she said, “but now, now I know where she is coming from.  How she communicates is very nice.  I can get used to paw communication.”

       “I can’t use my eyes either,” Mishka said.  Candy kissed his nose.

      “I know, I can feel that,” she said.

       “How can you feel that?”  Mishka asked.

       “Your paws tell me,” Candy replied, “you can touch my paws unobtrusively, and not cause offence, I can’t think of a bear with sight that could do that.  I’d have to know them well first.”

       “It’s just like looking at someone before you touch them, trouble is, Mishka can’t look in the traditional way,” patch said.  Mishka washed Candy from ears to paw pads, the she bear loving every minute of his careful ministrations.

        “Your touch is lovely Mishka,” Candy said.  Mishka smiled, and embraced Candy with loving paws.

        “Hey!”  Candy yelped, though she didn’t withdraw.

       “Can I kiss your nose?”  Mishka asked.  Candy snuggled up to Mishka and felt him kiss her nose.

 

Meanwhile, in Aga’s lie up, Aga and Conrad lay snuggled together, Aga trying to comfort Conrad, who was recovering from one of his fits.  Though he’d taken his medication religiously, the fit had come on suddenly, terrifying Conrad and ending with him crawling into the lie up from the corridor where he’d collapsed, and then sprawling on the floor of his lie up.

        “It’s okay Conrad,” Aga told the shivering, sobbing polar bear.  Conrad clung to the rugs with the toes of all four paws, his body shaking and eyes tightly closed.

       “I thought I’d left all this behind!”  Conrad sobbed.  Aga held him close as best she could.

      “You were told you never could leave it totally,” Aga said softly, “though I’m here to help you if I can.”  Conrad rolled wearily onto his side, collapsing from exhaustion.  Aga took Conrad’s forepaws in hers and massaged his pads and toes, hoping her ministrations soothed him.

         “Conrad?”  She asked the polar bear seemingly unresponsive.  She could feel the pulse in his pads, so she could be sure he wasn’t dying.

      “I feel weak and useless,” Conrad mumbled.

       “Rest now,” Aga said gently, Conrad eventually sleeping deeply.

        “I’m worried for him,” Aga said to Ekaterina, who padded in soon after.  Ekaterina sat down and stroked Conrad’s ears and his free forepaw as he slept.  Aga, seeing Conrad’s body relax totally with Ekaterina’s help, became suspicious.  Staring hard at Ekaterina, she bit her tongue, vowing to ask her questions about her relationship to Conrad.

        “He’s my sire,” Ekaterina said suddenly.  Aga’s eyes widened.

       “Is he?”  Aga asked.  Ekaterina smiled and nodded:

        “He helped Kamchatka give birth to me,” she replied, “my birth was a hard one, similar to Mishka’s really.”

       “I forget Conrad had a life before he met me, that he wasn’t a verging when I met him,” Aga said candidly.

        “No he wasn’t a virgin at all Aga,” Ekaterina replied smiling.

      “You talk of me as if I’m not here,” Conrad said gruffly.

       “Sorry Conrad,” Ekaterina said kissing his nose.

       “Help me to my paws will you?”  Conrad asked.  Ekaterina and Aga helping him to his feet, Conrad gripping the rugs with fierce urgency.

       “I can’t walk yet, will have to crawl,” Conrad said suddenly.  Ekaterina traced her sire’s body, from his ears to his hind paws, Conrad gasping with emotion.

       “If only I could walk a little, I’d be better,” Conrad mumbled the after affects of his fit still evident.

       “Take it easy, that’s an order,” Ekaterina said firmly.  Conrad shook his head to clear it, but though he tried to firmly tell his paws what to do, his paws weren’t complying.

        “Take it gently!”  Ekaterina said sharply, her fear for her sires making her snappy.

        “You’ll tie my paws together if I don’t,” Conrad mumbled.  Ekaterina smiled:

       “Yes I will,” she replied.

       “I’ll take it gently,” Conrad said, settling down on his chest, his chin supported on his forepaws.

      “I feel so weak,” Conrad whimpered, “its horrible when I have one of my fits, my paws go all tingly and I lose my balance, then I’m feeling sore all over, can’t remember a dam thing!  Then, then things come back to me slowly.  The worst bit is the feeling in my paws doesn’t come back for ages, soon, soon, I fear, fear that the feeling will never come back into my paws.”  Ekaterina kissed her sire’s nose.

       “I love you Conrad,” she whispered softly.  Ekaterina rested her head on her sire’s shoulder.

        “I’ll be all right in a bit,” Conrad said softly, “let my body recover Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina stroked her sire’s paws and scratched his ears, trying to reassure him, trying desperately to soothe him.

        “Thank you Ekaterina,” Conrad said, taking her paw in his and squeezing it, Ekaterina feeling a slight pressure.

      “Hug me Ekaterina,” Conrad begged, Ekaterina embracing him with firm but gentle paws.

        “I feel weak and useless!”  Conrad sobbed.  Ekaterina kissed her sire’s nose and paws, Conrad shaking so violently the floorboards trembled.

        “I feel awful!”  Conrad whimpered.  Conrad recovered slowly, and by that evening, he was well enough to crawl to Ekaterina’s lie up, where she plied him with tea and more paw massage, Conrad stretching out to allow her full access to his paws.  Ekaterina found Conrad’s pads warm and and thick, his toes not as strong as they used to be, though they curled easily under Ekaterina’s touch, Conrad clearly enjoying her touch.  Conrad felt his toes curling tightly, Conrad letting his toes express what he couldn’t in words.

         “Let your paws communicate,” Ekaterina said, Conrad unable to speak as she massaged his paws one by one.  Conrad lay on the rugs, his daughter cub massaging his paws one by one, rubbing his toes and massaging the large sole pad on every paw in turn.

       “How are you feeling Conrad?”  Ekaterina asked.  Conrad kissed Ekaterina’s paw as she massaged his left forepaw in both of hers.

        “A lot better now,” Conrad said wearily, “though every time I have one of those fits, it drains me past zero, one day, one day, well, I won’t surface.”  Ekaterina buried her face in Conrad’s fur, smelling his strong scent, the scent she knew from her birth, for it was he who’d helped her into the world.  Then he’d protected her from mama Kamchatka’s blind rage after the trauma of her labour.

       “I feel more at home with Conrad than I ever did with mama Kamchatka,” Ekaterina admitted to herself.

         “I understand that,” mama Kamchatka’s voice said, “I didn’t treat you very well when I found you were blind.  I hit you, blamed you, and that never can be forgotten.”  Ekaterina embraced Conrad with desperate paws, mama Kamchatka leaving them to it.  Touch my hind paws Ekaterina,” Conrad begged, Ekaterina stroking his hind paws and massaging his toes.  Aga, watching all from the door of the lie up, realised she’d been stupid to think of Ekaterina as a rival for Conrad’s affections.

       “Ekaterina,” she said softly, “I’m sorry for thinking, well, that you were a challenger as it were.”

          “I’m his cub, not his lover,” Ekaterina said, “and Conrad’s cub I will always be.”  Conrad embraced Ekaterina tightly, his strength flooding back under her ministrations.

       “I love you little one,” he said, Ekaterina cuddling close.

       “She’s no cub now!”  Aga snapped.

      “I don’t mind,” Ekaterina said softly, “Aga, Conrad needs comfort now.”  Ekaterina helped Conrad into the bathtub, where she washed him from nose to tail, Candy and Mishka padding in from the living room to be with the rest of their immediate family.

      “Conrad looks exhausted,” candy said to Mishka.

       “I’m a lot better than I was,” Conrad replied softly.

       “When did you last take your medicine?”  Ekaterina asked.  Conrad looked distressed:

       “I can’t, I don’t remember,” he replied.

       “I’ll take a look,” Ekaterina replied, leaving the tub and returning with the blister pack.

       “You take one tablet twice a day don’t you,” Ekaterina said.  Conrad nodded.

       “You took one this morning,” Ekaterina said, “That is if one strip is one week’s worth of tablets.  Conrad replied that it was.

      “I’ll still ask the vet to drop by and examine you,” Ekaterina said gently to Conrad.

         “Okay,” Conrad replied.  The vet arrived soon after, Conrad submitting to having his brain scanned.  The vet found nothing different to the last time Conrad was examined.  Stroking the polar bear’s paws, he told Patch of his findings, and Patch interpreted for Conrad.

      “So it was just a bad fit,” Conrad replied.  The vet nodded.

       “You’ll never get rid of them entirely,” the vet said.

      “They drain me completely,” Conrad said, “one day I think I’ll never recover from a mega fit.”

        “We’ll make sure you are kept safe,” Ekaterina said.  Conrad hugged her tightly, his embrace desperate and begging her for comfort.

        “Stay with us for a while,” Ekaterina said, “stay with me and Patch.”

        “Thank you,” Conrad replied, “but I can’t, you have your lives after all, and don’t want a wrinkle pawed has been in your den.”

       “You’re my sire,” Ekaterina replied, “and I say you stay.”  Conrad kissed her nose and squeezed her paw.

      “Thank you,” he replied softly.

       “You will stay,” Patch said firmly, “Conrad, you need gentle paws and rest.”

       “So I can’t look after him?”  Aga asked.

        “Not in the way Ekaterina can,” Patch replied.

       “What is so great about her touch?”  Aga demanded.

        “Conrad has noone else left from his first family here,” Patch replied  , “He needs Ekaterina.”  Patch rubbed Ekaterina’s back with a reassuring paw.

        “I know when I’m not wanted!”  Aga yelled, slamming out of the lie up.

        “She is wanted,” Conrad whimpered, “but she can’t soothe me like you can Ekaterina.”  Patch went after Aga.

         “What do you want?”  Aga snapped at her son cub.

        “Ekaterina is the bear Conrad needs right now Aga,” Patch replied, “he doesn’t need your comfort at this time, and he wants comfort of his cub, non judgemental comfort.”

       “Do I judge him?”  Aga asked.  Patch took her paw in his:

       “Yes mama,” he replied, “you are frustrated by his condition, loath it to the point of loathing him.  Ekaterina doesn’t.  She sees Conrad’s epilepsy in isolation from Conrad himself.  She hates the condition, but does not blame Conrad for having the condition.”

        “I never said I loathed corned for his epilepsy,” Aga said.

      “Maybe you don’t need to say it,” Patch said.

      “Maybe I do feel he’s weakened, so is not such a good prospect as a mate,” Aga admitted.

      “You can’t deny your feelings when your paws are in contact,” Patch said.

       “I was scared,” Aga replied, “my fear made me resent him I suppose.”

       “Conrad is a gentle bear Aga,”  Matoskah said walking into the lie up, “I knew him of old, and he was very gentle, even when tossing young cubs in blankets he’d found around the breeding centre.”  Aga looked at Matoskah:

        “I suppose that’s the Conrad I fell in love with,”  she said, “the happy bear he once was, now though, now that horrid fit thing has taken his life force away, he’s not the bear I once knew.”

        “Maybe Ekaterina can help him become that bear again,” Patch said, “let her work her magic on him Aga.”

        “If anyone can help Conrad, mama Ekaterina can,” Matoskah said.

      “How are you so sure?”  Aga asked.

       “Because I know the power of her paws,” Matoskah replied smiling.

        “Are you mated with her too?”  Aga asked.

        “No he’s not,” Patch snapped, now angry, “you mama, are getting on my nerves.  Now shut up and let Ekaterina do her thing.  Mind your business, and she’ll mind hers.”  Aga realised her paws were on the edge of a cliff.

       “Okay Patch, Matoskah, I’ll leave it!”  She whimpered.

       “After all you have been through mama; I would have thought you’d understand better than most!”  Patch yelled.

       “Conrad’s disease frightens me!”  Aga squealed.

       “It isn’t half so frightening for you as it is for him,”  Matoskah, “I know, I’ve seen him collapse more times than you have Aga.  He was quite literally sick with fear once.  I spent four hours calming him down the last time this happened.”

       “How come you know him so well?”  Aga snapped.

       “We are cubhood friends, almost brothers,” Matoskah said.

        “Too true,” Conrad said, crawling into the lie up.  Matoskah padded to Conrad, pushed him gently until he was sitting back on his heels, and then hugged him tightly.

        “You handle him like you could mould him in your paws!”  Aga yelped.

        “Only because I know he won’t harm me,” Conrad replied softly, “I need calming soothing paws now Aga.”

       “And letting Matoskah handle you as if you have no will of your own is comforting?”  Aga asked.

       “When it is done with consideration and gentility yes,” Conrad replied as Matoskah stroked the pads of his right hind foot and tickled his toes, Conrad giggling with pleasure.

       “I like that,” Conrad said, slightly curling his toes.  Matoskah drew circles on the bunched pads of corn ads’ right hind foot, contra bouncing on his heels with pleasure.

      “You big cub,” Matoskah said into Conrad’s ear, Conrad’s eyes filling with tears as Matoskah nuzzled his ear.

        “Kiss his paw pads and he’ll lose it,” Patch thought.  Matoskah did just what Patch thought he’d do, Conrad spinning round awkwardly and embracing Matoskah clumsily.

       “You have soft warm paw pads Conrad,” Matoskah said, Conrad smiling broadly.

       “I do take good care of my paws,” Conrad said.  Aga got to her own paws and left the room.

       “She’s finding it difficult to cope with my mounting ill health,” Conrad sighed.

       “I think she loves you so much she can’t bare it when she is unable to give you what you need,” Matoskah said.

       “I don’t mean to exclude her,” Conrad replied, “it’s just that Ekaterina and, well, you too Matoskah, have a touch that Aga doesn’t.  I’m scared and so is she.  She frightens me, and I frighten her, and we don’t work together.  Ekaterina isn’t frightened by my illness and neither is you Matoskah.  That’s why you can soothe my spirit.”

       “You mean, mean you would even hold him while he suffered one of his funny turns?”  Aga asked as Ekaterina walked in.

       “Yes I would,” Ekaterina replied, thinking Aga was talking to her.  Ekaterina found Conrad’s right hind foot with her paw, and managed to stroke his toes as she drew level with him.

       “How are you feeling sire Conrad?”  She asked.

       “Better now thanks,” Conrad replied.  Ekaterina kissed his nose.

         “Did you really mean you’d hold me while I collapse?”  Conrad asked.  Ekaterina squeezed his paw.

       “Yes,” she replied honestly.  Conrad swallowed hard, then, turning to Ekaterina, buried his face in her coat and burst into tears, crying like a cub.

 

Meanwhile, Sid, observing Furcone’s history lessons, and how popular they were, decided he might try teaching the cubs to cook.  The cats preferred patrolling, so Petra and Theo taught them how.  The bears though, they were eager to start.  Sid set them off making bread in the first morning session, the bears finding that easy.  Koda enjoyed the work, helping Morag and little Pasha Measure out flour and other ingredients.  The bread came out well, and the cubs were very happy with their work.  Sid admired the bread loaves, the smell peaking the cub’s appetites.

      “Now to cut the bread,” Sid said, “we use a breadknife.  Here, it’s sharp, so hold it like this.  He showed them how to hold the knife.  Koda watched with interest, and then picked up his knife to cut the bread.  The feel of the knife in his paw brought back the memories of the last time he’d held a knife.  Shaking from nose to tail, Koda dropped the knife on the cutting board and buried his face in his paws, shaking and crying.

      “What’s the matter with you?”  Sid asked.  Koda shook so violently he fell off the chair he was sitting on and crashed onto the floor, his whole body shaking violently.

       “Someone go and find his mother!”  Sid snapped in exasperation.

       “His mother and sire are both dead,” Morag said sorrowfully.

      “I’ll help him,” Mishka said, having sliced his loaf of bread by touch.  Sid snorted at the blind cub, who’d, worked out how to cut his bread himself.

       “Get out!”  Sid snapped at Mishka, who lashed backwards with a hind foot as he passed Sid, his tiny paw catching the portly sheaf on his right foreleg.

      “Come Koda, come,” Mishka said gently, kissing his brother’s wet nose and shaking paws.

         “I can feel the blood on my paws Mishka!”  Koda squealed.

       “I know,” Mishka said gently, “Come, I’ll wash your paws.”  Koda crawled from the kitchen, his eyes terrified.  Mishka kissed his brother’s nose as they entered Patch’s lie up.

       “Koda picked up a knife,” was all Mishka had to say for Patch to realise what had happened.

       “Koda,” Patch said gently, kneeling and kissing Koda’s nose.

        “What’s happening?”  Koda asked.

       “Post traumatic stress,” Patch said gently, “you haven’t talked about it since that day has you.”  Koda shook his head:

      “I did what I had to,” Koda replied, “but, but, now, now maybe I didn’t think of what that day did to me.”

      “Come, sit, and drink tea.”  [Patch said.  Koda sat and drank tea, his shaking paws causing the tea to spill, but Patch, patient bear that he was, waited, and Koda’s shaking lessened with time...

      “I’m sorry Patch,” Koda said.  Patch hugged his brother cub.

       “What for little Brother?”  Patch asked.  Koda sniffed hard:

      “I’m sorry for crying in the kitchen,” Koda gulped hard.

       “You are not at fault for this,” Patch said in his rather arcane manner.

       “What?”  Koda asked.  Patch grinned.

       “It’s okay,” he said.  Koda rubbed his eyes with his bunched forepaws.

       “I picked up that knife, and, and I remembered everything!”  He whimpered, “I could feel the blood on my paws, the knife in my paw seemed to vibrate, and I could hear it too!  I know I was using a bread knife, not the carving one I’d grabbed on that day.”

      “That one was destroyed,” patch said gently.

      “I know, I know,” Koda choked.

        “Do you also know how much Ekaterina, Mishka, Kuruk and the rest of the community love you Koda?”  Patch asked.  Koda nodded:

       “I know,” he said, “Mishka is so good to me.  He looks after me sometimes, when really it should be the other way round.”

        “Not when you’re not eating or sleeping because of nightmares,” Mishka said.  Koda opened his mouth to chastise Mishka, but Patch stopped him with a paw on his.

       “Koda,” he asked, “what nightmares?”

       “Nightmares about mama Kamchatka dying at Aklark’s paws.  She’s having a cub, and he comes to tear her apart and kill her and take the cub!  He comes with a knife, and he tries to slice at Kamchatka while she’s straining and struggling, and it all ends in a hideous mess!  I wake half way through the horror, I wake crying and once, once I was sick with fear it was real!”

      “Mama Kamchatka died peacefully,” Patch replied.

       “I know that,” Koda said, “but, but, the thing with Aklark and mama Kamchatka’s death so soon afterwards, and all.  It’s too much, far too much.”

       “What does Mishka do when he finds you like this?”  Patch asked.  Koda smiled with genuine gratitude.

       “Mishka,” he said reverently, “he shows me Kamchatka’s cub did not die.  For he is Kamchatka’s cub.  He’s strong, and warm, and living, and lovely.  He, lets, he lets me run my paws all over him, touching his nose, his ears, his back, his toes, just to reassure myself he’s there.”

       “I’m here,” Mishka said, padding forward and touching noses with Koda, Koda embracing him with desperation.

       “I was born with help, but born naturally all the same,” Mishka said softly, “Koda, I’m here.”  Koda buried his face in Mishka’s warm fur, breathing in his warm scent.

        “You even kiss my paw pads sometimes too,” Mishka said to Koda, who smiled:

      “I do,” he replied, “they are soft and warm, and smell of earth, of the place you were born.”

       “You mean a cub’s fur and paws have the scent of his or her place of birth for life?”  Mishka asked.  Koda smiled:

      “No, I don’t think so,” he said, “though it would be nice to think that wouldn’t it.”

       “Patch’s paws smell of earth too, and Aga told me he was born in a cave, on an earthen floor.  Maybe that theory bucket holds some water.”  Koda smiled:

      “But I was born before a fire,” he said, “Mama Kamchatka had me on the rug by the fire.  So my paws should smell of wood smoke.”

       “That’s it!”  Mishka exclaimed.  That’s the smell.  He turned to Koda and ruffled his shoulder with his paw.

      “Wood smoke indeed!”  Mishka said.  “Of course there’s the family scent too, but definitely wood smoke there also.”

      “Ekaterina has a neutral scent, as if she was born in a boring place,” Koda said.

       “I was,” Ekaterina replied, padding into the lie up and hugging Patch, then Koda, then Mishka.

       “Patch’s scent gives me strength,” Ekaterina said, “it’s warm and comforting.  Koda looked at Mishka, his eyes full of pain.

        “Come,” Mishka said gently to his brother.

        “Where are you going?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Mishka knows,” Koda replied, “I’m lost, I don’t know where I am now.”  With that both bears left the room.  Mishka strong, Koda dragging his paws and looking very unwell.

       “I’m in your paws now,” Koda said to Mishka.

      “Come,” Mishka said, padding to another room in the house, placing his paw on the scanner and punching in a number.  Koda, his eyes half closed, followed Mishka by sound and scent.  The warmth hit Koda and Mishka as they walked into the room, Koda seeing a blazing log fire off to his left.  Mishka made tea and toast, Koda watching him anxiously.  He saw the blind bear pouring tea with a machine that he put the bowl beneath.  Then he got bread, Koda seeing it was the bread he’d made, for he’d stencilled his name into the dough before baking.

        “He’s gonna cut that bread with that knife!”  Koda thought.

      “Turn away if you don’t want to watch,” Mishka said.  Koda, sick to his stomach, watched as Mishka cut the bread, then slammed it in the toaster.  Getting butter, honey and peanut butter, Mishka waited for the toaster, while he stirred a little sugar and milk into the tea.  The toast popped up, and Mishka, smiling, buttered it, before slapping peanut butter and honey on the same slice, only putting butter on the second slice.

       “Um Mishka,” Koda said, “you put honey and peanut butter on the same slice, did you mean to do that?”  Mishka turned to him with the tray, setting it down by the fire.

       “Try it,” he replied, “yes it was a mistake, but I don’t think it’ll be too bad.”  Koda sat down and Mishka took his paw.

       “You feel weak dear brother,” Mishka said.  Koda drank some tea then picked up the honey and peanut butter on toast and bit into it.  The taste was unusual, but not unpleasant.  Koda ate the toast then drank the tea.  Wiping his mouth with the napkin Mishka held out to him, Koda looked at his brother cub.

        “Now what do you want me to do?”  He asked.

       “You can do what you want,” Mishka replied.  Koda curled up on the rugs, Mishka eating the buttered toast and sinking his tea out of sight before settling down with his brother, curling rounds him as best he could.  Mishka was amused to find he could curl round his brother cub, which he found was smaller than himself.

       “You’re smaller than me,” Mishka observed.  Koda told him of his stunted growth.

        “So you’ll get bigger than me,” Koda concluded.  Mishka smiled, taking Koda’s left forepaw in both of his.  Koda, giving up the fight, snuggled into Mishka’s embrace.

       “I’m tired,”  Koda said, “but I don’t want to sleep,”  his voice caught as he fought for control, “I have the nightmare every night, the nightmare about mama Kamchatka and her labour, and Aklark and all.  I don’t want to sleep, for that dream comes back and tears me apart!”

      “Sleep now Koda,” Mishka said gently.  Koda snuggled down into Mishka’s hug, the younger bear’s scent filling his nose and warmth, soothing his mind.

        “The cub survived his birth,” Mishka said softly, “he is here, and you’re cuddled up to him now.”  Koda clung to Mishka, weeping into his coat.

        “I’m here Koda,” Mishka said.

         “Hold me close Mishka!”  Koda sobbed.  Mishka curled round Koda, embracing him as he’d felt Anook do with her cubs.

      “If he’s crying like a cub, treat him like one,” Mishka thought.  Koda felt his body relaxing as Mishka rubbed his back and ears.  Koda’s mind settled finally, allowing him to sleep.  Mishka settled himself comfortably; hardly questioning the fact his paws were able to embrace Koda with ease.  Mishka felt Koda snuggling closer, burying his paws in his fur.

       “Sleep now Koda,” Mishka said gently.  Koda slept deeply, his mind soothed for the first time since the death of his mother.  Mishka lay on the rugs, cradling his brother in his paws.  Closing his eyes, Mishka thought about the cub who’d given him the courage to fight the shock of his own birth.

       “Now be a leader to your brother cub Mishka,” Ekaterina’s cub’s spirit said to Mishka, “for he will need leading for the whole of his life.  He is not the strong bear everyone thinks he is.  He killed Aklark to save himself from a similar fait to that of his sire.  He is not a leader, even though he thought he was.  He has shown himself to be a cub.  You though, you are the leader of the cubs, truly you are the leader of the cubs.  Georgia’s eyes are sliding your way, so are her paws.  She wants to believe in you Mishka.  Koda is a playful cub and need to remain so.  Show him Mishka, show him leadership.  You can show Koda the way.”

         “I padded to this place, and Koda followed me,” Mishka replied in his dream, “he asked me what he should do, and his voice was that of a cub much younger than me, but I am younger than him.  I know Koda’s finding things hard to cope with.”

       “Be a leader to him Mishka; ask him to take a look through your eyes.  You know the tale of the brother bear?”  Mishka replied:

         “Of the man who lost his way and was shown by an unlikely friend how to love and see things differently?”  Mishka asked.  The spirit of Ekaterina’s cub touched Mishka.

       “You know the tale.  Koda needs you Mishka.  He needs to be lead by his paw.  His eyes have shown him terrible things.  He needs to know that things aren’t as bad as he sees them.  He needs to know he is still loved no matter what happens.  He says he knows others love him, but he is doubtful really.”  Mishka felt the cub’s spirit leave him as Koda shifted in waking from a deep sleep.

        “How are you my brother?”  Mishka asked.  Koda raised his head, bumping noses with Mishka.

       “The lights have gone out!”  Koda squealed, rubbing his eyes with his paws.

       “There is no problem with that,” Mishka replied, “I’ll show you Koda.”

        “Please,” Koda begged, “I am frightened of the dark!  I can feel the heat from the fire on my face and paws, but I can’t see the light, what’s going on?”   Then, as the enormity of his situation hit him, Koda screamed with terror!

        “It’s a punishment from the spirits!”  Koda screamed.  Mishka gently touched Koda’s paw, the terrified black bear cub clinging to him, screaming with fear and terror.

        “It’s okay Koda; it’s going to be okay.”  Koda gripped Mishka’s paw with fierce urgency.

        “How can you say that?”  Koda yelled.

       “What do you want most in the world?”  Mishka asked.  Koda closed his eyes, rubbing them with his paws in an attempt to rub them back to life.

        “I want to get to know you more Mishka, but how can I when I can’t see you?”

        “Koda,” Mishka replied gently, “how have you been communicating with me for the last few weeks?”

     “By touch, with my paws, my nose, by touch,” Koda gabbled.

        “You need not use your eyes then,” Mishka replied.  Koda took a deep breath, trying to marshal his thoughts.

         “You have made me dependant on you now!”  Koda raged.

        “No Koda, I did nothing,” Mishka replied.

       “I am now truly lost, truly wretched!”  Koda wailed, “I lost my way, now I can’t find my way back because some evil has taken my sight!”

       “The spirits only aid in showing you the way,” Mishka said, “they do nothing without good reason.”

        “How can denying me of my sight help me?”  Koda screamed, beating his paws on Mishka’s shoulder.  Then screaming, Koda walloped Mishka round his head with the flat of his right forepaw, Mishka rolling with the blow.

         “Koda,” Mishka said, “Koda, I’ll go now, I’ll be in the next room if you need me.”  Koda lay on the rugs thinking hard.  He felt as if he’d been beaten with a thick stick.

       “Did I truly ask to lose my sight?”  Koda asked himself, “No, no I didn’t so why? Why have they blinded me? What the hell’s going on?”  Koda felt Mishka sidle up to him.

       “How did you know?”  Koda asked hoarsely.

        “I followed my paws dear brother,” Mishka said gently, “my paw was on the sole of your right hind foot all the time.”

       “I didn’t notice,” Koda replied, “I truly didn’t notice your touch.”  Mishka nuzzled Koda’s ear:

        “Your paws were sensitive enough to notice my small life force in the clearing, so why not now?”  Mishka asked.  Koda swallowed hard:

        “I was closer to the spirits then, I, I wanted you to be alive!”  He sobbed.

         “I know,” Mishka said gently, kissing his brother’s ear.

         “You know why you have lost your sight Koda,” Mishka said, “deep down you know why.”

        “I know I’m scared, alone and bloody angry!”  Koda yelled his old anger resurfacing.  Lifting a paw, Koda tried to hit Mishka, his strength failing him at the last minute.

         “I’m sorry Mishka,” Koda whispered.

        “You have a lot to learn Koda,” a voice said.  Koda whimpered with fright.

        “Aklark, what are you doing here?”  He asked, “You’re dead!”

       “My body is,” Aklark replied, “but my spirit, no.  I came to tell you a few things.  I would not have killed you after I killed sire Koda.  Sire Koda was foolish; he wanted to fight me, even when I was backing down.  I warned him Koda, you can’t deny I warned the stupid fool he would die.  You Koda saw what you thought was a threat to you and ended that threat; I can’t blame you for that, for that is how you’ve been taught.  You have been taught that all male bears kill other male bear’s cubs.  For the most part, this is true.  But not in my case.  I wanted mama Kamchatka, I wanted her for mating, but when I laid paws on her I knew she was pregnant, I knew a cub was inside her, so I fought her, but was not surprised when she laid me out on the floor.  She had the strength of instinctive knowledge that she was pregnant, even if her conscious mind didn’t know it at the time.  Now after the fight with Kamchatka, I wanted to fight a male bear.  Patch put himself up for the challenge, but when I realised he was not Kamchatka’s mate, but her grown cub, I could not fight him.  I refused, and would have refused to fight you too Koda.  Sire Koda was stupid though, a human in a bear’s costume!  Koda, you learnt his silly ways.  Now you realise they are silly, but to understand what is true, you need to follow your paws, and for that reason, because you truly want to follow your paws, and I hate to spell it out to you like this, you have been equipped with the resources to follow your paws, and denied those which might hinder what you truly desire.”  Koda gasped with shock.

         “But patch is not blind,” he said, “How did he become leader if he has the distraction of sight?”

       “He became leader through good work and good spirit,” Aklark replied, “you Koda know this, and you gave him the leadership on the strength of his spirit and good nature.  You know far more than you realise, but you are silly too, silly because of your sire’s teachings.  Sire Koda taught you how to use your paws, but not how to trust them, to explore with them, to scramble, to feel, to be serious with them, to comfort with them, to love with them.  You learnt all that from your mother mama Kamchatka.  It was she with the gentle paws who taught you how to touch, as far as she could teach you.  Now she is dead due to hard labour giving birth to Mishka.  Mishka doesn’t blame himself for her death.  Koda, follow your paws, for they will guide you all the way.  You are a cub in the matter of spiritual things.  Mishka, he is not.  He might be younger than you, but in truth, he knows far more than you do.  You knew this, for you have asked him to guide your paws, he, who has no sight, who cannot see his own paws when he looks down at them, and you ask him to guide you.  Now there is only one reason why a bear with sight would ask a bear who has none to guide him.  Think on this Koda.  Think on the first time you asked Mishka to guide you.  When was it? What happened? How did he react to your plea for guidance?”

       “It was some time ago,” Koda replied, “we were talking, playing with each other’s paws actually, and I told him impulsively that I wished he was older, that he was able to guide me, as I felt I’d lost my way.  I meant it too, though couldn’t see then how a blind bear could guide one with full sight.”

       “The best healers have been without conventional sight,” Hubert said, padding into the room, “I know this from when Sita helped me.  She saw deep into me, and helped me recover myself.  Now it is for you to put your trust in one whom you inherently would not give full trust.  You are in his world now, his domain, the place where he is at home.”  With that both Hubert and Aklark vanished.

        “How come I could see them?”  Koda asked, then realised it was a stupid question.

       “Hubert wasn’t really here,” Mishka replied, “he was talking through Aklark’s spirit.”

     “But I saw them both,” Koda replied.

      “Yes, they divided just before Aklark left; it’s to stop Hubert from being taken to the other side before his time.  Now Koda, how are you feeling?”

        “Better,” Koda replied, “better now I know, I know, well, what really happened that day.  The bit I didn’t see, as it were.  As Patch said, “I did the best I knew.  Now I know better than I knew then.  Tell me Mishka,” Koda said taking his brother’s paw, “would Patch have killed Aklark if he’d fought him?”

       “NO,” Mishka replied, “Patch wouldn’t have killed Aklark.  Aklark was weak and he knew it.  The trouble was, he came across a weaker, more stupid creature that should have seen what Aklark really was, but refused, even though it was staring him in the face.  Aklark gave Sire Koda a get out and Sire Koda leapt in with all four false paws.  What an idiot.  I know he’s my sire as he is yours, but he was a stupid bear, a great human with a lovely temperament, but a stupid bear.  Bears rarely fight to the death, they haven’t got the inclination.  A few swipes with angry paws, and that’s it mostly.  I’m not saying bears don’t kill and eat each other, they do, but fights over mates are usually non lethal.”  Koda touched Mishka’s paw with his.

      “Where are we?”  He asked.  I can’t remember the route we took to get here.”

      “I’ll guide you from this place when you are ready to go,” Mishka said.

      “You tell me what to do,” Koda whimpered, “I’m unable to function here!”  Mishka kissed Koda’s nose and paws, calming the black bear cub.

        “You give me strength,” Koda said, Mishka, you give me hope too.”  Mishka kissed his brother’s nose.

        “Now explore with your paws, you are safe,” Mishka said.  Koda did as his brother suggested, crawling round the room, touching the rugs, the carpets, and the tiles on the floor in the kitchen.  Mishka opened a door into another room, where he’d set up something for Koda to climb on which gave him different sensations on his paws.  Soft feathers, warm wool and sand.

      “My paws are all full of sand now!”  Koda said as he followed Mishka closely.

         “I will show you the pool complex,” Mishka said, “I’ll show you the lanes, the different things I’m using to get around the complex.”

       “How can you suggest things?”  Koda asked.

       “I’m listened to,” was all Mishka would say.

       “How?”  Koda asked, “You’re only a cub.”

      “But you chose me as leader,” Mishka replied, “so I must be worth following.”

        “I did,” Koda replied faintly, “I can’t say why I did.”

       “I welcomed Taomi into the house, and you got angry,” Mishka replied.

       “I’m sorry brother,” Koda said sincerely.

        “No matter,” Mishka replied, “you are a changed bear now.”

       “I am,” Koda replied, “I’m what I wanted to be, a cub guided by my paw.”

        “I will guide you Koda,” Mishka replied.  Now let’s wash your paws.”  Koda crawled into the bathroom, with which all lie ups were equipped, Mishka turning on the taps and filling the tub.  Koda got into the tub with Mishka’s help, Mishka sitting opposite him.

         “Now, let me take your paws in mine,” Mishka said.  Koda sighed deeply, and gave his brother his forepaws.  Mishka washed Koda’s paws with gentle care, Koda kissing his brother’s nose.

       “I love you Mishka,” Koda whispered.  Mishka’s paws embraced Koda’s, Koda’s paws responding to Mishka’s touch with gently curling toes and bunched pads.  Mishka, having finished work on Koda’s forepaws, transferred his attention to his hind feet, lifting each paw in his forepaws and washing Koda’s pads and toes, Koda breathing deeply, his whole world focused through the pads of his hind feet.

       “Curl those toes Koda,” Mishka said.  Koda curled his toes tightly, gasping as his paws told him what Mishka felt about him, and what he felt about Mishka.

       “Your paws are clean now,” Mishka said.  Koda hugged his brother cub, trying not to cry.

        “Let go,” Mishka said gently, Koda weeping into his brother’s wet fur.

         “I can’t hope to repay you,” Koda sobbed.  Mishka held him tightly.

         “Relax brother cub,” Mishka said softly, “you are safe now, safe with me.  I won’t let you get into danger, I promise.  Koda snuggled up to his brother in the tub.

        “I’m calmer now,” Koda said.  Mishka traced Koda’s hind paw pads, Koda stretching his toes, and then tightly curling them.

        “This is everything mama Kamchatka told me to do with my paws and more!”  Koda blurted.

       “Yes Koda,” Mishka said, “only trouble is the ones with conventional sight mostly fear their paws.  That’s why play with paws is seen as so wrong by some.  Mama Kamchatka loved playing with her own paws, but tried gently to keep her cubs from bucking the held views.  Now I will overturn those with gentle paws.”

      “I’ll help you Mishka,” Koda said.  Mishka kissed his brother’s nose and the pads of his right hind foot.

        “Let’s dry you off and wrap you in a rug,” Mishka said.  Koda crawled after his brother, Mishka drying Koda off in a drying room, and then Koda relieved himself in a relieving place, before washing his paws again, then Mishka asking him to lie on a rug.  Koda settled down, and Mishka wrapped him up in the rug, tucking in the corners and leaving him with his head free of the cocoon, Koda letting Mishka wraps his paws in soft material.

       “I can move a little,” Koda said, “my paws have a little wiggle room.”

      “That was the idea,” Mishka replied, “now you are warm and dry yes?”  Koda smiled:

       “I am,” he replied, shifting his paws inside the cocoon, “I love this Mishka.”  Mishka reached inside the cocoon, taking his brother’s left forepaw in his.

        “I could sleep here,” Koda yawned.

      “Sleep if you wish,” Mishka replied softly.  Koda smiled broadly and closed his eyes in bliss.

        “I’m safe now,” Koda mumbled, relaxing completely.

      “Sleep well my brother,” Mishka said gently into Koda’s ear.  Koda slept deeply, waking hours later, warm and contented.  The shock of opening his eyes and seeing nothing had left him long ago, or so it seemed.  Koda explored his surroundings then decided he was going to try making Mishka a bowl of tea.  Koda found a bowl, thanking the fact he’d seen the tea urn was full when he entered the room so long ago.  Koda made the tea and tried carrying the bowl into the room.  Koda tripped, the tea flying from the bowl, soaking Mishka.  Mishka woke with a yell Koda dropping the bowl in fear.

        “What was that?”  Mishka yelled, wiping his face with his paws.  Koda sat down and covered his face with his paws, sobbing.

        “You bloody idiot Koda!”  Mishka snapped, furious with shock and pain.

        “I only wanted to help,” Koda wailed.

       “I would have shown you how to make tea today!”  Mishka snorted, coughing.

       “I’m sorry Mishka!”  Koda choked, “are you hurt?”

        “The tea wasn’t boiling thank eohippus,” Mishka said, “I made sure it came out warm, not boiling hot.”  Koda thanked Mishka’s forethought.

       “Why did I trip up?”  Koda asked.  Mishka explored the route from the kitchen into the bedroom, finding nothing for Koda to trip on.

      “I don’t know,” Mishka replied, “I can’t find what you tripped on.”

      “Maybe I ran before I could crawl,” Koda said.  Mishka hugged his brother.

         “How can you hug me when I’ve soaked you with tea?”  Koda asked.

        “I don’t hold it against you Koda,” Mishka replied.

        “I soaked you with hot tea!”  Koda wailed, “I could have injured you for life if you hadn’t made sure the tea wasn’t hot enough to do harm.”

        “You learnt a lesson, crawl before you walk brother,” Mishka replied, but the thought was appreciated.”  Koda sighed heavily.

        “This is not my world yet,” Koda said, “I need teaching Mishka.”

       “Let’s play a bit,” Mishka said.  Koda dried Mishka’s face with a towel, and then Mishka put socks on Koda’s hind paws, Koda squealing with surprise.

       “What do I do now?”  Koda asked, “I’m unable to feel my hind paws!”

       “Feel your way round the socks and take them off your paws,” Mishka replied.  Koda did, enjoying the sensation of his paws caught, then freed as he pulled at the socks, rolling them down his legs and over the soles and tops of his hind feet.  Holding each hind paw out to his brother, Koda felt his toes taken in Mishka’s paws, and then the pressure on his toes as Mishka pulled the socks off his paws.  Koda left the sock on his right hind foot half on his paw, Mishka rolling it up his pads until it was bunched on his toes.  Koda pulled the sock off with his forepaws then massaged his now bared pads and toes.

       “Rediscovering my hind paws is fun!”  Koda said with cubbish enthusiasm.

      “I know my paws better now,” Koda said.  Mishka let Koda help him pull the socks off of his own paws, touching Mishka’s forepaws and hind paws as Mishka struggled to free his paw from a clinging sock.

      “Wiggle those toes Mishka!”  Koda encouraged.  Mishka wiggled the toes of his right hind foot, the sock rolling over his pads and off his toes.

      “This is huge fun!”  Koda giggled.  Mishka kissed Koda’s nose and the exposed pads of his right hind foot.

       “I feel safe now,” Koda said, “I wish though that I’d not thrown tea all over you Mishka.”  Mishka kissed his nose.

      “Don’t worry about the tea,” he replied gently.  Koda buried his face in his brother’s shoulder.

        “I wanted to thank you for what you’d done for me, and it all went wrong!”  Koda sobbed.  Mishka kissed his nose and paws.

       “What you need is a good rub down Koda,” Mishka said, fitting actions to his words, putting socks on all four of Koda’s paws then massaging him from nose to tail, rubbing his paws so the socks rolled off them exposing his pads.  Koda, loving every minute, wriggled and pawed at Mishka.  Mishka, smiling, left Koda’s hind feet in the socks.

      “I can’t free my feet!”  Koda whimpered, tugging at the newly acquired socks with his forepaws.  Mishka sat down opposite his brother and took his right hind foot into his forepaws.

       “Yes,” Mishka said, “there is a covering on your paw, let’s see if I can remove it.  With that he began massaging and working at the top of the sock, working it down Koda’s leg, and over his hind foot.  Koda, wriggling with excitement, tugged at his trapped foot, Mishka rolling the sock off Koda’s foot.

      “My sole pad is free, now my toes are!”  Koda yelled as the sock came off his paw.  Koda, laughing, grabbed his right hind foot in his paws and massaged his toes, Mishka laughing with him.

        “My paws feel brand new!”  Koda laughed.  Mishka kissed Koda’s forepaws and chased him round the lie up, catching his still sock covered left hind foot and dragging the sock off as Koda crawled away, before Mishka tickled his toes, which, discarding the sock he’d gained, Mishka did, lunging after Koda’s hind paws and grabbing the black bear cub’s left hind foot, tickling Koda’s pads and toes, Koda laughing and throwing himself down, beating the rugs with his paws in playful protest.

       “I love you tickling my toes,” Koda said.  Mishka turned tickling to stroking, Koda relaxing deeply.

       “I still want to give you tea Mishka,” Koda mumbled.  Mishka smiled and kissed the sole pad of Koda’s right hind foot, the black bear cub giggling.

        “You still can,” Mishka replied.  Mishka traced Koda’s pads, the black bear cub curling and stretching his toes as Mishka worked on his paws.

       “How do you keep paw play so interesting?”  Koda asked.

       “I’ve had practise,” Mishka replied, “I love paws.”  Koda smiled:

       “So do me, even more now you’ve shown me,” he said.  Mishka and Koda pressed their bared hind feet together, Koda feeling Mishka’s toes curling gently round his.

      “My feet could get used to this Mishka,” Koda replied, “indeed, I could get used to the ways of the paw, just like you, Sita, Conrad, and Ekaterina are.”

        “You are only sightless because you wanted to get to know me better,” Mishka replied, “you can go back to your sighted life if you wish.

       “I don’t know, I’m not sure I want to,” Koda replied, “I feel peaceful here, lighter on my paws.  Mishka, can we walk in the woods?”  Mishka smiled:

       “You want a sensory tour?”  He asked.

       “If that means walking about with bare paws then yes,” Koda said.

     “It does,” Mishka replied, “we can ride the water coaster, the flumes, and leap through the waves.  We can enjoy our paws.  I know the coaster backwards, so I can warn you what’s coming up.  I’ve ridden it alone. I’m totally safe.”  Koda smiled:

       “How will I follow you?”  He asked.

       “Follow my hind paws,” Mishka said.  Koda and he practised in the room, Koda mischievously tickling Mishka’s toes as he followed him, Mishka laughing and catching Koda’s tickling toes with those of his own hind paws.

      “Get off my toes!”  Mishka laughed.  Koda smiled and kissed Mishka’s tickled toes.

       “Now let’s go Koda,” Mishka said.  Koda followed his brother out of the room and down the passage to the lift.  Mishka pressed a button, and the lift came, the lift telling them of its arrival with a loud bell.  The doors opened, and a voice told them they were open.  Mishka crawled into the lift, Koda following him.  Mishka took Koda down to the level of the pool complex, and the lift announced where they were, and gave directions to the places nearby.

      “Go left for the pool complex it said,” Koda said.  Mishka smiled, Koda crawling out after him, his forepaws touching Mishka’s hind feet.

        “Come,” Mishka said gently, wiggling the toes of his right hind paw to encourage Koda to follow.  Koda followed meekly, his respect for Mishka growing with every thrust of his crawl.

       “Mishka,” Sita said gently, Mishka stopping, and Sita coming up to him, touching his paw with hers, “and you Koda,” she said, sensing him by scent.

         “Sita,” Koda said, “I can’t see you now, the spirits made me sightless.”  Sita padded to Koda and touched noses with him.

        “I will talk with you later,” she said gently.  Koda kissed her paw.

      “What can I do for you Sita?”  Mishka asked.  Sita leant down and kissed his nose.

        “I was wondering if you and Koda would like to join me and Conrad in the pool.  You see, Conrad needs a little play therapy at the moment. And I think he could do with a little company.”

      “Yes let’s dear Sita,” Mishka said softly.

       “Follow me,” Sita said to Koda, who hesitated:

       “Will you crawl so I can follow you?”  He asked.  Sita smiled, lay down and said:

     “Get on board.  Koda clambered onto Sita’s back, holding on with all four paws.

        “Now let’s go,” Sita said, Koda feeling her rise to her feet beneath him, her massive power astonishing him.

       “Am I any weight at all?”  Koda asked.  Sita smiled and skipped a bit as she walked, making Koda feel sick:

     “Stop that Sita, or I might have to throw up over the side!”  Koda said.  Sita stopped skipping about and walked normally.

       “No, you’re fine,” she replied.  Koda desperately wanted to massage Sita’s paws, he remembered her running down the corridor the first time he’d ever seen her, her flying tail impressed him even now.  He remembered her frothing rage, and her tears at Hubert’s awful taunts.

        “I love you Sita,” Koda whispered.  Sita didn’t break her stride, but Koda was sure she heard his whisper, for when she set him down in the pool complex, she kissed his nose and said:

        “Love you too Koda,” which made Koda want to weep.

       “Sita,” he choked, “how much did you hear?”

      “I felt far more, your paws were screaming at me,” Sita said, gently pushing Koda onto his back and rubbing his belly with her paw.  Koda, deeply moved by her touch, clung to her paw with both of his.  Sita pulled, Koda sitting up under her traction.

       “Now can I have my paw back please?”  Sita asked.  Koda, ashamed, dropped Sita’s paw, only for her to kiss his nose,

        “I wish you’d kiss my paws too,” Koda heard himself saying.  Sita lifted Koda’s right forepaw and kissed his pads, Koda deeply embarrassed.

       “I’m sorry for asking it Sita, I didn’t want, I mean, I didn’t mean to ask it of you.  Oh dear, oh dear!”  Koda gabbled, very upset.

        “Kissing paws is okay,” Sita said, “remember Koda, I am like you in more ways than you know.”

       “I asked to be shown Mishka’s world to get to know him, you were shown into that world by force,” Koda said.

       “Is it a world that frightens you?”  Sita asked.

       “Yes, and no, yes because you can’t see what someone’s going to do before they do it.  And no, no, because, well, everything is more honest.  The paws never lie.”  Sita smiled:

       “Maybe you will get to experience something more amazing still than just the honesty of paw contact,” Sita said, “maybe, maybe you’ll touch a cub while it’s born.  Feel a mother’s paws while she curls her toes, all that.”

       “You’re not pregnant are you Sita?”  Koda asked in astonishment.

       “No, but Lihua is,” was Sita’s response, “she got bedded by Kojack, and now she’s expecting a cub.  Randy buggers both.  Conrad gasped at Sita’s language.

      “Sita!”  He snapped.

        “Oh Conrad, prudish upstanding bear you are, though so dear I won’t unleash my full lexicon on you.  I can be far worse than that.  In Ursine, Tigrine, and leonine.  Swearing and knowing how to as well as not to swear is an art form I prize.”

        “Disgusting!”  Conrad spat.  Sita called to Mishka, and when he answered, she unleashed a burst of old ursine which made him curl his toes in anxiety.

       “Sita!”  He snapped, “You should be whipped with a branch for saying that!”  Sita grinned and padded to Mishka, who playfully cuffed her.

       “Promise I won’t say any more,” Sita said, lashing her tail with excitement, the end hitting Koda in his slightly opened mouth, Koda spitting out the end of Sita’s tail.

      “If I wanted a mouthful of someone’s tail, I would have asked!”  Koda yelled.

        “Oh sorry Koda,” Sita said, turning and smacking him across his nose this time.

     “Oi, stop it, stops hitting me with your tail!”  Koda demanded.  Sita, now completely disorientated as to where her tail was in relation to her own body and to Koda’s head, turned this way and that, her tail whipping about Koda’s head, its tip smacking him in the eye, on his nose, and entering his mouth again when he opened it to yell at her to stand still and let him deal with things, the end of which request was muffled by the thick fur of the living gag of Sita’s tail.

       “Get that bloody tail away from me now!”  Koda snarled, spitting and bending Sita’s tail out of his path.

         “Sorry Koda, Sita said, backing up and crashing into him.

     “Sita, Stop, please stop, stand still!”  Koda demanded, “Pretend your paws are stuck to the floor, and imagine you can’t move them, they’re glued right?  I’ll move out of your way.  That’s it, good girl.  Now, there.”  Koda left with Mishka, Sita staying behind.

       “Aren’t you coming Sita?”  Conrad asked.

      “I can’t, my feet are stuck to the floor still!”  Sita yelled back.  Koda, his frustration ebbing, smiled at her playfulness.

        “I release you, now come,” he said.

       It doesn’t work like that,” Sita replied, “I need help to free my paws!”  Koda padded back to Sita, for he knew he was safe to retrace his steps to her.

      “Now let’s work on these paws,” Koda said, “does the glue have any special combination to neutralise it?”

        “Kiss my nose first,” Sita said.  Koda huffed with exasperation at her perception of his thoughts.

        “You know I love you from nose to tail Sita,” he blurted.

      “I know, and it’s wonderful,” Sita replied, “Now kiss my nose, and let’s get these paws freed.  So Koda kissed Sita’s nose, finding her fur warm and soft, her scent that of spiced earth.

        “Hind feet first,” Koda said, that way you can lean on your forepaws Sita.”

      “And you Koda, get to kiss my pads and tickle my toes,” Sita replied laughing slightly.

      “Only if you want me to,” Koda replied hastily.

       “Follow your paws Koda,” Sita said.  Koda did, and they enjoyed their game hugely, Sita finding freeing her right hind foot a bit more of a struggle than she’d found freeing her left hind. Koda and she worked together, Koda prying at Sita’s heel and levering from behind with the toes of his forepaw while Sita leant hard on her forepaws and tried to pull her heel off the floor by standing on the toes of that paw.  Sita, getting into the game, snarled, growled and yowled with effort.  This attracted Conrad and Mishka, who came back and got paws on with Sita’s struggle to free her paws, which everyone enjoyed, as Koda managed to get his paws stuck while thinking about how strong the glue must be which held Sita’s paws, only to find it holding his just as strongly.

        “My feet are stuck too now!  Koda yelled.  Mishka, touching the resultant situation with his paws, was careful not to think about the strength of glue which had got his two friends into their predicament.  Sita’s right hind foot, only freed to her toes, which were still on the ground, rested on the toes of Koda’s left forepaw.  Her sole pad resting lightly on his toes.

        “She’s got amazing balance,” Koda said, for Sita’s weight was just resting on his toes, not fully applied, just as he’d felt Patch rest the heels of his hind feet when Koda had asked to feel how heavy he was.

      “Now I have to free Koda before I can free you Sita,” Mishka said with mock exasperation.

      “My feet are stuck, my feet are stuck!” Sita yowled like a frightened cub, Conrad trying all the while to comfort her, while Sita wriggled, snarled and lashed Koda’s body with her tail as she struggled.  Koda felt Sita forget herself for a minute, pressing her weight down on his paw.  Koda ground his teeth as her foot pressed down briefly.

      “You’re heavy Sita!”  He panted.  Sita lifted her weight off of his toes in a tearing, screaming effort to free her paw.  Managing it, she lifted her foot up, and Koda, feeling this, turned his head a little, kissing the pads of her raised paw.

     “That won’t stick now,” he said.  Sita, sighing with relief, moved her foot slightly forward of Koda’s.

       “She’ll fall over if she tangles her paws,” Mishka said.  Sita smiled, remembering the game of twister she and Toby had played once.  That had ended up with Sita in a heap on the floor while Toby and Jess tickled her toes.

         “I remember that game,” she said.

       “Your pads are warm and rough,” Koda said to Sita, who smiled, and said:

     “Kiss the pads of my right hind foot once more Koda and I think me night is able to free my other three feet unaided.  So Koda kissed the pads of Sita’s right hind foot.  And with a grunt of effort every time she freed one of her glued paws, Sita freed herself, turned to Koda and applied her expertise to his predicament.

      “You got yourself stuck too I think,” she said. Koda admitted he had.

       “Silly cub,” Sita said gently, “what did your mama say about playing with glue?”  Koda blinked sadly at the mension of his mother.

      “She said it could be strong, but not how strong,” he said, “now I’ve found out for myself! And, Sita, I don’t know if I want to free my paws at all.”  Sita kissed Koda’s nose.

       “From the floor?”  She asked, “You are friends with the floor?”

     “No Sita, not the floor, from Mishka’s paws, and yours, they’re lovely paws.”  Sita kissed his ear, Koda choking back tears.

      “Come little one, let’s free your little paws and get playing seriously,” she said.  Koda gulped hard.

      “This play is serious,” he replied, “I can’t stop; I don’t want to stop it.”

      “Come,”  Sita said, gently freeing Koda’s right hind foot with care, then repeating with his left hind and then his forepaws, “let’s go and play paw games in the pool.”  Koda was happy with that, and accompanied Sita to the spar pool.

       “You enjoyed that game didn’t you,” Sita said.  Koda smiled:

       “Enjoyment is too weaker expression,” Koda replied, “it was liberating!”  Sita kissed his ear and helped him into the water.

      “Now settle back and enjoy your playtime,” Sita said.  Koda marvelled at how realistic his play with Sita had been, even though they’d pretended their paws were stuck.  Sita hadn’t cut corners and neither had he.

       “I hope I didn’t make it too realistic,” Koda thought, “Sita must think me crazy!”

        “No Koda,” Sita said, “I think you were fine.  “It was I who went overboard.  I threw myself over the side and swam round the ship twice, as it were.”  Koda, now used to Sita’s telepathy, grinned at her.

        “I loved our game,” he said.

      “So did me,” Sita replied.

      “Do Leo and Toby play like you do?”  Koda asked.

       “Not really,” Sita replied, “they haven’t got the uninhibited attitude I have.  I don’t know if it’s because their eyes tell them they can’t have pure fun.  It’s sad really.”

        “Sita,” Koda said, “did you truly lose your place when you backed into me?”  Sita frowned:

       “Sorry about that Koda,” she said.  Koda smiled and brushed his paw through Sita’s whiskers.

        “I love you Sita,” Koda said honestly.  Sita drew him onto her lap and hugged him tenderly, Koda snuggling up to the thick warm comfort of Sita’s fur.

        “I love you too Koda,” Sita replied, brushing his ear with her whiskers.  Koda, relaxing totally, closed his eyes and enjoyed her ministrations.

        “I don’t know if I want to go back to the world of light,” Koda said, “here is much gentler.”

        “You can make that choice whenever,” Sita said, “but it must be a choice from the centre of your spirit, as was the choice to enter Mishka’s and my world.”

        “Sita,” Koda said ashamedly, “I threw tea all over Mishka.  I wanted, wanted to make him tea after he’d been so good to me, and it all went wrong!”  Sniffing slightly, Koda continued, “I tripped on something, and the tea flew out of the bowl, all over Mishka, and he woke up screaming.  It was awful!”

        “I have also forgiven you for that Koda,” Mishka said softly, “so you need not remind yourself of it any more.”

       “I wish someone had seen you crash into Koda,” Conrad said.

 

Indeed someone had, the whole community had, and most found the sight of Sita’s disorientation hilariously funny.

        “Sita lost it completely!”  Pasha laughed to Harvey, “she looked so funny!”

      “Poor thing,” Morag said.

        “Sita’s funny!”  Toby said, “She won’t mind us laughing at her antics.”

     “She was confused though, I could see it, and it was horrible!”  Morag wailed, “It’s cruel to laugh Toby, Sita being your mother and all.”

      “She won’t mind,” Toby insisted.

      “I think her pretence at being stuck to the tiles was very cute,” Bertie said.

       “You would,” Toby replied, “You like anything to do with paws.”  Bertie smiled.

        “I do,” he replied, “and so do Koda, Mishka, and Sita.”  Rocky padded in, pushed Toby onto his back from where he was sitting, and tickled his toes.

       “Oi, paws off my toes!”  Toby laughed, kicking the air with his hind feet.

      “Your pads are warm and you have playful toes,” Rocky said.  Toby laughed helplessly.

       “I liked you tickling my toes,” he replied.

        “Sita’s pads are light brown,” Morag observed, “I saw her pads when she lay down for Koda to clamber on board.”  Toby giggled:

      “I have seen my mama’s paws quite a bit,” he said, “they are very expressive and very sensitive too.”

       “Your mama is a very beautiful creature Toby,” Morag said, “she really knows how to have fun, and she showed Koda that today.”

      “Their game was pure imagination, and they loved every minute,” Bertie said, “I loved every minute too.”

       “Sita can really play,” Pasha said, “she’s really cool, so is Mishka.”

       “Discussing me are we?”  Sita said, padding into the soft play room where the cubs had all dragged beanbags onto the padded floor and were lounging about.  Bertie looked guilty and scrambled to his feet, tripped over his own paws and fell into Knut’s lap, the large polar bear laughing and helping him to his paws.

       “Bertie trying to look busy,” he laughed.  Sita grinned and padded out of the room, Bertie watching her with admiration.

       “She is just so cool,” he said.

        “That she is,” Leo said.

      “She’s your mother, you would say that,” Bertie replied.

       “Why did you scramble to your paws when Sita entered?”  Toby asked Bertie.

      “I didn’t’ think Sita would like us lounging about on beanbags playing with each other’s paws while watching her and Koda swimming and having a good time,”  he said.

       “You don’t think she’d script our playtime do you?”  Rocky asked.

     “Oh no,” Bertie babbled, “She, well, likes to see us enjoying ourselves.

      “Well we were,” Morag said, “Sita won’t rule us with an iron paw.  She’ll tickle our paws if she gets hold of them, and I’m all for that, but as for structuring our play, no, she’s not like that.”

        “You are so right,” Knut yawned.

 

Sita left the spar pool, kissing Koda’s nose before she left.

      “Mishka, I’ll leave this cub in your capable paws,” Sita said, “I’m going to the play room to check on my cubs.”

        “I love how she calls them her cubs,” Conrad said, “Sita is so wonderful!”

       “Her tale is a sad one, but she’s come through, and is a lovely, generous, talented, gorgeous individual.”

       “I like her tail,” Koda said, “Sita’s tail is long, strong and hurts if you’re hit by it.”  Conrad roared with laughter at Koda’s comment.

       “You’re funny,” he said.  Koda splashed him.

       “Now let’s go to the slides,” Mishka suggested, “I’ll show you how to find the slides, the coaster and the flume.”

       “How will you show him the way?”  Conrad asked, “He’ll have to follow you all the time.”

       “No he won’t,” Mishka replied, “and he has a name, his name’s Koda.  Where’s Whitetip anyway?”

        “I’m here!”  Whitetip yelled, bombing into the spar pool.

        “Stupid otter!”  Koda yelled as Whitetip’s tail beat him around the head on her way into the pool.

        “Otters,” Mishka grumbled.

        “I’m out of here,” Koda said, finding the steps and climbing out onto the side.

        “I’ll come with you,” Mishka said, climbing out after Koda, and then hugging him.

       “Now I show you how you know where you’re going independently,” Mishka said softly, Taking Koda to a side room, where there were several tiles on the floor, each feeling different to Koda’s paws.  There was one that was ridged, another diamonds, third balls on it, one had wavy lines, and another circles.

      “The balls lead you to the flume, the wavy to the spar pool, the ridges to the wave pool, and the circles to the slides and, the diamonds to the coaster,” Mishka said, “let your paws follow the path, and you’ll find the way.”

        “Fantastic,” Koda said, “Mishka, did you have this put in?”

        “Yes,” Mishka replied, “Charles Fullbeans couldn’t refuse me, its reasonable adjustment if I’m to walk about independently in a large room with several doors.  I can’t see anything, and neither can you.”  Koda didn’t understand about reasonable adjustment, he was just happy he could walk about and know where he was going.

       “So all I have to do is follow the paths,” Koda said.

      “Yup,” Mishka replied smiling and rubbing Koda’s paw with his.

        “Mishka,” Koda said, “I’ve not felt so good in ages.”  Mishka kissed his nose:

       “I’m glad,” he replied.  Koda felt Mishka’s paw on his, the younger bear’s toes strong and pads warm.

         “You give me strength,” Koda whispered.  Mishka smiled and kissed his brother’s nose.

        “What path do I follow to find the door?”  Koda asked.

        “The smooth tiles,” Mishka replied, find the smoothest tiles and you’ll find the way to the door.”  Mishka rolled onto his back and presented his paws to Koda, who massaged his pads and played with his toes, Mishka wriggling and pawing at Codas face and paws.

        “Maybe, one day, one day,” Koda started to say, then stopped.

      “One day what?”  Mishka asked from his prone position on the tiled floor.

       “Nothing,” Koda replied.

        “One day you hope I will be leader?”  Mishka enquired.  Koda looked away, his thoughts scattering to the four winds.

         “Patch is a lovely leader,” Koda said, “and I don’t want him deposed, I love him with everything I have, but I also think you’d be a good leader too.”

       “Can I get to my paws Koda?”  Mishka asked.  Koda smiled and released Mishka, the latter getting to his feet and nuzzling Koda’s ear.

        “You are so gentle Mishka,” Koda said.

      “I love you so much Koda,” Mishka replied, “has the time in my world helped you to understand me as you’d like to?”  Koda smiled and nodded:

       “But what if I don’t want to return to the world of light?”  He asked.

        “My world is not yours,” Mishka replied, “you can’t stay in my world.”  Koda felt Mishka take his paw, then felt his eyes stinging so he was forced to pull his paw away, sit down and close his eyes, furiously rubbing his eyes with his paws.  The stinging left him, and he opened his eyes, able to see Mishka in full colour for the first time in two days.

        “Now you can see me Koda,” Mishka said, “how do you feel?”  Koda threw his paws around his brother and hugged him tightly:

         “I trust you even more,” he replied sincerely, “you helped me more than I can put into words Mishka.”

 

Lihua padded into the room, looking very concerned about something.  Koda’s eyes, drawn to her as she was a striking creature, a panda with a polar bear’s face and white socks on all four huge paws, took in her shifting paws and flexing toes as she coped with discomfort.  Koda stared at her, and Mishka went up to her, touching her hot left forepaw.

       “Lihua, what’s going on?”  Mishka asked.  Lihua smiled:

        “I think I’m in labour,” she said, “I was bathing in the tub near here to ease my belly cramps, they aren’t going away, and I think I’m in labour.  I’m not pushing yet, I’m suffering pains every few minutes, and they’re getting longer and stronger, closer together too.”  Koda watched her face, then her paws, as Lihua tensed against another contraction, her toes curling and teeth clenching as she tried not to moan or cry.

        “Don’t be ashamed of the pain,” Mishka said, “it’s okay to groan and yell.”  Lihua bounced a little on her toes, panting and snarling.

       “Thank you,” she panted, “it’s getting hard not to keep a lid on my voice.”  Mishka invited Lihua to sit down, the act of doing so triggering a contraction which made the cross bred she bear grab Mishka in her paws, lean into him and give vent to a long loud wail of pain.

       “Ooooooaaaaaaoowh, ooooooaaaaaaoowh!”  She protested, wriggling uncomfortably as she endured her pain, Koda seeing the toes of her hind paws curling tightly and sweat flying from her fur as she wriggled and rocked with Mishka held in her paws, clinging to him with desperation.

        “Let’s go to somewhere more comfortable,” Mishka said gently.

      “No,” Lihua gasped, “I need the traction given to my feet by your tiles Mishka!”  Lihua dug her toes into the tiles, gripping with the toes themselves, rather than her claws, which she’d cut short.

       “I want to feel the tiles beneath my toes!”  She screamed, “Claws slip, toes don’t!”  Koda watched in fascination as Lihua crawled around the room, concentrating on digging the toes of all four of her paws into the tiles as she crawled.  Suddenly he found himself face to face with her; Lihua’s paw slamming down on his, her tightly closed eyes and gripping forepaws plain for him to se.

       “Koda,” she gasped, opening her eyes for a minute, “Mishka said you wanted to feel a cub born, so come on, get paws on!”  Koda felt her strong right forepaw gripping his left fore.

         “Are you sure?”  Koda asked, “This is Kojack’s job.”

       “Kojack doesn’t think I’m pregnant!”  Lihua panted, “Oooah, but I am, and I’m having his cub!”  Koda kissed Lihua’s nose as she wailed with pain.

        “What do you want to do?”  Koda asked.  Lihua sat down, grabbed Koda in her paws and nearly squashed him.

       “Aaaaaw, Aaaaaw!”  Lihua squealed, wriggling and rocking.  Koda looked at her face contorted in agony, her forepaws sweating as they held him, and her hind feet, toes curled, pads bunched, as she dug her heels into the floor to give herself purchase as she rocked and writhed.

         “Koda, Aaaaaw Koda!”  Lihua roared.

       “It’s okay,” Koda said, rubbing her ears with his paws.  Lihua gasped and panted, then caught her breath and strained into her tail for the first time, her moan of pain pitiful.

       “Huruooooomph,” she groaned as she pushed down hard into her tail.  Little Patch, running in, found his friend in pain and screaming.

       “What’s going on Lihua?”  He asked.  Lihua growled as she grabbed her right hind foot in her forepaws and squeezed it, digging her claws into her pads and toes.

       “I’m having Kojack’s cub!”  She roared, “He leapt at me, and attacked me, and now, now I’m labouring under that Burdon!”  Little Patch looked sick.

       “He did that to Flocke too!”  He roared, “This is wrong!”

      “I’ll snap it off when I get my paws on him!”  Lihua yelled, straining and rocking.  Suddenly, with a squirt of fluid, Lihua passed the plug which protected her cub.  Whimpering, she got to her feet, straddled her hind legs and bore down hard, her squealing echoing off the walls.  Then she lay down, rolling onto her back to kick and yell while wriggling convulsively.

        “Oooah, woooooaowh!”  She complained.

       “Take it easy Lihua,” little Patch said, sobbing as he saw his friend in pain.

       “She’s okay Patch,” Koda said, kissing the brown bear’s nose and paws.  Lihua felt little patch take her right hind foot in his paws, and sat up between contractions to grip his paws in her forepaws and press them against her hind foot as she bore down.

       “I’m gonna give birth crawling,” Lihua gasped.  Patch took in her sweat darkened fur and sweat dulled white socks on all four paws.  Lihua kept her paws clean, but now they were soaked with sweat, her pristine white fur stained and dirty with sweat.  Lihua’s pads, usually dusky black, were deep black with the sweat of her exertions, her strong scent evident in the little room.  Bella ran in, saw Lihua sitting on the floor, rocking gasping and straining, then ran out, her paws skidding on the non slip flooring in her eagerness to run from the room.  Lihua panted and groaned, then got into a crawling posture to crawl round the room, her forepaws gripping and the toes of her hind feet thrusting as she groaned and wailed her way through contractions.

       “Push Lihua, go on Push, push down into the toes of your hind paws!”  Little Patch encouraged.  Lihua strained down hard into her tail, then deeper, much deeper into her hind paws.

      Oooahooooooaoaouch!”  She howled.  Then panting, Lihua let her body stretch, stretching and curling her toes as her muscles stretched to pass the cub into the world.  Koda kept one eye on the emerging cub, the other on the pads of Lihua’s right hind foot, watching her bunching pads and flexing toes.  Once, he even touched her bunching pads and stroked her toes with his paw, Lihua’s toes curling briefly around his, crushing them with desperate strength.

      “Ow, ooowww!  Yaw!”  Lihua sobbed as she felt the cub emerging. Wriggling, she panted as the cub slipped free of her, Koda catching the cub in his paws.

        “Well done mama Lihua!”  Koda said.  Panting, Lihua turned and sat down to clean and nurse her cub.

        “That was beautiful!”  Koda exclaimed.

         “Now that was a roller coaster,” Lihua said panting slightly.

        “You were wonderful mama,” Koda said.  Mishka, who’d, got paws on with Lihua from the side, smiled too.

        “I loved it too,” he said.  Lihua grinned at both bears.

        “You two helped me a great deal,” she said, “giving me strength through the touch of your paws.”

       “Your paws are so cute Lihua,” Little Patch said.  Lihua giggled:

       “I wish they weren’t as dirty as they are,” she said.

      “They’re not dirty,” Patch replied, “they’re just drenched with sweat, that’s okay.”

       “I felt reassured by the firm footing your tiles gave me Mishka.  Now, now I can say I had my cub with friends around me and supporting me,” Lihua said.

      “You did, you did!”  Koda said, now crying.  Lihua cradled her cub in her lap, looking over at Koda.

        “”Patch,” she said to little patch, “would you hold little Yi jie for me while I hug Koda?”  Little Patch nodded, taking the newborn cub into his paws.

       “Now Koda, come,” Lihua said, embracing Koda when he got to her.  Koda snuggled up to the mama bear, smelling her strong scent and feeling her warm paws around him.

        “Why have you named your cub Yi jie?”  Koda asked.

       “To honour one of the first pandas who set paw in this community,” Lihua replied.  Koda smiled, he was happy with that.

 

Meanwhile, deep in the woods, Bella found Kojack hiding.

       “You disgust me!”  She yelled.  Kojack whimpered as Bella piled in, kicking, clawing and roaring with anger and frustration.  When Bella had finished, Kojack was badly beaten and bloody.  Bella however was unscathed.

      “Now I leave you to stew in your own fêted juices!”  Bella yelled.  Bella stamped back to the house showered and muddied her face and paws with the pigment she habitually used to keep her rough and ready look.  Rubbing the muddy pigment into her fur, Bella made sure her paws were dirtied up, and then attended to her face with more of the make up from the jar she’d swapped her mud for.  Now she could keep her paws clean without compromising her look.  Padding back to Lihua and her extended family in Mishka’s tile training room, Bella reported what she’d done to Kojack.

      “Thank you Bella,” Lihua said smiling.

       “I think he’s awful!”  Bella roared.  Sita put her head in at the door and her nose told her all.

        “Lihua, you had your cub!”  She exclaimed.

       “Under protest yes,” Lihua said, “Sita, I’m not a randy bugger as you put it, I was raped!”  Sita felt her toes curling into the tiles.

       “I’m sorry Lihua,” she said, “I thought you were consenting to it.”

      “No,” Lihua said sadly.  Sita padded to Lihua and rested her paws on the mama bear’s right hind paw, Lihua pressing her toes into Sita’s embrace.

        “I know,” Lihua said, “I should have been more open about things.  I tried to keep it secret, but nothing is secret here where cubs are concerned.”  Sita kissed her nose, and Koda withdrew to allow Sita to hug Lihua, who scrambled into Sita’s embrace like a frightened cub?

        “Let it go Lihua,” Sita said, the she bear crying into her thick coat.

       “I would have loved to be with you while you had your cub,” Sita said.

      “Mishka can describe it,” Lihua said, “it was a whirlwind, but all were comforting there too.”

       “I will ask a female bear and cat to watch the births of cubs, so they can re-enact them for those who cannot see the videos,” Mishka replied, “it would be only right to set something like that up.”

         “I agree,” Koda replied, “I’ll ask sire Patch to put something in place.”  Lihua fed her cub some more, while Sita embraced her right hind foot in her paws.

         “I’ll re-enact the birth of my cub for you Sita,” Lihua said, “I regret nothing about it.”

       “You have lovely paws, all furry and rather cute,” Koda said.  Lihua giggled:

       “My feet have always fascinated me,” she said, “all that fur and rough pads and all.  Very cute really, if I do say so myself.”  Sita laughed, and then gasped as Lihua gave her little Yi Jie, who was again asleep.  Sita cradled the large cub in her paws, stroking her back and paws, the cub snuggling close for warmth, Sita lifting the cub and kissing its tiny nose and paws.

         “I love you little one,” she whispered.

       “I like you,” the cub said in a high pitched voice, Sita’s eyes misting over.

        “She’s getting broody,” little Patch said.  Sita gulped hard, her emotions crowding in on her.

        “If I show you how the birth of my cub was,” Lihua said to Sita, “you’ll want a cub too.”  Sita asked:

      “How do you feel about the birth of your cub Lihua?  The cub being born out of forced conquest rather than gentility?”

        “I blame Kojack for the rape, but can’t blame the cub,” Lihua replied, “I have a cub now, and will look after her with everything I have.”  Sita gave Yi Jie to Koda then hugged Lihua tightly.

        “You are lovely,” she said to Lihua, who kissed her nose.

      “Sita,” Lihua said, “would you teach me and Yi Jie how to play like you played with Koda in the pool complex?”  Sita giggled:

       “That’s great play,” she said, “very imaginative play.”

        “I know my paws can become sticky,” Lihua said, “I want to feel them stick to the floor.”  Sita laughed.

       “You look after little Yi Jie now,” Sita said.

        “I need to wash,” Lihua said, “I’ll use the shower rooms here.”  With that she picked up her cub and padded from the room to wash herself and her cub.

        “Poor Lihua going into labour in the bathtub,” Sita said, “how awful.”

       “I think she was swimming in the pool when the first pains started,”  Koda said, “at least that’s what I presume, as why else would she be using the communal tub in the pool complex?”

     “True,” Sita replied.

 

Lihua showered herself and her cub, both emerging freshly washed.  Padding back to the room where she’d had her cub, Lihua grabbed a bucket and mop and cleaned up the floor, to protestations from Koda and Sita that they could do the job for her.

      “I’ll hear none of it,” Lihua said smiling, pushing the mop around.  Koda looked at Mishka, went to him, and hugged him.

        “Lihua should have been washed by someone,” Mishka said, “but she has no mate.”

      “I am very grateful for your help, all of your help,” Lihua said gently.

        “Can I stroke your paws?”  Sita asked Lihua, who parked the mop and sat down opposite Sita, Sita takes her right hind foot in her forepaws and massaging Lihua’s pads and toes, Lihua smiling and gently curling her toes with pleasure.

      “Your pads have fir between them,” Sita said, “your paws are large with thick rough pads and lovely mobile toes,” Lihua grinned.

       “I know Koda’s felt the rough end of my toes curling,” she said.

      “It felt wonderful,” Koda replied, “You have strong toes mama Lihua.”  Lihua smiled:

       “I can’t hope to curl my toes like that again,” she said, “not until I have another cub.”

        “That was amazing work,” Koda said sincerely.  Lihua smiled broadly.

 

Meanwhile Patch and Ekaterina sat in their lie up, Patch having just re-enacted for Ekaterina the goings on in Mishka’s training room.  Ekaterina, highly excited, massaged Patch’s paws while he lay on his side, exhausted but elated.

         “Thank you patch,” Ekaterina said.  Patch laughed:

       “I loved every minute,” he said, “and I’m glad to help you Ekaterina...  You know, I think I will ask one of the more amenable cats and a bear if they would like to train up for re-enacting of births for our community members who are blind.  Of course we could always describe the video to them, as the humans do on DVD’s, but that’s not our way.  We amerce ourselves in the action, so why shouldn’t those who are blind participate too?”

        “You felt like a mother in labour,” Ekaterina said, “you did so well Patch!”  Patch kissed her nose.

       “Glad I can impersonate a labouring mama,” he said.

       “You are wonderful,” Ekaterina replied.  Patch removed the glasses he’d worn to show him the scenes from the CCTV while he was crawling about on the floor.

         “You did so Well patch,” Ekaterina said, “I only wish I could do as well.”

       “You can make up the birth of a cub if you wish,” Patch replied, “pretend you are stuck in mud and I rescue you that kind of thing, just as Sita did.”

       “I haven’t tried pretending my feet are stuck to the floor,” Ekaterina replied, “I’ll try that, now.”  Ekaterina tried to pretend her paws were stuck to the floor, but failed.  Patch, watching her, suggested:

      “Why not pretend your forepaws are stuck to your hind to begin with, sit down and try that.”  Ekaterina smiled and sat down, playing with the toes of her right hind foot in her forepaws, smiling at the sensation created.

        “Now I wonder if my forepaws will stick to my hind.”  Ekaterina asked aloud.

      “Your glue won’t work on yourself,” Patch laughed.  Here, try my paws, maybe the glue will work then.  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

      “I think it will,” she said.  Patch sat opposite his mate, taking her right hind foot in his paws and massaging it in his paws as if he was washing her paw, Ekaterina giggling with pleasure.

       “Are you working my paw into lather like we do with soap?”  She asked.  Patch grinned:

       “Is it your paw in lather, or yourself in one?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina laughed, curling her toes with pleasure.

       “My paws like being in lather,” she said smiling.

       “Now if I lather each paw, maybe the glue will work better,” Patch said gently.  Ekaterina smiled, bouncing about on the rugs.

        “Can I massage your paws too?”  She asked.  Patch grinned:

      “Take my hind paws in your fore and rub them, find out if I want it,” he said.  Ekaterina tried, and Patch’s toes curled and stretched with pleasure.

       “So will the glue stick your paws to mine?”  Ekaterina asked.  Patch smiled:

       “Touch hind paws with me, rub the top of my hind foot with your forepaws and then see what happens,” he suggested.  Ekaterina tried, and Patch’s paw pads stuck to hers.

       “Now let’s try pulling our paws apart,” patch said.  Ekaterina tried, but found she couldn’t move her paws at all.

       “My feet are stuck!”  She wailed.

       “Now I will release your hind paws, reinforce the glue, and you try walking on those newly energised paws...  Ekaterina got to her feet.

       “Now try walking,” patch said.  Ekaterina tried, and couldn’t move her paws.

       “My feet are really stuck now, worse than ever!”  Ekaterina yelped.  Patch hugged her and kissed her nose:

       “What do you want me to do Ekaterina?”  He asked, “Do you need my help?”

       “I need you to wash my paws, to lather them again,” Ekaterina replied.  Patch rubbed the tops of Ekaterina’s paws, Ekaterina smiling with pleasure.

      “Now, now try lifting your right hind foot a little Ekaterina,” Patch said gently, “lean on your forepaws a lot and let my forepaws do the work.  Ekaterina felt Patch exploring the heel of her right hind foot, and imagined her paw stuck to the floor, and patch helping her to release it...  Ekaterina felt her weight shift from the heel of her foot to her toes, easing the pressure on her heel, as patch worked his toes beneath her pads.  Ekaterina, gasping, pulled a little more, trying to help him.

       “Your pads are warm and want to play,” Patch said.  Ekaterina, almost sobbing, mumbled agreement.

       “My pads want it, my toes want it, I want it Patch, show me how,” she whispered.  Patch gently stroked the exposed pad of Ekaterina’s right hind foot, Ekaterina gasping with pleasure.

        “Let’s play,” Ekaterina gasped...

        “My paw is telling me your other hind foot is becoming more firmly stuck,” Patch said.  Ekaterina whimpered, trying to move her left hind foot and failing.

       “Yeah,” she gasped, “but, but I want it so, I want to struggle with your help!”  Patch levered away at Ekaterina’s right hind foot while the mama bear rocked back and fourth on her toes, trying to loosen her paw.

         “One big push forward Ekaterina, go on!”  Patch encouraged.  Ekaterina braced herself and rocked forward on her forepaws, her right hind foot tearing free.

     “Now kiss my pads, quick!”  Ekaterina gasped, patch doing so.

      “Now let’s work on that other hind foot,” Patch said, levering at Ekaterina’s left hind foot with his paws.  Ekaterina helping him by rocking from heels to toes while patch worked gently at her pads.

       “My glue is working too well!”  Ekaterina whimpered.  Patch pulled a little at Ekaterina’s hind foot, Ekaterina gasping with intense emotions as her foot lifted slowly from the rugs.

      Oooah!”  She gasped as her foot came free and patch kissed her toes.  Then she tore her forepaws free, rolled onto her back and drummed Patch’s forepaws with her hind feet, Patch patting the soles of her hind feet with gentle paws.

        “My feet are free now!”  Ekaterina laughed, pawing at the air and wriggling like a cub.

       “Your paws are beautiful,” patch said, “playful too.”

       “How do you keep up the emotion when you’re pushing against a cub Patch?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “When someone’s stroking my paw, I imagine I’m pushing against that stroking, groaning and panting, then when the stroking finishes, I go mad, until I need to push again, then I bear down, and that usually means more stroking of paw pads.  Try it if you want.”

      “So when you touch the sole of my foot I push?”  Ekaterina asked.  Patch replied this was true.

      “Okay, now, push Ekaterina push!”  Patch said, touching the sole of Ekaterina’s right hind foot.  Ekaterina gathered herself and pushed down hard, crying out

     “eeeeeeeoaoaow!” as she felt patch’s touch running from her toes, then stopping at the middle of her foot, giving her time to pant, then he laid his paw on harder, Ekaterina moaning and gasping with the effort of pushing against the cub which she imagined to be the pressure on her paw.

       “Ooooahowumph!”  Ekaterina shrieked as Patch’s touch reached her heel.

      “Wow patch, wow!”  Ekaterina panted, “That was amazing!”

        “Yeah it is,” patch replied smiling and gently playing with his mate’s toes.  Ekaterina curled her toes with extatic pleasure.

        “So you press back against the pressure of the stroking?” Ekaterina asked.  Patch smiled and replied this was true.

       “React to the pressure of the stroking of the paws yes,” he said, “then, after a little Panting, groan again to encourage more stroking, then work against that pressure.  It’s a circle, until the cub is born.”  Ekaterina smiled and nodded.

       “I understand,” she replied.

        “So if a paw is trapped, the game is only on when two players are playing really.  Yes a stubborn cub can pretend his paws are stuck, but the real game starts when others join in.”

       “Your dedication to the art is almost unrivalled,” Ekaterina said, “I say almost, as mama Kamchatka is good too.”

      “Mama Kamchatka is no longer here Ekaterina love,” Patch said.  Ekaterina fell silent for a minute:

      “Oh yeah, um, I forgot,” she replied hoarsely.

      “Maybe her acting talent has entered you mama Ekaterina,” Patch replied gently.  Ekaterina smiled:

       “I hope it has,” she replied, “I must say, the release of yelling my head off was amazing.”  Patch kissed her nose.

       “I love you mama,” he said to Ekaterina.  Ekaterina snuggled up to Patch, kissing his nose and forepaws.

      “Your fur is soft and warm, and the pads of your paws are tough, warm and expressive,” patch said.  Ekaterina smiled:

       “Your pads are warm and very expressive,” Ekaterina replied, “Patch; I love you from your nose to your toes,”

       “I feel the same about you Ekaterina,” Patch replied kissing her nose and the pads of all four of her paws.

        “Your paw pads are as beautiful to me as your face is,” Patch replied, Ekaterina giggling with pleasure.

        “Now Patch,” she said, “would you please groom me? Groom my paws?”  Patch smiled and nodded, grooming Ekaterina from nose to tail with teeth and tongue, licking her fur with his tongue, then rasping it with his teeth, spitting into a bowl nearby.  Ekaterina wriggled and pedalled the air with her paws as Patch worked over her body, moaning with pleasure when he groomed her forepaws, and crying out loudly when he rasped the pads of her right hind foot with his teeth.

        “Ouououoch!”  She whimpered, Patch stopping his grooming.

       “Did I hurt you?”  He asked.  Ekaterina, her toes half curled, panted hard:

      “No, no!”  She replied, almost sobbing, “I’ve never felt such pleasure!  Patch, how do you do that?”  Patch smiled and kissed the pads he’d just been grooming.

      “Patch,” Ekaterina said, “I’m sorry for crying out.”  Patch smiled and kissed Ekaterina’s nose.

      “You were building up to it,” he said, “I could see you pedalling the air with your paws, which is cute by the way.  Your hind feet were going like pistons.”  Ekaterina giggled:

        “That must look so cute,” she said.

       “It does,” Patch replied, “It feels wonderful too.”

      “Did I tap your nose with my pedalling hind paws?”  Ekaterina asked, remembering a hint of breath on the pads of her left hind paw.

       “You did,” patch replied, “but that was because I was taking a good look at the pads of your hind paws.  I do sometimes look at you too Ekaterina, taking in your body from nose to wrinkled, cute paw pads.

        “Lovely,” Ekaterina replied gently.  Patch inhaled deeply, Ekaterina’s scent pleasing him.

        “Shall I groom your other hind paw?”  Patch asked.  Ekaterina wiggled the toes of her left hind foot.

       “Yes please,” she replied.  Patch set to kissing the sole pad of her hind paw, then licking the pad and rasping it with his teeth.  Patch felt Ekaterina curling her toes, the pads bunching beneath his lips as he groomed them.  Patch blew on the bunching pads, Ekaterina gripping the rugs with her forepaws, Patch hearing her claws tearing material as she held onto the floor for support as her mind became airborne.

          “Patch, this is wonderful!”  She exclaimed, “As pleasurable as delivering a cub is painful!  As amazing as that is too. Patch, do what you like, kiss my pads, rasp them with your teeth, blow on my pads, do what you want!”  Patch traced Ekaterina’s pads with his nose, Ekaterina crying out with excitement.

        “I’ll carry on as long as you want me to Ekaterina,” Patch said gently.  Ekaterina set to curling and relaxing her toes with excitement and deep pleasure.

       “I wonder how Lihua got through her labour having little Yi Jie?”  Ekaterina asked.

         “She looked calm enough,” Patch replied.  “I can tell you that.”

      “So can me,” Lihua said, padding into the lie up with her three hour old cub.  Ekaterina raised her head, Lihua resting the cub in her paws, Ekaterina embracing little Yi jie with gentle paws.

        “You are so cute little one,”  Ekaterina said, exploring the cub’s body with her paws, while Yi Jie wriggled and pawed at Ekaterina’s own paws with her tiny forepaws.  Lihua sat down and picked up little Yi jie to feed her.  Ekaterina got paws on with Lihua’s hind feet, feeling large pads and long, wide strong toes.  Lihua smiled:

       “I’ll crawl about a bit in a minute and you can feel my paws from that angle too,” she said, “I hope Patch showed you what was going on Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina replied that he had.

       “I showed Sita what went on, re-enacting it before I came up here,” Lihua said, “It was liberating, pure exhilaration too.  Sita said she’d show Conrad how it was for me.”  Patch smiled:

        “I think this is the way to go,” he replied, “keeping in touch is a good thing to do.”

       “Patch was keeping in touch with me before you arrived Lihua,” Ekaterina said, “he was grooming my hind paws, and it was amazing!”  Lihua looked with longing at Patch.

        “Please,” Lihua said, “Patch, would you?”  Patch smiled and nodded:

        “You want grooming?”  He asked.  Lihua gasped at the articulation of her wish.

       “Yes, I mean, no, I mean, I want it, but not like you think,” she gabbled.

       “Patch will do a wonderful job,” Ekaterina replied.

        “Thanks,” Lihua said with evident relief.

        “How if I do it?”  Ekaterina asked.  Lihua smiled and replied:

      “Yes Ekaterina, please.”  So Ekaterina groomed Lihua from nose to tail while the she bear lay on her side.  Lihua found her toes wanting to curl with pleasure as Ekaterina worked on her.  Ekaterina throwing herself completely into her job, emptying her enthusiasm and knowledge into every considered touch on Lihua’s body from her paws, teeth and tongue, grooming the she bears body with every bit of knowledge she had.  Lihua felt her body relaxing as Ekaterina worked.

         “Have you tried this on a labouring mother?”  Lihua asked.

     “No Lihua I haven’t,” Ekaterina replied.  Lihua sighed regretfully:

       “I wish I’d known,” she said, “delivering Yi Jie in the room of tiles was okay, but getting a massage from you would have been good too.”

        “Your claws are cut short,” Ekaterina observed.

      “Yes, Jess trims them for me,” Lihua said, “as you heard me yell in the video, I prefer contact with the ground through my toes unhindered by claws.”

       “I do too,” Ekaterina said, “that’s why I keep my claws short.”

      “It helps when delivering cubs too I bet,” Lihua said.  Ekaterina smiled and nodded.

        “I would like to get back into that,” she said wistfully, “Lilly’s labour seems a long time ago.”  Lihua sighed contentedly.

       “Maybe you can help someone in the near future,” she said dreamily.

         “I’m enjoying this,” Ekaterina said.  Lihua, smiling, curled the toes of her right hind foot around those of Ekaterina’s left forepaw.

       “So am I Ekaterina, so am I,” she replied.

 

Patch, in charge of little Yi Jie while Lihua got a good grooming, fed the cub from a bottle he’d been given.  Yi Jie drank busily, holding the bottle in her tiny paws.  Patch could feel the cub’s advanced development in her strong paws and good coordination, and marvelled at how developed the cubs of community females were compared to their wild cousins.  Patch watched Yi jie gripping the bottle between her forepaws the large cub curling the toes of her hind paws as a direct reflection of how tightly she held the bottle in her fore.  Patch traced the cub’s hind paw pads, Yi jie giggling as he tickled her toes, spraying Patch with milk.

      “Stop tickling my feet!”  She laughed, accidentally throwing the bottle across the room, where it hit Ekaterina, the top flying off and soaking Lihua with milk.

        “You idiot!”  Lihua snapped at Patch, “What the hell were you doing to my cub!”

         “He was tickling my toes!”  Yi Jie yelled.  Lihua strode across to patch, and walloped him with her paw.

       “You bloody pain!”  She yelled.

      “Don’t hit him mamma!”  Yi Jie squealed, hearing Patch’s yell of surprise.

       “Why shouldn’t I?”  Lihua snarled, “He’s caused you to throw my precious milk everywhere!”

        “Did you just hit my mate?”  Ekaterina asked Lihua.  Lihua hesitated, wondering if she could deny it, when Yi jie blew her cover.

      “Yes, she hit him mama, she hit him!”  The cub yelled, truthful to the last.  Ekaterina bristled with anger.  Patch saw her metamorphose from a gentle mother into a raging tyrant in five nanoseconds.  Her fur standing on end, Ekaterina strode to Lihua, picked her up, and threw her down on the floor with considerable force!  Lihua got up and the two mother bears fought madly with paws and weight, though patch was astonished to see for such angry bears, they didn’t use their teeth, each attempting to use their own, and maybe the other’s weight to win the battle.  Lihua, having been weakened by the strain of recently giving birth, and further still by Ekaterina’s surprise attack, floundered a bit, until both she and Ekaterina came to a standstill, a stalemate reached.

        “Now what?”  Lihua panted, “what you gonna do to me?”

        “I think we’re evenly matched,” Ekaterina gasped, “we’ll call it a draw for now.  But you hit my mate again; I’ll break your paws!”  Lihua backed down.

        “You can always draw more milk Lihua,” Patch said, rubbing his nose where her paw had connected, “the more you draw, the more is produced.”

     “But that was the first milk!”  She wailed.

       “Okay, well we’ll give her a little supplement to aid her then.”  Patch said, “Draw some more milk, and we’ll feed your cub.”  Lihua, beaten and outwitted, sat down on the floor.

        “I will give more milk,” Lihua grumbled, expressing into the bottle which Ekaterina found by scent, and had assembled.

          “I won’t touch your hind paws while you’re drinking Yi Jie,” patch said to the little cub, which reached up and took his paw in her tiny ones.

        “I liked it,” she confessed, “it tickled though.”  Patch smiled and blew on the pads of the cub’s hind paws as she stretched her hind feet up to him, Yi jie kicking the air with her hind feet and laughing helplessly.

       “Now try feeding little Yi jie without making her spit the milk out and throw it everywhere Patch.  Or better still, give her to me, and I’ll feed her naturally and keep this milk for later,” Lihua said.  Patch tried to hand yi Jie back to her mother, but the little cub protested, rolling over and clinging to patch with all four tiny paws.

      “No no no!”  The cub squealed, “I don’t want to go, I don’t want to go! No no no!”  Patch looked helplessly at Lihua, who strode up, grabbed Yi Jie and forced her to let go of Patch.

       “You come with me!”  She snapped, cuffing her cub, who wailed in protest.

       “You fought that lovely mama, you also hit that sire bear too mama!”  Yi jie yelled, “Neither wanted you to hit or hurt them.”  Lihua gasped at her cub’s words, dropping her on the rugs, where she wriggled about a bit, then made her way to Patch, who gathered her up in his paws and cradled her tenderly.

        “If you need a sire figure for your cub Lihua, you’ve got one,” Ekaterina observed.  Lihua stamped her paws in anger, but couldn’t deny Yi Jie’s affection for Patch|.

        “You have no mate do you Lihua?”  Ekaterina asked.  Lihua felt her toes curl into the rugs.

      “No,” Lihua whimpered, “Yi jie was the product of a forced conquest.”

       “So the cub falls to the community to look after, not just your family unit first and the community second.”  Lihua nodded:

        “Yes,” she replied.

     “So Patch is in order if he feeds your cub,” Ekaterina said.  Lihua nodded.  Patch, smiling, fed little Yi Jie with tenderness and care, the cub getting down to serious business.

       “Now take it gently,” Patch said, cradling Yi Jie as the cub drank her fill of expressed milk, while Lihua watched and Ekaterina fought her need to get paws on.

       “Ekaterina,” Patch said, “do you remember how Lihua looks?”  Ekaterina replied that she did remember.

       “A panda with a longish nose and white socks,,”  she said, “plus thick fur,  huge forepaws and hind feet on account of her parentage, and rough pads to all four paws.  Her teeth are sharper than a pandas too.”

        “Yes,” Patch replied.  Ekaterina re-enacted the memory of Lihua’s fur colouration in her mind, loving it all over again as she had when she could see conventionally.

        “I remember she had shaggy white socks on all four feet,” Ekaterina mused, “they were cute paws, either when looked at from the side, or of course, at the soles of her feet, which I saw quite often.  Very cute her paws were.”  Lihua giggled with pleasure at Ekaterina’s reminiscences about her paws.

       “I still have those paws,” she replied.  Ekaterina grinned and padded to her, sitting down opposite the mother bear, Lihua describing herself from nose to tail”

      “I have a white head with black ears, a white nose, with a black tip to it.  But, let’s do the whole thing; get paws on with me why not?”  Ekaterina did and Lihua described herself again.

      “I have a white head, with black patches around my eyes, as well as black ears, white body and black legs,.  She guided Ekaterina’s paws over her body as she spoke.

     “Now let’s come to my feet, my big, furry feet.  They are white from my ankles to the soles of my feet.  My pads are black.  So I have black legs with white socks on my feet, well that’s the visual affect.”  Ekaterina giggled as she handled Lihua’s forepaws and hind feet.

        “Have you ever played with real socks?”  She asked.  Lihua nodded:

      “I have, and I hate them.  I’d rather go bare pawed.”  Taking each of Lihua’s paws in hers, Ekaterina explored Lihua’s forepaws and hind feet, exploring her rough pads and long toes.

       “Your hind feet are so cute,” she said.  Lihua laughed merrily as Ekaterina touched her pads and rubbed her toes.

        “I love your touch Ekaterina,” Lihua said.  Ekaterina smiled:

      “I only wish I could have helped you during your labour,” Ekaterina replied sincerely.  Lihua crawled away from Ekaterina, Ekaterina following her hind feet, stroking the mamma panda’s pads and toes, Lihua laughing helplessly with excitement as Ekaterina chased her large well furred, well padded hind feet.  Touching Lihua’s pads and toes with her forepaws, Ekaterina felt the mama bear’s warmth and playfulness.

       “Your paws are lovely Lihua,” Ekaterina said.  Lihua turned on Ekaterina, rolled her onto her back, and grabbed her right hind foot in her forepaws.”

     You have big paws and large pads Ekaterina!”  Lihua said, kissing the mama bear’s hind paw.

       “Have you had cub’s mama?”  Lihua asked.  Ekaterina replied that she had.

      “Little Patch, you know him I think.”

       “Little Patch is yours?”  Lihua asked, “He, he’s lovely!  He’s, my,” she stopped.

       “He’s in love with you?”  Ekaterina asked.  Lihua blushed crimson:

      “Yes,” she mumbled, “I’m sorry if you think that is wrong mama.”

      “I only wish he had been the sire of little Yi Jie,” Ekaterina said sadly.

        “Yes,” Lihua replied heavily.

      “I was among friends when I delivered little Yi Jie,” Lihua said, “and for that I am grateful.”

        “You were,” Ekaterina replied, “for patch was showing me what you were doing, and so I was there too, sort of.”  Lihua smiled.

        “I am glad Mishka, Koda and then Sita were not frightened to stay with me while I screamed and yelled and made a mess delivering my cub,” Lihua said.

       “Were you worried about making a mess?”  Ekaterina asked.  Lihua sighed heavily.

       “Yes mama,” she replied faintly, “I was in labour, and I didn’t want to make a mess.”

        “You did a tidy job!”  Yi Jie yelled happily.  Lihua giggled happily:

      “I know,” she said, “but I didn’t like dirtying the tiles.  I’m clean you see, I love cleaning my paws and fur, and seeing all that muck come out of me before and during the birth of my cub was terrible for me.  Though I enjoyed giving birth to Yi jie.”

     “Your paws are testament to how clean you are Lihua,” Patch said with genuine affection, “you even mopped up after the birth of your cub, which you need not have done, someone else would have done that for you.”  Lihua looked at Patch.

        “I wanted to,” she said, “I know it’s silly, we do things for each other here, though I still worry about the mess.”

      “Even now?”  Ekaterina asked.  Lihua covered her face with her paws.

       “I didn’t want to make that mess,” she said, “but I had to push, had to strain, had to sweat and scream.  Then, oh then, then my cub started coming into the world for real, and it felt wonderful, the stretching, the sensation that every push helped, every breath helped, every little movement I made while crawling helped my little cub into the world.  I loved crawling, loved panting, and loved the feel of my cub coming into the world.  Yes I curled my toes and screamed, but that was due to the intensity of things and the shock of realisation I was going to be a mother.”

       “I followed your labour through Patch, who re-enacted it faithfully,” Ekaterina said, “he’s wonderful at that sort of thing.  Well, at most things, but especially that.”

        “Patch will do anything for you won’t he,” Lihua said.  Ekaterina smiled:

        “He’s amazing,” she said, “I love him so much Lihua.  He tries to level the field between us.”

      “I haven’t seen how Patch does that,” Lihua replied, “I’d like to see it.”

        “I’ll show you the video of how he helped me understand what you were doing in the room of tiles,” Ekaterina replied.  They watched the video, Patch smiling at his own interpretation of Lihua’s labour.

        “That’s so realistic!”  Lihua exclaimed, “Wow, just fantastic!”  Patch grinned broadly.

       “I could pretend to give birth to another cub,” patch said, “and you could help me Lihua.”  Lihua smiled:

       “I’d like that,” she said.  Lihua crawled up to Patch, the male bear giving her her cub, Yi Jie sound asleep.  Lihua settled Yi jie in a nest of blankets, then crawled back to Patch, who rubbed her back and ears with his paw, Lihua snuggling up to him.

      “Would you rub my paw pads too?”  Lihua asked.  Patch massaged the pads of her hind paws, Lihua sighing with contentment.

        “Can I return the favour?”  Lihua asked, Patch smiling and getting into a crawling posture so Lihua could do the same, Ekaterina crawling up and getting paws on with her mate and their friend.

      “How cute,” she said, both Lihua and Patch smiling with genuine contentment and pleasure.

      “Your pads are nearly white Patch!”  Lihua exclaimed.

      “They’re off white, but against my grey fur, yes,” Patch said smiling, “I am proud of my paw pads.”  Lihua kissed the heel of his right hind paw, Ekaterina kissing the heel of his left hind.

        “Patch,” Ekaterina said seriously, crawling to his head and taking his left forepaw in hers, “Patch, dear sweet Patch, if, if you feel you need to do your duty to Lihua, I won’t mind.”

          “You want me to make it all right for her?”  Patch asked.

       “In time,” Ekaterina replied, “she wants it, and so do I.  If the time comes, please Patch, love her.”  Patch kissed his mate’s nose.

        “With your blessing mama Ekaterina, my dear sweetheart, I will do as you ask,” he replied.

       “Thank you,” Lihua and Ekaterina said.

         “I hate what Kojack did,” Patch replied, “and I will do anything to help, including, with the blessing of my mate, that which I would never do otherwise.”  Ekaterina and Lihua kissed his nose and embraced his paws in turn.  Patch smiled:

       “So what do I do now?”  He asked, “Play with the paws of two mama bears?”

         “Yes please,” Ekaterina and Lihua said in unison, before collapsing against patch laughing helplessly.  Patch, his forepaws held in those of a panda and a mama polar bear, rested his head on each of their shoulders in turn.

         “We both love your fur and especially your paws,” Lihua said, “Ekaterina has been telling me that touching your paws with my eyes closed makes them more interesting, and she’s right.”  Patch smiled.

         “I feel warm and contented here,” he said, “I feel this is right, very right.”  Lihua kissed his nose, Ekaterina squeezing his paw.

         “We both feel that too,” she said.

 

Goldie, sitting with Bramble, also felt huge contentment.  She’d washed his body from nose to toes, and he’d washed her, the now middle aged she polar bear proclaiming his washing to be the best she’d ever had.

     “It makes me feel young again,” she said.  Goldie smiled, for her washing of him had made him feel the same way, and as for her paw massage? Well, Goldie had been in heaven from the moment she picked up one of his paws.

 

Their courtship had begun some time ago, and grown from a friendship into something more serious.  A couple of months back, Bramble had told Goldie she had something to ask him, drawing him into their lie up just before a patrol one evening.

“Are we too late to have cubs?”  Bramble asked.  Goldie, astonished, stared at her.

       “Well, I’ve never tried since I became my spiritual self,” Goldie replied, “but we could try, we could try right now if you want.”  Bramble wanted very much, and Goldie could feel this intensely.  So they had tried, and both had enjoyed their love making, which was full of massaging paws and bellies, then the final act, which both knew should be completed, but didn’t much care for, as their interest was mostly in each other’s personalities.  Even so, they resigned themselves to the biological side of their wish to have cubs of their own, getting back to the deeper side, as they saw it, as soon as they possibly could.

 

Now, while Patch, Ekaterina and Lihua made their pact to help each other, Bramble was in pain despite Goldie’s wonderful paw massage.  She knew what the pain meant, she was about to deliver to Goldie a cub for which they’d waited so long.

       “Where do you want to have the cub my love?”  Goldie asked.

       “I’m okay here, in our lie up,” Bramble said panting a little, “as long as I can brace my feet against you when I want to push, I’ll be fine.  Goldie said she could do just that and more:

     “Take me in your paws and squash me, lean on me, crush my paws in yours, also throw me round the room if you wish. Above all use me for support Bramble,” Goldie invited, “I’m all yours.”  Bramble strained and paced for an hour, with no real progress.  After one particularly harsh contraction which Bramble endured screaming lustily  while lying on her back waving her paws in the air, then punching Goldie, before crushing him in a bear hug worthy of six labouring mothers, Goldie insisted he call for help.

 

Ekaterina and Lihua were stroking Patch’s hind paws, tracing his leathery pads and counting his toes when the call telling of Bramble’s labour came in from Goldie’s lie up.

       “Would you come Ekaterina,” Goldie said, “I think Bramble’s in trouble.”  Ekaterina grabbed a bag full of everything she might need, from antiseptic gel to special cream for lubricating cubs, and padded from the room.  Pressing a button on a pendant around her neck, she was guided to her destination by GPS, instructions fed to her via an earpiece.  Ekaterina padded into Goldie’s lie up to find Bramble stretched on her side, straining and pawing at the air from time to time.  Ekaterina got paws on with Bramble, feeling her muscles bunching and toes curling before she kicked and writhed in an effort to deliver her cub into the world.  Whenever she strained, her voice echoed off the walls in a rising wail of protestation and fear.

        “The cub’s stuck!”  Bramble yelled when she could speak, Goldie whimpering with fear in the corner where he sat sucking the digits of his right forepaw, while his left squeezed the toes of his left hind foot every time Bramble cried out in pain.

       “I’ll feel inside if you want Bramble,” Ekaterina said.  Bramble opened her eyes briefly.

      “Ekaterina,” she panted, “do, do what you want to!  Save my cub, please, save my cub!”  Ekaterina stroked Bramble’s shoulder, then washed and lubricated her left forepaw, gently inserting it into Bramble’s birth canal, Bramble groaning as she felt Ekaterina exploring gently.

        “Your cub is a large one, stuck tight,” Ekaterina said, “I’m gonna try a little traction while you push Bramble.”  Goldie, hearing this, wailed with fear.

        “You come and hold her Goldie,” Ekaterina said, “what I’m going to do will be uncomfortable for mama Bramble.”  Goldie went to Bramble’s head and lying down embraced her tenderly.

        “Hold on Bramble,” Goldie whispered.  Ekaterina grasped the cub’s forepaws in hers and pulled as Bramble pushed.

      “Bear down long and steadily Bramble,”  Ekaterina encouraged, finding her face close to Bramble’s left hind foot, as Bramble had drawn her legs up a little.  As Bramble relaxed that first time, Ekaterina found her nose touching the pads of Bramble’s left hind foot.  Ekaterina felt bunched up, hot rough bare paw pad with sweat on it.  Kissing the bunched pads and curled toes of Bramble’s left hind foot, Ekaterina reached gently in and pulled on the cub’s forepaws as Bramble pushed.  Bramble, feeling her kiss, choked back tears.

        “I’m sorry my foot is in your face Ekaterina,” she whimpered.  Ekaterina smiled, kissing Bramble’s pads again.

       “No problem,” Ekaterina replied, “I’m focused on you and your cub mama, and things are coming along well.  Now let me get some lubricating gel, and all should be fine.”  Bramble relaxed, Ekaterina gently pulling the cub towards her.

      “That’s it,” Ekaterina said gently, “keep relaxed Bramble, groan and curl your toes if you want, but try not to push.”  Bramble groaned and concentrated on curling and relaxing her toes as her internal discomfort rose and fell while Ekaterina worked,  Ekaterina pulling the cub into the world, sometimes kissing Bramble’s bunching and relaxing pads as Bramble fought not to push.  Ekaterina gently pulled on the cub’s forepaws, Bramble curling her toes tightly, while crying and groaning in her efforts not to push.

       “I wan’a push!”  Bramble wailed.  Ekaterina kissed the mother bear’s flexing toes.

      “You can push in a minute mama,” Ekaterina said, knowing that if Bramble pushed, the cub would become stuck, as all the lubricant would be forced from around it.  Ekaterina lubricated the large cub some more then stopped pulling.

       “Now Push Bramble, push down deeply,” Ekaterina said.  Crying with fatigue and effort, Bramble pushed hard down, the cub emerging with a squelch of fluid and gel.

       “How’s the cub?”  Bramble asked panting hard.  Ekaterina held the cub out to Bramble, but she was so exhausted she said:

      “Ekaterina, would you? Please?  I know, I know it’s not the usual thing.”  Ekaterina massaged the cub’s tiny body until the cub began gasping and then screaming for food and warmth.  Ekaterina licked and groomed the cub clean, finally giving it to Bramble to nurse.

       “Here’s your cub mama Bramble,” Ekaterina said.  Bramble looked at the cub, then at Ekaterina, who was covered in fluid and looked a right mess.

        “Thank you,” she said weakly.  Ekaterina went to the nearest bathtub and washed herself, then, running her paws through her fur, shook herself and went back to the mama bear and her newborn cub.

        “Your cub is huge Bramble!”  Ekaterina said.  Bramble, feeding the huge female cub, laughed merrily.

      “No wonder you told me not to push,” she said, “you needed all the room you could get to work.”

      “Can I check to see if there are any other cubs in there?”  Ekaterina said.  Bramble lay down and Ekaterina gently inserted her paw once more, but there were no more cubs.

      “Just the one cub,” Ekaterina said, bramble wriggling a little as Ekaterina withdrew her paw.

       “That felt strange,” Bramble said.  Ekaterina kissed her nose then went to wash her paws.  Returning, she sat down with Goldie, who was still shell shocked by the manner of their cub’s arrival.

      “You pulled the cub from Bramble!”  Goldie whimpered.

       “She was exhausted Goldie,” Ekaterina said, “I let her push the cub out right at the end so she could feel the emergence of the cub and have closure on the experience.”

       “I couldn’t have self delivered my cub,”  Bramble said, “I couldn’t push it out far enough so I could grab it in my paws, Ekaterina had to help me, and for her to help me, I had to relax, pushing did no good, as the cub was too big!”

        “I’m sorry I caused you to have a huge cub mama,” Goldie whimpered.

       “It’s all done now,” Bramble said, “and mama Ekaterina, thanks for kissing my pads to reassure me during your work.”  Ekaterina smiled:

       “You kept your feet out of my way, thanks for that,” she said, “you managed not to kick and thrash about.  Bramble had drawn her legs up even more towards the end of her labour.

       “If I could have grabbed my hind feet with my forepaws, I would have done,” Bramble said, “though I couldn’t, as I was lying on my side throughout.”

        “You did very well mama,” Ekaterina said gently.

        “Your pads are warm and soft,” Ekaterina said, Bramble giggling with pleasure.

       “I’m glad you liked my labouring paws,” she said.  Ekaterina got to her feet, padded to Bramble and embraced her.

        “Well done mama Bramble,” she said earnestly.  Bramble kissed Ekaterina’s nose.

       “I’m sorry for taking your time, now you can go back to what you were doing,” Bramble said.

         “No problem at all re my time, we were stroking Patch’s paws, Lihua and I that is.”  Ekaterina replied, “He’s probably re-enacted your birth for Mishka by now.  Patch likes recreating births for those who can’t see them on the screens.”

        “I’m glad,” Bramble replied, “its right those who can’t see should enjoy the miracle of birth as much as those who can.”  Patch padded in then, having watched everything on the screens.  Kneeling on the floor in front of Bramble, he hugged the mother bear.

        “You did very well Bramble,” Patch said softly.

       “Ekaterina saved me and my cub!”  Bramble wept, Patch rubbing her back while hugging her tightly.

       “I know you were in trouble,” Patch replied, “that was obvious.”

       “Why didn’t you get involved?”  Goldie asked, “Patch, what happened to your power of helping labouring mothers?”

        “Your little one was stuck,” Patch replied, “my pushing with Bramble would have killed the cub and probably Bramble too.  Ekaterina was the one to help here, and help she did.”

        “Right,” Goldie replied.

      “Don’t get at him Goldie,” Bramble said wearily, “Patch would have helped if he could, but he couldn’t, so he sent someone with different power than himself.”

        “Yes,” Goldie said heavily.

        “All’s well now though,” Patch said.  Bramble smiled broadly.

       “All is so well,” she said gently.

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

         “Why do you ask that?”  Bramble enquired.

       “Well,” Goldie replied, “her paws, they’re big, and she might have hurt you when she checked to see if there was another cub, you wriggled a little as she withdrew her paw.”

       “It was uncomfortable,” Bramble admitted, “but it didn’t hurt, she didn’t hurt me Goldie.”  Goldie looked hard at Ekaterina:

        “How far would you have gone to save our cub?”  He asked.

       “As far as Bramble wanted me to,” Ekaterina replied.

       “When you begged Ekaterina to save the cub, how far did you wish her to go Bramble?”  Goldie asked.

       “As far as she needed to,” Bramble replied, “right to my death if she needed to go that far to save the cub.”  Goldie covered his face with his paws, groaning with misery.

      “Oh no!”  He wailed.

       “It didn’t come to that did it, so shut up!”  Bramble snapped, whacking Goldie, “it’s my life after all, and until the cub is out of me, I have say over what happens to it, so if I died to save the cub, I would have died in the knowledge the cub would most likely survive!”

       “Oh god!”  Goldie whimpered.

      “The cub is here, Bramble is here, so don’t think of it any more,” Ekaterina said.  Goldie wailed:

      “Why did the cub get stuck?”

       “Because she was large, and mama Bramble didn’t have the strength to push her out,” Ekaterina said, “a younger mama might have had the strength, though I am not blaming Bramble for that.”

      “I am middle aged now,” Bramble replied.

      “If you blame yourself for what happened today, I’ll be very upset,” Ekaterina said firmly.  Bramble kissed Ekaterina’s nose.

       “I won’t,” she replied, “I blame noone, but thank you from the bottom of my heart.”  Ekaterina smiled and kissed Bramble’s nose in return.

       “Your paws were reassuring Ekaterina,” Bramble said, “I felt safe in your paws.”

       “I’m glad,” Ekaterina replied, the significance of Bramble’s words not lost on her.

       “You’re in the right job Ekaterina, don’t let your fears stop you from helping cubs and mamas,” Bramble said.

       “I won’t,” Ekaterina replied, “I can’t do my job if I disintegrate with fear at the worst outcomes.  I can fall apart, but not on the job.”  Bramble smiled.

       “You didn’t fall down on this job,” Bramble replied.

       “What are your memories of your confinement?”  Ekaterina asked.

         “A kiss to my pads when I was most distressed and a mama bear fighting as hard as I was to deliver my cub,” Bramble replied.

       “I am so grateful for your help Ekaterina,” Bramble said.  Ekaterina smiled:

       “It is my job, but it’s nice to hear.”  Bramble took Ekaterina’s paw.

       “It is more than your job, your paws told me that,” she replied, “you care about cubs, really care I mean.  Fight as if the cub was your own I mean.”  Ekaterina smiled broadly.

      “I do my best,” she replied earnestly.

       “You and Patch love what you do,” Bramble said, “I know that, and so do the whole community.””

       “Will you re-enact my cub’s birth?”  Bramble asked Ekaterina.  Ekaterina smiled:

       “I would have trouble doing so,” she replied, but I will treasure the memory.”

       “What are you going to name your cub?”  Patch asked.  Bramble looked at Goldie, and Goldie at Bramble.

        “We think, if she will, that Ekaterina aught to name our cub,” Goldie said.  Ekaterina took the cub in her paws, the large cub snuggling close to her.

         “I don’t know if this will sound strange to you,” she said, “and please, if you wish not to use my suggestion, I understand totally.  But how if, how would it be if this cub was known as Sooleawa?”  The strongest reaction to this came from Patch, who nearly fell over with surprise.

        “Ekaterina,” he said, “you know what that name means don’t you?”

        “No,” Ekaterina admitted, “the name just came to me. I’ve never read a book in my life Patch.”  Patch padded forward and sat down, his paw shaking as he took Ekaterina’s paw in his.

        “Bramble’s cub,” Patch said, almost sobbing “is how you describe her with that name.”

       “But that doesn’t tell me why you’re getting emotional or what the name means,” Ekaterina replied, her confusion total.

        “This cub has silver fur from her nose to her paws.  Her pads, they’re grey, not black, they’re white, well, kind of pink, like mine.”

       “You weren’t the cub’s sire were you?”  Ekaterina asked.  Patch laughed.

      “No,” he replied, “but how did you know to name the cub as you did?  She is perfectly named.  Ekaterina, can you see her?”

      “No, not in the way you think,” Ekaterina replied levelly, “maybe some spiritual intervention made me choose that name?  Maybe the spirits are happy that Bramble gave the job to me?  Maybe mama Kamchatka suggested the name to me somehow, I don’t know.”

        “Maybe she did,” patch replied, “and I should know, as I see the coming and goings of most spirits here.”

      “Maybe the conversation between Ekaterina and her mama was so private, even you could not read it,” Bramble replied, “Ekaterina and I made a very public, but also very private journey together today.”

       “Private journey my paw!”  Goldie snapped.

        “it was private, and will remain so,”  Bramble replied, I am one of the oldest members of this community now, and one of the youngest has helped me deliver the one and only cub I will ever have in this life.  Don’t take our journey from us Goldie.  A mama bear is solitary in her labour; males don’t get involved with that.  We’re not lions.”  Goldie groaned pitifully.”

       “So you won’t let me help rear little, um, Ekaterina, what did you name our cub?”

   Sooleawa,” Ekaterina replied.

     “Little, um, sale something?”  Goldie asked belatedly.

       Goldie, Our cub’s name is Sooleawa, and yes I will let you be paws on with her rearing, but the birth journey is a private one, okay?”  Goldie was about to protest that as he was very much part of the conception of their cub, he should have access to the intimate details of the cub’s birth, when the cub yelled:

      “I want food! Not talk, I’m hungry!”  Ekaterina handed Sooleawa back to Bramble, who fed her.

        “Now that’s a nice sound,” Ekaterina said listening to Sooleawa drinking busily.

       “And not a medalling uncle in sight,” patch said.  Ekaterina hugged patch, both laughing at the memory of the results of Patch accidentally tickling Yi Jie’s toes.

        “What’s so funny?”  Goldie asked.  Patch played him the video and Goldie grinned:

       “Paws off feeding cubs patch,” he said.  Patch grinned hugely.

     “I’m sure the cubs will come to you once they’re fed and want to play,”  Ekaterina said, “I help mothers deliver their cubs, patch helps the cubs learn to play.  That’s how it is.  I can’t play, well not like Patch can.  Sita’s like Patch too in that regard, she can play like a cub one minute, and be deadly serious and adult the next.”

       “Ekaterina can play,” Patch replied, “she just needs a little tip over the edge, then her serious exterior disintegrates and she plays like a cub.”

        “Only because you help me do that,” Ekaterina said, “well Sita helped too, though it’s still hard, still difficult to play as I could.”

        “You want to play then?”  Patch asked.

       “Dam right I do!”  Ekaterina replied, “I can’t bring myself to let the breaks off though, it’s not easy patch,” Ekaterina said, becoming tearful, “it hurts me that I can’t let those breaks off.  That I can’t lose my inhibitions like Sita or you can.  I used to be able to, used to be able to play like the cubs.”

      “Maybe little Sooleawa will help you do that,” Bramble said.

      “Playing with your cub is your duty mama Bramble,” Ekaterina said, “well, in the first place.  Once she gets older, then she’ll learn to play with the others.”

       “I’ll wean her, and she can go play with the other cubs, big or small the day after she’s not dependant on me,” Bramble replied.

      “Fine,” Ekaterina said.  Patch, smiling, kissed her nose.

        “Now we leave here,” Ekaterina said, “Patch and I will leave you and little Sooleawa to it.”

       “Don’t go!”  Sooleawa yelled, crawling to Ekaterina and throwing herself into the mama bear’s lap.

        “I have to go little one,” Ekaterina said gently.  Sooleawa clung to Ekaterina with her forepaws, pushing hard against the rugs with the toes of both hind feet to press herself into the mama bear’s hug.

        “I don’t want you to go; I don’t want you to go!”  Sooleawa yelled.

        “I must go now,” Ekaterina said gently, “I’ll be back, and if you want to come to my lie up, just ask your mama, okay?”  Reassured by this news, Sooleawa kissed Ekaterina’s nose before turning and crawling back to her mother.  Bramble hugged Sooleawa with tender paws.

       “Come,” she said, “let’s sleep a while little one.”

      “I want to go with mama Ekaterina!”  Sooleawa yelled.

      “No, and no again!”  Bramble snapped, “the good food and care we get here makes labour harder, and the newborn cubs pushier!”  Bramble snarled, “Just settle down, and go to sleep!”  She yelled at Sooleawa, who started to scream and beat her paws on the floor.

        “Come to our lie up,” Patch said, “there you and Sooleawa can sleep.  That will soothe your cub and you too.  Sooleawa’s reaction is natural; she was helped into the world by mama Ekaterina, cleaned by her too.  Your cub’s reaction is normal.”

       “You mean she does not see me as her mother?”  Bramble wailed.

       “it’s not like that,”  Patch replied, “she’s very close to Ekaterina though, as Ekaterina helped her into the world, and Sooleawa knows that deep inside her.  She’ll never forget Ekaterina’s touch, just as cinders will never forget it.”

       “So Ekaterina, though she can’t have cubs of her own now, is gaining them like flies!”  Goldie yelled.

       “Don’t say that!”  Bramble yelled, “Its not nice Goldie.  Ekaterina can’t help the fact she can’t have any more cubs at the tender age she is.  She’s only five, and she should be having her first cubs by now if she were wild.  Instead she is barren, though much loved by the cubs of mamas she’s helped.  So just shut it!”  Ekaterina tried not to let her feelings show.  Her status as barren sow made her uncomfortable, even though she knew in her heart it was for the best of all concerned.

        “I’ll go now,” Ekaterina said faintly, turning to pad out of the room, struggling not to cry.  Sooleawa crawled after mama Ekaterina, Patch catching the cub and restraining her:

      “You stay with your mama little one,” he said firmly.

     “No, no!”  Sooleawa yelled, slapping Patch with her paw, “I don’t want to stay here, here is awful with shouting and yelling, and awful feelings!”  Patch held Sooleawa tightly in his paws, the cub screaming and crying as her parents came to blows.  Bramble told Goldie to do something biologically impossible, and Goldie lashed out at her with his paw.  Bramble, furious now, landed a socking punch to Goldie’s nose, sending the male bear screaming into a corner, where he collapsed and buried his face in his paws, yelling and cursing.

       “Now that’s a warning!”  Bramble screeched.

       “I don’t want to stay here!”  Sooleawa yelled, her voice strident over her parents snarling and cursing each other.  Patch left the room with Sooleawa dangling from his mouth by the scruff of her neck.

         “I’ll get you out of this,” Patch grunted, almost as distressed by the disintegration of Goldie’s and Bramble’s manner as the cub was.

       “Why are mama and that bear yelling at each other?”  Sooleawa asked.

      “They are having a pointless rant;” Patch replied sadly, “now let’s get you into warmth and safety.”

        “How will I eat?”  Sooleawa asked, “My mama gives me milk, and now she’s gone!”

       “Your mama will give you milk, she won’t abandon you, I’ll make sure of that,” patch mumbled round the fur in his mouth.

 

“Now look what’s happened!”  Bramble yelled, “Our cub has been taken from us, and we’re in the doghouse thanks to your stupid bloody comment Goldie!”  Goldie, rubbing his nose with his paw, grunted that his comment might have been little careless.

       “I’d better get on with filling bottles with milk,” Bramble said sadly, “if I don’t, little Sooleawa will starve.”

          “We’ve lost our cub hours after she was born!”  Goldie yelled, “How awful!”

       “No we haven’t,” Bramble replied, “she’s still our cub, Patch just took her into safe care, while we, who act worse than the most badly behaved cub on the planet, beat each other up over nothing.”

        “It is silly,” Goldie conceded, “but I did criticise Ekaterina for attacking cubs when she could not give birth to her own, and that was very wrong.  I’ll apologise to her.”

       “Ekaterina is lovely,” Bramble replied, “your comment wasn’t just stupid, it was cruel.”

 

Meanwhile, in Patch’s lie up, Sooleawa lay in Patch’s lap, Patch tickling her toes at her insistence.

       “I love that!”  Sooleawa yelled, kicking the air with her hind paws.

        “I watched your birth little one,” Patch said seriously, “mama Bramble and sire Goldie love you dearly, as do Ekaterina and I,” he said.  Sooleawa smiled and pressed her hind feet against Patch’s left forepaw.

      “We’ll look after you little Sooleawa,” Patch said.  Lihua padded over to Patch and looked down at Sooleawa.

       “Is she Brambles?”  Lihua asked.

      “She is, her name’s Sooleawa,” Patch replied, “It means silver.”  Lihua smiled broadly.

        “I can see why she was named that,” she said.  Patch replied:

       “But Ekaterina couldn’t.”

        “Does Ekaterina not like the name then>?”  Lihua asked, noticing Patch wipe his eyes with his paw.

        “No, she, she chose it,” patch replied, “The question is how did she know? How did she name the cub so well if she can’t see her?”

        “The spirits guide all our paws.  Isn’t that what you believe Patch?”  Lihua asked.

       “Yes,” Patch replied, “Ekaterina’s naming of this cub hit me.”

          “Why did it Patch love?”  Ekaterina asked, touching his tear soaked paw.

       “I don’t know,” Patch replied, “I suppose, well,” he swallowed hard, “Sooleawa’s so beautiful that I was sorry you can’t see her, that she was born after you lost your sight.”

        “The same could be said for Cinders and YI Jie though patch,” Ekaterina replied.

       “You didn’t name those cubs though,” Patch replied, “their mothers did.  How did you know to give Sooleawa her name?”

       “It’s the spirit’s wish I think,” Ekaterina replied, “as it was their wish that Bramble and her cub lived.  The birth was hard Patch, hard for me and harder still on bramble.”

       “Sooleawa was stuck patch,” Bramble said, padding into the lie up, “I couldn’t push hard enough to deliver her naturally.  Now though, now my hind legs want to kick like I couldn’t do while having Sooleawa.  I would like you to feel my hind feet kicking the air Ekaterina.  I will play the video, and kick the air in time with my efforts, I need to get it out of my system, and my paws want it!”  Ekaterina smiled and went to Bramble, hugging her and kissing her nose.

       “I know the feeling,” she replied.  Bramble shifted her paws uncomfortably.

      “I want to kick the air and squeal, yell for joy and express my thanks for your help.  Ekaterina, please, stroke my paws, explore my body with your paws, and do what you like with me.”

      “You mean mama that you couldn’t kick the air with your feet when you were delivering little Sooleawa?”  Lihua asked.  Bramble shook her head:

        “There wasn’t the space,” Bramble replied.

        “I crawled throughout my labour,” Lihua replied.

       “I wish I could have,” Bramble said, “little one was too big though, and no amount of crawling would have helped I don’t think.  Even if I could have done so, it wouldn’t have helped me give birth to Sooleawa.”

       “You had your cub successfully though, and that’s the outcome we wanted,” Patch replied.

        “Is there another cub in here?”  Yi jie asked, waking and crawling to Sooleawa’s side.  Sooleawa touched Yi Jie’s paw, and the two cubs curled up together, recognising each other as cubs, and as having a common purpose of keeping warm and safe.  Curling up together, they held each others forepaws and cuddled up as closely as they could.

       “Your paws are warm and soft,” Sooleawa said to Yi jie.

       “My paws are very furry yes,” Yi jie said, kissing Sooleawa on her nose.

       “Are your mama’s paws furry too?”  Sooleawa asked.  Yi jie giggled:

      “They are,” Yi Jie replied.

       “My mama’s paws are warm too,” Sooleawa said.

      “Who is your mamma?”  Yi jie asked.  Sooleawa thought for a minute.

       “I don’t remember,” She said, “my paws are remembering one set of paws; my mind is saying I was fed by a bear with different paws to those I remember.”

       “Confused cub,” Patch remarked to Bramble, who frowned.

       “I don’t know what happened at my birth,” Sooleawa replied, “I remember gently being pulled by paws, then, then, being cleaned by a bear who knew cubs very well, then, and then I was handed to another bear to be fed.  Which one of those two bears is my mama?  I don’t know!”  Bramble whimpered with misery.

        “I knew this would end in disaster,” she whispered to patch, who shushed her:

        “No wonder the poor thing’s confused,” he said, “though it’s normal for cubs who are assisted into the world like Sooleawa was.  Go to her Bramble, go to her and make a fuss of her, feed her, bond with her.”

        “We have been so stupid, Goldie and I,” Bramble mumbled, going to her cub and gathering her close.

       “You have the second set of paws that touched me after I came from the dry squeezing place,” Sooleawa said.

      “I’m your mama little one,” Bramble said, trying to sound convincing.

       “I know,” Sooleawa replied, “I had a little trouble remembering what happened, it was all very strange.”  Koda padded into the lie up, limping badly on his left forepaw.

       “What’s the matter with your paw Koda?”  Patch asked.  Koda told him what happened in the room of tiles.

        “So the toes of my hind foot squeezed the toes of your paw?”  Lihua asked.  Koda smiled, lifting his left forepaw and flexing his toes experimentally.

       “I can hardly move the toes on that paw,” Koda said.  Patch took Koda’s paw in his and gently tried to move his toes, Koda screaming in pain.

       “Big cub,” Bramble scoffed.

      “No, they really hurt, they really hurt!”  Koda wailed.  Candy ran in, wildly excited.

      “Hey, mama Ekaterina, mama Ekaterina!”  She panted, “I saw, saw a video, I was playing with a keyboard in, in blackberry’s lie up, and, and I saw, saw something!”

      “What did you see?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “You, you helping a mother deliver her cub!”  Candy said, literally leaping about with excitement, “I can’t believe what I saw!  I also watched a mamma panda have her cub too; I saw her face, and her curling toes and bunching paw pads, and the cub emerging, and everything!”

         “I wasn’t there when Lihua had her cub,” Ekaterina replied.

     “I was, and she’s broken my paw!”  Koda wailed.

       “But you remember the birth of her cub with fondness don’t you Koda?”  Candy asked.  Koda smiled despite his discomfort.

        “I remember the birth of little Yi jie,” he said, “It was lovely.”

        “So do I Koda,” Lihua replied, “and from my end of things it was lovely too.”

         “But you were roaring and straining, sweating and crying,” Candy replied, “how can that be lovely?”

        “It was, in a strange way,” Lihua replied, “it was what mothers have done for generations, and felt the thing to do.”

      “then mama Ekaterina,”  Candy said, Ekaterina hearing a quadruple thud on the floor as all four of candy’s feet hit the rugs as she leapt into the air with excitement and landed hard, Candy began again, breathless with excitement, her words tumbling over each other,” Bramble went into labour, and you, you helped her, you put your paw inside Bramble and helped the cub out, and with Bramble curling her toes and groaning, you pulled the cub out, and it came out, and you saved the cub, and it was wonderful!”  Ekaterina, now laughing so hard she was almost weeping, crawled forward to Candy, who as she touched her, leapt into the air once more, landing on Ekaterina’s back with all four paws.  Ekaterina, gasping for breath, felt Candy scramble off of her, then finally settle, panting and laughing.  Seeing Ekaterina gulping for air, candy’s delight died suddenly:

      “Are you all right?”  She asked.  Ekaterina took a deep breath.

       “You jumped on top of me, you didn’t mean to I’m sure,” Ekaterina said.  Candy hugged Ekaterina, almost crying into her fur.

      “Are you all right?”  She asked.

      “Now I can’t breathe because you’re hugging me, stop!”  Ekaterina panted.  Candy whimpered and settled for holding Ekaterina’s paw.

        “I’m sorry,” she replied.

       “How did you land on top of me like that?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “I jumped into the air I suppose,” Candy replied, “I didn’t mean to land on you Ekaterina, honest I didn’t!  My feet left the floor, and I landed on you.  I’m, I’m sorry mama, I’m really sorry!”  Candy buried her face in Ekaterina’s shoulder, crying with genuine remorse.

       “I’m okay,” Ekaterina said gently, “though I would like to touch the bear who winded me.

      “Go on, touch me, here are my paws and my hind feet, touch them!”  Candy whimpered.  Ekaterina felt fore and hind paws touching her forepaws.

     “Stay still and I’ll do the rest,” Ekaterina said, kissing Candy’s nose.

       “Oh, ok,” candy replied.  Ekaterina explored Candy from her ears to her paw pads, Candy trying not to take pleasure in her touch, but it was impossible.

       “Why reward someone for leaping on top of you?”  Candy asked.

       “Because you didn’t mean to do it, and I hold no ill will,” Ekaterina replied, “just one thing, please, look before you leap next time.”  Candy said she would.  Ekaterina kissed Candy’s nose and paws, Candy giggling with pleasure.

       “Now you are careful with your springy paws,” Ekaterina said gently to Candy, kissing her paw pads.

      “You make me smile mama,” Candy said.

       “I’m glad,” Ekaterina replied.

       “Did you find my mama’s body?”  Candy asked.  Patch replied:

       “The cats found the body of a mother bear beside the road. It was, well, not a pretty sight.”

       “What did they do with her body?”  Candy asked anxiously.

       “We buried it candy dear,” Petra said padding into the room, “I was the one who found the body.  Candy stared at the large white lioness.

        “You didn’t, you didn’t eat the body did you?”  Candy asked.  Petra shook her head:

       “Even if we cleared up that way,” she said, “we would not do it without your consent.”

       Petra can’t eat meat anyway,” Koda said, “so you’re asking the wrong lioness.”

       “Noone but nature defaced your mama’s body Candy,” Petra said gently, candy looking into her eyes.

        “I believe you,” candy replied.

      “We take death as seriously as birth here,”  Petra replied, “we might have scaled back the ceremony of death a little since the spirit world has come so close to many of us, but we still hold the remains of community members very dear indeed.  We will not desecrate them.”

      “My mama was not a member of this community though,” candy whimpered.

     “But you are,” Petra replied, “so we still won’t desecrate your mama’s body.  We buried her remains in a grave, the whereabouts we will show you.”  Candy covered her face with her paws, struggling not to weep.

       “Do you want me to come with you?”  Ekaterina asked.  Candy shook her head, got to her feet, and padded away with Petra.

 

Petra led Candy out of the house and down the track.

 

Ekaterina let them go, then after a minute; she got to her feet, shook herself, and padded after them, her paws as silent as Petra’s.  Tracking Candy and Petra by scent, Ekaterina followed them, taking a short cut through the woodland which she knew.  Arriving at the road, she listened for Candy’s steps.  Hearing them some way off.  Hiding in the undergrowth, Ekaterina waited.  Petra brought Candy to the place where her mother had been killed, the half grown she bear crying for her mama, then padding away, Ekaterina following discreetly.  Finding the graveside wasn’t difficult; Ekaterina smelt the turned earth before Petra and candy stopped.  Candy, seeing the grave, wailed with misery, collapsing onto the ground with a thud which sounded more leaden to Ekaterina than the quadruple thud of her paws as she leapt for joy.  Ekaterina waited; sure she was hidden by the foliage only four feet away from the grieving bear.  Candy wailed and beat her paws on the floor, cursing humans and their metal monsters.  Ekaterina heard Petra try to comfort Candy, Candy brushing her off roughly.

       “I don’t want your comfort!”  She screamed, and then more quietly, almost whispering, “I need, need, someone else’s.”

        “Your mama is dead,” Petra said automatically, immediately realising she’d put her paw, no all four paws in it.

      “I know!  You have shown me that!”  Candy roared, rearing up and striking Petra, the lioness’s growl of surprise reaching Ekaterina.

     “I didn’t mean to,” Petra began to protest, Candy hitting her across her face with her paw.

      “Bugger off, go on, piss off! Go!”  Candy screamed, beating Petra’s shoulder with her paws, knocking Petra to the floor and pummelling her body.  Petra took the beating as her due, and waited for the torrent of grief driven anger to subside.  Ekaterina felt sick, if Candy killed Petra, Ekaterina would never forgive her.  Ekaterina closed her eyes, willing Candy to stop beating her friend.  Candy stopped beating on Petra, and Ekaterina heard Petra padding past her, limping slightly on her right forepaw.  Ekaterina crawled out of the bushes, and padded to Candy, who glanced at her from where she laid, her eyes full of grief and fear, though Ekaterina could not see it.

       “Candy?”  Ekaterina asked gently, sitting down beside the prostrate bear.  Candy whimpered, crawling into Ekaterina’s lap and burying her face in her chest.

         “Hold me Ekaterina!”  Candy wept.

 

Petra padded back to the house, marvelling at candy’s paw work.

      “She didn’t hit my face, only my shoulders, hocks and paws,” Petra thought, her pads bruised and left shoulder aching, ““I was rather silly to make the comment I suppose.”

          Petra?”  Candy asked, padding up behind the lioness.  Petra turned, Candy coming up to her and touching noses.

        “I’m sorry for hitting you,” Candy said softly, “I don’t know what came over me Petra.”  Petra knew the half grown cub was remorseful.

       “I forgive you,” Petra mewed.

          “I want to go home,” candy wept.  Petra led her back to the house.

         “Now you go wash your face and paws,” Petra told Candy as if she were a cub, which candy seemed to want.  Candy padded away.

 

Meanwhile, Ekaterina, having made it back to her lie up, sat with Sooleawa and bramble.  Sooleawa, lying on her back in Ekaterina’s lap, held onto the mama bear’s right forepaw with both her forepaws.

         “Your cub has the most beautiful paws,” Ekaterina said to bramble, who smiled:

       “She has pink skin like Patch,” Bramble replied, “pink paw pads, a pink nose too.”

      “Careful in the sun then,” patch said, for he had to be careful too.

       “I even rub sun oil into my paw pads,” patch added.

        “I’ve touched you while you do that, it’s lovely,” Ekaterina said, patch grinning.

        “Would you rub oil into my paws too?”  Sooleawa asked.  Patch smiled:

       “All right little one,” he said.  Moses ran in, saw mama Ekaterina, and yelled:

     “Mama!”  Ran to her, threw his arms around her neck and kissed her nose.

      “Who’s that?”  Sooleawa asked.

     “This is Moses,” Ekaterina said smiling, “he’s human, and a community cub too. His mama is a member of our community.”  Sooleawa let Moses touch her, the little boy, now nearly four months old, gentle with the newborn cub.

       “I saw your mama giving birth to you little one,” Moses said.  Sooleawa smiled and replied:

       “My mama had a hard labour, did yours?”

      “No,” Moses replied, knowing the difference between a difficult birth and an easy one even at his tender age.

         “Good!”  Sooleawa replied, “Though I’ll bet mama Ekaterina helped your mama too?”

      “She did,” Moses replied, “and I love her very much.”

       “So do me mosses,” Sooleawa replied.

      “Watt’s your name?”  Moses asked.

      “Sooleawa,” the silver cub replied, “it means silver, according to mama Ekaterina.”

        “Nice,” Moses replied, taking Sooleawa’s right hind foot in his hands and stroking her paw pads.

      “Who’s got hold of my foot?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “I have,” Moses replied.

      “It feels good!   Really good!”  Sooleawa said, curling her toes to find out what would happen.

     “Moses,” Patch said, “would you like to do something for Sooleawa?”

      “What?”  Moses asked eager to please Patch and the little cub whose hind foot he held.

         “She would like oil rubbed into her fur and paw pads, would you do that for her?”  Moses smiled:

       “I’d love to,” he replied.

       “The oil is non toxic, so won’t harm little Sooleawa if she licks it off her paws,” Patch said to Bramble, who’d begun to look concerned.

       “What does it do?”  She asked.

       “It isn’t the sun oil I spoke of,” Patch replied, “she doesn’t need that in the house, “It’s moisturising oil, I use it on my paws all the time.”  Bramble touched the sole of Patch’s left hind foot, feeling tough warm pad, Patch curling his toes slightly.

       “Can cubs play with this oil?”  Bramble asked.

     “Indeed they can,” Patch replied, “when the cubs are a little older, like Moses age, they can begin to play with it, experiment with it, get to know touch independently of the family.  Touch cubs from other families, make friends.  The oil is a fun thing to play with, like face paints for human children.”

       “I know Bella muddies her paws and face with oils,” Bramble replied, “Why is this?  She has the most beautiful fur, so why muddier it?”

        “It’s an old tale,”  patch replied, “it is said she came here with muddy paws, and Blackberry thought them cute, so she promised to keep them muddy.  Now she uses oil to make them look so.  She can darken her pads as well as her fur that way.”

      “She has it splashed up her legs sometimes too,” Bramble replied, “she does look a bit scruffy, but cute with it too.  Not dirty, just scruffy.”  Patch smiled:

      “I know,” he replied, “and she loves playing pass the twig too.”  Bramble laughed:

      “That game is so hard!”  She said, “Passing a twig from the toes of one hind foot to another, trying not to drop it.  It’s hard for adults and cubs that one.”  Koda snorted:

      “At least Lihua didn’t crush the toes of my hind paws,” he grunted, “I’m due to have a game of pass the twig tonight.  I, Knut, Bella, and a few others are meeting up in the soft play room to play.  I think Sita might join us.”

        “I couldn’t join you too?  Could I?”  Candy asked, padding into the lie up.

       “If you want to,” Koda replied.  Moses grinned:

        “I like pass the twig,” he said, “it’s a good game for my toes, they like it.”  Candy looked at the young boy’s tiny feet and smiled:

      “They look like they might enjoy it,” she replied.  Moses sat down and indicated to Candy she could take his right foot in her paws if she wanted.  Candy sat and did as Moses invite, taking his right foot in her paws and stroking the sole.  Moses, giggling with delight, curled his toes with pleasure.

        “Your hind feet act like mine when I have my pads stroked,” candy said.  Mosses smiled and asked:

      “Can I take hold of your left hind foot Candy?”  Candy smiled and gave him her left hind foot, the little boy caressing and stroking her paw.

         “This is lovely!”  Candy gasped.

       “Little Yi Jie’s feet feel like they have furry slippers on them,” Patch said smiling.  Yi Jie, lying in Patch’s lap, waved her furry hind paws in the air, patch blowing on the soles of her feet, the cub screaming with laughter and wriggling madly with delight...

       “I love your paws little Yi jie,” Patch said gently.

      “I love your paws too Patch,” Yi jie replied.

      “You’ve not touched my paws yet, well not my hind ones.”

       “Can I?  Please?”  Yi jie asked.  Patch smiled, settled Yi Jie on the floor, and then guided her paws to his right hind foot, the cub exploring the huge paw in oar.

      “Wow, it’s massive!”  She said.  Patch smiled.

       “I’m huge,” he said, “I couldn’t walk on paws the size of yours, they’re too small.”  Yi jie giggled at the thought.

       “If I pull your adult paws off, are there smaller paws beneath?”  She asked.  Patch grinned and replied:

      “No Yi Jie dear.”

       “but mama said she had to take her adult paws off before she played with me in the play room,”  Yi Jie replied, “how can she do that, but you can’t?”

       “It’s a way of saying we play like cubs, not adults,” Patch replied, “When you’re older I’ll show you the way we remove our adult paws.”

       “Mama showed me,” ya jie replied, “She’s showed me a lot in such a short time.”

       “Sure she has,” Patch replied, curling his toes to make his pads bunch beneath the tiny cub’s forepaws.

        “Your pads have gone all wrinkly!”  Yi jie laughed.  Patch giggled:

       “If you curl your toes little one, your pads will be like mine.  Yi Jie grabbed her right hind foot in her forepaws and curled her toes, feeling her pads bunching just like Patch’s had.

      “That’s so cool!”  She said, “Patch, can you stretch your toes too?”  Patch waited for Yi Jie to grab his right hind foot in her paws again, and then he stretched his toes, his pads stretching also.

     “Wow!”  Yi jie exclaimed.  Patch picked up Yi jie’s right hind foot in his paws and asked:

     “Now little one, can you stretch your toes too?”  Yi Jie smiled and stretched her toes.

        “Like this?”  She asked, evidently making an effort to stretch her toes as far as she could.

      “Yes,” Patch replied.  Yi jie giggled with pleasure as Patch tickled her taught pads.

       “I love that, paws are so wonderful to play with!”  She whooped.  Patch smiled broadly.

        “I know,” he said, “I always play with mine, and also with Ekaterina’s too.”

      “Does Ekaterina play with your paws Patch?”  Yi jie asked.

       “She does,” patch replied, “and it’s lovely.”

       “Did you play with her paws while she gave birth to her last cub?”  Yi Jie asked.  Ekaterina, hearing her question, covered her mouth with her paw, and then bit down on her paw to stop herself crying out.

      “No Yi jie, I didn’t,” Patch replied honestly, “though I wanted to.”

      “Wouldn’t she let you?”  Ya jie asked.

      “I don’t think you’d better ask these questions,” Lihua said firmly, “Yi Jie, stop now.”

         “She needs to know,” Ekaterina replied, her eyes filling with tears, “she needs to know what I did, for it will come out in history lessons.  Noone can forget what I didn’t do.”

         “I forgive Ekaterina for not telling me about the birth of her last cub,” Patch said, “even so, I wish I’d been there to help her, to stroke her paws, to comfort her.”

        “Your cub died mama,” Yi jie said gently.  Ekaterina tried so hard not to weep, but she couldn’t stop the tears running down her face.

        “I made a huge mistake,” she sniffed.

        “Shut up!”  Lihua yelled at Yi Jie, cuffing her hard.

      “Ow mama, that hurt!”  Yi Jie howled.

      “Don’t hit her Lihua, don’t hit your cub,” Ekaterina begged, “I, I wish, wish I could experience my labour again, dead cub and all, but have patch there this time.  I am so sorry I didn’t include him in that!”

        “Let Ekaterina tell her tale Lihua,” Patch said gently, “if she wants to tell her tale, let her do so.  She needs releasing from her torment.”

       “But a cub shouldn’t be hearing this!”  Lihua yelled.

        “I know what a fight you had to deliver me mama,” Yi Jie replied.

      “No, not yet you don’t,” Lihua replied, “I’ll show you your birth video when you can see it.”

        “Can I explore your paws mama Lihua?”  Ekaterina asked.  Lihua smiled and sat down opposite Ekaterina, the she polar bear taking her fluffy furry hind paws in her forepaws.

       “Your paws are lovely Lihua,” Ekaterina said gently.

       “Are you serious about wanting to relive the experience of the last labour you had?”  Lihua asked, “I’d want to forget that myself, especially if the outcome was a disaster.”

        “The outcome was not a disaster though Lihua,” Ekaterina replied, “Mishka was the outcome of that labour, in a round about way.”

       “Mishka’s mama Kamchatka’s cub, not yours!”  Lihua said sharply, “maybe Goldie’s comment was correct, you are deranged!”

        “Lihua, shut it,” Mishka said padding into the lie up, “you know nothing.”

        “I heard some tale of you lying in the fridge of dead things, and you having some meeting with a spirit.”  Lihua replied, “Now I don’t believe in all this spirit stuff, well not really, I’ve never seen them.”

       “Disbelieve what you like,” Mishka replied, “but until you can give proof to me that Ekaterina’s cub didn’t help me in that place, kindly shut your face.”

        “What does shut your face mean?”  Yi jie asked.

       “It means be quiet,” Patch replied, “a colloquialism.”

        “Oh,” Yi Jie replied, “does it?”

       “I know what I believe, and I will continue to believe Mishka was helped by my dead cub,” Ekaterina replied, “and it is because of that which makes me want to go through the labour again, to celebrate what my cub has done for Mishka, not to Maun my cub’s passing from this world.”

        “I will help you if you want to relive that,” Patch replied, “and so will your cub I’m sure.”  Ekaterina touched Lihua’s paw.

        “You don’t understand the spirit world yet,” she said, “one day, one day you’ll meet the spirit of one who once set paw on this earth.  Please Lihua, don’t talk to Mishka about what happened in that place,” Ekaterina said, she paused, then continued: “Lihua, you were helped by spirits while you had your cub.  Mishka is younger than Koda, that’s all I’m saying.”

       “He’s not, he can’t be!”  Lihua replied, “he, he knows so much, understood my pain, everything!”

        “Maybe he has the experience of another to guide him?”  Ekaterina asked.

       “Maybe, I mean, he can’t have.”  Lihua replied, catching herself.

       “Maybe he does,” Sooleawa replied.  Lihua looked at the silvery cub, and was shocked to see her staring sightlessly back.

       “I had a similar experience to Ekaterina’s cub, I know I did,” Sooleawa said, “though I had someone to help me out of that place.  Ekaterina’s cub had noone except his mother, who struggled, rolling and straining for hours in her struggles to deliver him.  Ekaterina can relive her cub’s birth with confidence now, as she’s delivered a cub that would have died if she’d not stepped in and helped with selfless courage and good will.”

          “So that’s how I knew your name little one,” Ekaterina said, her eyes turned to Sooleawa, “you are the same colour as my cub was.  Silver from your nose to your toes.”  Sooleawa smiled.

       “I have met your cub’s spirit,” she said, “and he helped me too.  He gave me the strength to hang on; telling me his mother would help me if only I held on long enough.  He told me to relax as you told Bramble, and to curl my toes when I felt myself being pulled or pushed forward.”  Ekaterina gasped as she remembered Sooleawa’s birth more clearly.

      “Sooleawa, please,” Ekaterina said, “please, would you do something for me?”  Sooleawa smiled:

       “Place my forepaws in yours again?”  She asked, “And then curls my toes as you pull me along the carpet?”  Ekaterina smiled, not at all surprised the cub knew what she wanted.  So Sooleawa did what Ekaterina wanted, and Ekaterina’s paws told the cub all she needed to know.

         “You were spoken to by my cub,” Ekaterina said, “There’s a strength in your paws which tells me so.”

        “Your cub’s rather eloquent isn’t she?”  Lihua asked.

     “Who’s cub?”  Ekaterina and Bramble asked in unison.

       “Um, Sooleawa,” Lihua replied.

        “She spoke with my cub’s words, though it was her own voice,” Ekaterina replied.

       “How will Goldie take it?”  Bramble asked.

       “He won’t mind,” Goldie said padding into the room, “I’ve heard of such things before, and I believe in them from my nose to my toes.  You know my tale Lihua.  I was once a lion, uncomfortable in my body, from my ears to my tail.  I ripped at my own paws trying to expose the bear within, then, when my distress got too much, the spirits helped me to find myself.  Now I have found myself, and done what I always wanted, sire a bear cub.  That the spirits helped in her birth doesn’t surprise me in the least.”  Ekaterina, please, tell me something.”  Goldie knelt before Ekaterina and took her paw in his, “please Ekaterina, did Sooleawa remind you of another cub?”  Ekaterina nodded:

        “Of mine, my dead cub,” she replied, “of the cub I delivered into the world in the clearing.  He, he had strong paws, and although I could hardly bare to look at him, I did, and fell in love with that cub.  I can’t deny I loved my dead cub, even in death I could imagine him living.”

          “Describe him Ekaterina,” Patch said.

       “Silver grey fur with pink paw pads,” Ekaterina replied without thinking.

        “You have treasured the memory of that cub ever since haven’t you,” patch said to his mate.  Ekaterina smiled:

        “Patch,” she replied, “I have, and my only regret was not sharing it with you.  He was a handsome cub, as handsome as Sooleawa is beautiful.  I knew how Sooleawa looked, because my cub told me, “she looks identical to me mama.”  Patch looked at Sooleawa, who was now crawling to him.

        “You’re not my cub little one,” he thought, his eyes filling with tears, “I can’t hug you like I want to.”

        “Hug me Patch, however you want to,”  Sooleawa invited, and Patch, shoving to the back of his mind the thought of the beating he was sure he’d get from Bramble and Goldie, picked Sooleawa up in his paws and embraced her, furiously grooming her as if she was newborn and close to death, massaging her from nose to paw pads, licking her fur then rasping it with his teeth, kissing paw pads, then washing those too, wile Bramble and Goldie watched with gentle expressions.  When Patch finished his frantic exploration and grooming of Sooleawa’s body, he looked up, his urgent desire fading, though still smouldering in his eyes.

         “I’m, I’m sorry,” he said, “I shouldn’t have done that.”

       “Yes you should, yes you should,” Sooleawa yelled, “if you don’t do it again ever in my life, I will be sad forever!”  Patch looked down at Sooleawa, who waved her paws at him.

         “Look after her patch,” Goldie said.  Bramble looked into patch’s face.

        “Look after her, love her,” she said, “Sooleawa’s your cub really and truly.”

       “You can’t just abandon your cub!”  Lihua screamed at Bramble and Goldie.

         “We’re not,” Goldie replied, “We’re giving her to a mama and sire with whom she’ll feel most comfortable.  Lihua, if Ekaterina hadn’t helped Bramble, both she and her cub would have died.  We were both selfish, we tried for a cub, we knew the risks, we’d seen mama Kamchatka go through the same problems, but we still did it.  We endangered our own cub, and I endangered my mate.  It is no coincidence Sooleawa looks the way she does, and none either that Ekaterina named her.  Bramble’s labour was identical to Ekaterina’s last one. Though she had noone to help her when things went wrong.  Ekaterina has now rectified her wrongs, we have helped her, and she us.  Now Sooleawa can help patch and Ekaterina too.  We will not abandon Sooleawa.  We will give her into the care of a family who loves her more deeply than Bramble or I ever could.”

         “Yes,” Ekaterina said, “I will ask Patch to re-enact Bramble’s labour for me minute by minute, as I didn’t touch her for the first few hours.”

         “Ekaterina,” Bramble replied, “your labour was identical to mine.  We struggled in the same way, did the same things.  The only thing I did differently was lie on my side while delivering my cub.  You did that too Ekaterina, but couldn’t finish off that way, as you needed to pull the cub.  I didn’t need to do that myself, though that was because you helped me.  In time, if you hadn’t helped me out Ekaterina, the cub would have died, and I would have been able to pull the cub myself if I was not dead from exhaustion by then...”

       “I would have stopped curling my toes with every effort mama made by then too,”  Sooleawa said faintly, “the spirit of mama Ekaterina’s cub told me, “Keep curling and relaxing your toes, focus on your toes, nothing else but your toes.”  He was right to tell me to do that.  It saved my life really, along with Ekaterina’s efforts of course.”

        “Poor mama Ekaterina,” Bramble mumbled.

         “It was an awful time,” Ekaterina replied, “I don’t see why I deserve Sooleawa though, after deceiving patch and all.”

         “You deceived him because you were unhappy at delivering a dead cub, and also, just as you were going to tell Patch all, you were got at,” Goldie replied succinctly.

        “Ekaterina love,” Patch said, “Goldie and Bramble have black pads, Sooleawa has pink pads.  Don’t you think it a little strange that a black skinned bear should have a pink skinned cub?  Of course it’s not unheard of, but the similarity between your memory of your cub and the very real form of Sooleawa would point to her being your cub.”

      “She does feel like my cub did,” Ekaterina said.

         “I’m glad you now have her,” Bramble said.

         “You’ll make good role models for her,” Goldie said, “good luck to you both.”  Patch kissed Sooleawa’s nose and paws, the large cub reaching up to touch his face.

        “Kiss my paws again Patch, please kiss my paws again!”  Sooleawa begged.  Patch kissed the pads of all four of Sooleawa’s paws, the cub curling her toes with pleasure.

        “Kiss my nose, tickle my toes, Kiss my nose, and tickle my toes!”  Sooleawa chanted, Ekaterina laughing so hard she nearly choked.

        “You do make me smile,” Ekaterina said.  Sooleawa crawled to her and scrambled into her lap.

       “How will you feed me mama?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “Try nursing as you usually would little one,” Ekaterina said gently, stroking Sooleawa’s head with her paw.  Sooleawa tried nursing naturally, and was surprised to find milk.

         “That’s wonderful,” Bramble said softly as Sooleawa drank her fill.

        “You can come and play with her all you want,” Ekaterina said, “Sooleawa is not just my cub, she’s yours Bramble, you pushed and fought to deliver her as much as I did.”

         “Ekaterina,” Bramble replied, “I will never forget how you helped me deliver our cub.”

        “Neither will I,” Goldie added, “I saw ever4ything Ekaterina.  When you were pulling Sooleawa out, I was lying behind you, at eye level with the action.  Bramble gripped the rugs with her forepaws, and I saw you helping little Sooleawa into the world from your point of view.  Bramble had agreed to me leaving her side so I could watch.  Once you had paws on, I knew Bramble and Sooleawa would be all right.  Deep down I knew they’d pull through.”

       “Can I play with Patch after I’ve rested mama?”  Sooleawa yawned.  Ekaterina groomed Solway after her drink.

       “Yes,” Ekaterina said, “now Sooleawa, time for sleep I think my dear cub.”  Sooleawa smiled and fell asleep in Ekaterina’s embrace.

        “Your cub is beautiful mama,” Patch said.

       “Our cub Patch, she’s yours too.”

      “”I saw Bramble’s labour start, and end, and everything between,” Patch replied, “she kicked and rocked, and strained.”

         “and I don’t regret a minute of it,”  Bramble said, shaking herself and shifting on her paws, “I remember Ekaterina’s touch, both outside and inside me, and don’t regret a minute of that either.”

        “You carried and then delivered my cub to me,” Ekaterina said gently.

        “Slew is your cub Ekaterina, from her nose to her toes; she’s yours and patches.  I’m a surrogate mother, if you like.”  Ekaterina had felt Bramble’s efforts, her contractions, her pedalling paws and curling toes.

       “You fought too mama Bramble,” Patch said, “I saw sweat flying off your paws and flanks.  I saw you straining and heard you crying with effort and pain.”

       “I was,” Bramble replied, “though I wouldn’t have swapped a thing about it.”

       “Your toes curled so tightly Bramble,” Ekaterina said.  Bramble smiled broadly at this, sat down, and then lay down on her side, kicking the air with her hind feet, Patch getting paws on with her hind quarters.  Bramble tensed the muscles around her haunches, Bramble drawing up her hind legs and wriggling as she curled her toes as she imagined herself straining desperately.

.  Then, panting with relief, she pedalled the air with her hind feet.

       “Thanks for that,” Patch said gently.  Bramble rolled onto her back, drew her hind feet up and grabbed them in her forepaws.

        “Cute,” Patch said softly, Ekaterina asking him what Bramble was doing.

      “She pedalled the air with her hind feet, and then grabbed her hind feet in her forepaws,” Patch said gently.

      “That’s so sweet,” Ekaterina said.  Bramble took a better grip on her hind feet with her forepaws.

      “Come Ekaterina, get paws on,” she invited.  Ekaterina did, Bramble smiling with pleasure.

       “Your pads are rough and warm,” Ekaterina said, Bramble curling her toes, making her pads bunch up.

       “Now I recognise these pads,” Ekaterina said to Bramble, who smiled:

       “You should,” she said, “you stroked them recently.”

       “Warmth at last!”  Knut said, dragging a beanbag into the lie up and flopping heavily onto it.  Bramble looked at the recumbent polar bear.

        “You look comfortable,” she said.

         “My paws are freezing!”  Knut wailed.

       “We black bears have very little fur on our paws, and none on the soles of them either, whereas you’re a bloody polar bear, get over it!”  Koda snapped from where he lay nearby.

       “My feet are still freezing!”  Knut roared.

        “Shut up!”  Sooleawa yelled, “I’m trying to sleep here!”  Knut crawled to the rugs where Sooleawa lay and stared down at her.

       “A cub, it’s a cub!”  He exclaimed.

       “I gave birth to her Knut,” Bramble said.

       “But she looks like, well, like Patch should have been her sire, not Goldie,” Knut said incautiously.

       “I’ve let Patch and Ekaterina adopt her,” Bramble said.  Knut lay down, gathered Sooleawa to him and hugged her, the cub squealing with surprise, but then realising she wasn’t in any danger, settling down and enjoying Knut’s embrace.

        “Your paws feel sore,” Sooleawa said to Knut, the male bear grunting with shock.

      “What do you mean?”  He asked.

       “Your paws feel sore, the pads feel raw, sore,” Sooleawa replied, “I don’t know why they do, Can I touch them with mine?”  Knut gave her his right forepaw, and then gasped as she explored it thoroughly.

         “Your paws feel sore,” she said, “like you’ve recently had them tied up, squashed, like you couldn’t move them.”  Knut swallowed hard, trying not to cry.

       “What’s the matter?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “You don’t know that story little one,” Knut said gruffly, “I’ll tell you one day.”

       “Your forepaws and maybe your hind feet were squeezed in something,” Sooleawa replied.  Knut choked on his tears.

        “Your paws and feet hurt you a lot,” Sooleawa continued, Knut burying his face in the rugs he laid on, crying inconsolably, while Sooleawa kissed his nose and wiped his eyes with her paws.

        “My paws and feet hurt!”  Knut wailed.

       “But that was ages ago!”  Bramble snapped.

       “The trauma lasts longer mama,” Patch replied, “maybe Sooleawa tapped into that, “maybe she can feel his sore pads.”

       “I wish I was big enough to hug you,” Sooleawa said to Knut.

      “Try it,” Patch replied gently.  Sooleawa embraced Knut, who was still weeping, the newborn cub finding she could hug Knut, who she knew was far bigger than her.

         “Thanks little one,” Knut said, relief flooding through him, soothing his sore forepaws and hind feet.

       “Can I touch your hind feet?”  Sooleawa asked.  Knut sat up and guided the silver coated cub’s forepaws to his right hind foot, Sooleawa pressing her own left hind foot against his right hind, guiding her hind foot to his.  Once she was touching his hind paw, pads to pad, Sooleawa pressed her toes into the sole pad of Knut’s right hind foot, Knut curling his toes.

      “Dig your claws in if you want,” Knut said.

      “I’ll press my toes into the pads of your foot, not my claws,” Sooleawa said, pressing her toes hard into Knut’s pads, Knut curling his toes tightly in response.

        “Can I play with your paws little Sooleawa?”  Knut asked.  Sooleawa smiled and settling back, waved her hind feet at Knut, who caught her left hind foot in his paws and traced her pads.

       “My feet like that, and so do I!”  Sooleawa laughed.  Knut looked at the silver grey cub.

       “You look so like Patch!”  He sniffed.

       “Do I?”  Sooleawa asked, glancing down at herself then round the room, searching for a bear that looked similar to her.  Patch, seeing this, waved his paw, Sooleawa laughing merrily and waving back at him.

       “Your eyes are open!”  Bramble yelped, “Sooleawa, your eyes are open!”

       “Knut was crying on them,” Sooleawa replied, “I don’t know why they opened.”

       “Maybe Sooleawa was late being born?”  Ekaterina asked, “Like Arki was.”

       “That would explain the struggle I had to deliver her,” Bramble replied, “though I think Allie was younger and stronger than me when she had her overdue cub.”

        “I think she was,”  patch replied.  “plus I think she was a bigger bear altogether, allowing Arki, though she was a bit of a squeeze, to pass into the world with a little hard pushing and stretching of Allie’s resources.  You dear Bramble, could not pass Sooleawa into the world without help.”  Bramble wriggled involuntarily at the memory.

       “It hurt like hell,” she replied, “though I wouldn’t change a thing.”

       “I really must get on to setting up a group of bears and other members of the community to show mothers to be how labour and birth can be,” Patch mused.

       “Lions and tigers, bears and badgers pretending to have cubs?”  Bramble asked.

      “Yes,” Patch replied.  “Mama Kamchatka used to do that for mothers to be.  She’d also use her acting as stress relief.”

      “I remember that,” Ekaterina replied, “I’ll put myself forward for the bear that does that.”

        “Are you all right with doing that kind of thing?”  Bramble asked.

       “If I think of delivering little Sooleawa into the world, I can do anything,” Ekaterina replied, “I’d like to imagine doing that.”

       “I’d love you to imagine that too,” Bramble replied, “make it your own version of her birth Ekaterina.”

       “I will,” Ekaterina replied.

       “Patch re-enacted Sita’s birth,” Goldie said, “she sees that as the official version of events now.”

       “I will not change history as Patch and Sita did,” Ekaterina replied, “they had their reasons, reasons which I thoroughly support.  But I won’t change Bramble’s experience of Sooleawa’s birth.  I can kick and wriggle while pretending to deliver Sooleawa, and I will do this with commitment.  I can make it the struggle it would have been for bramble if she could have pushed Sooleawa into the world unaided.”

       “Now I wonder who will agree to learn the ropes of acting for the cats.”  Patch asked.

       “We need someone who is big, has big paws, a gentle but expressive nature, and is outgoing,” Ekaterina said.

         “I would do it,”  Petra said padding into the room, “I know I’m a bit middle aged and all that, but I’m up for giving it a go.  I know Theo thinks talking of my labours discomforts me, but I’m sure I could overcome that.  Enjoy the memories, re-enact the labour as a celebration of the lives of my cubs.”  Patch smiled at this.

       “Mama Petra, you would be wonderful,” he said.

        “Can I watch my own birth video now?”  Sooleawa asked.  Before Goldie could stop her, Bramble had accessed the video hard drives and they were all watching her struggle on screen, none more avidly than Sooleawa.  Once all was done, everyone turned to Sooleawa to see her reaction.  Open mouthed, eyes staring, the cub sat immobile, her eyes shining with excitement.

        “You did it mama Bramble, mama Ekaterina, you did it!”  She yelled.  Then, scrambling to all fours, she crawled to Bramble and to mama Ekaterina, hugging them both as hard as she could, Goldie turning his head away to hide tears, while Patch, equally affected, didn’t hide a thing from the watching group.  Crying, Patch hugged Sooleawa tightly, gathering her close and rubbing her back with his paws.

        “You make me smile Patch,” Sooleawa said.  Patch lay down on his side, tightly embracing Sooleawa.

       “Play with my paws Patch, please,” Sooleawa said, kicking the air with her hind feet.  Patch, smiling, grabbed her right hind foot and blew on her toes, making Sooleawa shriek with surprise and pull her paw away laughing.

         “That was so cool!”  She laughed, Patch smiling and kissing the toes he’d blown on.

       “You are so gentle with me,” Sooleawa said spinning onto all fours, Patch patting her rump and the pads of her hind feet with his paws, drawing as shapes on her pads from heels to toes, Sooleawa curling her toes with pleasure, gripping the rugs with her forepaws and curling the toes of her hind, her eyes closing with concentration as her brain was thrilled by patch’s touch.

        “You know how to make a cub feel intense pleasure Patch,” Knut said.

        “What’s he doing?”  Ekaterina asked.  Knut told Ekaterina everything, the she bear smiling.

       “That does the same for me too,” she replied, “as shapes on the soles of my hind feet make me close my eyes and curl the toes of all four paws.”  Knut laughed merrily and asked hesitantly:

       “Patch, would you do the same for me?”

      “Draw eases on the soles of your hind feet?”  [Patch asked.  Knut nodded.

      “You have to be in the right frame of mind for the full affect,” Ekaterina replied, “you can’t just expect it to happen.”

        “I’m going to put some practise in for my new acting role,” Petra said, flexing her paws.

       “I’ll join you,” Ekaterina said, getting to her feet.

         “Let’s go somewhere where we won’t be disturbed,” Petra suggested, “the adult’s soft playroom maybe?”  Ekaterina smiled and followed Petra from the lie up.

 

Ekaterina and Petra made their way to the soft play room, where they played together for a while, each massaging the other’s paws before they got down to the business of re-enacting the births of their cubs.  Petra tried it first, remembering the discomfort and sensations of giving birth to her cubs, the squeezing of the cub’s passage into the world, the way she felt while she pushed, and how the urge to curl her toes and pedal the air with her paws became stronger and finally overwhelmed her, driving her into screaming, roaring madness.  Ekaterina, touching Petra’s body and paws, felt the lioness wriggling and panting as she remembered her hours of confinement.

         “My most difficult labour was with Aslan,” Petra mewed, “Simba’s birth was easier.  Yes I pushed, yes I roared, but I was able to deliver him easily all things considered.”  Ekaterina took Petra’s left forepaw in hers, the lioness whimpering, wriggling and roaring with discomfort.

     “The cub’s on its way!”  Petra mewed, “must walk, must bounce on my toes!”  Petra struggled to her feet, groaning and mewing, then snarling with the effort of walking.

       “This cub’s going to be a struggle!”  She whimpered, “Oaoaoaoaw!  Rooooaroooaw!”  Ekaterina got paws on with Petra’s head, feeling her open mouth as she roared and yowled in agony.  Then, squatting, Petra wriggled as she tried to strain deeply into her tail, Ekaterina feeling tensing haunches and then down to Petra’s paws, where she came across bouncing paws, curled toes and dug in claws.

       “Rooooaroooa, Yoooaumph!”  Petra roared as she struggled with the forces deep inside her, Ekaterina feeling the lioness’s stamping paws and writhing body as Petra struggled with the birth of her imaginary cub.  Petra trod on Ekaterina’s paws as she struggled to cope with increasing pain and urges to push against her cub.

      “Sorry Ekaterina didn’t mean to, to tread on your paws!”  Petra squalled.

       “That’s no problem,” Ekaterina said, exploring the whole scene with her paws, Petra wriggling beneath her exploring paws.

       “I feel like I’m delivering a half grown polar bear!”  Petra yowled.  Ekaterina smiled:

       “You could try imagining that,” she said, “and I could deliver a lion cub, an imaginary lion cub that is.”

       “We could try that,” Petra panted, “if it isn’t too silly!”

       “We need imagination,” Ekaterina replied, “without that we have no fun.”  Petra smiled, kissing Ekaterina’s nose.

      “Your cub is a lion, mine is a polar bear then!”  Petra whimpered, “Let’s both fight for our cubs!”  Petra closed her eyes and strained hard with everything she had.

       “Yoaoaoaoaoaoaoaow, ya’a’a’a’a’a’a’a’ow!”  Petra screamed as she tore at the matting with her paws, bearing down hard.

        “The cub’s forepaws are nearly here,” Ekaterina said, feeling beneath Petra’s tail.  Petra groaned deeply, settling herself for another heaving effort.

      “Humoooooph!”  Petra grunted as she pushed down explosively.

        “That’s it, pant, pant!”  Ekaterina encouraged.

      “Oh no you don’t!”  Aga yelled, charging into the room, Petra snapping out of her act instantly.

       “Why not?”  She panted.  Aga, running to Petra, cuffed her across her face.

       “How dare you pretend to deliver a polar bear cub?”  Aga yelled, “And you Ekaterina, agreeing to pretend you were delivering a lion cub.  How dare you do that!  That’s an abomination!”

        “Oh dear,” Ekaterina said, “of course, Freckles was born of that.”

       “Yes she was,” Freckles replied padding into the room after her mother, “Aga, listen to me.  I have been listening to their play, and Petra’s okay with me until further notice.  I don’t feel disgust at my birth, or towards you.  What I do not like is you spoiling Petra and Ekaterina’s fun!  They were playing, giving each other support, and if a cub would have been born out of their play, I think either of them would have looked after their cubs with tenderness and care.  I only wish Petra had delivered her cub, and then she could have described it from nose to tail for me.”  Aga, shocked, turned to run away.

       “Mama Aga,” Ekaterina said, “we didn’t mean to offend you.  We were pretending.  I’m sure if Knut and Sooleawa played the trapped paw game, Knut would play in the knowledge he was warm and loved.  Sooleawa can heal his paws you know; she’ll help him overcome that trauma in his life.”

       “And what kind of births were your imaginary cubs going to have Petra? Ekaterina?”  Aga asked, turning back to them.

        “Hard on us, but successful births in the end,” Ekaterina said, “I was going to play the part of Petra’s cub, and she of mine.  We would deliver our cubs, then play for a bit, then leave for our own lie ups.”

        “Pity it wasn’t seen to the end,” Freckles replied, “Petra, you really struggled hard.”  Petra shook herself.

       “We are sorry if you were offended Aga,” Petra said, going to the mama bear and kissing her nose, “we didn’t mean to offend you.”  Freckles shifted her paws:

       “I want to re-enact a birth story,” she said, “I’d like to try anyway.”  Aga looked at her daughter cub, her stomach tightening, and paws becoming damp with feelings she couldn’t explain.  Sitting down with a groan, Aga rocked back and fourth, trying to ease the discomfort in her belly.

        “I must run for the relieving place,” Aga gasped.  Then, whimpering, she lay down on her side and screamed with pain.

       “I want to push!”  She yelled, fitting actions to words.  Freckles got paws on, Aga writhing and kicking with all her might.

       “What’s happening to me?”  She demanded in a shrill yell between contractions which made her curl up into a ball, grab the toes of her hind feet in her forepaws and squeeze them hard while she roared lustily.

         “Maybe what you were watching made you want to re-enact Freckle’s birth?”  Ekaterina asked.  Aga swore harshly.

       “I want to do it on my own terms!”  She shouted, “not now, not here, in my lie up!”

       “Labour isn’t like that,” Ekaterina said, Aga screaming into her forepaws as another contraction gripped her.

       “Dam your suggestive sights and sounds, now look what you’ve made me do!”  She screamed...

       “We made you pretend to have a cub?”  Freckles asked.

      “It’s not pretend, it’s reliving something, I’m going to turn myself inside out if I don’t stop pushing, but I can’t stop!  I want to push!”  Aga roared.

       “It’s like poor Knut all over again,” Petra said softly, “Sooleawa touches his paws and he remembers his pain, we re-enact cubbing, and Aga remembers freckles birth.”

        “So we need to help agar to explore her feelings?”  Freckles asked.

      “Yes,” Ekaterina replied, “let her scream and roll about, cry and curl her toes, kick and wriggle.  Don’t criticise her, as she is only expressing her pain.  So come on mama, embrace your labours, kick and deliver that cub with love and commitment!”  Aga drew her hind feet to her, grabbed them in her forepaws, and screamed lustily.

      “This hurts!”  She yelled.

       “Crawl about if you want,” Ekaterina suggested, and Aga did, grunting and whining with pain and effort.

       “This is awful!”  Aga groaned, “I feel like I’m being turned inside out!!  Aoaoaoaoaoaow, eaowaoaoaoaoaoae!”  Panting hard, Aga fought to control her labour, lost control, and rolled onto her back, kicking the air with her hind feet while screaming in panic.

        “Can’t we do something for her?  She’s going mad!”  Freckles yelled above Aga’s cries.  Patch padded in, took one look at his mama lying struggling on the floor and held her down gently with his forepaws, Aga stopped screaming and kicking, eventually lying exhausted on the floor.

       “What happened to me,” Aga asked, “it was confusing, all weird confusing pain and fear.”

       “You were triggered into remembering Freckles birth,” patch said gently, “mama, you can’t even talk about that properly yet.  Let alone explore it like you were trying to.”  Aga lay exhausted on the soft flooring, her whole body aching.

       “It was confusing, Aga whimpered, “all pain and the need to fight to deliver a cub and all that.  Patch, dear son cub, you know more than I about the spirit world and what they are trying to tell us.  Tell me now.”

       “That’s got nothing to do with the spirit world mama,”  Patch replied, “Petra pretending to have a cub made you remember freckle’s birth, then when she said she wanted to imagine delivering a cub that wasn’t’ biologically possible for her, you flipped.”

        “She wanted to pervert nature!”  Aga wailed.

       “No,” Patch replied, “would you say I wanted to pervert nature when delivering Sita?  I don’t think so.  Petra is imagining what could be, the fact that she could deliver a polar bear into the world, as easily as I did a cat bear.  Sita is my cub.  Would you call her an abomination?”

        “Yes, well I mean no, look, I’m not going to debate that Patch.  I know you love Sita, and Sita loves you, and Freckles loves both of you with everything she has.”

       “Sita is wonderful isn’t she,” Freckles replied, “she’s lovely with the cubs too.  One minute she’s teaching the cubs, the next she’s rolling over in play, letting them play with her paws and tail.  That tail’s a real asset to Sita I’ll bet.”

        “Not when you smack others in the mouth with it,” Sita replied padding into the room.  Aga looked at Sita, taking her in from her nose to her toes.

       “She is unusual, but lovely with it,” Aga thought.

      “You didn’t mean to smack Koda in the mouth with your tail though did you Sita?”  Patch asked.

     “Of course I didn’t!”  Sita snapped, “I got confused, smacked him around the head and in the mouth, and then backed into him.  For all I am deeply apologetic.”

        “But then you played easily with him,” Patch reminded her, “a version of the stuck paw game I think it was.”  Sita smiled at the memory.

        “That was lovely,” she replied.

 

Aga got to her feet, and giving the assembled group a shattered look, left the play room.”

        “So what do we do now?”  Petra asked.

       “I’d go ahead with the birth of your cub,” Freckles replied, “after all, if I were your cub, I’d be wondering what the hell everyone was arguing about and wishing my mama would get on with pushing.”

     “Freckles, the cub would be dead by now,” Sita said.

        “Well we don’t know that for sure,” Freckles replied, “it’s been shown the spirits can save cubs if they want.”

        “Yes they can,” Patch replied.  Though Petra tried hard to recapture the mood of her and Ekaterina’s play, she couldn’t do it, and abandoned the enterprise after five minutes.

       “Let’s go back to my lie up Petra,” Ekaterina said gently.  Petra and Ekaterina left the soft play room, Patch and Sita following them. 

 

Padding into the lie up, they found Knut playing with Sooleawa, the newborn cub laughing helplessly while the male polar bear tickled her paws.

       “I like that Knut,” Sooleawa said when she could speak.  Knut traced Sooleawa’s pads, the cub curling her toes with pleasure and then grabbing his right forepaw with her forepaws, and pressing his pads against hers.

       “Now this is nice,” Sooleawa said.

       “I wonder how Ekaterina got on with her mock cubbing.”  Knut asked.

       “What is a mock cubbing?”  Sooleawa asked.

      “Pretending you are giving birth to a cub,” Knut replied.  Sooleawa looked at him:

       “that sounds a good game,”  she said, “I’m sure mama Bramble would have played it with Goldie before I was born, to get ready for my birth, you know?”

      “I don’t think she did,” Knut replied.

        “I feel Ekaterina’s upset in some way,” Sooleawa said suddenly, “I think she did something wrong, or she was with someone who did something wrong, but maybe that thing wasn’t wrong.  I’m as confused as Ekaterina now.”

        “I am confused,” Ekaterina said gently into Sooleawa’s ear, “so you are right little one.”  Sooleawa turned to Ekaterina, touching her paw with hers.

       “Yes Ekaterina,” she said gently, shuffling round to embrace the mama polar bear, who sat down to enable her to embrace her more easily.”

     “I think, think another bear that had a strange cub was upset by your playing at having a cub mama,” Sooleawa said.

        “She was,” Ekaterina replied sadly, “though I didn’t mean harm, was going to deliver that cub with love and care.”

       “I know mama,” Aga said suddenly, having padded in and heard Sooleawa’s accurate summation of events.

      “Your situation was horrid mama Aga,”  Ekaterina replied, “but your cub is here, she was born with love, even though you were stressed.  You gave her warmth, gentle paws and loving comfort.  Freckles have always told us that, and she’s not a lira.”

        “I did try to love my cub,” Aga said, “I tried so hard to accept her for herself and ignore the manner of her conception.”

       “I don’t blame you mama Aga,” Freckles said gently, “You did your best to care for me.”

     “I will let Petra deliver her cub,” Aga said, “polar bear or not.”

        Petra will struggle and fight with all she has mama,” Ekaterina replied.

       “Just like you did when you had your cub,” Aga said.  Ekaterina smiled:

      “I did,” she replied, “I wouldn’t mind experiencing Bramble’s labour, feeling the urge to push against Sooleawa to delver her into the world.”

        “Could you have delivered me mama?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “No Sooleawa,” Ekaterina replied, “you met the spirit of a cub in the squeezing place didn’t you?”  Sooleawa nodded:

       “I forgot that for a bit,” she admitted, “yes, I met him.  He said he was your cub.  He helped me curl my toes every time mama Bramble strained to deliver me.  Mama Bramble strained and struggled because you couldn’t, do her mama Ekaterina.”  Ekaterina nodded, very upset.

       “Bramble did so well,” Ekaterina replied, sniffing hard, “she fought with all she had.”

        “I know you would have carried me if you could,” Sooleawa said, “mama Ekaterina, you couldn’t carry me inside you that are why bramble delivered me into the world.”

       “That’s sort of true,” Ekaterina replied, “Goldie’s your sire, Patch isn’t.”

      “Even so,” Sooleawa replied, “I’m more your cub than Goldie’s.”

       “I think we should have an honest chat with our cubs about the way they come into the world,” Patch replied, “that is the best way I think.”

        “If patch can have a cub, then anything’s possible,” Aga replied.

        “I know Patch had a cub,” Sooleawa said.  “Maybe he helped mama Bramble too?  Maybe he crawled and strained with her?”

      “I didn’t, though I sent her good wishes,” Patch replied, “she didn’t ask me for help, and without an invitation, I can’t connect.”

        “I wish you’d just barded in and pushed with me,” Bramble said, padding into the lie up.

       “I would have done more damage,” Patch replied.

       “Who’s your cub Patch?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “Sita’s my cub,” patch said, “I’ll tell you her tailed, and then you can meet her if you like.”  So Sooleawa got a bottle of milk, settled down and listened to Patch while she drank her fill.  Once he’d finished his tale, Sooleawa opened her mouth to ask if she could now see his cub before she fell asleep, when she felt whiskers brushing her ear.  Looking round, she saw a cat with a bear’s face, tiger’s ears and bear’s body, as well as a long tail and big paws.

       “You must be Patch’s cub,” Sooleawa said.  Sita smiled:

      “I am,” she replied.

      “You look like Patch’s cub,” Sooleawa said, “can I look at the sole of your paw?”  Sita sat down and showed Sooleawa the soles of her paws, the cub smiling at the sight of pinkie pads with black spotted fur between Sita’s toes.

       “Cute paws,” Sooleawa said, Sita smiling with pleasure.

       “I like my paws,” Sita replied.  Sooleawa reached out and touched Sita’s left forepaw.

      “Can I touch your hind paws?”  She asked.  Sita smiled and said she could, so Sooleawa did, feeling Sita’s tough pads and strong toes.  Sita curled her toes slightly, making her pads bunch up, Sooleawa rubbing Sita’s pads and slightly curled toes, Sita giggling with pleasure.

       “My paws are my world,” Sita said.  Sooleawa smiled broadly and stroked Sita’s pads in as shapes, repeating what she’d felt Patch do on her own smaller pads, Sita giggling with pleasure.

       “You know how to make me feel great,” Sita said gently.

     “And you me,” Sooleawa said, “Your paws, they tell me things.”

      “Your paws, they tell me things too,” Sita replied.

        “What do they tell you mama Sita?”  Sooleawa asked.  Sita grinned:

        “I am a mama,” she replied, “how did you know?”

       “Your toes told me,” Sooleawa replied, “they curl easily, as if they have curled hard in real urgency once or twice.”

       “Try thrice,” Sita replied smiling, Patch seeing her eyes shine with engagement with Sooleawa, though her primary contact was between her right hind foot and Sooleawa’s forepaws.

       “I didn’t want to mansion the effort to deliver your second cub, because her life was ended before her time.”  Sita choked back tears.

       “Mama Sita,” Sooleawa said, “I don’t want to upset you.”

       “Only Patch could do that before today,” Sita said, her voice cracking, “tell life stories from the touch of pad against pad.”

        “I won’t talk of your poor cub any more,” Sooleawa said, Sita embracing her with desperate paws.

       “You know a lot,” Sita said, “how can you tell?  What do my toes tell you?”

      “They tell me they have curled in desperation several times,” Sooleawa replied.

       “I could re-enact the births of little Leo, and of course of Toby too.  They are both my cubs.”  Sita said.

        “I hope your cubs are as wonderful as you are,” Sooleawa said.  Sita laughed:

       “I’m not a saint,” she said, “but that’s nice to hear.”

        “You have suffered a lot though you hold no grudges or ill will towards those who made you suffer,” Sooleawa said.  Sita sighed heavily at the memory of Haimati’s treatment of her, and then Hubert’s unthinking malice.

        “I’m not bitter,” she said, “I’m sad for those who thought ill of me with no reason at all.  Hubert though, he has changed, he was shown the way.”

       “You showed your cubs the way too,” Sooleawa said, “you were gentle to one cub, and she threw it in your face.”  Sita sighed heavily.

      “Imogen, the cub who didn’t live long,” Sita said, wiping her eyes with a paw, “she tried to hurt me, did hurt me once or twice.”

       “Both with words and physically,” Sooleawa said gently.  Sita whimpered with misery, Sooleawa squeezing the toes of Sita’s hind foot which she held in her paws.

        “I wish I’d tried harder with Imogen,” Sita said.  Sooleawa kissed the pads of Sita’s hind paw, Sita impulsively grabbing her and lifting her onto her lap.

      “Hug me if you want to,” Sooleawa said softly.  Sita hugged her tightly, Sooleawa snuggling close.

         “Thanks mama,” Sooleawa said, Sita sobbing into her fur.

        “Can I stroke your paws Sita?”  Sooleawa asked.  Sita sniffed, set Sooleawa down on the rugs, and then lay down on her side, Sooleawa deciding she’d scramble all over Sita, touching her from nose to tail with forepaws and hind, Sita sighing with pleasure and relief as Sooleawa explored her minutely.

        “You have very strong paws Sita,” Sooleawa said.

        “She’s very strong all over,” Patch said.  Sita smiled, feeling the toes of her right hind foot curling round those of Sooleawa’s left forepaw as the cub massaged her pads.

      “Your pads tell me a lot Sita,” Sooleawa said.  Sita wasn’t surprised.

      “You’re just like Patch,” she yawned, “you can read things by touch, as it were.”

       “I’ve been told I’m his cub, well sort of,” Sooleawa said, “Our paws know each other.”  Sita smiled, gripping Sooleawa’s toes tighter in hers.

       “You will go far little one,” Sita mewed.

        “Knut told me you are head of play,” Sooleawa said, “does that mean you help cubs play, like mama Ekaterina helps cubs into the world?”  Sita grinned:

       “I suppose so,”  she replied gently, “I help cubs play, show them games, though mostly, I let them get on with playing, though I help those who are isolated by the other cubs.”

       “What is isolated?”  Sooleawa asked.

      “Left out of things,” Sita replied.

       “Have you been, um, left out of things before?”  Sooleawa asked boldly.

       “Yes Sooleawa love, I have,” Sita replied, “I can’t see you.  Your eyes can see me, see my fur, see my paws, and see my face.  I can’t see you with my eyes.”

        “I use my eyes to look where my paws are going, but you can’t do that?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “Yes,” Sita replied, “that’s it.”

      “So you could get lost if you can’t see things around you.”

      “Sort of,” Sita replied, “and for a long time, I was left alone by others, as noone would play with me.”

      “Why wouldn’t they play with you?  You have lovely paws,” Sooleawa asked.

       “Some didn’t feel comfortable about playing with me because I can’t see,” Sita replied.

      “Mama Ekaterina uses her paws like you do,” Sooleawa said, “so she can’t see me either?”  Sita replied this was the case,”

         “She’s had her problems too,” Sita replied.

      “So cubs that use their eyes sometimes leave those who can’t?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “They do,” Sita replied, “anything that’s out of the ordinary can cause cubs to exclude others.”

        “I heard something while I was half asleep,” Sooleawa confessed, “I heard Aga cursing someone called Conrad; she didn’t like him falling over without good reason.  Something likes that.”

       “Conrad is Aga’s mate,” Sita said, “Conrad has seizures, they make him fall on the floor and thrash about.”

        “I heard him shouting at her, crying,” Sooleawa said, “it was awful!  I woke, and the nightmare stopped.”

        “You listened into their arguments,” Sita said, “They were nowhere near you Sooleawa.”  Sooleawa looked surprised.

     “How did I do that?”  She asked.

       “You know how you tell me things that are true, but you couldn’t have heard of them, as you were not born?”  Sita asked.  Sooleawa nodded.

       “I touched your pads and toes, they told me,” she said.  Sita kissed Sooleawa’s nose:

      “Well, you can do the same with minds, when you sleep, you can hear things that are going on in other lie ups.  Conrad and Aga were arguing about Conrad’s disability, and you overheard it.”

      “It made me wants to go to Conrad and hug him!”  Sooleawa whimpered, “I don’t know who this Conrad is, I’ve never met him, but I want to hug him so much, just thinking about him now,,”  she stopped, her distress plain to Sita, who hugged her.

         “Maybe you’ll meet him soon,” Sita replied.

        “I’d like to meet him,” Sooleawa said, “he seemed gentle.”

 

Indeed, Conrad, upset by Aga’s shouting at him after he’d defended Petra’s right to deliver whatever breed of cub she wanted during her play with Ekaterina, withdrew into another lie up to rest.  He knew stress exasperated his epilepsy and he had felt himself losing control more than once during the screaming match.  Deeply breathing, he’d fought to remain in control, sitting down though he was.  Conrad had taken to sleeping alone in a secluded lie up, padding to the pool complex some time in the early mornings.  He couldn’t hear anyone moving about, though knew CCTV would be watching him.  Slipping into the water of the main pool, Conrad swam up and down, trying to rid his mind of the anger and grief he’d felt when Aga had poured out her resentment of his condition, calling him all kinds of nasty names.  Thrusting with his paws, he tried to forget the pain he’d felt.  A small splash brought him out of his dark world, Conrad’s ears telling him something was swimming towards him.  Suddenly something bumped up against him, and treading water, Conrad turned to the newcomer.

      “Who are you?”  Conrad asked.

       “My name’s Sooleawa,” the newcomer said, “I’m Patch and Ekaterina’s cub.”

      “Noone told me my daughter cub had managed to deliver a live cub,” Conrad said, his astonishment plain.

       “Well she did, Bramble was my mama really, but she said I looked like patch, and that he and Ekaterina would be better parents for me than Bramble and Goldie.  So I’m Ekaterina’s cub now.  I guess, by your reaction, you are her sire?”  Conrad, his hind feet pedalling slowly to stop himself floating too far away, replied:

      “Yes, my name’s Conrad.  I, I shouldn’t be here alone, I’ve been having seizures, I take medicine for it, but sometimes it still gets me.  It’s like being in a cage with an unpredictable creature; it sleeps most of the time, and then savages you for no apparent reason.  I don’t know why I’m telling you this though, you’re a cub!”

        “I heard you and someone yelling and hitting each other,” Sooleawa said.  Conrad nearly choked with emotion:

        “We argued a few nights back, a big disagreement, me and Aga,” he said, “Petra and Ekaterina were pretending to have cubs, to give birth to cubs.  Aga didn’t like their play, and told them off, and then she told me, and I agreed with Petra and Ekaterina, and Aga got upset and started shouting and beating me with her paws.  I ran off, I know what my cub is, she loves playing like she does.  She means no disrespect to dead cubs.”

       “Mama Ekaterina’s cub died,” Sooleawa said, “so she would not disrespect her own cub’s memory.  And as for delivering cross bred cubs, cubs like Sita and Freckles, which is what they were pretending to do when Aga stormed in killing the idea Petra had, that’s not bad either.  Sita’s lovely, Freckles is too.  I believe Aga’s Freckle’s mama, if so, why does she hate her cub?”

       “Aga doesn’t hate freckles,” Conrad replied, “She hates the manner of her conception and the hard labour she had to deliver her cub.”

        “So this started you and Aga shouting at each other, then she began hitting you?”  Sooleawa asked.

         “Aga lost her temper, I can’t, can’t afford to,” Conrad replied, “any stress, upset, anything like that, the creature comes and grabs me, scrambling my brain and knocking me out, confusing me and deadening my paws.  I cant’ see either, though that’s not anything to do with the epilepsy, that’s because I am polluted, I spent time on the ice, and there was oil and stuff, I was poisoned by the oils, which blinded me.”

       “Oh,” Sooleawa said her concern plain to Conrad.

         “I’m all right though,” Conrad said, trying to contain his rising feelings.

        “You don’t feel it,” Sooleawa said, taking his right forepaw in hers and tugging at it.  Conrad swam with Sooleawa to the side of the pool, tugged urgently by his paw by Sooleawa, who keenly felt his distress.  Sooleawa pushed Conrad out of the pool while Conrad yelled at her:

      “Get off me!  Leave me alone!  Get off my hind feet, leave them alone!”  He yelled, Sooleawa ignoring him, continually pushing his hocks, his backside, his hind paws and his toes, any bit of him she could touch with her forepaws, nose and head, to hurry him along.

      “What are you doing?”  Conrad asked angrily when he was lying flat on the tiles a few feet from the side of the pool with Sooleawa beside him.

         “Getting you out of the pool, what else?”  Sooleawa replied.  Conrad didn’t reply.  Suddenly Sooleawa felt Conrad convulse.  She felt his paw smack her across her head.  Then she heard him shriek and then felt more battering of her body from his paws as the seizure gripped him.  Sooleawa looked round her, realising Conrad would be in danger if he fell back into the pool while he was out of control.  Sooleawa crawled quickly round and lay on Conrad’s other side nearest the pool, digging her toes into the tiles and using her small body as a wall for Conrad to push against.  He jerked away from her, Sooleawa following him, making sure he went nowhere near the pool.  Realising the seizure was abating, Sooleawa padded round to Conrad’s other side, seeing his closed eyes, curled toes and clenched teeth.

        “Conrad?”  Sooleawa said gently, touching his face with her paw, stroking his sweating body, “Conrad?”  Conrad, panting, relaxed a little, then suddenly, screaming, he lashed out again, his paws pummelling Sooleawa, hind feet and forepaws battering her, Sooleawa hung on, realising what was happening.  This second seizure, though more violent, lasted only a minute or so.  Sooleawa saw Conrad relax for a second time, and this time his eyes opened.

       “Conrad?”  Sooleawa said again, trying to keep her voice steady, for she was very frightened.

        “What happened?”  Conrad asked faintly, though Sooleawa thought he already knew.

         “Oh dear,” Conrad said miserably, “oh god!”  He reached out for Sooleawa, at least his paws reached for something, and Sooleawa let herself be gathered to the polar bear, who hugged her to him, though his touch was feather light.  It seemed once he had hold of her, his strength left him, and he could just about keep his paws around her.  Sooleawa lay in the bear’s embrace, unwilling to leave him, though frightened of the seizures.

        “It’s all done now,” Sooleawa said to Conrad, though she wasn’t sure she was certain it was all over.  Conrad seemed calmer, calmer than he’d been since she’d bullied him out of the water.

        “What are you doing here Sooleawa?”  Conrad asked faintly.

         “You were talking to me in the pool, you were swimming,” she replied.

        “Oh, oh yes,” Conrad said crossly, “and, and you bullied me out of the water, pushing at my shoulders, my hocks, my legs, and my feet to get me out of the pool.  Why did you do that?”  Sooleawa was about to reply that she didn’t really know why she’d done it, and to apologise, when Conrad kissed the top of her head.

         “You knew didn’t you,” he said, his anger dying as quickly as it had risen, “you knew I was going to have a seizure.”

       “I don’t know, I don’t know!”  Sooleawa replied, sobbing into Conrad’s paws.

        “Please don’t cry Sooleawa,” Conrad said gently, kissing her ears and nose.

         “I’ll be all right in a minute,” Sooleawa said, sniffing hard.

        “You saved me,” Conrad said softly, “you felt I was going to have a seizure and got me into safety.”

       “I don’t know if I did the right thing,” Sooleawa said, “bullying you like that I mean, not saving you.”

        “You did, you did!”  Conrad replied fervently, “if you hadn’t pushed at my shoulders, my legs and my hind feet, I wouldn’t have got out of the pool fast enough, then, then, who knows?  The thought is too awful.”  Sooleawa kissed Conrad’s nose and forepaws, the polar bear releasing her.

        “What do I do now?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “Listen to me beg you for forgiveness,” Conrad replied, “I’m sorry I got angry with you.”

       “You pawed at me with tightly curled toes,” Sooleawa said.  Conrad explored her from nose to tail with his paws.

        “I’ve ripped fur out,” he said sadly, “Sooleawa; I’ve ripped chunks of your fur out with my claws!”

     “Come, let’s get you some food and drink,” Sooleawa said.  Conrad crawled after the large cub, Conrad using his forepaws to follow her hind feet away from the pool to safety.

         “You look like you’ve been in the wars,” patch said to Sooleawa in the corridor from the pool complex.

       “The creature attacked Conrad,” Sooleawa said.  Patch looked confused, but then realised what Sooleawa meant.

        “Yes,” he said, “I saw.  I was there, but didn’t interfere.”

       “Why not?”  Conrad asked.

        “Because the spirits didn’t ask me to,” Patch replied, “Sooleawa was doing very well herself.  Neither of you were in danger.”

        “You mean, mean Sooleawa did know something,” Conrad replied, “enough that is to get me out of danger.  Then, and then, she, she had the courage to stay with me throughout all my trouble?”

       “That bit was all her doing,” Patch replied.

        “You lovely cub Sooleawa, you are so brave to stay with me throughout all that.”

        “I couldn’t leave you,” Sooleawa said, “I, I knew, heard something a few nights back.  Heard your distress at something, you having an argument with someone and you being very distressed.  I wanted to hug you then.”  Conrad kissed the pads of Sooleawa’s right hind foot, the young cub smiling broadly.

       “You saved my life,” Conrad whispered.

         “Did I?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “I was in the water,” Conrad started to reply, but then he stopped, the horror of what might have been choking him.

        “I could have died,” Conrad said faintly.

        “Sooleawa!”  Bramble exclaimed, when she saw her later that day, “what have you done to yourself!”

       “Oh, my fur?”  Sooleawa asked, “a creature attacked Conrad, and made him claw at me.  He was possessed by the creature for a few minutes.”  Bramble looked scared, and Patch, his toes curling with anxiety, took Bramble aside later that day.

        “Conrad has an electrical disorder in his brain, he calls it a creature, as it ravages him and he can’t stop it.  He takes tablets, medicine to keep the creature in its box, but sometimes, sometimes it breaks free and ravages him.”

         “Sooleawa called it a creature that possessed Conrad,” Bramble said, “is Conrad possessed by the spirits that are evil?”

       “No,” Patch replied.

     “But he fought Sooleawa when she tried to help him!”  Bramble yelled.

       “Conrad didn’t at first understand what Sooleawa was trying to do,” Patch said.  Blackberry wandered in then.

       “Epilepsy is electrical disturbance in the brain,” he said, “Conrad calls it a creature, as that’s how he understands and copes with what happens to him.”

       “Cope?”  Sooleawa snorted, having crept in and listened to the whole thing, “Conrad didn’t cope, he cried and wrung his paws when he realised what he’d done to me,” she said.

       “Yes,” Conrad said, crawling in after Sooleawa, “Bramble, I wept when I realised what I’d done to Sooleawa’s coat.”

       “My fur will grow again,” Sooleawa said, “I’m not worried about that.  Now I will become your guardian Conrad.”  Conrad smiled sadly.

        “I think I needed one in the pool,” he said.

       “Maybe it was my fault,” Sooleawa said, “maybe me talking about things made the creature get its claws out.”

         “No Sooleawa,” Conrad replied, “it wasn’t your fault.”

        “Now let’s get tea, toast, honey and peanut butter,” Patch said, phoning his order through to Sid, who arrived quickly with the food and drink.  Conrad, now recovered, sat down with Sooleawa and ate his fill.

       “Sooleawa,” Conrad said softly, “thank you for saving my life.”  Sooleawa smiled and touched Conrad’s right forepaw, the one that wasn’t holding his cup of tea.

       “I’m glad you’re here,” Sooleawa said.

       “Not half as glad as I am for your presence here,” Conrad replied.

        “I wonder if Sooleawa can tell Conrad before he has a seizure,” Bramble mused.

        “I felt something,” Sooleawa replied, “a distress, a deep feeling from Conrad that something was wrong.  I can’t explain it.”

       “How did it feel?”  Conrad asked, interested now the danger was over.

        “Just huge distress, confusion, that’s all really,” Sooleawa replied.

       “The only way we can find out is for Sooleawa to spend her life with Conrad,” Patch said, “but that’s not fair.”

       “You pulled me out of the water didn’t you,” Conrad said to Sooleawa, “you felt trouble in the water didn’t you.”

      “Yes I did,” Sooleawa replied.

        “I’m going to get my medication,” Conrad said, “It is time for the worst one too.”

      “The worst one?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “An injection he’s got to have once a month,” Patch replied.  Conrad returned with Tablets and an ampoule of liquid.  Grabbing his cup of tea, he threw tablets to the back of his throat and sank the tea out of sight.  Then, with more trepidation, he turned his attention to the ampoule of liquid.

        “The vet showed Aga how to administer that,” he said, “I can’t stick myself, I’ve tried, and I freak out!”  Sooleawa picked up the medication.  It consisted of a disposable pipette with a needle on one end, and enough medication for two doses.  Sooleawa looked at Patch, who padded over, washed his paws with the antiseptic wash provided, and then drew up some of the medicine in the pipette.

       “I’ll inject you Conrad,” Patch said, Conrad swallowing hard.

       “I hate this,” he mumbled, Sooleawa crawling to Conrad and asking him to lie down, before taking his paw in hers.  Conrad concentrated on her touch, and hardly noticed Patch injecting him.

      “All done,” Patch said.  Conrad settled down next to Sooleawa, her head resting on his shoulder, her paw engulfed in his.

        “Your paw is so small,” Conrad said.  Sooleawa smiled:

      “Yours is so big,” she said to him, kissing his nose.

        “Can we measure hind paws?”  Conrad asked.

        “Is that what you and Ekaterina did when she was my age?”  Sooleawa asked.  Conrad nodded:

       “Yes,” he replied, “but if you don’t want to, I’ll understand.”

        “I’d love to,” Sooleawa said, “first though, would you hug me?”  Conrad smiled and embraced Sooleawa tightly, the cub snuggling close.

        “You’re soft and warm,” Conrad said gently.  Sooleawa smiled and snuggled even closer, Conrad exploring Sooleawa with his paws, using care and gentility, Sooleawa wriggling with pleasure.

      “Please, make sure you find my paws,” Sooleawa begged.  Conrad found Sooleawa’s paws and massaged them with gentle care, the cub curling her toes with pleasure.

       “Your pads bunch up rather cutely little Sooleawa,” Conrad said gently, Sooleawa laughing merrily.

        “I’m glad you like my paws,” she said, “I like them too.”  Conrad groomed Sooleawa from nose to tail, then, as he finished, he felt someone place something beside him.  Investigating, he found it to be a bottle full of milk.  Sooleawa, sensing food, settled back, and Conrad, sitting up and cradling her in his lap, fed her with the milk.

        “A real natural you are,” Patch said, Conrad laughing at him.

       “I like it,” he said.  Sooleawa finished her drink and curled up with Conrad.

         “I regret shouting at her,” Conrad said miserably to whoever would listen.

        “She knows, and everyone else knows you didn’t mean it Conrad,” Patch said, going to Conrad and taking his paw.

        “I’m blessed with wonderful health, and am thankful for it every day.  Don’t blame yourself for getting angry Conrad.  Until you truly know your health issues, you’ll be caught out from time to time.”

         “I think you made a friend this day Conrad,” Ekaterina said.  Conrad shook his head:

       “How can that be?”  He asked, “I tell her a gruesome tale, then have a seizure, that’s not a good base to start a friendship is it?”

        “Sooleawa knew something was wrong, she stayed with you, used her body to shield you, to protect you,” Patch said, “she’s a cub, for all her knowledge, she’s still a cub.  This being the case, I think she takes you as she finds you, no preconceptions, nothing like that.”

         “She was very good to me,” Conrad said.

      “I will be with you as long as you want me,” Sooleawa said.  Conrad smiled and hugged her tightly.

       “You are so lovely to me,” he said.

       “I’d like to measure my hind feet against yours Conrad,” Sooleawa said.

        “You can,” Conrad invited, “I’d like you too.”  So Sooleawa did, sitting opposite Conrad and pressing her hind feet against his, then grabbing his hind paws in her forepaws and exploring with care.

       “I like your touch,” Conrad said sincerely.

      “I like yours too,” Sooleawa said, pressing her toes into Conrad’s pads, her toes barely reaching half way up the sole pads of the male bear’s large hind feet.

        “Your pads are warm and rough,” Sooleawa said, “really comforting they are.”

      “Yours little Sooleawa, are smoother than mine, kind of like patch’s, smooth and rather cute because of that.”

        “paws are wonderful things,”  Sooleawa said, “yours told me you were in trouble in the pool, so I helped you to the side, then pushed at you to get you out of the pool before the trouble struck hard.”

      “For that I thank you,” Conrad replied, embracing Sooleawa’s hind paws with his forepaws, pressing them against his pads with gentle pressure.

       “Play with my paws Conrad,” Sooleawa said, “that is if you want to of course.”  Conrad settled Sooleawa on her back in his lap, then, as she kicked the air with all four paws, he caught each one in turn and tickled her pads and toes, the silver furred cub laughing and wriggling with delight.  Conrad blowing on the pads of Sooleawa’s paws had her shrieking with laughter and crawling away shouting to Conrad to chase her.  Patch, thinking quickly gave Conrad an elastic cuff, telling him to:

     “Catch Sooleawa and put this around one hind leg.  Make sure it’s firmly attached; on there is a bell, so you can hear her crawling or walking.”  So Conrad chased Sooleawa, then literally tagged her,

       “Now I’m tinkling every time I crawl!”  Sooleawa laughed, “This is such fun!”  Conrad smiled, checked the fit of the cuff around her left hind leg, and then lifted her onto his lap.

       “I love you dearly Sooleawa,” Conrad said softly.

       “I love you too Conrad,” Sooleawa replied.  Conrad played with Sooleawa, the silver coated cub loving every minute of their time together.  Mishka, padding into the room, went over to Sooleawa and kissed her ear.

        “I’ve been told what you and Conrad are doing,” Mishka said, “it’s so cute Sooleawa.”

       “Who are you?”  Sooleawa asked.  Mishka told her.

      “So Ekaterina has another cub?”  Sooleawa asked.

        “Well, I’m mama Kamchatka’s cub, Ekaterina’s brother, but she now looks after me,” Mishka replied.  Sooleawa smiled.

        “I think you are a very interesting cub,” Sooleawa said.  Mishka smiled and kissed Sooleawa’s nose, the female cub reaching up to touch Mishka’s nose.  Mishka smiled with pleasure, kissing Sooleawa’s forepaws as they came within range.

       “I think I’ll take little Sooleawa on the water coaster,” Mishka said.  Sooleawa followed Mishka to the pool complex, where he dragged out a raft and spoke to the control room.

        “Watch us on the cameras please,” he said into the handset on the control panel, before shovelling the raft into the start run of the coaster, settling Sooleawa into the back of the raft, before clambering in in front of her.

        “Just sit there,” Mishka said.

     “Hey, Mishka, Mishka!”  Koda yelled, padding up to the raft, “can I come with you and Sooleawa?”  Mishka thought of the weight in the raft, and agreed.

      “Sit behind Sooleawa and hold onto her,” he said, “Sooleawa, hold onto me with your forepaws and brace your hind against the bottom of the raft.”  Sooleawa did as her friend said, the raft accelerating away towards the first lift hill.

        “This is going to be fun!”  Sooleawa said.  Koda, remembering his last ride on the coaster, and the mess Whitetip made of it, sighed heavily.  At the top of the coaster, in the river system, Koda felt the raft bumping round the bends in the flume.  Anxiously he watched as they approached the first chute.  Sooleawa felt Koda’s paws holding her tightly as the track straightened out before the chute.  The raft angled downwards, sliding into the first break run, and then angling downwards again to accelerate into a steep, right turn, Sooleawa shrieking with excitement and pressing her forepaws against Mishka’s back.  Mishka heard the chute open up, then the slope flattened out at the bottom of the slide, the water breaking the raft’s speed.  Koda sighed with relief as the raft settled into a right turn, then the raft dipped down fast, accelerating, Koda screaming with fear and terror.  The raft lost speed, and Koda, sweating now, decided he would not ride any further, signalling this by leaping out of the raft into the water.  Mishka, swearing lavishly, told Sooleawa to stay where she was.

      “Just hold on!”  He commanded, Sooleawa seeing Koda vanish from the pool through an emergency exit.  The raft crashed into a baffle which blocked the way into the next chute, Sooleawa squealing with surprise and fear.

       “Now get out of the raft and paddle to the side of the pool,” Mishka said, “its safe now Sooleawa.”  Sooleawa splashed into the water, Mishka following, both paddling to the side.

       “Thanks,” Sooleawa said.  Sooleawa clambered from the pool, following Mishka closely.

      “Where did Koda go?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “Downstairs I think,” Mishka replied, “I don’t think he likes the coaster.”

       “Why ride it then?”  Sooleawa asked, “And to jump out like he did.  What’s wrong with him?”

         “I don’t know,” Mishka replied.

         “I just don’t like the lack of control,” Koda replied, padding up to Mishka.

        “You look ashamed Koda,” Sooleawa said.  Koda sighed heavily.

        “I feel it,” the black bear replied, “I feel ashamed at my stupid actions.  I leapt into the water that was a stupid thing to do.  Silly, dangerous thing to do, but my mind told me to get out of the situation where I had no control so I could take control.”

       “Sounds scrambled,” Sooleawa said.

        “Scrambled is the word for it Sooleawa my dear,” Koda said.

        “So you won’t be riding the coaster again?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “No,” Koda replied, “officially hate that ride.”  Sooleawa smiled broadly.

      “Glad you can be so definite,” she said.

        “I want my paws firmly on the ground from now on,” Koda replied.  Sooleawa looked at the male bear, taking him in from nose to tail.

        “You look like Patch when you do that,” Koda said.

     “Do what?”  Sooleawa asked.

       “Examine me from nose to tail like that,” Koda replied, “it’s scary.”

        “I was only curious,” Sooleawa replied honestly.

       “I don’t mind you being curious,” Koda replied, “I’m small, stunted really, and have small paws too.”

       “Your paws are small,” Sooleawa said, “very small.”

       “I won’t get any bigger either,” Koda said, “apparently my growth stops here.”

       “I wondered who was older, you or Mishka,” Sooleawa said, “Though I didn’t want to ask.  I thought you were older Koda, am I right?”  Koda nodded:

       “I’m older, but smaller than my younger brother,” Koda replied.  Sooleawa looked at Mishka.

        “By the way, I agree with the words you used when Koda jumped from the raft,” she said.

       “You don’t know what those mean!”  Mishka yelped, “at least I hope you don’t!”

        “I know they are bad words,” Sooleawa replied, “bad words for a bad choice?”  Mishka could agree with her on that at least.

      “Yeah,” he said, “but please Sooleawa, don’t use them yourself.”

       “I won’t!”  Sooleawa replied, “Well, I might, if Koda leaps out of any more rafts.”  Koda laughed despite his anxiety.

       “You won’t use those words!”  Mishka snarled, furious, “you won’t use those words!”  Sooleawa silently mouthed the words Mishka had used, Koda seeing her and nearly giving the game away.

      “What is she doing?”  Mishka asked.

     “Nothing, nothing!”  Koda replied, struggling hard not to guffaw at Sooleawa’s antics.

       “What is Sooleawa doing?”  Mishka asked sharply, “don’t lie to me Koda.  She’s doing something I can’t find out about isn’t she.”  Koda ran off, unable to control his need to laugh helplessly.

        “Come back here Koda!”  Mishka yelled.  Then, as he was unable to chase Koda, he rounded on Sooleawa.

       “Now you!”  Mishka snarled, pinning Sooleawa to the floor, “you will tell me what you were doing to make Koda laugh like that.  He was about to burst!”

        “Nothing,” Sooleawa replied, glad Mishka could not see her blushing scarlet with the lie she told.

       “You lie!”  Mishka growled, “You tell me stories Sooleawa!  Your paws tell me you are telling me tales!”

         “All right, all right!”  Sooleawa replied, “I was whispering the words you used.  Mishka cuffed her hard across her shoulder.

      “Ow Mishka! That hurt!”  Sooleawa squealed.

       “You do not swear!”  Mishka yelled.

        “I wasn’t, I didn’t!”  Sooleawa grumbled.

       “As good as doing so you foul mouthed scrap!”  Mishka roared, his anger driven as much by lack of control of his own mouth, as by Sooleawa imitating him.

    “You will not use those words!”  Mishka screamed.

        “You hurt me Mishka, you hurt me!”  Sooleawa yelled. Mishka bullied Sooleawa to her crawling posture, and padded with her to the main pool complex.  Sooleawa, limping along, the shoulder Mishka hit with his paw bruised and painful, whimpering to herself.

      “Shut up,” Mishka snapped, “I hardly touched you.”

        “What happened?”  Conrad asked, slipping into step alongside Sooleawa, feeling her limping, even though she was crawling.

       “I know you were stopped by the emergency systems on the coaster, but they don’t bruise shoulders,” Conrad whispered to Sooleawa.  Sooleawa replied in a voice that had the force of breath.

        “Mishka hit me; he hit me for swearing, well pretending to swear.”  Conrad grunted with understanding.

        “I’ll thump him,” he grunted.  Sooleawa stared as Conrad padded silently up to Mishka, and raised his paw, delivering a smashing blow to the younger bear’s right shoulder, Mishka roaring with surprise and pain.

       “Conrad, you scabby old fleabag!!”  He yelled.  Conrad, laughing helplessly, mocked Mishka.

      “Scabby old Fleabag!”  He mimicked, Mishka clouting him across his nose with his paw, Conrad screaming and attacking Mishka.

       “Stop it both of you, stop this!”  Sooleawa screamed, trying to separate the two fighting bears, and getting smacked across the head by Mishka for her pains.

         “This is our fight Sooleawa, get out of here!”  Mishka panted.  Sooleawa watched the two bears fighting, paw to paw on the floor, clawing, slapping and snarling.

        “You hit a cub Mishka, you disgrace!”  Conrad snarled, punching Mishka on the nose.  Mishka subsided, Conrad winning the fight.

        “I hate you!”  Mishka yelled at Conrad.

        “You injured a cub for swearing, that’s not very nice now,” Conrad replied.  Mishka told Conrad what he thought of him.

         “Now ain’t that lovely,” Patch said padding into the room and staring at Mishka, “I think I’m going to save the crown jewels and let the house burn,” Patch said, picking Sooleawa up in his paws and padding away.  Conrad padded after Patch, letting Mishka growl and snarl to himself.

        “Did you whisper swear words?”  Patch asked Sooleawa.

         “I did,” Sooleawa replied, “I’m sorry patch, I’m sorry.  I would never have used them though.”  Patch gently laid Sooleawa down on the rugs in his lie up and examined her with tender care.  When he tried to move her right foreleg she winced.

         “Where is ouch?”  Patch asked gently.  Sooleawa told him:

       “Right Shoulder, that’s where Mishka hit me.” Patch checked Sooleawa over, finding nothing broken, though her shoulder was bruised and battered.

        “You are so gentle with me Patch,” Sooleawa said.  Patch sat down and cradled Sooleawa in his lap.

         “Mishka should not have clobbered you,” he said, “I will make sure he does not forget what he did.  Shouting at you should have been enough.

        “But I told him I did nothing,” Sooleawa replied, “I told lies Patch.”

         “You did so,” Patch replied, “but hitting you was over the top.  He shouldn’t have done that when you admitted to mouthing the words he used.  Hitting you was wrong.”

       “He pinned me down with his weight,” Sooleawa replied, “that hurt too!”  Patch looked Sooleawa over, checking her with eyes and paws, pressing, testing, and checking her from nose to tail and from ears to paw pads.

       “I won’t swear again, I promise, I promise!”  Sooleawa whimpered as Patch’s examination caused her discomfort and pain when he moved her right foreleg.

       “I’m worried for Conrad,” Sooleawa replied.

 

Mishka, having tracked Conrad to his lie up, jumped on him, the polar bear trying to throw him off.

      “Get off me!”  Conrad yelled.

        “No, no, you’re dead!”  Mishka screamed, “for protecting swearing cubs!”  Mishka savagely chopped at Conrad’s neck with the side of his paw, Conrad collapsing unconscious on the floor.

       “Now stop this, stop it!”  Aga yelled, tearing Mishka off Conrad, punching Mishka on his nose and slinging him into the corner.

       “Conrad?”  Aga asked tentatively, kneeling beside the male polar bear that remained lying exhausted on the floor of the lie up.

       “Conrad?”  Aga asked.  Conrad trembled and shook, then panted hard.  Aga looked frightened as Conrad suffered a violent seizure, his paws and body jerking and trembling.  Suddenly Conrad suffered a devastating spasm, his whole body tensing up, eyes screwed tight shut, his toes curled and teeth clenched.  Then he relaxed, suddenly relaxing, the relaxation final and total.

       “He’s dead,” Aga choked, “Conrad’s dead!”

         “I didn’t mean to, I mean, how?”  Mishka moaned.

        “You killed him!”  Aga sobbed, “You killed him Mishka!!”  Mishka crawled painfully to Conrad and took his paw, there was no pulse, and Conrad’s paw was cold.

         “I wanted to knock him out that is all!”  Mishka whimpered.

       “Conrad cant’ die, he mustn’t die!”  Sooleawa yelled, crawling in and throwing herself on top of the motionless polar bear.

       “He’s dead Sooleawa love,” Aga sobbed, “noone can help him now.  Well noone on this side of the bridge.”  Sooleawa, sobbing, shoved Mishka away from Conrad and clung to the lifeless polar bear’s left forepaw, weeping into his coat.

       “I didn’t mean to kill him, just to knock him out!”  Mishka roared.

        “I will never forgive you!”  Sooleawa sobbed, “Mishka, you killed Conrad, and for that I will never ever forgive you!”  Mishka crawled over to Conrad and touched him, Aga inconsolable now, weeping on Conrad’s right side, holding the male bear’s right forepaw.

       “He’s gone now,” Mishka snarled, “I’m sorry I hit him, but he was weak, he was a Burdon to his mate and that is no good for anyone.”

       “Conrad might have had a scary illness, but he was lovely to me,” Sooleawa sobbed.

        “Long may I continue to be lovely to you too,” Conrad said weakly.  Mishka leapt backwards, crashing heavily into the wall at his back, winding himself.

       “I thought you were dead!”  Mishka yelled.

       “Not quite yet,” Conrad said more strongly.

         “Take it easy Conrad, don’t do too much,” Aga said, her mind confused.

       “I’m stronger than Mishka, whose life is without direction,” Conrad said getting to his feet, Mishka turning and running straight into patch who stood with a look of disapproval on his face, his anger almost tangible.

      “You Mishka should be thrown into the jail!”  Patch yelled.  Mishka whimpered miserably for mercy, but Patch picked him up, throwing him over his shoulder and departing.

        “You deserve nothing but time for quiet reflection in the cell,” Patch grunted.

      “He deserves to experience what he did to Conrad!”  Ekaterina snapped as she overheard patch passing their lie up.

       “I understand your sentiments Ekaterina love,” Patch said, pausing beside the door, “but we are a gentle community here, and all I can say is thank Eohippus Conrad survived.  Mishka won’t get the chance to do what he did again.  The move he used to incapacitate Conrad could have killed him, and dam near did.  It’s a move I would not use without due thought, or in extreme emergency.  Now I’m taking this bag of bones to the cell where what little brain he has left might be put to good use when he considers his actions.”

        “You might throw away a good career as leader of the community if you carry on like this Mishka,” Ekaterina said to the whimpering, near sobbing bear over Patch’s shoulder.

        “Sooleawa needed to know she couldn’t swear and get away with it!”  Mishka grumbled.

       “As leader of the cubs, you are to show restraint and judgement,” Ekaterina said, “you did neither Mishka.”

       “Now off to the cell with you,” Patch said.  Padding to another room, Patch sat Mishka on a mat in front of the opening to a chute.  Then, Patch pressed a button, water filled the tray Mishka was sitting in, and the terrified half grown cub disappeared down a water slide.  Patch watched on the screen as Mishka, screaming, shot downwards at a terrifying speed, then round a few corners, ending up at the bottom of the slide, where he got a thorough dousing in ice cold water from a shower head set up for the purpose.  Dripping wet, Mishka got tentatively out of the tray and padded damply about the concrete cell.  Patch, looking grim, switched off the slide’s water supply and, pressing a button to send a pre programmed order to Sid for food to be sent to the concrete cell, he left the room, locking the door behind him.

 

Mishka, by careful crawling about the cell, found he had a toilet area, a place where food would be delivered, but no telephone.  He reasoned that he was being watched all the time from CCTV.

      “Bastards, bloody bastards!”  He yelled, beating his paws against the door into the cell.  Padding back to the chute, Mishka crawled up the slick Shute, but could only manage a little way, before things got too steep.  On his fourth attempt, water rushed down the chute, flushing him to the bottom, and activating the cold water douser which thoroughly soaked him from nose to toes.

       “Shit, shit!”  Mishka yelled, shaking himself dry.

        “You will be flushed back where you belong every time you try to clamber up that slide,” a voice said, “Mishka, you are here for punishment, to think, to get back to your roots.  You will not starve; we will not do to you what you tried to do to Conrad.  We aren’t like you; we don’t hit cubs without good reason.  This is not the law of the wild, here is a civilised community, as you well know.  Now sit on the concrete flooring and think of your actions which landed you in the prison.”

        “Everyone covered for Sooleawa, even Koda!”  Mishka yelled.

       “Sooleawa’s misbehaviour was not worthy of the punishment you dealt out to her,” someone else said.

      “Who are you?”  Mishka asked.

       “Mama Kamchatka,” the voice replied, “and Mishka cub, what you did to Sooleawa was truly horrid.  Beating her, and then bruising her shoulder so badly she could hardly move, for what?  For mouthing bad words, words which you shouldn’t have used in the first place.  Your behaviour was far worse than Sooleawa’s, as your actions towards Conrad have shown.  Remember he was my mate too once.  I loved him once, and though he lied to me, the spirits forgave him, and so did I.  Though in truth, he was only doing what a male bear in the wild would do on reflection.  The spirits do not see fit to guide Conrad’s paws over the bridge at this time.  Though your attack nearly broke his body beyond use.  Now you sit and think over what you have done this day.  The reason why you are imprisoned is to protect others from your temper.  Koda thinks a lot of you, though he can change his mind if you beat up innocent cubs.  Koda can turn his eyes to another bear if you don’t come up to his expectations as a role model.  He wants guidance, and right now, you’re making a hash of it Mishka.”

       “You mean he’d turn to Sooleawa?”  Mishka asked.  mama Kamchatka’s silence spoke volumes to Mishka.

       “Think about it Mishka, you’re not stupid,” Was all she said.

 

Meanwhile, fed up with Mishka and his antics, Patch sat in front of his computer, checking email.  Snorting, he read:

     “Dear jess and others, I write to ask you if you could please consider attending a morning of story telling in our infant school on Thursday next.  I understand you can tell us stories of the four pawed community, as we call them outside the forest.”  Yours, Cynthia Chartwell.”  Patch, smiling, replied:

 

“Dear Cynthia Chartwell:

 

Thank you for your email.  I will send a representative from our community to your school next Thursday.  Would nine fifteen be agreeable?”  Yours, Jess.”  Smiling, patch pressed the send button.

       “I’ll see what response I get when I turn up,” he thought, smiling at the idea hatching in his mind.  Going to the lift, Patch pressed the down button, then climbed in, going to jess’s lie up.

        “Sounds good,” jess said when she heard Patch’s idea.  Patch clambered into his trousers and a shirt, and then shrugged into his jacket.

     “Let me put the elastic tapes around my feet to hold the flared trousers over my rather ursine hind feet, and I’m done,” Patch said, setting words to actions.  Patch stood up, donned a floppy hat, flipped up the hood on his jacket, and stood in front of jess, the young girl smiling broadly.

       “You look almost human,” she said, “Patch, if I wasn’t looking for a bear, I’d think you were a shaggy faced human.  Patch picked up his stick and walked with the stick, limping slightly to disguise his ursine gate.  Jess, seeing him, laughed and clapped her hands delightedly.

       “You look wonderful!”  She laughed.  Patch smiled and leant on his stick, both paws shrouded in the billowing cuffs of his coat.

      “If you don’t shoot your cuffs, you could be very human,” Jess said.  Patch, smiling, knelt, as if about to talk to a young cub, Jess watching his clothing.  She was glad the loose fitting garments hid his form enough to disguise the fact he was a bear.  Jess looked at Patch’s hind feet, the near white soles of Patch’s paws bisected by the elastic strap holding the bottoms of the trousers down to hide the furry tops of his paws.

       “If you sit down, you might have an inquisitive child touch the pads of one of your hind feet,” jess said.  Patch smiled:

      “If it happens, I’ll try not to laugh,” he replied.

      “I’ll ask Janet if Moses would like to hear you tell him a tale,” Jess said, “practise for your big day, if you like.”  Patch smiled, and then went to a screen, rolling back the footage of his time in Jess’s lie up.  Smiling, he watched as, on the screen, he got dressed in his human clothes, relieved to see the clothes were voluminous enough to cover his ursine form, making him almost human.  The clincher was when he knelt down, nothing slipped too far to give the game away, and the view of the soles of his hind feet confirmed what he’d felt, the strap didn’t pull too hard on his pads.  Patch turned as someone Exclaimed:

      “Who’s that man in the baggy trousers?”  Patch, smiling, decided to play along.

        “His name is Professor Ishmael Merry weather,” jess said to Moses, who walked in on his own two feet.  Patch, becoming as serious as he had been while buying groceries for himself and jess in the old days, sat down on a chair and waited.

        “So this old man is going to tell me a story?”  Moses asked.  Patch realised he’d have to dust off another skill he’d cultivated to amuse Jess when she was young, that of mimicking regional accents to mask his own deep ursine growl.

        “Yes, yes indeed,” Patch said.  Moses sat down beside Patch, who settled on the floor beside him, his voluminous clothing hiding his true identity.  Moses looked the professor over from head to foot, thinking he’d seen him somewhere before.

        “I’ll tell you the tale of Patch’s arrival here shall I?”  Patch said in an accent that was as far removed as it could be from his own.  Indeed, received pronunciation came to Patch as easily as old Ursine, so much that Jess had trouble keeping a straight face.  Patch recounted his own tale, Moses enthralled by the professor’s words.  Patch sat cross legged on the floor, the pads of his right hind foot within range of Moses hands.  Moses began tracing circles on Patch’s paw pads with the fingers of his right hand, patch seemingly so engrossed in his tale that he didn’t notice.  Moses felt Patch’s toes curling slightly with emotion as he finished his tale.

      “So that’s it,” Patch said in his cut glass accent, “Patch is now safe in the community.”

       “Oh right,” Moses said, “and where do you come from?”  Patch caught Moses fingers in the toes of his right hind foot, embracing them tenderly.

        “You’ve got hold of my fingers with your toes!”  Moses yelped, tugging at his hand.  Patch let go of Moses fingers.

       “Sorry,” he said, keeping up the cut glass accent.

        “Your pads feel familiar,” Moses said suddenly, “Um, Patch, is that you beneath the clothing?”  Patch grinned.

        “Yes,” he replied.  Moses laughed merrily and hugged the huge bear.

       “I didn’t realise until your toes caught my fingers,” he said, “it was only then I began to wonder who you really were.  You can’t hide a tender touch, even if it is from the toes of a hind foot.”  Patch smiled and hugged Moses tenderly.

         “I love you little one,” he whispered to Moses in his normal voice.  Moses laughed as Patch embraced him.

        “You lovely bear,” he said softly.  Patch sat more comfortably, Moses smiling and leaving the room.  Ekaterina padded in, knelt before Patch and asked:

       “How’s professor what’s his name?”  Patch laughed helplessly and kissed her nose.

      “Can I help you free your feet?”  Ekaterina asked.  patch stretched his hind legs out before him, giving Ekaterina access to his hind feet. Ekaterina stretched the band across the sole of Patch’s left hind foot, pushing it over his heel, freeing his foot.

       “Now for the other one,”  Ekaterina said, repeating the action for his right hind foot.  Patch curled his toes as Ekaterina pushed the elastic band over his heel.

       “Cute,”  she said, kissing his pads and toes, Patch laughing with delight.

        “Freeing my paws felt good to you didn’t it,”  Patch said.  Ekaterina hesitated:

        “yes,”  she replied, her face flushing red, “it felt good to be able to help you free your foot.”

        “it’s like the trapped paw game,”  Patch replied, “that’s a great game too.”

         “it is,”  Ekaterina agreed, “Patch, you closed your eyes as I tugged the straps off your paws didn’t you?”

       “I did,”  Patch replied smiling, “all the better to concentrate on the feel of your paws on mine.”  Ekaterina smiled:

       “I know when you’re doing that,”  she said, “your paws become more lively, more alive, you know?”  Patch knew.

       “I know,”  he replied, “and many a time Ekaterina, have I wished the lights were permanently switched off so I could make my paws as yours are.”  Ekaterina knew this was no wish from patch that he might lose his sight, more a wish he could be more in touch with his surroundings.

        “Ekaterina,”  Patch said, “if I could have the lightness of touch you do, I’d be one happy bear.”  Ekaterina smiled:

       “When you close your eyes you have that,”  she replied.

        “My eyes overload my brain sometimes,”  Patch admitted, “I don’t wish for darkness in my eyes, of course I don’t, but, but sometimes, sometimes, I wish I could know that I had some hours in the world where my eyes would not be assaulted by an overload of information.”

        “That’s why you can put so much into your re-enactments of the births of cubs isn’t it,”  Ekaterina said, “Patch, you do it all with your eyes closed.”

      “I do,”  Patch replied, “focus through my paws and my body, wriggling, concentrating, fighting deeply for my cub’s life.”

        “So what tale are you going to tell the children when you go to the school?”  Ekaterina asked.

        “Maybe the one about your birth and how Conrad protected you against all dangers?”  patch said smiling.  Ekaterina looked pained at the mention of her ailing sire.

        “I weep for him patch,”  Ekaterina said, “Poor Conrad.”

      “Why not go to him Ekaterina, go to him and hug him?”  Ekaterina padded away, Patch watching her leave.

       “Eohippus keep both of you safe,”  Patch thought.  Ekaterina, padding to Conrad’s lie up, found the male polar bear lying exhausted and nearly unresponsive.  Ekaterina touched his paw, then took it in hers.

      “Conrad?”  Ekaterina asked.  Conrad made a huge effort to rouse himself, Ekaterina feeling exhaustion sapping his strength.  Ekaterina hugged Conrad as tightly as she dared.

        “What brings you here?”  Conrad asked, “I’m always glad to make paw contact with you Ekaterina, you know that.  You are special to me,  But what brings you here?”

        “I wanted, wanted to hug you before, before it’s too late,”  Ekaterina said.

        “it’s only seven in the evening,”  Aga said quickly.

        “I don’t think Ekaterina meant that Aga you stupid creature,”  Sooleawa snapped.  Aga was about to strike Sooleawa for her insolence when Ekaterina barked out a command which stopped her:

      “Aga, no!  You are the most ill informed bear in this land!  You might have delivered two cubs into the world, but you know nothing.  Leave here now, let Conrad and I be alone for a while.”  Aga, huffing with exasperation and anger, padded from the room, leaving Sooleawa in the room with Ekaterina and Conrad.  Ekaterina stroked Conrad’s cheek, ears and neck with her paws, Conrad fighting to stay awake enough to focus on his daughter cub.

         “You’re struggling aren’t you Conrad,”  Ekaterina said.  Conrad couldn’t speak, he settled onto the rugs, unable to muster the strength to curl his toes with pleasure when Ekaterina stroked the pads of his right forepaw.  Ekaterina felt Conrad’s life force ebbing from him.  Ekaterina felt Sooleawa move alongside her and then past her to Conrad’s other side.  Then she heard Aga’s whimper of misery as she watched from the doorway.

        “Thank you my dear cubs,”  Conrad whispered as he drifted away.  Ekaterina felt Conrad’s life force leave him totally.

        “he’s gone,”  Ekaterina said, her voice seeming to belong to someone else.  Sooleawa crawled round to Ekaterina and touched her paw.

        “I’ll go now,”  she said.

      “No!”  Ekaterina snapped, appalled at her own tone, “stay here!  I mean, oh shit!”  Sooleawa touched Ekaterina’s paw as the she bear wept for her sire.

       “Shit indeed Ekaterina,”  Sooleawa mumbled, as if she could get away with using the deplorable words if she spoke them quietly.

          “Please, not you as well,”  Ekaterina whispered.

        “I didn’t mean to swear,”  Sooleawa replied contritely.

        “No, not that,”  Ekaterina replied hoarsely.

         “I’m not leaving,”  Sooleawa replied, “I’ll protect Conrad’s daughter cub if I can.”  Ekaterina kissed Sooleawa’s ear.

        “Thank you,”  she said softly, so Aga didn’t hear her words.

        “you are his cub as much as mine,”  Ekaterina said to Sooleawa.

       “I know Ekaterina,”  Sooleawa replied, “I know I was.”

        “You still are,”  Ekaterina replied, “he won’t forget you, even though his paws have crossed the bridge, Conrad won’t forget you.”

        “I’m not sure,”  Sooleawa replied, “I only just started to really know him,”  Sooleawa whimpered.

         “he was a lovely bear Sooleawa,”  Ekaterina replied sniffing hard, “he played with me for hours and hours.  Conrad taught me how to play.  I know, I know Patch refreshed my memory, and for that I’m grateful, but it was Conrad who taught me first.”

       “Now he’s gone,”  Sooleawa wailed.  Conrad’s eyes, now dull in death, stared straight ahead.  Ekaterina, swallowing hard, reached over with her paw and gently closed his eyes.

        “That makes it all worse,”  Sooleawa said, “Conrad’s closed eyes make me think he’s asleep, not, not, not dead.”  Ekaterina hugged Sooleawa tenderly.

        “now I’ll call the badgers,”  Ekaterina said gently.  Sooleawa stared into Ekaterina’s sightless eyes.

       “What does that mean?”  she asked, “what do the badgers do?”

        “They’ll dig a grave for Conrad, then, then I’ll arrange for help to carry him down to it  “What happens then?”  Sooleawa asked faintly.

       “The badgers bury Conrad’s body in the ground,”  Ekaterina said gently.

          “I don’t understand,”  Sooleawa replied.

       “they put his body in the ground,”  Ekaterina said softly, “I can’t describe it any more than that.”

        “I’ll stay with him,”  Sooleawa said.  Ekaterina touched Sooleawa’s paw, feeling her determination in it.

        “if you want to leave, tell me,”  Ekaterina said.  Sooleawa watched as Ekaterina made the call to the badgers, who said they’d call when things were set.  Ekaterina then padded to Aga, who still stood in the doorway, as if her feet were glued to the floor.

         “is Conrad really dead?”  she asked.  Ekaterina wanted to snap back that Aga was asking stupid questions, and not to be so obtuse, but bit back her grief driven anger.

      “yes,”  she replied, “would you like to touch him before we take him on his final journey?”  Aga padded to Conrad’s side, touching the dead bear’s ear, muzzle and then, kneeling, picking up his right forepaw in her paws and stroking it gently.

        “I loved him so much,”  she said, “I went mad with worry, getting angry at him for collapsing on the floor.  I believed he wasn’t doing all he could to control his condition, but I suppose he was.  Now, now he’s dead, and the last thing I did was shout at him, tell him he was useless and stupid!  It was said in anger, but was so wrong, so wrong of me to say these things.”  The phone rang, and Aga knew the identity of the caller.

        “leave it, for a minute,”  she said, resting her head against Conrad’s.

        “I’m sorry Conrad,”  Aga sobbed, her tears wetting the lifeless bear’s fur, “it’s so final, no trembling, no curling toes, no life,”  she mumbled, gently curling the toes of Conrad’s right forepaw, finding no resistance.

        “You’re still warm,”  Aga whimpered, “Conrad, you’re still warm.  Is it true you’re dead? Please don’t let it be true.”  Conrad’s body remained silent, Sooleawa tugging at Ekaterina’s paw until she sat down, Sooleawa scrambling into the mama bear’s lap, burying her face in her fur and sobbing with grief.

       “I’ll take her away,”  Ekaterina said to Aga, who was still embracing her mate’s paw, holding it in hers, massaging Conrad’s pads and toes, as if he was still alive.

          “it’s time now,”  Furcone said to Ekaterina, padding into the lie up.  Ekaterina shook her head:

         “Get Blackberry,”  she said, “he aught to take a look before we do anything stupid.”  Blackberry was fetched, and pronounced Conrad dead.

      “But he’s still warm!”  Aga wailed.  Blackberry looked at her:

       “His thick fur will hold heat,”  he said, “Conrad’s dead Aga, and for that I am very sorry.”

        “let’s move him from here,”  Ekaterina said.  Blackberry and Aga lifted Conrad’s body, carrying it to the woods.  The air was freezing cold, and the badgers stood about the graveside, biting back their views on digging in hard ground.

          “Place him on the ground,”  Ekaterina said, “here.”  They placed Conrad’s body on the ground, ice making the ground hard under paw.

       “he’s still warm,”  Aga repeated, “We can’t bury him, he’s still warm!”

        “he’s dead Aga, Conrad’s dead!”  Ekaterina snapped, her control deserting her.  Aga and Ekaterina squared up to each other, ready for a fight.  Sooleawa, not wanting to be part of it, crawled to Conrad’s side and took his left forepaw in her smaller paws, saying her final goodbyes to the bear she’d grown to love.

         “I love you Conrad,”  she whispered into the bear’s ear, “I love you so much!”

         “If you love me, please tell those who put me on this cold ground to at least give me a sodding blanket!”  Conrad mumbled.  Sooleawa screamed as Conrad’s toes curled beneath her touch.

        “be Quiet Sooleawa!”  Aga snapped, “I don’t’ know why the hell you brought her here Ekaterina, you bloody fool!”

         “Conrad’s alive, he’s alive, he spoke to me!”  Sooleawa screamed.

        “Rubbish!”  Aga snapped, “if he was alive, then why the hell didn’t he talk to me when I implored him to?  He’s my mate so he should talk to me!”

         “I don’t know, I don’t know!”  Sooleawa replied, “but he spoke to me, I know he did, I know he did!  He curled his toes too, I felt him curl his toes!”

        “This is rubbish!”  Aga roared, stamping over to Sooleawa ready to give her a proper hiding.

        “oh, oh god, oh!”  Aga gasped as she watched Conrad, who had crossed his paws beneath his chin to keep them warm.

         “We didn’t leave him like that!”  she yelled.

        “Someone get me a sodding blanket!”  Conrad mumbled again, “I’m so cold, this ground is cold to my paws!  I’m in pain from the cold, someone help me, for Eohippus sake!”  Aga stared, and it was Sooleawa who crawled back to the house, found a lie up with a rolled up blanket in it and tugged at one corner.  At first it wouldn’t move, so Sooleawa tugged harder, the blanket flying from the grip of whatever held it, landing on top of her.

      “hey, That’s my blanket Sooleawa, give it back!”  Sita roared.  Sooleawa stood her ground with a firm@:

     “No,”  and crawled from the room with the still warm blanket.  Half blinded by the huge blanket, Sooleawa found her way back to Conrad, and with Ekaterina’s help, got the blanket spread over him.  Sita ran up then, her tail lashing furiously!

       “Where’s my bloody blanket!”  she roared, “I was asleep dam it, and some sod nicked my sodding Blanket!”

       “A bloody sodding Blanket?”  Sooleawa asked mystified, “what has the blanket done wrong?”  Sita, hearing this question, stopped dead.

         “You?”  she asked, “you stole my blanket?”

       “yes,”  Sooleawa replied, “but, but I took it for a very good reason.”

       “Is that reason beneath the blanket now?”  Sita asked gently, her anger dying as her nose told her much.

       “Yes,”  Sooleawa replied, “Conrad’s ill Sita,  he, he,,,”  she stopped, her emotion choking her.

        “If I can help,”  Sita replied, “I will help Sooleawa.”  Meanwhile, the badgers, now confused, stood about looking at Aga, Ekaterina, Sita and the blanket covering Conrad, not knowing what they should do.

    “We dug the grave for Conrad on Blackberry’s insistence he was dead.”  Magnus said finally, “has Blackberry lost his mind?  Is he pronouncing death to those who are not dead now?”

         “Shut it Magnus,”  Furcone snapped, “I for one am glad Conrad’s recovered, “I hate all this death stuff.”

         “I’m all for making sure Conrad doesn’t die from the cold,”  Sooleawa said.  Conrad, engulfed in his rug, pulled Sooleawa beneath it.

        “I need something to drink, something hot!”  Conrad whispered.  Sooleawa crawled out to give the order to Sita, who padded away and returned with soup.  Sooleawa crawled beneath the rugs and gave the soup to Conrad, who drank it gratefully, Sooleawa holding the cup while the polar bear drank.

        “Stay with me Sooleawa,”  Conrad begged.

        “I’m not going anywhere,”  Sooleawa replied firmly.

        “Thank you,”  Conrad whispered, “Sooleawa, please, don’t let them put me in that hole!”  Sooleawa smiled:

       “If they put you in there, I’ll leap in and dig you out,”  she replied.  Conrad embraced her tightly.

        “Now let’s go home,”  Sooleawa said, crawling from beneath the rug, Conrad following her, crawling through the ice laden woodland to the house, leaving the funeral party staring at each other in shocked silence.

        “how on earth did that happen?”  Ekaterina asked, “Conrad was dead, he was dead!”

          “he’s resilient that’s for sure,”  Furcone said smiling, “I hate the burial part of my job anyway.”

        “Glad we don’t have to bury that little cub alive,”  Magnus grunted, “she was determined to be buried with him if he was buried.”

     “That was after she found he was alive you idiot!”  Ekaterina snapped, “Sooleawa would not let herself be buried alive, not really,”  she looked uncertain, “would she?”  Then, terrified, she ran from the grave side, slammed through the house and up to her lie up, where she found Sooleawa and Conrad curled up together.

        “Sooleawa?”  Ekaterina asked urgently, “did you really mean you’d be buried alive with Conrad if we ignored you?”

      “yes, if you lot ignored his revival I would.”  Ekaterina gasped for breath, her fear subsiding.

        “You never stopped believing he was alive did you,”  Ekaterina said.  Sooleawa smiled:

       “I’m glad he’s here now,”  she replied.  Ekaterina hugged Sooleawa, the cub snuggling close to her.

        “That’s twice now,”  Ekaterina mused, Sooleawa, I think you and Conrad need to spend every day together.  You make him feel younger, and also seem to have the gift of saving his life.”

       “I don’t know how I know, if you see what I mean,”  Sooleawa replied, “I just do.”

 

Meanwhile, Patch, having heard and seen a lot of what went on in the woods, frantically tried to work out what happened to Conrad to cause his collapse.

         “No,”  he thought, “even I can’t work that one out, and I’ve spoken to some of the spirits.  Mama Kamchatka can’t help, neither can Ekaterina’s cub.  and as for lioness Rowena, she’s as mystified as I am, and close to tearing her ethereal fur out with frustration at not finding an answer.  It seems the spirits can also be at a loss, which is kind of funny when you think about it.”  Patch got up from where he was lying in his plush lie up, bounced on his toes, and settled down again nearer the log fire.

        “you’ve got to play a professor in a couple of days Patch old lad,”  he thought, “and if you don’t pull it off right, you’re gonna get thrown in a cage and humiliated.  Or, maybe, they’ll want to hug you and kiss your paws, unlikely outcome that though.”

 

 

Thursday dawned clear and bright, and Patch, getting up in the early morning to walk in the woods, ate his breakfast, showered, donned his suit, grabbed his cane and  ventured out near the road to the local town.  Padding along that in his suit and hat, leaning on his stick for support, both literally and metaphorically, he thought of the coming day.

        “I’ve got all this knowledge, all this ability to act differently than I really am, but when all’s said and done, I’m a bear, Ursus, arcos Horribilis.  The grizzly bear, well a cross of that really, thanks mama Aga and my unknown sire.  Who was my sire?  Pity I didn’t get to meet him.  I wonder what he’d think of his son cub now?  He might despise me as a traitor to ursine kind, but then again, he might not.  how old would he be now?  I’m nearly fourteen, that could make my sire, um, twenty at the least count.  He’s probably dead now, but, well, I have a strange wish to meet him.”

        “Are you all right sir?”  someone asked.  Patch opened his eyes.

      “Oh yes, fine thank you,”  he replied in his cut glass accent, while looking at the man in the pinstripe suit who appraised him from two feet away.

          “I wasn’t talking to myself, was I?”  Patch asked hesitantly.

       “No,”  the man replied, “you weren’t.”

      “thank eohippus for that at least,”  Patch thought fleetingly, “my cover isn’t blown there then.  A growling ursine whisper metamorphosing into poor RP is not what someone would expect.”

       “it’s eight thirty now,”  the man said looking at his watch, “I’m the head teacher of the local school, and we have a representative of a local commune coming to visit us.  They’re an interesting bunch,”  he stepped closer, “did you know, they say there are animals in the house in the woods who can understand English and speak it?  It’s said that they also helped two young girls deliver their babies into the community, the midwife of one being a mother polar bear.”

       “Is that so,”  Patch replied, shocked from his nose to his paw pads.

       “Yes,”  the man replied, “it’s a lovely story.  I’ve seen some of the camera footage, and the birth of Janet’s baby boy, whom we teach in the infant class at the school, is amazing stuff.  You look quite like one of the bears in the background, has someone ever told you that?”  Patch nearly choked.

       “Really?”  He asked, “well, I’ve been told I’m a bear of a man,”  patch laughed, “my tailor has issues fitting me for suits you know, he hates my visits.”  The man turned away.

      “Well sir, I must get going,”  he said over his shoulder to Patch, who felt weaker by the minute.  Leaning heavily on his cane, he tried to compose his fraught mind and spinning thoughts as the near disaster he’d side stepped hit home

      “yes, goodbye,”  Patch said, struggling to make his voice strong.

       “Are you all right Sir?”  the man said, taking the few steps back to Patch, who to his eyes looked very unwell now.

         “yes fine, I’m fine,”  patch replied, struggling to compose himself, “I’m the representative of the community,”  Patch blurted, “I’ve never done this public speaking thing before, and have been worried about it for ages.”

         “a half truth, thank eohippus for half truths,”  Patch thought.

        “Well we can walk together if you’d like,”  the senior teacher said, “I’m going the same way as you.”  Patch limped along beside the head teacher, using his cane heavily.

         “My name is Rupert Sanchez,”  the senior teacher said.  Patch nearly bolted.

       “Oh, is it?”  Patch replied nervously.

       “Julia told me her dealings with the community were positive and pleasant,”  Rupert replied, “and our son Gareth has embraced the idea of little Moses being part of the community.  He is in favour.”  Patch trembled from nose to tail, his mouth dry.

        “public speaking is not that difficult,”  Rupert said, resting his hand on Patch’s shoulder.  Patch winced:

         “I, I know,”  Patch replied, surprised his false accent stayed in place, “I’ll be okay in a minute.”  He took a shuddering breath, then continued along the path.  Rupert and Patch made their way to the school in companionable silence, even if Patch was quaking inside.

       “I didn’t catch your name,”  Rupert said.

      “That’s because I didn’t give you it,”  Patch thought desperately.

       “My Name?”  Patch asked, thinking fast, “it’s Patch, Thomas Patch.”  Rupert smiled:

        “Well mister patch, Rupert said, “that’s how I’ll introduce you to miss Chartwell if you like.”

       “how else would you introduce me?”  patch asked.

        “I can see beneath that suit,”  Rupert replied, “you’re no more a man than I’m a bee.”  Patch nearly turned and ran.

          “I know who you are Patch,”  Rupert Sanchez replied, “you don’t need to hide from me, though miss Chartwell won’t appreciate a bear going into her classroom, so the suit suits, as it were.”

        “Don’t tell anyone, for Eohippus sake!”  Patch begged softly, “I’ll be locked in a cage!”

        “our secret,”  Rupert said, chuckling fatly.

       “Treat me like an old duffer who needs support,”  Patch begged,

      “No problem there,”  Rupert Sanchez replied, “you look like one, if you don’t mind me saying.”  Patch shook his head:

       “I feel old,”  he replied hoarsely, his mind spinning.

      “Come to my office mister Patch, and I’ll get you a reviver,”  Rupert Sanchez replied.  Patch, feeling the cold ground under his hind feet, stumbled along the pavement, his eyes cast down.

      “Thank you,”  he mumbled.  Rupert put his arm protectively around the stumbling old, bear like man at his side and supported him a little as he walked.  In this manner they made it to the school gates, across the car park, and into the school, Patch wiping his paws carefully on the mat.

      “it’s now eight AM,”  Rupert said conversationally, “let’s go into my office, there we can have a coffee hmm?”  Patch nodded.

       “I need one,”  he replied, “I’m thirsty.”  Rupert, feeling Patch trembling beneath his touch, led the bear to his office, where Patch sat down in a chair, and Rupert rung for coffee.  Patch looked down at his shaking paws, trying to compose himself, to pick up the pieces from the wreckage of his false identity.

         “here,”  Rupert said, “mister Patch, your coffee.”  Patch raised his head and stretched out his paw for the cup of coffee.

        “thank you mister Sanchez,”  he said, his voice still cut glass.”

       “Speak normally Patch,”  Rupert said when they were alone, “you don’t need to put on this act.”  Patch looked into his cup, watching the cream swirling in it.  Then a clink made him look up, and smile as Rupert poured whisky into the coffee.

       “We don’t encourage this among our visitors,”  Rupert said, “but I think you need it.”  Patch smiled gratefully.

      “Thanks,”  he replied in his natural voice, speaking English to Rupert Sanchez, who smiled at him like an old friend.

        “I’ll introduce you as an old friend of mine,”  Rupert said, “your name can be Thomas Patch if you want it to be.  or you could just be Patch?”  Patch smiled, then turned his head as the door opened, and Moses walked in.  patch nearly dropped his cup.

        “Ah Moses,”  Rupert said, getting to his feet, “you have been chosen to assist mister Patch today.  I’ll be with you throughout, but you can introduce him to your class.”  Patch looked into Moses face, begging him not to blow his cover.

       “Hello Patch,”  Moses said, reaching up and plucking at the brim of his floppy hat.  Patch shook his head at Moses.

        “don’t take my hat,”  he said, “it’s cold today, I need my hat.”  Moses grinned:

        “I’m glad you came,”  he said gently, “I hoped you would, I saw you in that room in our house, and you were so good at what you did.”  Patch smiled with pleasure.

         “I didn’t take you in for one minute did I,”  he said.

       “At first yes,”  Moses replied, “but when you touched my hand, I knew who you were.  Though I won’t tell Miss Chartwell who you are.  Well not who you really are.”  Come with me.”

       “it’s time to go now,”  Rupert said briskly, “come now Moses, and mister Patch, time to go to the class.”  Patch sunk his coffee and padded out of the room on his hind feet with Moses holding his left forepaw in his tiny right hand.

          “In here,”  Rupert said, walking into a large room with around fifteen children already in it.  Moses left Patch, and Patch sat down on a tiny chair, witch nearly broke beneath his weight.

      “I feel lost without Moses,”  Patch thought fearfully, “now I’m on my own.”

       “This is mister Patch,”  Miss Chartwell said, indicating the shaggy man in the suit sitting nervously on the chair.

       “Good morning,”  patch said, his voice more hoarse than normal.

         “how old is he?”  one girl asked, “he’s old and wrinkled!”

        “He’s a very important gentleman,”  Miss Chartwell replied, “don’t talk about him like that Sally.”  Patch felt the chair give way beneath him, his backside hitting the floor with a crunch of plastic.

        “Sorry,”  Patch said, as the children laughed helplessly at the sight of Patch falling on the floor.

      “I’m so sorry,”  miss Chartwell said contritely.

       “I’ll be fine,”  Patch said, as he realised the soles of his hind feet were visible to some of the children as he lay on his back after the chair collapsed.

       “I’ll be fine,”  Patch said, sitting up, the children laughing and pointing.

        “Calm down everyone!”  Miss Chartwell said firmly, the children becoming quiet.

       “Patch is bare foot too!”  Sally observed, “just like we are here.”

        “Why are you children barefoot?”  patch asked, “I thought you all wore shoes now days.  Back in my day, we were bare footed when we played sports outdoors.”

        “we are barefoot because miss Chartwell says it’s better for us,”  Sally replied, “we feel more under our feet.  We play in the sand pit too.  Would you play with us in the sand pit?”  Patch longed to say yes, but bit back his natural playfulness.

      “Um, ah,”  he said indecisively.

       “Mister Patch isn’t interested in playing with you in the sand pit Sally,”  Miss Chartwell said firmly, “he’s here to tell us a story of the four pawed community.”

       “he looks like he has four paws,”  a bright eyed young boy observed, “he’s a bear, he’s not human.”

        “Nonsense!”  Miss Chartwell replied, “Mister Patch is human peter.”

       “I looked at a picture of a bear’s hind paw print on the internet yesterday,”  peter replied, “and mister Patch’s hind foot looks like it would make a print like the one in the picture.”  Patch sat up and looked round him, the children now looking at him with wrapped attention, no longer laughing and pointing.

       “now I will tell you the tale of how Patch became leader of the community,”  Patch said, sitting cross legged on the floor in front of the children, who moved closer, until they were grouped around him in a semi circle.  Patch looked at Moses, who smiled and waved.

        “You know him?”  Peter asked Moses.

       “I was chosen to help him today,”  Moses replied.  Patch recounted the tale of how he’d become leader of the community, and, as before, while he was in the midst of the tale, Sally, like Moses before her, who was sitting beside him  on his right side, drew circles on the heel of his left hind foot while he talked.  His right hind leg hiding the sole of his left hind foot, noone could see what Sally was doing, as she seemed to be resting her head on Patch’s shoulder.

         “now Patch is leader of the community,”  Patch ended his tale.

       “well thank you mister Patch,”  Miss Chartwell said briskly, “I’m sure the children would like to ask you questions about the place where you live.”

       “I would,”  Sally said, counting the toes on patch’s left hind foot, Patch curling his toes conspiratorially.  Miss Chartwell turned to Sally, the young girl settling her hands in her lap a second before the teacher’s eyes fell on her, her and Patch’s secret safe.

        “yes?”  patch asked.

         “Mister Patch, “are you a bear?  You look like one, and as Peter said, your hind paw does look like a bear’s hind foot.”  Cynthia Chartwell stared at Patch.

        “Well are you a bear?”  she asked.  Patch smiled and took off his hat, smiling at the children.

        “You are a bear, you are a bear!”  Miss Chartwell gasped.  Patch took his life and liberty in his paws, and, mindful of human sensibilities, disappeared into a nearby toilet to remove his clothing, stepping out in his full finery.  The children stared at Patch, and their teacher looked Patch up and down.

        “I never dreamt we would get a bear to visit us,”  she gasped.

       “Don’t tell the police,”  Patch replied, “I love my liberty and my life.”  Cynthia Chartwell knelt and kissed Patch’s nose, patch returning her kiss with gentility.

      “Miss Chartwell loves a bear, miss Chartwell loves a bear!”  the children chanted, clapping their hands in time with their chant, Patch smiling with cubbish pleasure, sitting down and joining in with them, to Cynthia Chartwell’s embarrassment, and the delight of Rupert Sanchez, who watched the goings on with huge amusement.

       “now will you play with us in the sand pit?”  Sally asked.  Patch smiled and replied that he would.  Peter padded up to Patch and took his paw in his hands.

          “I knew you were a bear from the minute you fell off the chair,”  he said, “you can’t hide those paws!”  Patch looked into the boy’s eyes.

       “do you mean you know my paws?”  he asked.  Peter smiled and nodded:

       “I watch the cameras,”  he said, “I know your paw pads.”  Patch grinned.

       “I think you all know me too well,”  he replied.  Sally took Patch’s right hind foot in her hands and traced his pads unashamedly.

      “Sally!  Please!”  Miss Chartwell snapped, “leave Patch’s hind feet alone!”

        “she’s acting normally,”  patch replied gently, “normally that is for a curious human, or a bear cub for that matter.”  Miss Chartwell had no answer to this, so left Sally to her exploration, patch curling his toes with approval for her actions.

         “What won’t you do to play with these children?”  Miss Chartwell asked.

       “they are cubs,”  Patch replied, “I’m sturdy, I can take cubs clambering all over me, just please, be gentle, don’t wear shoes on your hind paws, and play with me with care.”  The children scrambled all over Patch as he lay on the tiles, while the children touched his nose, his belly, and his paws, Patch roaring with mock aggression and grabbing a random child in his forepaws from time to time, the shock on the chosen child’s face making the others laugh.

          This is such fun!”  Moses said to Patch as he hugged him at break time.

       “did you know we have a polar bear we adopted at a zoo?”

       “Why not adopt a bear in the wild?”  Patch asked.

       “This one was born in the zoo, her mother didn’t want her, and humans raised her from a cub,”  Moses said, “you would love her Patch, her name’s Tiguak, it means, um, I can’t remember what it means.”

      “it means adopted,”  Patch replied, “and you certainly did adopt her.  now let’s play in the sand pit.”  Patch played with the children for two hours more, the children burying his paws in the sand, rubbing sand into his coat and digging his paws out again, loving how he played with them so easily.  Patch, rushing sand out of his coat with a brush at the end of the sand time, grinned at the assembled children.  Once he was clean, the children jumped on him again, in a repeat of the game played in the morning.  Sally got her chance to explore Patch’s paws from furry tops to wrinkled white pads, patch exploring her tiny bare feet from toes to heels, Sally giggling with delight.

        “I feel like you’re checking my paws over like I’m your cub,”  she said.  patch smiled and gently groomed her with his forepaws, Sally laughing with delight.

       “has Tiguak shown you anything about bears?”  Patch asked the children when playtime was over.

      “It’s because of what the zoo keepers told us that we approached you Patch, to see if bears really were playful and as intelligent as the keepers thought,”  Miss Chartwell replied.

       “They are miss, they are!”  the children laughed, clapping their hands.  Patch lay on the floor with eyes half closed.  Now thoroughly disorientated by his experiences, he listened to the cheers of the children, felt their hands patting his coat and exploring his paws, while thinking of so many things, his brain nearly froze.  Sitting up, he heard someone ask if they could measure their hind feet against his.  Agreeing, Patch felt warm pads touching his, looking down, he saw white furred paws, not bare human feet pressed against his.  Looking up, he looked into the eyes of a young female polar bear.

      “Tiguak?”  he asked automatically.  The female polar bear covered her face with her paws, nearly sobbing.

       “I heard you were in a zoo?”  he asked.  Tiguak looked at him between the toes of her forepaws, with which she still covered her face.

        “I, I was, I don’t know, I don’t know what I’m doing now, where I’m meant to go, I was asked to, to ask you if I could touch your hind feet with mine, like, like the human children have been doing all day.  I don’t know why the humans who look after me told me to do that.  They tell me to do all sorts of strange things, and I’ve grown to trust them, and all seemed fine until now, but now, now is different, you feel wild, you feel big and strong, and dangerous to me!”

       “I won’t harm you Tiguak,”  Patch heard himself saying as if in a dream, “I promise I won’t harm you Tiguak.”

       “we will leave her in your capable paws Patch,”  someone said, Tiguak looking nervously over her shoulder to see who’d spoken, but her face told Patch she already knew.

       “Don’t go, don’t leave me!”  she yelled, crawling then, getting to her feet, running screaming for the door, which slammed in her face!  Tiguak turned back to Patch, the children were gone, Miss Chartwell was gone, Rupert Sanchez was gone leaving her alone with Patch.

       “they lured me here,”  Tiguak whimpered, sitting down miserably, “they lured me here to be with the children, I, I sometimes come from the zoo where I live, I come to see the children, I was raised by humans from a cub you see, my mother, she didn’t want me, now, now it seems the humans’ don’t’ either!”  patch padded to Tiguak and took the now sobbing female polar bear’s paw.

        “I’ll look after you now,”  Patch replied gently.

      “I don’t want you to, no, I don’t want you to!”  Tiguak sobbed, “I mean, oh, this sounds so ungrateful I know.”

       “they’ve left us alone,”  Patch replied:

       “leaving you holding the cub,”  Tiguak replied sorrowfully,  “I heard them planning this,”  she continued, “they said they’d invite someone here to tell them a story and they’d bring me along, and I’d be let loose among the children to play, then they guided me to do something.  I’ve been used to being bidden to do things, roll over, stick my paws in the air, that sort of thing, so I went unquestioningly into this act.  Now, now I’m alone, the door’s locked and I can’t get out.  I’m sitting pouring my heart out to a bear I’ve never known in my life before who is probably a threat to me, and I don’t know why I’m telling you all this, so I’ll stop now and never speak to you again!”

        “Tiguak , please,”  patch said, the female polar bear turning her back on him and pressing her paws against the wall

          “Please?, Tiguak ,”  Patch pleaded.  Tiguak didn’t move.

       “I will starve to death in here, then they’ll see what they did to me!”  she whimpered, “you will die too, we’re locked in here.  Just you, me, a sandpit and some toilets.  At least we can get water, but I’ll be dead before morning.  I’ve heard of other bears who have done that, settled down and died at will.  I’ll do the same, I don’t want to live, to live,,,”  she stopped speaking to the wall.  Patch picked Tiguak up in his paws and turned her round, seeing her closed eyes and miserable expression.

        “You were lied to little one,”  Patch said gently, “that was a dreadful thing to do to you.

        “You’ll lie too,”  Tiguak sobbed, “everyone does, my mum did, she promised me she’d look after me, and she ran off, then the humans, though they took longer, they promised me, and now due to my belief in them, I’m alone again.  Now you.  You tell me I’ve been lied to, but you’ll do the same, you’ll lie too and leave me alone.”  Patch kissed Tiguak’s nose.

       Have you heard the tale of the community who live near here?”  he asked.  Tiguak didn’t respond.

        “please Tiguak, don’t be rude to me,”  patch replied.  Tiguak sighed heavily:

      “yes I’ve heard stories,”  she said, “but they’re cub stuff, all about a community of bears and other wild things who live together unmolested by humans for the most part.  But that’s rubbish, I’m caged, I live under the thumb of humans, humans rule all.  They saved me, but for what purpose?  So they could learn about me, study me like an object.  Now I’m no use to them, they throw me away to a wild bear who doesn’t understand me at all.  Have you eaten today by the way?”

    Patch, startled by Tiguak’s sudden irrelevant question replied:

     “No, not since breakfast.”

        “well then,”  she replied quickly, “you’ll probably want to eat me, after all, that’s all I’m good for now.”  Tiguak placed her paw over Patch’s mouth.

       “Go on, eat me,”  she challenged.

       “Tiguak,”  Patch replied softly, “I wouldn’t eat you if you put your paw in my mouth and asked me to start chewing.”  Something in Patch’s tone made Tiguak look up into his eyes.

       “You’re crying,”  she said in astonishment.  Patch hugged Tiguak with desperate paws, the half grown polar bear letting him hug her.

         “You really do mean you won’t hurt me don’t you,”  Tiguak said.  Patch, now desperately upset, wept into her coat.

       “Don’t cry, you’ll set me off,”  Tiguak said, “though it is something to weep about I suppose.”

         “I wouldn’t harm you Tiguak,”  Patch said when he could speak, “come, the stories are all true.  The community does exist, I’m their leader.”

       “Pihoqahiak,”  Tiguak replied softly in amazement,, “the ever wandering one.”  Patch smiled and kissed her ear.

       “yes,”  he replied, “my other names are patch and the title Tornassuk is one I hold too.”

         “I dreamed of that place,”  Tiguak replied, “but told myself it couldn’t be real, the humans wouldn’t allow it to be real, they’d kill every creature in the place if they could, or so I reasoned.  I know they hadn’t killed me, as I’m female and could be bred from, but if this community put up resistance to the humans, they’d be killed I was sure.  Now to find, to find the stories are all true.  Moses, dear Moses , he told me the stories were true, that he was a cub of this community, but I know humans tell more stories than bears do, something I find impossible to believe sometimes, but it’s true.  I was told the stories in my den, the children would record their voices talking to me, it was comforting, I got to know English that way.  They told me tales of your community, and, and I prayed it was real.  Now, now I know it is.  You are how they tell in the stories, Patch, you are how they say.”

         “You were serious about me eating you weren’t you,”  patch replied.  Tiguak nodded:

        “yes,”  she replied, “and you can still eat me if you wish.”  Patch knew he’d hardly needed to ask the question.

          “I won’t,”  Patch replied, “I don’t eat cubs.”  Tiguak looked into patch’s eyes.

         “I can’t bare the look in your eyes Patch,”  Tiguak said, “it’s so sad, “you look devastated, as if, as if I was your own cub and someone was forcing you to eat me.”  Patch, as he often did when he was distressed, set to furious grooming.  Once Tiguak was groomed thoroughly, Patch looked down at her.

        “now, now you don’t’ smell of humans, let’s go, let’s get out of here,”  he said urgently.  Tiguak looked at the door:

      “it’s locked now,” she said.  Patch reared onto his hind feet, and kicked the lock off the outside door.

       “wow!”  Tiguak exclaimed.

      “Now we go, we go!”  patch said, running out into the freezing rain with Tiguak following behind.  Patch padded through the torrential downpour, his clothing forgotten.  It was only when Tiguak sneezed he looked at her, the rain streaming off her nose, and body bedraggled.

         “You need warm things,”  Patch said.

        “I’m freezing!”  Tiguak admitted shame faced.

        “I’ll go find the hat and jacket,”  Patch said, diving back into the classroom and emerging with the garments.  Tiguak sheltered beneath a small roof, shaking herself before Patch helped her into the oversized jacket and hat.

       “You’ll have to stand on your hind feet,”  patch said, “we can walk like that, so we look normal I’ll put on the trousers and shirt.”  Patch did so, and Tiguak offered to help him secure the tapes around his hind paws.

      “Can I help with those tapes on your hind feet?”  she asked.  Patch nodded, and Tiguak stretched the tapes around patch’s massive hind paws, securing them.

        “thanks,”  he said.  Tiguak, now dressed in patch’s flowing overcoat, stood on her hind feet, patch standing beside her.

        “We must look so silly,”  Tiguak said laughing.

       “better to look silly than to look like bears,”  Patch replied, “this outside is hostile, we could get in deep trouble.  Now, Tiguak, please, tell me honestly,,,”

       “I trust you,”  she replied instantly, patch realising her wild intuition hadn’t deserted her.

         “come, lean against me as if you’re unwell,”  patch said.

       “I’m feeling a little light headed,”  Tiguak replied.  So in this way they left the school behind, padding back to the woodland.  Tiguak, her pads not as strong as patch’s, found walking on the road painful.  In the end he carried her in his arms, the half grown cub looking up into his face from beneath her hat.  Patch finished the journey this way, setting Tiguak down in the main entrance hall of the big house.

       “Who’s that?”  Sita asked, padding near.  Tiguak stared at her in fascinated curiosity.

      “Her name’s Tiguak,”  Patch replied, “I, um, well, I found her at the school.”

       “You mean the humans teach polar bear cubs now?”  Sita asked.

      “Sort of,”  Tiguak replied shyly, Sita padding closer and touching noses with her.

         “Patch said you were coming,”  Sita said gently.

       “When?”  Tiguak asked.

       “A few minutes ago I suppose, I, I saw a bear walking through the woods carrying a sick cub, at least it felt like a sick cub.  now Patch is one for rescuing cubs in his own way, and when you turned up, well, I wasn’t surprised.  You are welcome here, very welcome here.”  Tiguak looked Sita up and down.

       “What are, I mean, what’s your name?”  she asked.

       “your first question is not unexpected little one,”  Sita replied.

       “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to offend you,”  Tiguak protested, “what is your name?”

       “My name’s Sita,”  Sita replied, “and I am everything rolled into one, a tiger, lion, lynx, bear cross bred mix of all sorts.  I am what my name suggests, as you are Tiguak.”

        “My name means adopted,”  Tiguak replied, “and yours?”

       “Furrow or harvest,”  Sita replied, “it’s an Indian name.  I am the harvest of a strange mating and an even more fortuitous spiritual intervention.”

       “You’re now going to tell me Patch is your mama aren’t you,”  Tiguak said, half laughing, finding the whole situation laughable.

        “yes,”  Sita replied.  Tiguak stared at Sita afresh, taking in her head, her whiskers, her ears, her body, her legs, her paws, and then her tail.

        “So that tale is true too,”  Tiguak whispered.

        “yes it is,”  Sita replied.

        “I half believed you were real,”  Tiguak replied, “now, now, dear Sita, I know you are.  I had dreams, nightmares, awful nightmares where humans would do horrid things to me.  I prayed for someone to come and help me.  Someone with the paws of a bear, the cunning of a tiger, and the gentility of a lion.  It was only those qualities that would keep me safe from the humans who were threatening me, or so I thought.  Now, now I’ve seen that such a creature is living here, real, alive, warm and welcoming of a fumble footed cub.”  Sita kissed Tiguak’s nose.

        “You are welcome here,”  she replied firmly.  Tiguak looked at Patch, then at Sita.

       “You don’t make eye contact Sita,”  she said.

       “I can’t Tiguak,”  Sita replied, “I can’t see you at all.”  Tiguak touched Sita’s paw, it was warm and full of life.

       “What happened in the classroom?”  Patch asked.

       “Before I touched your hind paws with mine you mean?”  Tiguak asked, “well, I was in my cage in another part of the room, my keepers let me out while you were lying on the floor, spaced out as you were.  I scrambled forward under direction, the children patting and hugging me.  Then, when I’d wriggled free of their attentions after seemingly swimming through patting hands and  hugging arms, I found you, and was asked to ask you if I could touch your hind paws with mine.  You were sitting at that time, looking rather confused with it all.  So I touched your hind paws with mine, and you know the rest.”

        “How come I didn’t smell you when I walked in,”  Patch asked.

      “Don’t know why not,”  Tiguak replied, “anyway,”  she said, “we’re here now, together, and I hope, safe.”  Tiguak turned at the sound of jess padding into the room, and frowned as she stifled her laughter at what she wore.

         “it was cold out on the road!”  Tiguak snapped.

      “You do look funny in Patch’s coat,”  jess spluttered, “it’s too big for you!”  Tiguak snorted, turned, and fell over the tails of the coat she wore as the hat fell down over her eyes, collapsing in a heap, Jess unable to stop herself shrieking with laughter.

      “it’s not funny!”  Tiguak grumbled, picking herself up and falling again, Patch helping her to her feet and adjusting her hat.

       “thanks,”  Tiguak panted a little as she regained her feet.

        “So how did you find her?”  jess asked.

      “she found me,”  Patch replied, “look, let’s stop gossiping in the hallways and get a drink and some food.  Poor Tiguak is freezing cold, she needs hot drinks and good food.”

      “Why did the humans release Tiguak to our care?”  Jess asked when Tiguak had followed patch deeper into the house.

       “Maybe they thought this was as close as she’d get to freedom, since she is a zoo cub,”  Sita mused, “but Let’s not talk about her, let’s hear her own tale shall we?”

 

Tiguak shed her coat in Patch’s lie up, Ekaterina surprised at how long Patch had been away.

       “I was so bloody worried about you Patch!”  she said, “but I was told not to go near the school, Kuruk told me not to go, he said, said that if I went, I might get captured too. I thought you’d been captured!”

       “No,”  Patch replied, “though I shed my false identity pretty quickly.  It seems they wanted me after all.  And they wanted me for another reason too.”

       “You brought a friend with you, another bear?”  Ekaterina asked, her nose twitching.

        “this is Tiguak,”  patch said, Ekaterina padding to Tiguak and touching noses with her.

       “I’m afraid I can’t see you,”  Ekaterina said.  Tiguak touched her paw:

       “I’m glad to meet you mama,”  Tiguak replied.  Ekaterina smiled and kissed Tiguak’s nose, the young she bear swallowing hard to fight down her emotions.

          “tea and toast!”  Patch announced as Sid crashed in with a trolley carrying all sorts of foods and drink.

      “someone told me you’d be needing everything, so here it is,”  Sid said.  Patch smiled, hugged the startled bear, and thanked him profusely.

         “I’ll leave you to it,”  Sid said, waving and departing.

      “This food is not what I’m used to,”  Tiguak said, “but I’ll give anything a go.”  With that she tried honey on wholemeal toast, which she loved, sausages and salmon sandwiches, the salmon blowing her taste buds right out the window, leaving Tiguak speechless with delight at the taste of the fish.

       “I think that’s a “salmon!”  Moment, as mama Kamchatka would have said,”  Patch said, recalling mama Kamchatka’s over enthusiasm about the oily fish.  Ekaterina almost dropped her cup.

      “don’t you do that again Patch,”  she said hoarsely, “you bugger!”  she sniffed, tears welling in her eyes.

        “he is good at impressions isn’t he,”  Tiguak said.  Ekaterina, distressed, took a few deep breaths.

         “I never knew you could do that,”  she said faintly.  Patch smiled sadly.

       “I’m sorry Ekaterina,”  he replied sincerely, “I didn’t mean to upset you.”

         “You sod, you bloody sod!”  Ekaterina said, half laughing, “I never thought something as silly as that would upset me, but it has.”

       “I was able to copy mama’s voice for a long time before that,”  Patch said, “I like fixing other’s voices in my mind and practising until I get them right.  Some I can’t do, but there it is.”

      “I’m sure you didn’t mean to upset me, but you did,”  Ekaterina said, “who else can you do impressions of?”  patch smiled and Ekaterina was soon laughing as he mimicked Kuruk, Conrad and even little Koda, Ekaterina choking with laughter, asked:

        “is there any end to your talents?”  Patch grinned:

       “When you have to entertain a little girl for hours on end,”  he said, “and the best thing to do is take the piss out of her and my tormenters to show how weak they are, you learn a lot,”  Patch replied..

        “Just don’t do that again, please?”  Ekaterina begged.  Tiguak looked at Ekaterina’s face, the sadness in her eyes striking home.

         “Who was mama, um, cam something?”

      “mama Kamchatka,”  Ekaterina said, “one of the most amazing bears whom ever lived here.  She came from Kamchatka in Russia, and had her first cub in the woods here before coming to the house for sanctuary.  She dam near became leader of this place.”

      “She was a lovely bear, that be right thing miss Ekaterina,”  Kuruk said, shambling into the lie up, “so Patch been doing acting thing and pretending he human, go into school and rescue polar bear cub?  What rubbish tale Sita tell me!  She good at telling stories, and this one the best yet!”  Kuruk began to laugh.

       “it’s no tale, it’s not stupid, I’m Tiguak, I’m the cub he rescued! So stop laughing!”  Tiguak whimpered.  Kuruk looked at her, kneeling to get a better look.  Kuruk looked deeply into Tiguak’s eyes, the half grown polar bear staring hard back at him, her toes curling into the rugs as she endured his gaze.

          “You safe here,”  Kuruk said, his attitude changing completely.

         “Don’t look at me like that,”  Tiguak pleaded, her eyes filling with tears, “don’t look at me like that!”  Kuruk stroked Tiguak’s face with his paw, the polar bear gulping hard.

        “Kuruk sorry for laughing,”  Kuruk said gravely.

         “What do you want from me big fellow?”  Tiguak asked.

       “nothing,”  Kuruk grunted, “Kuruk want do something though.”

       “Not that, not yet, I’m not old enough!”  Tiguak squealed.

        “What you think Kuruk want do then?”  Kuruk asked, then when the implications of what Tiguak thought he might want hit home, he kissed Tiguak’s nose and replied:

      “Kuruk no want hurt you,”  he said softly, “he want protect you, that is all.”

        “I’m happy with that,”  Tiguak replied, “I, I don’t understand your language well.”  Kuruk sat down, giving Tiguak a good view of him from nose to tail.

       “You are magnificent big fellow,”  Tiguak said, her voice shaking.

         “you stick with mama Ekaterina,”  Kuruk grunted, “she look after you like you her cub.”  Tiguak looked at Ekaterina, who padded forward and touched her paw, knelt, and kissed her nose and forepaws.

         “this is all very strange,”  Tiguak replied, “all so strange!”

        “I want you to be happy here,”  Ekaterina said, hugging Tiguak.  Tiguak looked at Ekaterina, taking her in from her nose to her paw pads.  Ekaterina stroked Tiguak from her ears to the pads of her paws, Tiguak lifting each paw in turn so she could stay on her feet while Ekaterina made her exploration.  Tiguak found herself pushed onto her backside, then onto her back, Ekaterina stroking, exploring.  Tiguak realised she’d let herself become vulnerable, dropped her guard, and could be in danger.

        “Let me get up Ekaterina, please!”  Tiguak begged.  Ekaterina stood beside Tiguak, waiting for her to get to her paws, but it was plain to her she couldn’t.

       “Get to your feet if you want,”  Ekaterina said.  Tiguak looked up at her from where she lay with her paws in the air:

        “My strength has gone,”  she said, “I can’t get to my feet!”

         “Can you feel me touching your paws?”  Ekaterina asked, touching Tiguak’s pads.

      “yes, that’s not the problem,”  Tiguak replied, “it’s, just, well.”

       “You want me to cradle you?”  Ekaterina asked.  Tiguak nodded.

        “My paws can’t defend me now, I’m helpless!”  Tiguak whimpered.  Ekaterina stroked Tiguak’s belly and paw pads, the half grown bear’s eyes full of fear of what was happening to her.

        “Follow your paws Tiguak,”  Kuruk said gently.

        “My paws know nothing, they have no mind of their own!”  Tiguak replied.  Despite her arguments with her paws, Tiguak found herself cradled in Ekaterina’s lap soon after.

        “Don’t listen to your fear Tiguak,”  a voice said to her.

      “Who’s that?”  Tiguak asked.

       “mama Kamchatka,”  the voice said, “Tiguak, you have met many sides of me today, the protective side, Patch, and the mothering side, Ekaterina.  You have also met the bullish side too, in my son cub Kuruk.”  Tiguak smiled as she caught the slight smile in the voice she heard.

        “So Ekaterina’s all right?”  Tiguak asked.  Tiguak felt a kiss on her nose and paws:

        “yes she is,”  the voice said, “I promise you that Tiguak.”  Tiguak’s eyes blurred with tears as she heard the sincerity in the dead bear’s voice.  Swallowing hard, she blinked back tears.  Opening her eyes, she saw Ekaterina’s face bent down to hers.

        “You are safe here, totally safe,”  Ekaterina said softly to Tiguak, who felt her paws embraced one by one, her toes curling with pleasure and muscles bunching as she pressed her forepaws and hind into Ekaterina’s forepaws with the strength of Desperation.

        “I don’t want to go back into that cage again, I don’t want to be on display, studied, told what to do and when to do it.  Roll over and show us your paws, there’s a good girl, open your mouth, all that.  Now, now I want to touch things with my paws, to make my own choices,”  Tiguak said.  Ekaterina rubbed her belly.

       “How if you finish your food my love,”  Ekaterina suggested.  Tiguak sat up, her strength returning.  Looking round her, she saw Kuruk still kneeling on the floor, his gaze never leaving her.

          “He seems smaller,”  Tiguak thought, “when he first came into the room he was huge, bigger than Patch, or so it seemed.”

         “Kuruk no want frighten Tiguak,”  Kuruk said, seeming to catch her thoughts, “though he no like being told stories which tug at his heart, just to find them untrue.  Now he know Sita good bear cat and no lie about things like this, but Kuruk still disbelieve things until he see them with own eyes, or touch with own paws, you see?  Now Kuruk know that Tiguak no fictional cub.  she have true tale, be here in body and mind, and Kuruk happy now with tale.”  Tiguak found herself smiling, almost laughing.

       “You talk strange language Kuruk,”  she said.

       “Kuruk no talk strange!”  Kuruk roared, rearing on to his hind feet, “but then he sat down, his eyes smiling.]

        “Kuruk know he speak English not so good,”  he grunted.

        “I like it,”  Tiguak replied.  Kuruk grunted:

        “Kuruk very protective of cubs and of family too,”  he replied.  Tiguak smiled at Kuruk, spread honey on toast and offered it to him, Kuruk looking startled and then grinning.

        “Peace,”  he said to Tiguak and ate the toast.  Kuruk wiped his mouth on the back of his paw, and then kissed Tiguak’s nose, the young female polar bear smiling with relief.

       “What be your tale Tiguak?”  Kuruk asked gently.  Tiguak looked into the eyes of the grizzly bear, who at first had frightened her almost speechless.

        “You are soft really aren’t you,”  Tiguak said.  Kuruk stiffened, but then relaxed and smiled:

        “Tiguak make Kuruk soft,”  he replied, “though don’t tell everyone.”  Tiguak giggled.

       “Kuruk lose cub on mountain years ago,”  Kuruk said, “Now though, he have cub named Buck with mama Anook.”

       “I’m sorry you lost a cub on the mountains,”  Tiguak replied, “also glad you had a cub here..”

       “how you get Tiguak out of school then Patch?”  Kuruk asked.

       “I think it was engineered we meet,”  Patch replied, “they all ran from the room, leaving us alone.  I think I beat the door down before I was meant to.  I think we left before they meant us to.”

 

Indeed, this was the case,  Rupert Sanchez and Cynthia Chartwell were at that moment fixing the classroom’s outside door.

      “So Tiguak is free at last,”  Syntax said.

       “as free as we can let her be,”  Rupert replied, “our plan worked, we left her in good paws.”

      “That we did,”  Rupert said.

 

“I’ll tell my tale to the whole community, that is if they all exist,”  Tiguak said to Ekaterina, who smiled:

      “They all exist Tiguak,”  she replied, “what ever you have been told, it’s all true, all fact.”  Tiguak looked round her, then caught sight of a silver coated cub leading a rather unwell looking polar bear into the lie up.

      “Sooleawa and Conrad!”  she yelled, Sooleawa smiling and raising a paw in acknowledgement of her shout, Conrad smiling broadly as he’d been kept up to date with events.

         “I heard your tale,”  he said to Tiguak.

       “the bit in the school maybe,”  Tiguak said, “but not the bit before, the part in the zoo, my birth, my mother’s bedrail of me, the way I was conditioned by humans to do their bidding, and then, then, the tapes I was given, on which I heard of this place,  the dreams I had of this place!  It was too good to be true!”  Conrad crawled over to Tiguak, who touched his nose and rubbed his ears.

        “Rather familiar behaviour isn’t that?”  Conrad asked, Tiguak looking suitably embarrassed.

       “yes, sorry,”  she said, “though it made you smile.  Conrad kissed her paw:

       “that it did Tiguak,”  he said, his tone pathetically grateful.

         “You are ill Conrad,”  Tiguak said, “I know you collapsed earlier this week, “I want, wanted, to hug you!  I’m sorry if that sounds patronising or anything.  I, I got a live feed of what was going on here to my den at the zoo, and, and I saw everything, and it was awful, I cried buckets!”  Conrad knew she was speaking the truth, he could feel it.

        “How long have you known about us?”  he asked.

      “I saw, saw you collapse in the pool complex, you were with little Koda,”  Tiguak replied.  Conrad sat down and gathered Tiguak to him.

       “Go on, hug me,”  Tiguak invited.  Conrad hugged Tiguak, the half grown polar bear cub kissing his nose and paws, Conrad Choking back tears.

      “I will tell my tale,”  Tiguak said, “I was set up to come here, I know that now.  Maybe they wanted to free me, but couldn’t as I’m a zoo cub, and would know nothing of the wild, so, so they sent me here, to this amazing place.”

        “I was once wild,”  Conrad said miserably, “it screwed me up.  Now I’m facing the fallout, don’t rate it, it’s dreadful, well that’s my opinion.  Being wild exposed me to oil, to grief and to death.  I was a zoo bred cub, like you Tiguak, I had my fun times with other cubs, some of which are now adults here in this community.  I had two years of pain in the wild before I decided enough was enough, and I found my way to this place.  I love this place.  I’m safe now, with all my disabilities, I’m safe now.”

        “I saw you collapse, it was awful!”  Tiguak replied, “your eyes, your curled toes, bunched pads, tense body, it was awful, just awful!”

        “I know,”  Conrad replied.

        “I’m sorry,”  Tiguak said, “that was awful of me to say that.  Of course it was awful for you too Conrad.”

           “I have been told by my doctors to reduce my stress,”  Conrad said, “playing with cubs helps.”

      “So play with my paws then,”  Tiguak invited.  Conrad rubbed Tiguak’s nose with his paw, then ran his paws all over her body, Tiguak wriggling and waving her legs in the air, Conrad kissing her pads, Tiguak giggling and then laughing uproariously as her paws got kissed.

        “I’m so happy here,”  Tiguak said, Conrad feeling his stress lessening as he stroked and massaged Tiguak’s fur.  Sooleawa, watching all, sat down to get a better look, then, got up, padded over and kissed Tiguak’s nose.

       “Soppy,”  Tiguak said, returning Sooleawa’s kiss.

        “You are so beautiful Tiguak,”  Sooleawa said.  Tiguak, now thoroughly embarrassed, grinned shyly.

        “I love your fur,”  she managed to say without bursting into tears.  Sooleawa smiled and dabbed at Tiguak’s nose with her paw, Tiguak rolling off Conrad’s lap and engaging in a wrestling match with Sooleawa, one that Sooleawa won, pinning the larger female bear.

       “You know tricks I don’t!”  Tiguak panted, flat on her back on the rugs.

      “now let’s go to the main room where you can tell your tale Tiguak,”  Patch said.  Tiguak got to her feet, looking frightened.

       “I can’t do that,”  she whimpered, “there will be scary creatures there.”

        “I’ll stay with you,”  Patch said gently, taking Tiguak’s paw and leading her to the great room.  Tiguak sat on the speaker’s cushion in the great room, the cushion supporting her back and legs, making her very comfortable.

         “I need to relieve myself before I do this,”  Tiguak said, scrambling out of the cushion and padding with patch to the relieving place.  Once she’d relieved herself and washed her paws, Patch led her back to the main room.  Settling back in the speaker’s chair, Tiguak watched cubs and adult community members padding into the room to listen to her.  Shaking with fear, she looked at Sooleawa, who smiled at her and clambered into her lap.

      “Hold onto me,”  she said, “I’m staying with you till the end of this.”  Tiguak, moved by Sooleawa’s concern, kissed her nose.  

     “me, stroke me, keep your paws busy,”  Sooleawa said.  Tiguak grinned.

         “I need to compose myself,”  she said, “I can recognise some of the community here, Petra, Theo, Aslan, Lihua, little Koda.”  Tiguak tried to look unconcerned, unruffled by her task.

        “Don’t worry,”  Petra said, padding up to Tiguak and kissing her nose, “you’ll be okay.”  Tiguak looked into the lioness’s eyes.

         “I hope so,”  she replied.  Tiguak watched as more and more creatures came into the great room, Badgers, bears, lions, tigers, and cross breeds of all three, cross bred cats and bears.  Soon she found many cubs gathered round her, sitting close enough for her to touch them.  Sooleawa moved from her place on Tiguak’s lap to sit beside her.

       “I thought you were going to stay with me,”  Tiguak complained.

        “I think you’ll have more support in a minute than I can give you in a hundred summers,”  Sooleawa replied.

      “What do you mean Sooleawa?”  Tiguak asked.

      “Wait and find out,”  was Sooleawa’s reply.  Tiguak looked into the eyes of the nearest cubs, seeing them looking straight back at her.  Tiguak suddenly felt a cub cuddling up to her, looking to her left, she saw a panda Kodiak bear cross cub settling down.  Tiguak, being of gentle disposition despite her fear, embraced the cub and drew her onto her lap, settling her gently.  The company settled down, Tiguak feeling her right hind foot taken in a set of smallish paws.  Tiguak looked over, to find a small male black bear holding her right hind foot in his forepaws, tracing her pads and counting her toes.

       “thank you,”  Tiguak thought, curling her toes slightly.

        “Now, pay attention please,”  Patch said loudly.  The assembled company fell silent.

          “This is Tiguak,”  patch said, “I found her in the school I visited earlier today.  Just before we retire to our beds for the night, I think we should hear her tale.”  Tiguak looked at the cubs watching her, the one holding her right hind foot in his paws, and the nearly newborn cub in her lap.

         “What are you doing cuddling up to me little one?”  Tiguak asked softly, Yi Jie snuggling closer.

          “My tale,”  Tiguak said, returning her eyes to the whole group, “it’s a sad one.”

       “Will you just get on with it!”  Amy snapped, Bertie slapping her hard enough to make her squeal.

        “Tiguak will tell her tale in time, give her time!”  Bertie snapped.

        “that I will,”  Tiguak said, “and the more you two squabble and biker, the longer it will take me to tell my tale.”  Tiguak folded her paws over her belly, making Anook roar with laughter.

       “proper school mama,”  she observed.  Tiguak smiled broadly.

      “Now I will begin my tale, if that’s okay with you two?”  Tiguak said.  Amy cuffed Bertie, who smacked her with his paw, both cubs fighting on the carpet.

        “Stop that now!”  hour yelled.

        “Now I will begin,”  Tiguak said.  Amy, frustrated, slapped Bertie hard across his nose with her paw.

      “Oi!  Sod!”  Bertie yelled.

      “Will you two stop it!”  Sooleawa screamed.

      “No we won’t!”  Bertie yelled, running over to tackle Sooleawa to the floor and deal with her.

       “Now you bloody stop this!”  Kuruk roared, his anger filling the room with palpable force.  Bertie and Sooleawa shrank back, Bertie looking fearfully at the enraged grizzly bear.

        “sit Down Kuruk,”  Patch said, “Bertie and Amy won’t go after each other now, will you,”  he said.  Bertie knew he was outwitted by Patch, so he left it.

      “No,”  he replied sulkily.

        “Now, can I please get on with my tale?”  Tiguak asked.

      “yes Tiguak, sorry,”  Patch replied.  Tiguak looked round the room, then took a deep breath.

        “My first memory,”  she said, “was of being squeezed in a warm wet place.  My mama was pacing about, stamping her paws and groaning loudly every time I got squeezed,  It was as if she was being hurt as much as I was.  I could hear her paws crunching down on straw and things, and the sounds got clearer as time progressed.

        “You could hear your mama in labour?”  Koda asked.

      “I suppose it was that,”  Tiguak replied, “mama even rolled onto her back at one point, I suppose to kick the air with her hind feet, as she wriggled madly, I can remember that clearly, for she then lay down on her side, stretched out and gave vent to a moan of pain I’ll never forget, which accompanied a huge squeeze on my body, aided this time by her pushing I think.  I could hear mama panting and moaning, it was a strange time.  My mama roared and groaned, whimpered, panted and wriggled while squeezing me hard.  Soon I felt myself moving along, the squeezing more intense, mama more distressed, crying and roaring she was.  I could feel her get to her feet, then hear her feet stamping on the floor, for her den was made of wood, or so I found out later.  Her feet sounded heavy, shuffling, stamping, tearing at her bedding as she struggled.  She sounded terrified and in a lot of pain.”  Tiguak paused to compose herself, her mind full of the goings on before her entry into the world.  Patch handed her a cup of tea, which she drank thirstily.

        “I felt my body angle down sharply, then my forepaws come out first,”  she said, “mama was still distressed, though kneeling on her heels I think.  My forepaws popped out and touched the heels of her hind feet.  Feeling my head emerging, she stretched onto her side, though not before I’d managed to kiss the heels of her hind paws.  Scramming and roaring, my mama stretched out desperately, lying on her side and screaming lustily while pushing hard.  I felt myself shoved forward, my head coming out into the open for sure, but then, as mama relaxed, I slipped back.  This caused my mama to roar with pain and fear, redoubling her efforts, pushing hard enough to make her shriek and beat her paws on the wooden floor of her den in her efforts.  My head and shoulders emerged, then, with mama gasping and crying, I felt my body slipping forward, mama drawing up her hind feet, I saw that, for I ended on my back, and they disappeared from my sight.  Mama must have grabbed her hind feet with her forepaws, for they didn’t come back into view, but she pushed hard while lying on her back, sitting up when I emerged again, to grab me in her paws and pull me as she pushed and bounced on her backside.”

       “She was sitting down in the den, slightly reclining ,”  Patch observed.

      “yes,”  Tiguak replied, “I know that, for I felt her forepaws cradling my head and body, pulling me as she pushed.  I heard her crying and roaring.  She was having an awful time delivering me.  Mama pulled and pushed, wriggled and fought, and I was born, both of us panting with exertions and fear.  I pushed with my hind feet a little I think as I felt myself being pulled free, pushed with everything I had, roaring with effort.  I then felt my mama licking me, her panting and sobbing distressing me as she came down from her labour.  Mama whimpered and puffed a little as she licked and groomed me.  She seemed very tired.  She fed me, promising me she’d look after me.  I slept then, mama trying to sleep, but she was still in pain, not labour pain I don’t think, as she wasn’t moaning and whimpering like she did when I was born.  I suppose she’d moan and whimper like she was pushing if she was having contractions?”

       “She would,”  Patch replied gently.

        “Good, right,”  Tiguak replied, “well she seemed uncomfortable, even though she wasn’t in labour.  She shifted on her paws, wriggled, bit her forepaws, played with the toes of her hind feet, and even rocked back and fourth on her backside.  She must have pushed a couple of times, for I heard a gush of fluid, then mama groan and grunt a little, before panting hard.

       “Passing the afterbirth I think,”  Ekaterina said, patch nodded.

        “Well, passing the afterbirth she might have been, I was too busy trying to sleep to watch, though I did see blood on the floor,”  Tiguak replied, “now on with my tale.  Life continued, sleeping, drinking milk, relieving myself, followed by more sleeping and drinking.  My first trauma, discounting that of birth, well, the first trauma I suffered alone was when mama left me, about four sunrises after my birth.”

        “You must have been a late cub then, if you could see the sun,”  Sooleawa replied, “I was, I remember my birth very clearly.”

        “Well, four sunrises into my life my mama left me.  She dumped me outside the den, and slammed the door on me.  I cried and begged her not to leave me, to feed me and warm me, but she didn’t listen.  Fortunately the humans who kept her and me in that place heard me, and picked me up off the concrete flooring outside the den, feeding me and cleaning me.  I became close to them.  I learnt how to be examined, how to roll over and present my paws for inspection, open my mouth for my teeth to be examined, and how to lie still so temperature and heart rate could be measured.  I became a barely autonomous robot in other words.  While I knew I was secure, that I had three meals a day and as much water as I could drink, I began to feel life wasn’t all that fun.  It was about that time I got taken to a place where they introduced me to human cubs,  and I got used to playing with them, being around them, that sort of thing.  These cubs wanted to study me, they’d been looking at a community of animals, or that’s what they called them, who lived their own lives in house not far away from their school.  They began to send me stories on tape to listen to, which I did, and I learnt English that way.  I began to dream about the community, characters from the stories filling my dreams, Sita, Patch, Ekaterina, well, my versions of them in my head.  I felt more comfortable listening to those tales than I did in my real life, and wished I could join the community somehow.  It was about this time, when I was one and a half, that I started going to the human cub’s school for regular visits.  There they’d pat me, and talk to me, and I’d play with them for a few hours, before it was back into the cage, and back to my den.  I wanted out!  I wanted to be free, though knew I’d not be as free as all that, as I had no wild skill.  I remembered the thrill and fear of my birth, and wanted more of that exhilaration.  I somehow knew the mothers to be and their cubs in this community I’d heard of felt that, they played and loved together, not worrying about talking about birth and things like that.  My mother would never talk to me about my birth, though I asked her how it felt.  She would just grunt and change the subject.  Maybe it was that which made her leave me, I was too curious.”

        “We tell everything to our cubs about their births,”  Sita said, “we even re-enact them.”

       “Really?”  Tiguak replied, “How?”

       “a bear or a cat, or a badger, depending on the cub who’s birth it is, takes the details and re-enacts the birth of the cub for that cub, so they can understand how things happened.  If you can give details like you did to me, I’ll re-enact your birth for you Tiguak, and possibly answer questions as to why your mama didn’t want to talk about it,”  Ekaterina said.  Tiguak, her eyes filling with tears of gratitude, replied:

      “Would you?  Please? I want to know, I need to know why my mama left me.”  Ekaterina crawled over to Tiguak, the cubs surrounding her making a path.  Ekaterina, reaching Tiguak, took her paw and promised she’d help.

       “After this is over, we’ll go into a private lie up, and you can tell me everything,”  Ekaterina said softly, “then, I’ll help you understand what happened to you, if you like.”  Tiguak hugged Ekaterina, then went on with her tale:

       “One day,”  said she, “when I was quite used to the visits to the school, I went to the school as usual.  There was this old shaggy man there, he looked strange.  Then, then he turned into a bear!  Or, maybe,”  she looked confused, “maybe he was a bear already, a bear turned into a man, I don’t know.  Well I was sent in to the classroom to see the children as normal, and was asked to ask this man bear thing if I could touch his hind paws with mine.  Of course, being used to do in things when I was bidden, I obeyed.  All the children ran from the room then, leaving me with this bear, for now he was a bear, I could see that, and feel it too.  This bear was patch, well now I know it is patch.”  Tiguak’s voice trailed away, “that’s the end of my tale,”  she said, “for Patch can tell the rest, I’m tired.”  Yi Jie scrambled from Tiguak’s lap, and Tiguak got to her feet, her eyes telling the assembled group what she wanted.

        “Tired my paw,”  Innokenti grunted, “though I can see why she wants to get on with things.”  Ekaterina led Tiguak to the outdoor lie up.  There, on the bare boards of the floor, Ekaterina stood fore square in front of Tiguak.

      “Set the scene,”  she invited.  Tiguak looked round her.

        “this is right, bare boards I mean, I felt them under my own feet, so I know that.  Though no quilts, straw, it was straw beneath my mama’s feet when she was pacing during her labour.  Ekaterina went to a bale of straw in the corner and tore at it, scattering straw thickly on the floor.  Padding across the straw, Ekaterina heard her own paws scrunching the straw beneath them, as well as the gasp of surprise and emotion from Tiguak as memories came back strongly.

       “It was like that,”  she said, “heavy feet though, not light like yours.”

       “you mean stamping, like this?”  Ekaterina said, stamping her feet as if in pain.  Tiguak nodded, tears choking her:

       “How far can you go?”  she asked.

       “if the spirits allow me, the whole way,”  Ekaterina replied, “Tiguak, you know a lot, but you also know a lot you don’t know you know.”  Tiguak laughed at this, but got Ekaterina’s meaning.

       “So you could re-enact my birth exactly,”  she said.

      “yeah,”  Ekaterina replied, “you gave me enough information to do it pretty well anyway., but with a little more info, I could do a whole lot better.”

       “Mama was shuffling about, a sort of ripping sound made by her paws?”  Tiguak said.  Ekaterina smiled and began to tear at the straw with her forepaws, building herself a thick bed to lie on.

     “Like this?”  she asked.  Tiguak’s mouth fell open.

        “You know don’t you!”  she exclaimed, “you know what my mama did!”

      “I’ve done it myself many times,”  Ekaterina said, warming to her task, “now what?  Did mama do this?”  Ekaterina curled her toes into the straw, tearing her paws free as imagined contractions interfered with her nest building.

       “yes, oh yes she did!”  Tiguak replied.  Ekaterina smiling, put her whole knowledge into practise, nesting, while stamping her feet and ripping the straw with toes curled by contractions, Tiguak’s whimper of emotion telling her she’d put her paw on the exact sounds.

       “Do you want me to go on?”  Ekaterina asked.  Tiguak smiled and nodded:

        “Please,”  she replied, “you could tell me so much.”  Ekaterina took what she’d heard and re-enacted Tiguak’s birth, from stamping her paws to rolling about and straining to deliver Tiguak into the world.  Tiguak watched as Ekaterina wrecked her carefully made bed in her struggles, tearing the lie up apart in her age old fight to deliver the next generation into the world.  Ekaterina wasn’t silent about it either, whimpering, roaring and crying as Tiguak had described, Tiguak’s reaction telling Ekaterina she’d got it right.

         “is that correct?”  Ekaterina asked as she rehearsed the last part of the delivery of her cub.

      “yes,”  Tiguak replied faintly, “now, now you’re gonna run it all together and scare the shit out of me aren’t you.”

      “I won’t if you don’t want,”  Ekaterina replied.  Tiguak took the mama bear’s right hind foot in her paws.

      “please,”  she replied, “then, then tell me why mama left me alone.”  Ekaterina curled her toes.

      “I’ll have a guess,”  she said, “right, here goes.”  Ekaterina got to her feet and cleared up the straw before pausing for a minute.  She then began nesting behaviour, building herself a nest from the provided straw.  Tiguak, hearing the mama bear’s feet on the partially covered boards, caught her breath.  Then, as she heard the straw getting deeper beneath Ekaterina’s pads, she sat down heavily to watch.  Ekaterina, whimpering and whining as her discomfort increased while she struggled to construct her nest, padded about the lie up, using paws and teeth to carry straw.

        “Your feet sound like my mama’s did,”  Tiguak said softly.  Ekaterina moaned deeply as a contraction gripped her violently.

        “Wow mama, wow!”  Tiguak said softly.  Ekaterina, lying on her side now, roared with pain, her paws kicking the air.  Then she rolled onto her back and kicked furiously before getting to her feet once more and pacing about, her mouth open and voice loud in wailing and yelling in protest and fear.  Then Ekaterina knelt back on her heels, Tiguak padding forward to touch the heels of her hind feet with her forepaws and kiss them, just as she’d done to her own mother’s hind feet.  Ekaterina’s reaction was instant, squealing, she threw herself onto her chest, then moaning, her side, her hind feet straining backwards, her forepaws groping for purchase, mouth open wide in a yell of agony.  Then, as She relaxed, Tiguak could almost see the cub slide back inside her mother as Ekaterina, grunting, drew up her legs and grabbing her hind feet with her forepaws, strained with all her might, crying and begging to be released.  Then she sat up, grabbed the cub emerging between her hind legs, and, whimpering and crying, helped the cub into the world, pushing down lustily into her tail with groans and much panting and wriggling.

      “That’s it mama, push!”  Tiguak encouraged, Ekaterina roaring with triumph as she realised she’d done a good job.  Tiguak, overcome, threw herself into Ekaterina’s embrace, Ekaterina hugging her weakly, crying into her fur with the release of tension and emotion.

          “Thank you, thank you mama,”  Tiguak whispered.  Touching Ekaterina’s paws, Tiguak found them bathed in sweat.

        “You really did try didn’t you,”  Tiguak replied.  Ekaterina, wriggling, got to her feet and straddled her hind legs, grunting and panting.

       “Afterbirth’s coming, oooah!”  She wailed, stamping her feet hard on the straw.  Tiguak watched from a prone position on the straw, just as she’d done when newborn.

        “You emulated my mama exactly!”  she exclaimed.  Ekaterina, exhausted but happy, sat down and beckoned to Tiguak, who crawled to her.

          “how can you imagine all that without actually witnessing it?”  Tiguak asked.

        “your description was vivid and complete,”  Ekaterina said, “plus I’ve had experience of delivering cubs, both as midwife and labouring mother,”  Ekaterina replied.  Tiguak kissed her nose and the sweat dampened pads of her right forepaw.

         “now mama, where do I sleep?”  Tiguak asked.

        “I’ll take you to a lie up Tiguak dear,”  Ekaterina replied.

       “How if I sleep here tonight,”  Tiguak replied softly, “I’m exhausted by all that.”  Ekaterina wasn’t feeling too fresh herself.

         “We could sleep here,”  she said, “my paws couldn’t carry me even if I forced them to.”  Ekaterina crawled to the phone and told Patch what had happened.

        “You looked beaten,”  patch said, his smile coming down the wire to Ekaterina, “stay there tonight my love.”

        “I wish you were here,”  Ekaterina said to him, Patch dumping the phone down and running from the room, Ekaterina looking startled until the door to the lie up crashed open and Patch ran in, threw himself on the straw and enfolded her in a huge hug.

       “I’m here now,”  he said kissing her nose.

       “I wondered what happened,”  Ekaterina said laughing.

        “Now let’s get this straw into some sort of order,”  Patch said, nesting like a mama bear would, while Tiguak, more confused than ever, watched with wide eyes.

        “who’s the mama bear here?”  she asked.  Patch grinned, finishing his job and helping Ekaterina to the warm bedding.

        “Now you,”  patch said, helping Tiguak onto the raised straw bed beside Ekaterina, who drew her close, so she ended up snuggled up to her.  Sooleawa crawled in then, Patch watching her crawl.

       “I’ll look after this little one,”  patch said softly, lying down and drawing Sooleawa into a huge embrace.

 

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