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It begins like this:

Brienne and her brother Galladon row out to sea in a small boat. Not far. They do not intend to go far. They just want to get away from their island for an hour or two.

They have done this many times over the years. They are no longer the children they were. Galladon is almost a man, and Brienne is not many years behind him.

They have no reason to be afraid.

*

It goes like this:

The winds shift. The sky darkens. The gentle ripples on the surface of the water become something much worse.

Waves crash against their little boat and spill over the sides. Galladon is rowing for shore as fast as he can as Brienne bails out the boat.

They are no match for the approaching storm.

*

It goes like this:

The oar slips from Galladon’s hand and he dives after it, throwing himself off balance as he shouts.

When he falls, he falls hard, his head making a cracking sound against the side of the boat before he topples into the water.

*

Brienne screams and lunges towards where he fell, looking over the side of the boat to grab hold of him before it is too late.

*

It is already too late.

There is no sign of Galladon.

Just the oar floating on the surface of the ocean.

*

Brienne grabs the ore from the water as she looks everywhere for signs of him as the boat rocks.

But there is nothing to see.

*

Time stretches onward, each frantic breath she takes a reminder that somewhere deep beneath the surface Galladon has not had that luxury.

He has been under for so long.

Too long.

*

In her panic Brienne prays to the Seven to save her brother because she cannot save him herself.

What Brienne does not know is this:

Sometimes when you pray to the Seven, something else answers instead.

*

Brienne has heard sailors speak of what they see out on the water. Terrible creatures. Beautiful creatures. Monsters and maidens and men and worse.

She doesn't know what to make of the creature that emerges from the water and blinks up at her with shining eyes.

*

The conversation that follows is brief.

Galladon must live. Brienne alone cannot save him. The creature offers Galladon his life and that is all that matters.

The creature offers Galladon his life so Brienne agrees.

Brienne does not negotiate terms.

*

“So it is done,” the creature rasps.

Her relief is blinding. Whatever the cost she has to pay is worth it. For Galladon and her father and her house. If she is to trade her life for his so be it. She assumes that is what she has agreed to and it is a price she is ready to pay. There is no question he is the one between them who must live.

“What happens now?” she asks the creature. This is the first question that springs to her mind while she tries to calculate how long she has before she is dragged beneath the waves in exchange for her brother’s soul.

The creature considers her and blinks slowly before it answers.

Then the creature dives back beneath the churning water and is out of sight before Brienne can shout after it.

*

She grips the side of the boat tightly as she leans as far over the edge as she can. She sees nothing but the ocean that stole her brother many long minutes before.

*

When Galladon surfaces he is unconscious but Brienne manages to pull him into the boat without much difficulty. She wonders if the creature is helping from below, but she cannot see it and does not care so long as Galladon is alive.

*

When Galladon is lying in the boat Brienne feels for his pulse and checks his breathing.

He is alive.

He is alive and he should not be. He would not be if it were not for Brienne and the creature and whatever deal was struck between them.

*

Brienne is also alive.

This is unexpected.

She looks around the boat, looking for any sign of the creature that granted her brother back his life, but the creature is gone.

Galladon is alive and so is she.

She wonders what the cost will be.

*

As she rows through the storm she tries to make sense of what has happened, but the details are already slipping away from her like the nightmares she used to have and forget by the time her mother asked her what had jarred her from sleep.

Brienne does not remember the exact question she asked the creature. At that moment she was certain she was to take her brother’s place at the bottom of the ocean. She does not remember if she asked what happens next, or what the creature would do to her, or whether she was to die there.

She does not remember the question she asked, but she remembers the answer the creature gave:

“One day you will see and be seen.”

*

Brienne does not have to wait long to see.

Each stroke of the oars is powerful. She is able to fight the current and the waves in ways Galladon was not.

When she looks down her hands are not her own.

They aren’t even hands.

*

She is grateful the paws at the end of her arms have some version of thumbs. Her grip on the oars is strong and true. She is afraid of what the creature has done to her but she has no doubt she will be able to get Galladon to safety.

And that is all that matters.

*

When she makes it to land it is easy to pull the boat ashore.

It is easy to carry Galladon in her arms.

(Her arms. Her furry arms. Far more powerful than the ones she is used to.)

She is grateful the ocean is still too choppy to show her reflection.

(She watches the massive paws where her feet used to be leave unfamiliar prints in the sand as she carries her brother home.)

*

Her father looks only at Galladon where he lies in his bed as Brienne assures him that his son will wake soon.

He is furious and grateful and devastated all at once as she explains what has happened in a voice that sounds nothing like her own.

Each word rumbles in her chest like distant thunder and she is looking down upon her father. Tall as she is, this has never been the case before.

She watches her father shift his gaze from Galladon to the floor between them.

This is as close as he comes to looking at her before she excuses herself from the room.

*

In her own bedchamber she can no longer avoid her reflection.

She catches only a glimpse of herself before she looks away.

*

She does not look for a long time, but she knows no amount of avoidance will keep it from being true.

She turns back to face the mirror.

*

She is a monster. A great hairy beast of a thing, nearly eight feet tall and uglier than ever. The clothes she was wearing out on the water are stretched across her body (she keeps moving her arm, trying to connect the movement and her reflection, determined to understand it is truly herself she is looking at). The clothes were Galladon’s she realizes with a pang. An old tunic and trousers of his so she did not have to wear an uncomfortable dress out in the boat. The fabric has ripped and seams have popped. No amount of mending will make them wearable again.

She can’t sleep in her tattered clothes that are still damp from the storm, and she can’t very well call for a servant, so she begins to cut herself out of them.

*

She uses her claws.

Because she has claws.

They are sharp and unfamiliar and she nicks herself more than once trying to figure out which muscles to flex to get them to extend and retract.

It is a mistake when she catches sight of herself once the last of her clothing has fallen to the floor.

*

She wraps herself in a blanket before she lies on her bed and tries to will herself to sleep.

*

The next morning she wakes reluctantly, her body sore all over. She groans, determined to ignore the reality of her body a little longer, but when she rolls over the feel of one of her calves rubbing across the other is utterly familiar. She is awake and she is in her own skin once again, her own freckled flesh greeting her as she throws aside the blanket to see fully.

She feels it first, the ache in her bones unlike any she has experienced before. Then she looks down and watches her hands stretch and shift back into paws before her feet have hit the floor.

*

Brienne spends the day trying to transform back to the human body she is used to no avail.

Try as she might, the beast is the only body she can inhabit.

*

She is brought a large robe to wear. It is left outside her door. She wonders if her father brought it himself, or whether he warned a servant not to enter.

*

Galladon wakes by the end of that first day, and he is well enough to come see her the following night.

He speaks his thanks to the window beyond where she sits on her bed, her tail flicking restlessly back and forth no matter how much she tries to stop it.

*

The following fortnight passes in a hellish blur.

At first her father is ecstatic to hear that the curse is temporary. That there are moments, however fleeting, that she is her true self. This is what he keeps telling her.

He is certain she will be able to control it. She must learn to control it. She must control it. She must.

*

“You are not this thing,” he says when he comes to her bedchamber where she has stayed since she returned. He opens the door only as much as he needs to to slip inside. He barely looks at her while he is there. “You are my daughter.”

But it is not true.

She has been the daughter he loved for only moments since she returned. Once, that first morning, and once, three days ago, as she was prowling back and forth as the sun set.

She was her human self for two paces before she was the beast once again.

*

By the next moon her father has seen fit to move her to a small cottage away from the castle and the village.

Her father walks ahead of her and carries a lantern. Brienne finds she can see far beyond the scope of the soft light as they make their way through the darkness.

He stumbles over a branch and has to stop for a moment before he continues onward. He is the one who wanted to travel by night, and she does not blame him.

Deserted as this path is, Brienne understands his caution.

She does not want to be seen either.

*

“This is just until you are yourself again,” her father reminds her as he stands on the doorstep. “You understand.”

She does.

*

It becomes apparent as soon as he has opened the door to the cottage that he has no intention to linger.

He promises to visit at midday tomorrow and then he is gone.

*

The cottage is small and was built for people, and Brienne is no longer such a thing. She has to duck to get through the doorway and she has to hunch if she stands on her hind legs too close to the walls. At least the slope of the roof allows her space in the middle of the main room to stand tall.

*

There is a single other room.

There are clothes laid out for her on the bed. Clothes big enough for her beastly body. She wonders how her father commissioned them without explaining his reasons for such grotesque measurements.

Beside them there is also a neat stack of clothes that will only fit her when she is human.

*

She picks up the stacks of clothes and places them off to the side of the room.

*

Brienne wakes up late the following morning in this new bed. She is not at all surprised when it is the beast’s claw that reaches for the curtains to let in the sunlight.

It’s almost midday already. Her father will be back soon.

She picks the least hideous of the large dresses provided and struggles to pull it over her monstrous body.

*

She feels like a bear stuffed into a dress and she must look even worse.

When her father arrives he glances at her for only a moment before he looks away and does not look again.

*

She leaves the dress on once he has left. She owes it to him to try. Her father thinks that somehow the clothes will help her learn how to be a woman again.

Brienne knows better. Dresses couldn’t do that even when she was human.

*

Within an hour the dress is crumpled on the floor and she is curled in a tight ball on her bed.

At least her grotesque form is big enough to hold her shame.

*

At first she stays in the cottage as she stayed in her bedchamber.

Day and night, these walls are all she knows.

At first.

*

Then she goes out at night.

Only at night.

Cloudy moonless nights.

*

She stays close to the cottage, not doing more than sitting outside with her furry back resting against the stone wall, but it is comforting to be under the stars again.

*

Brienne has missed this. The outdoors. It has been weeks since she went for a walk, or out to the yard to train, or to the beach to put her feet in the sea.

Her body is restless, itching to move.

She knows it is dangerous. She knows she can’t be seen. But it is so dark… She can only see because her eyes are built for the night in ways human eyes are not.

*

She stays within sight of the cottage, but she allows herself to walk beyond the confines of its narrow walls and low roof.

*

The first time Brienne drops down to all fours and bounds a few steps forward through the long grass is a revelation.

She had feared… she had feared she would not know what to do, but the moment all four of her paws are on the ground she needs no instruction.

As a beast she is steady and capable on two legs, but on four she is fast. Her body knows how to move without thought, the rhythm of each stride as natural as breathing.

For the first time since she and Galladon returned from the sea she is not thinking about how to return to the way she was before.

She is not thinking about anything but how good this feels.

So she runs.

*

When her father visits, she does not tell him she’s been leaving the cottage.

*

She roams the woods and surrounding area often. Mostly at night, but sometimes in the early mornings. There is no one out here, and her hearing is better than it ever was in any case. The one time a family is traveling over the hills she hears them from a mile away and is able to disappear into the trees long before they can get close enough to spot her.

*

Her father visits and asks if she’s made any progress.

She considers lying, considers telling him she felt almost human that afternoon as she pulled on the clothes she is wearing for his sake, but she cannot endure any more of his hope.

She’s already certain he will never truly look at her again.

*

Every night she runs and jumps and climbs, pushing and testing the limits of her body in every way she can, determined to know the body she has found herself in even if she does not understand it. She can change directions in the blink of an eye, she can jump further than any person she’s ever heard of, she can move through the woods without a sound, her large paws light on the forest floor.

And the sounds she can make…

When she stops trying to express herself in words the beast’s pitch and timbre make all the sense in the world.

*

When her father is scheduled to visit she dutifully puts on clothes before he arrives.

And she tries, she tries to be human. As human as she can be as her tail pokes out from beneath the hem of her dress and her claws extend and retract reflexively as she stretches and her father winces and looks away.

*

By the next turn of the moon she has abandoned the clothing completely.

Even when her father arrives for his weekly visit, she greets him as the beast she is.

*

Brienne roams freely during the day now. Sometimes she doesn’t even return to the cottage at night, choosing instead to lie out under the stars. It is warm still, and her fur coat is warmer than any cloak or blanket she’s ever had.

She is quite alone up here, and she trusts her senses enough to stay out of danger if she hears or smells anyone in the distance.

*

She hunts too. Animals only, of course.

She is good at it.

She is very good at it.

And it feels good to be so good at it. Like swordplay, almost. And though she misses the feel of balanced steel in her hand, she is grateful she no longer requires a weapon to be deadly, nor armour to protect her.

She will never be defenceless as long as she is a beast.

*

Her father visits less and less frequently.

Even as he asks if she is making progress, if there are times she looks like herself again, he cannot bear to come to the cottage and see that she is not.

“I am glad your mother did not live to see you like this,” he says, like it is a kindness for him to tell her this. He prefers her mother dead to suffering at the horrendous sight of what her daughter has become.

*

It is Galladon who brings her a tunic and breeches. One set of clothing for the beast she is, one for the person they’re still holding out hope for her to be once again.

“Please,” he says. “Please at least keep trying. For father’s sake.”

She takes the offered clothes from his outstretched hands. He flinches at the sight of her claws and stares at the wall to his right.

*

“I came by yesterday,” her father says to the floor. She is not wearing the clothes Galladon brought her. “You were not here.”

“No,” Brienne answers, her voice low and powerful and hers. “I wasn’t.”

*

Her father has not visited in over two moons. What difference does it make whether she is in the cottage or not?

*

Galladon is getting married. That is what her father is here to tell her.

Galladon is getting married and all three of them know that the future of the Tarth legacy has been secured because of her.

“Her sacrifice” is how her father puts it.

Sacrifice is not the word Brienne would use.

*

Perhaps her father thought she would be upset at the news, knowing she herself will never marry.

Even as a woman the prospects for her in that regard were grim. Three broken betrothals behind her and nothing more on the horizon.

She is not upset to hear the news. She has already mourned for the girl she was. For the woman she could not be, and for the knight she would never be permitted to become.

She had been mourning those impossible paths long before she became a beast.

*

After her father has left she heads out to the wilderness.

It is much easier to feel like herself when she’s not surrounded by walls meant for people.

*

Brienne does not return the first night.

She is not ready to face a door built for people shorter and thinner than she is. She is not ready to face a stack of clothing she is certain she will never wear. She is not ready to face a comfortable bed that somehow does not compare to the places she curls up for the night in the woods.

*

She does not return the second night either.

*

On the third night she finds herself human once again. For the first time in over a year it is not the beast’s frame that supports her where she stands. It is such a shock that she yelps, and the sound that escapes her is strange to her ears. Higher and less somehow, than the deep rumble of a voice she now calls her own.

Perhaps it is the shock of the unexpected transformation. At suddenly being the only version of herself her father truly cares for after so long. At being naked and helpless in the woods, her human eyes struggling to see in the dark the way her beast eyes never do. Whatever it is, she doubles over and vomits before she can fully grasp what is happening.

Her human body is so much more fragile than she remembers and she feels like a beast trapped within it. She does not fit in this skin anymore. She never did. She knows that now. There was always too much of her. There is simply too much of her to fit inside this flawed design.

She wants to rip herself apart to let herself out. She does not fit. There is too much of her to be held inside this body but she knows her human hands would fail at even that. They are not fit to slice open her skin and to wrench apart her ribs to make space for everything she feels that her meagre human flesh cannot contain.

*

Minutes pass and she is still human.

She is human and terrified, unable to look at the body that holds her now. Every moment that passes she is forced to wonder if she will be trapped in this body for the rest of her life. Because if she is… if she has to live in this body…

She can’t go back… she can’t go back to her life as it was before and pretend to be what she knows she is not.

Even standing before her father as a hideous beast in an ill-fitting dress she felt more herself than she does right now.

She pulls her human arms tight to her chest in an effort to stay warm in the night air. Drags her hairless fingers across her cheeks to wipe away the tears as she shakes and tries to remember how to hold herself upright in this delicate body as she howls with the rage and injustice she doesn't know how else to express.

*

It is too dark for her to see enough to travel. She has no choice but to wait for the sun to start to rise.

She has tucked herself against a large rock to wait for the light when her body starts to ache all over.

Her bones start to stretch, her muscles swell and grow as her freckles disappear beneath the thick thatch of fur that bursts from her skin like it could not be contained any more than her feelings could.

The transformation is swift once it starts, and she stares at her paws as she settles into the only body immense enough to hold the joy she feels.

*

Her relief is a thunderous roar that sends roosting birds skyward.

*

The next time her father visits she meets him out on the fields. He grimaces at the way she runs on all fours to greet him.

She does not tell him she found herself briefly human the week before.

*

Her father visits less and less, and Galladon even less often than that.

For weeks on end she is left to her own devices.

Brienne prefers it this way.

Without visitors there is no one to disappoint and she is free to just be.

*

She dares not approach the shore, but she thinks of it sometimes as she tears through the trees, weaving her way through the forest at impossible speed.

She does not want the creature to tell her she is wrong to enjoy what it has cursed her with.

*

It is Galladon who comes to inform her that their father has passed.

It was sudden and painless. He went to sleep and did not wake.

He did not suffer.

That is what Galladon says. “He did not suffer.”

They both know it is a lie.

He suffered greatly. Every time he visited her he was suffering. Suffering seeing his only surviving daughter reduced to a monster even he could not force himself to look at.

*

Brienne is painfully grateful for her beastly form in the time that follows.

Surely grief like this would destroy a human body.

*

When she is ready she visits where her father is buried. It is a cloudy night, not a star visible in the sky, but she needs no torch to find her way.

She apologizes to her father as best she can. Both for the beast she became and for the freak she was before. The child fit to be neither a woman nor a knight, no matter how many lessons she endured with her septa or her sword master.

She looks up the hill to Evenhall.

This is the closest she has come to the castle she once called home since she went to stay at the cottage.

Looking at it now she knows it will never be that for her again.

*

Galladon visits. (He has news. He only ever visits when he has news.) His wife has given birth to a son. A nephew Brienne will never be fit to see or to hold. A nephew she will never get to sword fight with in the yard or sing to or tell stories about his father when he was a boy. A nephew that might never know Brienne exists.

Galladon thanks her again for what she has done for him. What she has given up for him. For the life she has given him, and the future she has given their family.

Brienne does not need to hear it.

*

Galladon tells her that Tarth will always be her home, that there will always be a place for her here. He will ensure that. Here she will always have a place where she can stay safely out of sight.

Then he asks her directly, as if he has sensed what she is ready to do.

He asks her to stay.

He does not say for their father’s sake. Their father is dead. She has already failed him. She does not need to stay here to fail his memory any further.

Again, Galladon asks her to stay but Brienne has already made up her mind.

*

Galladon arranges passage off the island to the mainland for her. She has to stay below decks in a room the sailors he hired have been ordered not to disturb but she can smell the salt of the sea stronger than ever before. She is ready to leave Tarth behind and face whatever she finds ahead.

She regrets that she cannot lean over the railing of the ship the whole way trying to get a glimpse of the creature that turned her into this. She has so many questions she would ask now, even though she can imagine the creature providing only the answer they gave before:

One day you will see and be seen.


YEARS LATER

Brienne smells the bait before she sees it.

It has been a long while since men sought to draw her out into the open like this.

She has been careful, as far as she knows she has not been seen in over three years. For over three years she has lived undisturbed by men and unbothered by the other creatures of the woods. The bears gave her some trouble at first, but after she killed the first two the rest stayed away.

The bears were no match for her, just like the foolish men who have tried to kill her before were no match for her.

Then men who left a corpse out in the woods for her to find will be no match for her either.

Brienne sighs.

Even if she craved flesh the way men assume a beast like her must, she would not be tempted by this offering.

At this distance the smell is already extremely off-putting.

*

She hopes she is mistaken about it being bait she smells. It is possible, she supposes, that whatever is dead over there is just dead. But it smells different than the local animals and she has experienced this sort of thing too many times not to assume.

Regardless, she needs to clear the source of the smell away and bury it. Can’t have a corpse so close to where she sleeps, attracting the wolves and bears and whatever else. More men worst of all. That is always the worst. When the men catch sight of her and blame her for whatever ills are most convenient.

No, she can’t have a dead thing so close.

*

As she follows the scent she tries to figure out when she was seen. Her cave is well hidden and she sleeps so deep within it that no one could venture so far in and have her remain unaware. She is far from the roads and paths and hunters rarely venture so far into the woods.

She has been alone in these woods for so long. There has been only a handful of incidents in that time.

She must have gotten careless. Too much time out in the open. Too much time out in the daylight. Someone saw her and now she has to deal with it.

Still, she is hopeful it is only a handful of people here to attack her. If it is only a few, it is possible she won’t have to abandon this place entirely.

If it is more, she will certainly have to leave.

*

When she sees the bait, she approaches without fear, standing on her hind legs to let the men see her at her full height. This is far from the first trap of this kind she has walked into. Sometimes it is enough just to let them see who they have unwisely chosen to challenge to send them away.

The smell of the bait is overpowering, making it difficult to know if there are other men lurking amongst the trees. She has not seen or smelled or heard any, but that does not mean they are not there.

If men are out there, they are biding their time well. Most ambushes she has received were clumsy, a handful of would-be knights trying to kill the beast with no more thought given to the task than that.

Brienne yawns, making a point of baring her long teeth in the sunlight.

She does not want to bury any more bodies than the one already starting to rot, but she will if she has to. She has done it before, burying those who would rather die by her claws than retreat. She hopes whoever might be watching sees reason before she sees them.

*

She is feet from the bait. The smell is rancid.

The bait used to be a man. She can see that now.

The once-a-man, now-bait is now lying face down in the dirt, one arm tucked awkwardly beneath his chest. His other arm is lying useless beside him.

She waits for the other men to show themselves and attack.

But no one does.

*

She is tired of waiting.

She is not foolish enough to dig a hole here, right where the bait was left. She will have to move him.

She looks around again. If men are here to attack, this is when they should do so. This is their only chance of catching her off guard, but even so she is ready.

The bait was a full grown man while he lived but she is more than strong enough to move him without difficulty. She lifts him with ease as she tries not to breathe to spare herself the worst of his stench as she listens for any signs of movement around her.

She waits for the ambush.

No ambush comes.

*

Brienne waits a little longer to be sure the attack is not coming before she commits to leaving this spot. She has already decided that when she moves from here it will be in the opposite direction from her cave. On the off chance she is being watched, she will not be leading them back to her home. The longer she waits, the more certain she is that she is alone. She cannot or hear or smell anything that should not be in this part of the forest, save the would-be bait in her arms.

She takes a step.

The bait groans.

*

Brienne stops, suddenly aware of the careless way she is holding him. Even so she is afraid to adjust, lest she harm him with her claws or her strength by mistake. She looks down at the man in her arms. She had scooped him up without looking or caring how he lay, but now that she knows he is alive she carefully shifts him enough to turn him over.

He is deathly pale beneath the grime. A bloodied bandage is wrapped around his right wrist and held tight to his chest by a cloth around his neck. What once must have been his hand is dangling around his neck from a rope.

She’s seen corpses look more lively.

*

She cradles him in her left arm enough to free her right paw. There’s dried vomit on his tunic and worse elsewhere, but the rotten hand seems to be the source of the worst of the smell.

She hooks one of her claws under the rope around his neck and slices through it. That is the easy part. Even with her claws retracted she could hurt him without meaning to in a heartbeat. She’s afraid she has already hurt him. It takes her a few tries to brush the hand away without touching the man beneath.

She walks upwind of where the rotten hand lies on the forest floor, putting distance between her and it so that she can think of something other than the smell.

When she is far enough away she stops to look at the man in her arms.

The smell of death and rotten flesh clings to him.

She could kill him so easily. She thought he was already dead.

But he is not.

*

Brienne does not know what to do.

Alive.

The man is alive.

And he is here by mistake.

He must be here by mistake. There is no one else here. He is not bait. He is hurt and alone and she does not want to bury him.

Brienne turns around and carries him in the other direction.

*

The man is drifting in and out of consciousness as she walks. When he is conscious his breathing is laboured and every so often he moans or gasps or tries to speak. Regardless of the pained sounds he makes, he seems too weak to move or open his eyes.

“I’m taking you to my home,” Brienne answers the question she assumes he’s trying to ask. Even speaking as softly as she can her deep voice is rough with lack of use. She does not remember the last time she spoke aloud in words. “You will be safe there.”

She does not think he hears her.

*

Brienne takes him to the river first. Even without his rotten hand hanging from his neck he smells awful. If she takes him back to her cave like this the scent would linger for moons.

*

She wades into the water with him still fully dressed in her arms. His clothes are at least as dirty as he is and her paws aren’t built to carefully remove clothing from a barely-conscious man. When she is in the water up to her hips his head tips towards her chest.

“It will be cold,” she warns him before she lowers him into the water.

*

He hisses in pain and holds his stump closer to his body. But even as his muscles tense against the cold of the water, the sound he makes is one of gratitude.

She holds his head above the water in the crux of her arm and supports his body as she lets the current wash away what it can.

*

His eyelids flutter but stay closed.

“I will thank you properly,” the man slurs, “If I am ever able to open my eyes again.”

“Don’t,” she says. “Don’t open your eyes.”

His head lolls and his unbandaged arm drops further into the river. Still, even limp in her arms he manages to ask, “Why not?”

“You will not like what you see.”

*

She lays him on the shore in the sunniest patch of soft grass she can find and then walks a little further from the river, dropping to walk on all fours once she is out of range. She shakes twice, hoping she is far enough away from him to not spray him with excess water.

Her fur is damp but no longer dripping when she returns to him.

*

Today the sun is warm and Brienne is grateful. He does not shiver as his tattered clothes start to dry.

A bird of prey circles over head and she growls until it glides out of sight.

*

Brienne carries him back to her cave and lays him in an alcove far enough from the entrance that no one will see him there. There is evidence his left wrist was recently shackled. She assumes he was running from whoever did this to him when he collapsed in the woods.

She hopes whoever’s prisoner he was is wise enough not to follow him.

*

He struggles to focus his eyes on her in the semi-darkness when she brings him several furs. He must manage it because for a moment his eyes go wide and he looks at her like he cannot believe what he is seeing as she lays one over his body.

But then he says, “Thank you.”

And then he closes his eyes where he rests on the blanket she tucked under his head and says, “This is a fine place to die.”

*

Brienne builds a small fire for his sake. He is still a frightful shade of grey but with luck his fever will break within a day or two.

*

He sweats and shivers and spends most of his time fighting something in his dreams Brienne cannot see. When he wakes he watches her with morbid curiosity, like she is the Stranger himself waiting for him to succumb.

“Don’t worry,” he says in a rare instance of lucidity. “I will be out of your hair soon enough. Tonight if I can manage it.”

“You’re not going to die tonight,” Brienne tells him.

It has been a long while since she interacted with anyone, but she knows he does not believe her.

*

While he sleeps she hunts. She will need to cook whatever game she catches for him. She will need to be more careful with the berries she brings back to the cave. He will need fresh water and he is in no condition to travel to and from the stream…

*

“Drink,” she says. The cup she holds in front of him is dwarfed by her paw. She had to rummage through the stash of stuff she has collected and saved over the years to find one. Sometimes she finds things in the forest. Sometimes men attack her and she is left with the contents of their bags. She did not know how the items would be useful at the time. She has been human herself for only a few moments over the years she has spent in the wild, but every time she finds herself briefly human she is grateful to have kept some supplies on hand.

He is not as eager for water as he should be, but he manages to swallow a few sips before he passes out again.

*

“Eat,” she says.

He protests feebly.

“Eat,” she says again. Her deep voice fills the cave and bounces off the walls.

He opens his eyes to look at her. To glare at her.

But he eats.

He will live another day.

*

“Before I was about to die,” he says. The pain must be especially bad tonight. His sleep has been fitful and broken and every breath he takes sounds like he must convince himself to draw it. “They called me a lion. But I suppose they never saw you.”

“You’re not about to die,” Brienne tells him once again. “And I am not a lion.”

He’s not listening. She’s not even sure he can hear her right now.

“The Lion of Lannister,” he says. “That’s what they called me.”

*

The Lion of Lannister. There’s only one man that could be, though Brienne has heard Ser Jaime Lannister spoken of by another name.

*

The Kingslayer hiccoughs and then dry heaves into the bucket beside him. When he has nothing left to retch he groans into the blanket.

Then he laughs, sharp and manic. She has not heard him laugh before. She cannot imagine what he is finding so amusing at this moment and for the first time she considers the possibility that he will die here.

She looks at the man lying on the other side of the cave and wonders where she will bury him.

Then he chokes out, “Hear me roar.”

*

The next day he is well enough to sit up. Not for very long. Not very comfortably by the looks of it. But he is propped against the wall of the cave and he is looking at her.

“They were going to throw me into a bear pit,” he says as he eats a single berry from the food she has laid beside him. He’s watching her like he can’t figure her out. Which obviously he can’t. She’s a giant beast of a thing watching him from across the cave. “Perhaps I shouldn’t have run. Perhaps I should have let them.”

“I’m not a bear,” Brienne says.

“No,” he agrees. He’s going pale again, slumping further down the wall as he speaks. “A bear would have eaten me already.”

“I’m not going to eat you.”

“If you say so,” he says before he is out again.

*

“What are you going to do with me?” he asks. He does not sound scared or even concerned. He just sounds curious. He’s lying on his back and she had thought him asleep. Evidently that is not the case.

“When you are well enough I will send you on your way.”

“Then I will die out there instead of on your floor.”

“You’re not going to die.” Brienne has lost track of how many times she has told him this.

“It was my sword hand they took.”

“You have another hand.”

“It is no use in any case,” he replies, resigned to his fate. “No sword and no hand to wield it.”

“I will give you a sword,” she tells him. “I will give you as many as I have if that is what it takes to keep you alive.”

He scoffs and rolls so he is facing the wall.

*

The next time he wakes there is a sword lying beside him.

He frowns at it. And then at her.

“Is it not to your liking?” Brienne asks. “I will bring you another.”

Before he can say anything she goes back into the depths of her cave and picks up another sword from the ones she has collected during her time here. She is too big to hold it properly, especially a sword as light as this, but even gripped with her thumb and what of her paws will fit on the hilt, the sword feels good in her grasp.

“It is not as fine a sword as you will be used to,” she says when she returns to him. “But it is a sword.”

He watches her lay the sword beside the first and she finds she does not like the recognition in his eyes.

She leaves him lying there as she escapes to the wilderness beyond.

*

Brienne weaves through the woods as fast as she is able.

She shouldn’t have carried the sword to him. Not when he was awake. She shouldn’t have let him see her with the sword in her paws. What beast does such a thing?

*

She is glad he is asleep when she slinks past him as quietly as she can.

*

“Were you always like this?” he asks. He is sitting up and watching her when she emerges from the tunnel deeper in the cave where she sleeps. “Whatever it is you are?”

He smells better today. Less sick. Less weak. The scent of stale sweat hangs about him, but he smells more like a person and less like a dying thing.

“You can speak, can’t you?” he asks, watching her as she picks up a stone and draws one of her claws against it to throw sparks onto the dry grass she uses as kindling. “Or did I imagine that?”

It takes a few tries for the fire to take, but eventually it does, the sparks spreading flames to the twigs she had stacked the day before. He is watching her the whole time. He is waiting for her to answer him.

She knows she should.

She’s not sure she wants to.

*

When she brought him here he was hurt and fevered. Delirious. Almost dead.

Perhaps it would be easier to let him believe he merely imagined she is able to speak if he is willing to do so.

Whoever heard of such a creature? Not a bear and not a lion, but something not so far from those things. Huge and hairy to be sure, with teeth and claws built to rip him apart. But instead of killing him she cared for him and talked to him until he was well enough to question whether he heard her speak at all…

She won’t say anything. Let him believe it was a fever dream. It will be kinder to him.

No one will believe him in any case.

*

“What were you before you were this?” he asks. He gets unsteadily to his feet and then he is shuffling carefully towards her.

She does not answer him.

“I’m Jaime,” he says. She notes the lack of title and his surname and suspects it is bait for her to question him. He’s standing right beside her now, leaning closer to study her monstrous face, as if that will help him solve this. “Did you have a name?”

She does not answer him.

*

“A knight?” he asks. “Or a squire? You are well-born and you know your way around a blade, though you are too brutish to wield one now.”

She does not answer him.

*

“A maiden!” he exclaims. “A fair maiden cursed, like in the songs.”

Brienne shakes her great shaggy head to stop him there. She does not want him getting the wrong impression.

*

“A beast,” he says finally concludes. He must be feeling better because he’s still upright and he is following her as she makes her way across the cave. “That is what you are, whatever else you were before, you are a beast now. A stubborn beast, hellbent on keeping me alive for some reason. And this fire is too small to cook me over.”

She turns back to look at him. To look down at him.

He is looking up at her and he is not afraid.

“Brienne,” she offers. “My name is Brienne.”

*

Jaime is still weak. Ser Jaime Lannister. He admitted to his full name shortly after she gave him hers but the first time she tried to use it he shook his head and asked her to call him Jaime. She understands him not wanting to have his proper name spoken of by such a horrible creature so she does not. She doesn’t call him the Kingslayer either, but she knows that is who he is.

*

For the next few days Jaime builds up his strength. He helps her cook the meat she brings back to the cave when he can. He does not ask where the rest of the boar is, but she can feel the way he’s looking at her when she places the piece of meat over the fire for him.

It is of no matter. He will be strong enough to travel soon enough.

*

As he gets stronger they venture beyond the confines of the cave together. Short walks at first. Brienne walks upright and slows her pace to stay alongside of him as he builds up his endurance. She thinks he is past the point of being prone to collapse, but she doesn’t want to risk it.

*

She watches him cup his hand to lift water from the river to drink.

He’s wearing clothes that they found amongst the bags of supplies. They are not fancy and they do not fit him particularly well, but his gratitude to be free of the rags he nearly died in has not worn off, even though it has been many days since he was well enough to cast them aside.

She is thirsty as well, but she hesitates to bow her head to the surface of the water and use her tongue as she has done without thought for years. Instead she mirrors him and uses her paws to scoop water up towards her mouth.

She still uses her tongue to lap it up like the beast she is, but at least she does behind her paws where he can’t see.

*

Jaime has strapped the lighter of the two swords she gave him to his waist today. It is on his unfamiliar side and he keeps reaching for it, shifting its location by a quarter of an inch. It does not hang naturally and she can feel him thinking about it as they walk.

*

“Do you miss it?” he asks.

“Miss what?”

“Using a sword.” He gestures to the sword at his side and she feels caught. She did not mean for him to notice the thought she was giving it.

She does miss it. She misses carrying a sword. She misses knowing how capable she is of using it and she misses training. The swords she collects from men stupid enough to attack her are too small for her paws to comfortably hold. More than once she has attempted to fashion a large branch into something close enough to practice with, but it is not the same.

Even the straightest stick in her massive paws cannot mimic the thrill of a good session.

Swinging at air is hardly the same as swinging at an opponent and a stick will never have the finely tuned balance a good sword has.

“Yes,” she says. It is pointless to pretend otherwise when he already knows the answer. “I miss it.”

When she does not continue he nods in understanding.

She knows what it has done to him to have lost his sword hand and she still worries that there is part of him that would rather die than live without it. But all the same, she cannot help the twinge of jealousy she feels when she sees his left hand come to rest comfortably on the pommel of the sword on his hip.

And yes, Jaime has lost his sword hand and he will never be the fighter he was again. But she can’t help thinking that the hand he has fits a sword the way her paws never will.

*

As they walk she shows him the way through the woods. The hidden paths he will take when he leaves. Soon. She suspects he will be well enough to travel within a week so she makes sure he will be able to find his way back to the roads and back to King’s Landing.

His sister. He’d told her days ago. His sister is in King’s Landing and he’s going back to her.

He had no shame when he mentioned that they were lovers.

She does not allow herself to consider the matter further.

*

He is more interested in food than he was even a few days ago.

For the first time he asks if she will be eating too. Brienne shakes her head.

“I don’t need to eat as often,” she explains. Which is true. She eats less frequently than she used to. However, when she does eat, she needs to eat more.

He glances at the piece of meat over the fire (a goat this time) and then back to her.

He is wise enough not to ask where the rest of it is.

*

It is an especially warm day so when they pass the river it is Jaime who suggests they go in.

He thinks nothing of undressing in front of her, ridding himself of his clothes as Brienne busies herself looking elsewhere. And why would he? She has never worn clothes in his presence. For all he knows she has never worn clothing at all. She is not a person. Why would he think anything of bathing in her presence?

She tries not to notice or care about his human body as he wades out into the river and shouts for her to follow.

*

It’s not that Brienne has not noticed how beautiful he is before. She has. She is not blind and she is not so beastly to have forgotten what sort of men she dreamed of. Even covered in grime and half-dead Jaime was beautiful.

Out here in the sunlight he is something else entirely.

Not that she’s noticing on purpose. No, she’s just following him out into the river like he invited her to.

But she is noticing.

Because Jaime is beautiful and so achingly human.

And she is not.

*

“You look a little smaller when wet,” he laughs when she stands tall to stretch towards the sky. “Like a cat that fell in the tub.”

There’s no cruelty in his tone, just good-natured amusement as she looks down to where her bulky fur is lying flat.

It is the kindest observation anyone has ever made about her body.

*

The conversation ebbs and flows around them much in the way the water does.

Still, Brienne is surprised when it takes a turn to the king Jaime killed.

*

“Why did you tell me that?” she asks. She is standing very still in the river to study him for any signs he is lying. If what he says is true… If that is why he killed the king…

“You are the first person who asked,” he says before he realizes what he has said as he looks up at her again, no doubt taking in her fur and her teeth and her enormous form. “Not a person,” he corrects. “But you were once, weren’t you?”

She considers not answering, but she finds she doesn’t mind if he knows. “Yes.”

*

“How did it happen?”

“I saved someone who should have died,” Brienne says. “There was a cost.”

“There usually is,” he agrees. “Is this a habit of yours? Saving those who should have died?”

She looks over at the man swimming in the river who couldn’t hold himself upright when she’d first found him and has to concede to his point. “I suppose.”

“I hope this time the cost is not as great.”

*

When she gets out of the river he watches her. She’s standing on her hind legs with her soaked fur matted down and dripping water everywhere. What she needs to do is drop to all fours and shake the excess water from her coat but she does not want to do so in front of him.

She walks down stream to where the bushes are thick enough for her to hide behind before she shakes to her heart's content.

When she walks back towards where Jaime is he looks over at her and waves.

*

That night they build a small fire out in the open and stay out long after the sun has set.

“People call me a monster,” he says thoughtfully. “Most of them are not brave enough to say so to my face, but they say it all the same. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been offended, not if you are the monster they are speaking of.” He nods at the sizeable serving of goat she has provided him tonight. “Such generosity.”

“You don’t have to eat—”

He grabs the meat and takes a large bite before she can finish the thought.

“In their defence,” Jaime says after he has swallowed. “I am a monster.”

Brienne looks at him. With every day that passes he looks more and more like the knight people call the Lion of Lannister and less like a monster. “Hardly.”

“I killed the king I was sworn to protect,” he lists. “I have never lain with anyone but my twin sister.”

“And are those the most monstrous things you have done?” Brienne asks. Neither of these things are a revelation. He had told her the circumstances in which he had become the Kingslayer several days before as they swam in the river. He saved half a million souls by putting his sword through the king’s back that day. And he loves his sister deeply. Brienne does not pretend to find it anything but distasteful, but she understands that he loves her. Other people may think him a monster for these things, but there is no need for him to pretend he does as well in her company.

“No.”

*

She is curious.

So she asks.

He tells her.

*

“Tell me Brienne,” he says after he has told his worst deed. Of an innocent boy he pushed from a window, that he meant to die. “Brienne the Beast. What is the most monstrous thing you’ve ever done?”

She can tell he’s thinking about the swords she has provided him. About the bags of human clothes he was able to pick through to find something that fit him. Of the whispers of “beast” he must have heard closer to the villages. He still looks at her like he was not certain what she is capable of.

But she is not that sort of beast.

“Once,” she says, “I saved a man who insisted it was his time to die.”

Jaime grins, “You monster.”

*

He’s been staring at her for a very long time. She’s been trying to ignore it, but it’s been ages and he’s still watching her from where he sits on the other side of the fire.

“What is it?’ she finally asks.

“Nothing,” he says as his gaze flicks back to the dwindling fire. “It’s nothing.”

It seems it is her turn to stare, watching him from the corner of her eyes as he shakes his head as if dislodging thoughts from his skull and says, “I have been away too long.”

*

He dozes off sometime before midnight. If it was a clearer night she would keep the fire going to keep him warm and stay out here with him, but the smell of rain to come is already on the breeze.

She weighs her options for waking him. He doesn’t have any weapons to attack her with should he be startled, but the idea of the terror that will no doubt possess him when he wakes to the feel of a beastly paw on him makes her feel hollow inside. She doesn’t want to see the natural fear in him when confronted by something like her.

“Jaime,” she says as quietly as she is able, “Wake up.”

He mumbles something but barely stirs.

“Jaime.” The wind is picking up. If he doesn’t get up soon he will be walking in the rain as well as the dark and she knows his human eyes will not allow him to do so easily. Without thinking she nudges his shoulder with her paw to insist he wake.

He does not balk from her touch. He reaches his hand to her paw and holds it loosely as he exhales.

“It’s going to rain,” she explains.

He doesn’t seem worried.

“If you don’t get up I will be forced to carry you,” she says, leaning her face down very close to his. She speaks it as a threat, her voice an even lower growl than usual, but the way he smirks means he understands it is an offer.

*

The following morning she walks with him to a ridge that overlooks the most direct route back to King’s Landing.

He will be safe. He knows the way back to the roads that will lead him home, and he will be safe in the forest. After so many days in the cave and in her company her scent lingers on him. She hasn’t told him this is why she is so certain he need not worry about the other creatures in the forest, but she knows it is true.

“I’ll return,” he says. The sword she gave him is belted to his waist. “I know the way now.”

He won’t, she thinks. She hopes he won’t.

In her experience, when men look upon her and promise to return what they mean is that they will return with a sword to kill her with.

She hopes never to see him again.

“I’ll return,” Jaime insists before he goes. “You’ll see.”

*

Jaime returns with a sword.

Two in fact.

“For you,” he says as he offers the larger one to her.

*

It’s a tourney sword.

A large tourney sword. Larger than she has ever seen. The hilt is long enough for her to hold it, so she does, lifting the sword with her right paw.

She places her left paw just below the right.

The hilt is long enough for her to grip the sword with both of her paws at once.

It has been… gods, she doesn’t even want to know how many years it has been since she held a sword like this.

“I had it made,” Jaime explains. She’s still staring at the sword in her paws like the marvel it is.

Brienne doesn’t know what to say. She has never received such a thoughtful gift.

“If it’s not to your liking I will bring you another,” he says in the face of her prolonged silence.

She’s terrified she’s come across as frightfully rude, but when she tears her eyes away from the sword to tell him as clearly as she is able how much she appreciates this gift he’s smiling at her.

Her breath catches in her throat.

Because he is smiling. At her.

She thought she would never see him again.

She had hoped that she would never see him again.

“It is not a purely selfless gesture,” he says, tilting his head towards the other sword he brought. She recognizes it as the one she gave him. “I need to train.” She notices the golden hand on the end of his right arm and wonders if it is as heavy as it looks.

“And you came here?” she asks. “To me?”

“Who better?”

Anyone, she thinks, anyone would be better.

*

“I have not held a sword in many years,” Brienne protests. “Surely there are people in King’s Landing who—”

Jaime shakes his head and she does not press the matter further.

“We can relearn together,” he says. “Out here where there’s no one to see us make fools of ourselves.”

She can’t argue with that.

*

They begin with basic form exercises that first afternoon. Jaime struggles with getting his left hand to cooperate as he tries to compensate for his missing sword hand. Brienne struggles with adapting the memory of her training to the body she has now.

Neither of them are particularly competent.

But there is no one here to see them.

*

Jaime’s footwork is better, but Brienne has the advantage of being able to use two arms to swing her sword. Neither of them is comfortable, their movements too full of knowledge that no longer quite applies to the body they are in.

Brienne is bigger and heavier than any person. Her height will be an advantage in a fight, however, the length of her arms is not proportional to her body in the same way a person’s are. Her reach does not match her body the way she expects it to with a sword in her grasp so she has to relearn everything. Every swing, every block, every attack must be modified and tailored to the way her body can move.

On her left Jaime is going through a similar process, trying to convince his body that his left hand is his sword hand now, though muscle memory is fighting him more fiercely as the afternoon wears on.

*

Jaime nearly drops his sword as they drill through blocks again and his frustration bubbles over when she suggests they take a break.

He tosses the sword aside and steps away from the open section of the field.

“Don’t say something reassuring,” he snarls when she lowers her sword and follows him.

Brienne doesn’t say something reassuring. She doesn’t say anything. There is nothing she can say.

She knows he doesn’t want to hear it. He doesn’t want to stop. He just wants the body he knew back.

Brienne knows the feeling.

“No one with two hands has anything useful to say to me on the matter.” He sits down underneath a tree and closes his eyes, “I mean no offence.”

Brienne considers her two front paws before she answers, “None taken.”

*

When Jaime opens his eyes a little while later he looks at her paws. He is looking at her paws but trying not to be entirely obvious about it. He is not succeeding.

“You don’t have hands,” he finally says.

“Not precisely,” she agrees. Though she does have two of them. Four if she’s counting the paws on her feet, but the paws on her feet lack the thumb-like digit her front ones have. Either way, she’s not about to argue with a one-handed man about the comparative challenges they are facing. She knows, without question, she would choose to be a two pawed beast with a sword rather than herself as she was with one hand. Gods, even the idea of having two human hands with which to hold a sword is less appealing now that she has a sword that fits her.

Jaime is still looking at her paw.

“May I look?”

*

She nods and he stands. She holds out her paw and lets him inspect it. He asks about her grip and she turns her wrist to show him how she can make a fist. It is far from a perfect facsimile for the human hand, but it is closer than bear or lion paws come on their own. When she opens her paw back up he touches one of the pads there. Even though she saw it coming, the touch startles her enough to make her claws extend. It takes her only a fraction of a second to retract them but he has already yanked his hand away.

“I’m sorry,” she says.

“My fault.”

He’s no longer looking at her paw.

*

They gather their swords and decide they have had enough for the time being. By the time they are most of the way back to her cave Jaime is in a notably better mood.

*

“I brought food,” Jaime says unnecessarily once they have returned to her cave. She smelled the food in his bag when he first arrived. And even if she couldn’t smell the cheese and bread and salted meat through the fabric of his bag, it’s a long enough journey from King’s Landing that she assumed he brought food with him.

He lays a bundle on his lap where he sits cross-legged and uses his hand to unwrap the cloth to reveal some bread and cheese.

Then he picks up the bread and offers it to her.

She did not expect this.

*

The bread smells delicious but she does not reach for it.

“It’s all right,” Jaime says. He is still holding the bread out to her. “You can eat in front of me, if you wish to.”

She is unable to do more than stare at the food in his hand. She doesn’t want to be ashamed he has noticed this but she can think of no other name for what burns in her at his words.

“I’ve noticed you haven’t,” he adds apologetically.

He’s right. She hasn’t eaten in front of him.

She hasn’t eaten in front of anyone since she became a beast.

*

From the moment she was the beast she ate alone. Even on Tarth. Even right at the beginning when her father was certain this was a temporary state, she ate alone. In the castle, her meals were brought to her door but no further, and once she was moved out to the cottage sometimes her father or Galladon would bring her food, but they never once offered to stay with her while she ate it.

*

“It’s all right,” he says again.

She still hesitates. She feels like a bear in a dress, though it has been many years since she wore clothing of any kind. The lessons on proper table customs were drilled into her as a child the same way her lessons with a blade were, and she has no doubt that they will translate poorly to her beastly form.

Her traitorous mouth waters. Saliva is already pooling in the corners of her mouth the way it does when she’s about to sink her teeth into fresh meat. She is mindful to swallow frequently, lest she start drooling like a dog.

“You will have to help me break the bread,” he adds, self-deprecating and a hint apologetic as he gestures with his false hand.

She reaches for the bread.

*

The bread is fresh and soft and it rips into two pieces without resistance when she sinks her claws into the centre of it.

He lifts the smaller of the two halves from her paw and smiles before he takes a bite.

She follows suit.

*

The bread is delicious. Some things do not taste as good to her now as they did on her human tongue, but the bread is even better than she remembers it being.

Even taking little bites her teeth make short work of the bread. Her heart is pounding like she’s walking into a trap as she chews.

Across from her Jaime is eating his own meal. He is neither staring at her nor averting his gaze. He’s still talking to her between bites as if nothing out of the ordinary is happening.

Brienne is the one who has to look away.

*

When Jaime is finished his bread he offers her half of the cheese.

Brienne accepts without hesitation.

*

By the middle of the next day they feel ready to practice simple strikes and blocks against one another. Jaime had been eager to try sooner, but Brienne had held him off, wanting more time to get used to the sword in her paws. She is very aware that even without a sword she could kill him without meaning to, but after spending the morning working on her footwork, testing her balance, and practicing swinging the sword with various levels of speed and strength she finally agrees.

They move with slow and careful deliberation. Each time they discuss what will happen before it does. Brienne insists on only blocking his strikes so that is how it goes.

They discuss. They move into position. Jaime attacks. Brienne blocks.

*

After the first few times their swords meet Jaime steps back and smiles.

She doesn’t have to ask why.

The feel of steel against steel is making her heart sing too.

*

When he leaves the following morning Brienne is sorry to see him go.

He says he will return but she dares not believe him.

*

Brienne resumes her normal routine once Jaime has left. She hunts and she eats and she explores the woods and she sleeps and she is grateful for her beastly body when a pack of wolves ventures too close and it takes little more than a growl and a roar to send them away.

*

Jaime left the bedroll he brought with him behind.

An oversight, she is sure. A mistake. She will not let herself read into it.

She has to walk past it every day where it rests against the far side of her cave.

It smells like him.

*

Brienne does not touch her sword.

She looks at it where it lies in her cave, next to the nest of furs and blankets upon which she sleeps, but she does not touch it.

She has no reason to.

Jaime gave it to her so he could train with her.

But he is not here anymore.

She is a beast.

Beasts do not use swords.

*

It’s not that she’s afraid to be seen carrying a sword. So few people venture this deep into the woods it is beyond unlikely that anyone would see her with it.

If she picks up the sword, if she practices with it, if she spends her time training the strength of her swings to match those of a person, that would feel like she is admitting that she thinks there is a chance that Jaime will return to train with her again.

And she cannot let herself hope for such things.

*

It is not that Brienne is lonely.

She is used to being alone. Accustomed to it.

Her years as a beast have granted her solitude the likes of which few will ever know. Solitude she relishes in.

Still, there are times she is aware of just how alone she is.

*

Jaime is waiting for her in the mouth of her cave when she returns from the river.

He leaps to his feet and reaches for his sword as if to defend himself before he realizes what he heard approaching was just her.

Then he grins and asks if she’s ready to train as he reaches for his sword once again.

*

He has been practicing. That much is clear. His left hand is still unskilled compared to his right, but his movements are more fluid.

In contrast, Brienne, who has not touched her sword since the last time they stood together in this grassy field, seems to be worse. It takes her much longer to find her rhythm, so much so that she refuses to let them exchange any blows for much of that first day.

By the time he is telling her he has to return to King’s Landing two days later she is determined to practice enough in his absence to keep up with him on the off chance he returns.

*

Jaime returns. It has barely been any time at all but here they are once again, swords drawn and shining in the midday sun.

When he leaves and says he will return she can’t help but believe him.

*

The next time Jaime returns he has only just arrived when he says, “Lord Galladon and his wife are expecting their third child. He said he hoped to return to Tarth before the birth.”

It takes her a moment to process this and even longer to coax words from her throat. “You spoke to him?”

Brienne has mentioned Tarth to Jaime before, not in any great detail, but enough to acknowledge that is where she was originally from. She has not mentioned which family she belonged to there. It’s not that she is naive enough to think Jaime lacked the resources or ability to figure it out further, but she did not expect him to do so, much less return with news of her brother.

“Briefly,” he says. “He was in King’s Landing and he was not keen to talk to me. Then I asked if he had received news of you lately.”

“You asked him about me?” she asks, trying to ignore the jolt of panic that causes. She does not know what story Galladon has told to explain her absence, but she’s not sure she wants to know.

“He was not expecting the question, to be sure,” Jaime says. “He said you were dead, but I asked him again if he had received news of you lately. When it finally dawned on him what I was telling him he was much more interested in speaking with me.”

Brienne would think so. Galladon could not have been expecting anyone in King’s Landing to be approaching him with news of his monster of a sister, much less the Kingslayer.

“I told him you are alive and well,” he says. “He was grateful for the news. I hope you are not upset I told him I had been in contact with you.”

She’s not upset. She is glad of the news of Galladon and his children and she is glad Jaime was able to tell Galladon that she is alive. She hopes her brother is at peace with what has happened to her. It takes her a few moments to ask Jaime the question she still wants to know, “How did you say we crossed paths?”

He looks over at her before he answers, “I said that you had saved me too.”

*

She has not told Jaime that it was her brother she saved all those years ago, but she does not deny it to be true.

“Your brother asked that if I ever saw you again that I give you this message: There will always be a place for you on Tarth.”

Brienne nods once and thanks him for delivering it.

“Do you want to go back to Tarth?” he asks. “Because if you ever do, I could help you find a ship to—”

She shakes her head. She doesn’t want to go back to Tarth.

“Good,” he says. “It would be much harder to visit you there and my sword work is still abysmal.”

“Where do they think you are when you are here?” Brienne asks. She has wondered it many times, but this is the first time she voices the question.

“Training,” he says with a slight grin.

He told them the truth, though she suspects not all of it. “Where do they think you’re training?”

“No one has asked,” he says. There’s a lightness to his tone but when she looks over at him he’s not grinning anymore.

He pushes his hair from his forehead with his stump. She has noticed he often chooses not to wear his golden hand when he is with her.

*

Jaime is the one to suggest sparring. He is eager to move beyond practicing the moves and start putting them to the test.

Brienne is the one who isn’t ready.

She has been practicing, both with him and without. There is no doubt she is better than she was. But she is not ready.

She makes no secret of why. She’s strong enough to kill him by mistake. Even if they spar at the lightest of intensities, she could hurt him. She could kill him. Of course she is reluctant to put her skills to such a high stakes test.

He makes no secret that the fact that she could kill him so easily does not bother him nearly as much as it should.

*

“I have to leave tomorrow,” he says that evening as he settles onto his bedroll for the night. He just arrived today. Usually he stays for at least two nights. But he has to leave tomorrow.

Brienne can’t help but wonder why he bothered to travel all this way for so little training time.

*

They rise early enough the next day to have more time out in the field before he has to return. He does not say precisely why he must return so soon, only that he must. He packs his bag and brings it with him to the clearing where they practice to maximize the time they will have there today.

He is still far from what he must have been before he lost his hand, but there is no denying that his commitment to training is starting to pay off.

*

They drill each other until the sun is high and Jaime’s arm shakes with exhaustion when he lowers his sword and regretfully says he really must be going.

He asks if she wants to walk with him as he begins to travel home but she declines, instead choosing to take her sword back to her cave.

His bedroll is still off to the side of the cave, where it always is.

*

The part of her cave where he slept smells like him for days after he leaves. It is strongest at first, so overpoweringly Jaime that she has to fight against the sense memories it drags up every time she walks by. She is grateful that it fades over time. She cannot handle the way her heart leaps at the thought of seeing him before she realizes a split second later that he is no longer here.

*

He never says how long it will be before he will be back. She suspects he does not know, but she no longer doubts that he will return.

When he is gone she goes about her life as she did before. The only difference is the time she spends practicing with her sword.

If Jaime sees fit to visit her to train she is determined to make it worth his while.

*

Even several full turns of the moon later his bedroll still smells of him enough to make her ache for him if she gets too close.

*

Brienne is out in the fields to the east of her cave trying to ignore the way her stomach pangs with hunger as she hunts when she smells Jaime on the breeze. She stands up on her hind legs and looks down the hill knowing it can only be him, and sure enough, he is on his way.

She has not eaten very much in the last few days. The few fish she had the day before are not holding her over and she will need to find something more substantial soon, but Jaime is here and she can go another day on the meagre fish she catches from the river this time of year.

Even hungry as she is, she abandons her hunt and goes to intercept him before he arrives.

*

As they make their way back to the cave to drop off his bag they debate the merits of eating before or after they start training.

Brienne hears a twig snap in the distance. She stops and holds still. Beside her Jaime does the same but it is clear he does not know why. She is glad he does not ask aloud, as their silence is rewarded when a deer makes itself visible through the trees to their right.

She glances at him and he nods his understanding without a word so she drops down to all fours to stalk after the deer.

It’s not until she returns to him with the deer slung over her shoulder that it occurs to her that she’s never walked on all fours in front of him before.

*

“You don’t need to cook meat before you eat it, do you?” he asks. The fire they have built is just starting to take. It will be a while before they are able to cook anything on it. She swallows to stop herself from salivating too fiercely at the thought.

“No,” she answers. Her stomach is that of a wild thing, be it bear or lion or something else. She does not need to cook what she kills before she eats it. “I do though. Sometimes.”

“When I’m here,” he supplies.

“Yes,” she agrees. “But also when you are not.”

“Why?”

She’s never asked herself this question so she thinks about it before she answers, “Variety I suppose. And because I can.”

She may be a beast, but she can still light a fire and slow cook her game when the mood strikes her.

Jaime finds this all very interesting and they talk about food until the fire is ready.

*

The fire they have built is not big enough to roast the whole deer at once, so they select a few of the finest cuts to cook.

They divide the meat between them when it is safe for Jaime to eat.

*

“You can have more,” Jaime says between bites. He is still working on the last piece of his portion. She has finished hers.

That is all of the deer that they cooked.

“Don’t stop on my account,” he says simply. “If you’re still hungry, eat. ”

She is still hungry.

The rest of the deer is not so far away and it is making her mouth water though she wishes it was not. She glances over at it before she looks back at the fire, feeling the heat rise in her face beneath her fur.

“It won’t bother me,” he insists.

The fact that she believes him makes her eyes burn with something other than shame.

She tucks her legs closer to her body and stays where she is seated beside the fire.

*

“I’m going to put my bag in the cave,” he says after he has finished and set the bone aside. “And I think I might rest for a little while. Long journey and all that. Come get me when you’re ready to train.”

She understands his meaning and is so grateful for it that all she can do is nod and look the opposite direction as he walks away, leaving her to finish her meal alone.

*

He is sitting on his bedroll and leaning against the stone wall behind him when she returns to the cave. He does not mention the kindness he has afforded her, he just stands to follow her back out into the wild with his sword in hand.

*

They warm up as they usually do. They practice as they usually do.

This time Brienne is the one who suggests they spar for real.

She has had much time to think on how they will do this. She has been practicing. She will be careful.

Jaime is too excited by the prospect to be worried about the danger he is in when they cross their swords and begin.

*

Within moments of starting the force she uses is too much for him. When she tries to correct it their swords tangle together awkwardly. Jaime manages to stagger away, but his next strike is not well placed and her block puts him off balance and her counter sends him to the ground.

He is not quick to get back up.

“Are you hurt?” she asks. She’s afraid to get any closer, afraid to crowd him or touch him or accidentally make things worse.

It happened so fast she’d barely had time to think. This is precisely what she was afraid of.

He groans and hauls himself back to his feet.

She knew this was a mistake. The first time they spar and he’s—

Jaime is smiling.

*

“I haven’t been knocked down like that since I was barely a squire,” he says as he brushes the worst of the dirt from his front. “Again?”

“Again?” she asks incredulously. They lasted all of seconds. If they continue like this she is sure to tear him apart without meaning to.

This was a mistake.

*

“Jaime I can’t.”

What she wants to do is hurl her sword away from her and never touch it again. It was a mistake to spar with him. It was a mistake to pick up the sword at all. It is just another thing that she is not built to have.

“Of course you can,” he says and she suddenly hates that she is going to have to explain this to him. Because he doesn’t understand. How could he possibly understand?

“Look at me!” she snaps, her definitive proof of her point.

That should be the end of it, but he actually does it. He looks at her. He looks at her and even as she feels her insides twisting with the horror of what he must be seeing, this hideous overgrown beast playing at swords like a child, he does not understand.

Just when she thinks this cannot get any worse he says her name.

*

It’s too much. She can’t stand her and listen to him call her by her name and earnestly insist she is fit to hold a sword. She can’t. She won’t.

She turns and walks away.

*

He is not deterred. He follows her and says her name again and it is awful, it is excruciating, and she will not stand for it to continue a moment longer.

She stops and turns to face him to put an end to this. “I don’t want to hurt you!”

The words come out of her mouth too forcefully. She is uncomfortably reminded of the animals she corners when she hunts. Of the sounds they make when they can no longer escape the inevitable and they lash out with everything they can muster.

*

What she wants to do is lie down and curl up in as tight a ball as she can make like she does on the coldest nights and stay there until he leaves and never returns, but she’s afraid to look too much like a scolded dog in front of him so she walks a little ways away and sits instead.

He comes and sits not very far from her.

*

“Tell me,” he says after they have sat together in silence. “When you were first learning to use a sword, who taught you?’

She speaks to the grass in front of her when she answers, “Ser Goodwin.”

“And was he bigger than you? Stronger than you?”

She sees where he is going with this. “He was. However—”

“It is the same thing,” he says.

It is not the same. “I am not a knight. I’m just a—”

“A what?” he says. He tilts his head slightly and his honest curiosity makes her refuse to finish the thought. She doesn’t know herself which word she would have used if given the time to think on it.

“You’re a knight,” she says. She’s extended one of her claws and is scratching a line into the dirt. “An accomplished swordsman.”

“I was,” he says with only a hint of bitterness.

“You should be teaching me.”

“I am,” he says. “Your footwork is already much better than it was.”

She huffs but does not reply. She knows her footwork is already much better than it was.

*

“You didn’t hurt me,” he says after some time.

“I will.” It’s just a matter of time. She’s too big and too strong and too monstrous. Anyone can see that. Anyone but Jaime it seems.

“Brienne, you knocked me down. Nothing more than that. It’s how we learn. How many times did Ser Goodwin send you to the dirt when you were learning to fight?”

Countless times. She could not even put a number to it. That was the most important lesson of those early sparring matches: Fights are fights. If she treated them like a rehearsed dance she would lose. She learned this lesson picking herself off the ground with bruises all over her body and bloody knuckles on the hilt of her sword.

“It’s how we learn,” Jaime says again. “You trusted Ser Goodwin not to harm you and now I do the same with you.”

“You trust me with your life?” There is no getting around this. She is not a person. Her strength outmatches Ser Goodwin’s by a considerable degree. She could hurt Jaime. She could kill Jaime. She could kill him so easily.

“Yes,” he says simply. He looks surprised this would be new information to her, but it is.

*

“So,” he says. “Again?”

They go again.

*

The second match lasts a little longer than the first but it ends the same way.

When he gets up and they go again, she knocks him down again.

*

The first time he slips under her guard and lands a strike against her arm he shouts in triumph and asks if she is all right in the same breath.

Of course she is all right. He hit her with the flat of his dulled blade. She points out that even if his blade was sharp he would struggle to slice through her thick skin.

“Again?” she asks.

He grins.

They go again.

*

He learns her weaknesses and presses them. She corrects and adapts, refusing to let him past her defences the same way twice.

He gets stronger. She gets faster.

There is no question they are both getting better.

*

She knocks him down.

Again and again.

Jaime always gets back up.

*

When they finish for the day, Jaime theatrically collapses to the ground. He groans and rolls over so he is lying spread-eagle on his back and then he laughs at the sky for a long time.

She’s never seen him so happy.

*

“How long have you been like this?” he asks. They are walking back out to the field to train the following morning. He’s obviously still sore from yesterday, but he came all this way to train and he wants to do so before he has to return.

“Years,” she says, the honest answer to his question coming without hesitation. “At least six years I’m fairly sure.” She does not keep track of time with any particular care or precision anymore. She has little need of it beyond the sun and the moon in the sky.

“You haven’t been human in six years?” he echoes like he’s trying to imagine what that would be like.

It would be easier to simply agree but instead she admits that that’s not quite true.

*

She’s not sure why she feels compelled to tell him the truth of this matter. Seven know she has hidden it from everyone after the first few times it happened, preferring to let her family believe she was the beast all of the time without interruption.

Perhaps it is because Jaime had answered her question as to why he killed the king all those moons ago, but whatever the reason, she tells him that on rare occasions, she finds herself human again.

He stops walking but she does not. She hears him jogging a few paces to catch up to her.

*

“You transform?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“Can you control it?”

“No.”

“Do you know when it will happen?”

“No. And it never lasts for very long when it does,” she says, lest he get the wrong idea. “A few minutes at most and then I am mys— Then I am the beast again.”

“How often?”

Brienne thinks back, trying to place the instances since she left Tarth in human time. “Once or twice a year at most. Sometimes less.”

“When was the last time it happened?”

This she doesn’t have to think about. She was human for a moment or so the last time the moon was starting to wane and she tells him so.

“That’s after we met,” he says in surprise.

“Yes.” She doesn’t see what that has to do with anything. He was in King’s Landing when it happened, thank the gods.

They walk through the woods a little while longer before he asks, “What do you look like when you’re human?”

She shakes her head once and looks anywhere but at him and he does not ask her anything else.

*

When Jaime leaves to go back to King’s Landing Brienne returns her sword to the cave and sets off for the deepest part of the woods.

Her muscles are sore from the training, but she pushes herself onwards faster as she heads north. It has been several long days since she had eaten properly, making do with what food Jaime shared with her and the small game she caught and shared with him in return. She is determined not to rest until she fixes that.

*

After she has eaten her fill she lays herself out on a sunny patch of ground and lets the sun warm her fur while she dozes.

*

She does not return to her cave for several days, choosing to sleep out in the wild while the weather is favourable.

Out here she wakes to only the smells of the forest where Jaime has never set foot.

*

When she returns to her cave some days later she stays only as long as it takes to collect her sword.

By the time she returns she is exhausted enough to curl up in her blankets and sleep without having to dwell on how empty her cave feels when Jaime isn’t around.

*

Brienne returns to her routine. She hunts and she eats and she wanders the woods, sometimes for a day or two at time, but the longer Jaime has been away the closer she stays to her cave. She doesn’t want to be out of range when he returns.

*

Brienne smells Jaime on the wind and runs down through the woods as fast as she can to greet him. She does not want to catch him off guard so far from her cave, so when she gets close she intentionally makes noise as she approaches.

When she reveals herself he is holding his sword at the ready, but he is smiling.

He is keen to go straight to the field where they train, but she has to return to the cave to collect her sword first.

He frowns and looks at her, as if realizing for the first time that she does not carry her sword at all times.

As they walk together to get her sword, (him on two legs, her on four), he teases her about her less than stealthy ambush so she flicks him with her tail. The way he laughs in response makes her miss the sounds her human throat used to make.

*

“They talk about you you know,” Jaime says.

“Who?” she asks far too sharply.

“The smallfolk. They are quite keen to warn me about the beast in the woods. They are very concerned for my well-being.”

“That seems unlikely.” Brienne has lived apart from the world of men for many years, but she knows the Kingslayer is far from popular.

“Ah,” he admits, tipping his head to concede the point but grinning all the same. “They don’t know I’m me.”

She looks him over. His false hand is covered with a glove and his cloak has a hood. He is not wearing his armour. With the cloak drawn no one would know it is the Kingslayer stealing away into the woods. The thought comforts her.

“Did you know you’re twelve feet tall?” he asks, obviously enjoying himself before he adds, “With an unquenchable taste for human flesh, of course.”

“Of course,” she echoes, the dull sense of dread already upon her. It’s the same everywhere. This is the third place she has settled in since leaving Tarth and she has been so careful not to be seen. But it doesn’t matter. One glimpse of her is all it takes.

“No one’s seen you in years,” he says as he looks over at her. “Don’t worry.”

She nods once, hoping he is right. She hates the thought of having to move. She likes it here. She has made a home for herself here. She does not know where she would go if she were driven out of the woods, she just knows it would be further from Jaime, and if she were any further from King’s Landing it’s unlikely he would be able to visit her at all.

“Most of them think you’re a myth, the rest of them hope you are dead, but they all give the deep woods a wide berth,” he says. “You’re safe.”

*

The next time he visits he brings her belts.

At first she is confused, staring at them blankly in his outstretched hands. They are fine belts to be sure, wider than she has ever seen a person wear, and long enough that she is certain he had them custom made for her. But she has never once worn clothing of any kind in his presence, much less the types of clothes that would benefit from a belt.

“They’re for your sword,” he says. “I realized you had no means to carry it except in your paws.”

“Oh,” she says, knowing a sword will not hang properly from her hips.

“Two,” he adds. “So you can choose whether to wear it on your hip or across your back.”

He places the belts in her paws. Once they are in her hand she can see that the buckles on them are large enough she will be able to maneuver them with her paws without help.

She still doesn’t know what to do in the face of his thoughtfulness.

*

It is not until much later that evening that she collects her sword and the belts and lays them across her lap where she sits on her makeshift bed.

Jaime had retired to his bedroll and some time ago, so she feels able to examine the belts and put them to the test. She had intended to wait until he was gone. He won’t be here with her for more than a day or two, and then she would be free to try on her sword any number of ways with no one around to see when it did not hang properly from her frame. But it is dark enough in the cave that he will not be able to see, and he is asleep in any case.

As she threads the first of the belts through one of the slots in her sword’s simple scabbard she finds herself considering it. He must have had the scabbard custom-made as well. Her sword is so large one would not have existed for it beforehand.

It takes some adjustment to get the two belts in place and the buckles set at the right length to secure the sword to her body without it being too tight, but before long she has her sword worn across her back. The alcove where she sleeps is among the smallest parts of the cave. There is not enough space for her to stand or to draw the sword. She knows she should wait, but she can’t resist stealing past where Jaime sleeps to get to where she will have room enough to put the belts to the test.

*

Once Brienne is out under the stars she walks on four legs, and then on two, and then on four again. She makes a minor adjustment to one of the belts, tightening it a notch or two, then she repeats the process again.

Soon she is tearing through the forest like the beast she is with her sword on her back.

*

When she returns to the cave she is almost all of the way back to her bed when Jaime says, “It suits you.”

*

The following morning she wears her sword as they walk over to the field where they train.

*

She continues to wear her sword after Jaime has left. Not all the time, but sometimes. Most of the time she doesn’t even draw it, but she likes the feel of it resting against her back as she roams.

*

Something is amiss the next time Jaime comes to visit. He is less talkative than he has been since he was almost dead and all he wants to do is train.

He came all this way to train so that is what they will do.

*

Brienne is still hesitant to spar with intensity in general, but today more than ever. She knows it is valuable for both of them. She knows he trusts her not to hurt him. That hasn’t made her any less cautious. She is still careful to make sure things do not get out of hand. She does not know what is bothering Jaime today but she knows it is something, and men are not known for making good decisions on the battlefield when their minds are elsewhere.

They start out slow, as they always do. She lets Jaime dictate the pace of this, but every time their swords meet he comes at her a little harder, a little faster. She doesn’t quite match his effort.

He wins the first three bouts and he does not look pleased when she compliments his form as they begin again.

“Do not let me win to make me feel better,” he snarls through gritted teeth. His strikes are hard and purposeful. “I did not come here for your pity.”

She bristles at his tone and jabs for his weak side. He just barely manages to block it, but for the first time since he has arrived his eyes brighten with purpose.

*

It does not take much to set them in motion.

Before long they are fighting harder than ever before.

*

When she knocks his sword away and he falls backwards she pounces after him, landing with her four paws on either side of his body.

He moves as if he means to reach for his sword, as if he means to keep fighting, but she is too fast for him, pinning him down with a single paw to his chest as she stands over him, perfectly steady on her other three limbs. If she was a person he might have hope of throwing her off balance enough to wrestle himself away or pin her down himself, but she is not a person and he has no hope of winning this match now.

But he is still testing the way she’s holding him down as if he means to try.

*

He tries to shift his weight, to strain up against her, to leverage his legs.

It is no use.

He has no hope of overpowering her. She’s using so little of her weight to hold him in place. One move on her part and his ribcage would collapse in on itself.

The thought makes her own chest feel as breakable as his is.

*

“You dropped your sword,” she tells him when he does not yield.

“So did you,” he points out, like somehow they are still on even footing.

“You forget,” she says as she lets her claws of the paw she’s holding him down with extend enough to brush against the soft skin at the base of his neck. “I need no sword.”

His pupils are very dark as he looks up at her and admits she has a point.

*

He is slow to get back on his feet after he yields. Instead he sits with one knee up by his chin with his arm draped across it for quite some time before he quietly asks, “Again?”

*

“If you could go back, would you?” They’ve finished their evening meal and the fire is little more than embers glowing in the night.

“Go back?”

“To be human.” He’s lying on his side with his head propped up on his hand beside her. The stars are bright overhead but he’s looking at her. “Would you change back for good if you could?”

She exhales into the night air to stall, pretending to be thinking about her answer.

“You wouldn’t, would you?” he asks. He is still asking, still waiting for her to answer, but she can tell he’s figured her out. “If you had a choice, you wouldn’t go back to being human.”

“There are things I miss about being human,” she says carefully.

“Such as?”

“People,” she says without hesitation. “I miss my family.” She misses them fiercely. She misses them even more staring up at the constellations her father showed her when she was a girl.

“And what don’t you miss?”

She looks over at him before she answers, already knowing exactly how this will sound. “People.”

The look on his face is too full of understanding for her comfort.

*

“I have to go,” he says the following morning.

“Yes,” she agrees. “I’m sure your sister is waiting for you.”

He stills. She has not mentioned his sister since the first time he was here. Perhaps he had forgotten she knew about her at all.

Brienne already regrets mentioning her.

“Things have been different between us,” he says. “Since I returned.”

Brienne is afraid to ask what kind of different. His sister is a beautiful woman. The most beautiful woman in the world. That is what he had told her.

“She barely looks at me anymore,” he says.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

She is though. She is sorry the person he loves will not look at him.

She would not wish that on anyone.

*

He returns. Sooner than he has ever returned before. His scent has barely faded from the place where he sleeps but here he is, sword in hand and a smile upon his face.

*

Brienne rises before the sun does and ventures past where Jaime is sleeping in his part of the cave as quietly as she can. She is not sure why she bothers to be so stealthy. He is fast asleep when she passes. They had trained hard yesterday. She does not expect him to wake for hours.

Once she is outside she walks her front legs forward and arches her back to stretch, yawning as she does so. The dew is still thick, but she can hear the forest beginning to wake as she pads along towards the river.

*

She wades into the deepest part of the river on all fours, both to cool off and to wake up, before she ventures a little further downstream to the section where she likes to fish.

*

A lot of the things she does as a beast come naturally. Hunting on land she does without thought. Hunting in water is still a struggle. It requires a different sort of patience, standing here in the shallows of the river, waiting for the fish to get close enough for her to grab or bite.

No matter how many times she has done this she can’t help feeling like the fish are bound to get the better of her.

*

After waiting for what feels like a day, but can’t be too long because the sun is just rising over the trees, a large salmon swims close to her left leg so she makes her move.

She gets her paw on it, her left first, and then her right. The salmon flops and twists in midair, and when she swipes at it with her claws she nicks its tail as it hits her arm before it lands back in the water with a splash. Then the indignant salmon swims out of reach before she can recover.

“You make it look so easy.”

She turns and sees Jaime approaching the river bank. He looks very amused.

“I’d like to see you try.” she replies.

He holds up his stump. He’s not wearing his golden hand this morning. “It’s up to you I’m afraid,” he says with a good impression of regret, though the look on his face gives him away.

*

“You could get a fire going,” she suggests after another fish has slipped through her grasp.

“Do you think we’ll need it?” he asks lightly, but he’s smiling when he goes about collecting branches to do so.

*

She fishes while he watches and tends to the small fire. He holds his tongue while she is quiet and watchful, but as soon as yet another fish gets away he is all too willing to express his enjoyment.

He gets particular joy from the time she dives face first into the water with a mighty splash and a garbled bark and still surfaces without a fish.

*

When she does manage to catch a fish, she carries it back across the river in her mouth before climbing up onto the bank near where Jaime sits. She places the fish down onto a rock beside him before she walks far enough away to shake herself off without dousing the fire.

She does not walk far enough away that Jaime is out of range.

When he yelps she does her best to look as innocent as possible.

*

Once the fish is in place over the fire she wades back out into the river.

Jaime starts to ask her why, but then he looks at the size of the fish and wishes her luck instead.

*

When her teeth sink into a salmon that misjudged her speed, she knows she has a choice to make.

It will take all day if she waits to cook everything she catches for herself before she eats it. She knows it will take longer than they have. Jaime has to be traveling back to King’s Landing before early afternoon. They don’t have time and she is hungry.

She glances over at Jaime. As she fished she had ventured a little further away from him. He is still right there on the far bank of the river sitting beside the fire while his fish cooks, but he’s not right across from her, and he’s not staring at her. She’s not even sure he’s looking at her right now. He can see her, she knows she’s not hidden from him, but her back is turned and she is hungry.

*

She eats the fish.

She eats the fish and then she catches another and eats that one as well.

When she dares to look over at Jaime he does not seem bothered.

After delaying as long as she can she climbs back out of the river, shakes, and then walks back to where he is. She sits down on the other side of the fire to wait for him to finish his meal and for him to express his disgust at hers.

He doesn’t. He doesn’t do anything of the sort. He just thanks her for providing him breakfast and expresses his enthusiasm for their upcoming training session.

*

When he leaves that afternoon she straps her sword to her back and ventures to the deepest part of the woods.

*

The following day she is still out in the woods when it happens. Suddenly she is walking on hands and feet instead of four paws.

She stands and looks at her unfamiliar hands with a detached sort of curiosity before she becomes aware of the weight of the sword on her back.

*

The belts are hanging off her in strange ways, her human body a fraction of the size of her usual bulk. She shrugs the belts from her body and steps away to look at where her sword rests on the forest floor.

Her sword looks massive.

*

She does not remember the last time she held a sword in her human hands. She has never held her sword with human hands. She knows it is too large for her. She knows it will be too heavy.

But she cannot help but try.

*

She is strong enough to draw the sword from its scabbard.

The hilt is unfamiliar in her hands. The balance is wrong. It is far too long. The weight is too much for her to swing.

It is her sword, but like this she cannot wield it.

When her bones start to ache and the transformation sets in, Brienne has the pleasure of watching her hands shift back to the paws her sword was built for.

*

Jaime is gone for quite some time. Brienne feels like he has never taken so long to return, but she does not know. His bedroll still smells of him in that distant way that reminds her it has been a long time since he was here every time she passes by it. She has half a mind to move it aside, to place it somewhere she does not have to walk past it multiple times a day, but she does not.

*

The forest is very large and full of life and Brienne spends as much time out there as she can. Out in the woods it is easier to forget how alone she is.

*

Jaime is gone long enough that she has to press her nose to his bedroll to be sure it still smells of him at all.

*

The day she catches the barest hint of his scent amongst the usual landscape she tears off through the woods towards it because it can only mean one thing.

When she finds him making his way through the trees towards her cave she has to fight the urge to leap across the remaining distance between them and nuzzle her face against his chest just to breathe him in.

*

He looks tired, tired in ways that make her fear for what he has seen and done in his absence, but he is here and he is happy to see her.

*

For the next couple of days they train and they eat and they rest and they talk. Perhaps it is because he has never been away so long, but they talk more than they ever have before.

She’s telling him about her eleventh nameday when it hits her that any moment he will tell her when he has to return to King’s Landing. She’s only slightly wrong. It’s another two hours before he tells when he has to leave.

She hates how much she wants to ask him to stay.

*

The day before he has to leave they decide not to train and go exploring instead. They end up further away from her cave than they intended. It is mostly Brienne’s fault. She has not had to calibrate her distance traveled to human limits in ages, and she has never walked these hills with human legs. They will not make it back before nightfall.

This is not an issue for her, but Jaime cannot see in the dark the way she can.

“We can keep going,” he tells her.

“I’d rather you not break your leg up here,” she tells him. She stands to her fullest height to survey their surroundings and then points with a massive paw. “It looks like there’s some shelter over there.”

“You’ve tended to me before,” he points out.

“Once was enough.”

He’s grinning at her when she glances over at him before he follows her towards the potential shelter she has found.

*

The shelter is more exposed than she would have liked. A handful of boulders, two of which create enough of a roof to keep them dry if it rains. If it was just her it would be fine. They are far enough from any villages that no people will be in the area and no creature in the forest would disturb her by choice.

Jaime on the other hand, is a person. He is more susceptible to predators and to the elements, though he seems unbothered by the prospect of having to spend the night here. Still, Brienne knows they have ventured far enough from her usual territory that it is not impossible something unfamiliar with her might follow their trail assuming she and Jaime are hunter and prey and not companions. It would not be the first time something has followed her hunting trail hoping to find some scraps of what she did not eat at the end.

*

They had not intended to be gone overnight. He did not bring his bedroll and his cloak is thin. It is not fit to act as a blanket for long.

It is Jaime who suggests sharing body heat when they sleep, correctly pointing out that she has it to spare.

*

“I could harm you so easily,” she protests. This isn’t sparring. Look at the size of her. She could kill him without meaning to. One wrong move and he would be dead.

“You won’t.”

Brienne stalls as she weighs the risks. The closer he is to her, the less likely he will get chilled and sick, or spotted by anything looking for easy prey. But the closer he is to her, the closer he will be to her. Her, a monstrous beast of a thing, all teeth and claws and powerful size, packed together in a form that could crush, slice, or maim him to death in an instant.

But even worse than that, it would be Jaime lying beside her all night.

And Brienne does not want to parse through the torrent of feelings that threaten to overtake her if she lets herself dwell on the reality of that.

*

In the end she admits his assessment is correct. The temperature is dropping, and she is warmer than he is. It will protect him from the cold and from whatever else is out here. If she doesn’t sleep she can ensure she doesn’t accidentally kill him in the night.

However else she feels about it this arrangement doesn’t matter.

Because it doesn’t matter.

Jaime is Jaime. And he is a person. A beautiful person. The most beautiful person Brienne has ever seen.

And Brienne is not beautiful.

Brienne is not even a person.

So it doesn’t matter what she’s feeling.

Regardless of how much she’s feeling.

It doesn’t matter.

*

Jaime lets her choose how to do this so she does, lying down on her side with her head facing towards the entrance to the enclave. This way she will be able to keep him warm and see anything that moves in the dark as he sleeps next to her.

She’s determined not to focus on his proximity. But as soon as she nods her consent that she is ready he smiles and she does not know how she will survive this.

*

“Oh gods!” he exclaims into her fur as soon as he has lain down beside her.

She pulls away from him as much as she can, her back pressing against the stone behind her. “Did I hurt you?”

“No,” he laughs away her concern.“You’re so warm.”

To prove his point he burrows more intentionally against her, rubbing his hand amongst the thick fur of her chest and murmuring something that gets muffled because his face is pressed against her body.

She’s trying not to feel anything about that.

*

“I’ll keep watch while you sleep,” she tells him after he has settled beside her. His fingers are still gently flexing and relaxing against fur, though she does not think he realizes he is doing it.

“You don’t need to keep watch,” he tells her. “You should sleep too.”

“I’ll keep watch,” she insists. “You sleep.”

“There’s no one around for miles. And you said it yourself, no creature around here is about to attack you.”

She grumbles at his logic while trying not to enjoy the way he feels against her and then he grumbles right back at her, deepening his voice as much as he can to try and match hers. He doesn’t get close, but it makes her laugh and gods the way he laughs and she can feel him shaking with mirth against her and—

She wants to pull him closer and she wants to shove him away and she wants to run because she wants… she wants him so much and the agony of that impossible desire will tear her apart if she doesn’t get this under control.

*

Jaime doesn’t go to sleep right away. He doesn’t even try to fall asleep right away. He seems perfectly content to lie there alongside her and talk about this and that as if it is of no concern that his bedfellow is a creature built for nightmares.

“Soft,” he says through a yawn as he runs his fingers through her fur. “So soft.”

Brienne has to bite her tongue to keep from whimpering like a starved dog.

She cannot remember the last time anyone touched her with any sort of compassion.

*

By the time he falls asleep she has to consciously stop herself from trembling or whining or howling just to give herself some outlet for what is consuming her beyond what she can endure.

She can feel Jaime’s breath against her fur. His limp body is utterly relaxed and trusting against hers.

Her body is massive and it feels even more so with Jaime so close. How can her body be so big and still feel too small to contain all of this? She dares not name it. Even acknowledging it is too much. To want. To admit… to know what she wants is already too much.

Her beastly body was not built for this.

*

She wakes first, but does not dare dislodge herself from where she lies.

Not with Jaime curled up so tightly beside her with his head resting on her arm.

*

When he does start to stir, he does so without urgency, rolling so he is on his back and then shifting towards her as he makes a little sound and yawns.

She stares openly at him.

At this beautiful sleep-tousled man who thinks nothing of bedding down alongside a monster.

Jaime.

Brienne trembles with the effort to hold still. She wants to brush his hair off his forehead so much she has to remind herself that her massive paws are not capable of such a delicate task.

She puts her head down beside his so she doesn’t have to look at him when he opens his eyes.

*

Once he has extracted himself from her massive form, the morning is like any other. They talk about the weather and how good the conditions are for training. They talk about what they will eat later in the day. They prepare for the journey they will take to get back to her cave.

But as they do all of the things they have done dozens of times now, Brienne cannot shake herself away from wanting to be close to him still.

Jaime.

Jaime, who trusts her with his body and his life and his secrets all at once.

Brienne doesn’t know what to do with that, but she feels it, the weight of his trust in her as he looks over at her and asks her to lead the way home.

She sinks her claws into the dirt to stop herself from fleeing deep into the wood to howl her pain from her lungs.

*

She smells him on her all morning. Jaime’s scent is thick on her fur and inescapable. Not that she wants to escape him. He is not five feet from her at this moment. But having Jaime beside her and having to live with the proof of the totality of his trust in her all day is more than she is able to endure.

*

It’s too much. She cannot bear it.

She leads them the way that will take them past the river and as soon as they are close she runs for it, her four legs taking her to the water as fast as she is able.

The river dulls the scent of him, but it does nothing to wash away her desire.

*

The agony of having him too close is rivalled only by the pain of watching him go.

*

Jaime is a person.

Brienne is a beast.

Even if she was still a person, it would make no difference.

He wouldn’t look twice at her if she was a person.

But it doesn’t matter.

Because she is a beast.

*

However long he is gone, it is too long.

*

He returns with another sword.

“This one is sharp,” he warns as he cradles it on his stump and offers it to her with his left hand.

*

It is the most magnificent sword she has ever seen. The golden hilt has jewels the likes of which she has never seen set in it. The pommel is a lion with a level of craftsmanship befitting a king.

Brienne is afraid to touch it.

“The hilt is not as long as the sword you train with,” he admits. “So you may need to fight one-handed like me if you ever see fit to use it.”

“Jaime, this is—”

“Valyrian steel,” he supplies as if that material isn’t almost mythical in and of itself. “Its blade will never go dull, which is helpful given your remote location.”

“Jaime.” She can’t accept this. This is a priceless sword. This is a priceless sword and she is a beast. “Jaime, I can’t.”

“I brought you a sword,” he says with a soft smile. “If it is not to your liking I will bring you another.”

*

She wraps her paw around the hilt and lifts the sword.

It is lighter and shorter than the tourney sword he brought her ages ago but even in her grasp the balance is perfect. The hilt is long enough that she can hold the sword comfortably with one paw, and even long enough that she can use her other paw to support it.

He watches her sheath the sword and nods once.

*

Brienne does not know what to say. She does not know what to do. Usually when he arrives they go and train. Their swords give them purpose. But today he has arrived later in the day, much later than he usually does. They are losing light already, the sky all orange and pink and glowing. They will not have time to trek over to the place where they train tonight.

She invites him back to her cave because she can think of nothing else to do. They will make a fire and they will eat and she will try to make sense of the sword he has brought her and the look on his face some other time.

*

The fire is getting low when Jaime stands. She thinks he is going to retrieve another piece of firewood from the stack in the tunnel to his left.

He doesn’t.

He walks towards her instead.

“Dance with me,” he says.

Her answering laugh is a bark that bounces off the cave’s walls, making it sound as if a dozen beasts are balking at his absurd request at once.

Jaime is not laughing.

*

“Dance with me,” he says again. He is standing in front of her, his hand outstretched as an offering, as if she were capable of taking his hand the way a woman might.

But her paws are twice the size of his hand and her claws are sharp.

“You don’t have a hand to spare,” she deflects. She holds up a paw and extends her claws to their fullest to emphasize her point.

“No,” he agrees, “But I am asking all the same.”

*

He is still standing in front of where she sits.

He is still waiting for an answer.

“If you do not wish to dance with me, just say so,” he says. “And I will not ask again.”

“We would look ridiculous,” she says, but what she means is that she would look ridiculous. She has not danced since she was barely more than a girl but not yet a beast. She was no good at it then, already too big for whoever she was paired to dance with. She was taller than her partners then, and she will tower over Jaime now. Beast or not, Brienne was not meant to dance.

“More ridiculous than a one handed man trying to learn how to fight?” he replies. He is quiet for a moment before he adds gently, “There is no one here to see.”

But that’s not quite right. He is here.

He is here and he is waiting for her answer.

*

He is a person.

And she is a beast.

And she wants more than he will ever offer, but he is offering her a dance.

And she wants to dance with him.

*

She stands before she takes his hand, not trusting herself not to accidentally pull him to the ground by mistake. He does not mind, stepping back to give her space and then offering his hand once she is upright. He wraps his fingers loosely around the paw she holds out to him, moving his thumb against the grain of her fur and then with it.

She feels huge as he looks up at her, but then he smiles as he steps into position in front of her, his stump moving to her waist.

*

She does not know what to do with her other paw. Surely she is too big, the weight of her paw too much to rest on his shoulder the way she was taught to all those years ago.

Jaime doesn’t seem to think so. He moves his stump from her waist to her wrist in an attempt to guide her.

“It’s all right,” he says.

She puts her paw on his shoulder and hopes he is correct.

*

They dance.

*

He is patient and reassuring when she does not get it quite right. Her legs are too short, her torso too long, her body too big. She looms over him and the lengths of their strides do not match. But they make the adjustments they need to.

She has not danced in many years, but it is not so hard to remember, not when Jaime is here with her every step of the way.

*

They dance.

*

She curses her monstrous body for still not being big enough to contain what she feels.

*

They are still dancing.

*

The fire is down to embers when he quietly says, “Brienne, look at me.”

She cannot bring herself to do so.

She’s afraid she will like what she sees.

*

It is properly dark when they step apart.

She thanks him for the dance, as if they were at an event where such customs matter, and not here in her cave in the dark.

He nods once and wishes her a goodnight before he goes to his bedroll.

*

She retreats further into the cave to her own nest of a bed, where she walks in a circle over the pile of blankets several more times than usual before forcing herself to settle. She tucks her limbs in close to her body and rests her head on her paws and curses herself for being what she is.

*

Jaime is already awake when she gets up.

“I have to go,” he says. “I have to go back.”

She nods. Of course he has to go back. He always has to go back.

So he goes.

This time, more-so than any other time, she does not expect him to return.

*

He does though. That very night.

She is already asleep when he says her name.

He is standing in front of her when she opens her eyes.

“It’s me,” he says.

She knows. In the dark she can see better than he can, and she can smell him. And even without his scent and his voice and his face looking down on her in the dark, she would have known it was him.

Anyone else would have tried to kill her already.

*

“It’s the middle of the night,” she says. He said he had to go back to King’s Landing. He always says he has to go back. He always goes back. “What are you doing here?”

He looks the way he did when he gave her the second sword. “This is where I want to be.”

*

He does not move from where he stands.

“You’re shivering,” she says.

“I’m cold,” he replies.

*

Brienne feels much smaller than she is when she offers him the space beside her.

She is certain he will laugh.

She is certain he will refuse.

He doesn’t.

*

He is not wearing armour. There is nothing to protect him from her as he lies down beside her.

When she moves to give him more space he comes with her, shifting so he is under her arm.

She is awake now. Horrifyingly awake. She could crush him. She could slice his throat open. He’d be dead in an instant if she so much as…

He uses his hand to move her paw until it is tucked right up to his chin.

“That’s better,” he says.

*

Brienne is cold when she wakes and closes her eyes more firmly to fight against consciousness. It must be morning, but the light filtering in from the distant mouth of the cave is not as bright as it usually is.

Jaime is warm beside her, pressed up against her where he was the night before. His breathing is deep and steady as he sleeps on.

But she is almost awake. And cold. And Jaime smells less vividly like Jaime than he ever has.

She tenses as her eyes snap open. A moment later he begins to stir.

Jaime is reaching for her with his hand and making that little grunt he makes before he abandons sleep. Any moment he will open his eyes and she is lying here beside him and there is nowhere to hide.

Brienne can think of nothing else to do so she covers his eyes with her hand.

Her human hand.

*

He does not struggle. Not in the slightest.

He just lies alongside her, as trusting as always, as she holds her hand over his eyes.

*

He says her name. Perhaps it is a question. She cannot tell.

She does not answer.

Her voice… her voice will make it obvious what has happened.

But even if she is silent there is no way he has not noticed her lack of fur or her smaller size. She is still bigger than him, but only by a little. Her skin, her naked skin, is pressed against the soft clothes he wears and he must know. He must know what has happened. There is nowhere to hide from the truth of her body in this moment but if she can just keep him from seeing…

Brienne forces herself to breathe and not to cry. She is never human for very long. Minutes at most. Minutes at most and then she will be herself once again in the body she calls home.

Until then she is just a monstrous person that she does not want him to see.

*

“Brienne…” He still does not move, though she feels the stump of his right arm press against her a little more firmly where it already rests against her side. Skin against skin.

“You will not like what you see.” Her voice is not the one she is used to. Smaller and higher and vulnerable in ways her beast voice never is.

Jaime does not seem to mind.

“I will,” he insists, his voice soft and low from sleep. “I already do.”

She feels the ache all over her body start to set in and the relief that follows makes her throat tight with the effort not to unleash it. It will be all right. The transformation is coming. She will not be human for much longer so Jaime will not have to see her like this.

But then his eyelashes flutter against the hairless skin of her fingers and Brienne understands:

Beneath her human hand Jaime is looking at her. He’s been looking at her for a long time.

She moves her hand.

And lets him see.