This is one of my crazier lore-stretches so bear with me. But according to some readings of the Professor’s scanty writings about the Northmen, inherited skin-changing is perfectly plausible among Beorning stock. Broddi and Cynewynne have been part Beorning from when I first thought them up through Grandma Cook, who stayed after the battle of the five armies to marry their grandfather. Given the maternal line’s wide-ranging travels, it’s not unlikely that Broddi had this coming from both sides.
The bear likes her too. She smells like our mate. Like Spring and warmth and baking honey-bread, sunshine and green grass and endless summers full of wriggling fish. The bear… me… the bear-me doesn’t worry about how fragile her bones are and how her tender skin catches like tissue on our claws. We don’t have to worry about her hurting us now, not when we’re so big. Big is safe. Bear is safe.
“You’re very soft,” she says, as she strokes my fur. So is she, though I can’t say that. Can’t tell her how part of me knows right where to rend to spill her blood, how easily we could knock her head off her neck. It makes us feel ill and angry, how quickly she could break. My arms tighten before I realize I’ve made it hard for her to breathe. Too easy to hurt her without meaning to. We don’t want that. Never, never, never.
Our jaws form words awkwardly, but she understands. Recognizes us. Me. Us. I say what I have to say. “I know it’s not what you signed up for. But maybe we can find a cure? I’ll sleep in the shed.” Please don’t leave me, we think. Don’t go away again. We’ll do anything, only let us see you sometimes. Let us take care of you and bring you fish.
She’s stroking me now. At first she was pulling my fur so hard it brought tears to my eyes, but now she smooths it, sinks down into it where winter fat left me loose and lean. It feels wonderful to have her fingers winding through the strands like the tug of wind and water and the wild. She’s not screaming anymore. She’s not pounding at my ribs with my broken fishing pole or trying to stab through my hide. She’s not treating me like the monster I’ve become. Something inside of me sinks to its haunches and loses the sense of danger and doom.
“I s’pose Priscilla Mayapple don’t have a bear for a husband. An’ Charity Lovage don’t, either.”
My heart soars and I find her an easier position, nestled in a cocoon of my fur.
Her voice is sweet, sweet as honey and sunshine and berries as she murmurs, “It’s okay, Honey B. I still love ya, even through all this fur.”
And with that, I’m a me. Just a me, and not an us. And our heart is so full, it’s a wonder it doesn’t pop like a bubble. It must be true, mustn’t it? It has to be. No woman would stay married to a monster she didn’t love. If anyone lays a finger on her, I’ll rip his head off and eat his face.
I don’t need to be Bear now, but I stay anyhow, just to make sure she’s not faking it. I don’t trust being accepted, being seen. Life doesn’t work like that, not never. But she smells of honest relaxation and wonder and her touch has no disgust to it. I can smell her contentment and her womanness and… no. No, that is just ew. That is not going to happen.
We talk like people, though one of us isn’t a people now. Or am I? Is everything that walks Arda a … people? It makes you think, all those stuffed skins used for tables and trophies and pie-pans. Will she see me someday mounted on a stump and posed with a fishing pole? It chills my heart.
“I think I can change now,” I say, and I set her onto the beach carefully. Real carefully, so there’s no chance of breaking her. It’s getting easier to find my shape. It’s like popping a join in and out of a table. Pop, it’s a table. Pop, it’s a stick and a board. I turn my joints and pop myself back into a smaller body that’s fragile like hers. It’s so cold and there’s gravel stuck to my butt. There’re fish scales on my tongue. Ick.
“My husband turns into a bear sometimes,” she says, staring at me in shock.
I stammer something about Grandma Cook, my eyes pleading for her to be all right. For us to be all right. The real us, the real we of my world. Her, now blazingly beautiful and strong to my man-shape eyes. “You’re not… y’know. I’m not gross or a monster or… you still.. um?” Smooth, Mr. Bear. Real, real smooth. Idiot.
“I always thought bears were sorta cute. Until I thought one of ’em ate ya.” And she’s smiling again, even as I stagger around trying to figure out how my body works again and put clothes on it. Stars, I love her.
“I’m all your bear.”
And I am.