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Jaime pulled up outside the small inn. The big grey horse munching oats in the third stall was familiar: he’d seen it off from the Dragonpit only—a week ago. It seemed like longer. He swallowed and dug into his increasingly lean purse for money to pay the ostler, and swung down to go inside. The taproom was crowded, full of travelers. The Kingsroad was busy with people going south, faces pinched with hunger and fear, bags and boxes on their shoulders and in small carts. The tables were full, but Jaime stood just inside the doorway looking at the back of Brienne’s fair head for a moment, and then he crossed the room to her and put his hand on her shoulder as he sat down next to her. “May I join you?” he said, lightly, and Brienne startled a little and half turned on the bench to look up at him, her eyes widening as she took him in, all over.

By the time he was sitting, her gaze had come back to his face. Podrick was still gawking at him, but her surprise had already faded. She didn’t say anything, didn’t ask him any questions, even the obvious ones: why are you here and where the fuck’s your army? She only put a hand on his back, warm and strong, and turned and called, “Hotpie! Another pie and ale, please,” and Jaime had been ready to make an endless string of clever joking remarks, but instead he had to struggle to keep breathing without breaking into tears.

The server brought over a healthy sized half-moon shaped meat pie, and a tall mug of fresh ale. Jaime drank a few swallows, dark and bitter, and Brienne said quietly, “The baking’s good here,” so he choked down the first few bites, and then he was almost instantly painfully hungry. The prices of food and rooms had already begun to rise, quick, and he’d had to start thinking about the coins in his purse, an odd experience. He’d only ever carried a purse for the convenience of not having to remember to send a servant to pay for minor expenses, a cup of wine at a tavern or a trinket he came across walking in the city; it had never been the money he had. He’d had no appetite anyway, and the food on the road was all bad, soup watered down and game gone thin. He’d spent his money on his horse’s fodder and bought wine so he could sleep, on the ground when the rooms were too dear, and the occasional pangs in his stomach didn’t particularly bother him. But the pie was good, pastry as rich and flaky as any he’d ever had on a palace table, and it didn’t matter that the filling was more potatoes and onions than meat.

“Hotpie,” Brienne said to the server, “is there anyone near here who keeps ravens? And let’s have another,” she added.

“There’s a maester at Castle Darry,” the lad said. “The turning’s five miles north on the Kingsroad, then another two east.”

Brienne nodded and bent down to her packs for pen and ink. Jaime didn’t look to see what she wrote, but he said quietly, “Euron’s gone to bring the Golden Company over from Essos. I don’t know where they’re planning to make landfall, but Gulltown would make sense.” He saw her hand pause, understanding what he hadn’t said, and then she nodded a little, added another line, and rolled the message. She held it over the table to Podrick. “Take it to Darry and get the maester to send it to Lady Stark, then meet us back on the Kingsroad tomorrow morning. Don’t speak of where the information came from.”

Podrick glanced over at Jaime frowning a little, then took the message and got up and went. Jaime finished the second pie and the ale, and pushed himself up from the table with an effort; he felt heavy as if the pies had been made of iron and lead. He followed Brienne upstairs and into a small room over the kitchen, warm enough to drive out the ache of cold that had settled into his muscles over a long month of riding north. “Take the bed,” Brienne said: there was only the one.

“Do you really think I’m so pampered I can’t stand to sleep on the floor?” he said.

“You complained every single morning,” she said, in tones that suggested it was a vivid memory, and he smiled at her helplessly, remembering crawling out from under the hedges she shoved him under every night, cold and damp and irritated all the more because she was already up: he’d never, not once, managed to wake before her.

“It’s not easy to get comfortable when you’re manacled,” he said. “And as I recall, you weren’t particularly enthusiastic about the accommodations, either.” He drew his sword and put it down in the middle of the bed. “We’ll share.”

He fell asleep the instant he lay down and didn’t wake until first light. She was up before him again, already strapping her armor back on quickly, bent over her buckles, her mouth and forehead pressed with concentration. He got up and strapped on his hand and got back into his armor. He’d been even more glad these days that he’d had Qyburn design him the mail shirt so he could put it on alone, but the last strap was hard to get tight enough, and when he asked her, Brienne helped him.

They ate porridge downstairs and got back on the road north, and around midmorning they collected up Podrick, waiting for them five miles down the road. He gave Jaime a hard look that went gradually puzzled instead over the course of the day. When they made camp that night, in a small glade full of dry leaves with only a dusting of snow, and Brienne put her bedroll at the foot of one tree and he put his down at another, the boy was frowning.

Podrick kept frowning the next two days. They’d stopped near noon to rest the horses and eat a little when Jaime looked up and saw Brienne standing with her hand on the hilt of her sword looking down the road behind them, and there was a single horseman on the horizon, coming up on their position. Anyone riding north was odd; they were all tense for about ten minutes, and then Podrick said suddenly, “Is that—Bronn?”

“What the fuck did I tell you?” Bronn demanded of Jaime, the second he pulled up. “Not dragons. Not you. So what do you do? You ride straight for a bunch of fucking dead men and White Walkers. Do you even bother to mention? ‘Sorry, Bronn, got to head north, found some new fucking way to get killed.’ No. No, you leave me in King’s Landing with your crazy fucker of a sister!”

“Well, I’m sorry you’ve come all this way, but I’m afraid I can’t actually pay you anymore,” Jaime said. “Cersei’s claimed Casterly Rock. I don’t actually own anything. I’m just a hedge knight.”

“Oh, I’m done working for you, cunt,” Bronn said, brushing off the top of a stump and plunking himself down. “I’m heading back to the other brother. He’s doing all right. Pass that here,” he added to a grinning Podrick, and took a deep draught of the canteen, and then grimaced. “Got anything besides water?” he asked.

“No,” Brienne said firmly. Bronn heaved a sigh.

Bronn’s horse was tired; he’d pushed it a little hard to catch them. They decided to stop for the rest of the day, and Brienne went out hunting for some game. Almost the instant she was out of earshot, Bronn turned to Podrick, jerked his head towards Jaime and asked, “Has he fucked her yet?”

Jaime raised his head to stare in outrage.

“No!” Podrick said. He sounded outraged too.

Bronn shook his head. “What the fuck’s wrong with you?” he demanded.

“Keep talking about Brienne that way—” Jaime said between his teeth.

“And what, you’ll wag your golden fingers at me?” Bronn said. “I don’t work for you anymore, I don’t have to be respectful.”

“You weren’t respectful before!” Jaime said.

“You should be used to it, then,” Bronn said. “Did he at least try to fuck her?” he asked Podrick.

“No!” Podrick said. “He hasn’t asked her at all.

Jaime frowned suddenly and looked over. Podrick was glaring daggers—at him. “What are you angry at me for? He’s the one talking about your knight like she’s a—” he didn’t finish.

“What, like she’s not some kind of marble statue? What’s the poor woman got to do to get at your cock before she dies, slay a fucking dragon?” Bronn said, and Podrick shook his head disapprovingly beside him.

The two of them kept it going almost the entire way to Winterfell. If he left camp, when he got back his bedroll would have mysteriously moved next to hers. The handful of times they stopped at inns, the two of them developed odd coughs that meant he and Brienne had to share a room. They crowded him against her as they rode. It only stopped after the night they spent at Moat Cailin, where the two of them lured him and Brienne into the baths at the same time, then stole their clothes and locked them in together. “This is starting to feel oddly familiar,” Jaime said to her, and they just stayed on opposite sides of the tub soaking until finally one of the other servants came by and let them out.

But later that day Jaime overheard Brienne telling Podrick savagely, with real anger, “That’s enough, do you hear me? I’m done putting up with it.”

She stalked away, and a little later that night Podrick crept over to her as she got up from the tables, and he said in a small voice, “M’lady, I’m—I’m sorry, truly I am. It’s done, I promise, I told Bronn. I didn’t—I didn’t mean to—”

Brienne held up a hand to stop him, then said quietly, “I know you meant well, Pod. We won’t speak of it again.”

The campaign stopped after that, until two weeks later when they finally rode into Winterfell. Watching it loom up in the distance, Jaime thought the odds were reasonably good that it was his last day on earth. Bronn did too, so while Brienne was out gathering wood that evening, he gave it one more try. “You really want to have your head cut off without ever getting to fuck her?” he demanded.

There were times, usually not more than thirty a day, when Jaime missed his sword hand badly enough to weep, but occasionally there were special peaks, such as this one, where he would have given the entire rest of his life just to have it back long enough to kill someone. Admittedly, at the moment he didn’t think the rest of his life was going to be very long, but even so.

The next day, Brienne took him straight in, the gate guards giving her nods and letting her through, and led him directly to the keep. She didn’t seem to think it was his final hour, but that was probably because she wasn’t suspicious enough. He squared his shoulders as she brought him to the war room, only as they drew near he could overhear the people inside talking, and he slowed down and stopped: Jon Snow was saying, “Your Grace, I wish this weren’t true, but the man you need died at the Twins. My brother Robb would have won this war for you. But the one battle I’ve fought, I lost, and badly. Sansa took Winterfell, not me.”

“But I didn’t take it with an army,” Sansa said. “I knew Ramsey, and I knew Littlefinger. That’s not war, that’s scheming.”

“Yes, scheming we’ve got covered, up and down the side,” Tyrion said. “No shortage of clever, clever men and women at your service. Not very useful when your enemy won’t open negotiations, offers no terms, and wants nothing but your death and total destruction. You’ve got good soldiers, you’ve got good knights. Important, we’ll need them on the ground, carrying out the strategy. But the enemy has a single general, and we don’t, and that’s a recipe for disaster. A bad general would be better than trying to make decisions by committee in the middle of a battle.”

“One of the Dothraki?” another man asked, a voice Jaime didn’t recognize.

“I killed all the Dothraki khals at Vaes Dothrak,” Daenerys said.

“It wouldn’t work anyway,” Tyrion said. “You need someone who can keep the entire army in their head. The Dothraki all fight roughly the same way. It’s a brilliant and totally overwhelming technique, but it requires a lifetime of training and horsemanship. The rest of our people can’t learn to fight the Dothraki way. And there’s twenty-three different styles of fighting among the Westerosi forces. No Dothraki who needs every other word translated is going to pick up a decent understanding of how to use those forces properly overnight. For one instance: we’ve got a brigade of Dornish spearmen, and three of pikemen from the Reach. Pikes, spears, what’s the difference? I happen to know there is one, because I once heard my father say in passing, ‘that fool would try to use Dornish spearmen in place of Reach pikes,’ which suggests to me that in fact the difference is quite significant, but I don’t actually know what it is.”

Jaime looked at Brienne, who was smiling at him a little, and then he took a deep breath and went into the room and said, “Dornish fight in light mail or unarmored. They’re skirmishers: they create a screen for an advance, and try to puncture opposing lines of infantry. You need to back them with heavy cavalry. Reach pikemen fight in plate, and they’re best anchoring your lines against cavalry. Put a Dornish company in the middle of your front line, and your front line won’t last very long. Does that help?”

 Tyrion was staring at him across the room with his eyes nearly bulging out of his head, and he—along with virtually the entire room—turned it onto Brienne as she came in. “Your Grace; my lady Sansa,” she said, inclining her head. “I met Ser Jaime on the road back from King’s Landing.”

“Were there a few dozen brigades of Lannister soldiers with you?” Tyrion said.

“Hm, sorry,” Jaime said.

“So you hopped on a horse and came riding north, alone, to—”

“To fight the dead,” Jaime said. “It seemed like the right thing to do.”

“That’s only because you’re a complete idiot,” Tyrion said.

“It’s funny how people keep telling me that,” Jaime said. “So, are you going to execute me, or do I get to be of some use before we all get slaughtered by an army of dead men?”

#

“The world’s full of senseless injustice, that’s all I can say,” Bronn said in heavy disapproval, looking around the command tent. Jaime had already gotten Podrick to drag in two of the biggest tables he could find, and they’d spread out every map of the approaches that he’d managed to commandeer from the Winterfell archives, overlapping them to get a picture of the countryside. “How the fuck you walk into a room with Daenerys Targareyn and two of Ned Stark’s kids and come up smelling of roses, it’s more than a simple soul can understand.”

“She has an eye for talent,” Jaime said, without looking up; he was busy placing markers for all the troops.

“What talent’s that? Getting your ass kicked by her dragon?” Bronn snorted. “And you’re still not going to fuck her, are you.” He looked pointedly from Jaime’s cot over to Brienne’s, which was on the opposite side of the tent.

“Do you know, I can order floggings now,” Jaime said.

“Oh, high and mighty again. You’re abusing the kindness of the gods, that’s what. There’s maybe a hundred women in this fucking army, and you’re making her sleep cold. You’re going to be sorry, you know.”

Jaime straightened up and looked him hard in the face. “Not as sorry as you’re going to be if you keep this up anywhere she has to hear it,” he said, flatly, a cold warning. Bronn actually had the gall to give him an indignant look, and then just shook his head in disgust and walked out.

Jaime thought that would make an end of it, for a while at least, but it turned out he was wrong. He started calling in all the officers and war-leaders for meetings that very afternoon: the piece he was missing was them, who they all were, their strengths and weaknesses; which ones would have good suggestions and which ones would have stupid ones. Snow wasn’t an idiot, it turned out, just green and too straightforward by half, but he also wasn’t determined to remain an idiot. He didn’t like Jaime, and his dark eyes followed him in the tent like a cold draft, but when Jaime told him why one of his ideas was stupid, he listened and understood it and didn’t get angry. He’d be useful, potentially. Ser Davos was a quicker read: no particular head for military strategy, he hadn’t needed one to serve Stannis, but he was a man who could make other men mind him without chafing their egos. A subtle diplomat. He’d do for overseeing operations; ordinarily that would be the second-in-command, but Jaime would make up some other title for him. Brienne would need someone to stand between her and any of the officers who were anything less than brilliant, if she did end up in charge.

The rest of the Northern bannermen were only going to be good for low-level officers and shock infantry; their men would follow them, and they’d all fight bravely, and they’d all die bravely, and that would be that. The handful of Wildlings left were going to be more useful: they had lived in the kind of winter that was coming for all of them, and they’d be his scouts. Their leader Tormund didn’t know a damn thing about war, but he knew his people and his weather, and he’d already managed to survive contact with the Night King’s army three times. A laconic bastard; Jaime told him he’d be the master of scouts and all he did was say, “We’ll send men out tonight.”

But he seemed decent enough, and Jaime was reasonably satisfied with the man, until half an hour after the meeting, Jaime heard him outside the tent saying, “That’s a nice sword.”  

“Thank you,” Brienne said, shortly: she’d gone out to drill.

“Did a man give it to you?”

“What?” she said, and Jaime straightened up from his table, his eyes narrowing. He headed for the tent flap and looked out: Brienne had been practicing in the open ground in front of the pavilion, and Tormund was standing off to one side watching her; she’d wheeled on him.

“We don’t marry among the Free Folk,” Tormund said. “When a man wants a woman, he gives her a blade. If she takes it, he’s welcome to keep going. If she don’t like how he behaves, she stabs him with it. Wondered if that’s what it was.”

Brienne relaxed a bit, and sounded half amused when she answered, “That’s not how we court.”

Tormund nodded. “Aye. You say words in front of a tree.”

“We exchange vows in the sight of the gods,” she said.

Tormund shrugged. “I don’t see much use in it. Either a man’s true, or he’s worthless. You can’t make a worthless man true by saying words.” He paused, then he said, “But for you, I’d say words, if you wanted them,” and Jaime gawked at him. Brienne had stiffened. “’M not a fancy man, like all these lords and knights. I can’t offer you lands, anything like that. It’s not our way. The only thing a man owns, among us, is himself. So that’s all I can give. But I’d give it, and I’m true. And you’re a woman my girls could look to.”

“Tormund,” Brienne said, and then said, “Your girls?”

“Aye. Two of them. Lissa and Mirga. They’re with the archers.”

“Out here? How old are they?” Brienne said.

“Thirteen and eleven,” Tormund said. “They didn’t want to stay in the castle. Among us, eleven’s old enough to choose your own way, unless you’re a fool. My girls aren’t fools. They’d rather be here doing than behind stone walls waiting. I don’t like it, but I’d feel the same.”

“And their mother?” Brienne said.

“Rensa. I lost her four years ago,” Tormund said. “Our son was out ice fishing when a bad storm blew up before he could make it back in: the kind where you can’t see in front of your face, three days of snow and ice. He was close enough we could see him running back before it hit. One of us had to go out, to shine him a light halfway. We couldn’t bear not to try. But the girls were little, we couldn’t both go. We drew straws; she got the short one. Neither of them came back.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Aye,” Tormund said, simply. “She was a good woman. Hard to find another like. It’s not like it is down here in the south. We can’t afford to let our women pretend to be useless just to make men feel like they’ve got big cocks.” Brienne coughed down a laugh. “A good woman means your children live instead of die. A good man means the same. I’d give you as many children as you wanted; do right by them as a father.” She stopped laughing so abruptly that it looked as though someone had rubbed the smile off her face. “So, that’s why I ask if a man gave you the sword. I’d offer you a blade myself, otherwise.”

I gave her that sword,” Jaime said through his teeth, stalking out of the tent, and Brienne startled and gave him a baffled, wide-eyed look.

Tormund glanced him up and down, as if taking his measure, then flicked his brows upward, much as if to say no accounting for taste, and said to Brienne, “Offer’s open, if you change your mind. I won’t change mine, not for a while.”

 Jaime was about to tell him where he could take his coarse, insulting offers, but before he could, Tormund turned to walk away, and Brienne said, “Tormund,” abruptly, and when he looked round, she said, quietly, “You’ve done me an honor, and I thank you for it. But I don’t think of such things now. The Great War is here.”

“Then I’ll speak to you after, if we both live.” He gave her a nod, and walked away. 

Jaime just barely restrained himself until he was out of earshot before turning to Brienne incredulously. “I don’t care if that oaf’s useful, do you think I’m going to let him harass you?”

She stared at him as if he’d begun speaking in tongues. “Harass me? He made me an offer of marriage. An honorable one—”

“An honorable one?” Jaime said. “He’s a murderous savage from the other side of the Wall with no name, no property, pushing himself on you—”

Her face was gathering into bewildered confusion. “He’s the leader of the Wildlings, whether they call him a lord or not! He fought for Jon Snow and Sansa at Winterfell, against the Boltons; he took his people to man Eastwatch by the Sea and faced the first incursion of the army of the dead. His manners aren’t pretty, but he was telling the truth: he’s a true man, by all I know of him. And he knows his ways aren’t ours, so he found out what our ways are, and spoke to me by his lights and ours, both. Yes, that’s an honorable offer!”

“You sound as though you’d consider it!” Jaime said, baffled.

She stared a moment, her face uncertain, and then before his appalled eyes, it changed; she straightened a little, settling, and then she said, quietly, “I—I would.”

What?” Jaime said, helplessly. 

She was silent a moment, and then she said, “It’s my duty to give Tarth an heir, if I can. He’s a man my father and his knights could respect. And we’re not rich, on Tarth, but we have land, and there’s not many of his people left. He could settle them with us. They wouldn’t find it hard to live in our mountains, after living in the far North. It wouldn’t be a bad match.”

“Not a—” Jaime found himself choking on the words. “You’re talking about giving yourself to a man shaggier than that damned bear—”

“To a man who wants me!” she said, without looking at him. “Me, and not just my father’s name and property.”

“Do you want him?” Jaime said, something like panic pounding in his chest.

“No,” she said, and for a moment he could breathe, and then she said, “But I—I do want children,” very fast, as if she was admitting a secret shame. “And—I’d take a chance on the rest coming, for that. It can’t be less likely because he looks at me with desire, instead of disgust.” She turned abruptly and walked to the other side of the open ground to busy herself unnecessarily with the practice swords on the rack there, keeping her face turned down.

Bronn said, “That’s it, eh?” Jaime jerked round to find him sitting on a stump to one side, hands resting on the pommel of his blade, staring at him in open disgust. Bronn jerked his chin towards Brienne. “Another man asks her to marry him, she tells you to your face she wants to be a wife and a mother, tells you she’s thinking of taking him, and that’s all you’ve got? Telling her he’s a worthless savage, and she should be ashamed to have him courting her?”

“Shut up,” Jaime said through his teeth.

Bronn pursed his lips together, nodded to himself a little, and looked back at him. “You know what, he’s got the right idea.”

“What?” Jaime said.

“If you’re determined to be fucking miserable, why’s she got to put up with it?” Bronn said. “She don’t. It’s been a thousand miles here from the crossroads. I’m done watching you waste her time.” He stood up and walked across the clearing to where Brienne was still standing by the rack. Jaime couldn’t overhear what he was saying, but Brienne straightened up with her face hardening into outrage as Bronn started to talk to her. Her hand went instinctively to her hilt, and for one exultant moment Jaime thought she was going to drop him, but then Bronn held up his hands and said something else, and her face went suddenly open and startled instead, and then she dropped her eyes from him. A few sentences later, she made an odd, half-nodding gesture with her head, her cheeks going red.

Bronn walked away from her into the rows of tents, looking—pleased with himself, and Jaime went down the other row, turned to meet him coming down, and grabbed a fist of his jerkin and snarled, “What the hell did you say to her?”

Bronn flicked his eyebrows up, unrepentant. “Asked her to marry me instead of him.”

Jaime stared at him, utterly blank. “You—you what?

Bronn shrugged. “Why not? I’m a rough fucker, but I’m not as rough as he is. I’m a fucking anointed knight; I can ask her.”

“What did you say to make her angry?” Jaime said through his teeth.

“She thought I was mocking her,” Bronn said. “I told her if she’d let the kind of miserable shit who’d mock a woman like that convince her she wasn’t worth marrying, maybe she should stop believing them.”

“You told her,” Jaime said, almost panting with rage, “that you wanted to marry her, and then you told her you weren’t mocking her—and what if she said yes, hm?”

“Then I’d marry her, you dumb cunt,” Bronn said. “Oh, what, you thought I was joking about being done? No, I wasn’t joking. I may not be a ‘fancy man,’” he waved his hand up and down Jaime’s body, in a somehow insulting way, “but I’m not a miserable shit. I know how to make a woman come and I’m good for a laugh. All seven fucking gods know she could stand for a man to give her a reason to smile. And I know a good woman when I see one, which is more than I can apparently say for you.” He gave Jaime’s chest a couple of cheery thumps with his palm. “She’s even got a fucking castle!”

Bronn gave him a wide mean smile, shoved his hand off and walked onward. It wasn’t hard; Jaime’s arm felt oddly limp.

He went back to the tent and spent the rest of the day laying out a dozen possible strategies to go over. His head felt perfectly sharp and clear; he’d already begun to put together the picture in his mind of the whole army, with the enemy still being roughed out on the other side. He’d once done it for enemies in the field as easily as breathing, a clear understanding of his own powers matched against the other swordsman’s, telling him how to fight. He’d been learning more and more these last years how to do it for an army instead; it was beginning to feel as natural as a sword in his right hand.

Brienne came back in after only a little while. They didn’t speak of Tormund or Bronn or marriage. He refined the plans by describing them to her; she didn’t have the same training in warfare, but she had the basics and understood fighting well enough to ask good questions, and to understand when he explained; talking it out to her made it clearer for him. They needed to use their mobility, their speed on the field; they needed to hit the enemy hard, kill five for every man who fell, and make sure they didn’t leave their own dead behind.

It was good work, for the first day, and he was satisfied with it; when they were done, Brienne smiled at him and Podrick brought them dinner, and he got Brienne to tell him a few stories about Tarth, wandering in high mountains and learning to sail the blue waters. The camp grew quiet as they talked, and she said finally, “It’s late,” and he said, “Yes,” and then she got up and went to her side of the tent and drew the curtain across to shield her cot. There was a lantern on the other side, so he could see the shadow of her taking off her armor, the curves of her body illuminated, until she lay down. He fell asleep listening to the richly comforting sound of her breathing: she was there, his guiding star, so he knew he was in the right place. He managed not to think about the grasping hands trying to pluck her out of his sky.

The next morning, six of the Dothraki bloodriders came, along with Daenerys’s translator Missandei, who from the outset was clearly adding a good deal of sauce to the meat of the words she was translating. The Dothraki started out smirking at him, contemptuous, but he didn’t give a damn; they answered the questions he had about what they could do. Although they claimed they could ride a hundred miles in a day, so at first he thought they were just insane braggarts. “No, Ser Jaime, they aren’t lying,” Missandei said. “The horde rode from Vaes Dothrak to Meereen in two weeks. It’s more than a thousand miles.”

He stared at her. “Are their horses magic? Why aren’t they dying?”

She spoke to the riders, and then said, “They each have five.”

“They what?” Jaime said, baffled.

“They each have five mounts,” she repeated. “They’re trained to run alongside. They change every hour so none of them tire too much.”

“Everyone in the horde stops and changes mounts once an hour?” Jaime said.

“No,” she said. “They change mounts without stopping.”

“Just—jump from one to the other?” Brienne said, a bit blankly, but Jaime remembered them standing in their saddles to shoot arrows down at his pikemen and shook his head. “All right, I believe them,” he said, and reached out and swept all the counters off the table: if he could put the Dothraki anywhere in a fifty mile radius on the day of battle, that changed everything. He stared down at it for fifteen minutes, then put out a new plan of battle to discuss, telling Missandei what he was doing as he set out the counters, and as she translated, a few of the Dothraki started to pay attention instead of just smirking. They started to offer reasonable thoughts back, with more detail on their maneuvering, and the rest began to follow along. They described baiting the enemy to follow them with false flight, which sounded promising, although Brienne did point out, “But would the dead follow? They don’t care. They aren’t going to think they’ve won and be pleased,” and Jaime said thoughtfully, “We could try it on them, if we can find a small division isolated, and hit them with a raid.”

He was about to ask the Dothraki how many men they thought they would need to take on a thousand wights, when abruptly one of them, a six-and-a-half foot tall giant with a braid longer than Cersei had ever managed, abruptly said something to Missandei, and when Jaime looked up, he was staring at Brienne.

Missandei coughed and said politely, “Forgive me, Lady Brienne, but Gora asks—this is an impolite question in Westeros, but he doesn’t mean it that way—he asks if you are the commander’s woman.”

Jaime straightened, in rising outrage, as Brienne’s face turned red. “No,” she said shortly.

Gora immediately asked something else. “He asks if you go to the tent of any man—he’s asking if you have any lover or husband,” Missandei said.

“I’m sorry, has he mistaken this tent for a brothel?” Jaime said through his teeth.

“Forgive me, Ser Jaime,” Missandei said, giving them both a gentle smiling apology. “It’s truly not meant as an insult. A Dothraki woman gives her favors to a man she thinks is worthy of her time, who might sire strong children and be able to give them horses. They usually don’t marry until after a first child is born.”

Brienne’s lips were pressed tight in irritation. “The answer is no, I don’t, and I’m not looking for one, either.”

Gora instantly started in on some longer speech that made Missandei fight down a grin; she turned to Brienne and said, “He insists that I tell you that ten thousand horses ride behind him to battle, that he has sired five strong sons, that he has killed seven of the men in iron suits—”

“What?” Brienne said, screwing up her face.

“He’s making a proposal of marriage,” Missandei said.

“Has he noticed we’re having a war council?” Jaime said, nearly snarling in rage.

“For the Dothraki, this is just an ordinary conversation,” Missandei said. “War is life, for them. They don’t divide their days with it. And most desirable women are claimed, so when one is available, they don’t wait.”

“Desirable?” Brienne said, incredulous.

“The Dothraki have a saying, Lady Brienne,” Missandei said, smiling at her. “Better a tall wife than a fast horse. And they love fast horses very much.”

“I suppose that’s why they’re all giants,” Jaime said. “Tell him Brienne’s not interested, and—”

Ajjin mae ki qoy ki zhavvorsa?” one of the other Dothraki abruptly said, jerking his chin towards Brienne.

Missandei folded her lips, looking even more mirthful. “Forgive me, Lady Brienne,” she said, “Irmas is asking if you’re of the blood of the dragon—if you’re related to the khaleesi,” she added. “It’s because of your hair.”

Brienne looked even more irritated. “It’s a very distant connection, and not legitimate.”

The amusement vanished; Missandei’s face went utterly blank. “What?”

Jaime blinked. “You’ve got Targareyn blood?”

“My grandmother was an illegitimate daughter of Princess Rhaelle,” Brienne said, dismissively.

Chek?” the Dothraki man asked, and Missandei, who had been staring at Brienne wide-eyed, turned to them slowly and gave a very small quick nod, and every last one of the Dothraki straightened up staring at Brienne like they were hunting dogs that had just taken a scent.

Jaime put his hand on his sword-hilt, a cold grimness descending, and said savagely, “Tell them they’re all dismissed, and to get out of this tent now,” and Missandei jerked back to look wide-eyed at him—she was staring at Brienne, too—and then quickly spoke to the men; they all looked away from Brienne and around at one another, and then almost as one they went out of the tent together.

Jaime let go a breath he hadn’t wanted to be holding, unclenching, and Brienne dropped her own hand from her hilt too; she looked bewildered. “I don’t understand, why would they get so excited about my having such a minor connection?” she said to Missandei. “It was never acknowledged, and I’d never presume to claim a relation.”

Missandei was still looking as startled as a deer. “Forgive me, Lady Brienne,” she said, slowly, “but—legitimacy is not important to the Dothraki. Bloodlines are. And you are of the blood of the khaleesi. The Unburnt, the Mother of Dragons, who slew all the khals at Vaes Dothrak and claimed all the horde for her khalasar: they were there. They have seen her power with their own eyes, every one of those men; they have ridden beneath the wings of her dragons. They followed her across the poison water. They would all—”

There was a sudden roar of noise outside, and a clashing of blades; together all of them looked towards the front of the tent, and Jaime went around the table and shoved out to find two of the Dothraki men fighting right in the open ground, with live blades and total savagery; he had no idea how they could be sure they weren’t going to kill one another, until abruptly one of them stepped wrong and then the other one was gutting him up the belly and he realized that killing one another was the damned idea.

Brienne gave a choked gasp of horror, staring. “What are they doing? Have they gone mad?” Another pair of the Dothraki men were already going at it; the first dead one hadn’t even finished twitching.

“They’re fighting over you,” Missandei said, as if that was obvious. “I must go for the khaleesi,” and she ran off into the tents.

“We have to do something!” Brienne said, looking over at Jaime appalled as another man went down, and yet another pair leaped at each other. “They’re butchering each other!”

Jaime had a single ice-clear moment of thinking and good riddance, and then Brienne abruptly drew her own sword and jumped into the middle of the current fight, smashing aside both the blades; the two men recoiled in surprise, pulling their blows, and she instantly darted her sword through one of the arakhs, levered it out of the man’s hands, flipping it at the other one’s head; when he dodged, she tripped him and then kicked his blade out of his hand too, and pointed the sword at his throat and turned pulling her second blade to put it at the other’s. “That’s enough!” she said, furiously. “No! Do you hear me? No!

Jaime was ready to jump in beside her, but the two men—and the ones all watching around the open ground; what looked like a quarter of the horde had suddenly appeared en masse to enjoy the spectacle—didn’t go at her; they all just exchanged baffled looks, as if they couldn’t imagine why anyone would object to senior officers slaughtering one another on the eve of battle. The whole scene just held there a few moments, and then abruptly the Dothraki were parting to make way for Daenerys, stalking in with an outraged expression and Missandei on her heels. She looked down at the dead men on the ground, at the two being held at swordpoint, and burst into a torrent of Dothraki.

Tyrion came running up in her wake while she was still yelling at them, panting. “What happened?” he said, looking up at Jaime.

“Those savages found out there’s Targareyn blood in the line of Tarth and decided it meant open season on Brienne,” Jaime said through his teeth. “Tyrion, I need a full company of men on guard—”

What?” Tyrion said, interrupting him sharply. “She has Targareyn blood? How far back?”

“Three generations,” Jaime said, then stared at him. “Half the houses in Westeros must have that much Targareyn blood!”

“Not anymore they don’t,” Tyrion said. “Robert Baratheon found excuses to strip the rank of anyone with any recent Targareyn ancestry, if he didn’t actually kill them, and he did kill most of them. He wanted to wipe out the line and he did a good job. Why didn’t he go after you?” he asked Brienne, who was still standing holding the two men at swordpoint.

“It’s not a real connection!” Brienne said, in frustration. “Rhaelle Targareyn had an affair with Ser Duncan the Tall—”

Tyrion was already nodding, his entire face alive with something that looked like relief. “—and produced a daughter—who was quietly sent off to grow up in Tarth and marry a distant Baratheon scion, both a discreet match and an appropriate one by Targareyn standards,” he finished. “Right.” He turned to Daenerys. “Your Grace! A moment,” he said, raising his voice.

Daenerys turned round, still alive with fury. “Don’t put down those swords,” she snapped at Brienne. “I might have you kill a couple more of them, if they need bloodletting that badly.”

“They have an excuse for the frenzy,” Tyrion said. “Lady Brienne is your—what is it, fourth cousin, or is it first cousin four times removed? I can never remember, but you share great-great-grandparents.”

“What?” Daenerys said, and looked at Brienne.

“Your Grace, the connection is through an illegitimate daughter, I would never presume—” Brienne started.

Presume?” Daenerys said, something like half-bewildered wonder breaking out on her face, a disbelieving smile. “I didn’t think I had any family left in the world. Tyrion’s been trying to find them for me, and there’s—no one. Robert Baratheon slaughtered them all, going back for generations; he found excuses over the years, even if they’d fought for him in the rebellion—”

Brienne stared at her helplessly, and abruptly Daenerys turned back and looked at all the Dothraki and gave them another fresh lecture, gesturing imperiously towards Brienne, and then she gave a final wave of her hand and stood glaring as all of them dispersed as rapidly as they’d appeared, several of the men casting wistful looks back in Brienne’s direction, in particular the two she’d disarmed, who picked themeselves up from the ground and made gestures of respect towards her as they got their weapons and went.

“Very nicely done,” Tyrion said, as Daenerys turned back.

What did you do?” Jaime said, his hand still on his hilt.

“I told them that no one is to court my kinswoman without my permission,” Daenerys said to Brienne. “And I took the liberty of mentioning that you weren’t going to be impressed by men who had never faced the sorcerous undead. It should keep them from killing any more of one another. I hope,” she added, with faint exasperation.

“Good going,” Bronn said to him in disgust in the tent, after Daenerys had towed Brienne away off to hers, for what was presumably going to be a convivial ladies evening of tea and cakes and comparing kills. “Now every damn Dothraki in the entire camp is ready to slaughter any other man to have her.”

Jaime just glared at him and went for the wine jug and sloshed a healthy cupful. “There’s not going to be any more killing,” Tyrion said, coming into the tent; he picked up a cup to hold out. “And this is very good news. I don’t suppose you can tell me if Lady Brienne is violently opposed to the idea of marriage?”

“What?” Jaime said, the jug stopped mid-air.

“Now you’re getting in the running, too?” Bronn said.

“What? No, not me,” Tyrion said. “Is there running?

Bronn shrugged. “By anyone with their head far enough out of their own arse to see which way the road goes, there is.”

“Well, I hope they’re all prepared for stiff competition,” Tyrion said. He hopped himself up into a camp chair and then tried to drink out of his cup, realized it was still empty, and held it out to Jaime in slightly frowning protest. Jaime filled it, mechanically. Tyrion took a deep swallow and leaned back in the chair. “Our queen very badly needs some relations—and she isn’t in a position to be picky about the side of the sheets they come from. A loyal woman of childbearing age, from a respected house in the stormlands, with northern support to boot—that’s about as good as it could get. If Lady Brienne would be willing to make the right match. Has she considered any of the runners so far, do you know?”

Bronn rolled his eyes. “Oh, she’s considering, all right. Until after the Great War’s over. She was giving your cunt brother that long to get his head out of his arse. Not that he seems to be taking the chance.”

He got up and went out of the tent with Tyrion gawking after him; then Tyrion swung around staring at Jaime, who tightened his jaw and said warningly, “If you start in on it—”

“No, wait, listen to me,” Tyrion said, cutting him off. “You don’t understand the situation. It’s worth considering.”

“Worth considering what?” Jaime said, wondering if he’d missed something.

“The match!” Tyrion said. “You’re going to win this war for us, if we win it at all. When it’s over—well, you’re not in the Kingsguard anymore. Claim Casterly Rock, and you’re Lord Paramount of the Westerlands. At least half the Lannister armies would come to your banner if you raised it. The Starks will be behind her, and we’ll have half the realm patched back together between the two of you,” talking about it like some sort of grand political matchmaking scheme worthy of their father. Jaime was gaping at him, too confused to break in, and then Tyrion paused, looked at him, and added, “I know she’s ugly—”

Shut. Your. Mouth,” Jaime said, barely managing to force the words out past clenched teeth and murder.

Tyrion leaned far back in his chair and stared at him. After a moment, he said slowly, “You’re—in love with her?”

Jaime pulled himself back in, a knot twisting in his stomach, and grabbed the wine jug and poured himself another cup, seething. He didn’t answer, but he didn’t have to: after another moment Tyrion said, “You’re in love with her, and she’s in love with you. You’re both unmarried, highborn, and eligible. So why aren’t you—”

Jaime seized the heavy tray with the wine jug and the cups and shoved it smash off the table, the only thing in sight to break besides Tyrion’s bones, and wheeled back on him snarling, a savage bitterness in his throat, “I realize that you and Bronn and probably every other person in this army have known all along that Cersei’s an unspeakably vile monster and has been since the day she was born, and that only an idiot would be sorry to have left her. Only the kind of idiot, in fact, who would ever have loved her for a moment—” Tyrion’s face was sagging into unhappy furrows that made Jaime want to knock him out of his chair even more, but instead he surged onward. “But fuck all of you. She was—she was my life. I gave up my inheritance for her. I gave up all other women, I gave up being a father to my own children, I gave up—I gave up—everything; everything I’ve done, every dishonorable and vicious thing I’ve done, I did for her, for her, and all of it’s gone into the dirt, so forgive me if I’m not celebrating my freedom with as much enthusiasm as the rest of you think I should!”

He was roaring by the end, shaking with rage and grief, and then Tyrion said, “Jaime,” with so much sorrow in his voice, and Jaime turned away convulsively, covering his eyes with his hand; he ached for the other one, to be able to smother his whole face into them and stifle away the agony. Instead he clenched his jaw tight and pressed his lips tight around it, and just dragged in short breaths through his nose.

Tyrion didn’t speak for a long while. Then he said softly, “I can’t tell you that there was ever a time when I loved Cersei. She always hated me, you see. It was the first thing I understood about her. But…there was a time I would have liked to love her. When I would have liked her to love me. When that would have been important to me. So I don’t think she was a monster from the day she was born. And I don’t think you’re an idiot, either.”

“That would make you the only one,” Jaime said, without turning around.

“I think…you’re too strong for your own good,” Tyrion said. “Strong enough that you never learned to give up. Sometimes even when you should have.”

Jaime swallowed hard, staring down at his hand, his golden hand. More of the dark steel showing through these days, where the gilt had rubbed away. He’d given up that time; he’d only been waiting to die, but maybe Tyrion was right, because he’d been waiting, after all: he’d been too strong to die even with rot climbing up his arm and horse piss poured down his throat, after being half-starved for a year. And it would have been for his own good, because if he’d died then, he would have died leaving a wife and three children and a father and a brother behind him; and maybe they’d all still be alive and together even now, instead of just his sister gone mad and his brother on the other side of a war, and the rest of them rotting corpses.

He shuddered all over, and then Tyrion said, “I didn’t mean to wound you. No one’s going to make you marry,” except he was going to make Brienne marry; he was going to talk to her in low reasonable tones and ask her to marry, for the good of Westeros, and Brienne would say yes, and marry someone else. And that made Jaime’s guts tighten into a vomitious knot just as much as the idea of going to her himself and saying please and will you and putting his hands on her warm body and kissing her mouth and taking her to his bed, in the place he’d given to only one.

He didn’t think he could bear it either way, except it would have to be one or the other, because Brienne wanted—children, children of her own, and a man who desired her for her husband. And she deserved those things, she had every right to them, but Jaime still didn’t know how he could bear to give them to her when the children he’d given Cersei lay rotting in the earth, when her perfume was still lingering in his mouth and he still felt her hands on his bare skin and his cock moving in her body.

“Why won’t Daenerys marry, if it’s so damned important,” he said, only clawing after some escape.

Tyrion didn’t say anything for a long moment, until Jaime turned around and found him staring bleakly into the empty cup between his hands, and then Tyrion said, very quietly, “She’s barren.”

“What?” Jaime said, stupidly, and then understood—Tyrion wasn’t talking about securing an alliance, some kind of maneuvering; he was talking about the throne, he meant to put Brienne’s children on the Iron Throne, more sacrifices to be spitted on those blades— “No.

“You don’t think she’ll—”

 “I don’t care if she would,” Jaime said. “No. No. Find someone who wants the fucking thing.”

“What sane person wants it?” Tyrion said.

“Your queen!

“If Daenerys really wanted the Iron Throne, she’d already have it, and you and Cersei would be smoldering in a heap of rubble right now,” Tyrion said flatly. “She wants it, but she doesn’t want it quite that much, and yes, she is mad, but only a little bit, and that’s about as good as you can hope for in a queen. But she’s going to be a queen without an heir, and we’ll all get to have another round of butchering war if there isn’t someone willing to get on the chair after her.”

“Not Brienne,” Jaime said. It was begging, desperate. “Not Brienne.” But Tyrion’s face only fell.

#

Four hours after he left, Brienne came back into the tent with her face pale and blank and stricken. It was late, and he’d been sitting in the dark, with only the one lamp lit on the table, guttering. She didn’t even see him; she was already walking mechanically over to her alcove when he stood up from his chair and said her name, and she paused and didn’t look around, her head bent. After a moment, she said, low, “Daenerys has asked me…”

“You don’t have to,” he broke in, his heart pounding, because he couldn’t, he couldn’t bear to hear her say the words, to hear her ask him straight out if he’d do it, if he’d stand before a tree and promise to be true, a promise he had no idea how to make when she was asking him with that same breath to give her—everything he’d given Cersei, his body and his children and his heart, and even the throne along with them: that terrible cold bloodstained throne that was all that Cersei had left, the one she’d bought by spending all the rest. “Brienne—whatever she said to you, whatever Tyrion said to you, you don’t want the throne, you can’t want it—”

“The throne?” she said, as if she had no idea what he was talking about, and turned around to look at him in confusion. “We’re a thousand miles from King’s Landing and there’s an army of dead men coming. What does the throne matter, how could it?” He stared at her. She shook her head. “Daenerys…wants me to try and fly Rhaegal.”

Fly him?” Jaime said blankly.

“Daenerys can’t guide two of them in the middle of a battle,” Brienne said. “That’s—that’s how the Night King was able to take Viserion. The dragons don’t see danger in anything that small, they can’t, so Rhaegal will fall next, if he doesn’t have a rider by the next time we face the Night King. She’s asking me—”

“To try and tame him? Yourself? Are you both out of your minds?” Jaime said, more bewildered than anything. “The dragons devoured a dozen of the dragonseed, last time anyone who wasn’t purebred Targareyn tried it, and you’ve got, what, two drops of Targareyn blood to rub together? He’d look at you once and burn you into a cinder.”

He looked at her expectantly; he still wasn’t feeling anything except baffled, and then Brienne said, “I can’t do anything about that. All I can do is try,” and her voice was shaking a little, as if she was afraid, and then she said, “In the morning,” and he understood, much too late, that the blade had already come down and his hand was on the other side of it, that he’d been living in the moment before the pain itself had hit, and he couldn’t speak at all.

She paused a moment, and then she added, “He’ll be risking his life for our sake,” as if she thought that was an argument for it, being fair to dragons. Then she turned away and went behind the curtain. She didn’t ask him for anything.

As she never had asked him for anything, not for herself. Other women had asked him with far less invitation: dozens of them, maybe hundreds, he didn’t even know. He’d looked away from all of them with scorn. And he knew she loved him; he’d basked in the knowledge like sunlight, a warm hearth. But all the debts he’d ever owed her, she’d told him to repay to others. She hadn’t reached out a hand to him over the bared swordblade in the bed between them, the sword he’d laid down there for his own protection. She hadn’t whispered his name in the dark, not once. She’d never even said straight out, I’ll take another if you won’t have me. She’d only pushed him firmly back when he’d tried to be jealous, wanting to keep others from sharing the hearth that he had chosen not to claim.

But now—he’d have his wish. She’d belong to no other man, and he’d never have to give her anything at all. Behind the curtain, she was even taking off the sword and the armor he’d given her, putting them aside. She wouldn’t put them back on in the morning. What was the use of taking good armor and Valyrian steel to be melted down in dragonfire, along with flesh and bone? She’d leave them behind with everything else he could have given her: the children she’d let herself imagine having, the love of a man who’d cleave to her. She’d give it all up and go a virgin offering to her death in burning agony, and before the dragon had even turned its head away, the ash of her would be blowing away like the charred corpses on the Goldroad, gone into the air, flecks as light and fine as snow.

And she wouldn’t blame him for letting her go to that end. Bronn and Podrick would; they’d turn away from him full of cold disgust. But Brienne had called Tormund a man who wants me, and the unspoken words had been not like you. Everyone else knew; Dothraki warriors who couldn’t speak the common tongue knew to ask are you the commander’s woman after ten minutes standing in a tent with them, but Brienne thought only that she was useful enough to be wanted by practical men and barbarians, and not by the man she wanted herself, a man who’d spent his life chasing the most beautiful woman in Westeros into the deepest muck of dishonor. A man who wouldn’t give her anything at all, not even words, to make her stay with him. Who’d said no, with a bared blade between them, even as he warmed himself at her light.

He stood in the dark, shaking, and then he stepped forward and pulled aside the curtain. She turned her head startled up towards him, just getting into her cot: she was in her shirt and trousers and socks, rumpled and soft and infinitely inviting; he was terrified, and full of longing, and he sat down on the edge of the cot and cupped her head in his hand and leaned in towards her, his chest a hollow space with his heart pounding on the walls. He pressed his forehead to hers and whispered, “Brienne.”

Her hands were on his shoulders, and she trembled all over and there were tears spilling down her face, and then she whispered back, her voice breaking, “I have to try.”

He flinched in her hands, so hard he nearly jerked out of them. “Brienne. No. Listen to me—”

“I’m sorry,” she said, and her hands were on his face; her thumbs were wiping tears from his cheeks. “I’m sorry. I know I matter to you,” as if she did know, as if she’d known as much as anyone, even if he hadn’t told her. “But I’m not that important—”

“You are,” he said. “You’re the most important thing in the world,” and leaned in to kiss her.  

For one moment his lips just barely brushed hers, a shiver of flame going through him as she gave a small shuddering gasp. But she drew away, keeping her mouth from him, and she was only still stroking his face gently, as if she was trying to comfort him, grotesquely. “I’m sorry,” she said again. And then she swallowed and said, very softly, “Would—would you stay with me?” And she wasn’t asking him to make love to her; she was only asking him to stay, to hold her for this one night so she wouldn’t lie alone and afraid, waiting for morning.

He wanted desperately to say no, he wanted to say no as much as he’d wanted all along to say yes to the things she hadn’t asked him for. She’d never given him the excuse, the chance to push the decision off onto her, to let himself feel that he’d done it as a gift. Like all the things he’d done, and told himself he had to do, for the first woman he’d loved, the woman he’d failed because he’d made her his excuse for lust and lies and murder.

But Brienne wouldn’t ever let him make her his reason for betrayal. She’d asked him to persuade Cersei, not abandon her; she’d asked him to come north to fight the dead, not to be her lover. Even now she’d asked him only for a little comfort, the comfort a friend could give. A friend who didn’t have the right to demand that she cleave to him, because he hadn’t cleaved to her. He’d been a coward too long; he had abused the kindness of the gods, the second chance they’d given him. And oh, he was sorry; he was so very sorry.

But he wasn’t the one going to his death in the morning, he wasn’t the one giving up all hope of life and joy to walk into a dragon’s jaws, and if she did walk out of them, she’d only be walking towards a worse end, a throne made of knives. So he nodded, a single stiff jerk that didn’t require him to make a sound, and he curled himself in with her, their bodies entwined, intimate and chaste all at the same time. She gave a small sigh, and was asleep in his arms almost at once. He was aching; he wanted more than anything to wake her, to have her, to kiss her and get at her bare skin and put his hands and his name on her; and instead all he could do was lie awake, holding her, trying not to sleep, as if he could keep the hours from going.

But he couldn’t; he drifted away finally, and came awake with a jerk in the thin wintry sunrise as Brienne tried to slip out quietly without waking him. He caught her close and buried his face in her hair for a moment before he got up with her. He pulled on his boots and cloak and walked with her through the early stirring of the camp, trying to convince himself there was a chance; surely even a dragon could see what she was, and her hair was unnaturally fair, and maybe it had a silver hint to the blond. He managed to talk himself into it right until the moment when they came out from the tents and the dragon was curled there on the flat ground before them, Daenerys stroking its head, and Tyrion and Jon Snow both waiting on the edge, frowning and tense. Daenerys had made sure to have the beast fed, at least, what looked like an entire cow, and its eye was heavy-lidded and indistinct behind a thick transclucent eyelid.

But the blurry layer rolled back off as they came closer, and a red gleam of fire looked out of it, still hungry, and Jaime could feel Brienne trembling, by his side. She didn’t want to go down to that thing; she wanted him, and if he’d only given her what she wanted— “Brienne,” he said, a protest.

But Daenerys was coming over; she glanced at him only a moment, dismissing him—because he didn’t count, he didn’t have a say; he’d passed up the chance, and now all he could do was stand here and watch Brienne be braver than he was. Daenerys turned to her and said, “I don’t demand it. It’s not something I’d ever command. I wouldn’t even allow it if there were any other chance.”

“I know,” Brienne said, steadily, so full of courage he thought his heart was going to break, not letting her fear show. “I’m ready.”

Daenerys smiled, fuck her, and stepped back, and the dragon stirred all over, like a horse shivering away flies, as if a restraining hand had just come off. Its head came sinuously up, startlingly quick, whipping around; its nostrils flared.

Brienne didn’t flinch, but her shoulders went back, her chin rising, and Jaime couldn’t bear it. He reached out and caught her cheek with his hand and pulled her around to him in desperation. “Don’t,” he said against her lips, begging her, shamelessly. “Don’t.”

She trembled all over, and she didn’t kiss him, but she closed her eyes and pressed her cheek against his for one moment, one last moment, her hand holding his head close and her tears slipping free, but she said, voice cracking, “I have to. You know I have to try,” raw and miserable.

And then she turned back to the dragon wiping the tears from her stricken face, and Jon Snow clenched his jaw and shook his head and said, harshly, “No. Wait.” Jaime jerked around, but Snow wasn’t looking at him. He had stepped towards Daenerys. He pressed his mouth tight and looked down at her, anguish in his face, and said, “It shouldn’t be her trying. It—it should be me.”

Daenerys turned, frowning. “What do you mean? You don’t have Targareyn blood…”

But she was trailing off, staring into his face, and he said, raggedly, “I’m sorry. I didn’t know—I didn’t know how to tell you, I couldn’t stand for you to think I was trying to claim—” He stopped.

“Tell me what?” Daenerys said. “Claim what? Targareyn blood? Are you saying—” There was a sudden sharp understanding coming into her face. “Is that why you stopped—I thought you didn’t even know who your mother was, you said you didn’t—”

“I didn’t,” Snow said, almost desperately. “I didn’t, all this time, I swear to you. It was Bran. Bran saw it, and when we came back, he told me—”

“About your mother? That your mother had Targareyn blood—” Daenerys’s voice was rising, incredulous.

But Snow was shaking his head, and Tyrion said, in tones of blank revelation, “Oh, that lying son of a whore.”

Jaime stared wildly at all of them, veering between bafflement and desperate hope, and then Snow said, “My mother was Lyanna Stark,” and for a moment it didn’t make any sense at all: Ned Stark had been fucking his sister? And then even as Jon Snow was saying, “My father was—” Jaime remembered Barristan Selmy saying, Arthur and Gerold are dead. They died at the Tower of Joy, in Dorne—guarding Lyanna Stark against her own brother for no reason, for their prince who was already dead, their prince—

“Rhaegar,” Daenerys said blankly. “You’re—Rhaegar’s son?”

“And you were worried we’d think you were trying to claim— Are you legitimate?” Tyrion said, and Snow darted a stricken look at him and then jerked his head in a nod, as if he was admitting to a crime worse than murder, and possibly he was right, going by the way Daenerys was glaring at him in rising outrage, and Tyrion was looking just as indignant and saying something about how Ned Stark turned out to be the single best liar in all of Westeros, but Jaime didn’t care; he didn’t care about any of it, he only cared about the thing that mattered most in the whole world.

He lunged forward and grabbed Brienne by the wrist where she was gawking at Snow and Daenerys, and she looked at him wide-eyed with confusion, but she came, she let him pull her back to him and away from the gleaming-eyed dragon—which he was suddenly, absolutely sure wouldn’t have burned her up: it would have flown off with her in an instant if it had gotten the chance: it wasn’t a stupid beast, after all. But too bad; it was going to have to settle for stubby Jon Snow or whatever his fucking name actually was, and Bronn was going to have to find himself some other girl with a castle to marry, and Tormund some other good and brave woman, and every last Dothraki horselord could suck his cock, because she was in his arms, and he was saying please, Brienne, please, even if he didn’t manage to get it out loud, because he was too busy kissing her.

# End