Long after the haunting strains of Podrick’s ballad have died away and the fire is starting to dwindle, the company begins to part ways. Ser Davos is the first to retire, complaining of old bones in need of what little rest they can gather before the dawn. Tyrion, astute as ever, senses the need for his brother to speak alone with Lady – no, Ser Brienne, and he is the next to rise, encouraging a wine-drunk and drowsy Pod to join him. Tormund, sadly, is not so adept at social nuances, and he is wide-eyed with pre-battle energy, one of his legs bouncing involuntarily.
Jaime and Brienne sit in silence, each stealing a glance to the other but never in tandem. Their enormous ginger companion takes another gulp of whatever is now contained in his drinking horn, before launching into another bawdy tale. Jaime barely manages to suppress his eye-roll, saying nothing in response.
Brienne listens to the story, at first, out of courtesy; but her gaze is fixed on the flickering patterns of firelight on the stone floor, her mind slowly wandering elsewhere: battle plans for the morrow, contingencies, inventories – everything her regiment will need in only a few short hours. She is not sure if they are ready – if she is ready. So many of their number are nothing more than green boys – so many young lives potentially lost.
Jaime shifts in his chair, the firelight glinting off his cumbersome golden hand, and distracts Brienne from her thoughts. Instead, her mind returns the image of him standing before her, sword in hand; the nervous twitch of his fingers around its hilt; the gentle pressure of the blade against her shoulders; and those words she had never thought to hear:
Arise, Brienne of Tarth: Knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
She cannot prevent the smile which once again edges onto her face, though she tries very hard to suppress it lest Tormund get the wrong idea. She casts her eyes downwards and turns her head away – and Jaime’s face is in her line of sight. He wears a similar, practically imperceptible smile in response to hers, as though he can read her thoughts. She remembers the look in his eyes as she had stood, before the applause had distracted them both; he looked at her almost as if—
No; it is an impossibility. Thank all the gods, Jaime cannot read her thoughts, and if he could she very much doubts he would still be here.
Tormund has finally finished his tale, raising his horn in some kind of toast, and Brienne wishes she had paid more attention so she could at least pretend to know what he is celebrating. Luckily, he does not seem bothered by her lack of reciprocity, and they lapse, all three, into silence once more.
When next she casts her gaze to Jaime, his eyes are closed as though asleep. She can hardly blame him: the journey to Winterfell must have been arduous, his welcome not exactly with open arms, and he is not used to the cold. This is probably the only chance anyone will have to enjoy some warmth and peace and quiet.
Alas, it is not to last.
Jaime’s eyes snap open at Tormund’s voice, before darkening into a frown.
“I have a name, Wildling,” he reminds him pointedly.
“Aye, but I prefer ‘Kingkiller’. Has a nice ring to it. It’s a fine name. Strong. To the point. Must be quite a tale behind it.”
Jaime folds his arms irritably. “I’m not in the habit of sharing, if it’s all the same to you.” And yet he catches Brienne’s eye with a knowing half-smile, a subtlety to which their companion is oblivious.
Tormund raises one bushy eyebrow in amusement. “Come on, man! This could be our last night alive! I could do with a hearty tale to pass the hours. How exactly does a man come by a name like that?” He savours it. “Kingkiller…”
“Kingslayer!” snaps Brienne. “It’s Kingslayer. If you’re going to insult him, at least get it right.” Then, realising her error, she turns to Jaime in mortification. “Ser Jaime… forgive me, I—“
“It’s all right,” he says, to her great surprise. “Thank you for defending my honour, wench – such as it is.” She is in no doubt that his use of his old nickname for her is intentional, perhaps even a form of retaliation, and her embarrassment only increases. Then his expression changes, warms. “I knew you’d make a fine knight.”
Something unspoken forms in the tension between them, but before it can bloom any further, Tormund emits a booming laugh which echoes off the stone walls of the room.
“Ha! Insult you? Far from it!” He laughs again, this time at both of their confused faces. “I dare say there are some kings that deserve to be killed. Bloody regal bastards. I admire a man who has the balls to do it. Rid the world of the lot of them, that’s what I say.”
“I wouldn’t let the Dragon Queen hear you say that,” warns Brienne, “nor King Jon.”
“I make an exception for Jon,” he says. “He’s one of us. The Dragon Queen can—“
“Probably hear absolutely everything we’re saying,” interrupts Jaime. “Spies and ears everywhere. And I imagine her children have excellent hearing. If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather not be incinerated before I can reach the battlefield.”
“Well, at least you’d finally be warm,” suggests Tormund with a wild grin, and takes another drink.
Brienne has finally lost patience with whatever game Tormund is playing, and she needs to be at her best in a few hours. Retaining an air of control and poise despite her irritation, she rises slowly from the chair, and cannot help but notice the flicker of disappointment on Jaime’s face as she makes to leave.
“If you will forgive me, gentlemen, I must bid you goodnight.”
Tormund raises his drink in her direction. “I will continue to drink in your place, Lady Knight. Sleep well – and give those undead fuckers what they deserve.”
She appreciates the sentiment, gracing Tormund with a polite nod before turning to Jaime once more. Unspoken words lie thick and heavy in the space between them, and neither is able to break the silence. She has the courage to fight a thousand wights, but saying goodnight to Jaime feels too much like goodbye. They have never been any use at goodbyes.
Eventually, she merely straightens her stance and raises her chin with more determination than she feels.
He nods, understanding. “Ser Brienne.”
Just like that, she remembers again. Yes, she is a knight. Her head is raised a little more proudly as she finally turns and leaves the room.
Jaime watches her retreating form until the door closes behind her, and the room suddenly feels all the colder for her absence. The fire crackles in the hearth, devouring the last of its fuel. When Jaime finally focuses back on Tormund, the red-haired wildling is staring at him with a thoughtful expression.
“What?” he asks irritably.
“If you don’t go after her, Kingslayer, then I will. And I’m not so sure she’d want my company.”
Jaime can only gawp at him – perhaps the man is not so unobservant as he appears.
“You love her,” he states plainly. “It’s as obvious as that stupid golden fist of yours.” Jaime hides the appendage self-consciously inside his sleeve, as best he can, as Tormund assesses the situation. “So, you’re the reason she’s been so blind to my obvious charms. I can’t say I’m too disappointed. Even if you are a one-handed pretty-boy Southron.”
Jaime’s head is reeling. “I… thank you?”
Tormund suddenly leaps from his chair, startling Jaime enough that his own seat jolts across the flagstones. The wildling does not approach, merely stares at him with a hint of challenge, and eventually he works out what is happening. Jaime gets to his feet and edges towards the door; so does Tormund. Jaime takes a step, his adversary follows. Another step, and then another. They are within arm’s reach of the door when Jaime hesitates, wondering what the next move in this game will be.
“Fuck’s sake, man. Just go,” mutters Tormund, and gives him a hefty shove towards the door. Jaime does not need telling twice, and in two more paces he pulls the heavy wood towards him and steps out into the hallway.
The drop in temperature outside of the room is striking, momentarily stunning him into frozen stillness before he rallies himself again and sets off down the corridor. Brienne cannot have gotten far, but Winterfell is like a labyrinth and he’s more likely to get himself lost before he can find her. Jaime ploughs ahead regardless, hoping that some previously unforeseen instinct might lead him to her.
Within moments he is irrevocably lost, potentially wandering in circles. The Starks’ infernal castle has too many darkened corners and indiscernible landmarks, and the courage which has buoyed him so far suddenly abandons him without mercy. He collapses against the nearest wall in absolute defeat, dropping to the floor; the stone is cold against his back, chilling him to his very bones. He will never understand how Northerners can live like this.
The day’s exhaustion begins to encroach again and he half-considers merely giving up and sleeping where he sits, prepared to risk freezing to death if he can only close his eyes. The sound of familiar footsteps approaches from around the corner; it is too much to hope that it might be her.
He is suddenly feeling very much awake again, as he looks up and finds Brienne staring down at him, wearing much the same expression as she did that morning.
“What in the world are you doing down there?”
“I was, um… looking for you,” he explains.
She extends an arm, gripping his hand firmly to help him to his feet, his half-frozen muscles aching in protest, but her hand does not linger in his. She clasps them both behind her back in a formal stance, and for a long moment they merely stare at each other.
“Would you care to walk with me?” asks Jaime. “If nothing else, you can point me in the direction of something I recognise.”
Together, they amble slowly through the unfamiliar corridors until they emerge on the battlements, looking out over the courtyard. Brienne points out the main gate, the training yard, to help him get his bearings. It is snowing again, as bitterly cold as ever, yet Brienne is unaffected. His metal prosthesis shoots tendrils of ice up to his elbow, and he rubs his lower arm with his remaining hand to try and increase the circulation.
Brienne looks at him in concern.
“Is it painful?”
“Not so much, these days,” he says with a slight wince. “This thing was not designed for cold weather. Or much of anything beyond appearances.”
“If there was more time,” she says, “I would have had Gendry fashion you something better.”
“It’s very tempting to leave it behind,” he admits. “Though maybe I can do some good with it through bludgeoning.”
The mental image of Jaime clobbering someone with the useless appendage is an amusing one, and it raises a hint of a smile on Brienne’s face. Her gaze returns to the courtyard below, where the evidence of the day’s activity is slowly succumbing to another layer of white. Jaime’s focus, however, is elsewhere, as he appraises Brienne in the low light: the distant yellow of Winterfell’s candlelight, the bright snow-filtered moonlight above. Her short blonde hair is almost silver, snowflakes glittering, her pale complexion tinged pink from the cold. A surge of courage overwhelms him and he acts on it before it can flee.
“I wanted to—“
They speak at once and immediately cease. She turns to him and the blueness of her eyes momentarily stuns him into silence.
“Please, go ahead,” she offers. “I interrupted you.”
He swallows, and refocuses. “It wasn’t important. Say what you need to say.”
She nods, but has lost her words. She searches for them, feeling strangely exposed under Jaime’s level gaze.
“I want… no. I need to thank you, Ser Jaime. For your actions this evening. I won’t deny it has always been my greatest wish to become a knight, and I am… so very grateful. I fear I cannot repay you for it.”
“I didn’t do it for repayment,” he reassures her, in a frustrated tone. “Do you really think I know you so little, Brienne, that I would only do such a thing for what I might gain from it?” She stares at him in confusion, and he has no choice but to explain himself more clearly. “I knighted you because it is no less than you deserve… and precisely because you have always wished it.”
It is only then that she finally realises: the armour, the sword… Jaime has always believed her worthy of such a title.
“I hope I will not disappoint you.”
“You could never disappoint me,” he responds, and then quickly amends: “or anyone else. You are strong, and true, and good. You’ll be far more worthy of the title than I ever was.”
As ever, Brienne feels a wave of frustration rise up at his self-deprecation. “Why must you always speak so ill of yourself? You were in the Kingsguard, you—“
“I am a crippled former commander who murdered his king. I’m close to useless now. But I will fight beside you, as best I can.”
There is very little point in arguing with him, so Brienne lapses into silence once again. At the horizon, the sun is already starting to rise, a pale line of bright light encroaching into the dark grey sky. Soon the enemy will be upon them.
Jaime leans against the battlements, his breath forming a cloud in front of him before he speaks. “Your greatest wish was to become a knight,” he says. “Would you like to know mine?”
She has to admit to being curious, and as she turns to him he straightens again so they are once more at the same level.
“Are you expecting me to fulfil it?” she asks.
He does not directly answer. “It’s very likely I’m going to die in this war.”
He says it so matter-of-factly, it surprises her and she forgets his title. “Jaime—“
“Don’t try to pretend otherwise. It’s an inevitable fact. If not tomorrow, then soon after.”
“You’re not going to die. I will not permit it.”
He has to smile at that; if only it was that simple. “My greatest wish…”
“You will never get it if you don’t survive,” she points out. “What is all this nonsense—“
“Brienne, my greatest wish is to die.” He raises his voice more than intended, trying to make her understand. The shock of his words has silenced her, enabling him finally to share the most important part. “To die… in the arms of the woman I love.”
To his dismay, her face hardens and she turns away from him. She steels herself, building an emotional wall more resilient than her physical armour.
“You are far from Kings Landing now, Ser,” she reminds him curtly. “You will not get your wish.”
Cersei, he realises. She believes he refers to his sister. He has gone about this in the wrong way completely, and it is now time to be direct.
“Yes,” he agrees, “I am far from Kings Landing. I’m all the way up here in the frozen bloody North to fight a war that is probably unwinnable. Do you know why? You asked me this morning and I failed to answer. Would you care to ask me again?”
She wants to refuse. Her heart cannot take any more disappointment. She should have returned to her chambers and gone to bed and none of this would have happened. The knighthood was enough; she should not have hoped for more.
She can feel him staring at her, level and calm, and knows there is no backing out. Whatever Jaime has to tell her, perhaps she needs to hear it.
Finally, she turns to him again, her mouth a firm line. “Why are you here?”
“Because of you,” he finally admits, and it feels as though a weight has been lifted. “Because you told me to fuck loyalty, and you were right. Loyalty got me nothing except a threat to my life. If I’m going to lose my head, I’d rather it be on the battlefield than at the hands of my sister’s half-dead abomination of a Queensguard. At least I’ll be fighting for the right side.”
Brienne tries to process his words, but there is one thing continuing to irk her, one thing still unclear. “Your sister…”
He shakes his head. “She’s mad. Madder than Aerys ever was. Perhaps she always has been, and I’ve been too blind to see it.” He does not want to admit the next part, but Brienne needs to understand. “She is my sister… my twin… she has been half of me for my entire life. I will always love her for that… but I could not stay and watch her destroy the world, and herself along with it… I left Kings Landing with an ache in my chest, but believe me when I say it was not for her.”
With his remaining hand, he reaches for one of hers, draws it up and presses it against his chest. She stares at the point of contact for a long time, too fearful to meet his gaze. Not for the first time, Jaime wishes he had his other hand, so he could tilt her chin and raise her eyes to his. But he does not, so words will have to suffice.
“I came here to fight for the living,” he reminds her, “but I also came here for you. My heart is yours, Brienne.” Finally, she raises her face. “It has always been yours.”
Her eyes begin to prickle with the onset of tears. She wants to believe him so badly, but experience has hardened her heart to protect it from false hope.
“Don’t toy with me, Jaime. Please. From you, of all people, I could not bear it.”
He steps closer, into her personal space. “I would never lie to you about this.”
She tries to suppress them, but the tears escape unbidden, dampening her cheeks; if not for the warmth of Jaime’s nearness, they would likely freeze upon her face. Jaime releases her hand and reaches to wipe them away, but the tenderness of his touch only makes her cry harder.
“Are you upset because you want this, or because you don’t?” he asks, genuinely concerned by her reaction, and a strangled laugh leaves her throat.
“Because I do, you stupid man.”
With that, Brienne pitches herself forward into his arms, clutching him tightly, and as he reciprocates she can feel the relief rolling off him in waves. His hands – both flesh and golden – wrap firmly around her waist; their armour clashes awkwardly.
“That was harsh, but fair,” he tells her, his chin against her shoulder. “Tyrion always called me the stupidest Lannister.”
“I think he may have been right,” she says. Then, taking a deep breath, she slowly pulls back from him. She watches his face as he watches hers, his eyes flitting to every part of it, before finally locking with hers. His entire expression changes, softens, in way that is both new and familiar; he seems to be very far away. She must be wearing a questioning expression of her own, because he blinks and is suddenly back with her.
“Gods, Brienne. You have the most astonishing eyes.”
“I’m not to be won over with empty compliments,” she warns him, only half-joking.
“It’s not an empty compliment. I mean it. I’ve had dreams which were painted in just that shade of blue, not realising what it represented.” She does not look convinced; at any other moment he would take great pains to compliment her further, but there is not enough time. He raises his hand again, to gently cup her face. “Will you allow me, then, to die in your arms?”
“I will not allow you to die at all,” she says adamantly, and for a moment he thinks she might not have fully understood him. “Not tomorrow, nor the day after. You are not allowed to confess your feelings for me and then abandon me, Jaime. Do I make myself clear?”
“Have I confessed them? It still feels wanting.”
The fact that even now he can find the time to jape with her is simultaneously infuriating and endearing, and she wants to hit him almost as much as she wants to kiss him. An overwhelming sense of impropriety is the only thing preventing her from doing the latter, and the former is still a distinct possibility if Jaime continues to be such a Lannister about things.
Then, in a heartbeat, the mischievous sparkle in his eyes is replaced by something more serious; his hand against her face moves just enough to tilt her head down as his own tilts up, and then he presses his mouth to hers and the entire world stops. Snowflakes halt mid-descent, the background sounds of Winterfell fade to silence, Brienne’s surroundings blur around the edges and the only thing of any importance is the sensation of his lips against hers. He knows that she has no experience in matters of the heart, and he does not push her beyond her tentative reciprocation, but when her hands reach instinctively to his face to tug him closer, he makes a noise in the back of his throat and it both terrifies and thrills her to know that she could have such an effect on him. His golden hand rests at her hip, pulling the rest of her closer towards him.
When finally they separate, Jaime rests his forehead against hers, his eyes remaining closed for a longer moment than her own. She is almost surprised to find that the world around them is unchanged.
“Brienne…” He utters her name like a benediction. He pulls away, just enough that she can see his face and know the truth of his next words. “I love you. I have been in love with you for… for years. I want to marry you, when all of this is over… if you will have me.”
“Marry me? Jaime, that’s—“
“Madness? Impossible?” he interjects, guessing her reservations. “Brienne, we are about to fight the dead and our queen has dragons. Nothing could be madder or more impossible than that.”
He is, infuriatingly, correct, and his offer is so very tempting. “If we both survive… I will consider it.”
“If we both survive, I will do my best to persuade you.”
She thinks it will not take very much effort, once the war is over, once they are safe and the spring has come. She imagines a wedding in the Starks’ godswood, or perhaps one of Tarth’s many beaches, surrounded by fresh new greenery or the crash of waves against the shore.
The sound of a horn shatters her daydream to pieces, and she is suddenly back on the Winterfell battlements with Jaime. He wears a similar expression to her own – fearful for the battle head, yet determined. Already she can feel her mind snapping to its role as a strategist, a soldier, and she knows that Jaime’s mind will be doing the same. Neither of them have slept and there is now no time; they have made a huge and potentially dangerous mistake to enter the fray unrested.
“We should prepare,” she tells him, and he nods, but neither of them make any move to leave. In the courtyard below there is already a flurry of activity, the freshly-fallen snow once again trampled and muddied. Anyone looking up towards the castle would be able to see them, but Brienne cannot quite bring herself to care, as Jaime takes a step forward and her own hands make a desperate grab for his face, dragging him into another kiss. There is no time for the slow pleasantries of earlier and Jaime’s mouth is insistent against hers, his left arm wrapped around her back and holding her tight for a few more precious seconds.
She breaks apart from him to catch a breath, and urgently speaks the words she has been suppressing for so long.
“I love you, Jaime. Please, try not to get yourself killed. I will never forgive you if you die after this.”
Whatever response he is about to make is interrupted by a team of archers emerging from a nearby tower, setting up in position along the castle walls and effectively forcing them to move out of the area. He follows Brienne to the courtyard, where they must part ways. Now, amongst the hubbub, they have no choice but to part with formality.
“Good luck, Ser Jaime.”
“And to you, my lady.”
She nods, and turns, and is lost to the crowd. Jaime looks for somewhere to make himself useful, quickly scanning the hive of activity in the courtyard before heading towards the forge to help Gendry hand out weapons, and perhaps give the men some encouragement along the way. He casts his gaze back towards Brienne, who is admonishing a hungover Podrick for imbibing too many cups of wine, her sternness belied by her obvious affection for the boy. She catches his eye for a brief second, the depth of her feelings reflected in her face, and he cannot stop himself from smiling.
“Oi, Lannister, stop bloody gawping and move your arse out of the way!”
The harsh Northern tones of one of Jon’s men is enough to kick him back into action. There will be plenty of time to stare at Brienne later, if they win the war.
No. When they win the war. Losing is out of the question now that she has commanded him to survive. If he is to die in her arms, he first needs to live.
- end -