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like the ashes of ash

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Brienne of Tarth has never had to do anything special in order to leave a memorable impression on someone.

If her size hadn’t been enough, her claim as sole heir to the entire island of Tarth has always made her more interesting than she’s ever desired.

No man thought himself too old or too decrepit; too loose in his mind to court her, and the memories of it still roil in her stomach like sickness. Being polite to those who have looked at her with piggish lust in their eyes, or even just the look that tells her they think less of her than other women -- it’s hurt her worse than any wound that has ever been opened on her body.

When she started to tower over the other girls and they began to laugh at her for it, Brienne learned to make herself harder than steel. When she donned armour for the first time, she already knew what it felt like, because she had been wearing it against the japes of men and girls for years.

Only Renly; only the man with a just and gentle hand who was so floral in his kindness to her, had made a dent. Renly, who smiled at her without pity or jeering! Who brought her into his guard because he saw what it meant to her. He had not wanted anything, and a man not wanting anything from her was more novel than Brienne could bear.

But then Renly died with his blood coating her hands, and even though it wasn’t her killing blow that struck him she felt as guilty as if it had been.

Even after Jaime, she still doesn’t believe that it’s possible for men and love to coexist. Not in the same place. Not for her.  

She’s certain Jaime’s life here without Cersei is dark and cold. It has to be. Despite his presence in her room at night, the solid weight of him next to her she thinks there’s going to have to be a moment. Some flame that has been burning in him will be extinguished and he’ll retreat to safety, back into the folds of his family; all their wealth and power and bitter cruelty.

Maybe he will winter her like a season, and when the snows melt he’ll be gone back to his summer sister as quickly as the winds blowing south from the Wall.

In her heart Brienne is sure of two things: the North is uninhabitable, and so is she.

Jaime Lannister had learned from a young age that a memorable impression counted.

His captor might be utterly humourless and roughly the size of a supply ship, but she was still human. And that meant she had an opinion about him.

“You wouldn’t consider it even for one night?” He asked one afternoon. The rain had been falling for hours, heavy and miserable. “I’ve been sleeping in a pen for a year and we’ve been traipsing the breadth of Westeros for a week. I want to sleep under a roof .”

“Why would I care where you’ve been sleeping, Kingslayer?”

“Well, winter, as they say, is coming,” Jaime offered. “I’m only in these rags and I’d wager you’ll get a lot colder welcome in Kings Landing if you only show up with my corpse.”

He watched the way her eyes narrowed as she tried to figure out if he was tricking her.

“You aren’t going to die of exposure ,” she said after a moment. There was a fair amount of scorn in her voice -- but then, he reasoned, she said everything to him with a fair amount of scorn in her voice.

He could tell she was thinking about it, though. She had to be as sick of the damp leaching through her clothes as he was, the way it made them chafe under her armour. Even someone as gristle-tough and stubborn as Brienne had to have the want of a roof over her head and straw under her back for one night.

Jaime tried to make his walk look as stooped and pained as possible as they continued walking. He could almost hear Brienne thinking, the two sides of her arguing over whether it was weak to give in to what he was asking.

It was almost half an hour later that she answered him.

“There is an inn less than a day’s walk from here. If you behave yourself, we shall stop there the night.”

The more time that passes; days trickling slowly into a week, then two, Brienne realises something. Jaime is not good at that many things. Her face may redden when she remembers how good he is at some things, but he has still lived most of his life before her as a sword-hand; a fighter. Kingslayer.

There is a marked difference between the Jaime she smuggled out of a pen in the Whispering Wood and the Jaime who lives here -- impossibly, with her at Winterfell -- though. It’s not just that his face is older, or that he insults her less. The difference is that this Jaime wants to be good at things. Other than being a knight, other than being charming and irritable and arrogant; he wants to learn something new.

She watches him when she hopes he isn’t looking. They are doing what comes after the battles, the things people like Jaime have never had to deal with as they sat high in their gilded towers. Finding wood for pyres. Comforting the grieving. Mending the bones of the places that kept them safe.

They’re things Brienne has seen all her life. She’s been lucky to see them because it means she’s survived, but she can tell that thoughts like this have only just been born in Jaime’s mind.

She imagines him on the battlefield, surrounded by blood and smoke. She imagines him waiting for garlands and gratitude from those he saved from certain death, or whatever heroism he thought he was performing. Golden and ruthless, and so far from the man he is now that she’s sure he wouldn’t recognise himself in a mirror.

As they rebuild Winterfell, Brienne realises Jaime Lannister is trying to rebuild himself.

The more time they spent trudging along together, the more Jaime found himself wanting to make conversation with Brienne. With concern, he noticed it was less to get a rise out of her, and more because he wanted to see what lay beyond the mirthless facade she kept up so diligently around him.

“You shouldn’t loop the rope like that,” he said, trying to keep an idle tone while watching with interest her white-knuckled grip on his makeshift leash.

Brienne looked slowly between his face and the rope circled around her fingers like he was mad.

“Do they not teach horsemanship on Tarth?” Jaime continued. He stopped their joyless slog through the undergrowth of backwater wherever the hell for a moment, enjoying the sour frown she gave him even as she stopped walking herself. It really was too easy to provoke her.

Awkward as it was in his shackles, Jaime managed to get a hold on the slack of rope between them, running it through his fingers -- not pulling, to make her react and end his game, but to draw her focus.

“There was a stable boy when I moved to Kings Landing; I watched him bring in a young horse that was to be broken for King Robert to take hunting. It was half wild still and hated the city, and the boy led it with the ropes looped like yours around his hand.”

Brienne didn’t move as he took a step towards her, the rope pleasantly rough between his fingers as he made a loop around his own hand.

“The horse spooked, of course, at a stray cat or a shadow on the wall or the ghosts those beasts see wherever they choose. Spooked and bolted…” Jaime stepped back and let the rope come taut around his fingers, “...and took most of his hand with it.”

Brienne looked vaguely disgusted and then rolled her eyes as he gave a few experimental tugs, as if half-expecting his own hand to deglove itself like the stable boy’s.

“I hardly think you have the strength of a bolting horse, Kingslayer,” she said dismissively, “Especially wrapped in chains.”

“Ah,” Jaime replied, showing his teeth, “But I rather think I have the stamina of one. Would you care to find out?”

There it was, again, that moment where he could swear he was probing a chink in her armour, where the tip of his sword was finding the yield of fabric and flesh. He was amusing her, and it was shocking to learn that he wanted to do it again.

At least, he wanted to do it again until he found his feet unceremoniously kicked out from under him, the wind knocked from his lungs as though someone had stepped on a bellows.

Brienne’s wide head and shoulders loomed above him like a mountain peak against the grey sky.

Don’t start that again.”

Brienne finds that even without the imminent threat of an icy death that she wants to make time to spar with Arya again. Whenever they circle each other, swords swinging, Brienne is thrilled by the way the girl flickers in and out of her vision like a ghost; eyes as bright as the winter around them.

She knows that Jaime watches her when he comes across them. She tries not to let it rattle her.

One morning when Brienne is puffing with the weight of her armour, muscles in her arms humming with effort, she barely jumps back in time as Arya twists towards her and jabs, causing Brienne to stumble. Which is exactly what Arya wants. With one sweeping movement, the girl ducks and lunges forward -- if she were to deliver an actual blow, Brienne’s legs would be bloody and the fight would be done.

Brienne yields, then gets distracted by the figures not far from them. Sansa has joined Jaime where he’s leaning with his elbows on a hitching post, and his gaze is ripped from Brienne’s as he realises who now stands next to him.

Infuriatingly, she can’t hear what they’re saying, and she’s trying so hard to catch even a word that she misses Arya asking if she wants a round two.

“What?” Brienne asks, in a tone completely unbecoming for a sworn knight. Seven hells, she sounds more like the old Jaime than she does herself.

“I said, do you want to go again?” Arya repeats, looking between Brienne and Jaime. She rolls her eyes, swinging Needle idly in her hand.

“Oh. Yes, I would, my lady.”

But she can’t concentrate. Her swings are too wide, her stance off-balance, her mind barely attending to the sword in her hand.

Jaime looks nervous, and it’s still an emotion that she finds it difficult to see him wearing. A contrite Jaime Lannister is a sight to behold; his good hand fiddling with the gold one, eyes cast downward while Sansa stands regally beside him. Gods, she wishes she could tell what they were saying.

“You’re not paying attention ,” Arya says, suddenly young again and whining like Brienne isn’t playing her game properly.

“Sorry, Arya,” Brienne says, and it’s still absent -- she’s forgotten to use the girl’s title.

“Sansa isn’t going to eat him,” Arya says. She’s thrown her sword down now, knowing this isn’t going to go any further with Brienne distracted. “And she’s not going to fuck him, so I don’t know what you’re worried about.”

Blushing, Brienne nonetheless marches over to where Jaime and Sansa are talking, and tries to seem like she might have something important to say.

“Ser Brienne,” Sansa says, her smile genuine. Jaime says nothing, just tries to keep a smile off his own face. Damn him for making her face burn even redder.

“Lady Sansa. Is everything… all right?”

Sansa nods. “I was just thanking Ser Jaime for his help with cleaning up the Godswood.”

“You helped clean up the Godswood?” Brienne asks. It comes out more incredulous than she means it to.

“I helped clean up the Godswood,” Jaime replies, smile still playing behind his eyes.

“Right, well now that we know who cleaned up the Godswood,” Arya says from behind them, “Sansa, you’re making it difficult for us to spar in peace.”

The two sisters look at each other the way only sisters can, so Sansa takes her leave, bidding Brienne a soft (and knowing) goodbye.

“I’ll spar with you, if you take it easy on an aging man with one hand,” Jaime says to Arya, who inclines her head to agree. She is still frosty with him, but there is some trust trickling through the Stark ranks now. After the dead men. After there have been no Lannister soldiers coming to wrest them from their beds in the middle of the night.

Brienne looks at Jaime and wonders how anyone could mistake him for a Lannister now at all. She’d never met him when he was a lion, golden and cruel. Even after she’d returned him to Kings Landing he’d been robbed of it. And now time has turned him gentle and as grey as the North.

“Please do go easy on him,” Brienne says, and she means it even as she cases the words in a mocking tone.

Jaime does grin at her then, big and wide and delighted by her teasing. As he comes around the hitching post, he hooks his hand under one of her pauldrons and pulls her toward him in one smooth action, kissing her full on the mouth.

Brienne wants to rip his stupid golden hand off and slap him with it for being so brazen in front of everyone. But then, too, his mouth is beautiful and hot and of all the people in Winterfell, he is kissing her.

They never made it to the inn.

Just outside the gloomy, lice-riddled place Brienne had agreed they could stay for the night, they were ambushed by two mounted Stark soldiers undoubtedly looking for their missing captive and and the Maid of Tarth.

“Why do you have to be such a conspicuous looking beast?” Jaime asked as she flung him sideways into a nest of shrubs and drew her sword.

Jaime was immediately on his feet again when the two men dismounted their horses and flanked Brienne like they meant to finish her quickly. These Stark men weren’t like those who’d hung the tavern girls; these were soldiers who knew how to fight. Something in him went completely, terribly cold.

“Hey!” Jaime said loudly, stepping into the path of one of the men.

“Make this easy for us, Lannister,” he said, “And we won’t hurt your big pet.”

Jaime could see Brienne’s nostrils flaring. She looked wild the way she had ripping apart the last lot of people who insulted her, and something stirred like an animal inside him at the thought of her doing it again.

“Oh, she would love you to try,” he said. “She hasn’t been fed in a few days.”

It was jovial, but the men could tell he wasn’t joking.

The bigger of the two men, the one who had spoken, stepped towards him. The gleam of his sword made Jaime painfully aware of his manacles and lack of armour, and he regretted all the jests he’d ever made. Before he’d had time to collect himself, the man lunged forward.

He was faster than Jaime expected, and he didn’t jump back quite far enough. The soldier’s sword swiped his thigh, leaving a deep gash in the muscle and Jaime fell to the ground. The wound started to well with blood.

Jaime hated blood, truthfully. Hated the look and smell of it after killing Aerys; when he’d stabbed the king it’d felt like his madness had bloomed all over Jaime’s hands.

Brienne lunged at the man who had left his mark on Jaime and he heard the crunch of armour, as well as her heavy grunt of pain and anger as she hit him.

After that it didn’t take her long to make the men into bloody piles of innards. She dragged them further into the forest, off the road, and he knew that the dream he’d been having about a fire to warm him right down to the bone was going to be forsaken. He sighed. It had been a nice dream.

“Are you all right?” she asked him. There was no emotion in it, she might as well have asked him whether he needed to piss, but he was still grateful that she held out a hand and pulled him up by the bar of his manacles. She winced when she did it -- she must have hit that soldier even harder than he thought.

“Are you ?”

“I’ll be fine,” she said gruffly. “But we need to get a move on.”

She took her dagger and ripped a length of cloth off one of the saddleblankets the horses were wearing and bound his bleeding leg with it. Efficient and emotionless, just what he liked in a woman.

They couldn’t risk the horses returning to wherever they came from and alerting someone to trouble - Jaime knew he wasn’t going to be fast enough with his wound to outrun any soldiers come to look for their fallen comrades, and he also knew Brienne’s shoulder had to be killing her. She was obstinate about being fine, but he could see from the way she was holding herself that the blow had hurt.

But Brienne was loathe to kill the kind-eyed creatures all the same, so they took them.

After almost a month of torturous walking, to be heaved up onto the back of a horse felt like being lifted to the heavens by the gods. If the gods were a gruff, brutish woman seemingly intent on thrusting him so far he toppled over the other side of the animal, that is.

Once they agreed he was settled, Brienne tied his shackles to the pommel of his saddle -- he was not given the dignity of holding the reins -- and hauled herself to sitting on the other horse. She took her reins as well as his, but once they started walking he forgot how indignant he was about it because gods it was good to be off his feet. They ached in his stirrups; his boots almost worn through from walking so far.

Jaime knew it would have been easy enough to cause some amount of bother even tied the way he was. It had been a gamble for Brienne to do this, albeit an educated one -- what, truly, would he do if he were able to get away from her? He was still tied to a horse and still the Kingslayer.

And, he realised with embarrassment, thoroughly lost in these godforsaken stretches of wood without her.