Two weeks’ ride across country from Harrenhal to King’s Landing, with a company of Bolton’s men who looked at her like she’d ruined their day, Qyburn who looked at her like she was a specimen he couldn’t wait to dissect in his laboratory, and Jaime Lannister, who looked at her in a way she still couldn’t quite figure out. It was neither the open, teasing contempt of their first acquaintance, nor the grudging respect he had shown her after he’d seen her fight. Nor was it even the understanding they had shared since she had given him back his knighthood and his name. No, this was something new, jesting and worried by turns: a look that flitted away from her whenever she happened to meet his eyes.
Brienne tried to avoid doing that as much as possible. Better to keep her eyes on the path and her mind on Sansa Stark, waiting for her in King’s Landing. Why, she asked herself as her horse negotiated a tricky outcrop, did she care what Jaime Lannister’s face looked like, whether it happened to be pointing at her or not? But she did care: a growing softness she resented but couldn’t bring herself to destroy, like a kitten that kept looking up at you with big round eyes just as you were trying to drown it.
She knew from bitter experience that caring what any man thought of her was a sure road to humiliation. How much worse to care about Jaime, who even if he wasn’t the depraved oathbreaker she had once taken him for, was still sharp-tongued, good-looking, and rich, a combination that spelt disaster as clear as an omen in the sky?
Still, he had jumped unarmed and one-handed into a bear pit for her. That was what she kept coming back to: he had faced down death for her, and why?
‘Why?’ she asked him as he rode beside her, as he had done all day, scorning Qyburn and the Boltons to instead needle her with invasive questions, annoying jests, and that look, that accursed half-worried look that constantly made her think she had something between her teeth and he didn’t know how to tell her.
He laughed under his breath. ‘Truth be told, I’m not exactly sure.’
She snorted. ‘How comforting to know that my life continues thanks to your random whim.’
She dared a glance to see his reaction. A wry smile, gilding his features like a ray of light. Gods damn him, why did he have to be so handsome? And why did it matter to her that he was? A handsome man was no different from a pleasant landscape, or a fine horse, or a well-made sword. Why should it hurt her heart to be near something beautiful?
He was doing the look again. With a sigh, he said, ‘It was my lie about the sapphires that got you into that mess.’
‘But out of another one,’ she pointed out.
‘That’s the trouble with lies,’ he said, narrowing his eyes. ‘You can’t rely on them. Oathbreakers all.’
‘Nevertheless,’ she said solemnly. ‘I thank you, Ser Jaime.’
He looked at her differently then: startled, as if he had glanced in a mirror and not seen the reflection he was expecting. He gave her an awkward nod and rode off, leaving her more perplexed than ever.
Later, when they camped, he insisted on sleeping between Brienne and the others.
‘Do you fear we have designs on the lady’s virtue?’ said one of Bolton’s men in mock-highborn tones. One of the others sniggered.
‘No. I fear for your balls should you decide to act on those designs.’ Jaime grinned a wolfish grin. ‘You think I’m protecting the lady from you. In truth, I am protecting you from the lady.’
And so the Boltons and Qyburn slept in one clearing, and Brienne slept in another, with Jaime lying between them like a sword across a bed in a courtly love tale, or a three-legged and fairly useless guard dog. Still, she appreciated the thought. And she didn’t understand it, as she didn’t understand anything he did: bringing her the pick of their meagre breakfast, then jesting about the way she ate it, then, as soon as they set off, spurring his horse up to ride with her.
‘Again?’ she said in genuine, baffled frustration.
He frowned. ‘Again what?’
‘Why do you insist on riding with me? Why not annoy someone else for a change?’
He smiled, looking over his shoulder at Bolton’s men. ‘Who do you suggest? Steelshanks? He’s so dull-witted he wouldn’t even be fun to insult.’
‘What about Qyburn?’
He made a face. ‘Riding alongside a day-old corpse would be less unsettling.’
‘He saved your arm,’ she rebuked him.
‘And I’m sure the children he likely vivisected to gain that knowledge are grateful.’
It wasn’t funny, it was grotesque, and yet she couldn’t suppress a laugh. Jaime looked at her like she had crowned him Queen of Love and Beauty.
She kept her face serious, her eyes on the path. ‘There are six other men in our escort. Surely there has to be one of them you could converse with.’
He grinned, an expression that lit his face up in a most infuriating way. ‘They could never be as entertaining as you, my lady.’
‘What happened to you’re as boring as you are ugly?’ she said, trying to force the hurt out of her voice, trying to be as light and careless and untouchable as he was.
His expression told her it hadn’t worked. ‘Lady Brienne, you wound me. Taking words spoken by a captive in bitterness and throwing them back in my face.’
She kept her eyes down. She could tell, regardless, that he was doing the look again. She could reconstruct it from memory now: absent, a little anxious, as if there was something he ought to be attending to but he couldn’t quite figure out what. He spurred his horse to match her pace. ‘Are you telling me you have never been deceived by a first impression?’ he demanded angrily.
She knew exactly what he wanted, but she wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction. ‘Never,’ she said, straight-faced. ‘I decide what I think of someone the first moment I see them, and my opinion never changes.’
He made a comically alarmed face. ‘I am grieved to hear that.’
She couldn’t repress a small smile. He means he no longer finds you boring, whispered a small voice inside her. Or he no longer finds you ugly. She wanted to ask him which it was, but that would be pathetic. It was pathetic even to admit to herself that she wanted Jaime Lannister to think she was pretty, but gods help her, she did, and there was no remedy for it.
They camped near the river that night. Some of the Bolton men took the opportunity to bathe. Brienne wanted to, desperately — her skin itched under her clothes with accumulated dirt — but given the company, it was out of the question. While the other men splashed noisily in the water, Jaime stayed with her, cracking feeble jests with an increasingly manic energy until he finally seemed to notice that she wasn’t laughing. In a different tone, he said, ‘I would guard you while you bathed, if you wished it.’
She looked up at him sharply. His face was sincere, but that proved nothing. She snorted. ‘If you think I need a bath, just say so.’
He shrugged. ‘Suit yourself, my lady. I certainly do.’ He got up, nodded to her, and set off for a different part of the river, whistling.
She didn’t deliberately follow him. She just happened to be taking a stroll in that direction a half-hour or so later when she saw him standing naked in the river, in water that came only up to his thighs. She was almost tempted to call out, just to disconcert him, when she saw what he was doing. His cock was hard, and he was stroking himself, eyes half-closed.
She should have walked away, as quickly and quietly as possible. But the sight of him tugged at her like a deep-sunk barb. Instead of leaving, she sank to her knees behind a tree and watched him, her cheeks heating with shame.
He was clumsy with his left hand. Even without much experience watching men do this, she could tell it frustrated him. She watched him panting and whimpering until she was hot and aching between her legs. Finally, a new thought seemed to strike him, and his movements changed, turning fast and sure. He gasped something as he spilled into the river. ‘Brienne,’ she heard: her name barely more than a breath, but unmistakeable.
She stared, her face throbbing with blood. He had to be mocking her. But he didn’t know she was watching. Why would he mock her with no audience? She took in the flush on his face, his furtive look over his shoulder — his right, thankfully, or he would have seen where she was hidden. He thought he was alone.
Alone, he had touched himself and shuddered and called her name. She couldn’t stop thinking about it as she made her furtive way back to camp: the naked lines of him in the water, the harsh gasp of his breathing, her name in his mouth. The impossible idea that on some level, he desired her. By the time she lay down in her bedroll that night, she was too ragged with pent-up wanting to sleep.
The Bolton men and Qyburn were far enough away that she didn’t have to worry about them. Jaime was another matter: she could see the shape of him not two feet from her, face turned to the sky. She waited until his breathing was slow enough that he had to be sleeping. Then she slid her hand down to where she was wet and swollen from thinking about him and touched herself. She thought of Jaime as she’d seen him in the river, water running down over his shoulders, glistening in the fair hair on his chest. She imagined him turning to her naked and hard, offering himself to her. She pushed violently against her hand and came, shuddering, too caught up to conceal her rapid breathing.
Two feet from her, Jaime sighed loudly and turned over.
She spent the rest of the night in frozen terror, wondering if he hadn’t been asleep after all. It didn’t take long for her fears to be confirmed. As soon as they set off the next day, he dropped into pace beside her. ‘Did you sleep well last night, my lady?’ he asked with a smirk. ‘You seemed — restless.’
She was blushing, and she couldn’t stop it, much as she would have happily cut her own head off to keep the blood from rushing to her cheeks. ‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she said.
‘I wondered if perhaps you dreamed of Renly,’ he said in mock-concern.
She stared at him in utter shock. The golden idiot thought she had been fantasizing about someone else. Her secret was safe, her pride still armored against his scorn. It was such a strange relief that she almost forgot to be affronted.
‘I dreamed of beating you over the head,’ she said shortly. ‘It was very satisfying,’ and spurred her horse on until she had outpaced him.
It was almost funny that he could misunderstand her so completely. She thanked her stars that she, at least, wasn’t the kind of overdramatic idiot who would gasp the name of whoever she happened to be thinking about, regardless of whether she thought anyone was listening. It should have been the final nail in the coffin of her stupid tenderness towards him. But instead, her feelings surged, like a malevolent corpse rising from the grave, until her memory of watching him bloomed into a fantasy where she interrupted him, joined him in the water. She had watched him: she knew how he liked to be touched. The thoughts burned her, a slow fire that kept her warm on the nights she lay achingly close to him, wondering what in the world she was supposed to do next.
Brienne didn’t have much experience with the way things were between men and women, but she knew the basic rule: the man courted, and the lady waited. She waited several days for Jaime to do anything that remotely resembled courting. Instead, he brought her a dead squirrel, jesting that it was probably better cuisine than she was used to on that backwater island of hers. He spent most of a day criticising her riding, then offered her the pick of the Lannister stables if a decent horse would help her not to slouch so much. He questioned her aggressively about what the men were like on Tarth, if her father had promised her to anyone, in a way that sounded almost like he was jealous, until he veered off into a rant about how these minor lordlings tended to be happy with whatever poor pickings they could get.
None of it was what the songs had led her to expect from a man who wished to gain a lady’s favor. She was almost certain they were nothing like courting at all. Indeed, if she hadn’t heard her name from his own lips as he stood naked in the river, she would have thought he positively disliked her.
She had given it up as a mistake — perhaps he had some sort of malady where he was excited by people he found loathsome, or perhaps he had been mocking her after all — when he pulled up next to her and said in accusing tones, ‘You’ve been avoiding me.’
‘No I haven’t,’ she protested. But she had, thinking on some level it was what a lady was supposed to do in these situations: withdraw, make herself less available, in order to encourage the man to redouble his attentions. But Jaime had taken her rebuff at face value and gone to sulk with Qyburn and the Boltons. ‘I thought you might prefer the company of men for a change.’
Jaime snorted. ‘Men? Generous, my lady. Steelshanks may have roughly the shape of a man, but he has the conversational skills of a fence-post.’
‘Perhaps I should ride with him,’ said Brienne. ‘I find myself suddenly craving quiet.’
He was giving her the look again. If she wasn’t deceived, it had changed a little: less worried, more determined. ‘You avoid me for days, then threaten to ride off and squander your company on the likes of Steelshanks?’
Brienne gathered all her courage: not the battle-courage she could reach for as readily as a sword, but a different courage, a naked, vulnerable kind she had never had need of before. She looked Jaime in the eyes. ‘Are you trying to say you missed me?’
He made a strange face, then looked away, as if her eyes had burned him. ‘I —’ He cleared his throat, then squinted through the trees. ‘Is that a rabbit?’ he exclaimed, and took off, his horse whinnying at the sudden spur.
Brienne stared after him in disbelief. He had ridden away from her question as if it was a crossbow bolt launched at his heart. It means the answer was yes. She laughed, then, overcome by the astonishing, absolutely freeing realisation that Jaime Lannister might be as bad at this as she was.
They camped beside the river for one last night. Jaime went to bathe again. This time, Brienne didn’t follow him. She watched him go, and waited, biting her nails to the quick. When he came back to camp, clean and wet and with the gold in his hair gleaming, she decided one of them needed to do something before they both got so frustrated that they killed someone.
‘I wish to bathe,’ she said, standing up.
‘You — you do?’ He had sat down against a tree. When she loomed over him, he looked so terrified that she almost wanted to laugh. ‘Why are you telling me?’
‘You offered to guard me,’ she reminded him.
‘I did,’ he said. He didn’t look suspicious, or excited, or any of the ways he might have looked if he had realised what she was up to. ‘Come, my lady,’ he said, getting to his feet. ‘I know a place. Quiet, pleasant, free of excess Boltons.’
She followed his back through the trees, her palms sweating, her heart thudding like a hammer on steel. The place he brought her to was a wonder: a natural pool in the river, framed by willows, quiet and still. Brienne stepped down to the water, an equal stillness settling on her heart.
‘Right. I — I’ll be here,’ Jaime said, and turned around and coughed with absolutely no self-possession whatsoever, and she had never wanted him more.
She took off her clothes and waded into the river. She ducked her head, relishing the feeling of clean water sluicing through her hair. Regardless of her true purpose, there was no sense wasting the chance for a good clean. She scrubbed herself until her skin tingled. When she had finished, Jaime was still standing on the bank, back turned, left hand on the hilt of his sword: good as his word.
‘Jaime,’ she said. ‘Turn around.’
He jumped at the sound of his name, then laughed. ‘You don’t want me to do that, my lady.’
Brienne stood straight in the water. If she had to be the sure one, the strong one, then she would. ‘You sound afraid,’ she said.
‘What are you afraid of?’
He turned his face in quarter-profile, until she could see the flush on his cheek. His hand went to his belt, self-consciously adjusted his sword. ‘That your sensibilities might be offended.’
Brienne felt a wave of fondness for her poor idiot. ‘I wasn’t thinking about Renly.’
He turned fast enough at that. When he saw her, his eyes went wide. She saw him take her in, and she saw his arousal, despite his inept attempt to conceal it with the outlandish way he was holding his sword. ‘What?’
Brienne faced him down, knowing she was blushing, knowing she had to keep going or lose. ‘Just — come here,’ she demanded.
Wordless, he laid down his sword and stripped off his shirt, awkwardly manoeuvring it over his stump. He undid his breeches and stepped naked into the river. Brienne let her eyes roam over him, his lean, muscled chest, his cock proud and upright, and felt a strange, possessive hunger at the sight. He waded towards her, cautious as a hunter, wary as prey. Brienne saw for the first time how vulnerable he was, how afraid, in a way that made her own deep scars not less, but not a burden to bear alone.
They stood close to each other in the water, not quite touching. She took Jaime’s hand and slid it between her legs. When he found how wet she was, he swore softly, like he was cursing her for being stupid enough to want him so much. She couldn’t help agreeing, but she couldn’t help wanting him, either.
‘Gods.’ He was shaking like a squire at his first battle. Brienne knew, then, that he was going to tell her he couldn’t do this, that he wouldn’t betray Cersei, that he thought she was boring and ugly after all. It would have been the end of her, more surely than a sword through the heart.
Then she heard footsteps, behind them in the wood. Her doubts gave way to the familiar, almost reassuring fear of an enemy approaching. ‘Someone’s coming,’ she said under her breath.
They sank as one into the water and swam quick and lithe upriver, barely raising a splash. Jaime caught her shoulders and drew her back into a hollow by the roots of a tree. He held her there, his breath raising shivers on her neck as the man’s footsteps sounded somewhere downstream. Brienne was afraid, alert, but closer than any of that was the heat of Jaime’s body pressed against her back, the sudden shock of his mouth where her neck met her shoulder. As they stood silent in the water, he took his cock and slid it between her legs, back and forth against her wetness, until she would have groaned aloud if some lackwit Bolton hadn’t been pissing against a tree two yards away. She reached behind her and took hold of what she could reach of him, not even knowing what she wanted, just that she wanted him and this and more, who cared if a hundred of Bolton’s men saw, and that thought was the definitive proof that she had gone insane.
When the footsteps faded, she was the first to climb out. Jaime followed her onto the bank, and they rolled laughing over the muddy grass, until she mastered him and straddled him, seeing the lust in his eyes, sliding against him until he was almost inside her.
‘You — you’re a maid,’ he said with effort, gripping her thigh hard enough to bruise. ‘I — we shouldn’t —’
‘No,’ she agreed. ‘We shouldn’t.’ But that didn’t stop her teasing him some more, until he choked and pushed her away. ‘Brienne —’
She laughed and took him in her hand, hot and slippery from rubbing against her, and she touched him like she had seen him trying to touch himself, and in a flatteringly short time he doubled up and groaned and spilled across his belly. For a time, he lay panting and shivering with aftershocks while she draped across him, rubbing needily against his thigh. As glad as she was that she hadn’t succumbed to her desire, now he was satisfied and she was un-deflowered but still burning for him.
‘Brienne,’ he said, laughter in his eyes. He lifted her gently. ‘Come down to the bank.’
He arranged her so she was lying with her legs in the water, then slipped in and rested his arms on the bank so that his head floated between her thighs. She still didn’t know what he was doing until she felt his tongue and gasped, her head thumping back onto the soft bank. He laughed, licking and sucking and nudging her until the hundred small pleasures ignited into a furnace that burned everything else away. It felt like she lay there for hours, her fingers digging in the earth, her legs twitching and splashing him with water until he laughed, which only made her twitch more. She couldn’t scream, but she moaned, covering her mouth with her hand, until finally she was too sensitive to take any more and she whispered to him to stop, stop, and he laughed and said, for now. He climbed out of the water and lay with her then, head resting on her shoulder, fingers playing a silent music on her sensitive skin, until the shivers got too much for both of them and they stumbled laughing back downstream to retrieve their clothes. It wasn’t until they were halfway back to the camp that Brienne realised they hadn’t even kissed.
‘Jaime,’ she said.
He turned back towards her. He looked at her in a different way now: tender, knowing, impatient. ‘Yes, my lady?’
Brienne hesitated, heavy with the awkwardness his touch had briefly dismissed. ‘If I hadn’t — asked you to come with me,’ she said. ‘Would you — would you have said anything? Done anything?’
Jaime looked almost angry. ‘Said anything? Done anything? Woman, how long have I been courting you?’
Brienne blinked at him. ’You’ve been courting me?’
He stepped close to her, looked up fiercely into her eyes. ‘I couldn’t have made it much more obvious. If you hadn’t been so damn obtuse —’
Brienne couldn’t hold back any longer. She threw her head back, helpless with mirth. Jaime grunted, then sighed, then lunged up to kiss her laughing mouth.