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Man with a Heartbeat

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Lambswold, The Riverlands
Last days of Winter

 

Brienne lurked at the rear of the crowded saleroom, sandwiched between a giant antique armoire and a rather solid reproduction bookcase that smelled of coal smoke and lemons. She'd just finished one last pass through her catalogue when there was a stir at the door.

She tamped down a moment of panic as she scanned the entrance for trouble, her gaze locked on the security guards that had become a fixture over the past year.

Then he walked in the door.

Jaime Lannister didn't enter a room so much as swallow it whole, as if the bulbs all went dark and a spotlight clicked on directly over his head so he was the only thing left—blond curls, golden skin, and green eyes lit sharp. Predatory.

Those eyes found her fast. They always did. Her strategy was to hide at the back of a room, or in some shaded corner, blend into the woodwork until she was ready to enter the fray. It worked most of the time, with most dealers she had to face. But Jaime always zeroed in.

He took her in now with a lazy blink and gave a patronizing shake of his head as if he couldn't understand why she was there.

A blush crept up her neck.

She tore her attention from him as the auctioneer took the rostrum.

The sale commenced.

Things moved at a good clip. Stone Hedge castle had been sold, its contents sent to auction down the road at Lambswold to be liquidated. It was an antiques dealer's wet dream, or would have been if nearly everyone in the trade hadn't got wind of the sale.

Brienne waded in on a few larger furnishings and won some solid pieces, nothing particularly important, but items that would appeal to her clients.

Uncle Goodwin's stock-in-trade had been furniture, and Uncle Cortnay's had been objets d'art. When Brienne inherited, she'd done her best to maintain both areas of expertise, but she personally gravitated more toward the aesthetically pleasing than the historically significant.

Her quirk paid off and earned her the patronage of several prominent decorators who liked a bit of spit-and-polish provenance to show off to their clients but weren't always enamored with the eccentricities of valuable antiques. She also quietly put her art history degree to work, dabbling in signed copies and lesser-known works that didn't interest more serious art dealers. In a few short years, she had begun to turn profits her uncles had never dreamed.

But her true passion, as she'd discovered shortly after her uncles died, was bladed weapons. Brienne loved anything with an edge—spears and battleaxes, arrowheads and daggers, and swords. Brienne lived for swords and their accoutrements: shields, mail, armor.

So her pulse pounded in her ears when the box carved with icy shortswords and snowflakes was brought out and opened. The original lining had been replaced with blue velvet sometime three or four centuries past, but the box was older, and its contents, the true prize, were older still—an ancient pair of obsidian blades, deep black and fathomless.

Dragonglass.

Her fingers itched to touch them. She stole a glance at Jaime; he was unbothered, engrossed in his catalogue. He hadn't been at any of the viewings, she'd asked. She had a chance.

The bidding opened at one hundred thousand golden dragons, more than she'd ever paid for a single item in her career. She waited, stock-still. Several early bidders dropped out at the seven hundred thousand dragon mark. While the auctioneer hesitated a moment awaiting confirmation of an online bid, Brienne raised her paddle ever so slightly and nodded. The auctioneer didn't miss her—how could he at her height?

She was the lone bidder in the room now. Only faceless online bidders remained. Up the price went, past eight hundred thousand, slapdash into the nines, then a million. Her throat was bone dry, but she kept her chin steady. The online bids dropped in frequency, only one bidder seemed to remain. "One point three," she whispered to herself. That was where she had to stop.

"One million two hundred fifty thousand," the auctioneer said, confirming her latest bid. Brienne's heart nearly gave out. So much money. Almost all her capital. The auctioneer asked the room for more bids; the last online bidder came through after some hesitation.

Quick as lightning, Brienne bid her limit in response. A bead of sweat ran down her back. Perhaps she could go a bit more? Another fifty, maybe. Just—just—

The auctioneer asked for more bids once, twice. The online bidder was silent.

Another moment, another second, and her whole life would change—

Across the room, Jaime Lannister jerked his paddle; the auctioneer accepted his bid.

No.

Like a fool, Brienne bid again. Past her limit. She'd be wiped out if she went any further.

Jaime glanced her way and scraped his paddle against his shoulder as if he was swatting a fly.

And she was finished.

She'd seen him do it a hundred times. He'd done it to her often enough. He waited until the last bidder had nearly over-extended themselves, then he'd pounce—eyes cagey, mouth a smug twist—death in a five thousand dragon bespoke suit. With his entry bid he showed other bidders that their ceilings were his floor. It was demoralizing. It was also, admittedly, a good tactic.

And it was a tactic.

He wore the suits to intimidate.

"Why do you always arrive at a sale looking like you just crawled out of a boardroom?" she asked him once.

"To remind people of the Lannister billions," he said. "Why do you always arrive dressed like one of my father's gamekeepers?"

There weren't Lannister billions, though, at least not for him.

Not that he was hurting. He'd just bid three million on the daggers without batting an eye. There were three new bidders on the phones now. Brienne had never even been close.

The bidding hit five million, and the auctioneer looked to Jaime, who hesitated a moment, then gave a sharp head shake.

He was through.

Brienne pretended to yawn as she hid a smile at his defeat. The dragonglass finally hammered at eight and a half million.

Later, Jaime and Jorah Mormont went head-to-head on a late Targaryen era sword Brienne had scrutinized during the viewing the day before. The maker's mark was faint, but it might be a genuine Tobho Mott. Even the catalogue said it was from his circle. She'd been mildly interested.

Jorah's resolve wavered as the price climbed higher. Jaime bid twenty-six thousand. Jorah turned away.

Maybe she wanted the sword. Maybe she needed it. She raised her paddle.

Jaime dismissed her with a flick of his brow and bid on. She bid again. He crossed his arms and turned toward her, pointing at the auctioneer for thirty.

They sped through the next twenty thousand glaring at one another, hardly sparing a glance for the auctioneer. Pulse pounding, Brienne's head felt full of cobwebs as she bid fifty thousand. At that price, any profit would be negligible after fees and taxes. Jaime bid again, lip curled—daring her to keep going.

They were bidding collector prices. No sane dealer would.

She took a shaky breath and bid again. His eyes narrowed to two green laser points as he pointed his paddle at the auctioneer. She bid again. So did he. Someone chuckled in the opposite corner of the room; it sounded like Ben Bushy, and that made her want the damned sword even more. She bid again.

Jaime bid fifty-seven thousand.

Brienne bid fifty-eight.

He tapped his paddle. Fifty-nine.

She raised hers. Sixty.

Then he paused. His shoulders shook with a laugh. He licked his lips, sketched her a deep bow.

The saleroom erupted in chatter, and some chuckles. Jorah and Dacey Mormont both looked at her wide-eyed like she'd sprouted a second head—and the cousins never agreed on anything.

Brienne felt her face flame. She glanced at the auctioneer. He was asking for more bids. There wouldn't be any. No one was fool enough to pay more than what she'd just bid. The hammer fell.

The sale moved on.

Brienne's hands shook as she wiped her palms against her wool trousers. What had she done? All for a shallow victory over Jaime Lannister.

At that moment, she would have traded the sword for a cigarette.

Later, she recovered her composure enough to bid on a set of three brass plaques stamped with enormous roses she had circled in the catalogue. Jaime bid right after her. She'd never seen him bid on anything like them before. If he was trying to drive up the price as punishment for the sword, he could just go home with them. Without so much as a glance his way, she dropped out.

When the sale broke for lunch, she frantically texted Pod and told him what she'd done. She asked him to look for information about recent Mott sword sales. All he texted back was :/ and a gif of a cat falling off a chair.

Perfect.

The sale ended late-afternoon. Brienne settled her contracts and wandered out onto Lambswold's quiet high street and stared hard at a puddle on the pavement. She hardly felt the rain or the cold, focused instead on the hundred thousand dragons she'd just transferred from her purchase account, ten thousand of which she'd probably never recover.

Ygritte Spearwife marched up, red hair straggling out from under her hood. "You inherit a gold mine?"

Brienne took a deep breath and released it loudly. A commiserative piss-taking was de rigueur after someone was foolhardy at a sale.

Mariya Darry joined Ygritte and gave a sympathetic wince. Davos Seaworth coughed and did the same. A crowd started to form.

Lyle Crakehall stumbled into the group and spurted, "Sixty thousand? You can't authenticate—"

"It's a Mott," Jaime cut in as he inserted himself into the circle across from her.

The ground beneath her seemed to shift toward him, like the surf stealing sand from beneath her toes, throwing her off balance. He gave her a look full of disdain, then ignored her.

"You two may believe it's a Mott," Jorah Mormont grumped at Jaime. "But you think you'll find a buyer thick enough to agree?"

Jaime jerked his chin her way without really looking at her. "Ask the tower of tweed. She bought it."

Brienne sighed as everyone laughed.

A grey work van screeched to a halt on the street beside them. The mirth died.

Brienne froze; her pulse sped into a dread rush. Someone gasped. Jorah Mormont took a threatening step toward the vehicle, Jaime close behind him. The back door flew open, and two of the younger Freys spilled out arguing about who would carry what as they entered the auction house.

A collective wave of relief swept the small crowd. Shoulders relaxed, deep breaths exhaled.

Ygritte whistled. "You lot still reeling from Old Wyk, then?"

Ygritte had missed her connecting flight that week, Brienne remembered. She wasn't there. She doesn't know.

The group began to break apart in a chagrined babble, most walking across the street to the town's only inn. The reservations had been full by the time Brienne heard about the sale, and she'd had to book out of town.

"We should wait inside," Mariya told Brienne. Mariya was a study in elegance as always, her dark hair streaked with chic premature grey. She and Mariya had ridden to the auction house with Dacey Mormont that morning, but Dacey seemed to be in protracted negotiations inside trying to arrange transport for her pieces.

"I'm booked at the Kneeling Man," Jaime said. "If you need a lift."

Mariya lit up. "Brilliant!"

Jaime crooked his elbow; Mariya took it.

Brienne felt a little twist under her ribs and tried to tamp it down. She wasn't the sort of woman who got offers like that. Which was fine. Just fine.

The pair walked a few paces before Mariya turned back. "Coming, Brienne? I'll text Dacey."

She realized she'd been staring at them and blushed as she gestured back toward the auction house. "Uh, I'm. I'll wait."

Jaime half glanced back, dismissive. "And do what, stand around all night like a drowned rat?"

Mariya tsked. "You could make her feel welcome."

He swept his arm in a dramatic arc toward the car park. "I beseech you, Lady Brienne, please accept transport in my humble vehicle—"

Mariya held up her phone. "Dacey says we should go. She'll be hours."

Brienne gritted her teeth and followed them. Mariya gave her the front seat—a blessing for her long legs, a curse for the fact she'd have to sit unwanted beside him in his sleek black hired car.

They were silent for the first few minutes on the twisting country lane.

"Are you two going to make nice, or will I have to put you in separate rooms like I do my kids?"

Jaime smiled half-heartedly at Mariya in the mirror. "Don't blame me. Tarth's the one who glowered at me like I was the Stranger come to claim her soul when I entered the saleroom this morning."

He jammed the car into a higher gear and shot around a curve. Brienne's stomach flipped; she gripped the handle above her head and glared at him.

"No one told me you were here," she admitted.

He flashed a grin full of teeth. "I sent Peck and Pia to the first viewing last week."

Of course he did. She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead, pretended the speed didn't bother her.

"Don't pout, Tarth. It's not sporting."

Mariya cleared her throat. "Those brass plaques you bought were very pretty, Jaime."

Brienne almost smiled. He rarely even sniffed at simple objets d'art, and Mariya knew it as well as she did.

"They're for Margaery," he said. "For her nameday."

That was interesting. "It's not for two months."

"I like to plan ahead."

"Margaery? The Tyrell girl?" Mariya asked. "Brienne's friend? I didn't realize you and she were—"

"Gods, Mariya!" Jaime cringed into the mirror. "She's too young for me. She's the same age as Tarth. It's Tyrion. My brother. He and Margaery bought a house together. They're very serious."

They were serious.

"Did you introduce them?" Mariya asked.

Brienne hoped Jaime would answer, but he didn't. Renly said Margaery and Tyrion were like two planets colliding.

"They'd crossed paths before," she said, "but when we were in the hospital, they . . . got close."

"I see," Mariya said.

Jaime shifted into a higher gear and they were silent the rest of the way.

Two hours later, Mariya knocked on her door and asked if she'd like to go down to supper. The common room was ancient and low-ceilinged, with half-timbers long since turned black. The roaring fire in the hearth cast a warm orangey glow. Jaime stood by the bar, whiskey in hand. Mariya engaged him and Jorah Mormont in conversation, and before Brienne knew what had happened, the four of them had ordered and were sat around a small square table.

The others talked about Stannis Baratheon's latest enormity—some early printed copy of The Seven-Pointed Star he'd purchased and then somehow permanently misplaced.

Deep in conversation, Jaime discarded his suitcoat and sat slowly rolling up his white sleeves as Brienne tried not to watch when suddenly the muscles of his forearms tightened until the veins bulged.

"Look what the cat dragged in and left dripping all over the carpet," he said.

Brienne looked up to see who he was talking to.

Hyle Hunt.

He was soaking wet. And had grown a beard. Brienne had seen him from a distance at a market in Sunspear the autumn before, but she hadn't actually been face-to-face with him since . . .

"Lannister," Hyle muttered. "Jorah, Mariya. Hello, Brienne."

Mariya pulled a face and didn't answer, but Jorah responded. Brienne couldn't have talked if someone offered her the dragonglass daggers in exchange for just one simple word. She'd seen Ben and Edmund at the sale, but she didn't know Hyle was there.

"What do you want, Kyle?" Jaime asked. He leaned back in his chair, his head tilted just so. Brienne recognized the quiet tension in his neck and arms. He looked at ease, but he was ready to attack, in the most literal way possible.

For a moment, Hyle faded into the background of her awareness, and she was back in Drumm Castle's moldering armory. All she saw were Jaime's arms sliding around the sellsword's neck, cradling his head with deceptive grace, and all she heard was the strange pop that snuffed the spark of light from the man's eyes. She'd first seen him use the move in Lannisport to bring Owen Inchfield to his knees, but she hadn't known then how much further he could go.

"Brienne?" Hyle's voice intruded.

She looked up into his raging eyes.

By what right was he angry with her? She had committed the crime of thinking she wanted him, and he'd made a fool of her because of it.

"What," she spat.

Hyle recoiled.

"I asked if you were interested in dragonglass arrowheads. I have a half dozen—"

"And I told you no one wants your charcoal triangles, Kyle," Jaime said. His hand was on the back of her chair, she realized, his knuckles fisted tight around the spindle—she could feel them digging into the flesh of her shoulder.

She stood. Jaime stood beside her—he was a tall man. She was taller. Between them, they loomed over Hyle Hunt.

"Excuse me." She stepped past Hyle and made for the stairs.

"You always did know how to clear a room, Cunt," she heard Jaime say as she escaped.

In her room, she stumbled into the bathroom she shared with Dacey and splashed some water on her burning cheeks, then stared at herself in the mirror. Same as ever: drab flaxen hair, boring herringbone, teeth straight from orthodontia but too large even for her full lips.

Her psychiatrist had suggested she look into body neutrality, so she'd bought colorful little cards full of mantras and hung them on her bathroom mirror. She'd tried repeating them every morning for a few weeks until she'd finally torn them all down and binned them.

I love my body. My body is a tool. My body helps me do what I want to do, and on and on they went. She supposed they helped people who felt they were not beautiful.

Brienne wasn't just not beautiful. Her face was a freckled, oafish nightmare.

When she was nineteen, old enough to tap into the small trust her mother had left her, a year after Ronnet gave her the rose, a few months after she learned about Renly, she'd gone to a plastic surgeon. The surgeon asked her what she wanted to have done, and she'd drawn a complete blank while the woman stared at her. She pointed to her nose, so they showed her a 3-D model of what she'd look like with a small, straight, unbumped nose, and she thought she looked worse. Then the surgeon adjusted the model some more, shaved her jaw and sharpened her chin, put filler in the apples of her cheeks and nipped hollows below them.

The print-out they gave her didn't even look like her anymore. Seven or eight procedures was all it would take, they said. All to become the girl in the picture who was still no more than plain for all the alterations—plain and still freckled, still too tall, still broad-shouldered. She'd tossed the thing in a tube station bin.

And then she'd wept for a week.

Her life would never be a fairytale. And that was fine. Just fine. She knew and accepted it most days. Sometimes an errant hope or girlish dream would sneak past her guard, and she'd have to hunt it down and kill it, but that was fine.

Just fine.

Hyle was gone by the time she returned to the common room.

Jaime stood as she approached, and she cringed a bit at the whiff of pity on his face. The food had arrived.

"Please," she said, waving at her companions' plates. "You shouldn't have waited."

Mariya gave Brienne's hand a brief pat.

Brienne chipped desultorily at the crust of her steak and kidney pie. Jaime's fork appeared and stabbed right through the pastry and stole a bulging bite of meat and carrot. When he came back for a second, she batted his fork away with her own.

"Well, if you're not going to eat it," he said.

She took a bite and glared at him. He only shrugged and ate some of his trout.

Dacey came in, and they pulled up a chair for her. The Mormont cousins started an argument about the vagaries of shipping and ferries to Bear Island.

Mariya stood and glared down at them. "You two are worse than Jaime and Brienne. Good night."

Brienne excused herself a moment after. Back in her room, she scanned her paperwork from the auction and sent it to Pod. He would have it all filed and recorded by the time her flight arrived back at midday.

Dacey knocked at the door of their connecting bathroom, and Brienne called her in. Dacey's dark hair was piled on her head, and she had a green goop mask on her face. Her smile was warm.

"All right, Brienne? I know we had a go at you about the sword, but will you weather it?"

"Yeah." She managed a smile. "I'll be ok."

"Why are you and Jaime still at each other's throats? I thought you made peace at . . ."

At Old Wyk.

How could she explain what it was to know someone's deepest secrets against their will? To have them know yours in turn?

Jaime thought she was absurd and she—

She tried not to think about what she thought about Jaime.

"We're comfortable as rivals, Jaime and I."

Dacey laughed. “Rivals? He took a bullet for you.”

Two.

Two bullets.

"He'd have done it for anyone," Brienne said. She hoped she sounded lighthearted. "Try stopping him from playing the hero."

Dacey got serious, though. "I wouldn't try to stop him," she said. "He saved me too, remember?"

Brienne could only nod.

"Sleep well, my friend," Dacey said. "I hope you find a buyer for that silly sword."

When Brienne rose and turned off the light to undress, she saw smoke through the wavy glass of her second-floor window, a wispy strand of white climbing into the rainy night. A cigarette. It had to be. She didn't even let herself think as she pulled her jacket back on and left the room.

Jaime huddled against the inn's old whitewashed wall, tucked under the cover of the eaves and out of the worst of the rain. He looked like an old movie star with the collar on his blue suit coat turned up against the chill, his hands buried in his pockets, a cigarette dangling from the corner of his lips. The inn's yellowed lanterns hung just above them and bathed him in an almost painterly glow while the rain beat a chorus on the graveled car park.

The smoke smelled wicked. Glorious. She inhaled as he exhaled, and his eyes shone with amusement.

"I thought you gave it up," she said. "You risk the wrath of the gods."

He didn't look at her, but he smiled around the cigarette. "So I do. Would you believe this is only my third since Old Wyk?"

"Of course."

He laughed, dry and smoke-rough. “Of course.”

"You never lie to me," she said.

"Gods, is that true." He pinched the cigarette between his thumb and two fingers as he took a long drag.

"You're not smoking over the loss of the daggers."

"No. They were a lark. Same as they were for you. We love a longshot, you and I." He pulled the cigarette away from his mouth and watched the smoke escape heavenward. The corner of his mouth gave a devilish tug. "Maybe it's post-coital."

"No. She's not here."

Another drag. He hummed and nodded, scuffed his shoe against the pavement. "She's not here, no. We're through, she and I."

"No."

"I thought I didn't lie to you."

How could they be through, Jaime and his love? Brienne thought of the way they'd moved together, even the sounds they made had matched—golden and lush, almost blinding—twins in every sense.

There were appropriate replies when someone told you they'd had a breakup. Sorry to hear that. Better luck next time. More fish in the sea and whatnot and so forth.

Brienne said none of them.

Instead, she took his cigarette, had it between her fingers, then between her lips, faster than she could think. Smoke blazed hot into her throat, her lungs. She exhaled through her nose, then her mouth, the smoke driving away the smell of rain in her nostrils. She moaned a little.

He snatched the thing back from her fingers.

"The gods, Brienne," he admonished.

"So you can break your vows, but—"

"You've been good, I know it," he said. "You haven't touched one since. . ."

Since Old Wyk.

"I touched one," she said. "I bought a pack before Lannisport last year."

Jaime crossed his arms, assessed her with the slightest hint of warmth in his green eyes. "You didn't actually smoke them, though."

"No."

The wind whipped up, drove a lash of rain at them.

"It's this damned weather that did me in." He gestured out at the night. "I was lying on my bed, and suddenly my face was wet, and I was shivering, and I thought this old place must have a leak, but no. "

He looked down at her hand. His fingers twitched. "When it rains like this at night, when the wind howls, I feel cold rainwater on my face, even when I'm safe and dry. Sometimes it's so real, I think you're there, your fingertips, your palm on my cheek. I feel your arms around me, your breath hot against my ear."

Her own ears took flame. Her cheeks too. The way he said it made it sound like something it wasn't. Like something ridiculous and impossible.

"Trauma," she whispered.

He chuckled, the cigarette held tight between his white teeth. "Is it, though? Do you have any idea how many hours I've spent in my shrink's office since? Seven hells—it's days worth, weeks even—but I haven't talked to him about Old Wyk in months."

"Same," she whispered.

"Really?" He scratched his nose with his thumbnail. "I talk about my father, my mother, that mess in the army, my brother—her. It's mostly her."

She nodded. "I talk about my mother, my brother. My uncles. Lannisport and the bet. My father. But not . . ."

He stared into her eyes. "'Live. Fight. Take revenge.' Sometimes I hear you say other things. Things I don't think you actually said."

She swallowed and looked away. "So, you smoke?"

His gaze cut her way. "I usually bash one out. But when that doesn't work. Well."

"You can't embarrass me." Her face was bright red, and she knew it.

"Oh, I could if I cared to try."

"How long have you and she been . . . through?”

"Since Old Wyk."

"Ah." She had wondered for a moment in the hospital, but it wasn't her business or her place, and she had done her best to suppress her morbid curiosity.

He took a long drag from the cigarette. "When they released me from the hospital the first time, I stumbled to her flat and had her in broad daylight against an open window right above the Kingsroad. I was out of my head on medication; vomited in the gutter as soon as I left."

The image of the two of them rutting like animals beside an open window presented itself in full color in her mind. Almost as if she'd looked up and seen them from the street. She imagined his gaze finding hers over his sister's naked shoulder like it had in Lannisport years before. Her pulse picked up, and she hated herself.

Luckily he didn't seem to notice.

"The next morning," he said, "she was supposed to come over, help me change the dressing on my wounds. She didn't. By afternoon, I gave up and decided to go to hers, and walked in on her in bed with my cousin—"

Brienne's breath whooshed out over her teeth.

"Not Daven," he said. As if that was what concerned her.

She stole the cigarette again. He huffed, and swiped it back, but not before she'd had a good drag.

"I'm sorry," she said. "About . . . her."

His mouth twisted in disbelief.

"I don't lie to you, either."

"You don't lie to anyone, Tarth." It sounded like an accusation. "I get the same rules as everyone else."

She didn't know what he meant. His eyes closed for a moment as he leaned against the wall, and she let her gaze pore over his face, the perfect planes of it, the knife-edge of his jaw—his curls, burnished in the lamplight.

At university, she'd written a paper on the characteristic features of classical representations of the Warrior. She'd studied more pieces than she could even recall. Nothing human hands had put to canvas or wrought from stone could match Jaime Lannister rumpled, and rain-damp in the late winter night.

What twist of humor had made the gods throw the two of them into reluctant encounter after encounter? The most beautiful man in Westeros and the ugliest woman. The gods loved a cruel jest.

He opened his eyes and caught her looking. "Thinking about Hunt?"

"No."

"He has a room here. I told him to stay in it."

"I need to make peace with him," she said. "I can't avoid him for my whole career."

"We could manage it."

"I can fight my own battles."

"I know that," he said. "You need to . . ."

He took a hard drag; the cigarette glowed bright orange, near its end. "Hunt was never your heartbeat man—not even close."

Shame filled her cheeks. They knew far too much about one another.

He stubbed out the cigarette on the heel of his hand, and she winced. She'd always hated how he did that, like he hadn't a care for his own skin. The first time she'd seen him do it, the first time she met him, they'd been outside an auction house in Maidenpool, and he'd been castigating her for running up the price on a painting while Uncle Cortnay looked on with a smile.

"You don't even understand what it is," Jaime had said, pointing his cigarette at her.

"You don't understand what it is," she'd spat, twenty-one and sure of everything. "It's a genuine piece from the Duskendale school."

"Brienne," Uncle Cortnay had whispered. "Jaime read art history at the Citadel, same as you."

"And I didn't do it for my health," he'd barked as he stubbed out his cigarette on his hand while she watched open-mouthed.

She'd heard about Jaime for years before she met him, but only in relation to some wild tale or other from her uncles. In the flesh, he'd been overwhelming. No one had told her how absurdly handsome he was. Not that it mattered. They'd clashed from the start. But, despite what he might think, she'd learned fast not to underestimate him.

"He collects degrees like your father collects women," Uncle Cortnay told her after that first meeting.

He did. Once at an art fair in Hardhome someone introduced him as 'Dr Lannister.' He didn't even blink.

Uncle Goodwin once told her Jaime had been in the army but was dismissed over some misconduct, a fact she somehow paired with the time they'd been at a sale in Riverrun, and he'd found two kittens in a bin outside and spent the last half of the day bidding with fluffy little balls of orange and white in his hands.

Then there was the half year she'd heard he spent in Braavos apprenticing with a weaponsmith, but she was never sure if that was literal, or a euphemism for whatever he'd done that led Stannis Baratheon to occasionally refer to him as a smuggler.

She looked at him now, his hair hung in soft blond coils against his forehead—nigh angelic.

He licked his lips and watched her. "Taking the eight o'clock flight out of Riverrun?"

"Yes," she said.

"Want a ride?"

It would save her an hour on the train, gain her an hour of sleep. She almost said no anyway.

"Yes," she sighed. "Thank you."

His eyes glinted as he brushed past her and made for the inn door. "See you in the morning, Tarth."

Chapter Text

King’s Landing, The Crownlands
Middle of Spring

 

Brienne rushed home from her martial arts class, weaving in and out of the weekend throngs clogging the Kingsroad. Thanks to the heatwave, the sweaty, sloppy state she was in went unnoticed.

She cut through her shopfront’s elegant old entrance, ran through the back room and the small garden to the little mews house at the rear of the property. As a girl, she’d spent most of her school holidays there when her father was busy chasing this woman to Essos, or didn’t have room for her because that woman had moved in and her children had been given Brienne’s room, or couldn’t take her for other reasons like the year he’d followed the folk singer on tour.

Tarth would always hold her heart, but her little house was home.

She’d just bent her head under the low lintel of her backdoor when there was a sharp rap at the front door. She groaned.

Jaime stood on her front step, grinning. He was fresh, clean-shaven, in denim and a t-shirt under a pale linen jacket. He held a green gift bag.

Her pulse stuttered as he ducked inside.

“You’re early,” she said.

His mouth fell open as he looked her over and took in the bright leggings, the tight vest top, the hair tie holding her limp hair in a bun.

“You’re late,” he said. “Too busy mucking out the stables?”

Her jaw hardened.

“Just—“ she waved him into the lounge. “I have to shower.”

She could feel his presence in the house as she undressed. He was an electric charge crackling over every surface.

When she emerged from the shower trying to wrestle her wet hair into a respectable plait, she found him in the kitchen. He leaned against the sink munching on biscuits he’d nicked from the tin she kept in the cupboard, just where Uncle Goodwin always kept them.

After the funeral, she and her father had welcomed the small cadre of mourners from the trade into her uncles’ little house, and she remembered how Jaime had set about making tea for people, pulling out milk and sugar, flicking on the kettle like he lived there.

“To Goodwin and Cortnay,” he’d said later that night, raising a mug full of Uncle Cortnay’s best whiskey, “who took pity on a starving young picker.”

At the time, she’d thought “starving” was just a bit of hyperbole coming from a Lannister, but the way he knew her kitchen made her wonder if there’d been more truth to it than she knew.

He looked up at her now, mouth full of biscuits, and said, “Where are you keeping the parcel tape these days? The seam’s come undone on the bottom of my bag.”

“Bedroom,” she said, as she ran for the bathroom to pin up an errant lock of hair, rattled by the ease at which he settled into her kitchen. “Bedside table.”

He appeared in the bathroom doorway and pulled a face. “Is it safe to enter the dildo zone?”

“You can’t embarrass me.” She slammed the door in his face and pressed her hands to her cheeks. He knew too much about her.

“I clearly have,” he said through the door.

“By the way,” he called from the bedroom, “your shirt’s buttoned wrong.”

She jammed another pin in her hair and looked down at her white cotton blouse. Damn. A whole buttonhole gaped in the middle.

As she redid the buttons, she took stock of herself in the mirror. White shirt, grey shorts, and somewhat reasonably plaited hair—she’d even put on a real bra. Presentable.

They were on the tube passing under the walls into the old city before he thought to ask, “Where’s your gift?”

She patted her crossbody handbag. “Here. Spa day voucher.”

“Thoughtful. Personal.”

She tapped his bag. “Choosing decor for someone else’s home is too personal.”

He gave her an arrogant smile. “We’ll see.”

Brienne crossed her arms and stared straight ahead. Marg was her best friend and always seemed to love gifts like this in the past. She tried to ignore him.

Except that he was hard to ignore; his vague aroma of well-groomed man was like an olfactory oasis in the hot, grimy air of the train.

“I don’t know why we have to arrive together,” she said.

Tyrion’s text had been very specific. She’d been annoyed but hadn’t thought much about it since she and Jaime only lived a few streets apart.

Jaime shrugged. “I follow instructions.”

“Ah, yes, Jaime Lannister: known instruction follower. They’ll put that on your gravestone.”

He chuckled.

The air on the Street of Sisters was thick and roasting as they climbed out of the tube station. Heat skipped off the cobbles and bounced in waves along the tightknit ancient buildings.

Brienne thunked the shiny steel knocker on the front door of the newly remodeled old Visenya Hill home that looked every bit the sort of place one would find two scions of the Tyrell and Lannister dynasties cohabitating.

The door swung open.

“You’re early,” Tyrion snapped. He was short of stature, but his presence was enormous and intense.

Brienne turned to give Jaime an I-told-you-so, but he had his phone up like he was—

“Are you filming me?”

“Brienne!” Margaery launched herself across the threshold. Brienne barely caught her.

Most would describe Marg as warm and sweet, but this sort of fierce hug, full of flying brown tresses and hands thrown in faces, was an unusual amount of affection.

“Happy nameday? Marg, I—” Then Brienne saw the ring. “Oh. Gods have mercy. You’re betrothed?”

The diamond was enormous, and there were emeralds, gold.

Margaery’s lovely face split into an irresistible grin. “Can you believe it?”

She really couldn’t. Before Tyrion, Marg’s longest relationship had been a three month fling with a lute-playing girl from Mole’s Town who once referred to Brienne as “Margaery’s project.”

Marg kissed Jaime on the cheek and asked him to text her the video.

Brienne shook Tyrion’s hand and congratulated him. A wary kind of pride flickered between his mismatched eyes as he stared up at her.

“You seem surprised,” he said.

“Hells, Tyrion,” Jaime said as he pushed through the door, clapping his brother on the shoulder as he went. “We’re all a little surprised.”

Brienne had expected a party, but it was just the four of them seated at the round wooden table on the rooftop terrace. The breeze found them there, and they had an easy view of the Red Keep and the bay beyond.

Crisp, cool Arbor gold was poured while the couple told the tale of Tyrion’s proposal on a river barge the night before. They dined on Tyrion’s spicy grilled prawns and courgettes.

Jaime smiled politely through it all, prior knowledge of the plan writ in every flick of his eyes toward Tyrion.

“Mummy and Dad are in town,” Marg said. “Loras and Renly are having us all over for roast dinner tomorrow, so we’ll tell them then.”

“What fun,” Jaime murmured.

Tyrion chuckled.

Marg ignored them and grabbed Brienne’s hand. “I’m so glad it’s just us tonight, though. Say you’ll be my maid of honor.”

Tears stung Brienne’s eyes. “Of course! Anytime. Tell me when and where.”

“We were thinking late next spring,” Tyrion said.

“Oh?” Jaime finally looked surprised.

Brienne was too. She’d assumed this would be the sort of nebulous long betrothal that didn’t end in an actual marriage.

“Where?” Brienne asked, trying to hide her shock. “Here?”

Margaery’s lovely face turned sour as she looked around them. “No-no-no. King’s Landing is so brutal, all sharp angles and hard edges.”

“I assume The Rock is out, then, if you don’t want brutal,” Jaime said.

Tyrion’s eyebrows lifted. “The Rock is out for a lot of reasons.”

“I thought perhaps Highgarden,” Margaery said. She cast a pointed look across the table.

“Not fond of a country wedding,” Tyrion mumbled.

“Oldtown,” Marg said. “Romantic, beautiful, and we both went to university there.”

They’d all gone to university there, but only Marg and Brienne at the same time.

Brienne still remembered the day Renly had introduced her to his new girlfriend. She’d thought she would struggle not to hate the girl, then Renly had pulled Margaery Tyrell into their shared flat, and there had been no introduction at all.

Technically, she and Margaery had known one another for years, they’d been at school together since Marg was ten or eleven. Of course, Marg had been in the year behind Brienne, and they’d never even said ten words to each other before university. But that day, holding Renly’s hand, Marg had greeted her like they were old friends, and before Brienne realized what happened, that’s what they became.

“You’ll stand up with me, won’t you?” Tyrion asked. He stared into his wineglass as though he’d only asked someone for the time and gave no indication the question was directed at his brother.

Jaime’s face went soft for just a moment, then his typical hauteur fell back in place. “Nothing could stop me.”

Tyrion grunted into his wine. “Glad you’re still here to do it.”

Brienne still remembered Tyrion’s haggard face when they were wheeled off the medical transport plane from Old Wyk. Jaime had been unconscious, but she was awake to see Tyrion’s fear, his desperation.

“Let’s not turn maudlin,” Jaime said. He raised his glass. “Here’s to two of King’s Landing’s finest happily off the market.”

Brienne and Jaime drank; his green eyes met hers over his wineglass.

Marg raised her glass. “And here’s to you two introducing us during a very boring dinner in Lannisport.”

Tyrion laughed and drank with Marg. Jaime caught Brienne’s eye again.

That very boring dinner had been the annual awards gala thrown by the antiques dealer’s association at Lannisport’s prestigious four-day art and antiques fair. Every dealer and auction house attended, no matter their specialty—from fine arts to farm implements.

Marg volunteered to go to Lannisport with her the year after the bet, and Brienne had accepted, grateful. They’d been seated at a table with the Lannister brothers at the gala. After it was over, she and Jaime found Marg and Tyrion in a desperate clench outside the ballroom.

Jaime tapped her shin under the table. “Should she open my gift first, or yours?”

Margaery’s smile was giddy.

“Mine last,” Tyrion said.

The spa voucher earned a grin, but Jaime’s brass plaques resulted in a teary kiss on the cheek. He won again.

Tyrion produced a long, slender black velvet box and slid it across the table. “Aunt Genna and Aunt Dorna had to work very hard to liberate this.”

Inside was a strand of pearls, not overly large but of the finest quality. Margaery’s hands covered her mouth. She loved jewelry.

Jaime brushed his finger lightly against the edge of the box. “They were Mother’s. She wore them often.”

Margaery was around the table and in Tyrion’s arms in a blink. Their embrace was tight and full of whispered endearments. Brienne averted her gaze.

“That’s our cue, Tarth,” Jaime said. He stood.

“We haven’t even had cake.” Tyrion’s voice was gruff.

The sweet little balloon-topped cake with its swirly drawn twenty-six sat untouched in the middle of the table.

“Next time,” Jaime called, already leaving the terrace.

“Thank you for a lovely evening,” Brienne said as she hurried after him.

She followed Jaime down the stairs, his shoulders square and confident. He was nimble in social situations in a way she envied. In a moment, he’d read the wind change and taken decisive action—before she knew what was happening.

Much like he’d done in Lannisport with the bet.

Brienne had been confused when Owen Inchfield smarmed up to her after she slipped away from the annual gala for a smoke and a moment alone.

“You look sexy tonight, Brienne,” Owen said as he rested his hand on the wall beside her head. “How’s about a kiss?”

His breath reeked of burnt onions, and the way he said “sexy” made her skin crawl. “How’s about no?”

He leaned in anyway. She shoved him off, but then arms wrapped around his head and neck from behind, and his eyes bulged as he sank to his knees.

Jaime was standing there, bent over with his lips close to Owen’s ear. “What are you lot playing at, Inchfield?”

She stared dumbfounded, her cigarette dangling from her fingers, unsure what “lot” Jaime could mean. Then she thought about it. She’d been kissed by precisely one person in all her years, and that person had been Hyle Hunt—several times over the previous three days, culminating in a twenty-minute snog in the back corner of a coffee shop the night before.

She’d just been prepping herself to invite Hyle back to her room after the gala, before the strange turn of events that led to Owen Inchfield on his knees because Jaime Lannister had him in a chokehold.

What were the chances—after a lifetime of no one ever being interested in her—that two men would want to kiss her in the same week?

The chances, as Owen gurgled out, were nil. There was a bet. The winner would be whoever claimed her virginity. That was why Ben bought her drinks, and why Edmund asked her if she wanted to see his rare coins, and why Mark spent an hour making her laugh at lunch.

She looked into Jaime’s eyes as she finally understood. He let Owen crumple to the ground. Then he grabbed her cigarette, took a quick drag, stubbed it out on his hand, jerked his head toward a back entrance, and said, “Tarth, you come with me.”

She’d followed him through a service hallway and up an elevator. He barked at someone on the phone as he led her into his suite and then his bedroom. She sat on the bed. He brought a white towel out of the bathroom and offered it to her. She stared at it, unsure what he wanted her to do.

“You’re.” He pushed it toward her. “Brienne. You’re crying.”

Was she? Her cheeks were wet. Oh.

“I’m going downstairs to get Mariya. Take this, just in case.” He opened her handbag and slipped his keycard inside. She saw the moment his fingers brushed the box of condoms, because his face—

“I was going to sleep with Hyle tonight,” she said.

She hadn’t even told Marg about the kisses or any of it, she’d hoped to just go home and breezily say: how was your week, had sex in Lannisport, tried a new shampoo—as if it wasn’t a momentous event and she was normal. And here she was instead spilling it all to Jaime Lannister, who couldn’t stand her and was beautiful besides.

“Seven hells,” he said, repulsed. “Sleep with Hunt? Why?”

“I’m twenty-three, and I’ve never. I—” She was, appallingly, sobbing. “At this point, I’d sleep with the first man with a heartbeat who showed any genuine interest in me.”

Jaime gaped at her for a moment, then left the room. Later, he sent Mariya in to pat her shoulder while he murmured on the phone in the other room that he had to reschedule something for the morning.

At dawn, Brienne had crept past him asleep on the couch in the suite sitting room and slipped out of his room. She’d decided then that romantic hopes and dreams were poison, and she needed to stay away from them.

Romance was for people like Margaery and Tyrion. She was glad for them, she really was. A betrothal was something to celebrate.

The tube hadn’t cooled after sunset, but the crowds had gone; they had a car to themselves. Despite the extra space, Jaime sat right beside her, his shoulder and arm and hip and thigh pressed against her own. When they were standing, she was taller by the breadth of two or three fingers, but her height was all in her legs, and he was taller when they sat.

He stared down at his hands, his expression unguarded in a way he didn’t often allow, a glimpse of something dark and lost flickering through his facade for a moment.

She wanted to touch him. So much so that she had to cross her arms so she wouldn’t reach out. He wouldn’t welcome her familiarity. Would probably be repulsed by it.

But the urge. Gods. The urge was strong.

He insisted on walking her home after they climbed out of the tube station, even though it was still warm and clear, and she said he was being silly.

“I’m a gentleman, Tarth, what can I tell you,” he said. Then he reached into his jacket pocket and pulled out a cigarette and a lighter.

“Stranger take you.”

He grinned as he lit up and took the first gorgeous drag. “The Stranger can take me as long as I have this in my hand.”

“Don’t tempt the gods.” She breathed in deep, desperate for a second-hand lungful.

“I haven’t smoked since Lambswold.”

“Are you saying I make you smoke?”

“No. Thought I might need it. This betrothal business.”

“You’re not— Aren’t you happy for them?”

“I’m thrilled for him. But.” He shrugged.

“But?”

“I’m nearly forty. I thought I would have all that before my little brother. A family.”

“How?”

He snorted. “Still no heartbeat man, I take it—if you haven’t figured out the basic tab A in slot B of it all.“

She took the cigarette instead of blushing and turned away from him to take a deep drag.

He took it back, and she glared at him. “I meant, how with your prior arrangement.”

A wince, a shrug, and then he said, “I’m thinking of asking Mariya Darry to dinner next time she’s in town.”

The smoke had left her throat parched and dusty. “Mariya’s lovely. She’s . . . lovely.”

She supposed he and Mariya were of an age. Mariya wasn’t the most beautiful woman in the world, but she was very attractive and sophisticated. And Brienne didn’t want to think anymore about it.

“She is,” he said, “and she’s clever, and we hate all the same people, starting with her ex-husband.”

“What a foundation.”

“Piss off, Tarth. Tell me what you think.”

“Why do you care what I think?”

He stopped walking and leaned against a wrought iron fence. “It has been suggested to me that in the past I made romantic choices which were destined to fail. So I’m trying not to do that. What do you think?”

“Isn’t that ‘choice’ in the singular?” She took the cigarette again and leaned against the fence beside him as she inhaled.

“Tarth.”

“I’m the last person anyone should ask for romantic advice.” And no one knew it better than he did.

“You know us both, and you know about my— You know everything. Do you think I should do it?”

She took a long, desperate drag like the smoke was an antidote. “You should do it. Ask her to dinner.”

“Ok, I will.”

A lump lodged in her throat, and her heart, which really should have known better, gave a sad little wrench.

Jaime dislodged the cigarette from her fingers, careful because it was so short now. She needed to not notice the slide of his skin against hers. The feelings it brought were pointless and lethal.

They started to walk again, the last block to her door.

He took a final drag and then stubbed the cigarette out on his hand.

“Why do you do that?”

He ignored her. “Why did you ever smoke in the first place, Tarth? I’ve always wondered. Seems a filthy habit for you.”

Renly. That was the short answer.

She ran her hand over her face and savored the last aroma of tobacco on her fingers. They arrived at her door.

“To fit in? Insecurity? I don’t know. You?”

He smiled. “To self-destruct. ‘Night, Tarth.”

Chapter Text

King’s Landing, The Crownlands
Late Summer

 

Brienne was desperate. Desperate for a smoke, desperate for an exit.

Loras had insisted on hosting the betrothal party. The nightclub was his idea, a glass and black marble affair perched at the apex of the city’s tallest—and ugliest—building.

There was a time when she was younger when she would have stood beside the steel column on the upper balcony and searched the dance floor below and hoped someone would feel the bassline thump in their veins; follow the flare of the lights; look up at the right moment and see her there, and just . . . want her.

Like a scene from a film.

But her life wasn’t a film. She wasn’t a star. She was supporting cast. And that was fine.

It was almost always fine.

Maid of honor was an important role. She had a duty to spend a polite amount of time at the party, smile for the bride and groom, and act like she didn’t wish she could sneak away.

She sighed and pressed her cheek against the steel column as Jaime Lannister crossed the dance floor below. The lights spun and caught the gilt of his hair as the crowd made way for him. He received handshakes, kisses, and hugs. His family was perhaps the most powerful in the seven kingdoms, yet they collectively turned to bask in his glow.

Their reaction made her feel almost vindicated for her own failure to tear her eyes away from him.

He made his way across the floor, through three hundred or so of Tyrion and Margaery’s nearest and dearest, to the corner where his twin sister stood.

If the word breathtaking didn’t already exist, someone would have invented it to describe such a creature. Lush hair tumbled in golden waves over her shoulders and skimmed her thin white dress. She lived in Lannisport. She and Brienne had met there twice.

Though the last time could hardly be called a meeting.

Brienne pressed her flushed face harder against the steel at the memory.

The morning after she’d learned about Hyle and the bet, she realized she left her phone in Jaime’s hotel room.

She waited until after breakfast, until a decent hour. Then she knocked. Three times.

He didn’t answer.

She had no way to reach him without her phone, but she did have the keycard he’d slipped in her handbag.

The music should have been a hint, but she was only thinking about her phone. On she went, through the suite’s little foyer into the sitting room where the door to the bedroom was open.

The couple was facing the foot of the bed.

He was so into it, he didn’t notice her for a thrust and a half. The woman beneath him, hair splayed in a perfect halo on the bed, had her head thrown to the side, eyes closed.

But not Jaime. His eyes were open, his teeth gritted, his body carved from stone, naked and sweat-sheened. He saw her.

He paused at the height of his stroke, pinned her with a stare, and bared his teeth.

Like prey, she broke and ran.

She bashed the call button for the lift, her mouth open, breath coming in bursts—his sister, his sister.

He later found her in the lobby and held her phone out to her, his green eyes electric with energy. She nodded and took it. And he left.

For most of the next year, she and Jaime went on like that. They never exchanged more than a few words. She was ashamed that he knew about her patheticness and the bet, but she also knew about his incest, and so they danced around one another as dread grew slow and thick between them. He watched her from the corner of his eye as if she was a volcano, and he was the only one who knew she might erupt.

She had been ready to erupt, but not for the reason he thought.

Brienne liked sex—or would have done, if she’d ever actually had any. Margaery had always kept her well-provisioned in vibrators: eggs, rabbits, wands. Each presented with a pastel bow and a reminder that masturbation was really self-care. Like vitamins or yoga.

When she returned from Lannisport that year, Brienne bought her first dildo. She set aside a night and lit a candle and took her time. She told herself the man she imagined was faceless because he needed to be faceless. He very, very much needed to be faceless. And it was the same every other night after.

The steel against her cheek wasn’t enough to cool the memory, not when he was so close. And just then, as if he sensed she was about to humiliate herself, Jaime looked up, found her. She wanted to shrink and hide away, but instead, she tipped her chin in greeting. He smirked in reply.

She waited until he looked away before she bolted for the observation deck.

The summer night air was crisp ninety stories up. A few partygoers mingled in clumps. She’d avoided the area earlier because, despite the rules, people were stood around smoking, and she hadn’t wanted the temptation. Outdoor sofas and box hedges in planters had been arranged in a maze of small seating areas, and she tucked herself into an empty one.

If she had to huddle in a forgotten corner, at least her clothes were comfortable. Margaery bought her a black dinner jacket and trousers and told her to wear it with a black shirt, collar open, no tie. Brienne knew Marg probably wouldn’t have approved the trainers, but no one had noticed.

Not even Renly, who greeted her earlier with an arm slid around her waist and a buss on her cheek and said, “Brienne, darling. Look at you in a dinner jacket. My.”

When she was young, her hands trembled every time Renly walked into a room. Back then, she would have assumed he’d just given her a polite but empty compliment. She knew better now.

Still, she could forgive him almost anything when she remembered his tears as he pressed a hard kiss to her forehead in the hospital.

The party felt interminable. To pass the time, she watched people through the leaves as they wandered along the railing with its thick safety glass twice as tall as she was.

Marg’s cousin Desmera wandered past and had just begun to talk to Brienne when Jaime’s cousin Daven appeared and grinned cheekily until Brienne introduced them. Daven worked for Jaime negotiating high-value sales and international purchases. Brienne liked him. Ygritte had once said, “If you squint and let your lashes blur, Daven looks a bit like a rougher, shorter Jaime.”

Brienne tried it, squinting at him as she watched the pair flirt before they wandered off together with half-hearted goodbyes tossed in her direction.

She’d just settled back in her seat when she saw Tyrion through the leaves, walking along the viewing rail in a clump of a dozen or so of his work colleagues. They all wore the same sorts of suits with the same expressions as they stood around sniffing and running their tongues over their top teeth. She wasn’t exactly sure what Tyrion did at his family’s overgrown multinational, because Marg, a human rights barrister, refused to let him talk about what he did in her presence.

Then Jaime appeared. He approached the group from the opposite way, and several of them greeted him like one of their own. Looking at him, it was obvious he wasn’t actually one of them. Not least because they all looked like clones of each other while Jaime looked like there could only be one of him in all the world. He wore a grey suit tailored to perfection.

She so was lost watching Jaime from her secret vantage point that it took her a moment to notice the burly, red-haired man from Tyrion’s group who had engaged him in conversation.

Gods.

Ronnet Connington.

If even half what Renly and Loras whispered about the Lannisters was true, it was typical that they would employ someone so vile.

There was no reason for her name to come up between Jaime and Ronnet, no reason for either to realize they both knew her. No reason for Jaime to learn about another humiliating episode from her past.

Her father’s fourth wife, Ronnet’s aunt, had invited him to stay during the spring holiday of Brienne’s first year at uni. The woman tried to push them together for days. Finally, when they were all outside one day, Ronnet’s aunt gave him a rose clipped from the garden and instructed him to give it to Brienne.

With his aunt watching from a distance, Ronnet handed her the rose and said, “Smile for my aunt. But let me be clear: I wouldn’t fuck you with someone else’s cock.”

Ronnet’s head barely reached Jaime’s shoulder. Jaime looked down his perfectly straight, strong nose at the man. Whatever Ronnet said made Jaime’s eyes flare, and a muscle in his cheek twitch. Brienne wondered how in hells Ronnet couldn’t tell Jaime was ready to strike.

Jaime reached out and fingered the lapels of Ronnet’s suit coat. Ronnet seemed a little startled. Jaime grinned his most arrogant grin as he loomed closer. Brienne almost thought Jaime was going to kiss him.

Then Jaime’s hands fisted in Ronnet’s lapels, and he headbutted him. Ronnet dropped backward like a felled tree. Two of his friends caught him before he hit the ground. Jaime spat something down at him.

Brienne was on her feet. Voices rose. Tyrion had his hands up in a placating way. Jaime just looked amused. She was halfway to him when she saw blood trickle from the corner of his perfect eyebrow. She kept a spare pair of socks in her handbag; she pulled one out and pressed it to his head.

“Where did you come from?” he muttered, suspicious, looking around like she’d ambushed him.

They had Ronnet on his feet and were leading him away.

“Perfect impression for the new in-laws,” Tyrion sniped at Jaime.

“Ronnet Connington is not a Tyrell,” Jaime sneered. He brushed Brienne’s hand away and took the cloth, then he pulled it away to look at it. “Seven hells, Tarth. Is this your sock?”

“It’s clean.”

Bronn, who was Tyrion’s shady friend, or work colleague, or something appeared. Tyrion sent him to find Marg’s brother Garlan, a surgeon. They all decamped to the lobby beside the lifts where Ronnet was sprawled on a bench in a dazed stupor.

Garlan said Ronnet should be taken to A&E. Bronn and some of the other suits loaded him into a lift.

Then Garlan examined Jaime. “You’re not concussed.”

Tyrion gestured with his index finger toward Jaime’s head. “Are you sure his entire skull is intact? You’d never know it from this reckless brawl, but behind that pretty face is a relatively agile mind.”

Garlan seemed annoyed to have his opinion questioned. “Take him to A&E then, to be sure.”

“I’m perfectly well,” Jaime scoffed. “You already said I’m not concussed—”

“Best to be safe.” Garlan started to walk away. “And he should be watched for twenty-four hours.”

Renly and Loras had stumbled out of the nightclub looking concerned. Daven was there.

“All right,” Tyrion said, pulling on Jaime’s arm, “let’s get you to hospital.”

“Don’t be absurd,” Jaime said.

“You can’t go,” Loras told Tyrion, “you’re the groom.”

Daven shot a desperate look over his shoulder toward the club, but then looked down at Jaime. “I’ll take you, old man.”

Brienne remembered Daven and Desmera.

Jaime scoffed and stood, gesturing at his ridiculously fit form. “I’m not concussed—”

“I’ll—” She waved toward Jaime. “I’ll take him.”

Loras gave her a nod, Renly gave her a kiss and a “Darling!” Daven shot her a sheepish, “Good of you, Brienne.” Then they returned to the club.

Jaime made for the lift, her sock pressed to his head. She followed.

“Not in need of a protector tonight, Tarth.” He pushed the call button for the lift. “Go back to the party.”

“I’ll text you,” Tyrion told her.

Jaime glanced at his brother. “Are you honestly going to send her off into the night with me? That will only trigger a series of compulsive confessions. We’ll spill our darkest secrets and fears and be left in a cloud of mutual loathing.”

She glared at him from the corner of her eye, and he raised his uninjured eyebrow at her, dared her to deny it.

“Confessions?” Tyrion glanced around to be sure they were alone. “What are you on about? You need to go to A&E—”

“It’s a little joke,” Jaime said. “Between Tarth and me. I’m in full possession of my wits.”

Tyrion grabbed Brienne’s sleeve as the lift dinged its arrival. He looked panicky. “If he says something that sounds absolutely barmy—”

“You think she doesn’t know?” Jaime cut in as he entered the lift. He smirked at Tyrion.

Brienne stepped in behind Jaime and tried to reassure Tyrion with a look. She wasn’t sure how to say that she knew his brother and sister used to have sex without using any of those words.

“She knows?” Tyrion asked in horror as the doors started to close.

Brienne shrugged at Tyrion before he was lost from sight. Jaime leaned against the back of the lift as it started its stomach-dropping descent.

“Well,” he said. “That’s us well away from that nightmare. Gods, Tarth, are those trainers? With a dinner jacket?”

Ronnet disappeared into an ambulance as Brienne pushed Jaime into a black taxi. She asked for the nearest hospital.

“Not going to hospital,” Jaime said and gave the driver his street.

The taxi began to wind its way down from Rhaenys’s Hill, and she contemplated how to proceed.

“No one glares at me like you, Tarth.” He pulled the sock away and looked at the blood spot on it.

“Pressure.” She pushed his hand back up to his head and searched on her phone for signs of concussion. He didn’t show any, but it could take some time for symptoms to appear. “This says you do need to be watched for twenty-four hours like Garlan said.”

“I am not concussed.”

“Come to mine for the night, so I can keep an eye on you.”

“I thought I’d heard every proposition imaginable, but—”

“You know that’s not— You can’t embarrass me.”

“You’re bright red.”

“Piss off.”

“Anyway, can’t stay at yours,” he said. “I have cats to feed.”

“Ok. I’ll stay at yours, then.”

“Wouldn’t exactly be our first night together. Why not?”

She rolled her eyes and faced forward in hopes her blush would calm. As she watched the streets of the old city slip past, she thought of Mariya. “Is there . . . should we let anyone know you’ve been injured?”

He scoffed. “Who? My whole family was at the nightclub and are doubtless well aware by now.”

Mariya had been in town a few weeks before. With a shop in a sleepy village like Darry, Mariya relied on a good social media strategy to keep business brisk. Brienne had seen the posts from the King’s Landing airport, and shots of various lots at a local auction house. Then Mariya had posted a selfie—she’d been smartly dressed and on her way out of her hotel. Brienne knew she’d been on her way to meet Jaime.

Then they’d been together at another sale in Starfall a fortnight past. Jaime had a private account and never posted anything, same as Brienne. But Mariya had posed in front of Starfall’s auction house window, and Brienne saw Jaime’s reflection in the glass. He took the photo.

She’d seen Jaime a few times over the summer with Marg and Tyrion, but he hadn’t mentioned Mariya, and she’d thought it would be strange if she asked.

That and she almost didn’t want to know.

Brienne made herself look at him. “Mariya?”

Jaime’s smile was slow and amused. “It’s very early days. A couple of friendly dinners.”

She shrugged and looked out the window.

Jaime lived on the street behind his shop. They were practically neighbors, but she’d only been to his house once years before when her uncles cajoled her into attending a dinner party Jaime threw for Sumner Crakehall. Jaime had opened his front door, frowned at her houndstooth tweed, and said all she needed was a deerstalker and a pipe.

Unlike every other dealer she’d ever known, Jaime furnished his home almost entirely with newer pieces, elegant but simple textiles, raw woods, and dark matte metals. The only hint to what he did for a living were some swords mounted in his drawing room along with two enormous battle scenes rendered in rich oils—the sort that always seemed to fall his way at auction.

Brienne followed him to the kitchen. Two orange and white streaks hopped on the worktop like they owned it, insistent on the cans he pulled from a cupboard. He had to bend so one could bump his chin, and the other sniff his forehead with suspicion.

She’d never been allowed a pet when she was small. After she’d gone off to school at nine, a few of her father’s partners brought pets into the house. She would meet them on school holidays and fall a little in love with them, but they always went when the women did.

Jaime led her upstairs and pointed at a guest room.

“No,” she said. “I’ll sleep in a chair. In your room.”

He stopped on the stair and turned back; his keen gaze searched her face.

“Well.” He beckoned her to follow him to the top floor.

She sat him on his toilet to clean the cut. He hadn’t any plasters, only leftover wound dressings from his bullet wounds.

She stood between his legs. He’d stripped off his suit coat. Heat radiated off him as she leaned in. When she brushed his hair away from the wound, he gasped, and his lashes flickered. He’d had so much tolerance for pain on Old Wyk, it surprised her.

“Sorry,” she whispered as she tried to concentrate on her task.

“No, it’s— It’s all right.” He whispered too. They were alone in his loo, whispering for no perceivable reason. There was no one to disturb but the cats.

She pressed the gauze to the cut. His hands startled in his lap, and his fingers brushed the front of her thighs through her trousers. She flinched and nearly dropped the gauze. The echo of his touch vibrated along her skin like a plucked harp string.

“Sorry,” he whispered.

“No, you’re— I— It’s fine,” she whispered back.

She finished and crouched to look at the job she’d done and ran her finger over the tape so it would hold. They were nearly nose-to-nose. From this close, his eyes were dangerous, and she didn’t allow herself to look in them. His lips moved, but he didn’t talk.

“That will do, I think,” she whispered.

He stood and brushed past her, was half out of the room before she rose out of her crouch. As she put the wound dressings away in the shelving behind his mirror, he shoved striped pyjama bottoms and a grey t-shirt into her hands, then he left her in the loo to change, slamming the door behind him.

When she exited the bathroom, he was stood on a chair, flailing around at something atop a bookcase. One of the cats batted at him from a shelf. He was wearing tartan pyjama bottoms and nothing else. His back was golden tan, the muscles bunched and moved as he strained.

The scars from his bullet wounds stood out in raised marks on his otherwise perfect flesh.

“What are you doing?”

“Nearly got it,” he said. The other cat was on the chair now, brushing against his shin.

Brienne rushed over to him. “Do you feel confused? Do you have a headache?”

“Others take you, Tarth. I’m not concussed, I’m— Ah! There you are.”

He pulled down a cigar box. A bit of dust flew as he flipped it open in her face. Inside was a pack of cigarettes. Only two remained.

She’d never wanted a smoke more in her life.

“There’s a sign for you,” Jaime said as he pulled them out. He looked down at her with flared nostrils, then stepped off the chair.

She followed him as he flicked off the lights in his bedroom, his enormous bed with its tall tufted headboard now just a looming shadow. He threw open the double doors to a small sheltered terrace at the end of the room, it held a small table and two chairs.

They sat side-by-side in the warm night. He held a cigarette out. She took it without a thought, then leaned over as he lit it for her, her fingers holding lightly around where his were cupped.

She was glad it was dark as her face flamed, but she forgot everything as soon as she put the cigarette between her lips. “Oh,” she whispered as she breathed out.

He chuckled as he lit his own. They inhaled and exhaled in a haze.

“Haven’t had one since the last time with you,” he said.

“Same.”

“We quit together, yet we keep smoking together,” he said.

“The cigarettes are always yours.”

“I swore I’d never buy another once this pack was gone.”

“And you gave one to me?”

“Who else?” He looked at her. “How long did you smoke?”

“I started the first year at uni.” She remembered Renly standing on the balcony of their little shared flat and how she wished she had a reason to go out and stand beside him. “I suppose I was eighteen. And I was twenty-five at Old Wyk. Seven years?”

“Twenty years for me. I started at eighteen too.”

“Oh?”

“Mm. Army.”

He’d mentioned that his time in the army was a disaster when they were on Old Wyk, but only in passing. “The army seems an odd place for you.”

He snorted. “It was. I was young, and it was the only place my father couldn’t pull my strings. That decision saw me disowned. Then I was dismissed.”

“What happened?” she asked.

Even in the dark, she could see the way his face went slack. “Killed someone I wasn’t supposed to. I can’t say more, it’s still top secret. Funnily enough, it was my father who intervened and made sure I was only dismissed.”

“Gods,” she whispered. Before Old Wyk, it would have shocked her to hear him casually say he’d killed someone, but now . . .

He took a deep drag and glanced at her. “Well, there’s my confession for the night. Your turn.”

She knew he was joking, but—

“What did he say to you?” she asked.

“My father?”

“Ronnet. What did he say?”

He tapped his nose. “Can’t remember.”

Her pulse beat double time. So it had been about her. Her brain went to static.

“Jaime.”

“Am I meant to keep a record of every word some ginger—”

“How did he even know you knew me?”

He sighed and looked at her. Old Wyk, of course. It had been in the news. Then Vargo Hoat’s trial had dragged through the winter. Doubtless everyone Tyrion worked with knew some of the details.

“How many Ronnets have there been, Brienne?”

She pulled her feet up onto the chair and wrapped her arms around her knees as she took a frantic drag. “You know all the worst.”

One of the cats came out and sniffed at her toes. She knew he called one of them Honour and the other Glory, but she didn’t know which was which.

“Why did you do it?” she asked.

“Because we’re friends, Tarth.”

“We are?” Her pulse sped.

He laughed around his cigarette. “You’re smoking my last cigarette, wearing my clothes, and about to go to bed with me. What else would we be?”

She sneered at him. “Go to bed with you? I’ll sleep in a chair.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Nobody’s sleeping in a chair this time. Not like Lannisport. That couch ruined my neck for a week afterward.”

“Your neck appeared to be in working order the next morning.”

He stared wide-eyed at her, and for a moment she thought she’d gone too far, but then he howled, just threw his head back and laughed up into the night. She didn’t know how, but she laughed too. The space between them had been tight as a bowstring, but the tension eased.

“Last drag,” he said as he looked at his cigarette.

She looked at hers and took a long pull. He plucked it from her fingers as soon as she was done; his touch was like lightning along her skin.

He stubbed both their cigarettes out in the heel of his hand.

“I hate that you do that,” she said.

He gave her an odd look. “It’s started to hurt again. I think I’ve lost the calluses.”

“Then stop,” she said.

The grin he gave her was lop-sided. It made her ribs feel too tight for her lungs—probably something to do with the smoke.

One of the cats hopped into his lap and butted against his chin. He stroked its ear. The cats adored him.

So did she.

Brienne ran her hand down her face. This was fine.

She’d recovered from crushes before. She and Renly were friends now. And she could be friends with Jaime too. It would be fine.

He stood and walked into the bedroom. “Come on, Tarth, time to call it a night.”

Chapter Text

Lannisport, The Westerlands
Late Autumn

 

“Tarth.”

Jaime Lannister had a way of saying her name, drawing it out into a growl that made it feel like he spoke from inside her own head.

He raised his brows at her from across the maze of tastefully displayed old tables and desks. She let her fingers flutter just a bit in greeting, unsure why he’d called her name.

He smirked, then carved a path toward her through the exhibit hall crowd. Her breath caught in her throat as he drew near. He looked wind-blown like a swashbuckler returned from a voyage at sea. She felt compelled to meet him and had to command her feet not to move, to wait for him as if she was capable of nonchalance in his presence.

“Busy?” he asked, a spark in his eyes.

“No,” she said. She gestured at Dacey, who was engaged in negotiations with Asha Greyjoy over a brass candelabra. “Dacey and I are meant to be having lunch, but . . .”

Jaime bit his lip. Hands in his pockets, he bounced on his toes. “Come with me.”

She’d only seen him twice since the betrothal party, but they’d crossed paths several times over the past three days at Lannisport, though they hadn’t had a direct conversation. The Lannisport arts and antiques fair was always a whirlwind of work and scouting for new contacts and clients. Networking didn’t come naturally to Brienne, so she often tagged along with someone else to make it easier, usually Dacey, Mariya, or Davos—even Ygritte, on occasion, if she was desperate.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

He chuckled. “Follow me.”

Brienne waved at Dacey, who gave her an apologetic grimace, and she followed him. He’d said they were friends, and he was acting like they were friends. And that was fine. She never had enough friends.

Jaime led her off to the side and into the back rooms where computers and desks were arranged for research, communication, and bank transfers. Deeper they went, into the bowels of the facility.

Security grew denser with every step and made her feel ill at ease. There had always been guards, particularly at the fair where high-value items often changed hands, but things had changed after Old Wyk. In an attempt to protect itself, their world had become darker, more frightening.

Old Wyk had started out more rainy and annoying than frightening.

She remembered the water was rougher than she expected as their ferry bounced over the waves of Nagga’s Cradle. Davos and Jaime had joined her at the window, all three of them peering with suspicion at the clouds.

“Don’t know why they insist on doing this in the middle of winter,” Davos had said.

Old Lord Drumm had died, and his heirs couldn’t wait to cash in. Rumor had it they would abandon Drumm Castle to rot. Rumor also had it they hadn’t the money to transport the trove of antiques to one of Pyke’s auction houses—thus, an auctioneer had been sent out to conduct the sale on-site. The bargain potential was immense, as there would be no online bids, and there was supposedly only one phone line. Most of the lots would belong to the dealers who made the trek.

Fewer than fifty souls called Old Wyk home, most of them pensioners whose children and grandchildren had long since decamped for more hospitable climes. Ferry service ran every other day, and there were no public accommodations apart from some campsites. Everyone would be lodged at Drumm Castle itself.

When the ferry docked, they loaded back into the white vans that had collected them from Great Wyk’s small airport and were taken by bumpy ill-kept road out to the remote crag where the castle sat past Nagga’s Hill.

“Hope you lot play cards,” Sumner Crakehall said.

Everyone spread throughout the castle, vultures sniffing for carrion. There was no catalogue for the sale, so when Brienne found the armory, she snapped photos of anything that caught her eye.

The castle had ramped up to a bustle with their arrival, and when she heard more vehicles pull up outside, she thought little of the screech of gravel or the sound of sliding doors thrown open.

It was the cracking snaps that caught her attention. She went to a grimy window, but couldn’t see anything. She took a few more photos of some rusted chainmail.

There were shouts, more cracks. Perhaps a fusebox blew?

The hair on the back of her neck stood on end, and the passageway back to the main hall seemed ominous, but she felt compelled to investigate. Instinct prompted her to hide behind a tall clock and peep toward the main stair. Sumner Crakehall lay dead upon it, his back a wash of red. There was more red on the flagstones by the door. On the floors above feet pounded, more shouts.

She retreated toward the armory and saw a passage there. She followed it to a kitchen which had an old landline, but the line was dead. Someone moved outside the window; she ran back to the armory.

All she could think to do was grab a sword. Just in time. Footsteps echoed down the passage. There was nothing in the room to hide behind, or in. She backed into a corner.

A man entered—big, unkempt, raging.

“Put that down, you bitch.”

He started toward her, but then she saw arms slide around his neck from behind. Jaime snapped the man’s neck and let him drop, then bent to search him.

“Damn,” Jaime whispered. “No weapons.”

He looked up at her, saw the sword in her shaking hand.

“Tarth,” he said. “Leave the sword. Come with me.”

She shook off the memory as she followed Jaime through the last of the security. They found themselves alone in a secure room. In the center was a large table covered in black velvet.

She looked at Jaime. “What did you buy?”

No sooner had she asked than the door opened and Ned Stark entered, followed by two men carrying a large case between them.

“Hello, Brienne,” Ned said. He was a dour, long-faced man. She’d always liked him.

“Hello.”

Ned glanced between her and Jaime. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”

“Tarth’s my expert second opinion,” Jaime said.

Ned took insult. The look he gave Jaime could have scoured rust from steel. Brienne knew Ned and his wife Catelyn from her girlhood spent traipsing after her uncles as they hunted for antiques. Once they’d taken her to Winterfell, Ned’s enormous home in the North. Maintaining the estate was a headache that required the liquidation of heirlooms from time to time. Her memory of that weekend was warm. She still remembered the kind condolence card Ned and Catelyn sent after her uncles’ plane crash.

Ned opened the case.

Brienne’s eyes lit on the Valyrian steel sword the moment the lining was pulled back. It was simple, bone-handled, but her mouth watered at the sight of it. Jaime dropped a pair of white gloves in her hand and pulled on a pair himself.

She’d seen Valyrian steel in museums, of course, through thick security glass, but this—

Jaime drew it out, then handed it to her. She looked at him. His face was severe, but his eyes grinned. The sword felt like magic in her hands, its weight and balance were unlike any blade she’d ever held.

“Your expert opinion, Brienne?” Ned asked, a bit brusk.

She cleared her throat and glanced at Jaime. There were a few areas in which she could reasonably be called an expert but, much as she loved them, bladed weapons—particularly Valyrian steel—were not one.

“It’s Valyrian steel,” she said. “As Jaime well knows. He wrote the book on it.”

Literally. She’d inherited her uncles’ copy.

“I’m satisfied,” Jaime said. He gave Ned his most haughty look. Then he turned and winked at her.

Daven appeared in the doorway.

“Make the transfer,” Jaime told him.

The sword was replaced in its case and taken away for transport.

“Always nice to see you, Brienne,” Ned said with a nod as he left.

“Pleasure doing business, Stark,” Jaime called after him.

“Why does he hate you so much?” she asked when they were alone.

Jaime laughed. “That’s top secret.”

“Thank you for that.” She gave him back the white gloves. “I’ve never held one before.”

“I thought not.”

“I won’t ask what you paid,” she said as they left the room.

“Good. I won’t tell you.”

“I should find Dacey,” she said. “I’ll see you tonight?”

His face clouded. “See you.”

Then he was gone.

She wasn’t looking forward to the night, either. There were few things she liked less than standing before a crowd or being the center of any kind of attention, however brief. And there was nothing she liked less than recalling certain aspects of Old Wyk.

After lunch with Dacey, she walked down the block to the hotel. She was already on the lift when Hyle stepped on.

Perfect.

“Brienne,” he said.

“Hyle.”

“You’re not still angry.”

She thought her eyes might bulge out of her skull. The audacity of the man. Yes, she was still angry and embarrassed and tired of him ever crossing her mind.

He turned to face her.

“I wanted to text you,” he said, “after Old Wyk.”

“Why?”

The lift dinged her floor, and she stepped off before he could answer. He followed. She realized he hadn’t pressed a button.

She whirled to face him.

He startled a bit at the look on her face and put his hands up. “It’s my floor too.”

“Of all the luck,” she said, and turned on her heel.

“Anyway,” he said, “I’m glad you came through it all right.”

She ignored him and entered her room. The door was heavy, but she slammed it shut and threw the locks across.

No one had come through Old Wyk “all right.” She blinked, and she was back there again.

Jaime had led her out the armory of Drumm Castle like he knew where he was going.

“Priest hole,” he whispered almost too soft to hear. “Under the stairs.”

They no sooner started down the corridor toward the backstair than Jorah Mormont came running through.

Then his pursuer appeared, a man with a pointed black goatee.

And the cracking pops began. Jaime turned and grabbed her. She felt the impacts as they fell. When she landed, Jaime was atop her, warm and sticky everywhere.

“Play dead,” Jaime breathed near her ear. “Be still.”

Jorah walked past them with his hands raised. He was followed by the goatee man, weapon in hand. She stared at the ceiling as if she was sightless. The man glanced at her, then dismissed her.

When they were gone, she shook Jaime, and a lancing ache claimed her shoulder. Jaime groaned as she tried to move him. He didn’t want to stand, but she made him. She threw his arm over her shoulder and dragged him to the kitchen, then outside.

She moved them from one hiding spot to another: an ancient farm lorry, a small old outbuilding, a crumbling curtain wall. Shouts and footsteps carried on the wind. The rain became a storm, dark and terrible. She made for the water.

Night fell.

Jaime was conscious, able to move his legs, but weak. They sheltered in a crack on the cliff face. She found the wounds under his jumper, they entered his back and exited his front. The one in his shoulder seemed clean enough, but the other went through his clavicle. It was sharded and grim, and the source of most of the blood that soaked them both.

“I’ll be all right,” he whispered. Eyes closed, he leaned back against the dark rock, shivering. “They got the old man.”

Jaime had apprenticed with Sumner Crakehall.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

Before, she’d been too concerned with escape to think, but now the strain between them showed. They’d hardly spoken since she walked in on him with his sister. At Lannisport a few months back, they’d been seated at the same table for the annual gala; they’d made stilted introductions between his brother and Margaery, then ignored one another. They couldn’t ignore one another now.

Rain blew in at them; waves pounded on the shore beyond.

They had whole conversations without speaking. No one would arrive to rescue them until the storm passed, they agreed that between them with a look. The police couldn’t make it by sea or helicopter in the wind—if they even knew what had happened—this they conveyed with exchanged nods. The thieves must have planned to escape by boat, so they were trapped as well, a conclusion that led them both to sigh.

“Talk to me, Tarth.” His teeth chattered. “Out loud.”

They both wore wool from head-to-toe, but he had no jacket, so she sat in front of the opening to try to shelter him a little. Together, they shivered in the dark.

“You should rest,” she said.

“What I should do is not go into shock,” he said. “Talk to me.”

So she talked. She wound through her life story in a way she never had before, with anyone, as he asked little questions to keep her going. First, she told him about her girlish love for Renly and how it imploded, thinking it was funny.

Then she went deeper. She talked about her childhood and the loss of her mother and brother. Explained to him that after she went away to school, she spent more time with Uncle Goodwin and Uncle Cortnay than she did her father. Told him how much she loved learning the antiques trade as a girl. Tried to convey how warm her uncles’ little mews house had seemed to her, with their constant bickering but steady devotion to one another.

“It’s like that for me,” he cut in. “With her. We’re devoted.”

“I see.”

“You don’t.” He threw his head back. “Don’t patronize, Tarth. She and I are more than twins. She’s my— She’s my love. You understand?”

She swallowed and stared at him. He’d been shot; he wasn’t well. Something about this was important to him, something he needed her to understand. She tried to humor him.

“I . . .”

“I love her,” he said. “I’ve never touched anyone else. She’s the only one for me.”

“Ah.”

“You think you know what you saw, but you don’t.”

She bit her tongue.

They pieced together fragments of sleep. Morning dawned worse. The rain began to freeze.

Jaime stumbled a few steps from their hiding place to relieve himself. He could barely stand by the time he came back.

That afternoon, she climbed up the steep hill to spy the castle from a distance. Nothing seemed changed. She saw one of the thieves walking the perimeter of the place.

It was full dark by the time she reached Jaime again. He looked like a ghost. They stared at one another for long minutes in the near-black of the little crevice. His gaze was so intent she was sure no other person had ever looked at her so hard, seen so much.

Every layer of normal civil interaction had been pulled back between them. One raw soul gazed at another.

“Ferry tomorrow,” she whispered.

The wind howled, and the look he gave her held no hope. The ferry wouldn’t come in the storm.

That night was worse. He couldn’t relieve himself on his own, she had to help. His eyes blazed at the indignity of it.

They had fresh water from the rain, but nothing else and she was starving. She’d have killed for a cigarette. Hers were in her handbag with her lighter, at the castle; his were in his jacket in the dining room.

“This is a sign I should quit,” she said.

He choked out a laugh. “Rather drastic sign.”

“I swear to the gods,” she said. “I’ll quit if we make it out of this alive.”

Jaime assessed her for a moment. “I swear to the gods I’ll quit if I’m ever warm again.”

At dawn, she set off for the ferry terminal.

She left her jacket with him, tucked it tight over him as he stared wordless into her eyes.

“Thank you,” she told him as a goodbye. “You saved me.”

His eyes followed her as she left.

It took her all day and most of the night to return from the deserted and empty ferry terminal where she found a packet of almonds and a little tin of biscuits in a drawer in the operator’s hut. Better, she found a first aid kit and a tarp.

She almost stumbled past their little crevice in the dark, shaking and exhausted. He was slumped over inside, and she checked for a pulse, frantic, but he roused and opened his eyes.

The first aid kit had a little torch inside, and she used it to look at his wounds and try to bandage them. The skin around the wound on his clavicle was hot to her cold hands. She pressed the back of her hand against his forehead, and dread filled her.

He touched her shoulder; she flinched. Without her jacket, the bullet hole was more visible.

“Brienne. Why didn’t you say?”

Her wound seemed irrelevant. She was aware of it, and certainly aware of the occasional crunching grind when she moved her arm, but it was the least of their problems.

He made her let him dress it, though he was so feverish she wasn’t sure what good he could do. After what they’d been through, it seemed silly to worry about him seeing her in her sports bra.

He cleaned the wound and peered close with the torch, then looked up into her eyes. “How do you feel?”

“Fine. Like I’ve been shot. Tired. Cold—”

“I think this is sepsis,” he said.

She blinked. He seemed stronger as he dressed the wound. After he finished, he settled back against the rock. His eyes shone as he searched her face.

Nothing could have surprised her more than his hand rising to cup her cheek, the gentle sweep of his thumb over her eyebrow. No one had touched her like this since—maybe ever in her life.

“You have to go tomorrow,” he said. “Promise. Go back to the ferry and follow the road, find the other dwellings.”

She shook her head. She didn’t think she could make it.

Worse, it would mean leaving him on his own.

She ignored him and wrapped him in the foil blanket from the first aid kit, then draped the tarp over them both as she wrapped herself around him and arranged his back against her chest, so his wounds weren’t irritated.

He began to shiver. And he began to say things.

“My cats,” he said. “Promise you’ll look after my cats.”

“Shh. Your family would—”

“Chuck them in a shelter. Promise you’ll see they’re taken care of—you.”

“I promise.”

“And don’t separate them.”

“Ok,” she said, soothing her hand over his cheek. He was burning up.

She slipped her hand out for more rainwater to bathe over his face, to cool his skin.

“Freezing,” he said.

“Sorry.”

“Tell my brother I love him.”

“I will.”

“Tell him to look after my sister.”

“Stop talking like you’re dying.”

He snorted. “I am dying.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I’ll die if I want to die.”

If he weren’t half-dead, she would have shaken him.

“Live,” she said into his ear. “Fight. Take revenge.”

He shivered in silence for a time.

“Tell my father— That disaster in the army— Just tell him I’m grateful.”

“Stop this.”

“Tell her my last words were about her,” he said. His chuckle was thready. “Even if they aren’t, tell her they are.”

“Jaime . . .”

“Promise me you’ll go at first light,” he said.

“No.”

“You can’t die here.”

“No one is dying here.”

“Can’t have you dying a virgin, Tarth. Are you going to let Hunt and those useless tossers win? Best you go in the morning.”

“That was a pathetic attempt to goad me.” She sprinkled fresh rainwater over his face. “I expect better from you.”

“Imagine how smug Hunt would feel at your funeral, thinking he should have been your heartbeat man.”

“I bought a dildo. It probably did a better job.”

She blushed, but it worked, he laughed—a small, frail sound.

He babbled into the night until they both drifted off. She woke at first light to the sound of helicopter blades.

She couldn’t rouse him.

The memory bogged her down, and she shoved it away so she could dress for the evening.

Backstage at the gala was a subdued flurry, and she leaned against a wall to stay out of the way. A woman with a headset prepped her, told her how close she should stand to the microphone, which side of the stage to exit from. Her palms were drenched with sweat. The little white cards in her hand had become damp from it.

“My favorite dinner jacket,” Jaime said as he sidled up to her. “No trainers?”

“Just for you,” she said.

He wore a black dinner jacket as well. It looked good in a way that made her want to peel it off him.

The woman with the headset appeared. “Brienne, we’re ready for you.”

“Don’t mispronounce my name,” Jaime said.

“Piss off,” she hissed as they led her to the stage.

White-hot lights blinded her as she walked out to the microphone. The crowd was an endless dark sea, waiting.

She forgot how to breathe. Then she remembered her cards.

“Thank you,” she said. “I have been sent to introduce Jaime Lannister to you. It’s an odd prospect because—as he’d be the first to tell you—he needs no introduction in the antiques world.”

That got the polite laugh Dacey told her it would.

“The first time I met Jaime, we found ourselves in a rather loud disagreement in a car park. He accused me of running up the price on a painting at auction. He was right—” She paused, and the polite laughter came again. “But that’s hardly the point.”

A bead of sweat slipped down her back.

“I’m here to introduce Jaime because I personally witnessed his extraordinary bravery, quick thinking, and sacrifice during the incident at Old Wyk. Jaime saved my life twice. He jumped between me and certain death because that’s the sort of man he is. The sort who takes bullets for people. I didn’t know it at the time, but he’s also the sort who spots an old Drowned God priest hole and stuffs nine people into it.”

“The word hero is overused, but Jaime Lannister is a hero. That’s why he’s being given this award for extraordinary service to the dealer community. Please help me welcome Jaime.”

The applause began as he walked across the stage toward her. She left the microphone and put out her hand. He shook it. If he were anyone else in the room, she probably would have kissed his cheek.

Her part was over, and she fled the stage, weaving toward the table she shared with Pod, Dacey, Ygritte, and some of the others. She collapsed in her seat to pats on the back.

“Thank you,” Jaime said into the mic as the applause quieted. “But the only hero I’ve ever known just left the stage.”

Her heartbeat was already racing, but now it lurched. She knew he couldn’t see her because the lights were too bright, but he stared right at her seat.

“It takes only a moment to be shot. Brienne spent half a day carrying me to safety. For three days, she traipsed all over the island, gathering intelligence and supplies while sporting a bullet wound of her own. She cared for me like no one has since I was a babe in arms. It’s the sort of experience that changes a man. So, if you would, please give your applause instead to Brienne Tarth. My hero.”

A spotlight clicked on, its blinding light pointed at her chair. The whole room turned dark as they stood and applauded. All she could really see was Jaime on the stage, smirking at her discomfort.

She stood and raised her hand, then sat again. The spotlight went off, and she sighed.

“She won’t speak to me a for half a year after that,” Jaime said into the mic. “I am grateful for this recognition but would like to clear up one point. I only scouted out the priest hole in hopes of finding some long-overlooked dragonglass.”

Everyone laughed.

“But to return to more serious matters, we lost a giant of the community in Sumner Crakehall . . .”

Jaime’s speech went on, acknowledging the victims. Brienne heard little of it and gratefully snuck away when the proceedings finally ended, and the crowd returned to drinking and socializing.

The terrace off the ballroom was dark and empty in the autumn night. All she could hear was the sound of the Sunset Sea rushing to shore in the cold autumn air. Two barges crept toward one another on the dark horizon, and off to her right, Casterly Rock loomed large and tall and dark. She found a bench and sat, pulled out a cigarette. The pack was a year old; she hadn’t yet opened it.

The stress of the speech melted away as she lit up.

Reliving Old Wyk had taken its toll as well. Not just because of what happened on the island, but afterward. In some ways, that was the worst of it.

When she led the paramedics to Jaime, they worked to stabilize him. Then she’d been crammed on a transport helicopter with him and the other injured despite her insistence she could wait. In a blur, they were lifted to Great Wyk, then loaded on a special plane for King’s Landing.

Jorah Mormont and Beric Dondarrion had been beaten and brutalized for bank account numbers and passcodes—the thieves’ true targets rather than antiques. Stannis Baratheon and Lyle Crakehall had sustained bullet wounds. The medical staff flitted between the men’s stretchers throughout the journey.

She was the only one not lying down. They had strapped her into a seat across from Jaime. He lay unconscious, still as the grave. Only the blips and bleeps on his vital signs device gave her any reassurance.

The staff were all busy with Beric when Jaime’s mouth opened, and his heart rate raced on the monitor. She called for help and unstrapped herself to kneel at his side. The clear tubing of her intravenous line snagged in his hair as she smoothed her hand over his forehead.

“Don’t give up,” she pleaded in his ear. “Live, Jaime. I want you— I need you to live. I need you. Please. Jaime. Don’t leave me. Fight. Live.”

“That bad?” Jaime’s voice jolted her out of the memory.

She glared over her shoulder at him. He was a shadow approaching in his dinner jacket, dark and mysterious in the Lannisport night, voice low and smooth as sin.

“Don’t startle a woman who’s just relived a shooting,” she snapped.

He sat beside her on the bench, his gaze trained on the cigarette. “At least all that nonsense is over.”

“If by ‘nonsense’ you mean escaping from the stage only to have the spotlight blast me in the face when I thought I was safe in my anonymous seat, then yes,” she said. She took a hard drag and exhaled hard through her nostrils like an angry dragon.

It was easier to vent her mild annoyance than it was to think about what he’d said.

So much easier.

He chuckled and bumped her shoulder. “I thought you’d enjoy that.”

“Don’t you have hands to shake or someone to . . .”

“Someone to what?” He plucked at the fabric of her sleeve and drew her right hand up to his mouth, a slow trail of smoke marking its path. She angled her fingers so he could take a drag.

He moaned, and she felt the vibration of it slide through her pelvis. His lips brushed her fingers, featherlight. She curled her left hand into a fist and forced her breath not to speed up.

This was fine. They were friends, and they could talk and share a bench and have a smoke—

“Someone to tend to,” she said, pulling her hand back to take a drag. She’d seen Mariya several times over the past few days, and they’d hugged hello before the gala.

Jaime hadn’t mentioned Mariya, and Mariya hadn’t mentioned Jaime, but she knew they’d been together at Ashemark not long after the betrothal party. And Mariya had visited King’s Landing in early autumn. She’d seen Jaime’s curls at the edge of a photo Mariya posted from a restaurant on the Kingsroad near his house.

“Someone to tend to,” Jaime murmured. He stole her arm again. His hand wrapped hot around her forearm, the heat intense even through her sleeve. “Like a child or an elderly relative?”

“Mother have mercy. Mariya. I mean Mariya.”

“Ah.” He took another drag. It was all she could do to look at him. “That’s finished. It never really started.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

“Don’t be. It was destined to fail.”

“I thought that the whole point was that it wasn’t destined to fail?”

He winced. “We lived in different places, and we have our shops. Her kids are settled in Darry. I knew all that, but I suppose I— Well.”

“But if you loved each other—”

“We didn’t.”

“Did you tell her?”

He stole her arm again, took a quick pull, and blew the smoke out slow. “I did. When I told her about the night we slept together.”

She blushed and took her arm back. “You can’t embarrass me.”

“I can always embarrass you.”

She’d awoken in his bed the morning after the betrothal party with her hand stretched out, almost touching his arm. Once she realized, she’d jumped from the bed and run downstairs in a panic, hoping he hadn’t been awake to notice.

“I didn’t want her to get wind that you stayed over and take the wrong impression,” he said.

Brienne snorted. “As if she would have. What did she say when you told her?”

“About us?”

“Jaime. About her.”

He grinned. “She asked if I was in therapy.”

“Fair.”

“More than fair. She seemed willing to accept it. I don’t know. We never really got that far.” He took her arm again. The cigarette was almost spent; his lips touched her fingers. “She wanted something casual. I’m not made for casual.”

She pulled her arm away and took her last drag. “Better luck next time.”

He took the cigarette from her and stubbed it out in his hand with a pained expression.

“Stop that,” she said.

“It’s done.”

They were silent. In the dark, the sound of the sea seemed an echo of those nights on Old Wyk.

She licked her lips. “Thank you. For what you said in there, it was . . .”

“No. Thank you. For what you said.”

“Thank you for what you did, Jaime.”

“We could dance in this circle all night.” He looked at her. “You’re the real hero.”

“Don’t be absurd. I did what anyone would have done. For you or anyone else.”

“Altruistic to the bone, that’s you, Tarth.” He sounded annoyed.

“Same as you,” she said. “That’s why we’re friends.”

He laughed as he stood. “Is it?”

She shrugged. He stuck his hand out, and she grasped it. When he pulled her to her feet, she was relieved to tilt her chin down just a hair to meet his eyes, to have that little bit of height on him. She was so far gone, it was the only leverage she had left.

“Come help me shake hands,” he said. “It’s going to be a long night.”

Chapter Text

Oldtown, The Reach
Late Spring

 

Brienne rested her head against the window as her taxi wound its way through Oldtown’s teeming boulevards, lost in the dreamy glow from the ancient iron street lanterns. Like it always did, her pulse adapted to the ancient, poetic thrum of the heart of the city.

The spring evening lured lovers to stroll hand-in-hand along the banks of the Honeywine, past the stone bridges with their arches lit from below.

She sighed, a stray lump caught in her throat.

Tarth held her heart, and King’s Landing was home, but Oldtown was where her dreams dwelled.

She’d arrived there young, eighteen—a girl who hadn’t yet met the boundaries of her world.

A tear slipped out and fell for the girl she’d been. Or perhaps for the woman she was.

She straightened in her seat and wiped her eyes. The woman she was was late. Her flight had been delayed.

Marg had texted that she hadn’t missed anything during the small rehearsal at the Starry Sept. Relax, Marg insisted. If she was up for it, she should join everyone at the hotel bar once she arrived.

The porter showed her to her room and she saw the little swag bag provided for guests. Marg would have selected each soap and cream and nibble by hand. She turned on the water for a quick shower and selected a gel from Highgarden.

The steam helped clear her mind. Her week had been busy; she’d had to prep Pod to handle things without her for another few days.

She’d spent the weekend before on the Arbor with Marg and her cousins for the hen do. They’d gone through more bottles of wine than anyone cared to count and laughed and danced themselves to exhaustion. Even Brienne had joined in, safe in the welcoming circle of Margaery’s family.

Now she faced the serious business of being maid of honor. She dressed and went down to the bar. Live music filtered in from the open terrace overlooking the river. The lighting was dim, and she turned in a slow circle, searching for anyone she knew.

And, of course, she spotted him. Leaned against the bar.

She could only see his back, but she would know him anywhere—the golden curls, the broad shoulders, the air of a man who hadn’t a care for anyone’s good opinion. As she approached, she imagined running her fingers through his hair, sliding her hand over his shoulder.

Not that she ever would. They were friends, which was fine. Better than fine. It was good. Friends could walk up to one another and lean against the bar as if they hadn’t a care in the world.

He must not have known she’d arrived, because he did a double-take as she settled next to him.

“Tarth.” He said it with a smile, so she returned one of her own.

Like a friend would.

“Hello.”

He gestured toward the terrace. “They’re all getting drunk on wine.”

“Gods,” she said, “after last weekend, I don’t need to see Arbor red or gold for a year.”

“I won’t tell you what I don’t need to see for a year after the stag night.”

They both laughed.

“Whiskey looks good,” she said, nodding at the tumbler the bartender had placed before him.

“Damn.” He looked down in surprise. “I waited twenty minutes for this. You take it. I’ll wait for another.”

“Don’t be silly. I don’t need anything. Show me where everyone is seated.”

He held up the whiskey, a boyish grin tugged at one corner of his mouth. “We could share?”

Friends would, wouldn’t they? “If you’re sure?”

“I’m sure. Follow me.”

The night air was perfect as she followed him out onto the packed terrace. He glanced back at her as they picked through the crowd as if to assure himself she was still there.

The little corner full of Tyrells and Lannisters greeted her with happy cries that she’d made it.

“Darling.” Renly kissed her cheek. “We were afraid Garlan would have to be maid of honor.”

“Funny,” Garlan called.

She knew everyone: Marg’s brothers and cousins, Daven and Bronn, Renly, the bride and groom. And Jaime.

The last time most of them had been together was for his nameday—and hers—the first week of winter. Tyrion and Marg had decided that the fact they’d been born thirteen years and one day apart meant they should have a joint surprise party.

They had been surprised.

Tyrion and Marg’s house had been decorated with gravestones and black balloons and little spectral foam representations of the Stranger for him. For her, colorful streamers and unicorns and swords. The guests were a strange mix of Lannisters and Tyrells and people from the antiques trade.

“This party is in the midst of a serious identity crisis,” he told her after they opened the door for what they’d been told was an emergency wedding planning session that happened to fall on Jaime’s nameday.

Even their cake had been split down the middle, black with a grey forty on his side, and on hers, blue and pink with a silver twenty-seven.

“I’m twenty-six until midnight,” she’d muttered, and he’d howled with laughter.

He looked at her now with the same expression he did then, as if they were the only ones who understood how ludicrous everything was.

The two of them took the last remaining settee in the corner. It was meant for two smaller people. Which was fine, they were friends. The seat was tight, so it was easier for him to rest his arm along the back of it, like a friend might. It didn’t really matter that she was aware of every molecule of his body alongside her own as they pressed themselves together. They’d shared tight quarters before.

And if the scent of him, golden-skinned and warm, made her want to press her nose to his neck, that too was fine. She could deal with it.

They shared the tumbler with its two fingers of whiskey. She took a tiny sip and set it on his knee, and he took a little sip and held it in the hand draped over the settee, and they passed it back and forth that way as everyone else went through bottles and bottles of wine. In their corner, it was only the two of them and one single tumbler of whiskey that never emptied.

The group conversation lulled and he leaned toward her ear to talk, because the band was loud, and it was difficult to be heard. “You’re not very thirsty.”

She leaned toward his ear because she didn’t want to repeat herself—it was loud. “Someone has to be sober tomorrow.”

“I take it we’re ‘someone?’”

“It comes with the job.”

“Oh, I forgot,” he said. “The wedding planner tells me that you and I have to dance at the evening reception. We’re meant to signal when everyone else can join in after the happy couple’s first dance.”

“No one told me!”

Mischief flitted across his features. “Too much work for you?”

“I can’t dance.”

“Those photos Marg posted last weekend say otherwise.”

She felt her freckled cheeks go pink. Her wine-fueled, sad little solo whirl across a couple of dance floors on the Arbor hardly counted.

“Not couples kind of dancing,” she said. “They were always trying to teach us at school. I never could let anyone lead.”

He rolled his eyes. “You lead, then. I’ll follow.”

“I can’t do that either.”

He chuckled and pinched his nose. “Can you stand there and sway?”

“Yes. I suppose.”

The way his head tilted toward her as he searched her eyes made the shadows on his face deeper. She wanted to lean toward him. “No one’s going to be watching us anyway, Tarth. No one will notice if you stumble through a dance.”

“You will.”

He tried to swallow a smile.

“Brienne!” Renly called.

She jerked herself out of her Jaime-filled haze and looked up. “Hm?”

“Is it true Marg wandered fully clothed into the sea last weekend?”

“I don’t recall,” she said with an amused glance at Marg.

Marg giggled. “It’s not my fault! I was very drunk, and the water was the perfect color, like, I don’t know—”

Tyrion gazed adoringly at his bride. “Azure?”

“No.” Marg shook her head. “Like—”

“Aquamarine,” Desmera said.

“That water’s not really green,” Daven said.

“I live there,” Desmera snapped.

“But it’s not, Des,” Marg insisted. “It’s . . .”

Jaime cleared his throat. “Brienne blue?”

Marg pointed at Jaime and broke into a blinding smile. “Yes! Exactly. Brienne blue.”

“Aw,” Renly smiled and winked at her. “Brienne blue.”

She looked around, confused. Bronn pointed two fingers at his eyes, then turned them and pointed at her.

Oh.

Her face would be a new shade of red, of course—one of the dark, devastating blushes that saved itself for special occasions. She couldn’t look at Jaime, she didn’t dare. All she could do was move her lips into a shape that might have been a smile. The conversation moved on.

She took a sip of their whiskey and set it on his knee. He reached out before she released her grip, and their fingers tangled. Startled, she looked at him. He stared at their hands, his jaw tight. She licked her lips, and he turned to stare at her mouth.

Had she made him uncomfortable? Did he sense that she—

“Time to dance,” Marg said as she pulled Brienne’s arm.

Flustered, Brienne stood, then turned back to Jaime. His gaze was fixed on her face. She took off her handbag and put it beside him on the settee.

“Will you—”

He took the strap in hand and nodded. Curt. Serious.

She followed Marg to the dance floor and fought for composure. Her crush, or whatever it was, had got too far out of hand. There was no reason for her to stare at him like some sort of lecher. Embarrassed, she stood still as a boulder while the revelers heaved and gyrated around her and wondered how she would ever face him again.

“Tarth.”

She turned around, and they were nose to nose. He stood there with her handbag strapped diagonal across his torso. His face looked almost grim.

This was it. Now was when he would tell her he wasn’t interested. That she’d got the wrong idea. They were friends. She was mortified.

He leaned toward her ear. “We could practice?”

“Hm?” Her brow wrinkled as she leaned back a bit to look at him.

“Dancing.”

“Oh. Um— Ok?”

The band played a fast song, but Jaime held his hand up like they were in a ballroom. She took it; her skin ignited where they touched.

He searched her face. His other hand skated around her waist, and he spread his fingers wide. Then he pulled, drew her flush against him. It was like pushing herself against a warm, living wall. She moved her other hand up his shoulder. Their faces were so close they had to go cheek-to-cheek.

Her breath came shallow. He moved her, swayed her; her hips followed along. His cheek smoothed against hers, the hint of stubble set her nerve endings ablaze.

“Can you do this?” His lips were so close to her ear that she felt his breath like a caress.

She shivered and nodded. He pulled back just enough to look into her eyes.

“Brienne!”

She startled and pulled away from Jaime, then looked down.

Tyrion waved toward Marg. “Shots!”

Brienne looked at her friend, whose cousins had handed her two shot glasses of clear liquid.

“Help me,” Tyrion said.

“You have to be able to stand up tomorrow!” Brienne shouted in Marg’s ear.

Marg gave her a drunken smile. “You stand up for me, babe.”

Tyrion and Jaime helped clear a path off the dance floor. Brienne signaled Marg’s cousin Megga who was meant to stay with her that night.

Megga shouted, “I’ll be up in five!”

Brienne and Jaime hauled Marg onto a lift with Tyrion following behind.

“You’re all so sweet,” Marg said as she leaned against the wall of the lift with her eyes closed.

“Superstitious about sharing a room the night before?” Jaime asked Tyrion as they entered the suite. It was large, packed full of luggage and wedding odds and ends.

Tyrion shrugged. “Why tempt fate?”

Brienne pointed to a swag bag she saw in the sitting room. “Mine had painkillers,” she said to Jaime. “Please, will you see—”

“Yeah.” Jaime nodded and started sorting through the bag.

Tyrion put Marg to bed, and Brienne closed the curtains in the bedroom.

They went out into the sitting room to wait for Megga. Jaime stood at the enormous floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. She and Tyrion joined him. The Hightower cast its insistent glow over the meandering Honeywine and the butter-rich stone of the city’s buildings.

“This city and its magic spell,” Tyrion muttered.

Jaime glanced at her over Tyrion’s head.

Megga entered then. Jaime gave her the painkillers he’d found, and they left. The three of them piled into the lift. Tyrion got off on the next floor down.

Never had she heard every creak and noise in a lift the way she did as the doors closed behind Tyrion. She stared at her shoes. They rode two more floors down.

Jaime had pressed the button.

It was also her floor.

She stepped off the lift and heard him walk behind her. They were even in the same part of the hall.

“Tarth.”

Almost afraid, she turned to look back at him. He held her handbag out to her, his face blank.

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Night,” he said. Then he swiped his key into the door beside him. She entered hers across the hall.

She kicked off her shoes and put her phone on the charger. As she brushed her teeth, she turned off the lights and went to her window, threw the curtains open. The view wasn’t as fine as Marg’s, but she pressed her forehead to the glass and let herself fall into the beauty of it just the same.

A knock sounded at the door.

Jaime’s curls were visible through the viewer. She opened the door and stepped into the bathroom.

“Come in,” she called around her toothbrush, “brushing my teeth.” She rinsed in the basin and glanced in the mirror as she wiped her mouth.

When she walked back out, the door was slightly ajar, but he hadn’t entered. She threw it open wide.

Jaime filled the doorway, one wrist braced against the frame, the other hand on his hip.

He pinned her with a look, heated.

Predatory.

“I have a heartbeat.”

Her lips fell open.

She stepped back; he stepped in. In his fingers, he held a colorful pack of condoms—identical to the one she’d seen in her swag bag.

He wanted her. It had to mean he wanted her.

Wide-eyed, she shut the door and threw the locks closed. He advanced through the shadows until they almost touched. The clean, warm Jaime scent of him filled her senses.

No green remained in his eyes, only black. He swallowed and stared at her lips. “Did you just lock me in?”

She nodded.

He backed her against the door. Their torsos pressed together, his fingers firm on her hip. Her pulse thudded low in her pelvis; she never wanted him to move. Stuttering breaths escaped her lips.

How could this be? How?

He held his mouth a whisper from her own as he skimmed his fingers up her neck.

Their lips touched, soft, then, oh—

She’d never really been kissed before, she realized. Whatever she and Hyle had done involved hands and mouths and tongues and necks, but it wasn’t this.

Jaime gasped as she scraped her nails against his scalp, into his hair.

“Talk,” he whispered. “Words. Tell me—”

“Want,” she said, and she kissed him again, the rhythm of it natural as breathing now.

Buttons went. Shirts fell. She ran her hands up the planes of his back. He fingered the clasp of her bra.

“What do you want?” he whispered into her neck.

“Skin.” She swallowed and bared her throat to his teeth. “You.”

The bra clasp gave under his fingers. He hummed in the depths of his chest; the sound cascaded down her spine. He cupped her breast, his thumb swept over her nipple. She trembled.

Clothing dropped—trousers, underwear.

His cock curved up against his abdomen; she touched it, and he made a noise that caused the muscles of her cunt to clench.

He smoothed a hand over her cheek and tilted his head toward the bed. “We don’t have to, ah— If you—”

“No, we do,” she whispered into the corner of his mouth. “We absolutely do.”

He smiled and kissed her again and took her down to the bed, the city lights poured through the window and illuminated his skin.

Ragged breaths were all she could manage when his hand drifted between her thighs. Her hips responded as he soothed his palm along her most sensitive skin. The sound of his fingers entering the slick lips of her cunt made them both groan. Her back arched off the bed. He dipped between her folds and let his fingers glide up to her clit and—

“Yes.”

She clawed at his shoulder. How could he be better at this than she was?

“I’m clean,” he whispered against her ear. “Second surgery. Tested. Mariya and I never—”

“Me too.” She gasped. His fingers on her clit held her enthralled. “Clean—ah! But not on— On uh-ah—”

“Condom.”

“Condom. Condom. Condom.”

He nuzzled at her breast while his fingers kept her on edge. His mouth hovered over the peak and held there as he met her gaze. He licked his lips, his tongue almost—

Her chest rose and fell with every pant, and his lips moved closer and closer to her nipple as it hardened to the point of pain. All she could do was dig her fingers into his shoulder and drag him to her breast.

At last, he took her nipple in his mouth, and she arched into him and came with a stuttering keen. He growled into the skin of her breast and looked up at her.

Dazed from her orgasm, she smoothed her hand over his face. He took her thumb in his teeth. Her breath sped again.

His cock was hot and hard against her thigh.

The Warrior made flesh, he loomed over her, and his hand moved between them. The condom. She opened her thighs, and he settled between, the head of his cock nudged at her swollen opening—it was almost a relief—she tried to draw it in where it ached, where she was wet, empty.

She nosed at his lips. “I need you.”

He slid inside and filled her. She gasped. He gasped too.

Not her dildo. Nothing like her dildo. He was bigger, thicker. Alive.

He moved—slipped out slow, then back in, and it was—

She groaned. She needed. Moved her hips to meet his slow thrusts. Sounds poured out of her mouth, nothing coherent.

He was the same, every thrust brought a half-formed thought from his lips. “Brienne. You feel— Gods.”

Sweat-soaked, they writhed together as he thrust in and out, over and over. His hands gripped her hips, her thighs, slid around her back.

His commentary never stopped. “Knew it would be good. But this— Yes. You are—”

She felt him tense, shudder, then he roared through closed teeth as he came.

They were nose to nose, her hands framed his face. His eyes closed. Electric pulses sparked from her core down her legs to her toes. She didn’t want him to move. This was lovely. This was . . .

He opened his eyes, and he kissed her, gentle, thorough, then he rolled away. They both stared at the ceiling. The room was dark, but she could see his face from the corner of her eye.

As their sweat cooled, she started to think.

Sex. She’d had proper sex. With Jaime.

Never for a moment had she thought he was interested in her until he knocked on her door. Why would she? Part of her still couldn’t believe it had happened, despite the fact they were lying together naked. Friends had sex. Maybe that’s all this was. That would be fine.

She would make that be fine.

The duvet rustled as he turned his head to look at her. “Why do you look like you’re solving equations in your head?”

Marg always complained about people who took hook-ups too seriously, and she didn’t want to be gauche.

She cleared her throat. “I was thinking that . . . that was . . .”

He blew out a puff of air. “Sex. That was sex, Tarth.”

Tarth.

There was no sentiment when she was Tarth. She trailed her fingers over her bare stomach; she felt exposed. Naked. Even in the dark.

He rolled toward her and cupped her cheek. “All right?”

Nothing clouded his eyes, no regret. She touched the scar on his clavicle and smiled.

His nose wrinkled, and he looked down at his cock.

“Fucking condom,” he hissed as he grabbed for it and rolled off the bed. He flipped on the bathroom light but didn’t close the door.

“Is your alarm set?” he called. “My phone is in my room.”

He planned to stay. She heard him start to piss.

What was this? What were they?

“I’ll do it now,” she called back, her voice hoarse.

“They’ll never forgive us if we’re late,” he called. The tap turned on.

She set two alarms and put her phone down just as he emerged from the bathroom.

He held something white in his hands. “For you? Uh—”

Gods. To clean her. And she was just lying there, filthy.

“Oh. Yes. I should—” Fast as she could, she stood and took the towel from him. It was damp and warm. He ran warm water for her. Like a friend.

“I wanted to—” he protested, but she closed the bathroom door.

She used the toilet, like Marg had always told her she should after. The tap was still warm. She looked up into the mirror. Her face was red—not just from her flush, but from the rubbing and kissing. As she straightened up, she realized she was red all over. A mouth-shaped mark decorated her breast. The towel seemed inadequate as she started to clean herself and she looked at the shower and—

After she showered and groomed and brushed her teeth and stared into the mirror for at least twenty minutes trying to convince herself she’d had sex with Jaime and he was still in her bed, and that was fine, she wrapped up in the fluffy white hotel dressing gown and left the bathroom.

He was asleep, lying on his stomach, face toward the wall.

She slid into bed on her side. Her phone said she’d been in the bathroom for over an hour. Somehow, she slept.

They woke later in the night. He touched her hair, the dressing gown opened, and he buried his face between her thighs. After she came twice, she told him it was time to use another condom.

“You’ll be sore tomorrow,” he whispered.

“I do not care.”

When the alarm sounded in the morning, she groaned. She looked at her phone and realized she must have shut off the first alarm. She sat up, tugging the dressing gown around her in the bright morning sunlight. Even a friend may not want to wake up and look at her broad shoulders and freckles.

She glanced over her shoulder at Jaime. His curls were tousled blond against the white pillow, his skin golden—she wanted to touch him. She knew how now.

He stirred. “Tarth?”

Tarth.

Friend.

Fine.

“We slept through the first alarm,” she said.

“Shit.” He sat up on his side of the bed.

“Good thing we have our own showers,” she said.

“Uh. Yeah.”

She stood and trod on one of his shoes. Picking it up, she glanced around for the other and pulled it out from under the desk. He was watching her, eyes narrowed. His trousers were beside the wardrobe; she tossed them to him. He stared hard at her as he stood and put them on, watching her with a heavy brow.

She held out his shoes, and he took them, pausing to scrutinize her face.

What did people say at this moment?

“Thank you,” she said. “I can scratch one night stand off my bucket list.”

He blinked; his brows went up.

He didn’t laugh. Maybe she’d been rude? They were friends. What did friends do?

She held her hand up, fingers splayed.

His jaw dropped open as he stared at it.

She hadn’t given anyone a high-five since school. This was ludicrous. A blush flared up her cheeks.

He glared at her and tapped his palm against hers, then collected his shirt from the floor and left.

Margaery’s suite buzzed with life. Marg was knelt before the toilet as her mother and grandmother and aunts pointed fingers at her cousins in turn.

The wedding planner had her go next with the hairdresser in Marg’s place. She didn’t tell the man that the careful waves he put in her stubborn hair would be gone in an hour.

Marg emerged from the bathroom looking determined and a bit green. They sat Brienne for makeup.

“Just the eyes,” Brienne said.

The makeup artist’s face fell. “But, your skin, I—”

She knew from experience that her freckles looked like grime under anything except makeup so heavy it looked like she’d just dipped her face in cream.

“Eyes and lips,” Marg told the makeup artist.

Marg grabbed Brienne’s hand and squeezed. On any other day, she’d be pouring her heart and questions out to Marg, but not today. Maid of honoring was her only focus.

The ride to the Starry Sept was a blur of trying to ensure Marg wasn’t sick all over her massive gown. And trying not to notice the way her body let her know it had been thoroughly shagged the night before every time she sat.

At the sept, Marg’s parents helped steady the bride as Brienne helped the wedding planner shepherd the younger bridesmaids down the aisle—all Tyrell cousins.

Brienne looked at Marg. “Ok?”

“Absolutely.” Marg winked. She straightened her shoulders and looked ready for anything.

So Brienne left her and walked into the sept. It was enormous, and the walk seemed to take forever. They’d given her roses to carry. She hadn’t touched a real one since Ronnet; she couldn’t wait to throw them in the bin. She saw Jaime at the front, of course, in his grey morning suit looking like a god, and not at all like the sort of man who would have spent the night before in her bed.

The ceremony was brief. The only time she caught Jaime’s eye was when he helped Tyrion with Marg’s cloak, and she had to step forward to adjust Marg’s gown. Their gazes clashed for just a moment, but then it passed.

Margaery and Tyrion looked happy. That was what mattered.

Once the couple started their recessional, she moved and took Jaime’s arm—somehow managed it without looking at him, her grip on his bicep light as they went. She would hardly have noticed him at her side if it weren’t for the Jaime scent of him mixed with cigarette that made her want everything she couldn’t have.

Afterward, the guests left or went to the hotel for drinks, but the wedding party had to stay with the photographer. She and Jaime were in nearly every photo. She didn’t know why she wanted to ignore him, but she did.

He was smoking alone outside the sept when she left with the other bridesmaids.

There were more photos at the hotel. The families this time. The photo with Tyrion’s side of the family was just with his father and Jaime. Their sister had urgent business in Volantis that Marg told her was a cover for the fact Tyrion had disinvited her to the wedding. Jaime looked grim.

Renly whispered in her ear, “Apparently Jaime was cut off and disowned, so this is even more awkward than it looks.”

She looked at Renly—tall, dark-haired, handsome-as-could-be. For a few years, she’d fancied herself in love with him. It was laughable now that she once thought that was love.

The wedding breakfast was a relief, even if she and Jaime were seated on either side of the happy couple at the high table. Everything was fine up until the speeches. Marg had asked her to make one.

Mace Tyrell’s speech was long and tedious and set a very low bar. Tyrion was funny and witty, and of course, she had to follow him.

They handed her the microphone. She thanked the Tyrells first, then turned to the ushers. “Bronn and Daven, you managed to stand—and remain standing—throughout the ceremony, so well done, all expectations were met.”

The men waved at the crowd to cheers and shouts.

She glanced at Jaime. This would have been so much easier before last night. “And Jaime.” His gaze slid warily to her. “You not only stood as expected, but looked ungodly handsome doing it, so extra points.”

A muscle worked in his jaw, but he waved at the crowd.

It was a relief to look at Marg. “Margaery once told me I should check for signs of fever if she ever said she was getting married.”

That got polite laughter.

“When we returned home after Marg first met Tyrion, she referred to him as a very nice weekend fling—”

“I said he was a smoking hot one night stand!” Marg shouted.

The room erupted in laughter.

Brienne waited until they quieted. “She said it, not me. I knew things had become serious when she told me she gave him her wifi password. Tyrion makes her laugh, but more than that, he understands her—and he adores her—which is everything I’ve ever hoped she would find. To the happy couple!”

She took a sip for her toast and promptly sat. Jaime wandered over and took the microphone from her, sparing her a long glance. He stood behind Tyrion and put a hand on his brother’s shoulder.

“Tyrion inherited all the hook-up talent in the family. My last one night stand just said ‘thanks’ and gave me a high-five as she shoved me out the door in the morning.”

The crowd roared: shouts, laughter, applause.

Brienne’s face raged. No one would ever guess he meant her, but it didn’t matter.

He waited for the room to quiet. “What’s worse is I was about to propose. Bit awkward.”

That got a fresh round of laughter.

She crossed her arms and stared straight ahead as his speech continued. It was warm and funny, and he roasted Tyrion just enough.

Everyone went to their rooms to change after the cake, so of course, the bride, groom, maid of honor, and best man found themselves in a lift together going up. They left Marg and Tyrion joking about quickies as they bolted off the lift, walking as far apart as possible in the narrow hotel hallway.

She heard his key card go, then he cleared his throat. “You look well in that gown, Tarth.”

He was trying to be nice. Her friend.

Lip between her teeth, she made herself look at him, then down at the carefully constructed high-waisted gown Marg had chosen in a color referred to as ‘blush.’

“Thanks. Uh.” She smoothed her fingers along the bodice over her ribs. “It’s padded. So. And you too. You look, well—well.”

He stared at her open-mouthed and perplexed as she frantically swiped her card and ducked in her room.

The evening reception was loud and less formal. Brienne picked at her food, feeling the dance loom like an execution.

Jaime had disappeared, which he’d apparently been doing all day. She hadn’t noticed. She needed not to notice. The high table clustered together to solve the riddle and huddled all around her to do it.

“Where is he?” Tyrion asked Daven and Bronn. “I’m a bit worried, if I’m honest.”

“He’s taken half a dozen cigarettes off me today,” Bronn said. “And my lighter.”

“Did he sleep with one of your cousins last night?” Tyrion asked Marg. “That one night stand bit was odd. He doesn’t. That’s not . . .”

Marg glanced around at her dozen or so unattached cousins scattered around the room. “No one mentioned, and you’d think they would.”

Ironic that the only way to escape the conversation was to stand up and say: “I’ll find him.”

So she did.

He was standing atop the hotel’s little garden wall along the Honeywine, where smokers were banished. The sun had just set and left its corona on the horizon. He looked like the prototype for a debonair gentleman in his dinner jacket with his curls buffetted by the soft breeze.

She gazed at the cigarette held in the corner of his mouth. He watched her approach, hands on his hips.

“The bride and groom are concerned,” she said. “The dancing starts in half an hour.”

“Fuck,” he said. He grasped the cigarette and rubbed his thumb on his eyebrow. “I’ve been shit as a best man, haven’t I?”

“They seem worried, not angry.”

“Very good of you to come tell me.” He took a hard drag and blew the smoke straight at her as he closed the distance between them. He held his hand up. “High-five.”

“Fuck off, Jaime.”

His brows went high. “I should fuck off? Me?”

“I don’t.” She knew she was turning red. She knew how it would look in the short dancing dress Marg had picked for her, with the damned thing concocted in the same wretched shade of blush. “You know I don’t know how to— I’m sorry if I offended you with the high-five. I don’t know the rules. I’ve never done this before.”

“As if I’ve done it before.”

“I’ve seen you do it before.”

“Piss off, Tarth. You said one night stand.”

“Wasn’t it?” She nicked his cigarette and took the deepest drag of her life. “You’ve never looked at me before— Considered me. It was one of those cliched wedding party hook-ups. Or Oldtown making everyone barmy.”

He took the cigarette back and turned in profile to her, so he could face the water. “You’re the one whose only criteria for a sex partner is that they not flatline before the deed. Not mine.”

“But that’s literally what you said! You showed up at my door, mocking me again about that offhand remark—”

“Because you seemed to— You flirted—”

She sputtered. “I? Flirted?”

He whirled on her. “What do you call it? You walked in that bar. Smiled. At me. For once, not looking at me like I’ve come to burn your crops and raze your cities to the ground. I thought maybe, at last . . .”

“At last?”

“This was destined to fail. I knew it was destined to fail.”

“Wait. Wait. What was destined to fail?”

He snarled around his cigarette, chomped it between his teeth. “Us, for pity’s sake.”

“Us.” She was lost.

He glanced at her, then did a double-take. His eyes softened, and he tilted his head. “Brave to the core of your soul, stubborn, sharper than you ever want anyone to know, kind, honest, resilient, impossible woman. You think I’ve never considered you before?”

She nodded.

“You never see it.” He exhaled. “It’s Old Wyk. You would have done what you did for me for anyone else. Anyone. So you think I would have taken a bullet for anyone, but I wouldn’t.”

“What?”

“I’m not a hero. I spent a year trying to understand why I was compelled to search like mad through that castle until I found you—”

“Hm?” Dacey had told her afterward that he asked everyone he stashed in the priest hole if they’d seen her. She didn’t think much about it.

“Hm.” His lips gave a wry twist. “I didn’t think twice when I saw Hoat with that gun.”

He’d said so in his testimony at Vargo’s trial. Called it instinct. Protective instinct.

“Ah.” She tried to follow his logic, her pulse rushed.

“Ah,” he growled. “It made no sense to me then. All I could think about was getting home to her. Then I went home, of course, and she— Well. Who cares about that. But they made me go to therapy, and he asked me why all the time. ‘Why, Jaime? Why do you think?’ Seven hells. I don’t think about why. Why doesn’t help with anything, generally. He got in my head, though, and I started to wonder. And the whole time, these dreams and memories that weren’t memories of you saying things assaulted me.”

“Oh.”

“Oh.” He grimaced and looked down at his cigarette, then turned to face the river again. “I was besotted. Am. I am besotted.”

“With?”

He exhaled a cloud of smoke and draped his hand over his face. “You need me to say it?”

She did. She really, really did.

“Yes.”

“You.” He didn’t even look at her when he said it.

A hundred thoughts clogged her mind. A thousand. Most of them were just urges to either touch him or dismiss this as a tremendous joke.

He never lied to her, though.

“So why don’t. Why didn’t—” She sucked in air over her teeth. “Why is it destined to fail?”

“You’re so young—”

“Late twenties?”

“And you’ve never— You have wild oats to sow, Brienne.”

“Have I ever struck you as wild?”

He grinned and licked his lips as he glanced at her from the corner of his eye. “After last night? Yes.”

She took the cigarette. It burned low. “That was with you.”

“Yes, and I could have been anyone. Anyone breathing. Anyone with a heartbeat.” He smirked at the river, and she wanted a portrait of him like this, in profile.

He took a drag. “With Hunt and that lot, you thought it was just the bet for them. You never saw that they were jealous and wanted to take you down a peg. Most of them were raised in the trade the same as you were, and had the same advantages you did, but you made more of yourself in two years than they would in twenty. But they also were happy to sleep with you. Hunt would have been happy to sleep with you. Other people will want to sleep with you.”

There was so much he had wrong, and she didn’t really care why anyone joined in the bet. All that mattered now was him, and them.

“I’m in love with you,” she said.

His face moved in small ways, the muscles pulling here and there, around his eyes, his mouth, his jaw. “You might think that after last night because of the sex and my—how did you put it—ungodly handsomeness.”

“You think I don’t know the difference between a crush and love?”

He sighed. “I think you don’t know you could tear me to shreds.”

“What?”

“I have a heart to break, Brienne. That’s what comes with having a heartbeat.”

“You daft—” She grasped his face in her hands. “What do you hear? In your dreams? What do you think I said that I didn’t say?”

His hands slid around her waist, he drew her near. “You want me, you need me. Guess what kind of dreams they are—”

“Jaime, I said all of it. On the transport plane. I thought you were going to die. I think even then I was— I am. I’ve been trying to deny it for a long time.”

“Hm.” His shoulders straightened, and he drew up to his full height and gave her a grin that was almost evil. Thank the gods she was a little taller, or she’d be lost forever—

“In that case.” He stubbed out his cigarette atop the stone wall. “I was going to propose when I found you wrapped up like a sausage in that absurd dressing gown last night, but I was afraid you’d think I was coming on too strong.”

“Yeah, that’s— That’s too strong.” She kissed him, long and slow.

He broke the kiss with a grin. “I was trying to work out how I’d convince you to move into mine.”

“Again. Too strong. And obviously not, I love my house—”

“But the cats.”

“They’d adjust? They’re cats.”

“It’s too small, they’ll tear it apart—and us while they’re at it.”

“I’m not selling my house.”

“Let it out.”

“Let yours out.”

“Oi! Lovebirds!” Bronn approached them from the ballroom. “They’re about to start the dance, and you’re meant to be there.”

They waited until Tyrion and Marg’s dance was finished, then Jaime pulled her onto the dance floor. She hoped the lights were low enough that no one could see the red lip stain she’d left all over his face. He held up his hand, and she took it. He pulled her in, and they swayed—it was so much easier when she wasn’t afraid to touch him.

“We can’t leave until they leave,” he whispered in her ear, “but one nice thing about a dress is that it’s very easy access for a quick shag in a toilet stall.”

Heat spread over her cheeks, and her pulse thudded. “You can’t embarrass me.”

“I live for it.”

“We don’t have a condom.”

“Do you know me at all? Check my pocket.”

“Later. In one of our rooms. And don’t get used to me in dresses, I hate them.

“I know. You belong in tweed.”

“You hate the tweed.”

He made a sound in his throat that did terrible things to her. “I want you in tweed,” he murmured against her ear. “I bemoan the warm seasons because you put it away.”

She kissed him as they swayed in a crowd of people who were starting to stare. And he kissed her back—thorough, demanding.

The song changed. They moved off the floor and sat again at the high table, but side-by-side this time, while the dance floor worked up to a whir.

He put his arm around the back of her chair and leaned over to whisper in her ear, “I’m probably going to propose again in the morning.”