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With All Your Faults

Chapter Text

 

Eastern Iowa, Spring 1943

The ball hit Brienne’s mitt with a stinging thwack, and the umpire boomed out the call from immediately behind her.

“Strike two!”

A smattering of applause arose from the crowd, punctuated by a few shrill whistles. As Brienne rocked forward onto one knee, tossing the ball back to the mound, she heard Rickon shouting to Arya for “one more!”

Brienne grinned behind her catcher’s mask. Her fierce little friend would have no trouble with the third strike, and the resulting out would give them the game.

When Arya rocketed the next pitch squarely into Brienne’s hand, the bleachers erupted with cheers.

Brienne shot to her feet, pulling her mask over her head as she jogged toward the pitcher’s mound. Towering over the rest of the girls, Brienne easily made her way to the center of the celebratory circle, where Sansa had pulled her sister into an exuberant embrace.

“Great game, sis!” Sansa beamed, completely ignoring Arya’s glowering expression as the shorter girl pried herself free.

Arya looked like she might murder the next person who tried to hug her, so Brienne settled for an awkward pat on the shoulder. She didn’t really mind; physical expressions of affection weren’t her forte anyway.

“Best one yet, Arya. Well done.”

Arya’s frown immediately flipped into a satisfied smirk, and she met Brienne’s gaze with pride shining in her gray eyes. “Thanks for practicing with me yesterday. I think it really helped.”

“I’ll say it did.” Sansa tugged on one of Arya’s short, dark pigtails. “I don’t think anyone on the team has ever pitched a game like that.”

Brienne nodded in agreement and smiled at the resulting expression of delight on Arya’s normally stoic face. She knew what it was like to find that kind of joy on the field.

“Just wait until we tell father,” Sansa added as the girls turned to walk off the field. “He’ll be so upset he wasn’t here to see it.”

Brienne fell into step behind them, glancing at the stands as they walked toward the team bench. If he hadn’t been out of town, Ned Stark would have been sitting in the first row with his two youngest sons. He never missed a game if he could help it.

In fact, Brienne sometimes wondered if Ned sponsored their team just to give his daughters a chance to play. Not that she was complaining. Brienne had loved playing baseball with her older brother Galladon, who’d always been obsessed with the sport, since she was a little girl. But it had only been a few years ago, when she joined the Winterfell Dairy softball team, that she’d discovered she was actually good at it. Better than good. Brienne belonged at home plate, either crouching in the dirt behind it or standing in the batter’s box. She’d never felt that way about anything else.

On the diamond, Brienne’s tall, unfeminine body wasn’t an object of ridicule. Out there, she could play. She could win.

Arya abruptly kicked the ground in front of her, sending a cloud of dust into the air. “I wish Robb and Jon were here.”

Sansa peered over her shoulder at Brienne, her clear blue eyes filled with sadness. When she slung an arm around her sister’s shoulder, Arya didn’t try to wiggle away. “I know. I miss them, too.”

Brienne sighed, pulling at a loose strand of stitching on her glove. If the girls’ brother and cousin had been there, they would have picked Arya up and carried her around the field in celebration. She would have laughed—and let them.

But they weren’t there. They were in Missouri, training for the Army Air Corps.

Practically all the boys their age had either volunteered or been conscripted, along with a large number of the town’s older men. Countless families had watched their fathers, sons, and brothers go off to join the fight. And while the crowds at their softball games were much thicker than they’d ever been before the war, Brienne couldn’t help but miss the faces she didn’t see. Galladon’s most of all. 

On good days, she simply didn’t let herself think about it. But God, she missed him, especially on game days. She missed the sight of his messy, pale blond hair sticking up a full head above everyone else and the sound of his ear-splitting whistle. She longed to hear his deep voice shouting words of instruction or encouragement from the stands.

Now, instead of watching a ballgame under a sunny spring sky, her brother was heading into combat.

“You should write to them,” Brienne offered, swallowing past the painful lump in her throat. “I’m sure they’ll want to read every detail.”

“I will,” Arya replied half-heartedly, swiping a hand roughly across her face.

Oh, Arya, Brienne thought. At least they’re still here. Still safe. She might even get to see them again, before they were shipped off to one theater of combat or another. Brienne had to rely on letters sent from half a world away—letters that came less frequently with each passing month.

Sansa darted another worried look in her direction, and Brienne shrugged. What could they do, any of them, but be sad and carry on anyway? At least they could still play. At least people could come and watch their games and forget about their troubles for a few hours. And she could try to forget about hers.

Brienne tossed her mask, hat, and mitt down on the weathered wooden bench, followed by her chest protector. She’d just propped up one foot to remove the leg guard strapped to her shin when Jeyne, their center fielder, scurried over to her.

“Did you see those two men in the stands?” Jeyne whispered, gripping Brienne’s arm. “Someone said they’re scouts.”

“What men?” Brienne turned to look at the bleachers. “And what would they scout us for?”

Her eyes fell immediately on the odd pair of strangers—but then, they were hard to miss. One, a slightly portly bald man in a long tan coat, was scribbling notes on a pad of paper in his lap. But he wasn’t the one attracting the attention of half the town.

And little wonder. The bald man’s companion was a dwarf.

His golden brown hair was slightly shaggy, but he wore an immaculate, expensive-looking gray suit. As he chatted animatedly with the bald man, he seemed completely oblivious to the gawking of Brienne’s neighbors. Actually, he looked quite at home in the center of their tattered bleachers. He’d stretched his short legs out, resting his feet leisurely on the bench in front of him, with his gray hat propped jauntily on one knee.

Suddenly, he looked right at her. His eyes, a glint of intelligent green in the afternoon sunlight, held hers, and his mouth quirked up into an amused smile.

Feeling a flush of heat in her cheeks, Brienne quickly looked away. She knew what it felt like to be stared at, and yet she had done it. Just like everybody else.

Scowling, she yanked at the straps of her leg guard. “Maybe they just like watching softball.”

Jeyne huffed, apparently disappointed by her lack of enthusiasm, and hurried over to whisper in Sansa’s ear instead.

Brienne shook her head as she finished removing her gear and began stuffing it into her bag. People would turn anything into an excuse for gossip. And strangers—especially unusual strangers—were the juiciest fodder of all.

It didn’t help that unknown visitors were all but unheard of in their small town. Someone always knew someone who knew something about the newcomer in question. An unfamiliar face was usually revealed to be a visiting cousin, the latest hire at Winterfell Dairy, or a new laborer on the Umbers' farm. About the only place you’d find a traveler who was genuinely just passing through was at the service station or Hot Pie’s Diner—and even that was rare.

Whoever these men were, tongues would be wagging for days.

When she sat down to remove her cleats, Brienne spotted a familiar form lumbering toward the bench. Her shoulders tensed reflexively as she bent to pull at one tangled knot.

“Hi, doll. Good game today.”

Her skin prickled, but she didn’t look up. “Hi, Hyle.”

“Do you think it’s true?” he ventured, swinging himself down on the bench beside her, sitting just a hair’s breadth too close. “Do we have scouts in our midst?”

She finally straightened, meeting Hyle’s hazel eyes. “I have no idea. Who said that?”

Hyle gestured toward the parking lot with his thumb. “Everyone’s talking about them. But it doesn’t seem likely, does it? They sure don’t look like scouts to me.”

“Have you ever seen a scout?”

She didn’t know why she was challenging him. Brienne didn’t even care who they were, scouts or not. But something about Hyle’s tone irritated her, as it so often did.

Hyle’s forehead creased. “I didn’t mean anything by it, doll. We just don’t usually get men like them around here. Even if you are the best player in the county.”

Brienne raised her eyebrows. High praise indeed.

He cleared his throat. “I meant the best player in the state. Of course.”

She forced a smile. Brienne knew he was trying to be kind, but Hyle didn’t know anything about softball or baseball. Not enough action, he always said. She supposed she should be flattered that he came to watch her play, but usually Brienne just wished he would leave her in peace.

“So, are we still on for Friday night? I thought we could go into the city. Get some ice cream. See a movie, maybe. There’s something new with Lana Turner you might enjoy.”

Brienne fought the impulse to roll her eyes. Something Hyle would enjoy, more like.

When she didn’t respond, he leaned closer to her. “Or we could do something else.”

“Um...” She desperately searched her mind for a passable excuse but could think of nothing even partially honest. “The movie sounds fine.” At least that way she wouldn’t have to force herself into conversation for the entire date.  

He grinned. “Good. Pick you up at six?”

“All right. Was that all?”

Hyle tipped his head to the side with a snort, putting Brienne in mind of one of the Starks’ farm dogs. “I just got here, doll. Eager to be rid of me already?”

She averted her gaze, worried he’d see the lie in her eyes. “Of course not. I’m just tired. And I have to get Sansa and Arya home.”

As if by magic, Sansa chose that moment to appear in front of them, her long red ponytail swishing behind her.

“Are you ready, Brienne?” she asked, smiling tightly at Hyle. “We really need to get home. You know how mother is.” Sansa’s bright eyes danced with mischief, and Brienne said a silent prayer of gratitude for her marvelous friend.

“Sorry,” Brienne muttered to Hyle, not feeling sorry at all. As she stood and reached for her bag, she put as much distance between them as was politely possible. “See you Friday, then?”

Hyle slowly got to his feet, his muddy gaze sweeping her up and down. “Six o’clock. Don’t forget.”

“She won’t,” Sansa trilled, grabbing Brienne’s arm and turning her in the direction of the parking lot. “See you, Hyle.”

Once they were well out of earshot, Sansa leaned her shoulder into Brienne’s upper arm. “You could always tell him no, you know.”

Brienne frowned. “I know.”

“If you ever want to talk about it—”

“I don’t.” Arriving at her father’s old pick-up truck, Brienne dumped her bag into the back, followed by Sansa’s. Arya was already waiting for them in the cab. “Where are your brothers?”

“Jory took them home,” Sansa replied, laying her hand on Brienne’s arm. “I just want you to know I’m here for you. Okay?”

“Thanks,” Brienne mumbled, opening the driver’s door. “Let’s just go.”

Once they were all squished in, Brienne finally felt her shoulders relax. But it was not to last.

“Ugh,” Arya grunted. “Why do you bother with him? I know you don’t really like him.”

Sansa craned her neck to cock an eyebrow at Brienne behind Arya’s head.

Brienne bit the inside of her bottom lip as she started the truck. Arya was right—she didn’t really like Hyle, not in the way he wanted her to. But she didn’t hate him. And he was the only man in town who’d ever so much as looked at her with interest.

“My father likes him,” she offered lamely.

“He wouldn’t if he knew the truth,” Arya insisted. “How could you ever trust him after what he did ?”

“Arya!” Sansa elbowed her sister sharply in the side. “It’s none of our business.”

“Ow! I’m only saying that Brienne deserves better than Hyle Hunt . But since no one wants to hear what I have to say on the matter…” Arya rubbed her side and glared at Sansa. “Fine. Let’s talk about the scouts instead.”

Brienne shot Arya a doubtful look. “Where did Jeyne even hear that?”

Sansa shrugged. “She didn't say. But why would strange men be taking notes at our game if they weren’t scouts?”

“I don’t know,” Brienne acknowledged, turning the truck down the dirt road that led to Winterfell Dairy. “I suppose it’s possible. I’ve heard the bigger teams sometimes scout for new players.”

Arya looked excitedly from Brienne to Sansa and back again. “The only teams with scouts are the ones that compete for the national championship. What if they want us to go play for them?”

“You would leave your family to play softball?” Sansa pressed a hand to her chest in mock surprise.

“Oh, and you wouldn’t? You want out of this town as badly as I do. Even if you never say so, I know you do,” Arya declared. “You’d come with us, wouldn’t you, Brienne? You’re the best player on the team. If they’d want anyone, it would be you.”

Brienne couldn’t help but smile at Arya’s enthusiasm. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

“Haven’t you thought about it, though? What it would be like to play for a real team?” Arya stared out the windshield, her expression uncharacteristically dreamy.

“We are a real team,” Brienne replied. “And don’t let your father ever hear you say otherwise.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. You’re just so good . You could play in an actual league. For pay.”

Wouldn’t that be something ? she thought, shifting into park in front of the Starks’ large white farmhouse.

As Sansa and Arya climbed out of the truck, something in the rearview mirror caught Brienne’s eye. A cloud of dust, too thick and fresh to be hers, had billowed up from the gravel road.

And at its head, a shiny blue sedan was turning up the drive behind them.

Chapter Text

Jaime flopped down in one of the leather chairs facing his father’s large mahogany desk and glanced at the clock on the wall. He had arrived exactly on time, but it didn’t surprise him that his father was making him wait.

Tywin Lannister had an unerring and irrepressible instinct when it came to asserting his authority. Even—or, arguably, especially—with his own children.

As he looked around the room, Jaime briefly considered fleeing to the refuge of the reception area. Between the large windows looking out on the Chicago River and the attractive young secretary’s coquettish smile, the sunlit room was infinitely preferable to his father’s den of power.

Jaime had always hated this office, from the dark wood paneling to the ridiculous gold-coated tin ceilings. The heavy crimson drapes looked especially garish in the dim room, as if they’d soaked up the blood of half a dozen corpses. Knowing his father, perhaps they had.

The bookcases behind the desk were laden with leather-bound folios, neatly organized books, and a variety of trinkets commemorating Lannister business dealings. Some of them, like the model locomotive and the Chicago Lions baseball paraphernalia, had been on those shelves since Jaime was a boy. The framed renderings of buildings bought and sold had changed over the years, but one thing had not: there wasn’t a single family photo in sight. Not of his children, his deceased wife, or even his own father, to whom Tywin owed his empire.

Even the art on the walls—although indubitably expensive—was lifeless, grim, and impersonal.

Fitting, really, Jaime smiled to himself.

Perhaps other visitors were intimidated by the dark, oppressive atmosphere. His father had no doubt designed it that way. But all he saw was Tywin’s particular brand of pretension, dripping from every surface.   

Jaime fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat, finally sliding off his navy blue suit jacket and tossing it over the arm of the other chair. He rarely wore suits anymore, but he knew better than to show up underdressed. His father had no trouble finding things to pick apart without Jaime giving him extra ammunition.

It was going to be unpleasant enough receiving yet another lecture about the family business. Jaime knew that’s why he was there; it was the only reason his father would have called him to the downtown office instead of the family home.

Despite Tywin’s fervent wishes, his eldest son hadn’t spent a single day of his life in service to Lannister Enterprises. The idea of railroads, real estate, or any of the other things his father had his fingers in bored Jaime to tears.

He belonged outdoors, under the sky, with a ball or a bat in his hand—he always had. It was the only thing he’d ever been good at, and Jaime had yet to work out exactly who he was without it. He didn’t know where he belonged now, but it sure as hell wasn’t behind a desk.

Tyrion had the head for business, not Jaime. His brother wanted the company, the office, the empire. But that didn’t seem to matter to their father, or to stem the tide of his disappointment. As the “oldest son and heir,” it was Jaime’s responsibility to “carry on the family legacy” as well as the family name.

Sometimes Jaime wondered what century his father thought they were living in. He even insisted on using the Lannister family crest—a stylized golden lion roaring over a crimson background—on everything from the company letterhead to the door knocker on his north side mansion. Who even had a crest anymore?

When low voices outside the open door announced his father’s arrival, Jaime heaved an impatient sigh. About time.

“Ah, you’re here,” Tywin said casually from the doorway, as if he hadn’t purposefully kept Jaime waiting for a full quarter of an hour. “Good.”

Jaime heard the door snap shut, but he didn’t rise from his chair, even as his father’s shoes clicked toward him on the polished wood floor. When Tywin walked around the monstrous desk, his eyes darted to Jaime’s discarded jacket. He frowned, lifting one critical eyebrow at his son, before seating himself in the high-backed leather chair.

Like a king on his throne, Jaime thought.

His father looked immaculate in a dark brown suit, complete with a waistcoat and matching blue tie and pocket square. His short gray beard was meticulously trimmed, and his pale blue gaze was as cold and calculating as ever.

“Hello, Father,” Jaime drawled. “Care to tell me why I’ve been summoned?”

Tywin narrowed his eyes. “I did not summon you.”

“No, you didn’t. But when your secretary called and told me I was to meet you here today at ten o’clock sharp, I wasn’t under the impression I could refuse the invitation.”

“I’ll never understand why you feel the need, at thirty-five years old, to act like such a child,” Tywin admonished, shaking his head. “You’re here because I needed to speak with you about a matter of great importance.”

“Oh?”

“Yes. I have a job for you.”

Jaime grimaced. Sometimes he hated being right. “I don’t need a job.”

“Only because my money pays for you to live a life of luxury.”

“Actually, I have my own money,” Jaime replied airily. “Remember?”

While the money he’d made during his years playing baseball didn’t hold a candle to the Lannister family’s massive wealth, it was his. He had earned it on his own.

“And what, pray tell, have you spent that money on? Not the house you live in. Not that new car with the fancy automatic transmission. Do you recall who paid for those?”

“You did,” Jaime grudgingly admitted. Damn him.

“Yes. Because I take care of my family.” Tywin rested his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers. “But you don’t need to be taken care of anymore. You’re a Lannister, and I need you to act like it. You’ve been wallowing long enough.”

“Wallowing?” Jaime choked. He raised his right arm, which now ended in an impressively life-like prosthetic made of enameled wood and leather. “I lost my hand. I lost everything. Surely a man is entitled to grieve in his own way.”

“Is that what you’ve been doing? Because to me, it looks like you’ve been languishing in self-pity. And for what? You didn’t lose everything. You just can’t play baseball anymore.” Tywin’s lip curled as he considered Jaime with his hard blue eyes. “It’s long past time for you to grow up.”

Jaime clenched his jaw. He’d been one of the best Major League Baseball players in the country, but to his father, he’d never been more than a foolish boy playing games in the dirt.

“You own a baseball team. How can you hate it so much?”

“I don’t hate baseball. It’s made me a great deal of money.” Tywin lifted his golden-blond eyebrows as he tipped back in his chair. “I never wanted you to play baseball, Jaime. But now we might as well make use of you.”

“Really? And how exactly can I be useful?” 

“I’m starting a women’s baseball league.”

Jaime leaned forward in his seat, certain he’d misheard. “Did you just say women’s baseball?”  

“I did. We’ll have four teams to start, each one in a city that already has a strong softball following.” 

For a moment, Jaime just blinked at his father in stunned silence. Then, his reeling brain landed on the only plausible explanation for this lunacy.

“Was this Tyrion’s idea, by any chance?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” Tywin replied. “But in this case, your brother’s lecherous fascination with the opposite sex has opened the door to something with significant potential. Women’s softball is attracting crowds in communities across the country and has been for some time. Whole towns come out to watch these girls. It’s a completely untapped market.”

“Softball,” Jaime emphasized. “Not baseball. There is a difference.”

Tywin waved his hand dismissively. “If they can work in factories making bullets and bombers, surely they can learn to throw an overhand pitch.”

Jaime squeezed his eyes shut. “That’s not quite—”

“We need to keep baseball going,” his father interrupted. “Surely you won’t argue with that.”

“No. But last time I checked, men’s baseball was still in operation. I think I would’ve noticed if they’d shut it down.”

Ignoring his son’s sarcasm, Tywin sighed. “It’s this damn war. All the league’s best players have either volunteered to fight or been drafted. They’re Army and Navy men now, not Lions and Yankees. Soon, all we’ll have left are old men and the four Fs.” He looked pointedly at Jaime’s prosthetic hand as he spoke. “And Uncle Sam might come for them, too, the way things are going.”

A mixture of shame and anger rose in Jaime’s gut, but he shoved it down. He’d learned long ago not to show any sign of weakness in front of his father; it just guided him in for the kill. “Surely there are men in the minors you can bring up?”

“Unfortunately not. We used to have forty-one minor league teams. Do you know how many are left?”

Jaime shook his head. He hadn’t followed the minor league teams in years.

“Nine. And they’re filled with players so green that a scout wouldn’t look twice at them under normal circumstances. Who’ll pay to watch that?”

“So, what? They’ll pay to watch women instead?”

“Your brother seems to think so, and, for once, I agree with him.There might be a war on, but people still want to be entertained. People love something new. People love all-American girls. And that’s what we’re going to give them.”

Jaime wanted to bang his head on the desk. “What does that mean, exactly?”

“It means we won’t be filling our benches with the masculine, free-for-all type that play in the national softball leagues.” Tywin wrinkled his nose. “Our players will be wholesome, attractive, feminine girls. They’ll wear uniforms with skirts, not those ghastly shorts. They’ll keep up their appearance at all times, or they won’t play.”

Has he gone completely mad? Jaime wondered. Baseball required skill and athleticism, not a pretty face. It was sweat and dirt and pain—not girls in goddamned dresses.

It wasn’t that he objected to women playing baseball. If they wanted to play, and people wanted to watch them, they were welcome to it.  

No. His problem was the idea of the sport he loved being turned into an outrageous gimmick just to line his father’s pockets.

“That doesn’t sound like baseball,” Jaime argued. “That sounds like a circus.”

Tywin glared at him warningly. “Careful now.”

“I mean it.” Jaime rubbed his forehead with the fingers of his left hand. “You haven’t said anything about finding good players. You might get people to come watch your fashion models toss their hair for a game or two, but no one is going to take them seriously if they can’t play the game.”

A slow, wolfish smile spread across Tywin’s face. “Ah. Well, that’s where you come in.”

“Me?” Jaime yelped. “What could I possibly have to do with it?”

“You can teach them. Take these girls and turn them into players.”

“How would I do that?”

“You’ll manage one of the teams, of course.”

He wrinkled his brow. “You’re serious?”

But he didn’t really need to ask the question. Tywin Lannister was always serious.

Jaime’s head felt thick. In fact, at that moment, he was capable of only one clear thought: he was going to strangle his brother. Tyrion had a hand in this as well; Jaime was certain of it.

“Why me?”

“You’re a Lannister,” Tywin declared, as if that was all that needed to be said. “And you’re still one of the most recognizable names in this sport. You’ll help draw in the crowds and make sure the girls give everyone a decent show.”

“What if I refuse?” Jaime protested. “What if I don’t want my name anywhere near this show?”

A muscle twitched in Tywin’s jaw. “Need I remind you who is responsible for the fact that you still have the public’s good will? You wouldn’t be a name anymore if it weren’t for me.”

Jaime shook his head in disgust. The only reason his father helped anyone was so he could use the favor to his advantage. His assistance had been nothing more than a strategically placed string he could jerk to make Jaime dance at his whim.

He wished he’d done it all so differently. But it was too late for that now.

Tywin, as if sensing Jaime’s weakening resolve, went for the jugular. “You know this is not the role for you I’d imagined in this company. But since it has to do with your beloved sport, and your beloved brother, I assumed you could be convinced.”

“And if I can’t?”

“Then Tyrion’s scheme is likely doomed to failure. Without you, I’m not sure I’ll be able to get anyone with a recognizable name or a modicum of skill to manage the other teams. And without good managers, all we’ll have is pretty girls standing in a field.”

Damn it, Tyrion. You’re going to pay for this.

“Fine. I’ll give you one season,” Jaime capitulated, holding up his index finger. “One. And just so we’re clear, I’m doing this for my brother, not for you.”

Tywin’s satisfied smirk made Jaime want to gag. “Of course you are. God forbid you do something for the good of this family.”

“Please,” Jaime scoffed. “This has nothing to do with the family. This is about making you even more money than you already have.”

“I certainly hope so, but we’ll see. I’ve put your brother in charge of promotion and advertising, so I take nothing for granted.”

Jaime’s eyebrows shot up. That was a surprise—it was unlike Tywin to entrust the success of such an expensive venture to his younger son, even if it had been his idea. “Where is Tyrion?”

“Scouting this country’s finest softball teams for our new talent.”

Jaime snorted. “Surely there are more qualified people for that job. Tyrion might be good at ogling women, but he doesn’t know anything about what it takes to play baseball.”

“That’s why Varys is with him.”

“Varys?” He’d been the Lions’ top scout for years. If his father was putting him in service to the women’s league, maybe it had a better chance of success than Jaime initially thought.

“I told you. This is going to be a real baseball league. And for that, I need real scouts as well as real managers.”

“And where did my dear brother take himself off to in search of this talent?” Jaime asked, imagining Tyrion engaging in various forms of drunken debauchery from New York to New Orleans.

“He’s in Iowa.”

“Iowa?” Jaime laughed. “What the hell does he think he’s going to find there?”

Chapter Text

By the time the car rolled to a stop in front of the Stark farmhouse, Brienne, Sansa, and Arya stood in a line at the edge of the yard.

“It’s them,” Arya whispered urgently, nudging Brienne with her elbow. “The scouts.”

Brienne just nodded, watching through the dusty windshield as the two strangers from the game exchanged a few words with each other. The shorter man tipped his head none-too-subtly in their direction, and the bald man nodded.

“No matter who they are, no matter what they say, we will not agree to anything until we’ve had time to discuss it privately,” Brienne instructed. “Understood?”

“Of course,” Sansa assented, shuffling a little closer to her.

“Arya?”

“Fine.”

When the car doors swung open, the bald man slid smoothly out of the driver’s seat. Brienne felt a pang of sympathy as she watched the shorter man disembark with a less graceful, but necessary, hop.  

He proceeded to stroll around the front of the car, approaching them with a small, friendly smile. “Good afternoon, ladies.”

“Afternoon,” three voices replied in unison.

His smile widened. “My name is Tyrion Lannister, and this is my colleague, Mr. Varys.”

Mr. Varys doffed his hat to them. “Ladies.”

“Mr. Lannister. Mr. Varys,” Brienne courteously replied, inclining her head toward each of them in turn. “What brings you gentlemen all the way out here?”

Almost simultaneously, Arya asked, “Lannister, like the Lannister Railway Company?”

Brienne heard Sansa’s exasperated sigh, but Mr. Lannister didn’t seem to mind.

“Why, yes. The very one.” His green gaze shifted up to Brienne. “And please, call me Tyrion. As for what brings us here…well, you ladies did.” He gestured to all three of them with a sweep of his short arm.

“We did?” Sansa’s auburn eyebrows lifted in skeptical surprise.

“Indeed,” Tyrion nodded. “You see, in addition to my father’s vast railway and real estate empire, he also owns a professional baseball team.”

Arya looked pointedly at Brienne before turning back to Tyrion. “Of course, the Chicago Lions. They play at Lannister Field.”  

“Correct again, my dear,” he affirmed. “But now, with so many of our finest players overseas, my father and I are concerned for the future of the sport. So we’ve decided to start a new league.”

Brienne had a terrible feeling she knew where this was going. “What kind of league?”

“A professional women’s baseball league.” Tyrion smiled as his eyes flicked between them. “Rumor has it, yours is the best team in this part of the state. After today’s game, I’m convinced that’s down to the three of you.”

Arya was nearly bouncing on her toes as she looked frantically from her sister to Brienne.

“You did say baseball?” Brienne asked before Arya could speak. It didn’t make any sense. As far as she knew, there wasn’t a single women’s baseball team in the country.

“Ah, so you noticed? Yes, our girls will be playing baseball, not softball.”

“But how?” Sansa interjected, shaking her head. “There aren’t any women baseball players, are there?”

“Yes, well. You’ll be the first.”

Arya’s pleading gaze found Brienne’s, and she gave her eager friend a subtle nod. It couldn’t hurt to hear what they had to say.

“How?” Arya took a small step forward. “Where?”

Tyrion glanced up at Mr. Varys, and Brienne thought she detected a note of hopeful triumph on his face.

“We’ll have four teams, all in cities within a few hours of Chicago. They’ll play through the summer, and at the end of the season, the top two teams will compete in their very own World Series,” Tyrion explained. “We’ll house you in your home city and cover all equipment and transportation expenses related to the team. And we’ll pay you seventy-five dollars a week to start.”

Excitement and hesitation warred in Brienne’s brain. On one hand, that was more than twice the wage she earned working at the dairy, and she’d be playing baseball. She’d never even allowed herself to dream of such an opportunity. But, as her father was fond of saying, if it sounded too good to be true, it probably was.

She could feel the enthusiasm rippling off Arya like waves of heat. But what about Sansa? When Brienne looked to her, she found her friend’s blue eyes wide with amazement. Sansa’s bewildered shrug seemed to ask what they had to lose.

But Brienne wasn’t sold just yet. “Why us?”

Tyrion laughed brightly. “Because you’re good, of course. All three of you. This one, for instance,” he gestured toward Arya, “pitched the entire game today and allowed, what, ten hits?”

“Eight,” Mr. Varys corrected. “Quite impressive.”

“Extraordinarily impressive. What’s your name, ace?”

“Arya Stark,” she replied, grinning. “This is my sister Sansa and our friend, Brienne Tarth.”

“Well, Arya Stark. You’re strong, scrappy, and hungry. A perfect combination for a pitcher. I take it learning to throw overhand won’t be a problem for you?”

Arya huffed. “Please.”

Tyrion winked at her. “I thought not. And you,” he continued, his keen gaze sliding over to Sansa, “are an excellent second basewoman. You have a good arm, and you positively fly around the bases. Both of you are also quite pleasing to the eye, which is exactly what we’re looking for.”

Brienne held in an indignant snort. She had known there would be a catch.

Sansa, face alight with a beaming smile, seemed to think the man’s words a fine compliment. Arya, however, was glaring darkly at both men. At least one of them thinks this is as ludicrous as I do.

“What do good looks have to do with it?” Arya snapped. “Men who play baseball don’t have to be good looking.”

Tyrion grinned and looked over at Mr. Varys. “What did I tell you? She’s sharp.”

“That’s because men who watch baseball don’t care what other men look like,” Mr. Varys stated blandly, seemingly unbothered by Arya’s sour expression. “We hope to get them to give you girls a try, and for that, we need a few young, pretty faces.”

Brienne frowned, startled and irritated by how deflated she felt. That leaves me out.

As if reading her mind, Tyrion looked up at her warmly. “And you, Brienne Tarth. Why, you were the best player on the field today. Varys says he hasn’t seen a catcher with your skill in some years. And that home run of yours...even I could see you’re a hell of a hitter. I very much hope you’re interested in joining us.”

“Me? If it’s beauty you’re looking for, Mr. Lannister, you’re clearly barking up the wrong tree.”

His eyes glinted with amusement as he ran them over her, head to toe. “Oh, I wouldn’t be so sure about that, Miss Tarth. You’re distinctive. The kind of woman who’ll stand out in a crowd. That’s not a bad thing.”

“That all depends on the reason you’re standing out,” Brienne retorted. Surely this man, of all men, could understand that.

Undaunted, Tyrion turned to his colleague. “What do you think, Varys?”

“Your father would almost certainly not approve,” he responded dryly. There was no malice in his voice or his gaze as he considered her—just a neutral, honest appraisal. “No offense, of course, Miss Tarth.”

Brienne blew a short, barely audible huff of air from her nose. She’d heard far worse, from people whose opinion of her mattered far more.  

“No, he wouldn’t.” Tyrion shook his head, the twinkle in his eyes turning impish. “But he would be wrong. Perhaps she’s not a classical beauty, but if we make the most of the assets she has…” Once again, his gaze trailed over her. “Just how tall are you, Miss Tarth?”

“Six three.”

He whistled, long and low. “Forgive me, but you have the longest legs I’ve ever seen. And those eyes.” He turned to Varys. “Put her in a uniform, style her hair, throw on some lipstick, and we’ll have a different girl in front of us.”

Brienne bristled, mentally preparing to tell Tyrion Lannister exactly what she thought of his assessment—of his presumption that he was entitled to assess her at all—and that she was just fine with the woman she already was.

But before she could verbalize this scathing response, Tyrion continued on, folding his arms defiantly across his chest. “Besides, she has something better than a pretty face. Something we’re going to need far more if we want people to watch these girls play.”

Four pairs of eyes looked at him inquiringly, but it was Arya who eventually asked the question out loud. “What’s that?”

“Talent, Miss Stark. As I said, your friend was the best player on the field, and I suspect we haven’t come close to seeing the best she can do. For what it’s worth, Miss Tarth, I think we’ll have all the teams in the league fighting over you.”

Brienne’s cheeks flooded with warmth as she mumbled a quiet, “Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome. Now, I’m afraid I must get down to business. Are you ladies interested in playing for our league?”

“Absolutely!” Arya exclaimed, ignoring Brienne’s disapproving glare.  

“Wonderful.” Tyrion clapped his hands. “But I do need to make sure you’re all eligible to play. Forgive the impertinence, but may I ask how old you are?”

“Twenty,” Sansa replied.

“Eighteen,” Arya added, and Brienne could see Tyrion’s relief. She had always looked quite young for her age.

“And you, Miss Tarth?” Varys prompted.

Squarely meeting his gaze, Brienne answered, “Twenty-six.”

Varys raised his eyebrows. “That’s a little older than we’d hoped.”

Perfect, Brienne thought. Too ugly and too old. This day was getting better and better.

“Nonsense!” Tyrion objected. “My brother still had his best years ahead of him at that age. In fact, Miss Tarth reminds me a bit of my brother when she steps up to the plate.”

“Your brother?” Arya queried, clearly confused.

“Yes. Jaime Lannister.”

Brienne gaped at him in shocked recognition, wondering how she hadn’t put the pieces together herself. They even looked a bit alike, from what Brienne remembered of Galladon’s baseball card—and it was one of his most prized possessions, so she’d seen it quite a lot. Yes, that golden-tinted hair and self-assured smile were decidedly familiar.

Jaime Lannister was an incredible ballplayer, a league-leading pitcher and batter. At least, he had been, until that awful car crash. She couldn’t recollect the details precisely, but she knew it had cost him his right hand—his pitching hand. And she vividly recalled Galladon’s reaction to the news: he had been devastated. The Kingslayers were his team, and Jaime Lannister was his favorite player. He’d led the team to victory in the 1940 World Series just a few months before the tragedy that ended his career.

I remind you of Jaime Lannister?” Brienne stabbed a finger into her breastbone, unable to process that such a comparison was even possible.

Tyrion chuckled. “There are plenty of people who wouldn’t take that as a compliment, but I’m pleased that you do.”

“Of course she does,” Arya blurted impatiently. “Now, Mr. Lannister, since you know we’re all old enough to play, when do we start?”

“Actually,” Sansa chimed in, resting a firm hand on her sister’s shoulder, “we’re going to need some time to talk it over, Mr. Lannister.”

“Tyrion, Miss Stark. Please, call me Tyrion. And I completely understand.”

“I’d just like to make something clear,” Mr. Varys intervened. “We aren’t offering any of you a place in the league. Not yet. We’re inviting girls from all over the country to tryouts in Chicago. Not that I think any of you will have a problem making the cut, of course.”

“What he means is, should you choose to come with us, you’ll be getting through on your own merits,” Tyrion clarified. “I’m just walking you to the door.”

“Fair enough,” Brienne replied. “When are these tryouts?”

For the first time, Tyrion looked slightly nervous. “In three days.”

“Three days!" Sansa cried. “We’d have to leave—”

“Tomorrow. Our train leaves at two o’clock. And, yes, I’m aware that doesn’t leave you much time to make your decision,” Tyrion said sympathetically. “But we’re happy to pay for your train tickets to Chicago and your accommodations in the city while you attend. So, please, do think it over. Consult with your families. But I’ll need you to let me know by tomorrow morning if you’ll be joining us.”

“You can reach us at this hotel.” Mr. Varys held out a folded slip of paper, and Arya snatched it from his hand. “Please consider our offer, ladies. I think you’d do quite well.”

“All of you,” Tyrion added, meeting Brienne’s eyes.

“We’ll be sure to let you know,” Sansa politely responded. “But I think I can safely say that my sister and I are very interested, and Brienne will at least think about it.”

Tyrion smiled broadly at that. “Very good. Thank you for your time, Miss Stark, Miss Stark, Miss Tarth. I do hope we’ll hear from you.”

~*~*~

Half an hour later, Brienne sat on the Starks’ sofa watching Catelyn pace angrily in front of her

“Do you plan to go along with this?” Catelyn demanded, stopping to stare pleadingly at Brienne. Her blue eyes, so like Sansa’s, brimmed with worry.

“I don’t know,” Brienne answered honestly. “I still can’t believe it’s happened.”

Catelyn sighed, absentmindedly tucking a stray red hair back into her neatly styled updo.

She’d looked troubled from the moment the girls had burst into the house, eagerly telling their mother they were going to Chicago to play baseball. They’d eventually calmed down enough to explain everything, and Brienne had watched Catelyn’s face grow more ashen with every word that gushed from her daughters’ lips.

When the girls had finished their tale, Catelyn hadn’t argued or protested; she had just asked to speak to Brienne alone.

“What can I do?” Catelyn implored, as though she hoped Brienne would have an ingenious solution that had somehow evaded her. “They’re both adults. How can I stop them from going? And Ned won’t even try. I know what he’ll say, and so do they. He’ll be thrilled. You know how much he adores watching them play.”

Brienne pressed her lips together, unsure of what to say.

Seemingly drained of her anger, Catelyn sat down heavily next to Brienne. “He’ll say they should go, that they deserve a chance to be happy.”

“Galladon would say the same thing.” Brienne smiled sadly. “Ever since Mr. Lannister said ‘women’s baseball league,’ I can’t get his voice out of my head.”

“What’s it saying?” Catelyn’s tone had softened, and she laid a consoling hand on Brienne’s knee.

“Not to miss my chance.”

“Oh, Brienne. I know it sounds like a wonderful opportunity for all of you, but…” she trailed off, swallowing thickly. “It’s just so hard to imagine saying goodbye to anyone else. Losing my girls.”

Despite the painful tug in her chest, Brienne shook her head gently. “But you wouldn’t be losing them, Cat. They’d only be a few hundred miles away, perfectly safe.”

“But what if they’re not safe? What if these people make fools of them?”

Brienne chewed thoughtfully on her bottom lip. “I genuinely don’t believe Mr. Lannister intends anything nefarious. And I don’t think Arya or Sansa will be satisfied unless they try.”

“Will you go with them, then? Please?” Catelyn beseeched her. “They’ve never been on their own before, Brienne. I love my girls, but neither of them has your level head. Arya will do something reckless, or Sansa will trust the wrong person, or they’ll be at each other’s throats over something foolish. But if you’re with them, I’ll know they won’t get into any trouble. I know you’ll watch over them.”

“Cat…I’m not sure I even want to go.”

“Aren’t you?” Catelyn’s eyes were sad, but her smile was knowing.

She covered her face with her hands. Who am I kidding?

This league was the craziest idea Brienne had ever heard, but it was her chance—perhaps her only chance. It was a doorway to a life where she could do something she was good at, where she could be among people who understood that part of her. It offered the tantalizing possibility of belonging somewhere, even if only for a little while.  

Brienne felt Catelyn’s touch at her wrist and slowly lowered her hands.

“If you truly don’t want to go, then I wouldn’t have you go,” Catelyn said, her voice uneven but sincere. “But I know how much you love to play. And if you’re there, at least I know my girls will be safe.”

“What about my father?” Brienne objected weakly. “I shouldn’t leave him alone.”

“Brienne, you do realize Selwyn Tarth is a healthy, strong, independent man? Your father will miss you, of course, but he’ll be fine. You shouldn’t stay for him any more than my girls should stay for me.”

Brienne clamped her teeth together as she tried to blink away the stinging in her eyes. “Will you look after him for me? Make sure he doesn’t get lonely or need help?”

Catelyn lifted her hand to Brienne’s cheek. “Of course I will. We all will.”

Brienne blew out a long, slow breath. Then, lips curving in a small smile, she loudly declared, “Then I guess we’d better tell Mr. Lannister to book our tickets.”

A series of joyful squeaks and shouts emanated from the next room, and Brienne laughed, feeling suddenly buoyant and girlishly happy.

I can’t believe we’re really going to do this, she mused, in silent awe. I can’t believe I’m going to play baseball.

She couldn’t wait to write to Galladon.

But first, Brienne had a telephone call to make.

Chapter Text

The sound of their footsteps echoed off the brick walls as they followed Mr. Varys down the narrow, dim tunnel, steadily approaching an open doorway that flooded the end of the passage with light.

Just before he walked through the sun-drenched opening, Mr. Varys looked over his shoulder with an enigmatic smile. “Welcome to Lannister Field.”

Arya and Sansa crossed the threshold close on his heels, but Brienne—arms full of her catcher’s gear—proceeded slowly, marveling at the ivy-covered outfield walls as she stepped onto the turf.

Squinting against the sudden, harsh brightness of the morning, Brienne heard Sansa gasp. But when her eyes adjusted to the light, she understood why.

Brienne felt as though she’d stepped straight into a Technicolor film—like she’d closed her eyes in Kansas and opened them in Oz. The grass stretched out like an endless carpet of brilliant, lush green, interrupted only by the sandy brown sweep of the infield baselines. Beyond the low brick wall that rimmed the field, an astonishing arc of double-tiered stands rose into the sky.

She couldn’t imagine what it would be like to watch a game from those seats, let alone to play on this field. Those stands would hold thousands of people—tens of thousands. Galladon would lose his mind.

Brienne turned toward her friends, who both looked as dumbstruck as she felt. Sansa stood stock-still, gaping at the field, while Arya spun in a slow circle with a silly smile on her face.

“This is where I leave you, ladies,” Mr. Varys abruptly announced, drawing their eyes away from the spectacle surrounding them. He pointed toward the dugout on the third-base line. “Player registration is over there. Go get yourselves signed in.”

Arya’s brow wrinkled in confusion. “You’re leaving already?”

“Sadly, I have other league business to attend to. But don’t worry, my dear. If you play as well in tryouts as you did the day I watched you, I have no doubt we’ll see each other again.”

“But—”

“Off with you,” he interrupted, flicking his hand to shoo them away. “They’ll be starting soon.” And then, with a swift tip of his hat, he turned back toward the outfield wall and disappeared into the tunnel.

What a strange man, Brienne thought, sharing a bemused glance with Sansa.

Arya, ever determined, just shrugged carelessly and set off across the field. Side by side, Brienne and Sansa ambled along in her wake.

“There sure are a lot of girls here,” Sansa quietly observed.

Brienne’s eyes darted across the diamond, tallying the scattered players. There were at least two hundred girls, dressed in uniforms of all kinds and colors, tossing balls or milling around in the grass. “Far too many for four teams.”

“Do you think we’ll make it?” Sansa’s voice trembled with uncertainty.

“I don’t know. But we can try.”

When Brienne and Sansa arrived at the registration area, they found Arya interrogating one of the uniformed men behind the table. Taking pity on the poor fellow, Sansa amicably inserted herself in the conversation. Brienne ignored the chatter altogether, filling out the requisite papers as quickly as possible. When she finished, she moved out of the way to wait for her friends.

“A remarkable sight, isn’t it?”

Brienne turned her head toward the familiar voice. Tyrion Lannister, wearing a navy blue suit and matching fedora, stood only a few feet away, looking up at her expectantly.

Surprised by how genuinely happy she was to see him again, Brienne smiled.

Their shared train ride had cemented her initial impression of him as a kind, smart man. Although, judging by his rate of consumption during that trip, he drank a bit too much for Brienne’s taste. Still, she rather liked him.

“It’s a beautiful field, Mr. Lannister.”

He heaved a dramatic sigh. “Will I ever convince you to call me Tyrion, Miss Tarth?”

“Only if you call me Brienne,” she rejoined, still smiling.

The corners of his eyes crinkled with merriment. “We have a deal, Brienne. And I was speaking before about what’s on the field, not the field itself.”

Brienne shook her head, still feeling a bit dazed by it all. “I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s…incredible.”

A pleased grin nearly split his face in two. “That’s exactly the response I’m hoping for.” Then, as Arya and Sansa walked over to join them, Tyrion greeted them with a warm, “Good morning.”

“Hello,” Arya replied. “Are you staying for the tryouts?”

“Of course I am, ace. I’ll be watching, and so will the team managers. So you’d better play your best,” he teased.

“I always do,” Arya tartly assured him.

“I have no doubt.” With a quick look toward the dugout, Tyrion’s smile turned apologetic. “Excuse me, ladies, but it seems I must be going. I’d wish you luck, but I know you don’t need it.”

“We appreciate it all the same,” Brienne said, offering him another, smaller smile. “Goodbye, Tyrion.”

He winked at her, then doffed his hat. “Goodbye, ladies. For now.”

Brienne watched him walk away, toward a group of coaches assembling by the registration table. He looked amusingly out of place in his fancy suit.

“—live in boardinghouses in Rockford, Racine, Kenosha, and South Bend.” Arya’s insistent babbling drew Brienne’s attention mid-sentence. “There are almost three hundred girls here, but they’re only picking sixteen players for each team.”

Sansa, seeing Brienne’s quizzical expression, explained, “The man at registration told us.”

“Each team is going to play over a hundred games,” Arya added, beaming. “We’ll be playing almost every day. Doubleheaders, some days.”

Brienne pursed her lips. A hundred games in three months? With travel between those cities? They’d be spending as much time on a bus as they would on the field. “What else did he—”

“Look out!”

Without thinking, Brienne threw her hand up, snatching an incoming ball out of the air. She had barely registered the alarmed shout when she’d seen it streaking over Sansa’s right shoulder—headed straight for her own face.

Blinking, she looked down at her gear, which had somehow ended up in a pile at her feet. As her shock began to fade, Brienne felt a searing onrush of annoyance. The ball could have broken her damn nose. Again.

“Are you all right?” Arya asked worriedly, straightening from her defensive crouch. Sansa pressed a hand to the side of her head, where the ball had passed close enough to ruffle her hair.

Brienne nodded, dropping the ball and shaking her still-stinging right hand.  

“That was magnificent!” a slender brunette shouted while she jogged toward them. As she approached Brienne, the woman’s elfish blue eyes widened in amazement. She stood shorter than Sansa, though not by much, and had to tilt her head back to meet Brienne’s gaze. “My goodness, aren’t you something?”

“It was just a reflex,” Brienne muttered. Am I being flattered or insulted?

“Best reflexes I’ve ever seen,” the woman insisted, brushing a wavy brown lock out of her face. “You clearly won’t be going home today.”

Before Brienne could reply, she spotted another girl rushing toward them.  

“I’m so sorry! I didn’t hurt you, did I?” Short and slight, no older than Arya, the girl looked as if she might burst into tears at any moment.

Brienne’s irritation at her brush with further disfigurement ebbed as she considered the clearly contrite young girl. Her long, light brown hair was swept back into a ponytail, and apprehension shone in her soft brown eyes.

“No, I’m fine. You missed, fortunately.”

The girl’s face crumpled with relief. “Oh, thank goodness. I really am sorry. I guess it got away from me.”

“You’re just nervous, dear,” the brunette consoled. “No harm done.” Then, turning back to Brienne, the woman extended her hand. “I’m Margaery Tyrell. The wild thrower over here is my friend, Shireen Baratheon.”

Brienne was surprised at the firmness of the woman’s grip. “Brienne Tarth. And this is Sansa and Arya Stark.” Smiling gently at Shireen, she added, “You have quite an arm.”

The girl’s cheeks flushed, and she looked away shyly. “Thanks.”

“You wouldn’t happen to be related to the department store Tyrells?” Sansa inquired, eyes bright with anticipation.

Margaery smiled, revealing perfectly straight white teeth and a dainty set of dimples, and Brienne suppressed a sigh. This woman was beautiful in the same soft, flawless way as Sansa—the kind of effortless beauty that made Brienne a little wistful and sad.

“Why, yes. My father runs the business, as a matter of fact.” Lowering her voice conspiratorially, Margaery added, “He was horrified when I told him I was coming here. He finds it in quite poor taste, apparently. But my grandmother talked him into it.”

Sansa smiled. “I’ve been begging Brienne to visit your store before we go home. I adore your mail order catalogue.”

“Well, they’re not mine, exactly,” Margaery laughed. “But grandmother will be thrilled to hear you like the catalogue. And of course you must go to the store. I’ll take you, if you like.”

“That would be wonderful!” Sansa exclaimed.

“Do you live in the city, then?” Arya interjected, looking as though she’d rather lick the field than go shopping with her sister.

“Nearly. Our family home, Highgarden, is a few miles west of town. Where are you all from?”

“A little town in the middle of nowhere,” Arya complained. “Our father owns a dairy.”

“In Iowa,” Brienne clarified. “We’re mostly all farmers, there, of one kind or another.”

“My family is in steel,” Shireen chimed in quietly. “My father didn’t want me to come, either.”

“But we’ve known each other for ages.” Margaery put an arm around the younger girl’s shoulders. “And my grandmother is a very persuasive woman.”

Suddenly, as if only just realizing these girls were potential competition, Arya’s forehead creased into a scowl. “What positions do you play?” she demanded. “Are you any good?”

“Arya!” Sansa scolded. “Please, excuse my sister. Her manners could use a little refining.”

“Oh no,” Margaery protested, eyebrows lifted high in amusement. “She’s a fierce little thing. That will serve her well here. And don’t you worry, Arya Stark. We’re not competing with each other. I play center field, and Shireen here is a star at first base. You, though…you look like a pitcher.”

Disconcerted, Arya narrowed her gray eyes. “How did you know that?”

Smirking, Margaery just turned her attention to Brienne. “I’d have known you were a catcher even if you weren’t carrying that gear. Only a catcher could have made that grab, and with your bare hand, no less.” Then, eyes flicking over to Sansa, she asked, “Shortstop?”

Sansa shook her head. “Second base.”

“At least I was close.” Margaery winked. “So you see, Arya, there’s room here for all of us. Now, some of these other girls…”

Arya took a half-step closer to her. “Like who?”

Margaery laughed, but she soon began good-naturedly pointing out some of the other players on the field. Dany Targaryen, a striking, platinum-haired shortstop, was rumored to be one of the best batters on the East Coast. Another powerhouse slugger, lean, sharp-featured Yara Greyjoy played third base. And at only seventeen, left fielder Lyanna Mormont had to have her parents sign a waiver allowing her to play. She had long dark hair and large dark eyes, all innocence and youth.

“Don’t let that sweet look fool you, though,” Margaery warned. “She’s a little fireball.”

“How do you know all of these girls?” Sansa asked, looking impressed.

“Oh, I don’t. I’m just very…observant.”

Observant indeed, Brienne mused. Margaery seemed like the kind of woman it was helpful to know—provided you remained on her good side. If she observed something unfavorable, Brienne didn’t think she’d be shy about sharing it.

Arya disrupted her train of thought with a nod toward the stands. “Do you know who that is? Over there, sitting with Tyrion?”

Curious, Brienne turned to follow Arya’s gaze, and her breath stilled.

Not far from where they stood, Tyrion sat in the stadium’s third row next to the most handsome man Brienne had ever seen. He had a perfectly straight, sharp nose and an even sharper jaw, and his pale green shirt brought out the color of his emerald eyes, even at a distance. His hair, parted fashionably on one side, glinted with tones of bronze and gold in the sunlight. Even the irritated scowl on his face didn’t detract from his astounding good looks.

“Jaime Lannister,” Brienne exhaled, feeling a little starstruck. Galladon would definitely lose his mind.

“Ah, the infamous Lannister brothers. Tyrion recruited you himself, didn’t he?”

Brienne nodded, not surprised in the least by Margaery’s seeming omniscience.

“Jaime is supposed to be coaching one of the teams. I do so hope I end up with him,” Margaery continued. “I’d love to give him a hard time.”

Startled, Brienne tore her eyes from the golden god in the stands. “You know him?”

“Not well, but our families share a social circle. We were too many years apart to be friends, of course, but I’ve seen him at functions for as long as I can remember. And I still owe him for the merciless teasing he inflicted on me as a child.”

“He’s very handsome,” Sansa declared, a little dreamily.

Arya rolled her eyes so ferociously Brienne could almost hear them spinning in their sockets.

“He certainly is, and he knows it.” Margaery glanced back up at Jaime, her expression turning thoughtful. “I’m surprised at how well he looks, actually. He’s kept to himself the past few years. I still can’t believe his father got him to do this.”

A shrill whistle blast prevented Brienne from finding out why, but she made a mental note to ask Margaery more about it later as the five of them joined the herd of players gathering on the field.

Speaking into a large brass megaphone, one of the coaches outlined the assessments the girls would undergo over the next few days. First, they would break into groups for a series of rotating drills and trials; then, they would scrimmage.

One coach collected Sansa, Margaery, and Shireen for a group headed to timed base-running trials. A blazingly fast runner, Sansa flashed her friends a confident smile as she trotted off.  

Meanwhile, Arya and Brienne went to the station designated for pitchers and catchers, situated very near where they’d been standing a short while before. The coaches partnered each catcher with two pitchers, explaining that whoever was not pitching would stand out in the field to test the catcher’s ability to throw to second base.

Brienne nodded hello to the redhead who rounded out their trio, but Arya only glowered at her. The woman laughed musically, introducing herself as Ygritte, and set about arguing with Arya over who would go first.

As they bickered, Brienne calmly buckled on her equipment and took her place along the wall with her back to the stands. When a coach settled the dispute by sending Ygritte to the pitcher’s position, Brienne bit her lip at the sight of Arya’s vexed pout.

Squatting down into her stance, Brienne felt less nervous than she had only moments before. Her gear was like armor, and nothing—not even the coaches and their clipboards—could touch her when she gave herself over to the game.

Chapter Text

He caught his brother’s eye not long after taking a seat in the stands. Standing near the dugout with a group of tryout coaches, Tyrion held up one short finger, and Jaime nodded. The little imp had a lot to answer for, but that could wait a few more minutes.

Allowing his gaze to wander, Jaime took in the staggering number of uniformed girls scattered across the field. With comparatively few team spots available, tryouts could certainly be interesting.

From his place along the third-base line, Jaime would have an excellent view of the proceedings—not that he especially wanted one. If he could have trusted Tyrion to assemble him a team worth having, he wouldn’t have been there at all.

When Jaime looked back toward the dugout, he saw Tyrion strolling toward him up the aisle. As his brother slid into the seat beside him, he wordlessly tossed a crimson baseball cap in Jaime’s lap. Picking it up, Jaime noticed the prominent white circle and large red letter branding its center.

“R?”

“For Rockford. Your new home for the next three months.”

“Rockford?” Jaime groaned. “Where the hell am I supposed to stay in Rockford?”

“Father’s rented you a house, naturally. Where I will also be staying, when I’m in town.”

“Of course,” Jaime replied sardonically. Just what he needed: to look after a team of girls and his brother.

“You could put it on, you know. At least try to look the part.” Tyrion looked pointedly at Jaime’s clothes.

Jaime glanced down at his casual brown trousers and pale green, wide-collared shirt before flinging the cap into the empty seat beside him. “I’m dressed more appropriately than you are.”

Tyrion took off his fedora and hooked it on the armrest of his seat. “I’m an executive. You’re a manager. You see, baseball managers traditionally wear baseball uniforms.”

“You should be happy I’m here at all,” Jaime retorted, scowling. He’d thrown out all his gear years ago, once he’d known he would never wear it on a field again.

“Happy? Brother, I’m ecstatic. I really didn’t believe you’d do it.”

“Father insisted.”

“Well, we mustn’t disappoint Father,” Tyrion said flatly, his mouth twisting into a frown.

“I’m not doing this for him, you idiot. I’m doing it for you.” Jaime took greater satisfaction in Tyrion’s look of surprise than he should have. “And I’ve yet to decide exactly how you’re going to pay.”

Recovering, Tyrion smiled. “Pay? Why, I’ve just gotten you back into baseball. You should be kissing my feet.”

“Maybe I’ll snap them off instead. Make you even shorter.”

“Now, now,” Tyrion admonished, struggling to keep his expression stern. “Who would’ve thought getting you back on the diamond would make you so cranky?”

“Just looking forward to three months of misery,” Jaime drawled. “And I’ll be near the diamond. Not on it.”

A sharp whistle blast drew their attention to the infield, where the assembled girls were forming a neat cluster around a coach with a megaphone. Like lambs to the slaughter, Jaime thought.

Scanning their eager young faces, he felt a little sorry for them. They obviously wanted to play, to earn a coveted place on one of Tywin Lannister’s teams. But, as Jaime knew all too well, nothing involving his father came without conditions, and these girls had yet to hear the terms.

When the coach started barking instructions to the group, Tyrion shifted his gaze back to Jaime. “You should try to be more open-minded about it, brother. You might even enjoy yourself.”

“I highly doubt it.”

Tyrion considered him uncertainly. After a moment’s hesitation, he ventured, “I realize it must be difficult, being up here instead of out there.”

Jaime shot him a warning glance, and Tyrion held up his hands defensively.

“I’m only saying you shouldn’t let your…feelings color your assessment of these girls.”

“Are you saying I’m jealous? Of them?”

“I don’t know. Are you?”

Grunting, Jaime looked down at his maimed arm, at the prosthetic he detested almost as much as the missing hand itself. The damned thing was useless, uncomfortable, and a constant reminder that he would never be whole again—no matter how hard he tried to hide it. “Maybe.”

“You miss it.”

“Yes,” Jaime croaked. “I miss it.”

“Isn’t managing better than nothing?” Tyrion asked gently. “At least you can be part of the game again.”

Throat thick, Jaime swallowed. He had expected this to be difficult. He hadn’t been near a field in well over two years. But it shouldn’t have affected him this deeply. It shouldn’t have hurt so much, still, after all this time.

And, suddenly, Jaime hated it. He hated himself for being weak enough to feel it, and he hated Tyrion for dragging him into this fucking mess in the first place.

“I’m not a manager, though, am I?” he spat. “I’m a player. This,” he shook his prosthetic in Tyrion’s face, “doesn’t change that. And even if I were a manager—which I’m not—we’re not talking about the game at all. This is nothing but pretty girls in short skirts. It’s a joke.”

This time, Tyrion looked genuinely affronted. “It’s not a joke to me, no matter what you or father say. Do you think I don’t know he only wanted you here because he didn’t trust me to make this successful on my own?” Tyrion shook his head bitterly, then fixed Jaime with a determined stare. “I think there’s something real here. And I don’t need your help, but I’d appreciate it, nonetheless. These girls, they deserve a chance. They’re players, Jaime. Just like you.”

Taken aback by the forcefulness of Tyrion’s words, Jaime exhaled a guilty sigh. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to—”

His brother cut him short with a wave of his hand. “Don’t apologize. Life is hard for all of us, from time to time.” He ran a hand through his scruffy hair, smiling ruefully. “And Father, well…he has an uncanny ability to make it worse.”

“That he does,” Jaime wearily agreed. “And you’re right about something else. You don’t need me. I’m not sure I’ll be any help to you or these girls.”

“Oh, come on. We both know you could be good at this, if you decide to be.” Tyrion nudged Jaime’s arm with his shoulder. “All I’m asking is that you give it a chance. See whether or not you can make a team out of some of these girls. Just watch the tryouts. Then decide.”

So Jaime did.

He watched the girls hit fly balls and grounders, make some spectacular catches, and pitch overhand like they’d been doing it their whole lives. Quite a few would obviously not make the cut, but some of them actually looked like athletes. And although there were a number of glamorous, striking beauties among them, by and large they were average girls.

When he said as much to Tyrion, his brother huffed a laugh. “Well, we can’t all be as beautiful as you are. Anyway, weren’t you just complaining about pretty girls in skirts? I’d have thought you’d prefer the athletic type.”

“If I want my team to win, I sure as hell do.” Jaime scanned the field once more, lingering over a few of the most promising players. A platinum blond woman at home plate was hitting drive after drive, and a small, dark-haired girl deftly fielded every ball that came her way. “Some of them aren’t bad.”

“Not bad?” Tyrion scoffed. “Some of them are very good. One in particular might even be better than you.”

Jaime snorted. “I’ll believe that when I see it.”

“I’ve already seen it. I recruited her,” Tyrion replied smugly. “You’re free to take a look for yourself.” He pointed to the drills happening right in front of them. “She’s the catcher, last in the line.”

Even from a distance, Jaime could see she was quite tall and broad-shouldered for a woman. As he studied her, she rose from her crouch and heaved the ball to the player standing where second base would be. It was no small distance, yet the young woman shook her gloved hand briskly after catching the ball.

Leaning forward in his seat, Jaime watched the catcher squat back down and flick up her mitt. The pitcher, a somewhat wild-looking redhead, made a few decent throws, giving the catcher little to do but sit there. Then, she pitched one wide, well clear of the catcher’s right shoulder—easily far enough away to be out of her reach. But with an agile stretch and twist, the woman plucked the wayward ball from the air like a frog catching a fly.

“Impressive, isn’t she?”

Jaime was inclined to agree with his brother, but Tyrion didn’t need to know that just yet. “Well, she can catch the ball. And throw it. So I suppose she’s effective enough.”

“That’s not even the best part. You haven’t seen her hit.”

“Let’s remedy that, shall we?” Rising abruptly, Jaime brushed past his brother and descended the stairs, leaping over the brick wall and onto the field.

“Be nice to her, Jaime!” Tyrion called out behind him, and Jaime smiled. His brother must have liked this girl.

The two pitchers had just changed places when Jaime reached the end of the line. A short, gray-eyed girl was getting ready to toss her first pitch when Jaime held up his hand to stop her. Looking both confused and pissed off by the interruption, the girl lowered her arm.

Jaime stepped directly in front of the catcher, casting a long shadow over her broad body. Looking up at him with a start, the crouching woman took an awkward, stumbling step back before rising. And rising.

And rising.

Unfolded to her full height, she stood slightly taller than Jaime—and he was used to being among the tallest men in the room. He looked down at her incredibly long legs, oddly disgruntled to find them hidden behind her loose, knee-length uniform shorts and unbelievably tall leg guards. The rest of her was hidden, too, behind a padded chest protector.

How could so little of her have him so intrigued?

Finally, she pulled back her mask, allowing Jaime to take in her features. She had short, pale blond hair, falling in messy waves to just below her chin, and a nose that had obviously been broken. Her plump lips and their defined cupid’s bow looked like they belonged on another face.

Not a beauty, this one, Jaime thought.

But then his gaze met the bluest eyes he’d ever seen, framed by lashes so fine and light they were nearly imperceptible.

Then again…

“Mr. Lannister,” she said, her voice melodiously deep for a woman. “Can I—can I help you?”

“Jaime,” he corrected, strangely unable to take his eyes from hers. “My name is Jaime.” He held out his left hand. “And you are?”

Her gaze dropped to his outstretched hand, then briefly flicked over to his prosthetic, before coming back to meet his. She slipped off her mitt and raised her own left hand, gripping him firmly with long, slender fingers.

“Brienne Tarth.”

“My brother tells me he recruited you.”

“Yes.”

Feeling a slight tug against his fingers, Jaime realized he hadn’t released her hand. How odd. As soon as he let go, she slipped it quickly away from him.

“He also says you might be better than me.”

Her eyes, so astonishingly blue, went wide, looking straight into his for a few endless seconds before slamming to the ground. Jaime watched with amusement as a faint blush bloomed on her cheeks. It did not become her at all, yet somehow it wasn’t unpleasant.

“He’s much too kind,” she mumbled, still not looking at him.

“Funnily enough, he seemed sincere. Which makes it all the more interesting, considering you’ve never actually played baseball before.”

Her eyes snapped up. “No, I haven’t. But I don’t think the size of the ball has much to do with being able to catch it. Or hit it.”

Jaime smirked. Shy and feisty. Interesting combination. “You’ve certainly demonstrated the first, and we’ll see about the second.” Pausing, he noticed the faded, shabby look of her uniform. “I’m guessing this is your first time on a real field.”

Her mouth puckered. “A real field?”

“A professional field, I mean.”

She answered with a brief bob of her head.

“And?” he prompted. “What do you think?”

Her eyes darted quickly around the field. For just a moment, Jaime thought he saw a glimmer of admiration in their blue depths.

“It’s quite…big,” she finally said, and Jaime laughed.

“That it is,” he acknowledged, grinning. “A bit harder to clear the fences here.”

Brienne looked from home plate to the outfield wall, then unwaveringly met his gaze. “I suppose. But not impossible.”

“Shall we see if you can manage it?” he asked, gesturing toward home plate.

With a glance at the nearby coaches, she shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “But Arya hasn’t pitched yet. And we’re supposed to stay here until they send us to the next station.”

Jaime raised his eyebrows. She’d been all indignant challenge only a moment ago, and now she looked like a nervous doe. “Do you always do what you’re supposed to do, Brienne Tarth?”

She wrinkled her brow. “I don’t imagine disrespecting the coaches’ authority is the best way to get in the league.”

“I’m going to be one of the managers.” Jaime jabbed a finger at his own chest. “I’d say I have the authority to ask any of my potential players to do whatever I’d like.”

“I’m not your player. I’m not anyone’s player.”

Her expression turned positively mulish, and Jaime couldn’t decide whether it made her unusual face more or less attractive. The longer he looked at her, the more she squirmed. Why did he enjoy that so much?

“Anyway, there’s a line,” she added, pointing emphatically at the twenty or so women standing near the plate. But Jaime heard the faint softening in her tone, the thinness of her argument.

She’s afraid to resist me too much, he realized, smiling. “We won’t be waiting in it.” He clamped his good hand around her wrist. “Come on.”

Brienne seemed startled by his touch, but she reluctantly followed his pull.

“It’s not my turn,” she protested as Jaime bypassed the line and made straight for home plate. She began slowing down, and it occurred to Jaime that he wouldn’t be able to make her move if she decided she didn’t want to.

He released Brienne’s wrist and turned to look at her. “A right little rule follower, are you, wench?”  

Her eyes narrowed into slits of blue fire. “Excuse me?”

Jaime nearly laughed. He had no idea where it had come from, but the epithet suited her stubborn, uptight demeanor. There was something subtly forbidding about her, too—a woman you didn’t want to antagonize. And yet he did.

“My name is Brienne,” she growled.

“So you said. And now I’d like to watch you at bat, Brienne. I need to see if you can hit the ball as well as catch it.” He picked up a bat from the stand and held it out to her.

Huffing, she began unstrapping her chest protector. It fell to the ground with a muffled thud as she snatched the bat from his hand. When she strode off, still wearing her leg guards, Jaime saw the words “Winterfell Dairy” embroidered across her back and shook his head. She played for the local dairy?

His attention sharpened instantly, however, when Brienne stepped up to the plate. She straightened her shoulders, settling into her stance with a slight sway of her large body.

The first pitch came in high, but only just, and she let it fly by her without so much as a flinch. The wench has a good eye.

On the next pitch, Brienne didn’t hesitate. Her powerful swing sent the ball arcing through the sky, and it dropped just inside the outfield wall.

Impressive.

Without even looking at him, Brienne clobbered the next pitch in the same direction, and Jaime knew it would clear the fence well before he saw it fall.

Definitely impressive.

“What if I asked you not to hit a fly ball this time?” he called out.

Brienne looked over her shoulder with a frown. Then, following his instructions, she fired a hard line drive between first and second base. Next, she drove one deep into left field.

The pitcher threw another, and Brienne’s bat connected with a resounding crack. Once again, the ball sailed over the fence.

Jaime found himself grinning. He wasn’t sure about any of the other players on the field, but this woman. She had something. She was something.

“That’s enough!” he yelled. He’d seen all he needed to see.

When she turned, Jaime beckoned her with a crook of his finger. Still looking irritated, she stomped over to him.

“My brother was right. You’re good, Brienne Tarth.”

She eyed him warily, as if she thought he might follow the compliment with a verbal backhand. Her gaze drifted over his face, and then she ducked her head, cheeks pink. “Thank you.”

His smile broadened as he spun toward the stands. “I’ll be seeing you later, wench.”

“Don’t call me that!” she shouted, but he was already walking away.  

~*~*~

“What did I tell you?” Tyrion asked when Jaime resumed his seat. “Isn’t she remarkable?”

“Remarkable? Yes, she is. She’s also going to be a remarkable pain in the ass.”

“Pardon?” Tyrion blanched. “Are we talking about the same girl?”

“She’s stubborn,” Jaime proclaimed. “And the goody two shoes type. And…” God, those eyes.

“But she’s good,” Tyrion insisted. “You just admitted as much.”

He nodded. “She’s good.”

“Now I just have to decide where to put her. I’m sure everyone will want her.” Tyrion rubbed his hands together with almost villainous delight.

Jaime looked back down at the field. All three of the other managers had their eyes trained on Brienne, watching as she fastened her gear back on. Oberyn Martell leered at her in a way that Jaime found particularly offensive. Lecherous bastard.

“Yes, they probably will.” Jaime peered intently at his brother. “But I know who’s going to get her.”

“Oh? Who’s that?”

“Me.”

Chapter Text

Brienne watched from a distance as the girls mobbed the board, jockeying for position and frantically scanning the tacked-up team rosters for their names.

Only sixty-four would stay. The rest, more than two hundred of them, were going home. So for every triumphant player that emerged from the horde, four or five glum-faced ones joined the wretched parade of girls shuffling off the field.

Brienne frowned, wondering if she—or worse, Arya or Sansa—would soon be among that crestfallen group. Impatient, she craned her neck to peer over the crowd. Eventually, Brienne spied the top of Sansa’s head, her red hair flaming in the sun, near the front of the crush. Any minute now.

As Brienne waited, she noticed that Margaery and Shireen had already come away smiling, as had Dany Targaryen. The three women stood in a cluster, talking and laughing happily with two players Brienne didn’t know. One was short and slim with a messy mop of dark, curly hair; the other was older—close to her own age, Brienne guessed—with long, coppery red hair and a heart-shaped face.  

When Margaery caught Brienne’s eye, she flashed a warm smile and beckoned her to join their group with a wave of her hand. Brienne shook her head and pointed toward the melee.

Just then, an elated squeal rose above the din, and Brienne smiled. She knew that sound.

Seconds later, Sansa burst from the throng, beaming. Arya popped out behind her, looking less gleeful but definitely happy. They ran to her, and Sansa flung her arms around Brienne with such force that it knocked the breath from her lungs. Had she been a smaller woman, it might have flattened her.

“We made it! We get to stay!” Sansa cried, punctuating her words with little squeezes around Brienne’s waist.

Arya rolled her eyes behind her sister’s back, but even Sansa’s hysterics couldn’t wipe the smirk off her face.

“All of us?” Brienne asked, extricating herself from Sansa’s embrace.

“We’re both Peaches,” Arya said, grinning. “And so are you.”

“I am?” she asked, numb with disbelief.

The odds of all three of them getting into the league in the first place had seemed slim, but to end up on the same team? Staggeringly improbable. It must have been deliberate, and Brienne knew exactly who was responsible.

When she finally spotted his short, distinctive form, Tyrion Lannister was wearing a satisfied grin and looking right at her. Feeling a rush of appreciation for what he’d done, Brienne gave him the largest, most genuine smile she could muster without exposing her overly large teeth. His smile widened, and he winked.  

A tug at her wrist brought Brienne’s attention back to Sansa, who was looking up at her with excitement sparkling in her eyes. “Go on! You need to see for yourself.”

Brienne made her way through the now-thinning crowd until she stood in front of the board. When she read her name on the paper with Rockford Peaches penned across the top, a tingling sensation pulsed through her body like an electric current. Glancing down, she saw the skin of her arms pebbled with goosebumps.  

She attempted to read the other names on the list, but her own kept drawing her eye. It was right there, between Tarly, Gilly and Tyrell, Margaery.

Tarth, Brienne.

A quiet elation arose in her heart, traveling up through her chest and into her throat, where it threatened to break free in a bout of giddy laughter that would have been quite unlike her. But then she saw the scrawl at the bottom of the page, and her happiness curdled.

Team manager: Jaime Lannister.

Brienne stifled a groan. The whole thing had been entirely too good to be true, so of course she had wound up on his team.

Arrogant, insufferable man, she thought, spinning on her heel and stalking away from the board.

As she walked toward the patch of infield where Sansa and Arya had joined the other assembling Peaches, Brienne scanned the crowd of men standing with Tyrion to see if his face was among them. It was not.

His absence didn’t really surprise her. She hadn’t seen him since the first day of tryouts, when he’d dragged her unceremoniously across the field and ordered her to bat. Hitting those balls out of the park had felt like victory, especially when she’d seen the slack-jawed expression on his stupidly handsome face. But she hadn’t been able to savor the satisfaction of hitting two home runs in a professional baseball stadium with his incisive green eyes twinkling at her.

It was what he’d done next, though, that unsettled her the most. He’d complimented her. Once she’d realized his words were sincere, Brienne hadn’t quite known what to do. He was Jaime Lannister, after all—pompous and irritating or not—and his praise had flustered her.

She’d momentarily considered modifying her initial assessment of him, but he’d spared her the trouble by calling her wench, of all ludicrous things, a second time. And while Brienne was no stranger to mockery—people had hurled countless terrible nicknames and insults at her over the years—that was a new one.

Wench. What is that even supposed to mean? Brienne fumed. Is he a pirate? Maybe he should get a hook instead of that hand.

The more she thought about Jaime Lannister, the more her blood boiled. And the idea of being stuck with him for three months, of him trying to manage her… It was going to be absolute hell.

At least you’ll be playing baseball with Arya and Sansa, she consoled herself. All you have to do with Jaime Lannister is tolerate him. And you’ve tolerated worse.

By the time she sat down on the grass next to Arya, Brienne’s temper had cooled. It helped that she hadn’t seen either of her friends so happy since before Robb and Jon went off to basic training. She knew she’d have to contend with Catelyn, who would definitely not share their joy, but Brienne could at least tell her they’d be together. And living in Rockford would put them only a few hours away by train—much closer to home than any of the other team cities.

As the last few players took their seats on the field, Brienne considered her new teammates. In addition to Margaery, Shireen, Dany, and the two girls they’d been speaking with, Brienne recognized Ygritte, Lyanna, and Yara from tryouts.

Margaery, seated directly in front of her, winked at Brienne over her shoulder. “Best damn team in the league. I can already tell.”

Before Brienne could reply, a familiar figure stepped in front of the crowd, and the chatter dissolved into silence.

“Congratulations, ladies,” Mr. Varys began, his voice quiet but authoritative. “Welcome to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.”

The girls greeted his words with cheers and whistles. Even Brienne found herself smiling widely.

“Today, you’ll have some time to meet and scrimmage with your teammates. Then, you’ll return to your hotels, gather your things, and be off to your new homes on your team buses,” he explained. “But first, you’ll be fitted for your uniforms.”

He made a sweeping gesture with his arm just as a shapely, attractive woman walked out onto the field.

Arya leaned in to whisper in Brienne’s ear. “They expect us to wear that?”

But Brienne couldn’t answer. She was too busy staring in stupefied horror at the display before them.

The uniform, if it could be called that, looked utterly ridiculous. Instead of the usual shorts and baseball shirt, this was a one-piece tunic with a flap that crossed over at the chest and buttoned in the front. Below the belt that cinched in at the waist, it widened into a slightly flared skirt that came nowhere near the woman’s knees. Just when Brienne thought it couldn’t get any worse, the model twirled, and she caught sight of what looked like shiny satin shorts beneath the skirt. The only things remotely traditional about the entire ensemble were the tall socks, cleats, and baseball cap.

“What do you think we’re playing? Tennis?” someone shouted.

“Excuse me, but that’s not a baseball uniform,” Margaery called out. “It’s a dress!”

“It’s half a dress,” Yara spat, disgusted.

Murmurs of agreement sounded across the field.

Again, Arya leaned her head close to Brienne’s. “I hate dresses.”

Brienne nodded. She only owned two or three of them herself, and she never wore them. Slacks were so much more functional. And comfortable.

“How are we supposed to move?” Arya snarled, more loudly this time. “How am I supposed to pitch?”

At least you don’t have to squat in that thing, Brienne thought, cringing as she imagined the humiliation to come.

“Ladies,” Mr. Varys admonished, holding up his hands. “If any of you feel that you can’t play baseball in this uniform, you’re welcome to see yourselves out. I’m sure any of the girls currently making travel arrangements to return home will play in whatever outfit we ask them to.”

Brienne looked at Arya. She didn’t know if she could do this. But Arya clamped her hand around Brienne’s forearm and shook her head.

Not a single girl left the field.

Apparently satisfied, Mr. Varys went on, “There will be no smoking and no drinking. All social engagements, including dates, must be approved by your team chaperone, who’ll be waiting for you at your team houses this evening.”

While some of the girls grumbled at the news, Brienne barely registered it. None of those rules made any difference to her whatsoever.

What came next, on the other hand, positively nauseated her.

“You will wear skirts or dresses at all times when traveling with your team. Slacks are strictly prohibited. Also, before the start of the season, you will all attend lessons at charm and beauty school,” Mr. Varys said. “Every player in this league is going to be a lady.”

~*~*~

Two days later, the Rockford Peaches boarded the team bus outside their new home—a mansion-like boardinghouse on a quiet, tree-lined street—for their visit to Ellaria Sand’s School of Beauty and Etiquette.

Once they arrived, Ms. Sand herself, a striking woman with long, shiny black hair and dark eyes, led their “lessons.” This involved putting the entire team through various absurd exercises: walking with books on their heads, sipping tea, properly taking a seat in a chair, even sashaying across a ballroom floor.

Sansa, Dany, Margaery, and several of the other Peaches completed each activity with effortless grace. Brienne hated every minute of it.

She didn’t have an elegant bone in her body, and the only place she moved well was on the field. The entire situation served as yet another depressing reminder of her failure to be feminine enough, beautiful enough, charming enough. As if she needed it. The world reminded her constantly.

Throughout the day, Ms. Sand interspersed her instructions and corrections with lectures about the importance of their appearance as neat, wholesome, well-mannered, all-American girls. Brienne rolled her eyes so many times she lost count, and her persistent aggravation at being forced to trot around like a show pony resulted in a throbbing headache.

Her only consolation was that some of the other girls seemed to detest the experience as much as she did. Little Lyanna, for instance, looked as though she might flat-out refuse to participate, and Yara peppered each task with snarky commentary. Arya, to Brienne’s surprise, seemed to find the whole thing hysterically funny and kept erupting in fits of snorting laughter.

Arya’s amusement subsided only when they lined up for the day’s final activity: their beauty assessments. Ms. Sand began at the end of the queue, giving specific instructions to her staff on how to appropriately “improve” each girl.

Sandwiched between Margaery and Arya, Brienne waited in dread. What would the woman say? Would she dismiss her as a lost cause?

When Ms. Sand stopped in front of her, Brienne’s whole body automatically tensed. But the imposing woman ignored her discomfort, raising one slender eyebrow as she scanned Brienne from head to toe. Then, she reached out and rubbed a few strands of Brienne’s unruly hair between her fingers.

“Hair, eyebrows, skin,” she rattled off. Then, after taking an excruciatingly long look at Brienne’s face, Ms. Sand added, “Make the most of her eyes and mouth.”

The whole thing took fifteen seconds, at most, and Ms. Sand moved down the line to Arya while two women approached Brienne to whisk her out of the ballroom.

A short while later, she sat ensconced in a salon chair with some sort of thick cream covering her face. Her two attendants brushed a paste-like substance into her hair, attacked her eyebrows with tweezers, and coated her fingernails in a clear polish—the last of which, in particular, struck Brienne as comically impractical.

Once her hair had been rinsed, dried, softened, and styled, the women painted her face with more cosmetics than Brienne had worn in her entire life, including a liberal application of red lipstick.

When they’d finished, the older of the two women pressed her palm between Brienne’s shoulder blades, pulling one of her shoulders back with her other hand. “You’d look quite regal if you sat up straight, my dear.”

Blushing, Brienne looked down at her glossy fingernails. That’s what happens when you spend your whole life trying to look smaller.

“Now, we’re going to give you a little supply kit so you can replicate this on your own.” The woman smiled kindly. “You don’t have to do yourself up every day, but you are required to wear lipstick at all times. Even when you play.”

“What?” Brienne groaned. “Why?”

“Who knows? I don’t make the rules, dear. At least you have the lips to pull it off.”

Brienne scrunched her forehead. Had the woman just said something positive about her appearance?

“Don’t do that,” the attendant scolded gently. “We don’t want wrinkles.”

~*~*~

They sent her out of the salon with a cosmetic kit, a bottle of hair treatment, and some perfume that smelled of lilac and jasmine.

On her way down the hallway to the reception room, Brienne stopped to consider her reflection in one of the large mirrors lining the walls.

Her hair fell differently and her lips were bright red, but it was still her face. Now, it just looked like she was trying to camouflage it—and she wasn’t sure it was an improvement.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, Brienne turned away from the mirror. Seconds later, Margaery rounded the corner.  

“Look at you!” she exclaimed, hurrying toward her. “Your hair is just lovely, and that lipstick is marvelous!”

“Thanks,” Brienne muttered softly.

“I mean it! You look wonderful.”

“It’s still the same me underneath it,” Brienne said, shrugging. “It doesn’t matter anyway. No one’s going to be looking at me.”

“Nonsense!” Margaery objected. “You’re not in farm country anymore, Brienne. Men in the wider world like all kinds of women. And as soon as they see you in that uniform, they’ll be dying to meet you.”

“I’m not here to meet men,” Brienne protested. “I’m here to play baseball for seventy-five dollars a week. Which I’d hoped to send home to my father, but apparently I’ll have to spend on a new wardrobe instead.”

“A new wardrobe? Why?”

“We’re not allowed to wear slacks, Margaery. That might not be a problem for any of the other girls, but I don’t wear anything except slacks. This is the only dress I brought with me, and it’s terrible.” Brienne gestured hopelessly at her plain gray outfit. “They never fit properly. I always end up looking ridiculous.”

“Don’t be silly. If you need clothes, we’ll go into the city and get you some clothes.” Margaery patted Brienne’s arm. “I’ll have one of our tailors make sure you end up looking fabulous.”  

“That’s kind of you, but I really can’t afford it.”

“Brienne, darling, who said anything about paying? What’s the point of your family owning a store if you can’t help out a friend?”

Friend? The word took Brienne aback. She’d never been one to make friends quickly; in fact, Brienne didn’t have many good friends at all outside of the Stark sisters and a few of the girls on their softball team. Margaery had been nothing but kind to her, though, and Brienne supposed they were at least on the way to becoming friends.

The thought made her unexpectedly glad, but she still couldn’t accept that kind of generosity. She opened her mouth to explain as much, but Margaery held up her index finger and shook its red-lacquered tip in Brienne’s face.

“No arguments, Brienne. I insist. I’ll have grandmother send a car.” She paused, and a grin slowly overtook her face. “She’s going to adore you.”

Chapter Text

Jaime slammed his convertible into gear and stomped down on the accelerator harder than he should have as he pulled away from his rented house.

The piercing squeal of the tires on the pavement reminded him to ease off the gas. Driving recklessly had already ruined his life once, and being late—even if it was to the first game of the season—wasn’t worth risking a repeat of that particular misery.

He gripped the steering wheel tighter in his left hand as he drove toward the baseball field, freshly annoyed with his damned stump. He’d lain awake half the night in agony, falling asleep far too late and failing to rise with his alarm clock.

These days, his arm hardly ever bothered him during his waking hours, but at night, the old wound plagued him with pain. His doctors had never been able to explain how something that was missing could still hurt, but they’d expected it to resolve itself with time. He’d known he might always have a mild ache in his stump when it was cold or damp, but the burning pain in his hand—the hand he didn’t even have—should have dwindled and faded by now. But it hadn’t. And neither had the dreams.

Usually, he was standing on the pitcher’s mound in a stadium full of people, holding a ball in his gloved left hand and staring at his right. It was invariably still there—what remained of it, anyway—mangled, covered in blood, and absolutely on fire with pain. He would just stare at it, watching thick drops of crimson trickle onto the field with the sound of the crowd roaring in his ears.  

Between the pain, the dreams, and these fucking early games, Jaime didn’t know how he was going to survive the summer. And he hadn’t even set eyes on his team yet, having arrived in Rockford only the previous day. Tyrion never sent him a full roster, either, joking that Jaime only cared about one player anyway.  

As he pulled into the field’s parking lot, Jaime saw that at least half its spaces remained empty. Looking down at his watch, Jaime frowned. It probably wouldn’t fill up in the next fifteen minutes. Honestly, he’d anticipated this kind of a reception and had warned his brother to expect it. They would need time to attract an audience. Time, and every marketing trick Tyrion could manage. Fewer games at this ungodly hour wouldn’t hurt, either.

When he glanced at his reflection in the rearview mirror, his frown deepened. Unshaven and pallid, with dark smudges beneath his eyes, Jaime looked as awful as he felt. He’d deliberately left the top down on the car, hoping the wind in his face would shock the grogginess from his system and make him look less…terrible. It had not.

Blowing out a heavy breath, Jaime climbed from the car, grabbing his red hat from the passenger seat. As he made his way through the players’ entrance and into the dark hallway beneath the stands, Jaime tugged at his new baseball gear, making sure the long-sleeved shirt he’d donned under his uniform covered the straps of his prosthetic hand.

Even with the extra layer, the clothes were comfortable and familiar. His body finally felt at home again, and the rightness of it pissed him off. You can’t have that anymore, he reminded himself. You’re not that man now, and you never will be again.

Feeling irritable as well as underslept, Jaime pushed open the door to the locker room without knocking.

He wasn’t sure what he had expected to find, but it definitely wasn’t Brienne Tarth standing in the center of the room, giving instructions on the lineup.

The sight of the rule-following wench usurping his role lightened Jaime’s mood considerably, but then he registered the girls’ preposterous uniforms and wanted to curse his daft brother. Even though Jaime knew his father had wanted the girls in skirts, Tywin Lannister would never have designed anything that looked like this. No, these had Tyrion written all over them.

How could his brother possibly think they could play baseball in those things? How could they slide into base? How am I supposed to give them any credibility at all?

They were wearing makeup, too, for God’s sake.

“What exactly is going on here?” he finally asked, aiming for carelessly inquisitive and sounding petulant instead.

A few of the girls jumped, and sixteen pairs of eyes swiveled toward him. It might have been funny, if it hadn’t made him feel so acutely uncomfortable. Some of the girls seemed genuinely surprised, others uncertain, and a few undeniably critical. None seemed excited to see him.

Was tardiness such a crime? Or was it something else? Confused, Jaime looked down at himself. His shirt was a little rumpled, and he hadn’t done up the top few buttons yet, but he didn’t look that bad. Running his hand through his disheveled hair, he glanced around the room, seeing judgment writ large on several faces.

Especially on her face.

Brienne was looking at him with a special kind of moralistic horror, like he’d just crawled out of a drunken stupor—or a woman’s bed. He wondered fleetingly which would be worse, in her eyes, before shaking his head at himself. Why should he care what she thought? What any of them thought?

“Are you drunk?”

Jaime spun toward the source of the insolent question, meeting the disdainful gaze of the short, gray-eyed pitcher. The girl was one of Brienne’s friends—part of Tyrion’s bargain. As she continued glaring daggers at him, Jaime started to think the wench might not have been worth the trouble.

“Afraid not,” he replied flippantly, smirking. “Although the day would probably be much less painful if I were.”

“We were doing just fine without you,” the girl declared. “So if being here is painful for you—”

“Arya, that’s enough.”

Stunned that she’d interceded on his behalf, Jaime turned toward Brienne, fully seeing her for the first time since he’d entered the room. She was just as tall, broad, and homely as he remembered, with the same flash of annoyance in her eyes.

How can anyone have eyes that blue? Jaime wondered. They really are quite remarkable.

But she looked different, too. Her hair had changed, perhaps? Or maybe it was just the way Tyrion’s idiotic uniform made her legs seem about a mile long, with the short skirt revealing an almost obscene amount of pale thigh and those tall red socks hugging her muscular calves. And she wore a bright shade of red lipstick that looked either absurd or fantastic on her wide mouth.

As Jaime’s gaze lingered on her lips, his opinion tilted toward the latter.

She approached him, stopping a few steps away, and Jaime grinned in spite of himself.

“…Mr. Lannister. Mr. Lannister.” 

He blinked, looking briefly down at the piece of paper she held out to him. What is the matter with you?

Had he only thought the question, or had she asked it, too? Because it was there on her face, clear in the faint lines between her eyebrows and the downward curve of those cherry-red lips.

Sleep deprivation, he reasoned. It was the only explanation.

Grabbing the sheet from her fingers, Jaime peeled his eyes away from her to skim over it.

“The girls didn’t know what to do, and we weren’t sure you were coming,” Brienne explained, a note of hesitation in her voice. “I’ve helped with lineups before, at home, so I…”

When she didn’t continue, Jaime peered up at her again. This close, her gaze crashed into his like a sapphire wave.

She averted her eyes almost immediately and gave a small, uneasy shrug. “Change it if you want.”

He nodded, even though she wasn’t looking at him, and returned his attention to the paper bearing her neat, looping hand. He’d made it through the first three names when a silky, feminine voice cut through the silence.

“Better late than never, right girls?”

Recognizing its owner immediately—after all, he’d just read her name at the top of the list—Jaime lifted his head to meet her shrewd blue eyes. “Margaery Tyrell.”

She smiled, all teeth and false sweetness. “Hello, Jaime.”

His forehead creased. “Can’t say I expected to find you here.”

“Likewise,” she replied, her expression softening into something more genuine. “But I’m glad to see you, nonetheless.”

Discomposed by her sudden warmth, Jaime busied himself rechecking her entry on Brienne’s lineup. He knew the girl, had known her for years, but they’d never been friendly. “Center field, leading off?”

“If you let Brienne’s lineup stand. And you should,” she insisted, flashing Brienne a truly genial smile. “She knows what she’s doing.”

His eyebrows quirked up. The wench and Margaery, friends already? He couldn’t imagine a less likely pair.

Trying not to smile at the thought, Jaime resumed his perusal of the page. Although he knew only a few of the girls by name, he could tell which player was which by the starting positions Brienne had listed. He remembered that well enough from tryouts, at least for most of them.

Jaime was both amused and impressed to see that Brienne had assigned the players almost exactly as he would have done. The batting order might be a little off; she’d put herself sixth—out of modesty, he guessed—while he would’ve made her fourth, bracketed by Dany and Yara. Those three were inarguably the best hitters on the team.

As he neared the bottom of the list of starting players, Jaime’s stomach turned at one of the names. Batting eighth and playing first base…

“Shireen Baratheon?” He grimaced, hoping no one had noticed the crack in his voice.

A young girl with long, light brown hair and gentle brown eyes stepped forward. “Yes, Mr. Lannister?”

“Any relation to Robert Baratheon?”

“Yes,” she answered uncertainly. “He’s my uncle. My father’s brother.”

Of course Tyrion put Cersei’s fucking niece on my team, Jaime thought, grinding his teeth. I’ll kill him.

“Do you know him, Mr. Lannister?” Shireen studied him nervously, and Jaime realized he’d been frowning at her.

He deliberately relaxed his face into a calm, easy expression. “Yes, I know him. Our families are…connected. And it’s Jaime, to all of you.”

Before he could continue, the locker room door banged open, revealing a short, plump woman in a badly fitting blue suit. “It’s time, girls.”

“And you are?” Jaime asked.

“Oh, hello, Mr. Lannister. I’m glad to see you’ve made it. I’m Walda Frey, the team chaperone. I’ll be traveling with the team and staying with the girls at the house to ensure they—”

“Yes, yes,” Jaime interrupted. “Pleased to meet you, Ms. Frey.” She seemed harmless enough, but he didn’t care to hear every detail of her duties. “It’s time to go, you said?”

Ms. Frey nodded.

“The lineup, Jaime?” Margaery prompted.

He sighed, incapable of resisting one last glance at Brienne’s blue eyes. “It stands. For now.”

~*~*~

The Kenosha Comets, headed by manager Oberyn Martell, had already assumed their position in the visiting dugout when the Rockford Peaches took the field.

Jaime watched from the bottom of their own dugout steps as the announcer called each of the starting nine by name. He noticed their nervous, disappointed faces when they realized how few people had come to watch their opening game. Margaery and Dany waved brightly, but Brienne’s expression told him she’d rather be anywhere else. He knew the feeling.

As they jogged off the field, Jaime jammed his hat on, bracing himself for what he was about to do.

“And now, the manager of the Peaches: Mr. Jaime Lannister!”

Plastering on the widest smile he could conjure and keeping his right arm glued to his side, Jaime sprang up the steps. He took a few long strides into the infield before turning to wave at the thin crowd.

I can’t believe I have been reduced to this.

He gave a little mock bow, acknowledging the rather astonishing volume of the audience’s applause, before hastening back to the safety of the dugout.

He collapsed on the farthest corner of bench, feeling slightly nauseated and grumbling to himself about how much he hated his fucking father for this little slice of promotional degradation.

Never again, he vowed, watching in silence as the girls grabbed their gear and headed out onto the field to warm up.

He’d already decided he wouldn’t provide any instruction, criticism, or commentary on the day’s game unless absolutely necessary. Tryouts had been one thing. Playing a real game in front of a real crowd, and as a team for the first time, would be a different kind of test. Jaime needed to see how they handled themselves, how they played together, how they responded to the cheers and the jeers.

He needed to see if they could be a baseball team.

~*~*~

By the end of the ninth inning, Jaime had begun to think the next three months might not be so bad. The Peaches had won handily, defeating the Comets by a comfortable 8-4.

They had all played well, and Brienne the best of all. He’d already known she had something he could work with, but he’d seen other talent on the field, too, even if it wasn’t quite as awe-inspiring as hers.

Distracted by the girls’ jubilance—even Brienne seemed happy as she gathered up her gear and ducked through the doorway—Jaime didn’t notice that Tyrion had wandered into the dugout until he stood directly in front of him. Before Jaime could say hello or ask when he’d arrived, his brother launched into a self-congratulatory speech about recruiting the Peaches’ best player.

“She’s not my player,” Jaime replied, smiling faintly. He wished the blue-eyed wench had been around to hear that.  

“No?” Tyrion queried, giving him a curious look. “Though I suppose I can’t argue with you, based on your performance today.”

My performance?”

“Yes, Jaime. We are expecting you to act like a manager at some point. You know, coach them? Do what we’re paying you for?”

“Are you paying me?” Jaime asked, wrinkling his brow in exaggerated contemplation. “Funny, Father and I never discussed a salary.”

“That was clever of him.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Jaime leaned forward on the bench, staring levelly into Tyrion’s amused green eyes. “I have something more important to discuss with you.”

“Oh?” Tyrion’s eyebrows lifted. “More important than Father’s money?”

Ignoring his brother’s sarcasm, Jaime nodded. “Shireen Baratheon.”

At least Tyrion had the decency to look contrite. “Yes, about that…”

“If you were going to let Cersei’s niece into the goddamn league, you could have put her on a different team. Or at least warned me.”

“Jaime, I swear I didn’t know that’s who she was until after the rosters were fixed.”

“Really?” Jaime snapped. “The name Baratheon didn’t ring a bell?”

“Brother, you know as well as I do that there are as many Baratheons in the Midwest as there are Lannisters. How was I supposed to know she was Stannis’ daughter? Frankly, I’m surprised he’d let her play.”

“The Tyrells had something to do with that, if I had to guess.”

“Ah, yes, Margaery. I won’t pretend that was an accident.”

Jaime sighed. “It’s fine. She’s better off with me than tormenting one of the other poor fools you’ve gotten to manage these teams.”

“I think they’ll all do just fine.”

“Well, Clegane and Seaworth certainly will,” Jaime acknowledged. “Both were excellent players in their day, and Davos is a hell of a coach. But Oberyn Martell? Why did you even ask him? He’s always been an arrogant hack.”

“Has he now?” Tyrion grinned. “While you, on the other hand, are a paragon of humility?”

Jaime glowered at him. “You had to have noticed the way he stares at the girls. He leers at them like he’s…”

“Like he’s Oberyn Martell?” Tyrion asked, laughter brimming in his eyes. “Don’t worry, Jaime. That won’t be a problem. Fraternization between managers and players is forbidden, naturally.”

“I don’t recall you mentioning that,” Jaime groused, feeling irrationally disconcerted.

“I didn’t. Jaime, I…well, I didn’t think it was relevant, in your case.” Tyrion considered him silently for several seconds before tipping his head to one side. “Is it relevant?”

“Of course not,” Jaime scoffed. “I’m absolutely not interested.”

Chapter Text

Brienne stifled a yawn as she looked out the window of the bus, watching the vast expanse of fields turn a hazy gold in the morning sunshine.

The team had left Rockford under a blanket of stars, the approaching dawn signaled only by a faint indigo smudge on the horizon. The soporific whir of the tires had lulled many of the girls back to sleep almost immediately, but the relentless discomfort of being crammed into a too-shallow seat had kept Brienne awake.

The thought of the day’s doubleheader in South Bend—followed by another long, uncomfortable bus ride home—made Brienne’s legs ache in anticipatory protest. The Peaches had already played seven games in their first week, traveling to two each in Kenosha and Racine in addition to playing three on their home field.  

Sixty-three innings in seven days, Brienne mused. No wonder I’m sore.

She glanced up at the wispy clouds creeping across the pale blue sky, wondering idly why she ever thought playing professional baseball sounded like a good idea.

It wasn’t so much the grueling schedule and endless miles of gravel roads that dimmed the thrill of making the league. Brienne knew she’d eventually adjust to those less-than-ideal aspects of her new lifestyle.

The crowds were what really troubled her—although they could hardly be called that. Unlike at home, where familiar faces packed the stands to cheer for their girls, these bleachers were sparsely filled by onlookers interested only in witnessing some kind of spectacle. When their expectations weren’t met, the majority of them either sank into bored silence or vocalized their disappointment by booing enthusiastically.

She didn’t know how she’d survive eleven more weeks of such unfriendly responses. Presuming, of course, they’d allow the league to continue. What was the point of it all, if no one wanted to watch?

Sighing, Brienne looked down at the discarded sheets of paper peeking out from her open bag. She’d intended to make use of the trip to answer a short letter she’d gotten from Hyle, of all people, earlier in the week, asking her how things were going. Brienne had been surprised to hear from him so soon—or at all, really. She’d assumed Hyle’s interest in her, such as it was, would fade in her absence; to her dismay, it clearly had not. 

She wasn’t particularly keen on maintaining correspondence with the man, but Brienne knew it would have been wrong to outright ignore him. So, she had tried her best to compose a response. She’d struggled for at least fifteen minutes, trying and failing to conjure even the dullest of pleasantries, before setting it aside in favor of writing to her brother.

Galladon had yet to reply to her last few letters, but she knew he would be eager to hear all about her first week in the league. However, after wrestling with the lack of good news she had to report, Brienne had abandoned that cause as well. How could she tell her brother she’d been jeered and laughed at—on her home field, no less? How could she tell him this experience was robbing her of the one place she’d always felt safe, the one place she’d found joy? How could she tell him the magnificent Jaime Lannister was not the man Galladon imagined him to be?

A sudden gust of cool, pungent air assaulted Brienne’s nostrils, making her nose wrinkle—and doing nothing to improve her mood. Even here, it seemed, she couldn’t escape the stench of cows.

Looking around for the source of the unpleasant odor, Brienne realized that Ms. Frey, sitting two rows ahead of her, had opened her window.

Despite being clearly unfamiliar with the perils of farm country, Ms. Frey seemed like a pleasant enough woman. Middle-aged and plump, she had a pretty face and light blue eyes that always seemed to be smiling. From their minimal interactions, Brienne judged her to be kind and well-meaning, if a bit clueless.

Truthfully, Brienne considered Ms. Frey’s presence largely irrelevant. She didn’t have any social engagements for the chaperone to approve of, and she’d been doing just fine without a mothering presence in her life. She did worry, though, that some of the more headstrong girls—Arya and Lyanna, for instance—might prove difficult for the sweet woman to handle.

Brienne’s attention wandered from Ms. Frey’s seat to the one across the aisle, where the tilt of Jaime’s mussed blond head suggested he was still asleep. The discovery didn’t surprise her; he’d staggered aboard the bus bleary-eyed and haggard, looking just as miserable he did every time they had an early morning. And while he hadn’t been late again after their first game, he hadn’t been more actively involved, either.

In fact, Jaime had yet to move from his seat on the bench. At every game, he just sat in the farthest corner of the dugout for nine innings, watching. His sharp green eyes were always trained on the field, but he never said anything. Sometimes he would grimace or shake his head or even smile, but not once had he given a batter a sign, called for a change in players, or swapped in a fresh pitcher. Not a single helpful suggestion had passed his lips.

On the few occasions that someone looked directly to him for guidance, his responses had ranged from disinterested to downright snarky. Brienne had tired of both his sarcasm and his air of superiority by game three.

But more than simply irritating her, Jaime’s disinclination to engage with the team was causing problems among some of the girls. The players that hadn’t featured in Brienne’s original starting lineup—Melisandre, Missandei, Osha, Lollys, Ygritte, Talisa, and Meera—grew progressively gloomier as each game came and went without them playing in it.

To Brienne’s dismay, some of them seemed to blame her for the whole debacle. But she’d never intended for Jaime to use the lineup the way he had. If Brienne had a say in the matter, she would’ve taken every opportunity to rotate the girls whenever it made sense. She herself would happily cede some innings to Osha—for the sake of her poor knees, if nothing else.

Surely Jaime knew they couldn’t continue at this rate of play. If he didn’t, she wasn’t sure what they would do. Brienne definitely didn’t want to be the one to rectify the problem; she’d already had more than enough of that.

It had started in the middle of their fifth game, when Brienne had been forced to practically drag Arya off the mound when she could no longer get the ball over the plate. Ygritte had been elated—and thrown a stellar few innings—but Arya had stewed the entire bus ride home. Brienne understood her young friend’s disappointment; in her inexperience, Arya simply didn’t understand that no one could pitch well for that many innings over that many sequential games. No matter how good she thought she was, Arya would need to accustom herself to sharing the role.

Nevertheless, Brienne didn’t like the strain that had lingered between them. Margaery urged her not to take it to heart, but she couldn’t help it. If only the high-and-mighty Jaime Lannister had deigned to involve himself, Brienne could have avoided the unpleasant situation entirely.

She could say the same for the incident that had occurred the very next day, when a particularly deplorable call had sent Yara into a rage so fearsome that Brienne had needed to physically restrain her. If she hadn’t, Yara would have gotten herself ejected from the game—or worse.

Jaime had watched the entire thing unfold with a ghost of a smile forming on his lips, and Brienne had wanted to jam her fist into his perfect face.  

It had ultimately been Racine’s team manager, Davos Seaworth, who hurried over to help diffuse the tension with the umpire. An older man with a lilting Irish accent, thinning hair, and a thick, graying beard, Davos seemed genuinely kind. She wished Jaime were more like him—or any of the other coaches, for that matter.

Oberyn Martell oozed warmth and charisma, though he was perhaps too friendly with his players. He always had his arm draped around one of them, and he seemed to like nothing more than winking a chocolate brown eye at anyone who looked his way. The Blue Sox’s coach, Sandor Clegane, was a huge, imposing man with a gruff voice, a large facial scar, and a significantly less sociable personality. But his grouchiness didn’t prevent him from managing his players.

Why had Brienne wound up on the one team without a decent coach? And why the hell had she been compelled to step in and fill the void? I’m no leader, Brienne thought. I just want to play baseball.

The feeling of someone dropping down beside her drew Brienne’s focus away from the back of Jaime’s head—where, to her mortification, she realized she’d been staring for several minutes.

At first, Margaery didn’t seem to notice, flashing Brienne a wide smile as she settled into the adjacent seat. Then, like a hound catching a scent, Margaery froze, her eyebrows rising sharply.

“You don’t like him very much, do you?”

“Who?” Brienne asked, feigning confusion.

Margaery rolled her eyes before gesturing in Jaime’s direction. “You’re looking at him like you want to throw him off the bus. Or hit him with it.”

“No, I’m not.” 

“You are,” Margaery insisted, her voice tinged with mirth. “Like the very sight of him offends you.”

“Shhh.”

Laughing quietly, Margaery laid a reassuring hand on Brienne’s arm. “Don’t worry. I don’t blame you. He’s not the most likeable man, although he has a way of growing on you.”

Brienne huffed doubtfully, and Margaery smiled.

“I mean it. He’s irritating as hell, but he’s a good person.”

“Maybe he is,” Brienne conceded. “I just…he’s so arrogant. It’s like he doesn’t want to be here.”

Margaery shrugged her slender shoulders. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he doesn’t. Relations between the Lannister sons and their father have never been what you’d call cordial. God only knows what Tywin said to get him here.” Margaery leaned toward her, dropping her voice even lower. “After his accident, he became so reclusive that nobody ever saw him. I didn’t know what to expect when I found out he’d be here. I’m actually glad to see he’s still so much himself—arrogance and all.”

Brienne frowned pensively as Margaery’s words stirred up a memory from their first game. She vividly recalled how stricken Jaime had looked when they’d announced his name. A second later, though, he’d glided onto the field and waved to the crowd, flashing his million-watt smile and shimmering in the sun like a demigod descended to live among mortals. But the moment he’d jogged down the dugout steps, that charming, confident mask had vanished, replaced by a scowl darker than a thundercloud.

Maybe Margaery was right. Maybe he really had been forced into doing this. If that were true, Brienne felt truly sorry for him.

Not sorry enough, however, to excuse his aloof behavior. No matter what road had led him here, the team didn’t deserve to pay the price for his unhappiness. Still, the idea that she’d judged him too harshly didn’t sit well with her.

Just as Brienne was considering the most tactful way to ask Margaery more about the Lannister family, the bus rocked to a stop and the clatter of the opening door announced their arrival in South Bend.

~*~*~

As usual, Jaime waited for the girls to change into their uniforms before making what was becoming his standard two-minute appearance in the locker room.

But instead of his usual hurried declaration of “no changes to the lineup,” Jaime announced that Meera Reed would start in left field instead of Lyanna.

The young girl had badly sprained her wrist the day before, sliding into base during the seventh inning. Brienne and a few of the others entreated her to let someone else take over for the remainder of the game, but Lyanna had stubbornly refused. By the bottom of the ninth, the swelling had crept halfway up her hand. Keeping her off the field for the day’s game was the right decision—one Brienne was relieved not to have to make, given the glower on the little she-bear’s face.

Just when Brienne thought he’d finished, Jaime slowly swept his gaze around the room. “And I have another change.”

Brienne blinked in surprise. This was the most interest he’d shown all week.

Melisandre, Missandei, Talisa, Lollys, Osha, and Ygritte all looked at him with hopeful eagerness. None but the redheaded pitcher had yet to see a single minute of play.

“We’re going with a new batting order,” Jaime said, looking down at a slip of paper in his hand. “Margaery, Meera, Dany, Brienne, Yara, Gilly, Shireen, Sansa, Arya.”

As Brienne felt the room deflate, she saw an especially dark glance pass between Melisandre and Ygritte. He’ll have a mutiny on his hands, if he isn’t careful.

Seemingly oblivious, Jaime’s eyes briefly caught Brienne’s before he spun toward the door. “You’re on the field in five.”

~*~*~

Three-fourths of the way through the doubleheader, things started to unravel.

They’d beaten the Blue Sox by a respectable three runs in the opening game, but they had been up by five before Coach Clegane began rotating his players in the eighth inning. Going into the second game, the tiring roster of starting Peaches had to face fresh, energetic opponents.

By the bottom of the fifth, the Blue Sox had pressed their advantage into a one-run lead. The eighty-eight-degree day, swelteringly hot and humid for this early in the year, was taking its toll on all of them. Arya, especially, showed increasing signs of fatigue. Brienne knew she’d have to call Ygritte in again if things didn’t turn around soon.

Then, in the seventh inning, Gilly fumbled what should have been an easy play in right field. She neatly scooped up a grounder as it bounced toward her feet, but she mangled the throw, heaving the ball egregiously wide of Sansa on second base. Dany lunged for it but couldn’t get there in time, and Brienne winced as she watched Yara scramble away from her position on third to chase after the ball. By the time she retrieved it, South Bend had already brought in a run thanks to the error.

Rallying remarkably, Arya struck out the next batter, finally ending the inning, and the girls trudged back to the dugout. En route, Brienne met Gilly, who had tears streaming down her face. The poor girl had already been having a rough go of it; she’d left her husband and two-year-old son, both called Sam, at home in Ohio for the summer to join the league. She spoke to them every day on the telephone, but she’d been missing them terribly.

Brienne patted Gilly’s trembling shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. You’re exhausted. We all are. It could have happened to any of us.”

As they climbed down the dugout steps, Brienne was astonished to see Jaime rise from his seat and make his way toward them. What miracle has precipitated this?

“Gilly, you missed that play.” Jaime’s voice was surprisingly stern. In fact, Brienne had never heard him sound so serious. “You cost us an easy out and handed them a two-run lead.”

Something about his scolding tone pricked at Brienne like a nettle.

“She knows,” she said quietly. “Can’t you see she’s upset?”

“Yes, I see.” Jaime transferred his attention to Brienne. “Are a few tears supposed to stop me from telling her she did something wrong?”

Maybe she wouldn’t have done something wrong if you hadn’t been playing us so hard, she thought angrily.  

But instead of snapping at him, Brienne took a deep breath and attempted to explain. “No, but she’s having a difficult week. Her husband and son—”

Jaime held up his hand to silence her. “I don’t care what any of you have going on in your personal lives. This is baseball.” Turning back to Gilly, Jaime continued, “If you can’t make one mistake without crying, I can’t have you in my outfield.”

Your outfield?” Brienne spluttered, feeling a hot rush of anger. He hadn’t seemed to care a jot about the field for the past eight games, and now suddenly it was his?

Without even a glance in Brienne’s direction, Jaime smoothly resumed speaking to Gilly. “We have a hundred games to go. I need someone who can handle the—”

“You need?” Brienne interrupted. “Because you’re clearly so invested in this team?”

Frowning, Jaime at last shifted his green gaze to hers. “I’m the manager.”

“Then act like it!”

The bench erupted in titters and a few loud claps. Suddenly alarmed, Brienne shook her head at her teammates. She steeled herself for Jaime’s response, but he only grinned.

“Maybe you’re not as much of a rule-follower as I thought you were, wench. Then again, you have been making a play for my job since day one.”

Does the man take nothing seriously? His apparent amusement at her outburst irritated her even more. And if the look on his face was anything to go by, he was fully aware of that fact.

Brienne steadied herself, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of seeing her ruffled. “I want absolutely nothing to do with your job,” she said levelly. “But if you’d actually been doing it, none of this would have happened.”

Jaime’s eyebrows drew together as he considered her. Then, sighing, he turned once again to Gilly.

“You need to work on that play, Gilly. If you can’t hit the cutoff man, I’ll have to start someone else in right field.” He put his hand on her shoulder, directing her toward the bench. “Get somebody to work on it with you.”

Gilly nodded weakly as she plopped down next to Ms. Frey, wiping ineffectually at her tears. The chaperone immediately handed her a handkerchief and slipped a generous arm around her.

Looking back to Jaime, Brienne was startled to find him studying her with a disconcerting spark in his eyes. “Let’s get one thing clear. I’ll decide how to run his team, not you. Just because I haven’t been acting like a drill sergeant doesn’t mean I haven’t been paying attention.”

“I never said you weren’t paying attention,” Brienne replied, striving to remain calm. “And there’s a bit of middle ground between being a drill sergeant and acting like you don’t care at all.”

“If I didn’t care, would I be watching?” he demanded. “How else was I supposed to see what you could do?”

“It’s been a week. Haven’t you seen enough yet?”

“Maybe,” he drawled, an infuriating smirk spreading across his face. “Maybe not.”

Brienne shook her head in exasperation. “What gives you the right—”

“We’ve been over this, wench.” His smile sharpened. “Are you hard of hearing? I’m the manager. And I’ll manage this team however I see fit. I have played a few innings of baseball before, you know. I understand the fundamentals of the game.”

“Oh, I’ve heard all about the great Jaime Lannister,” Brienne snapped. “I don’t care how good you were, or how much better than us you think you are. It’s no excuse for this—this arrogance.”

Even as the words tumbled out of her mouth, Brienne couldn’t begin to fathom what had come over her. She stood up for what she thought was right, certainly, but she never argued like this with anyone—let alone a person in a position of authority. But something about the smug look on his handsome face provoked her like nothing else ever had, and she hadn’t been able to hold it in.

“Is it really arrogance if it’s justified?” he asked airily, his tone full of mock contemplation.

A guttural, frustrated noise bubbled up in Brienne’s throat. “God! What is wrong with you?” She wanted to shake him. “Look around, Jaime. You’re not a star player anymore. You’re just a lousy coach who thinks he’s too good for his own team. So it’s not justified. It’s pathetic.”

Jaime stood absolutely still, the light of amusement in his expression instantly extinguished. Wide-eyed shock took its place, hardening within seconds into something far colder. His lip curled into a sneer that might have been menacing if not for the woundedness shining brightly in his eyes.

All of Brienne’s anger and vexation melted away as she met his gaze. It was as though a curtain had been pulled back, allowing her to peer straight into the tormented core of him, into a deep well of pain hidden beneath his arrogant veneer. It was the very last thing she expected to find.

The rawness of it unlocked something in the hollow of her own chest, and Brienne’s heart gave a lurch that was half agony, half sympathy.

Before she could begin to process what she was feeling, Jaime blinked, and whatever had been open slammed closed again. A frosty contempt flooded his features, and Brienne had the unshakable feeling that she’d made a rather large mistake. 

Chapter Text

 Jaime stared at her through a haze of offended disbelief, feeling his pulse accelerate. His temples throbbed dully with every beat as Brienne’s final word reverberated in his ears.

Pathetic.

The syllables charged through his brain like a battering ram, breaking down the door to the past. In an instant, Brienne dissolved, and Cersei’s cruel, beautiful face swam before his eyes. And then it was her honeyed voice inside his head, her words tearing him open again.

What did you think would happen, Jaime? You’re nothing but a pathetic shell of the man I loved. Did you honestly think that would be enough?

He blinked, and the wench came into focus again. A blistering red blush colored her cheeks, but her eyes had softened.

And Jaime despised her for making him remember.

“That was…I’m…” Brienne faltered. “Jaime, I’m really—”

His temper spiked even higher at the pity in her voice, and venomous words leapt to the tip of his tongue. “I could be the worst, most pathetic coach in the world, and I still wouldn’t need advice from a great beast of a woman.”

Her nostrils flared, and she pressed her generous lips into a firm line. But she didn’t reply.

“What, no more righteous outrage?” Jaime demanded, unsatisfied. “Not that I’m complaining. You’re even uglier when you’re angry. Hard to fathom, I know, but—”

Brienne reeled back from him, her blue eyes wide and full of hurt. When he saw the quiver in her chin, remorse hit him squarely in the chest.

Idiot, Jaime berated himself. She isn’t Cersei. She didn’t deserve that.

Brienne had spoken harshly, but out of frustration, not malice. Jaime, on the other hand, had used his words like a well-honed blade, slashing furiously and deep at the most vulnerable target—wanting to wound her, to cow her, to see her suffer. Wanting to win.

He’d been his goddamned father, and he hated himself for it.

“I—I’m sorry,” he stammered, taking a small step toward her. “That was uncalled for. I shouldn’t have—”

“There’s no need.” Brienne flicked her hand dismissively in his face, her eyes once again glowing hot. “There’s nothing you could say that I haven’t heard before.”

“But I didn’t mean—”

“Yes, you did. People like you always do.”

Before he could respond, Brienne spun away from him, walking briskly to the bench and ripping off her chest protector. Jaime’s conscience screamed at him to follow her, but the fury in her movements kept him at bay.

Once she’d removed all her gear, she strode to the far end of the dugout, as far away from him as possible, to wait for her turn at bat. Margaery hit a single, Meera struck out, and Dany popped up a fly ball caught easily in left field. All the while, Brienne stood as stiff and silent as a statue, resolutely keeping her back to him.

When she finally took her place at the plate, Jaime could see the ire simmering in the set of her jaw, the rigid square of her shoulders, the fervency of her practice swings.

The first pitch sailed toward her, and Brienne smashed the hell out of it. South Bend’s shortstop dove headlong into the dirt to avoid being struck by the scorching line drive—more powerful than anything Jaime had seen in years.

God, the wench can hit.

Her long legs carried her easily to second base, though she could have eked out a triple if she’d been willing to risk it. But, as Jaime had been learning, Brienne wasn’t a gambler. She played the safe, sure game whenever possible.

Next up, Yara hit a double that brought both Margaery and Brienne home. Instead of celebrating that the Peaches had just come back to tie the game, Brienne stomped back to the dugout, still scowling.

As she brushed past him, Jaime reached out and lightly gripped her forearm. “I know it’s my head you want, wench, and I don’t blame you. But there’s no need to take hers.”

“My name is Brienne,” she hissed and wrenched her arm away.

~*~*~

By the time Jaime boarded the bus a few hours later, he’d mentally replayed their interaction several times.

Initially, he’d felt a flare of renewed indignation—the wench didn’t know anything about him or why he was managing the team. What right did she have to judge his actions? But that quickly faded into a begrudging recognition. In fact, the longer he’d mulled over her words, the deeper Brienne’s criticisms had burrowed beneath his skin.

Perhaps he had allowed his frustration with his family, and his reluctance to be coaching at all, to cloud his judgment. He’d convinced himself that, as an inexperienced manager, he needed to observe, to learn the team, to get the lay of the land before inserting himself. But he’d gone too far. Jaime had turned what might have been a good strategy for the first game or two into a week-long excuse to sit back and let others do the dirty work. He’d put Brienne in the undeniably shitty position of doing his job. And when, at long last, he’d finally elected to step in, it had been to reprimand a player who was crying, for fuck’s sake.

No wonder she was pissed off.

When he reached the top of the steps, his eyes searched her out. As if she could feel his attention, Brienne looked up, and their gazes locked. Startlingly blue, even from a distance, her eyes stopped him in his tracks where he stood in the aisle next to his seat.

She only held his gaze for a moment, but it was long enough for Jaime to see that the anger had gone out of her. In its wake, she looked worn out and deflated, and Jaime felt a fresh twinge of guilt. It disturbed him deeply that he’d hurt her—and, bafflingly, even more deeply that she so obviously disliked him.

Why? he wondered. Why does her opinion matter to me?

Jaime rarely cared what anyone thought, but somehow this was different. She was different.  

Fuck it, he thought, tossing his bag into his seat and continuing down the aisle. When he reached Brienne’s row, Jaime swung himself down into the empty seat beside her.

Without looking at him, she said blandly, “There are plenty of other open seats.”

“This one suits me fine.”

Sighing, Brienne edged toward the window, tucking herself as far away from him as possible without flattening her body against the side of the bus.

Jaime watched her, frowning. Her reaction could have been worse, he supposed. She could have told him to get lost. Or shouted at him. Or shoved him out of the seat and onto his ass in the aisle.

Not a terrible start, then, he considered. Except I haven’t started at all.

At that moment, Jaime realized he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do. He’d approached her with every intention of mending fences, but he hadn’t thought at all about how. Apologizing only seemed to agitate her more, so that didn’t seem like the best opening tactic.

As he scrambled for something—anything—to say, Sansa’s tinkling laugh rippled through the air. And just like that, something clicked in Jaime’s spinning mind.  

If Brienne had been upset by what she thought was his lack of interest in the team, perhaps he should show her that he was interested, that he did care. And not just about the league or the team in general, but about her friends—and about her. If Jaime could make her understand that he had in fact been watching them, that he fully intended to use what he’d learned to help them play and win, perhaps he could convince her to give him a second chance.

“So,” he ventured clumsily. “My brother tells me you and the Stark girls are neighbors. He said you played on the same team back home.”

“Why do you care?” she asked tersely, fixing her gaze on her lap. Jaime’s eyes followed hers, coming to rest on her tightly folded hands, noticing the contrast of her fair skin against the dark brown fabric of her skirt.

Grimacing at her choice of words, Jaime quickly reassessed his approach. Of course it wasn’t going to be that easy. He’d been cruel to her, and she’d armored herself against him. He couldn’t expect to get through to her with a calculated plan. She’d see through it in a heartbeat.

No, he would have to be honest with her. Well, as much as he could be, considering he didn’t fully understand it himself.

“Look, I know you and I didn’t get off to the best start,” he said, keeping his voice soft and low. “I made it a lot worse today, and I’m sorry for that.”

She huffed, still staring at her lap.

“I mean it, Brienne. I don’t want to spend the next three months fighting with you. Let’s call a truce.”

At last, she turned to look at him, her eyes wary and searching. “Do you really think I trust you enough for that?”

I can’t really blame her, he thought. But he could try to change her mind.

“Well, I trust you. And we have a long season ahead of us—a season that would go much more smoothly if you and I could find a way to get along.” Jaime resisted the sudden impulse to cover her hands with his own. “I’m just asking you to get to know me and give me a chance.”

Brienne frowned. “I’ve known men like you my entire life.”

“No, you haven’t. There are no men like me.”

“Oh, please,” she groaned. “Weren’t you just trying to convince me that you’re not arrogant?”

Realizing how ridiculous he’d sounded, Jaime grinned. “I guess I’ll have to try harder.”

Much harder.”

Jaime fought the urge to laugh. He should definitely not have been enjoying their conversation, and yet he was. “I think I’m beginning to see why my brother likes you so much.”

That seemed to startle her open a bit, as if a few bricks had crumbled off the wall she’d raised between them. “Does he?” The creases in her forehead relaxed. “Tyrion is very kind.”

“Unlike me?”

She raised her eyebrows in silent agreement, and he nodded ruefully.

“I wasn’t kind today, and I realize I haven’t given you much reason to think otherwise.” Then, before he could stop himself, everything came pouring out of him. “I can see that my strategy wasn’t exactly winning. I should have talked to the team and told you what I was trying to do. But I’ve never managed before, wench, and it’s not as though there’s anyone around to teach me how it’s done. All I know is what my managers used to do, and most of them played their cards close to the vest. Or they were harsh, mean bastards.” 

He’d only had one who’d been truly great, and Jaime had no hope of emulating Arthur Dayne’s renowned, masterful leadership. In truth, even he had never been particularly forthcoming. And the others, well… Jaime’s jaw tightened as he remembered some of the terrible things he’d seen those coaches do. “I know you think I handled things with Gilly badly today, but at least I didn’t scream at her or belittle her. At least I wasn’t the one who made her cry in the first place.”

Brienne considered him silently for a moment before exhaling a small sigh. Jaime felt her posture relax, and her body shifted fractionally closer to his. 

“You wouldn’t do that,” she said, more gently than he deserved. “You might not have been kind to her or to me, but I don’t believe you’re a bad person. Or a naturally cruel one.”

“You don’t?” Jaime croaked, embarrassed by the naked hope in his voice.

“No. But you have been a pretty terrible manager,” she asserted, her tone suddenly stern. “If you had a plan, you should have told us. And there’s no excuse for running us so ragged and not giving the other girls a chance to play. For doing nothing but sitting there. But I shouldn’t have spoken to you the way I did. I’m sorry.”

Mouth dry, all Jaime could manage was, “I’m sorry, too.”

A trace of skepticism flickered across her face, but then she nodded. “I believe you.”  

He didn’t know whether it was her words—when was the last time someone had said anything like that to him?—or her magnificent eyes that had him yearning, once again, to reach for her hand.

Definitely the eyes, he mused, gazing into them intently. This close, he could see flecks of a lighter, silvery blue floating in their depths, and her buttery yellow blouse brought out the faintest hint of gold around her irises.

For the second time that day, Jaime had the feeling that those sapphire orbs could see straight through to his soul. It was unnerving and yet somehow…not.

Abruptly realizing he’d been goggling at her, he awkwardly cleared his throat. “I fully intend to do better from now on. But since the girls have already looked to you as a leader—”

“I don’t want to be a leader,” she interrupted.

He raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. “I’m not asking you to be in charge. But the girls trust you, and I think you could help the team.” He shrugged. “What I’m saying, badly, is that I want to hear what you have to say.”

After an agonizingly long pause, Brienne hesitantly replied, “About Sansa and Arya?”

“For a start.” Jaime darted a glance over his shoulder. He wanted to speak freely, without the Stark girls overhearing. To his relief, Sansa was poring over a magazine with Margaery a few rows back, and Arya’s dark head was bent together in congress with Lyanna’s at the rear of the bus. Returning his gaze to Brienne, Jaime added, “I’d like your opinion of them as players.”

“Why?” She seemed genuinely puzzled by his interest. “Why them, specifically?”

“Well, they’re only Peaches because you are.”

She wrinkled her brow. “What do you mean?”

“My brother told me that you and the Stark sisters were a package deal. If I wanted you, I had to take them, too.”

Her whole body stilled. “What do you mean, you wanted me?”

“I asked for you,” he said matter-of-factly. “I wanted you on my team.”

A tidal wave of pink rose up her neck and crashed over her cheeks. She didn’t ask why, but the question was plastered across her endearingly befuddled, blotchy face.   

“Can I be honest with you?” he asked, hoping to reduce her conspicuous discomfort.

“That would be a refreshing change of pace.”

Again, he found himself smiling, reveling in the conversation’s peculiar blend of candor and verbal sparring. “Sansa is an acceptable player. She can make a catch and throw the ball, but she’s not great at bat. She’s a good runner, I’ll give her that, but she’s here because she’s beautiful. And my brother has a particular weakness for beautiful girls.”

Brienne snorted. “Sounds like your average man to me.”

Jaime laughed. “I’m not disagreeing with you, wench. All the same, I won’t tell him you said that. It might diminish his good opinion of you if he knew you thought him merely average.”

She turned her head away, trying to hide her smile. But Jaime saw, and it made him happier than he’d been in…he didn’t even know how long.  

Not wanting to break the fragile rapport growing between them, Jaime continued, “Arya, now. That’s a different story. She’s something more than her sister, don’t you think?”

“Me?” Brienne shook her head. “You’d know more than I would. You’re the pitcher.”

“Yes, but you’re her catcher,” he persisted. “You know her far better than I do, and I’d like to know what you think.”

Brienne thoughtfully pursed her lips. “I think she’s dedicated and talented and needs more practice. She knows she’s good, and that gets in the way sometimes. It was fine, back home. But here…”

“You’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“We’re from Iowa,” she corrected, a small smirk curving one corner of her mouth.

He swallowed an answering grin. “I agree with you. She’s good, but she could be great. Will you help me help her?”

“What?”

“I can teach her, if you help me,” Jaime explained. “Something tells me your presence will make the idea more…palatable to her.”

She gaped at him. “You truly want my help? For Arya? For the team?”

“Yes, Brienne. Believe it or not, I want to be a good manager. I want to win as much as you do.”

“No more sitting silently in the corner? No more leaving things up to me?”

“You have my word.”

She narrowed her eyes, seemingly attempting to discern exactly how much that was worth. But then, to his pleasant surprise, she nodded. “I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

He smiled, feeling irrationally triumphant. Not because he’d won, but because he’d won her over. Or at least begun to. “So, we have a deal?”

Without hesitation, she held out her hand. Her left hand. “We have a deal.”

Something warm rippled through him as Jaime pressed his palm to hers, and it occurred to him that Tyrion had—as usual, damn him—been right all along.

Brienne Tarth really was pretty fucking remarkable.

Chapter Text

“Damn it, Jaime.”

Tyrion’s muffled cursing carried through the open doorway that separated the kitchen from the living room.

Jaime smiled, ignoring the banging of what sounded like every single cupboard door as he flipped through the day-old copy of the Tribune Tyrion had brought with him from the city. When he heard a chair scraping across the kitchen floor, he nearly laughed. If his brother thought making a racket would draw Jaime out of his favorite lounge chair, he was gravely mistaken.

After watching the Peaches and the Comets play a doubleheader that lingered late into the evening, Tyrion had claimed he was far too tired to venture back to the city. Even if Jaime hadn’t possessed the well-honed ability to smell a lie on his brother from a mile off, the uneasiness lining Tyrion’s face would have given him away. He had something troubling on his mind, and Jaime sensed he was going to hear all about it—whether he wanted to or not.

The noise from the kitchen finally subsided, and Tyrion trudged through the door. “No wine! No scotch! Not even a single can of beer.” Breathing a defeated sigh, he flung himself facedown onto the dark green sofa across from Jaime’s chair.

“You know I don’t drink anymore,” Jaime replied, tossing the paper onto the coffee table that occupied the space between them.

Tyrion lifted his head to stare imploringly at Jaime. “But I do. And you knew I was coming.”

“Actually, I didn’t. You never told me you were planning to stay the night.”

“But you knew I’d be coming eventually,” Tyrion whined, crawling up into a sitting position with exaggerated effort. “What did you expect me to drink?”

Jaime leaned forward to reach for his glass of water, perched neatly atop a coaster on his side of the coffee table. He held it up in Tyrion’s direction before taking a long sip.

“Blech.” His brother’s face contorted with disgust. “I’m not thirsty. I want a drink.

“Coffee?”

Tyrion gave an exasperated shake of his head. “I need something to help put me to sleep, not keep me awake.”

“Warm milk, then?” 

“What am I, a child?”

Jaime grinned.

As Tyrion held up one hand, his eyes twinkled with suppressed mirth. “Don’t answer that.”

“I would never,” Jaime said lightly. “Although you do behave like one, from time to time.”

Tyrion flattened his raised hand melodramatically on his chest and slumped back against the cushions. “You wound me. If only I had something to take the edge off the pain.”

“I’m sure you’ll manage.”

Tyrion's jaw stiffened. “Another day, perhaps. But I’m not so sure about today.”

Jaime narrowed his eyes as he studied his brother’s grim face. He’d thought Tyrion’s grousing about the lack of liquor was nothing more than his usual cheeky banter, but perhaps he’d been wrong.

“You could always have Bronn go and fetch you something,” he suggested. “If he can find anything still open at this hour.”

Although he doubted his brother’s foul-mouthed driver would appreciate being sent on such an errand, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time. Bronn would surely complain about it—colorfully and at length—but Jaime knew he’d do as Tyrion bid him, if only for the sake of remaining on the Lannister payroll.

Tyrion’s mouth lifted in a weak smile. “My dear brother, one of the reasons I employ Bronn is because of his ability to procure things through unofficial channels. But it’s useless. I’ve given him the night off, which means he’s out enjoying the drink and women that I am not.” He perked up in his seat. “Now there’s an idea. Let’s go out.”

Jaime groaned. “Aren’t you supposed to be tired?”

“I am. Completely bushed. But what can I say?” Tyrion shrugged, puckishly waggling his eyebrows. “There’s a roadhouse just outside of town, and the thought of pretty girls and a scotch has revived me.”

“It usually does.”

“Come on, Jaime!” Tyrion cajoled, eyes alight. “You need to get out more. Meet some women.”

Jaime scratched absentmindedly at his right forearm. “I’m around women all day, every day. It’s plenty, I assure you.”

Tyrion snorted. “You know that’s not what I meant. How long has it been since you flirted with a woman or spun one around the dance floor? Anyone you choose would be yours for the taking, I promise you.”

A pair of stunning blue eyes flashed briefly in Jaime’s mind, sending a jolt of surprise from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet.

Disconcerted, Jaime cleared his throat. “I’ll pass. I’m not interested in going to some hole-in-the-wall bar to watch you drink yourself into a stupor and fling yourself at everything in a skirt.”

“You’re no fun.”

“I’m an old, crippled man.” Jaime scratched once more at his arm. “And I actually am tired.”

Tyrion’s eyes softened. “Look, Jaime, I know you needed some time to recover after…everything that happened. But don’t you think it’s time you—”

“I said no, Tyrion,” Jaime snapped, still rubbing at his arm. With a growl, he began unstrapping his prosthetic hand, fed up with the incessant, burning itch. When he finally slipped off the fabric sleeve that covered his stump, the cool air felt like a balm to his red, inflamed skin.

“Jesus, Jaime.” Tyrion winced as he peered at Jaime’s rash-covered arm.

“It’s the heat.” And the fact that I have to wear an extra shirt to cover the damn thing. “All I do is sweat, and it chafes like hell.”

“Stop wearing it then, for fuck’s sake,” Tyrion said, as if it were the most obvious solution in the world.

Frowning, Jaime ran his fingers over his scarred, irritated flesh. He could, he supposed. And yet he couldn’t.

“Or don’t, if you insist on torturing yourself,” Tyrion quipped when Jaime didn’t reply. “Frankly, as long as you keep managing like you did today, I don’t care what you do.”

Jaime lifted his gaze to meet his brother’s. “Was that a compliment?”

Tyrion smirked. “I am merely communicating my approval of your vast improvement. The last time I saw you, your performance was a complete disaster, as I believe I mentioned.”

“And I believe I mentioned that I wasn’t a manager,” Jaime retorted.

“Yes, I recall you saying something of the sort. Yet here you are acting like one, all of a sudden. Not that I don't have faith in your abilities, brother, but even you have to admit it was a rather remarkable change.”

Jaime’s mouth curled involuntarily into a smile. Remarkable, indeed.

“What?” Tyrion’s eyebrows lifted in bemused curiosity.

“Nothing,” Jaime said, still smiling.

Tyrion flapped a hand at him. “You see, this is exactly what I mean. It’s not nothing. I haven’t seen you like this in years. You looked like, well, you out there today.”

Jaime huffed a dismissive laugh. “Who exactly were you expecting to see?”

“Oh, I don’t know.” Tyrion gave him a pointed, knowing look. “The sullen jackass I saw last week, perhaps? The man who looked like he’d rather be anywhere else?”

His amusement instantly soured. Clearly Brienne hadn’t been the only one to think he didn't care.

“Are you going to make me beat the truth out of you?” Tyrion prodded. “Because I will. After all, since you’ve neglected to supply me with alcohol, I am in need of an alternate form of distraction this evening.”

Worry flickered once again across his brother’s face, and Jaime, feeling a growing sense of concern, took pity on him. “There’s no need for violence. It was Brienne.”

“Brienne?” His brother edged forward eagerly. “Now you really have me intrigued.”

“She pointed out what an ass I was being.”

“Did she now? I knew there was a reason I liked her so much.”

Disregarding his brother’s gleeful response, Jaime murmured, “I deserved it.”

The whole story spilled out of him, then, from Gilly’s tears to Brienne’s anger to his own vicious words and subsequent apology. By the time he’d finished explaining their conversation on the bus, Tyrion was staring at him with wide eyes.

After a long, silent moment, his brother sighed. “Well, I have to agree with her. It sounds like you were an unmitigated ass.”

“Thanks for your support,” Jaime grumbled.

“Maybe if I had wine, I would be supportive. But really, I can’t believe you apologized to her. Voluntarily.”

“Why?” Jaime asked irritably. Does he think I’m not capable of being a decent person? “It was the right thing to do.”

Tyrion let out a low, contemplative whistle.

“What?” Jaime demanded.

But his brother only shook his head, grinning. “Aside from the magnificent Brienne Tarth, how are the girls? It looked like they were playing well today.”

“They are. They’re good ballplayers, Tyrion. Dedicated. Tough.”

“What about Shireen?”

“Her, too,” Jaime acknowledged. “She’s a sweet girl.”

“Nothing at all like her parents, then. I don’t recall Stannis and Selyse being particularly warm.” Tyrion shifted in his seat. “Has she mentioned…?”

“No. She doesn’t seem to know anything about it.”

“Well, Father was the only Lannister to attend the wedding. And from what I hear, Stannis and Robert aren’t on the best of terms. She probably doesn’t know her that well.”

“I don’t want to talk about the Baratheons,” Jaime said wearily. “They can be on whatever terms they like, and know whomever they like, as long as they all stay the hell away from me.”

“I wasn’t trying to meddle,” Tyrion replied gently. “As long as you’re content with Shireen, I won’t mention it again.”

“I am. You don’t need to worry about her.” Suddenly impatient with their lingering verbal dance around the elephant in the room, Jaime meaningfully met Tyrion’s eyes. “Something tells me you have more important things to be worried about.”

Tyrion’s momentary expression of surprise quickly melted into bleak resignation. “Do you want the truth?”

“Probably not. But you should tell me anyway.”

“I met with Father yesterday, and he expressed immense displeasure with the way things are going.”

Jaime tilted his head against the back of his chair, feeling utterly exhausted by it all. It always came back to their father, one way or another. “What can he possibly be upset about already?”

“What do you think?” Tyrion sneered. “I’m not doing my job well enough. He expects the stands to be packed full of paying spectators.”

“But it’s only been two weeks. I told you it would take time.”

“My attempts at reasoning with him logically were unsuccessful. He’s threatening to shut down the league.”

That was ruthlessly fast, even for Tywin Lannister. What was the point of spending all that money to get the league up and running only to threaten a shutdown after two lousy weeks? No, Jaime thought. Father has a better head for business than to do something so ridiculous.

“He can’t possibly mean it,” Jaime insisted.

“I agree. He’s probably just trying to frighten me.”

If that had been his motive, Jaime knew Tywin had failed. Tyrion wasn’t frightened, but he was obviously hurt. Grinding his teeth, Jaime felt a familiar anger rising beneath his skin—an anger reserved solely for their asshole of a father and his needless cruelty to his youngest son.

“To hell with him, then,” Jaime finally declared. “I’m sure you'll think of something. You always do.”

Tyrion looked uncertain. “It might mean going to drastic measures.”

Lifting a skeptical eyebrow, Jaime asked, “What exactly does that mean?”

“I don’t know yet,” Tyrion admitted. “But I’m not going to humiliate them, Jaime. I wouldn’t do that.”

“I know.” Jaime gave his brother a sad smile. “And I’ll do what I can to help keep Father at bay. These girls deserve better than to be shut down.”

“You really have changed your stripes, haven’t you?” Tyrion quirked his head. “Could it be a newfound passion for managing? Or is this down to the inimitable Brienne as well?”

“For God’s sake,” Jaime growled, his skin prickling unpleasantly. “Do you never shut up?”

And Tyrion laughed.

~*~*~

Standing on the mound the following morning, with beads of sweat rolling down the back of his neck, Jaime attempted to arrange Arya’s fingers in the correct position around the ball.

“Couldn’t you just show me?” she asked, shoving the ball into his hand and stepping out of the way.

Jaime looked dubiously at Arya before staring down at the ball, which felt awkward and alien in his left hand. This wasn’t what he’d had in mind when he suggested helping the girl.

But his resolve strengthened when he saw Brienne standing patiently behind the plate, dressed in her battered dairy uniform with her mask resting on top of her blond head. He’d given the wench his word, and he intended to keep it.

As he moved into position, Brienne began to crouch down, but Jaime quickly waved her off. He wasn’t actually going to throw the ball; even if he did, it sure as hell wouldn’t make it over the plate.

With Arya watching attentively, Jaime struggled through a rough demonstration of the pitch. Everything is fucking backwards, he thought angrily, annoyed by the way all his instincts seemed wrong.

At first, he managed nothing more than a few halting, disjointed motions. But by the fourth or fifth time through, he was moving with a speed and fluidity that shocked him; it felt as if every muscle in his body had sparked back to life. And with that feeling came a longing for the glory of just one real pitch. He yearned to feel the snap of the release, to watch the blur of the ball as it sped toward the plate, to hear the satisfying sound of it hitting Brienne’s mitt.

With a wistful sigh, he beckoned Arya back to the mound and tossed her the ball. She gripped it perfectly, and Jaime stepped away, watching as Brienne lowered her mask and crouched behind the plate.

At some point, Arya began to throw, but Jaime barely noticed. He’d never seen Brienne move from this angle before, and he was mesmerized by the coiled strength in her long, muscular body, by her unbelievable flexibility and swiftness. He’d forgotten she was just as skilled as a catcher as she was with a bat in her hand.

“It still feels wrong,” Arya said suddenly, drawing Jaime’s gaze.

Without missing a beat, he replied, “It might, for a while. You have to relearn, but your body will get used to it.”

He let her throw another several pitches, making sure to keep his attention fixed on Arya this time. Occasionally he’d stop her to correct a movement or adjust her position, but she didn’t need much help. The kid’s a natural, he thought. She really could be great.

When Arya finally told him the pitch was feeling more comfortable, he suggested they call it a day.

“I don’t want to overwork your arm,” he explained. “Improving your technique will make you less likely to injure yourself, but you can still overdo it. So I don’t want to hear any complaints when I rotate you out.”

“Out!” Arya exclaimed, crossing her arms. “But I don’t need—”

Jaime silenced her with a sharp glare and a raised hand. “Yes, you do. It’s very important to me to keep my best pitcher in good condition, so you’ll have to let Ygritte throw a few once in a while. Have I made myself clear?”

“Yes, coach,” she grumbled, but Jaime saw the proud smile pulling at her lips.

“Good.” He winked at her. “Nice work today.”

Grinning, she turned toward the dugout, calling out a quiet “thanks” over her shoulder.

Jaime expected Brienne to follow her friend, so he was surprised when she began walking toward him instead.

Stopping only a couple of feet away from him, Brienne tipped her head almost timidly toward the mound. “Do you want to throw a few?”

Startled, he barked a laugh that boomed across the empty field.

Brienne’s forehead puckered. “I’m serious, Jaime.”

“I appreciate you asking,” he said, smiling broadly. “Really, I do. But my left is useless. Tyrion could throw better than I can.”

“You could learn.”   

“To play catch with my kids, sure. But my pitching days are over.” Jaime waited for the sting that typically accompanied such an acknowledgment, but it didn’t come.

“Oh,” Brienne exhaled. “I—I didn’t know you had children.”

He shook his head at her misinterpretation of his words. “I don’t. I thought I might, once, but…”

His thoughts turned to Cersei, to the time she’d thought she was pregnant. Jaime had been ecstatic; Cersei had been horrified. He should have known then how wrong it all was, but his love for her had blinded him.

Shrugging, he added, “One of many dreams that died a long time ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Brienne nearly whispered, compassion gleaming in her big blue eyes. For a moment, Jaime thought she might ask him what he meant—that he might want her to. Instead, she offered him a faint, hesitant smile. “But there’s still time for a new dream, isn’t there?”

Jaime swallowed, briefly overcome by a strange mixture of awe and warmth and, most amazingly of all, possibility.

One corner of his mouth darted upward as he met her sincere sapphire gaze. “Maybe there is, wench. Maybe there is.”

Chapter Text

Standing on second base, Brienne raised her hand to shield her face from the grueling rays of the sun. Her hat kept the blinding light out of her eyes, but it did little to protect the rest of her from the unrelenting heat.

The scorching temperatures had already roasted the field, mottling the green of the outfield with yellow and brown and baking the baselines into strips of powder-fine dust. Each footfall or breath of wind kicked up thick clouds that caked on Brienne’s skirt and socks and stuck unpleasantly to her sweaty skin.

Glancing toward the sheltering shade of the dugout, Brienne saw Missandei and Dany disappear down the stairs. Her double had just driven both of them home—and given the Peaches a commanding 9-4 lead over the Blue Sox.

While Yara swaggered slowly toward home plate, Brienne looked up at the stands. Grimly, she noted that attendance seemed even more sparse than usual, doubtlessly thanks to the miserable weather. Though, Brienne thought, if it keeps the hecklers away, it might be worth it.

Among the thin crowd, she recognized a number of familiar faces. Although the Peaches had yet to draw hordes of people to their home field, they had attracted a small, loyal following. And at this point, Brienne appreciated the presence of anyone who seemed to enjoy their games.

A few spectators clapped loudly when Yara stepped up to the plate. She raised her bat with a predatory smile, and Brienne took a few tentative steps away from second base. She moved slowly, keeping her eyes fixed on the pitcher, prepared to dart back at the slightest sign of a turn. But the woman didn’t even look her way before she wound up and threw the ball, and Brienne rocketed toward third as soon as she heard the crack of the bat connecting with the pitch.

Meera, acting as the third-base coach, windmilled her arm in an unmistakable gesture to keep going, so Brienne rounded the base at full speed and charged for home. Ahead of her, the catcher stood in a wide stance, ready for the ball, but Brienne knew she would beat the incoming throw even before her foot struck the plate.

“Safe!” the umpire cried, and Brienne juddered to a stop, her cleats digging into the dry earth.

A modest round of applause cascaded down from the stands, and Brienne smiled as she turned to walk back to the dugout. Bringing in other runners always made her glad, but nothing surpassed the exhilaration of crossing home plate herself and seeing the number on the scoreboard tick up because of it.

As she approached the dugout, Brienne met Jaime standing at the top of the steps. His posture—with one foot casually propped up on the field and the other planted on the second stair—was, as usual, all relaxed confidence, but she was jolted by the broad, genuine smile on his face. The little lines radiating from the crinkled corners of his eyes sent something unfamiliar swooping through her stomach, like swallows in the summer sky.

“Hell of an inning,” he remarked without a trace of his typical teasing amusement.

“Thanks,” she breathlessly replied, grinning back at him.

Too late, Brienne realized she’d exposed her large, slightly crooked teeth. But before she could suck her lips closed, Jaime’s smile widened, and Brienne felt as though an entire flock of birds had taken up residence in her abdomen. She nearly tripped over her own feet as she shuffled down the steps and out of the sun.

That was…strange, she mused, sitting down on the empty end of the bench and peeling off her hat. Beneath it, her damp hair was plastered to her head.

Perplexed and oddly flustered, Brienne reached for her bag, pulling out her canteen and a towel. She took a swig of the tepid water before pouring some onto the rough cloth and pressing it to her face, hoping it would be cool enough to soothe the flaming blush she felt on her cheeks. If nothing else, it would wash away the top layer of grit.

As she swiped the towel down her heated neck, Brienne tried to focus on Melisandre, who was taking a few practice swings outside the batter’s box. But her attention kept drifting back to Jaime.

Facing away from her, he watched the field with the calculated attention of a general surveying his troops, allowing Brienne’s eyes to roam freely over his broad, well-shaped shoulders, across the patch of uniform clinging to the muscles of his upper back, down to the cant of his tapered hips and his rather marvelous… 

For God’s sake, she chastised herself, forcibly averting her gaze. She tossed the now-filthy towel onto the floor next to her bag and peered surreptitiously at the other girls, hoping no one had caught her staring at Jaime’s backside.What the hell are you doing?

The man was distractingly good-looking—made irritatingly more so by the sheen of perspiration coating his golden skin—but that had never really mattered to her. And it wasn’t as though he’d never offered her a kind word before.

In fact, he’d been like a new man since that night on the bus, when he’d stunned her with his apologetic overture and the startling revelation that he’d wanted her on his team. Two weeks had passed since their conversation, and Brienne still couldn’t believe that out of all the girls on that tryout field, Jaime had asked Tyrion for her.

Brienne had known then how badly she’d misjudged him. He obviously did care, enough to ask for her help, and she’d resolved to give him a second chance. She just hadn’t expected him to take such great pains to prove himself worthy of it.

With an alacrity that surprised her, Jaime had embraced his role as manager. He guided them, complimented their strengths, and pushed them to be better, and his carefully plotted rotation schedule gave each girl time to play and to rest. The dynamic in the locker room and on the field had completely changed; they finally felt like a team.

Things between the two of them had shifted as well. The tension had eased, and they’d begun to trust each other—or at least to try. Just maybe, Brienne thought, they might eventually be friends. In the meantime, they’d forged an amiable professional relationship.

Well, mostly professional.

On one hand, Jaime frequently sought her advice and obviously respected her opinion. On the other, he teased herall the time. Occasionally, she swore he tried to provoke her on purpose, just to see what she would do. And when he spoke to her in that velvety voice, his emerald eyes glinting with amusement, Brienne found it nearly impossible to discern whether or not he was being serious.

Still, even when his behavior irritated her, Brienne sensed he didn’t intend it in a mean-spirited or cutting way. It was just Jaime.

And, in spite of his faults, he was trying. He’d kept his word about everything, even Arya. Jaime had been wonderful with her—patient and generous with his approval—when they’d worked together the week before.

That morning, she had gotten a glimpse of the incredible player he’d once been. With the ball in his hand, all his arrogance and sarcasm had fallen away to reveal a concentration and eagerness that made it difficult to look away from him. And underneath it all, there’d been a throbbing pulse of joy and vibrancy and life that Brienne recognized instinctively. The same thing hummed inside her own chest when she played the game.

A loud timeout call from the field shocked Brienne’s attention back to the game, and she looked around, trying to determine what she’d missed while lost in thought. Yara stood on third base, Melisandre was on second, and Talisa waited behind home plate as Coach Clegane stalked across the field toward the pitcher’s mound.

Brienne’s eyes swiveled back to Jaime, intending to ascertain his reaction, and she was startled to find his gaze fixed on her rather than the field. Smirking, he ambled down the stairs and across the short distance to the bench, where he plopped down just to her left.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled her.” Jaime nodded toward the mound, where Coach Clegane loomed over his pitcher with a dark scowl on his scarred face. “Three runs so far this inning, only one out, and two more runners in scoring position. Definitely not her best day.”

She pursed her lips. “No, but their relief pitcher hasn’t been doing much better lately.”

“Good for us either way. The sooner we can get out of this goddamned heat, the better.”

Nodding in agreement, Brienne straightened her legs out in front of her, cringing at the loud creaking of her left knee.

Without looking at her, Jaime asked quietly, “Want me to send Osha in?”

Considering his question, Brienne leaned forward, feeling a burning stretch in the muscles of her legs and lower back. Jaime had yet to remove her from a game, but he had started Osha in her stead a few times. He also had the two of them splitting the doubleheaders, and her poor knees ached a bit less for it.

But she didn’t want to quit with only two innings to go. “I’ll manage.”

Jaime huffed. “I have no doubt about that.” To her astonishment, he dropped a hand on her creaky knee—his right hand. He’d never touched anyone with his prosthetic before. “Just don’t push too hard.”

Then, as if only just noticing what he’d done, Jaime stiffened and slipped his hand away from her, wincing as he moved.

Concerned, Brienne looked up at his pained, frowning face. He was glaring down at the hand as though he hated the sight of it.

“What’s wrong?” she asked, not bothering to mask the worry in her voice.

“It’s nothing.” He reached down to tug up his sleeve. “Just a little sore.”

Brienne bit back a gasp as she took in the terrible sight. All around the straps that bound the prosthetic to his arm, Jaime’s skin was a puffy, angry red. The discomfort had to be unbearable, especially if the part of his arm under the hand’s cuff looked the same.

“Why don’t you take it off?” she blurted.

His eyes flew to hers, and his whole forehead rose in an expression of either dismissal or disbelief. She couldn’t quite tell.

“I only mean that it looks awfully painful, and you don’t really need to wear it for any practical purpose. So you could just…not?” Suddenly conscious of the line she might have just stepped over, Brienne clamped her mouth shut.

“Funny, Tyrion recently said something similar,” Jaime murmured, keeping his eyes locked with hers for so long she almost looked away out of discomfort. “You’re both right. I could leave the damn thing at home. But my,” he paused, swallowing, “stump makes people uncomfortable. This way, they can pretend I’m still whole.”

Brienne felt a stab of sorrow at his tone. He sounded like a broken man, a man who believed himself to be irreversibly damaged. But he wasn’t. She’d seen it in his movements on the mound, in the way he managed the girls, in the flashes of his easy charm and his unexpected capacity for kindness and care. Beneath the scars, he was still the same man. Maybe even a better one.

“You are still whole, Jaime,” she insisted. “Your hand has nothing to do with that. Besides, you don’t seem overly concerned with what other people think of you.”

He lifted one side of his mouth in a wry half-smile. “Appearances can be deceiving, wench.”

When did that word stop bothering me so much? she wondered, watching him rub roughly at his arm. The way he said it now wasn’t mocking. It was almost warm.

After a few moments, Brienne swatted his clawing hand away, and Jaime laughed.

“Stop that,” she scolded. “You’re making it worse.”

“But it itches,” he whined, the twinkle returning to his eyes.

“Yes, well,” Brienne began, leaning down to rummage through her bag. Eventually, she pulled out a brown glass bottle and tossed it into his lap. “Here.”

“What’s this?” he asked, smiling faintly as he examined it.

“Calamine lotion. It’ll help with the itch.” Brienne used it herself on her mitt hand and legs when the heat and sweat irritated her skin. “Your arm won’t get better if you keep scratching at it like that, Jaime. You need to take care of yourself.”

“Do I?” he asked lightly, once again staring into her eyes.

“Brienne!”

They both turned sharply to find Yara standing over them. Confused, Brienne looked out at the field. Yara had been on third base a moment ago, hadn’t she? But the diamond was empty, and all around her the Peaches were preparing to take the field.

“You planning to join us?” Yara jerked her thumb at home plate.

Brienne scrambled for her leg guards. How could the inning be over? She hadn’t even noticed that play had resumed.

Seemingly undisturbed, Jaime rose from the bench and waved the bottle at her with a grin. “Thanks for looking after me, wench. And watch that knee.”

~*~*~

Brienne sighed in relief as she pried her cleats off of her aching feet. Dirty, sweaty, and sore, she didn’t think she’d ever craved a shower more in her entire life.

But before she could strip off anything more than her shoes, Jaime called out from the other side of the door that separated the locker room from his office. None of them had managed to get undressed yet, so Meera shouted for him to come in.

When he did, Brienne found herself hyperaware of the looks some of the girls were giving him. It wasn’t the first time she’d seen Melisandre’s leer or Lollys’ guileless admiration or shy Shireen’s pink cheeks. So why did she careso much all of a sudden?

Annoyed by how much it bothered her, Brienne ignored them, returning her gaze to Jaime. It didn’t matter anyway, she reasoned, since he never looked at any of them in return. He’d watch them, of course, assessing or critiquing, or wink at them in teasing laughter. But he never ogled them—even Margaery or Dany—or gave any suggestion that he thought of them as women at all.

He treats us like he’s our older brother, she mused as his eyes briefly met hers across the room.

Except Galladon had never made Brienne’s chest tighten like that.

Fortunately, Jaime saved her from dwelling on the disquieting sensation by announcing, “My brother tells me he has some news for us.”

He stepped out of the doorway to reveal Tyrion standing just outside it, wearing one of his fashionable suits. With a smile, Tyrion strolled in, jovially introducing himself and explaining his role in the league for the sake of the girls who didn’t already know him. Then, he got right to the point of his visit.

“Unfortunately, the news I have to share with you isn’t of the pleasant variety. My father, who owns and funds this league, is threatening to end our season prematurely.”

Stunned, Brienne listened in numb silence as a shockwave of murmurs and gasps rippled around the room.

“But why?” Arya finally exclaimed.

“He wants to make money, ace, and we’re not pulling in enough,” Tyrion replied smoothly, but Brienne heard his undertone of anger. “We’ve been running for three weeks now, and attendance at the games isn’t improving. We have three more weeks to start filling the bleachers, or we’re all going home.”

“So there’s a timeline now?” Jaime inquired, his hand fisting at his side.

Tyrion nodded curtly. “As of yesterday.”

The girls’ expressions ranged from horrified to furious to desperately sad. Sansa, in particular, looked on the verge of bursting into tears. Meeting her friend’s watery blue eyes, Brienne knew exactly how she felt—how they all must have been feeling. Because she felt it, too.

The end of the league would mean going back to their old lives, and she knew none of them wanted to do that any more than she did. They didn’t want to return to being teachers and typists, or even factory workers or farm laborers, waiting for the men their age to come home from the war and make them wives and mothers. Without the league, the world that had only just opened up to them would shrink again.

The thought of it made Brienne want to scream—and throttle the living daylights out of Tywin Lannister.

“So?” Jaime finally asked, crossing his arms over his chest. “What are we going to do? You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t have a plan.”

Smiling ruefully, Tyrion nodded. “I’m trying to generate some interest, and I’ll need all of you ladies to do whatever you can to give them something worth watching.”

“We already do give them something worth watching,” Yara snapped.

“I mean something spectacular.”

Jaime glared at his brother. “I thought we had a deal, Tyrion. No humiliation.”

“I fully intend to honor that agreement. I’m just talking about holding a few innocent contests, running some promotions, and…well, there is one more thing.”

“Wonderful,” Jaime drawled. “What’s that?”

“I’m inviting the press to your games this week. It might help us generate some more local buzz. I need you girls to talk to them if they ask you questions. Let them take your picture. And if you can pull off a jaw-dropping play or two, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.”

Yara snorted, and Arya leaned over to mutter something in Lyanna’s ear. Most of the others, though, seemed amenable to Tyrion’s plan.

Ultimately, Margaery spoke up on behalf of the team. “I think we’re all willing to do whatever it takes. Right girls?”

“Within reason,” Dany added, narrowing her cobalt eyes.

“Good,” Tyrion replied cheerfully, but his smile seemed strained. “Because I also have a contact at Life magazine, and he’s agreed to do a feature on you. He and his photographer are coming to your home game against Racine on Saturday.”

The Peaches greeted the news with a chorus of delighted squeals and excited murmurs before launching into several minutes of questions about what the reporter would ask, what kinds of pictures the photographer would take, and when the story would run.

Brienne just rolled her eyes. She thought national press sounded worse.

Jaime, to his credit, seemed just as unimpressed by the prospect as she was. When the excitement finally died down, he looked pointedly at his brother. “Was that all, Tyrion? The girls have played a hard, hot game, and we’ve kept them from the showers for long enough.”

“As a matter of fact, no.” Tyrion’s gaze flicked away from his brother and, to Brienne’s surprise, landed on her. “I was hoping to have a word with you and Brienne.”   

Alarmed, she caught Jaime’s eye, but he just shrugged and turned toward the door, herding his brother through it. Not sure what else to do, Brienne rose from her seat and padded after them.

Once she’d closed the door behind her, Brienne looked from one brother to the other, waiting.

Jaime, settled against the edge of his desk, raised his eyebrows expectantly at Tyrion. “Well?”

Tyrion cleared his throat and peered almost apologetically up at Brienne. “I didn’t want to say this in front of the others for fear of making you uncomfortable. But Daario, my reporter contact, has expressed particular interest in you.”

“Me?” Brienne shook her head violently. “He can’t possibly. Not if he’s seen me.” She fixed her gaze on the wall, unable to look at either of them. “We’ve been over this before. I’m no beauty. Send him to one of the other girls—any of the other girls.”

“He doesn’t want the other girls. He wants you. And I want him to feature you.” The gentleness in Tyrion’s tone coaxed her gaze back to his. “You, Brienne Tarth, are unequivocally unique.”

Brienne frowned. Is that what I am?

“I mean that as a compliment, I assure you,” Tyrion hurried to add. “There’s more than one kind of beautiful in this world, Brienne.” He winked at her. “I should know.”

Although she was touched by his kind words, Brienne doubted anyone else would see things the way Tyrion did. She looked pleadingly at Jaime. Surely he would agree with her, would tell his brother not to be so foolish. Magazines wanted photos of traditionally beautiful girls, not unique ones. He himself had called her ugly, after all.

But Jaime only blinked at her, a queer look on his handsome face.

“Tell her I’m right, Jaime,” Tyrion said suddenly, and Brienne felt her face flush.

Jaime’s eyes slid over to his brother before returning to her. “You’re the best player in the league. They’d be crazy not to want to interview you.”

“See?” Tyrion urged. “You have quite the story. You came reluctantly with your friends from home and turned out to be not just an astoundingly talented player, but practically my brother’s assistant coach. And those eyes of yours…”

Brienne’s blush deepened to what must have been tomato-red.

“I’m thinking of calling you the Sapphire Slugger.”

“What?” Brienne squawked.

“Catchy, isn’t it?”

Brienne opened her mouth, intending to protest, but Jaime beat her to it.

“Tyrion,” he growled, and the protective note of warning in his voice nearly made Brienne shiver. “Don’t push your luck.”

“Queen of Diamonds, then, to go with the rest of the Diamond Gals. Diamond Dames? I’m not sure yet.”

Jaime made a throaty noise of disgust. “Oh, come on. There’s no need for ludicrous nicknames.”  

“It’s marketing, my dear brother.”

“Market the league,” Jaime snapped. “She’s an athlete, not the face of your fucking campaign. She’s better than that.”

At first, Brienne wondered if she’d heard correctly. Then, when Jaime swung his gaze to hers, she saw nothing but sincerity in his warm green eyes and had to swallow past the emotion rising in her throat.

“So I see,” Tyrion said. When she glanced down at him, the amused smirk on his face unsettled her. “No nicknames, then. Just an interview and a few photographs. What do you say?”

“It won’t just be me?” Brienne asked. “They will include the other girls, too?”

“Of course,” Tyrion assured her. “You’re just a bit of a…highlight.”

Brienne chewed on her lower lip. It sounded like her worst nightmare—rife with opportunities to make an awkward fool of herself. But to save the league? “Can I keep my mask on?”

She saw Jaime smile at that, and it irritated her. Of course he doesn’t understand. How could he?

Tyrion gave her a tiny, sympathetic smile. “No, Brienne. You most certainly cannot.”

God, she didn’t want to do it. But she knew she could. She’d survived worse, and she could survive this. For her teammates. For Sansa and Arya. For herself.

She nodded her head slowly, and Tyrion beamed at her.

“Thank you. The continuation of the league depends on all of us doing our part.” He darted a nervous glance up at Jaime. “Which is why my brother will agree to be featured with you.”

Chapter Text

“How long has it been like this?”

Jaime shifted nervously in his chair as Dr. Pycelle, a balding old man with an overgrown white beard and an irritatingly thin voice, leaned across his desk to examine the rampant rash on Jaime’s arm. In the places where the leather of his prosthetic hand rubbed most insistently, his skin had erupted in tiny, festering red sores.

“Weeks,” Tyrion answered from the seat beside him.

“The sores are new,” Jaime corrected, glaring at his brother. “I’ve only had them a few days.”

“It’s painful, I imagine,” Pycelle said, reaching out to press his icy fingertips against the small bumps. “And it itches?”

“Like hell,” Jaime replied. Even though the doctor’s cool touch felt mildly soothing, he had to fight the ever-present impulse to pull his maimed arm away from anyone who touched it.

“Hmm.” Pycelle slid a pair of round, wire-rimmed spectacles on his large nose and picked up Jaime’s prosthetic. He turned it over in his hands, looking closely at the cuff and straps, and then glanced again at Jaime’s arm.

“He obviously can’t continue wearing that,” Tyrion said, staring meaningfully at the old man.

Jaime scowled. It wasn’t enough that Tyrion had insisted on dragging him to his specialist’s office after their morning game—still in his uniform, no less—but now his nuisance of a brother was trying to dictate his treatment options.

“Indeed.” Pycelle set the prosthetic down on his side of the desk. “You’ll need to leave it off for at least—”

“That’s not an option,” Jaime interrupted forcefully. “There has to be something else I can do.”

Pycelle gave a weary shake of his head, fixing Jaime with his small, watery blue eyes. “I’m afraid not, Mr. Lannister.”

“Nothing?” Jaime demanded. I knew this was a fucking waste of time.

“I can certainly give you some ointment, but it won’t do much good if you don’t allow the skin to breathe,” Pycelle explained. “If you go on like you have been, it will only get worse. And we don’t need to risk an infection in this limb.”

“See?” Tyrion crowed. “I told you not to wear the damned thing.”

Ignoring his brother, Jaime asked, “Infection?”

“Yes. In the skin, or, if it progresses, in the tissue. Such things are especially dangerous for amputees, where the body has already sustained so much damage.”

Jaime pressed his eyes shut, pinching the bridge of his nose with his left thumb and forefinger. He hated that word. But he hated hospitals more.

“And I prevent that by, what? Going handless?”

“I wouldn’t exactly put it that way, but yes. You need to give your arm some air. Keep it as cool and clean as you can. I’ll give you the ointment I mentioned, and you can use calamine lotion for the itch. It should clear up completely in two or three weeks.”

“Weeks?” Jaime croaked. “Fantastic.” The Life magazine reporter was coming to their next game. In two days.

“Of course, the condition could still recur,” Pycelle added, tapping a finger thoughtfully against his bearded chin.

“Better and better,” Jaime muttered.

Tyrion cleared his throat. “Is that likely, doc?”

Gesturing toward Jaime’s prosthetic hand, Pycelle replied, “Without modifications, and under the same conditions, it’s very likely.” The doctor looked pointedly at Jaime’s uniform. “Unless you’re planning to give up these…activities?”

“No,” the two Lannisters replied in unison. Irked, Jaime cast Tyrion an ominous sideways glance. Then, with a sigh, he inquired, “What kind of modifications are we talking about?”

“We’ve been experimenting with some new materials for the war-wounded. At the very least, we could fashion a more breathable cuff and a new set of straps, perhaps with added padding.” Pycelle shrugged his hunched shoulders. “It may mean sacrificing some durability, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as you’re not actively using it.”

Using it? Jaime thought, bemused. About the only thing it would be useful for was clubbing someone across the face. Even that would probably crack the damn enamel.

“We could have it ready for you by the time your arm is healed,” Pycelle added, reaching for the prescription pad on the corner of his desk.

A cold, heavy dread settled in Jaime’s stomach at the thought of leaving the office without his hand. He hadn’t been out in public without it since he left the hospital with a bandage on the end of his arm.

“Mr. Lannister?”

“Fine.” Jaime pushed back his chair and rose from his seat before he could change his mind. “Let my brother know when it’s ready. He’ll come pick it up.”

“Of course.” Pycelle scribbled something across the top sheet of paper, ripped it off the pad, and slid it across the desk. “Shall I send the bill to your father?”

“No,” Jaime snapped, snatching the prescription. “Send it to me.”

~*~*~

“I still need you to do the interview.”

Jaime ground his teeth as he stared out the window from the back seat of Tyrion’s luxurious Cadillac. He’d known it was coming from the moment they left Pycelle’s office, but he’d expected his brother to wait more than fifteen lousy minutes before bringing it up.

“Jaime?”

“Yes, Tyrion?” he liltingly replied.

“You didn’t answer me.”

“Did you ask me a question?” Jaime quipped. “I must have missed it.”

A soft snort emanated from the driver’s seat directly in front of him. When Jaime turned his head toward the sound, he met Bronn’s clear blue eyes in the rearview mirror.

Tyrion exhaled a melodramatic sigh. “I’ll thank you to stay out of this.”

“Did I say anything?” Bronn protested, his reflected eyes widening indignantly. Then, in a slightly lower tone, he continued, “Although if you’d taken my advice and left the poor cunt alone, you wouldn’t be in this predicament, now would you?” Catching Jaime’s eye once again, he added, “He never fucking listens to me. Thinks he knows everything.”

Despite his sour mood, Jaime’s lips tugged upward. The man might be impertinent, but he wasn’t wrong.

“That’s enough from the peanut gallery,” Tyrion said dryly. “I pay you to drive, not to dispense these pearls of wisdom.”

Bronn shifted his attention back to the road with an unintelligible grumble, and Jaime slowly turned to face his brother. Tyrion, brow lowered and mouth grim, regarded him with uncharacteristic seriousness.

“You know what you’re asking,” Jaime said. “You know this changes things for me.”  

“I do.” Tyrion swallowed, and his gaze dropped momentarily to the now-empty end of Jaime’s sleeve. “I appreciate that this was an…unexpected turn of events. But this feature could make or break the league. Think of the girls, Jaime. They’ve already worked so hard.”

As much as he resented his brother’s thinly veiled manipulation, Jaime had to admit that Tyrion was right. They hadworked hard.

In the five short days since Tyrion had threatened them with a shutdown, the girls had parlayed their anger and fear and determination into a level of intensity Jaime had never seen on a field before. Not only were they playing superb baseball, but they were doing so with a spate of ailments that would have sent Jaime’s old teammates limping to the sidelines: twisted ankles, sprained wrists, banged-up knees and shins. Dany had an enormous strawberry bruise on her upper left thigh, courtesy of a successful slide into third base, and Yara resolutely taped up a broken index finger before each game. None of them uttered a single word of complaint.  

Even Tyrion’s half-cocked “promotions” hadn’t dimmed their enthusiasm. Earlier in the week, they’d willingly lined up in the outfield to throw baseballs at cardboard caricatures of Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo. Shireen had shocked them all—except for Brienne, who’d looked on with the strangest little smile on her face—by punching a hole straight through the German dictator’s mustachioed face. The crowd had eaten it up.

Jaime respected the girls, and he admired their commitment and grit. He didn’t want to let them down. Nevertheless, his reluctance to back out of the interview wasn’t really about the Peaches or the league. It was about Brienne.

She was the only reason Jaime hadn’t already told Tyrion to go to hell. He would never have agreed to the mad scheme in the first place if not for her. He’d been annoyed by Tyrion’s ambush, but one look at the cautious hope blooming in the wench’s previously panicked eyes had turned the “no” in his throat into a “yes” on his lips.

Could he, in good conscience, abandon her now?

“Come on, Jaime,” Tyrion pleaded. “You wouldn’t want Brienne to face it alone, would you?”

Jaime narrowed his eyes. Was his brother reading his goddamned mind now?

“Brienne wouldn’t be doing it at all if you hadn’t talked her into it,” Jaime retorted. “And I know damn well that Daario Naharis is only interested in her because you told him to be.”

“Perhaps." Tyrion smiled sheepishly. "But Daario appreciates singular women. I’m convinced he’ll see her merits once he speaks with her.”

Jaime’s face twisted in disgust. Daario had been a rising sports reporter during Jaime’s last few seasons with the Kingslayers, and he was well aware of the man’s reputation. Sly and charming, he had ruthless instincts and an undiscriminating predilection for female company. Whether Jaime went ahead with the interview or not, he wouldn’t be leaving him alone with any of the girls. Brienne least of all.

“If that slimy bastard tries to appreciate anything aside from her skill, he’ll have me to answer to.”

“Calm down, brother.” Smirking, Tyrion gave Jaime’s knee a mollifying pat. “Brienne Tarth is the last woman on Earth who would fall prey to Daario’s charms. Though it would almost be worth watching him try, just to see her knock him into the dust.”

Jaime grinned at the thought. God knew the man deserved it.

“Alas,” Tyrion lamented, “we need him. And we need you, Jaime.” His brother looked up at him imploringly. “Please.”

No, he told himself. Just say no. But his chest clutched at the thought of Brienne’s distress, so he choked out a “fine” instead.

Tyrion perked up in his seat, but Jaime held up a finger. “But I’ll only do it on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ll answer Daario’s questions, and the photographer can take his fucking pictures.” He lifted his arm. “But not of this.”

“Done,” Tyrion immediately assented. “Thank you, Jaime. Really. And I know Brienne will be grateful, too.”

Jaime harrumphed.

“You may not believe me, but this is going to help the league. After reading your story, people will be clamoring to come see the great Jaime Lannister and his protégé.”

“They’re supposed to want to come see the league,” Jaime objected. “And she’s not my protégé.” She’s far better than I could ever be.

“Star player, then. Either way, the two of you make a rather appealing pair,” Tyrion said, his eyes shimmering with a merriment that Jaime distinctly disliked. “Journalistically speaking.”

Chapter Text

Leaning against the hip-high wall that ran along the third-base line, Jaime watched the girls warm up with his arms folded loosely across his chest.

The game wasn’t slated to begin for two more hours, but the Peaches had poured out of the dugout in a frenetic stream of excitement. He’d gritted his teeth as their incessant, jittery chatter assaulted his ears, but their relentless primping had eventually done him in. After nearly ten minutes of hair fluffs and lipstick reapplications, Jaime had been forced to set them at some drills.

The girls needed something to do with all that energy, and he needed to preserve his sanity while he waited for Daario and the photographer to arrive. The fact that they were already a quarter of an hour late wasn’t helping Jaime’s sour mood.

Where the hell are they? he thought irritably, trying to ignore the roiling in his gut and the sweat beading on his brow. It wasn’t even hot yet. When a drop dared to trickle down into his eye, he swiped an angry hand across his face. Jesus Christ, Jaime. Get a grip on yourself.

He’d been a rookie, fresh-faced and green, the last time his nerves had gotten away from him like this. Jaime had given hundreds of interviews since then, several to Daario himself. He was an old hand at it now. And he was a Lannister.

He might not have his father’s imposing presence or Tyrion’s craftiness, but he knew when to dial up the charm or crack a joke or add a dash of sincerity about his love of the game. Even in his youth, he’d been able to talk circles around any reporter, effortlessly steering the conversation into safe, flattering waters. Where the press was concerned, his career had been a long, seamless exercise in smooth sailing.

But everything had changed. Now, he was navigating choppy seas in an old, leaky rowboat. With one oar.

He was certain Daario would ask about his injury, about the end of his career, about life after baseball, and Jaime had no hope of forestalling it. Not only was he out of practice, but the damned thing was right there, in full view, inviting questions. And while none of the girls had yet commented on his handless state, he doubted Daario would be so discreet.

Fucking arm, Jaime groused to himself. Fucking Pycelle and fucking Tyrion and this fucking godforsaken interview.  

He should have blamed the wench, too, he supposed. But he didn’t. How could he, when she looked so miserable?

She’d been sitting alone on the bench for several minutes, having abandoned her warm-ups with Arya after only a handful of pitches. Face ashen and eyes wide, she kept glancing at the door to the locker room as if deciding whether to make a run for it.

Jaime knew the feeling.

Pushing off from the wall, he made his way toward the dugout. At least we can hate the hell out of this together.

She didn’t say anything when he sat down beside her, but he heard her indrawn breath when her gaze landed on his empty sleeve. Strangely, her reaction—indisputable evidence that his condition had previously escaped her notice—made him smile.

“Ah, so you hadn’t realized I took your advice,” he teased. “I’m hurt, wench.”

“I…no, I hadn’t.” Her eyes, shining with concern, came up to meet his. “What happened?”

Brienne listened intently as Jaime explained how Tyrion had swept him off to Pycelle’s office after their last game, and about the alleged improvements the old codger was making to his prosthetic.

Once he’d finished his tale, she simply said, “Good.”

“Good?” he scoffed. “How’s that, exactly?”

“It was torturing you, Jaime. Something had to be done.” She nodded at his arm. “How does it feel now?”

“Exposed,” he said baldly. “Strange.”

Her cheeks turned pink. “No, I—I meant does it still hurt?”

“Oh.” He grinned as her blush spread outward, coloring the tips of her ears. “Not as much as it did.” With a tinge of bitterness, he added, “The doc says it’ll be fine in a few weeks.”

“But, that’s good…isn’t it?” she hesitated. “Not long at all.”

“Yes, well,” he said, waving his right arm back and forth a few times. The limp end of his sleeve flopped in the breeze. “It doesn’t do me and my windsock much good for our interview today.”

Brienne wrinkled her forehead, then abruptly reached out to brush her fingers along the loose fabric. When she dexterously folded it over on itself, Jaime could feel the warmth of her fingers against his stump. The sensation—and the open, unperturbed expression on her face—rendered him momentarily speechless.

“I think I have some safety pins in my locker,” she offered, still gripping his sleeve. “We could pin it like this, if that would help.”  

She turned her big, compassionate eyes on him once more, and Jaime felt a prickle in his chest. “Thanks, wench. But I’ll manage.” He gave a gentle tug, detaching her fingers, and brought his arm down to rest at his side. “At least the damn photographer isn’t going to be taking pictures of it. I made that very clear to my brother already, and I intend to remind him.”

“You don’t have to hide it, you know,” she said softly, looking down at her lap. “I’m sure people…they won’t think less of you for it.”

Jaime smiled wryly. “Says the woman who wanted to keep her mask on.”

Her mouth, colored a soft pink instead of her usual cherry red, turned down at the edges. “That’s different.”

“No, it’s not.”

Well, yes, it was. His stump was horrific. Jarring. Grotesque. Her face was nothing of the sort. True, it wasn’t conventionally pretty, but he didn’t find it unappealing. In fact, Jaime had come to quite enjoy looking at it.

Brienne shook her head. “You don’t understand.”

“Don’t understand what?” He studied her profile in silence for a long moment. When she didn’t reply, Jaime nudged her shoulder with his own. “Don’t understand what, Brienne?”

“What it’s like for people who aren’t…for people like me.”

His eyebrows shot up so quickly Jaime’s whole forehead felt tight. “People like you?”

“Forget it,” she mumbled.

“No.”

At last, her blue eyes darted up, wide and uncertain and impossibly sad.

“Tell me,” he urged.

She gave a small, helpless shrug. “The world isn’t kind to people like me, Jaime. I learned that a long time ago. And I know you don’t want to be interviewed any more than I do, but, well…look at you.” Brienne swept her hand in his direction. “No one is going to see your picture and make jokes. No one will tell you to go stick your face back behind a cow where it belongs.”

Is that what she thinks is going to happen? he wondered, appalled. How could anyone look at her, see her skills and her goodness and those fucking eyes, and even think such a thing?

“Nobody is going to say that,” he assured her.

“They might.” She pressed her lips together in a wan, forbearing smile. “My point is, even though you think your arm is unsightly, it’s different for me. You don’t have to hide it, but you can if you want to. I can’t pretend I’m not…what I am.”

Jaime wasn’t sure if he wanted to grab her shoulders and shake some sense into her or give her a comforting pat on the arm. Both, perhaps? But more than anything, he wanted to explain that he did understand, far better than she realized. He knew exactly how it felt to be measured and found wanting.

He might have told her so if Tyrion’s laughter hadn’t echoed from the direction of the locker room. Brienne stiffened at the sound, and Jaime sighed.

“I think that’s our cue,” he said flatly. Then, more earnestly, he added, “For the record, what you are is a great ballplayer.”

A pair of creases formed between her eyebrows as they twitched downward, and her puckered chin made her look as though she might be about to cry. But why? he asked himself, exasperated. He’d meant to make her feel better, not worse.

Then he saw the softness in her eyes, and his heart lurched against his ribs.

Her lips parted, and Jaime inclined his head, waiting for her reply. But before she could say a single word, Tyrion trotted through the door with Daario Naharis in tow.

“How perfectly convenient!” Tyrion declared far more exuberantly than the situation seemed to warrant. “Here you both are.”

“Where else would we be?” Jaime muttered, not bothering to rise from his seat. Brienne elbowed him discreetly in the side, and he had to smother a smile.

Seemingly oblivious to their lack of enthusiasm, Tyrion flourished an open hand at the two of them. “Daario, I believe you already know my brother, and this is Brienne Tarth.”

“Delighted to make your acquaintance, Miss Tarth,” Daario crooned. “I’m looking forward to our conversation.”

Brienne managed a weak, tight-lipped smile in response, but it melted from her face as Daario’s gaze slowly slid over her, from head to toe and back again.

When he’d finished eyeing Brienne, Daario gave Jaime a similar appraisal. “Always a pleasure, Jaime.”

Oh, I’m sure it is.

The man looked precisely as Jaime remembered him, with his dark, slicked-back hair and keen blue eyes. Hatless and tieless, he carried his rumpled jacket over one arm and wore his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbow, looking every bit the careless rogue.

Swallowing the sarcastic reply he wanted to fire off, Jaime opted instead for a curt nod of acknowledgment. “Daario.”

After an awkward, lingering pause, Tyrion cleared his throat. “Well, I suppose we can get started. Your photographer can join us when he’s re—ah, here he is now.”

A tall, older man came through the door as Tyrion spoke. He had close-cropped gray hair, a neat gray beard, and a large equipment bag slung over his shoulder.

Jaime leapt to his feet as shock, then relief, surged through his body, slackening the knot that had been twisting in his stomach for the past two days.

“I’ll be damned.” Jaime grinned. “Barristan Selmy?”

The older man stepped past Daario and Tyrion to clap a hand on Jaime’s shoulder. “Jaime Lannister. Good to see you, son. It’s been a long time.”

“It has,” Jaime agreed, shaking his head in wonder. “Too long. I thought for sure you’d be retired by now.”

A slow smile overtook the old man’s face. “I tried. Lasted about three months. Let’s just say it didn’t suit me.” Selmy nodded toward the field. “Doesn’t look like it suited you, either.”

Jaime huffed a laugh. “Not particularly.”

“Glad to see you back at it then,” Selmy said, his gaze dropping briefly to Jaime’s stump. “And don’t worry, we’re all set for today. Your brother already filled me in on your request, and it won’t be a problem.”

Selmy had always been, in Jaime’s estimation, far too forthright and honorable to be a journalist. But he’d never been as grateful for it as he was in that moment. 

“Thank you,” he said thickly. “I appreciate that.” 

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Daario interjected. “As much as I hate to interrupt this swell little reunion, we really should get to it.”

Fighting the urge to roll his eyes, Jaime looked toward the field, where the girls had long since forsaken their drills to gawk openly at the assembly in the dugout. Raising his good arm in their direction, he said, only a touch sarcastically, “Lead the way.”

“Yes,” Tyrion chirped, shooting a sharp, warning glare at Jaime as he shepherded Daario and Selmy up the stairs. “I’ll introduce you to the team first, and then you can get what you need from Jaime and Brienne.”

At the mention of her name, Jaime instinctively turned toward her, looking down to meet her eyes. Though she hadn’t moved, the wench still looked poised for flight.

Lowering his voice so only she could hear, he said, “Barristan Selmy has been taking photographs of baseball players since you and I were in our cradles. He’s the best in the business. I can’t promise you that Daario Naharis won’t be a pain in the ass, but I trust Selmy.”

Brienne stared up at him for several seconds, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. Then, something shifted in her face—a slight relaxation around her mouth, an almost imperceptible lightening of her brow. But Jaime noticed.

“Okay,” she replied at last, rising. After half-heartedly smoothing down her uniform, Brienne exhaled a bracing sigh and headed for the steps. “Might as well get it over with.”

~*~*~

By the time Daario had finished speaking with the Peaches, Jaime hoped he’d never have to suffer the man’s presence again for the rest of his life.

Several of the girls, on the other hand, appeared quite taken with his flippancy and flirtatiousness, and Daario seemed like he wouldn’t mind being taken by any one of them. He spared a few particularly sultry glances for Dany, who, Jaime was pleased to see, regarded his attention with nothing more than tolerant amusement.

When it came time for their individual interviews, Tyrion courteously suggested that Brienne go first.

Finally, a good idea, Jaime thought. Not only would Brienne get the dreaded discussion over with, but he, patiently waiting for his own turn, would have an excuse to stay close.

Sansa and Arya helpfully chased the other girls away before parking themselves nearby as well, and Jaime was glad of their presence. The younger Stark, especially, wouldn’t be shy about piping up if Daario crossed a line.

The man in question began by bombarding Brienne with rapid-fire inquiries about her life before the league. He scrawled furiously in his reporter’s notebook as she gave polite but sparse answers about living on her family’s small farm, working for the Starks, and playing softball in their local league. When she spoke about her older brother, who’d apparently taught her to play baseball and was now fighting overseas, a tender sadness flickered in her eyes.

Jaime’s hackles rose at that, irked by how freely Daario was probing into such private aspects of her life. At the same time, it made him realize how little he knew about her—and sparked an inexplicable eagerness to learn more.

“So, do you have a fella off doing his duty, too?” Daario asked next, flashing her a smooth smile. “Or waiting at home?”

“Uh…I, um,” Brienne faltered, looking flustered. “I…”  

“No,” Arya icily cut in. “Not that it’s any of your business, but she doesn’t.”  

Seemingly satisfied with that answer, Daario began querying Brienne about playing in the league. She replied with kind words about her teammates’ abilities and modest ones about her own, but Jaime wasn’t really listening. He was too busy chewing on the queerly unsettling idea of the wench having a boyfriend. She’d certainly never mentioned one—but she wouldn’t, he supposed, not to him. He hadn’t even known she had a brother. Arya’s denial should have put the issue to rest, but Jaime had heard the troubling hesitation in Brienne’s voice.

“And your coach?” Daario asked, and the question snapped Jaime’s focus back to the conversation at hand. “What’s it like playing for Jaime Lannister?”

“Well…” she began, and Jaime caught a brief flash of blue as her eyes flicked in his direction. “It’s been…um…”

Daario smirked, slanting him an annoyingly satisfied glance, and Jaime felt something inside of him deflate. He’d thought things had been better between them, lately, but perhaps he’d been wrong.

Or perhaps not, he amended, seeing Brienne’s eyes narrow when she noticed the smug look on Daario’s face.

She gave an inelegant little cough before continuing in a warm, clear tone. “It’s been wonderful. Jaime is…he’s observant and patient and knows just how hard to push us. He’s a good coach. A good man. I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else.”

Jaime blinked at her in slack-jawed surprise. Not only had she defended him, but she’d praised him. And she’d done so straightforwardly, with earnest, more meaningful words than he could ever recall hearing from another person, let alone one indisposed to such effusions. For Brienne, that counted as positively gushing—and Brienne did not gush.

“Thank you, Miss Tarth. I think that’ll do it,” Daario said, his voice a little tighter than it had been. “Jaime, I have some questions for you, too, if you’ll oblige me.”

Feeling suddenly buoyant, Jaime nodded his assent.

~*~*~

As it turned out, Daario only asked him a single, dull question about his arm—whether it had healed completely. Unruffled, Jaime had given a painfully civil answer, and Daario had moved on.

So much for that.

By the time the game began, Jaime had been eager to put the whole fiasco behind him. After all that wasted angst over his goddamned stump, he found he didn’t give a shit what Daario wrote about him anyway. He had Brienne’s good opinion, and that counted for far more than any words printed in a magazine.

His unusually high spirits had been further bolstered by the stunning game unfolding before him. Arya’s pitching was the best he’d ever seen it, Dany had stolen two bases in as many innings, and Yara had launched herself halfway over the third base wall in pursuit of a foul ball. In the top of the fifth, Lyanna had taken a running leap to catch a fly, landing in a spectacular belly slide that left grass stains smeared down the front of her uniform.

The whole time, Selmy had stood perched on the dugout roof, capturing it all.

He’d been artful and considerate while taking the obligatory posed shots before the game—one of the whole team and a few each of Brienne and Jaime—but his real prowess had always been in catching moments of action on the field. If the timing of his flashbulbs were any indication, he’d gotten some phenomenal shots. And only one of them had caused Jaime a short-lived twinge of distress.

It had happened in the bottom of the sixth, when Brienne smashed the ball over the right field fence with bases loaded, advancing their lead over the Belles to a staggering 11-3. Margaery, Lyanna, and Dany had caught her in a jubilant group hug as soon as she pounded across home plate.

When Brienne returned to the dugout, Jaime had met her at the top of the steps with a bright smile and a hearty “well done, wench.” She’d stopped in front of him, beaming, and he’d been overtaken by the joy on her face, the radiance in her eyes. Just looking at her had made an answering joy rise inside of him, accompanied by a wild pang of desire to see her smiling like that, her full lips stretched wide, all the time.

They’d only stood that way for a moment, a few seconds at most, but it had been long enough for Selmy’s camera flash to flare across their faces. Jaime had jerked his head up toward the source, his happiness dimming as he realized his right arm had been facing the camera. But Selmy had given him a reassuring nod, easing his concern. When he turned back to Brienne, he’d found her blushing hotly, pressing the fingertips of her right hand against her mouth.

“Don’t worry,” he’d told her. “That one will never see the light of day. Not with everything else Selmy’s gotten today.”

Jaime hadn’t just said it to console her; at the time, he’d meant every word. But as he thought about it now, two innings later, watching Brienne once again stride to the plate, he hoped he’d been wrong. He wasn’t sure he wanted them to use the photo, but he damn sure wanted to see it.

Interrupting his train of thought, Brienne hammered a line drive into right field. Lyanna, who’d been waiting on third, raced for home. Meanwhile, Brienne sprinted hard toward first, then second, her long legs eating up the ground. But the throw from the outfield came in more quickly than Jaime anticipated; Brienne must’ve seen it, too, because she suddenly dove headfirst toward the plate.

The umpire boomed out the call—“Safe!”—and Brienne hoisted herself to her feet, brushing the dust from her skirt.

Next up, Yara sent a high, arcing ball into deep center field. Brienne made it home easily, but Yara got tagged out at second, ending the inning.

Brienne hobbled back to the dugout with two skinned knees and a large scrape on the tender underside of her forearm. Blood dripped from her elbow as she strapped on her leg guards.

Coming up behind her, Jaime said, “You’re bleeding.”

She glanced at him over her shoulder. “I know.”

“Do you want to sit the last inning out? Osha would be happy to play.”

“Absolutely not.”

He smiled at her. “We’re going to win either way. You already made sure they’ll never catch us.”

“I don’t care.” She grabbed her mask from the bench. “I’m going back in.”

Jaime felt a warm appreciation steal over him as he watched her jog up the steps, a stirring of something so long dormant he’d forgotten the sensation almost entirely.

I’m attracted to her, he realized with a start. How is that possible?

Jaime hadn’t felt compelled by a woman in years. Not since before he lost his hand. Since Cersei.

But as he studied Brienne’s retreating figure, from the swish of her uniform skirt around her muscular thighs to the bounce of her blond hair against the back of her neck, Jaime knew it wasn’t only possible—it was undeniable.

He thought about the way his attention always seemed to snag on her, his absurd enjoyment of her blushes, how thoroughly he’d cataloged the many moods of her astonishing eyes, the way she made him want to do the right thing.

God, it wasn’t even new. He’d been feeling this for weeks. Maybe since the day he met her.

A little stunned, Jaime could only stare at her as she lithely folded her long limbs into a crouch.

He’d thought that part of his life was over—hell, he’d wanted it to be over, after the hollowness and shame and anger he’d felt at Cersei and at himself. His love for her had wrecked him, in more ways than one, and Jaime had never expected to be drawn to anyone again.

Especially not to a strong, stubborn, talented, resolutely good, sapphire-eyed wench.

Tyrion would probably say my tastes have improved, Jaime mused, unable to suppress a burgeoning smile. He’d be right.

Chapter Text

Finally alone in the locker room, Brienne sat on the wooden bench and stared down at her raw, throbbing arm.

After the game, a fretting Ms. Frey had ignored Brienne’s protestations and called in the team physician, a mellow older man with kind eyes and thinning hair. Dr. Luwin had examined her wound closely and, as Brienne had suspected, found nothing other than the obvious abraded skin and a bit of embedded gravel. After plucking the largest pieces out with a long, pointed tweezers that sent pain shooting up her arm, he had directed her to wash it out well and treat it with iodine before bandaging it. Keeping it clean and covered was essential, he’d emphasized, and Brienne had every intention of following his instructions.

The other girls had showered, dressed, and gone by the time Dr. Luwin had finished with her. Margaery, Sansa, and Ms. Frey stayed behind to offer their help, but Brienne had ultimately persuaded them to go home without her. She didn’t want or need to be fussed over. After the day she’d had, she just wanted a little time to herself.

However, following a vigorous, teeth-gritting scrub in the shower, her arm had begun bleeding again, and Brienne found herself facing the difficult task of binding the wound alone. So far, she’d only managed to get partly dressed, and even that had required stopping frequently to wipe away the freshly seeping blood. She’d kept it from dripping on her ivory slip and gray skirt, but there had been absolutely no way to put her blouse on without soiling it.

It’ll be easier to wrap my arm without it anyway, she reasoned, firmly pressing a clean cotton pad to her damaged skin. But first she needed to stop the damn bleeding.   

“Why is no one helping you?”

Brienne jumped at the sound of Jaime’s voice. Spinning toward him in her seat, she snatched her damp, discarded towel from the bench and yanked it up to cover her slip-clad chest.

“You’re supposed to knock before you come in here,” she scolded, glaring up at him.

Was it her imagination, she wondered, or were his cheeks a little rosier than usual? But then his lips stretched in a slow smile, revealing the deep dimples that framed his mouth, and she felt foolish for even entertaining the possibility.

Must just be a trick of the light.

Jaime’s eyes flicked over her half-dressed body before returning to her face. “Surely we’re past shyness by now, wench. Besides, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.” As if anticipating a scandalized reply, he swiftly raised his left hand and added, “Not that I’m looking.”

Glancing down at her broad body and meager chest, Brienne grimaced. He’d meant to reassure her. She knew that. So why did it make her feel so terrible?

“Ms. Frey must still be here somewhere,” Jaime said when Brienne remained silent. “This kind of thing is her job.”

“She offered, but I told her to go,” Brienne explained. “I can manage.”

“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should, Brienne.” He took a few steps toward her and pointed at her injured arm. “Let me see.”

With a resigned sigh, Brienne tucked the towel securely under her arms, then carefully peeled off the cotton pad and held her bare arm up in his direction.

“Christ,” he exhaled, moving closer still, only stopping when he stood directly in front of her. “It looks like you scrubbed half the skin off.”

“I’m just following Dr. Luwin’s orders.” She nodded toward the supplies assembled on the bench to her left: more cotton pads, a bottle of iodine, and a wide roll of bandage. “I had to get it clean to avoid an infection. You know I can’t miss a game, Jaime. Not right now.”

He gave an exasperated shake of his head. “And I’m sure you won’t, wench. It is you, after all.” Gazing down at her neatly arranged supplies, he added, “Still, it looks like you could use a little help.”

Before she could object, Jaime swung his right leg over the bench and sat down astride it, leaving only the supplies between them. He snatched the used pad from her fingers and tossed it aside before taking hold of her injured arm and pulling it toward himself.

A buzzing sensation radiated outward from the place where he gently gripped her wrist, like an invisible current was passing through his fingers and into her flesh.

I’ve never been alone with him before, Brienne realized suddenly, then shook her head to chase the thought away.

“What?” he asked worriedly. “Did I hurt you?”

“No,” she answered, twisting her upper body until she was more or less facing him. “You just…don’t need to do this.”

He huffed but didn’t bother arguing with her. Instead, he instructed her to “hold still” as he released her wrist to pick up a fresh cotton pad. She remained motionless as Jaime dabbed it against her arm, mopping up the faint ooze of blood.

“I understand better than you think, you know.”

Brienne drew her eyebrows together. “Understand what?”  

“You.”

Jaime’s gaze darted up to meet hers, and Brienne felt her breath catch somewhere behind her breastbone. His eyes were so very green—bright and somehow soft, like shards of bottle glass partially smoothed down by the sea.

They didn’t look past her, like so many eyes did. No, Brienne had the uncanny sense that they truly took her in, all of her, in a way few ever had.

“We’re not as different as you think, wench,” he eventually continued, still holding the pad against her arm. “My life has been different from yours, I grant you, and I don’t know exactly what it’s been like for you. But don’t assume you know what it’s been like for me, either.”

Taken aback by his sudden candor, Brienne could only stare at him as she mulled over his words. He’d certainly faced his share of challenges, but that didn’t make the two of them alike. What could this golden, handsome, wealthy man possibly have in common with her?

As if he could sense that he hadn’t yet convinced her, Jaime forged ahead. “All my life, I’ve been failing to live up to people’s expectations. I’ve never managed to do enough. To be enough.”

Jaime meant every word he said—she could hear it in the strain and sincerity in his voice—but the idea still struck Brienne as a near-impossibility. He always seemed so sure of himself, moving through the world with an effortless confidence she often envied. And she couldn’t fathom how anyone could think Jaime wasn’t enough.

He’s more than enough, Brienne thought. He’s…

Alarmed by the turn her mind had taken, Brienne forced her thoughts in another, safer direction. “But you were one of the best baseball players in the country. Everyone loved you. How can that be failing?”

Jaime snorted. “Not everyone. My father hated that I played baseball.” The muscles along his jaw tightened as he frowned. “Even before that, no matter what I did, I was always a disappointment.”

“But your father owns a baseball team, doesn’t he?” she tentatively ventured. “He started this league. How could he hate you playing?”

His answering smile was hard and bitter. “Ah, but you see, I’m a Lannister. I wasn’t supposed to play. And the better I got, the more he hated it.”

Brienne’s heart broke a little at the idea of Jaime’s father treating him with such contempt. Her own father hadn’t exactly wanted her to play, but he’d never judged her for her love of the game. He’d been sad and worried when she’d left for the league tryouts, but he hadn’t tried to stop her. And though she never felt like her father really understood her, he never made her feel wrong for being an unconventional daughter.

Perhaps she hadn’t been as grateful for that as she ought to have been.

“I’m still not sure why the hell my father bothered forming this league,” Jaime said, discarding the now-bloody cotton pad. “He never cared at all about the Lions, except for how much money they made him. He inherited the team along with all the rest when my grandfather died.” With a lopsided, wistful grin, he added, “Now he would have loved this.”

“Your grandfather?”

He nodded. “He loved baseball. Hell, he’s probably the reason I love baseball. He played catch with me when I was a kid, and he let me sit in the owner’s box with him during all the Lions’ home games.”

Her lips curved upward as she imagined Jaime as a boy, golden hair askew and eyes wide with excitement as he learned to throw the ball. Brienne cherished her own similar memories of playing with Galladon.

Jaime’s smile withered as he reached for the iodine, deftly unscrewing the cap with his fingers while the bottle rested in his palm. “My father, on the other hand, always said baseball was a waste of time. He’d invested his entire life in the family business, and he wanted me to do the same. But, among my many failings, I never had the interest. Or the aptitude.”

He paused to tip the bottle slowly over the stack of cotton pads, trickling out just enough liquid to wet the top square.

“I could never have worked in an office, cutting deals and poring over paperwork. That was my father’s world, and even Tyrion’s. I belonged on the field, with a ball in my hand and the mound under my cleats. Baseball was… ” Jaime inhaled sharply, his unseeing eyes looking over her shoulder. “Everything. It was my life. The only place I ever felt successful.”

As she studied him, Brienne recognized the echo of her own loneliness and pain and struggle—it was all there, plain as day, on his face and in his eyes. A wave of sympathy surged through her body, accompanied by a sudden and almost unbearable feeling of closeness to this beautiful, devastated man.

“I understand,” she said quietly, and his eyes came back to meet hers.

He bit his lower lip as he considered her. “I believe you do.”

Overwhelmed by the intensity of his gaze, Brienne momentarily forgot to hold up her arm, and the wearying limb dropped a few inches. Without missing a beat, Jaime once again wrapped his fingers around her wrist, forcing her to bend at the elbow. He proceeded to position it so her upper arm could rest more comfortably against her chest while her forearm remained extended in the space between them.

“The worst part is that I managed to get everything I’d ever wanted, in spite of my father’s disapproval. Then I let stupidity snatch it all away. Now, this is going to hurt.” He placed his stump on the side of her arm to hold her steady, then dabbed her scrape with the iodine-soaked cotton.

His touch was surprisingly gentle, but the burning sting still made her wince. “A car crash is hardly stupidity, Jaime. Accidents happen all the time.”

Jaime once again rubbed the pad lightly around her wound, and Brienne clamped her teeth together against the pain.

“I was drunk, Brienne,” he said, tossing away the pad when he’d finished swabbing her arm. “I crashed that car because I was drunk. And the man in the car I hit nearly died. I could have killed someone.” He shook his head angrily. “But I’d been out with Cersei, my…the woman I loved. We’d been drinking, and we fought. We were always fighting. She’d started drinking more, and I let myself drink more to cope with her. That night, we had one hell of an argument. I left, pissed off and miserable, and I crashed the car on my way home.” His lip curled in revulsion. “Oh, my father made sure the press never got wind of it. He cooked up some story about a faulty repair tragically ending my career, and he used his connections to make sure the truth was swept under the rug. But the only person I have to blame for this,” he declared, holding up his stump, “is myself.”

He’d thrust his arm into the air so quickly that his sleeve had fallen down a few inches, exposing his stump. Brienne immediately noticed that the rawness of the previous week had faded, especially on his forearm, but the raised white marbling of his scars stood out starkly against his still-pink flesh.

It’s really not that bad, Brienne thought. She’d expected it to look much worse, based on how he talked about it. It’s just an arm without a hand.

“I’m sorry, Jaime,” she breathed, unsure whether she was apologizing for what had happened, for his arm, or for the burden he bore for blaming himself.

All of it, perhaps. Because, although it was a dreadful tale, it didn’t make her think less of him. If anything, she felt even more compassion for him than she had before. She knew what it was like to be a fool for want of love, to make mistakes that could have been avoided by exercising better judgment. To be haunted by them, even when they were long past.

Lowering his stump, Jaime shrugged. “I was lucky, really. The doctors thought I might not make it. I’d lost so much blood by the time I got to the hospital that I was barely conscious. They tried to save the hand, but it was hopeless. They told me it was either lose the hand or lose my life. For a long time afterwards, I wondered if I made the right choice.”

His words hit her like a line drive to the chest, and Brienne reached out for him without thinking. She placed her hand lightly on top of his, where it had stilled on her injured arm. “Of course you did, Jaime. I know I can’t possibly understand what it’s like to lose a hand, but you’re still here. That has to count for something.”

“You’re right,” he acknowledged, but his smile was rueful. “But I didn’t just lose my hand. I lost my career. Knowing I’d never play baseball again was a hell of a lot harder to face than becoming a cripple. And it felt like my father had finally won, which made it even fucking worse. I’ve never seen him so happy about anything in my life.”

Horrified, Brienne could only say, “That’s awful.”

Even with all he’d said about his father, with all she’d gathered from Tyrion, it still seemed unimaginably cruel for a father to be pleased his son had been maimed.

Jaime gave a jagged laugh. “That’s my father. And his reaction didn’t really surprise me, but I didn’t expect the one I got from Cersei. I should have, but I didn’t.” He slipped his hand out from beneath her own to reach for the roll of bandage. “She called me a pathetic shell of my former self, and then she went and married Shireen’s uncle not long after the accident.”

Brienne sucked in a long, shaky breath as comprehension dawned on her, followed closely by a flood of guilt. She recalled the look in his eyes, the torment and brokenness she’d seen in them, the day they’d fought over Gilly. The day she’d called him pathetic.

“Jaime, I’m… I would never have…” she stumbled, having trouble focusing as he began to wind the bandage around her arm, using his stump to hold the starting end in place. Eventually, she managed a throaty, “I didn’t realize.”

“Of course you didn’t,” he said without looking up from his task. “How could you have known?”

When he came to the end of the roll, Jaime tucked it in and brushed his fingers over the band, checking to make sure it was secure. Then, he nudged her arm down to rest in her lap.

Even though he was no longer touching her, Brienne could feel the lingering warmth from his fingers. And he was still leaning toward her, peering intently into her face.

“We both said things we didn’t mean that day.”

Did we? she wondered. He’d certainly seemed to mean his words at the time, even if he had been sorry for them later.

“I hope we can both leave them in the past, where they belong,” he added, looking up at her with those earnest, insistent green eyes.

“Of course we can, Jaime, but…” she trailed off with a sigh, debating whether to pose the question that had been nagging at her since he’d begun speaking. She probably shouldn’t, she realized, but she desperately wanted to know. “Why did you tell me all this?”

He lifted his eyebrows bemusedly, as if he wasn’t completely sure himself. “I wanted you to know that I understood what you meant earlier today. You’re not the only one who feels judged. And no matter what happens, no matter what Daario writes or what people say about you or me or the league… I’m on your side, wench. I’ll always be on your side.”

Brienne felt the burn of tears rising in her eyes and furiously blinked them back. Swallowing, she croaked out a weak, “Thank you, for…everything. For your help.” She nodded toward her arm. “And…I’m on your side, too.”

“I know.” Jaime smiled, and his dimples sent a fresh flock of swallows soaring through her gut.

The sensation brought with it a renewed consciousness of how little clothing she had on. Tearing her eyes from his, she looked pointedly down at herself. “I should finish getting dressed.”

His eyes darted over her. “Of course.”

But when he stood, he moved toward her locker instead of the door. Reaching inside, he grabbed the light blue blouse that had been hanging there and held it out to her.

This time, Brienne knew she wasn’t imagining the color in his cheeks, and her heart gave a tiny leap as she took the shirt from his hand.

“Meet me out front when you’re ready,” he said a little huskily. “I’ll drive you home.”

Chapter Text

When she walked out into the parking lot, Jaime was already sitting in the driver’s seat of his convertible, its rolled-down top allowing the nearly full moon to illuminate the angles of his profile. He still hadn’t changed out of his uniform, and the white fabric seemed almost to glow in the silver-blue light.

He must have heard her Oxfords clicking across the pavement, because he didn’t even twitch when Brienne opened the passenger door and climbed in beside him. Then, with only the barest flicker of his eyes in her direction, Jaime started the engine and put the car in gear.

The stillness that settled between them as he drove could have been awkward—should have been, really. But, to Brienne’s surprise, it wasn’t. She did worry, at first, that something was troubling him, that he might be regretting everything he’d just shared with her. After all, Jaime rarely remained quiet when there was silence to fill.

When she risked a glance over at him, however, she saw that his brow was smooth, his jaw relaxed. The only hint of tension on his tired face was the slight squint of his eyes as he focused on the road ahead.

Relieved, Brienne let herself soften into the comfortable hush, enjoying the feeling of the wind blowing through her damp hair and the sight of the open night sky above them. Almost as soon as she tilted her head back against the seat to take it in, her eyelids began to droop, and she had to fight against the tug of sleep.

But then it had been one hell of a day.

Before long, Jaime pulled up in front of the boardinghouse. For a moment, Brienne just sat there, listening to the crickets chirping and watching the fireflies glimmer in the hedges, loath to trade the tranquility of Jaime’s car for the clamor of the house.

“Thanks for driving me back,” she eventually said, turning her head to face him.

He smiled at her but wouldn’t meet her eyes. “Any time, wench.”

Dispirited by his reluctance to look at her, Brienne nevertheless forced a small smile in return before reaching for the door. As she placed her fingers on the handle, she murmured a quick, “Goodnight, Jaime.”

“Brienne, wait.”

Slowly, she spun back toward him. His dark eyes were definitely looking at her now.  

When he didn’t continue, Brienne raised her eyebrows in silent question.

Soundlessly, Jaime opened his mouth, closed it, and opened it again. He sucked in a short breath before beginning, “Brienne, I ne—”

“Brienne!” Sansa’s voice abruptly pierced the peaceful night air, and Jaime’s mouth went closed again.

Brienne nearly ignored her friend’s call, intent as she was on hearing what Jaime had to say, but then she heard footfalls thumping across the porch and down the wooden stairs.

What can possibly be so important?

Turning, Brienne saw Sansa hurrying down the walkway, her red hair bobbing through the dark. She was waving something in her hand Brienne couldn’t make out, even with the moonlight.

“You got a letter!” Sansa exclaimed, passing through the rod iron gate and approaching the curb. “From Galladon.”

Relief, powerful and sweet, swept over her, and Brienne let out a half-choked breath. Her brother hadn’t answered a single one of her letters since before she’d joined the league, and Brienne had been growing more anxious with each passing week. It wasn’t the first time there’d been a break in his correspondence, but it never got any easier.

Twisting back toward Jaime, Brienne found his brow knitted with concern. Again, she felt compelled to stay, to make him tell her whatever had been on his lips a moment before. But the lure of news from Galladon was too strong to resist. She had to read that letter, to see his words. To know he was safe.

“Jaime, it’s…”

“Your brother,” he finished for her.

She nodded.

“Go,” he urged with a small, understanding smile. “I hope it’s good news.”

~*~*~

Sitting on her bed, Brienne stared down at the letter in her lap and ran her thumb across the page. She’d read it twice already and was on the verge of beginning it again when someone tapped softly on her bedroom door.

Swiping a hand across her wet cheek, she called out, “Come in.”

The door creaked open and Margaery poked her head in. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Brienne wiped a finger under one eye, then the other, to catch the tears that hadn’t yet fallen. “I’m just happy.”

“I’m glad,” Margaery said, slipping inside and closing the door behind her. “I got a letter from my brother today, too.”

“Did you? Loras or Garlan?”

“Garlan, of course.” Margaery lowered herself into the armchair by Brienne’s window and pulled a rose-colored throw pillow into her lap. “Loras is too busy being heroic to bother writing me letters.”

Brienne offered her a sympathetic smile. Margaery had recently heard from Willas—her only brother not in combat, thanks to a childhood injury that had left him with a lame leg—that Loras was alive and well somewhere in the Pacific. It was the only news they’d had of him in months. And while Margaery often complained about Loras being a glory hound, Brienne suspected that his brashness worried her much more than she let on.

“Garlan’s well, I hope?”

“Oh, yes. As well as can be expected. How about Galladon? I know you haven’t heard from him in some time.”

“He’s safe, which is all that matters. He doesn’t say where he is, but he seems to be in good spirits.” Brienne smiled fondly at his letter as she set it down on her floral bedspread. “He thanked me for my letters and asked me to keep writing to him about the league. He went on for half a page about how wonderful he thinks it is, and he wants me to promise that I’ll introduce him to Jaime when he gets home.”

Margaery’s dark eyebrows quirked upward. “You told him about Jaime?”

“Well, I had to,” Brienne said, going on to explain her brother’s excessive devotion to the Kingslayers—and how Jaime’s baseball card had pride of place in Galladon’s collection.

“I see.” Margaery pursed her lips into a shrewd smirk. “Speaking of Jaime, did I just see his car out front?”

“Yes. He helped me with my arm and then brought me home.”

“I thought you said you didn’t need help.”

“I did. I mean, I didn’t,” Brienne stammered. “He insisted.”

Margaery hummed. “You two seem to have an…interesting relationship.”

“We’re friends. At least I think we are.” Brienne shrugged. “We respect each other.”

“Is that all?”

No, she realized sadly, and the unwelcome awareness gripped her heart like a vise. No, that’s not all.

She’d been trying her hardest to ignore it, to dismiss the way she felt when he looked at her or talked with her or called her wench. But she no longer could, not after what had just happened and the things he’d said. Not after the day they’d survived together.

Still, no matter how much she may have begun to care for Jaime Lannister, Brienne knew a man like him would never see her as anything more than a player or a friend. She’d learned that long ago, and she didn’t need another lesson on the subject.

So she said, “Of course that’s all. He’s our coach.”

“Are you sure you’re not just saying that because of Hyle?”

“Hyle?” Brienne asked sharply. She hadn’t said a word to Margaery about him.

“Sansa may have mentioned him,” Margaery airily replied, appearing suddenly fascinated by a loose thread on the edge of the pillow.

“Did she?”

“Oh, don’t be cross,” Margaery said, raising her gaze. “Arya was chattering on about how she had to answer that reporter’s question about you having a boyfriend. She said she just knew you were thinking of Hyle. Sansa shushed her, but when I asked her what Arya was talking about, she told me.”

Brienne frowned. “Told you what, exactly?”

“Everything. Brienne, that fool doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as you do, let alone—”

“Please, Margaery,” Brienne interrupted, trying her best to tamp down her anger and embarrassment. Sansa knew Brienne didn’t like talking about Hyle, especially when it concerned what had happened all those years ago. Her friend had no right to divulge everything to Margaery. “Sansa shouldn’t have said anything. It was a long time ago. And he isn’t my boyfriend.”

“Then why is he writing you letters? Every week, by the sound of it.”

Damn it, Sansa.

“I don’t know,” Brienne answered, knowing it was a lie. Hyle was pursuing her, in his own feeble, clumsy way. He was the only man who ever had. “To find out how I’m doing, I suppose. I certainly didn’t ask him to.”

Margaery rolled her eyes. “How romantic.”

“Not really.”

Frowning, Margaery rose from the chair and came to sit beside her on the bed. Grasping Brienne’s hand, she said, “He did a terrible thing, and you don’t have to forgive him. I don’t care how long ago it was. You’re worth more than that. You can have more than that.”

“It’s kind of you to say so,” Brienne said, squeezing her friend’s hand in return, “but—”

“No,” Margaery insisted. “No buts. I can prove it to you.”

Brienne expelled a disbelieving huff. “And how are you going to do that?”

“A week from Friday, we’re going out to celebrate Yara’s birthday. There’s this little roadhouse just outside of town, and—”

“That’s against the rules,” Brienne cut in. “You could get the whole team in trouble. You haven’t roped Sansa and Arya into this, have you?”

“God, Brienne. I adore you, but must you be such a square? Yes, they’re both going. We all are.” Margaery leaned her dainty shoulder into Brienne’s upper arm. “Don’t worry, I have everything taken care of. No one will ever know we’ve gone. All you need to do is put on a nice dress and tag along. Let your hair down a little. Let a man buy you a drink.”

“I don’t drink.”

Margaery laughed. “A Coke, then. And they’ll want to. I promise you.”

“But I really don’t think—”

“Oh, no you don’t.” Margaery held up a finger. “No buts, remember? At least think about it.”

“All right,” Brienne conceded. If she couldn’t talk Sansa and Arya out of going, she would have to go anyway, so it seemed pointless to argue. “I’ll think about it.”

~*~*~

“Did you just say, ‘win a kiss’?” Dany asked incredulously.

The entire team stared at Tyrion in disbelief. He’d come sauntering into the locker room just after the girls had dressed for their home game against the Comets, allegedly to congratulate them on their smashing success with the press. After only a handful of minutes, however, he’d gotten around to the real point of his visit: unveiling his latest contest idea.

“I did indeed,” Tyrion replied brightly. “Any man in the stands who catches a foul ball wins a kiss from the player who hit it. We tried it when Racine played South Bend yesterday, and the crowd loved it.”  

Brienne slumped forward on the bench, resting her elbows on her thighs, and shook her head. It had only been four days since she’d endured Daario Naharis, which, at the time, had seemed like one of the hardest things she’d ever have to do. But this might be even worse.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Arya said, disdainfully scrunching her nose.

“I am not,” Tyrion assured her.

“I thought we were done with all that,” Jaime piped in. His whole face was puckered, as though he’d swallowed something sour. “Didn’t you just say we’ve been doing well?”

“Yes,” Tyrion confirmed. “The crowds have doubled in the last week and a half, which is, as I also said, exceptional. But we need them to double again. The Life feature won’t be published for another week or two, and we need to keep the interest of the local press until then. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

Our laurels?” Meera snorted. “You don’t have to kiss anyone.”

Ygritte followed on with another snappy comment, but Brienne didn’t really hear it. She was too busy worrying about what would happen if she hit a foul to be as outraged by the idea as the others clearly were. Men in the crowd would doubtlessly fight over Sansa, Margaery, or Dany’s foul balls, but they’d leap to get clear of hers. Brienne’s cheeks burned at the thought, and it hadn’t even happened yet.

A small movement snagged her attention, and Brienne glanced up to see that Jaime had taken several steps closer to his brother and crossed his arms. The gesture was nothing unusual—he did it all the time, in fact—but not with his sleeves rolled up.

Even in the midst of her discomfort, Brienne felt a billowing pride in him. It didn’t matter if he pulled his shirt down as soon as they took the field. This was a start.

“Come on, Tyrion,” Jaime was saying. “You’re really going to make them kiss every drunken idiot who catches a ball?”

“Yesterday, the girls only had to kiss two men and, I assure you, neither was drunk.” Tyrion looked entreatingly around the room. “Just give me one game. If it goes badly today, we won’t do it again.”  

“That sounds fair,” Margaery said, quelling the last remaining grumbles. “I think we’re up to the task. We can kiss a few lucky boys to save the league. Can’t we, ladies?”

Why are you always taking his side? Brienne groused to herself, glaring at her friend. And why did you have to say it like that? How can any of us say no?

They couldn’t, as it turned out. All of them, even Brienne, eventually gave their consent, some more begrudgingly than others. Jaime didn’t argue, but he didn’t seem pleased.

Tyrion, on the other hand, was utterly delighted, and he insisted on staying to watch the game. He clapped louder than anyone when two Kenosha girls marched across the outfield carrying a banner emblazoned with “Catch a Foul, Win a Kiss” right before the first pitch. Almost immediately, a number of men—soldiers and sailors, mostly—clambered atop the dugout roofs, hustling for prime position.

Margaery was the first to hit one, in the bottom of the second inning. As Brienne watched her friend tug a sailor down by his neckerchief and plant a quick, demure kiss on his lips, she couldn’t help but wonder if Margaery had done it on purpose.

In the top of the fifth, three Kenosha players hit fouls dangerously close to the stands, but only one found its way into the hands of a spectator. The older gentleman, seated in the stadium’s front row, looked quite surprised to have ended up with it, and he settled for giving the player a polite peck on the cheek.  

Then, in the bottom of the same inning, Brienne stepped up to the plate and swung hard at the first pitch. She knew she’d fouled it even before the ball ticked off her bat, arcing back and to her left. Terror rose like bile in her throat as she wheeled around to follow its path, but the sun blinded her as she turned, preventing her from seeing where it had gone.

The crowd began to titter, and Brienne raised her hand to shield her eyes from the light. Immediately, she realized what people were sniggering at.

Hatless, his tousled hair glinting in the sun, Jaime stood on the dugout steps with her ball in his hand and a wide grin on his face.

The foul must have fallen just short of the dugout roof and the dozen men clustered there. Thank God, she thought, feeling her panic ebb. She would not, however, thank Jaime. Couldn’t he have just let it hit the ground?

The umpire flipped another ball to the pitcher, and Brienne pivoted back to the plate, once more raising her bat. Somehow, she collected herself enough to hit the ball—badly. She barely beat the throw to first base, but at least her pathetic single had gotten Dany into scoring position on third.

As she waited for Yara to take her turn at bat, Brienne noticed Jaime still standing on the dugout steps, periodically glancing down at the ball in his hand. Annoyed, she could only hope the umpire would force him to return it. The last thing she needed was to be taunted by the evidence of how close she’d come to disaster.    

While Brienne was stewing, Yara popped up her own foul ball, straight into the air over her head, and the crowd groaned.

What is going on today? Brienne wondered, watching the Comets’ catcher easily grab the ball on its way back down, bringing the scoreless inning to a close.

She deliberately tried to avoid Jaime as she jogged back to the dugout to don her gear, but he swiftly maneuvered directly into her path. Brienne sidestepped him, doing her best to sidle by, but he stopped her by reaching for her uninjured arm.

“Where’s my kiss?” he asked, his fingers pressing into her sticky skin.

Her head snapped up. “What?”

“I caught the ball,” Jaime casually replied, a smirk on his face and laughter dancing in his green eyes. “Doesn’t that mean I won a kiss?”

Brienne ripped herself free of his grasp and stormed down the stairs, face glowing hot and an unexpected knot of pain forming in her chest. Grabbing her leg guards, she sat down hard on the bench and began forcefully strapping them on.

“I suppose I should be glad it was you,” she snapped when she sensed his approach. “At least you’re mocking me in private and not on the field like those other men would’ve done.”

When he said nothing, Brienne looked up to find Jaime looming over her so closely that he blocked her view of anything that wasn’t him. His eyes, no longer filled with mirth, were alight with irritation and something else—a heat she’d seen in men’s eyes before, but never when they looked at her.

“Who says I’m mocking you?” he asked roughly.

She blinked up at him, looking for a trace of teasing somewhere on his face, waiting for the lines around his mouth to deepen into that devastating smile. But they didn’t.

It must be a jest, she thought. It must be.

“Jaime, nobody in this entire stadium wants a kiss from me.”  

Brienne’s throat went dry as his burning eyes dropped to her mouth, then slowly slid back up to meet hers. Jaime leaned down closer to her, and the intensity of his attention made her heart beat a little faster.

“Let’s play ball!” the umpire boomed impatiently, startling Jaime away from her.

His expression cooled as Brienne scrambled for her chest protector and lifted it over her head, but he never took his eyes off her. She could still feel his gaze on her back as she hastened up the steps a minute later, hearing him mutter something about “wench” and “wrong.”

Wrong, indeed, she told herself. There is definitely something wrong with me.

“Don’t worry, sugar,” cried a loud, silky voice as soon as Brienne reached home plate. She looked over to see the dark eyes of Coach Martell twinkling at her from the Comets’ dugout. “He can always collect his prize later, though you’re more than welcome to give it to me if he doesn’t want it. After all, one manager is as good as another. Right, boys?”

The men gathered on the Comets’ dugout roof, and several in the first row of the stands, chortled loudly at his words.

Brienne jammed her mask on her head, shooting Martell the most hostile scowl she could muster before sinking down into a crouch.

A joke, she thought bitterly, pulling the mask down over her face. Will I ever be anything but a joke?

Chapter Text

Staring at his reflection in the dark glass of the bus window, Jaime ran his hand across the stubble on his jaw. Considering it had been at least sixteen hours since he’d shaved, it didn’t surprise him that he was getting rather ragged.

The rest of him wasn’t faring much better. He could see dark smudges beneath his eyes, his feet ached, and the knotted muscles in his neck and shoulders were giving him a headache. The only part of his body that felt halfway decent was his damn stump.

When did I start feeling like a tired old man? Jaime wondered, scowling when he glimpsed a slight glittering of silver at his temples. And when did I start looking like one?

The former, at least, he could blame on the hellish schedule they’d endured for the past three days. Saturday, the Peaches had journeyed to Racine for a brutal doubleheader in ninety-five-degree heat. On Sunday, the Fourth of July, the team had played an afternoon game at home with the bleachers near to bursting. Afterwards, Tyrion’s holiday festivities—including a bizarrely large picnic in the outfield, merchandise sale, autograph line, and fireworks display—had lingered late into the night.

Much as he disliked the spectacle of it all, Jaime had to hand it to his canny little brother: they’d sold mountains of team hats and banners, and people had flocked to the autograph table to get their newly purchased items signed. Some had even brought flowers and other tokens for their favorite players. To her amazement, Brienne’s pile had been one of the larger ones, but Jaime knew it was no less than she deserved.

Ecstatic and completely sauced, Tyrion had hailed the day as a rip-roaring success, but the girls had been dead on their feet by the end of it. Not nearly enough hours later, they’d boarded the bus at dawn for the long ride to South Bend, where the Peaches had faced the Blue Sox in yet another doubleheader. Now, an hour past sunset, they were on the bus again, still more than a hundred miles from home.

All Jaime wanted was to fall facedown in his bed, get a decent night’s sleep, and stay the fuck out of the miserable heat the following day. He didn’t intend to do anything more strenuous on their day off than read the newspaper. Maybe not even that.

As he turned to survey the unusually quiet bus, Jaime suspected the girls needed the rest worse than he did. Even cheery, unflappable Ms. Frey was worn out; she’d been snoring lightly in the seat across from him for at least twenty minutes.

Two rows behind the chaperone, Brienne sat with her back against the window and her long legs dangling out into the aisle, demurely crossed at the ankle. Her pale hair had fallen across her face as she peered down at her lap, but he could tell by the furrows in her brow that she was thinking deeply about something.

Sansa and Margaery sat immediately behind Brienne, their voices nothing more than low murmurs, and the top of Arya’s head was barely visible in the seat across from her. Beyond that, he could see only shapes and shadows of the rest of the team in the soft yellow glow of the overhead lights.

Unable to help himself, Jaime returned his gaze to Brienne.

She’d given him a wide berth for the past several days, ever since he’d made an ass of himself over that foul ball. And he didn’t blame her. Looking back, Jaime realized he shouldn’t have been so playful or so overt—not about something like that, not with her. But when the ball had dropped right into his hand, it had felt like fucking divine providence, and he’d been giddy with it.

Not that the wench had believed him anyway. In fact, Brienne’s certainty that he’d been mocking her had upset him—for her sake far more than for his own. It pissed Jaime off that the world had convinced her she was so undeserving of attention that the idea of a man wanting to kiss her filled her with nothing but distrust and doubt.

Because he would have kissed her. Gladly. Repeatedly. Right there on the goddamned field. He’d wanted to do so in the locker room a few days before, when he’d helped bind her arm, and again when he’d driven her home.

Jaime had nearly said something rash that night, too. He hadn’t known what exactly his words would be when her name left his lips, but he’d felt a strange urge to confess that he hadn’t been entirely honest about his reasons for opening up to her. He’d meant it when he said he understood her and that he was on her side. But it had also been something more. He wanted something more.

Thankfully, he hadn’t gotten the chance to say so. If the damn foul ball incident had put her off, God only knew how the wench would’ve reacted to that.

As his eyes lingered on what little he could see of Brienne’s face, Sansa abruptly poked her head up over the seat back and peered down at her friend. Jaime immediately jerked his head around, not keen to be caught staring at her.

“What’re you doing?” he heard Sansa ask.

“Trying to answer these letters,” Brienne responded absently.

“The one from Galladon?”

“Yes. And the one from Hyle,” Brienne replied, a sudden edge to her voice that Jaime didn’t often hear when she spoke to her friends.

“God, another one?” Arya groaned. “Why don’t you tell that creep to leave you alone?”

“He’s not a creep,” Brienne said, but her words were devoid of any real conviction. If anything, she sounded doleful and tired.

“Pig, then? Asshole of the highest order? I don’t know what else to call someone who would be involved in a bet like th—”

“Arya!” Sansa scolded, cutting across her sister’s words.

Jaime’s attention sharpened. Who the hell was Hyle? Why was he writing to Brienne? And what bet had he taken part in to make the younger Stark dislike him so much?

“What?” Arya asked indignantly. “You hate him just as much as I do.” She made a small, frustrated noise somewhere between a huff and a growl, and when the girl continued speaking, Jaime knew she was addressing Brienne. “Don’t you ever get tired of his pathetic attempts to win you over? Does he really think if he goes on long enough, you’ll forgive him for being a prick and fall into his stupid arms?”

“I thought he was just writing to find out how you are,” Margaery probed, her normally bright tone replaced by something peculiarly solemn. “Isn’t that what you said?”

He heard the rush of Brienne’s breath as she sighed, and Jaime’s whole body listed toward the aisle, awaiting her reply. But none came.

“That’s not why he’s writing,” Sansa eventually said, her voice so low he had to strain to hear it. “In the last letter, he said he loves her and can’t imagine his future without her.”

Jaime’s stomach dropped to a level somewhere near his knees. He felt like he might vomit. Or scream. Or track down this miserable Hyle character and—

“He what?” Margaery squeaked.

“Shhh,” Brienne hissed. Then, presumably to Sansa, she accusingly inquired, “Are you reading my mail now?”

“Not on purpose!” Sansa protested. “You left it on the table and I just…found it. Brienne, I didn’t mean to—”

“But you did,” Brienne snapped, and Jaime heard the hurt beneath her anger.

“It was wrong of her to read it,” Margaery said. “But she cares about you, and she’s worried. I am, too, if Hyle is really—”

“Not now, Margaery.”

“But—”

“Not here,” Brienne insisted, and not another word was said.

~*~*~

Jaime waited a good half hour, until the bus had gone completely silent, before sneaking another look behind him. Brienne’s blond head was still bent over her work, and Sansa’s was tipped against the window behind her. Margaery and Arya had disappeared. “Brienne,” he whispered, assured that the coast was clear.

Immediately, her head popped up, and her tired eyes met his. When Jaime beckoned her with a tilt of his head, a look of uncertainty passed over her face. Then, with a slight frown, she slowly rose, moved up the aisle, and slid into the empty seat beside him.

The two of them together was a tight fit, and their knees pressed against the back of the seat ahead of them. The space between their thighs was tiny, yet Jaime found himself wanting to close it, to settle against her and feel her warmth. This was the closest he’d been to her in days, and all he wanted to do was touch her. Preferably with more than just his leg.

“You were writing a letter?” he asked, attempting to distract himself from his thoughts.

Her eyebrows spiked up in surprise. “Yes. To my brother.”

He could have been discouraged by her short reply, but the fact that she’d answered him at all signaled to Jaime that her chilliness was thawing. So, he pressed on. “About what?”

Brienne shrugged, and the sleeve of her yellow blouse—one of Jaime’s favorites—rustled against the fabric of his shirt. “The league. The girls. In his letter, he asked me to tell him more about all this.”

Jaime licked his lips, searching for an appropriate reply. He settled for a sincere, “I’m sorry he isn't here to see it for himself.”

Brienne’s face softened. “So am I. He would love everything about it. Everything. Except this God-awful bus.” With a slight smile, she pointed at her knees. “It isn’t really built for Tarths.”

Jaime chuckled, feeling both euphoric and relieved. I’ve missed this, he realized. I’ve missed her.

“It isn’t doing this Lannister any favors, either,” he replied, grinning. “Is your brother tall, like you?”

Her smile widened. “Taller.”

“Do you have a picture of him?”

She nodded and wordlessly slipped out of the seat, returning a minute later with a photo of a broad-shouldered, barrel-chested man in an Army uniform. “That’s Galladon.”

He took the photo from her outstretched hand to give it a closer look. Her brother had Brienne’s hair and her nose—minus the bump where hers had been broken. He did not have her eyes.

“I remember you mentioning him in the magazine interview. He’s in Europe, you said?”

“We think so, yes. Or North Africa. He can’t tell us exactly where.” After a long pause, she added softly, “I didn’t know you were listening.”

He huffed. “Of course I was. How else am I supposed to learn about you?”

“You could ask me, Jaime,” she said, as if he were the world’s biggest idiot. But there was something suspiciously like fondness in her voice that made him a little lightheaded.

“All right then.” He held up the photo. “Tell me about Galladon. What’s he like?”

Brienne sighed thoughtfully as she considered his request, and her tone was full of warmth when she finally answered. “Galladon is charming and kind and smart. Everyone loves him. He’s really good with people—much better than I ever was. And he always looked out for me. He’s my best friend, really. When we were growing up, he even let me play baseball with him and his friends, until I started getting better at it than they were.” Once again, a smile pulled at the edges of her lips. “Then he didn’t seem to enjoy it so much.”

Jaime laughed a little too loudly, and Ms. Frey shifted in her sleep across the aisle. His mouth tightened in a contrite frown, but Brienne was still smiling.

“What else?” he asked, lowering his voice.

“He likes you,” she said, her eyes skittering away from his. “He loves the Kingslayers—has since we were kids. You’ve been his favorite player for ages. He was very jealous when I told him you’re managing my team.”

Jaime tried his hardest not to grin, but the knowledge that she’d told her brother about him made him stupidly, irrationally happy. “What exactly did you say about me?”

Blushing, Brienne picked at the frayed end of the bandage she still wore around her scraped arm. “Nothing, really. I told him what a good coach you are and about how well Sansa and Arya have been playing because of your help. I explained that we didn’t like each other much at first, but we trust each other now. That we’re…” She trailed off uncertainly, darting a glance in his direction. “We’re friends.”

Jaime shook his head in awe. That isn’t nothing, wench, he thought. It’s more than I deserve.

And yet, it wasn’t enough. Not anymore.

He trailed his gaze over Brienne’s face, taking in the features he’d once foolishly perceived as inharmonious: the sweep of her flushed cheeks, her white-blond eyelashes, those generous lips. Jaime willed her to look at him, longing for the sight of that breathtaking blue, but her eyes remained downcast.

“He asked if I could introduce you,” she went on quietly when Jaime didn’t respond. “Do you think you’d mind?”

“Mind? I’d be honored,” Jaime said earnestly, and he was rewarded by her small, grateful smile.

“Thank you,” Brienne murmured. “He’ll be so happy.”

As long as she was happy, Jaime didn’t really care. Still, sensing how important Brienne’s brother was to her, he said, “I’m glad to give him something to look forward to, then.”

He reached his left arm across his body to give the photo back to her, and Brienne’s fingers whispered against his when she took it from his grasp. As Jaime watched her bring her hands to rest once more in her lap, he couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to caress her there. What would it feel like to run his fingers along her knuckles or over the soft, tender skin of her wrists? To brush the back of her hand with his lips and trail kisses up her arm to that long, pale neck? To sweep his tongue across—

A sudden stiffening in his cock jolted him out of his imaginings.

What the hell are you doing, Jaime? Now is not the time. Not here.

Even that thought surprised him.

Christ, not anywhere. Not ever, he bitterly corrected. This isn’t going to happen. It can’t happen.

He dug his fingernails into his thigh, hoping the pain would quell his arousal. “Jaime, is something wrong?” Brienne asked gently. “Are you in pain?”

If you only knew.

He looked up into her incredible eyes, dark as the evening sky in the dim light. She was so close, and she seemed so concerned for him.

And he wanted her, God help him. He wanted her more than he could remember wanting any woman—even Cersei—and in an entirely different way. One that involved her body, certainly, but not only that. Jaime wanted all of her.

“Jaime?” Brienne’s outstretched hand hovered near his leg, and he was suddenly afraid to let her touch him there. He might combust. Or pull her to his chest.

“I’m fine, wench,” he lied, tapping her thigh with his stump. Even that modest contact sent a charge racing up his arm, down through his chest, and into his half-hard cock. Unable to do anything but pray she didn’t notice the bulge in his trousers, Jaime cleared his throat and continued, “I was just thinking about how much I’m looking forward to meeting him. And wishing I could hear what he would say if he could see you play.”

She retracted her hand, and her mouth drooped into a frown. “I just wish he could come home. Even if he wasn’t here, it would be so much easier if I knew he was safe. If he were back home, waiting for me on the farm.”

Jaime felt his jaw tighten and his arousal begin to fade as he considered how to proceed. He could ignore the window she’d just unknowingly given him or risk posing the question he’d been aiming for since the start.

Just do it, he thought. Now or never.

“It sounds like you do have someone waiting at home,” he said lightly, but every muscle in his body tensed in anticipation of her response.

Her eyes fell shut. “You heard that?”

“I did.” He smiled apologetically when she finally returned her gaze to his face. “Something about a person named Hyle and some kind of bet?”

For a long while, Brienne just stared at him, her hesitation visible only in the tiny parallel creases between her eyebrows. Unwaveringly, Jaime gazed back at her, peering into her eyes so intently he began to lose himself in their blue depths.

What was I saying? he wondered vaguely. Then Brienne blinked, and the trance was broken.

Jaime bumped his shoulder against hers. “You said I only had to ask, remember?”

Brienne sucked in her lips, then twisted in her seat to look over her shoulder. Jaime glanced around, too, finding everything just as quiet and still as it had been when he’d called her over.

By the time he turned back to her, she’d begun to speak.

“When I was in my last year of high school, all the boys my age suddenly started paying attention to me, asking me out on dates and bringing me gifts. Even the most handsome ones. I didn’t believe it at first, but they kept it up long enough that it started to convince me.” There was a hint of pain in the low thrum of her voice, and the sound pierced Jaime’s chest like a knife. “It was foolish of me, but I was young and flattered and more eager for their attention than I should have been.”

He imagined Brienne at that age, before life had sharpened her edges, innocent and unguarded and full of goodness. Jaime hated those boys for taking that away from her, even though he didn’t yet know what they’d done.

“One day, a group of them came into the diner when I was there with Sansa. I was watching her for Cat, and I’d taken her in to get a milkshake. They obviously didn’t see us, because they all started talking about their stupid bet, laughing and making fun of me. The way I walked, my voice, my face. They called me Brienne the Beauty.” She looked up at him, clearly attempting to keep her expression bland, but she couldn’t hide the anguish in her eyes. “It was all a great joke, a contest to see which one of them could get me to…sleep with them.” A mottled flush of red crept up her neck. “Prove that I was really a woman. I felt like the ugliest girl alive.”

Jaime’s hand involuntarily clenched into a fist. The idea that this guy had the nerve to so much as speak to Brienne again after something like that, let alone write her fucking love letters, had him seething. If the man had been in front of him, Jaime would have beat him into bloody oblivion. He’d face them all, missing hand be damned.

“Sansa got really upset, but I made her keep quiet and wait in that booth until they’d left. I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of seeing my tears,” Brienne continued. “She was just a kid, so I wasn’t even angry when she told my brother. I begged Galladon to leave it alone, but he didn’t listen. He and his friends confronted them, and they never bothered me again. I know he meant well, but the whole thing was humiliating. All his friends knew. It felt like the whole town knew, although no one ever said a word about it.”

He studied her in silence as she fidgeted with the photo in her hands, wanting desperately to comfort her, to speak some magical words that would take away the sadness on her face. He wanted to wrap his arm around her, bury his lips in her hair, and tell her she was most definitely not the ugliest girl alive. But Jaime doubted she would believe him.

“What about your parents?” he asked instead.

“No, thank goodness. I don’t think my father ever found out.”

“And your mother?”

Brienne swallowed, still focused on her lap. “My mother died when I was a little girl.”

“Oh,” he breathed, ruing the fact that he’d brought up yet another painful memory, albeit accidentally. “I’m sorry, Brienne.”

“It’s all right. I barely remember her. I was quite young when she fell ill.”

“I was seven when my mother died giving birth to Tyrion,” Jaime said, drawing her gaze at last. “One of the many reasons my father despises him so much.”

Her hand brushed over his stump. “I’m sorry about your mother. And your father. That must have been awful.”

Jaime tried to smile, but it felt forced and dry on his lips. “It wasn’t the best childhood, no. But we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you and those assholes. I take it Hyle was the ringleader of all this?”

“No.” Her voice turned icy. “A boy called Ronnet Connington organized it all, but Hyle went along with it. I didn’t speak to him, or any of them, for a long time after it happened. Then, a few years ago, Ned formed the softball team and things started to change. I wasn’t just an ugly, lumbering woman anymore. I was someone who could play—who could make her town proud.”

“And your old pal Hyle changed his tune?”“He apologized, if that’s what you mean. He said he really liked me, that he always had. Then he started coming to all my games and asking me to go out for dinner or to the movies.” Her shoulders hitched upward, then fell into a slump. “He’s the only man who’s ever wanted to date me.”

A burst of heat flared in Jaime’s gut, a conflagration of anger and desire and regret. No, wench, he’s not.

“And he loves you,” he offered tersely.

Brienne went rigid. “He says so, yes.”

“Do you love him?” Jaime asked, but he already knew the answer. She didn’t even like him, by the looks of her. “You shouldn’t be with a man you don’t love.”

A muddled mix of reproach and desperation, of sorrow and longing, swam in her eyes, and Jaime felt the weight of a thousand words she couldn’t seem to say. When he saw her tears beginning to pool, he felt like a selfish, insensitive ass.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know it’s none of my business.” No matter how much I want it to be.

Her face fell a little at his words, and he wondered why.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” she mumbled, and Jaime nodded weakly.

Respecting her wishes seemed like the least he could do, difficult as it was to hold his tongue. But he couldn’t stop himself from thinking that Brienne deserved better than what she was settling for. She deserved a better man than Hyle.

A better man than me.

Chapter Text

Brienne heard the doorbell ring as she rifled through her wardrobe, trying to find something tolerable to wear for the evening’s ill-advised outing in honor of Yara’s birthday.

A minute later, several shrieks—at least one of which was Sansa’s—reverberated through her open doorway, followed by a bellow from Dany insisting that everyone come to the common room right away.

Concerned, Brienne bolted out into the hallway, where she nearly collided with Yara. Together, the two of them headed for the stairs, following Talisa and Lollys, who were already on their way.

By the time they reached the main floor, with Gilly and Meera now hot on their heels, everyone else had already crowded into the room. At the center of the ruckus, Margaery stood at one of the side tables, lifting a stack of what looked like paper from a cardboard box. Sansa and Shireen hovered near her elbows, and Dany sat on the arm of the nearest sofa, her attention fixed on the single sheet of paper in her hands.

“What’s going on?” Brienne asked.

Shireen spun around, her soft brown eyes wide with excitement. “It’s the magazine!”

“Tyrion sent some copies for us,” Margaery explained, setting the stack down on the table with a dull thud.

“His note says they won’t be on newsstands until next week, but he thought we’d like to see them now,” Dany added.

As Brienne watched the Peaches squeeze in toward the table, each of them eager to get their hands on a copy, she contemplated the best way to make her escape. Unlike the others, she was in no hurry to see how it had turned out—especially not in front of everyone else.

“Calm down, girls. There’s enough here for all of us,” Margaery said, laughing good-naturedly as she handed them out one by one.

Meanwhile, Brienne scanned the room. Seeing that no one was looking her way, she made a move back toward the stairs, intending to retreat to the safety of her bedroom until the hullabaloo subsided. 

She only made it two steps before Arya appeared in front of her. 

“Nice try,” Arya said dryly. “If I have to stay here and listen to everyone squeal, so do you.”

Frowning, she thought about pushing past her friend. But the gleam in Arya’s eye seemed to dare her to try, and the last thing Brienne wanted was to make a scene.

“Fine,” she conceded. “I’ll stay for a few minutes.”

Ignoring Arya’s satisfied smirk, Brienne turned her attention back to the room, now filled with the ruffling sound of turning pages. She wasn’t yet prepared to examine the magazine herself, so she just stood by in silence while Dany read the short introduction aloud.

In it, Daario Naharis lauded the league as the latest sports phenomenon to sweep the Midwest and praised the athleticism, dedication, and morale-boosting contributions of its players. A day spent watching the Diamond Gals, he’d written, was just what the American public needed to keep its spirits up.

Brienne bit her lip to keep from smiling at the use of that term. She wondered what Jaime would say when he found out Tyrion had managed to weasel it in after all. Nothing favorable, she was sure.

Eventually, Arya left Brienne’s side to collect two copies from the box, returning to shove one under her nose while insisting that she “look at it, damn it.”

The cover, black and white but for the vibrant splashes of red across the bottom and surrounding the large white letters of LIFE, bore the date of the coming Monday: July 12, 1943.

Brienne’s first thought was one of utter relief that she wasn’t pictured on it. That distinction had gone to a photo of Lyanna making a phenomenal diving catch, and the normally flinty teenager grinned broadly when Margaery and Dany congratulated her.  

The other girls’ faces practically glowed as they pored over the pages, murmuring occasional oohs and aahs. They all seemed more than satisfied with it, but Brienne still braced herself for the worst when she opened the magazine to the start of the story.

However, as she began slowly leafing through it, Brienne found herself unexpectedly awed by what Barristan Selmy had captured. Crisp and action-packed, the photos made the girls look strong and talented and bold: Sansa in flight around the bases, her ponytail streaming behind her; Arya with her knee pulled up nearly to her chest, arm halfway extended in a powerful pitch; Margaery sprinting toward a falling ball, glove outstretched; Dany sliding feet-first into base, sending up a spray of dirt; Shireen in an agile bend, stretching to tag someone out at first base; Yara at home plate in a wide stance, her knees slightly bent and her bat held high.

Daario’s accompanying captions were brief, offering nuggets of information about the pictured players—where they were from, their positions, their achievements so far this season, and the occasional tidbit about their personal lives. There weren’t any silly or suggestive remarks, and he hadn’t portrayed them as frivolous girls playing at a pretense of the sport, as Brienne had feared he might. In fact, the league hadn’t come across as a gimmick at all, even if Daario had overblown its popularity—which, she had no doubt, was also Tyrion’s doing. It looked and sounded like serious baseball, and the girls looked like professional players.

We are professional players, she realized, feeling a rush of admiration and pride.

Then Brienne flipped to the next page, and her chest constricted with panic. There, smack in the middle of the ten-page article, was a spread covered in photos of only Jaime and herself.

She skimmed over the images of Jaime on the left before shifting her gaze to the right, where they’d crammed four photos of her onto a single page. Fortunately, that meant none of them were especially large. She scanned them all quickly, reluctant to let her eyes linger. At a glance, nothing struck her as intolerably awful, which was more than she’d hoped for. And the accompanying text was blessedly short, offering only a cursory outline of her history and a description of her “exceptional” skills on the field.

Daario’s praise made her uncomfortable, but the sensation paled in comparison to the full-body flush that swept over her when she read a quote from Jaime. He’d described her as not only the best player in the league, but one of the best baseball players he’d ever seen.

Feeling the sting of tears in her eyes, she hurried to turn the page.

~*~*~

An hour later, Brienne sat at her dressing table, finally able to peruse the magazine in private.

The sight of her own face in a national publication was just as disconcertingly surreal on second viewing. However, now that she’d scrutinized the images more closely, Brienne had to admit that Jaime’s trust in Barristan Selmy hadn’t been misplaced. In fact, the photos the seasoned photographer had taken of her were almost…flattering.

Brienne let her gaze wander once more around the page, taking in all four pictures: a posed photo of her wearing her chest protector, with her catcher’s mitt tucked under one arm; another of her standing between Arya and Sansa; an action shot of her blocking an incoming runner at home plate; and one of her waiting for a pitch, bat raised and ready to swing.

The way Selmy had shot them had softened her, somehow, and given her the appearance of a fairly average-looking woman. She didn't look beautiful—that would be beyond anyone’s skill—but she didn’t look hideous, either. Brienne knew that might not seem like much to most people, but it was far better than she normally achieved, especially when juxtaposed with someone like Jaime.

Thankfully, she’d been spared the indignity of appearing directly next to him, since the photo of them together hadn’t made it into the issue. Jaime, it turned out, had been right about that, to Brienne’s great relief. It would’ve been unbearable to have an image of herself mooning at him like an idiot, with her unsightly teeth on full display, immortalized in print.

Still, he looked as handsome as ever on his side of the spread, with the sharp lines of his nose and jaw accentuated by the black and white ink. The captions hailed his return to baseball, describing him as the winningest coach in the league and featuring Brienne’s quote about not wanting to play for anyone else. It sounded more fulsome than she’d realized at the time, but she wouldn’t take it back—even with all that had happened since then.

The incident with the foul ball still plagued her thoughts, even though it had been more than a week since it had happened. She’d waffled over it repeatedly, going from being certain it had been a jest to the insane idea that Jaime had been serious to the more probable notion that it had been an unfortunate misunderstanding. At any rate, Brienne hadn’t known what to do with him, or herself, so she’d steered clear of him for several days.

Then, earlier that week, he’d called her over to his seat on the bus, and she’d divulged the truth about her past in a way she never had with anyone else. He’d been honest with her, after all, and it had seemed only fair for her to do the same.

Jaime hadn’t apologized for what those boys had done or tried to comfort her with platitudes about them being wrong and their opinions not mattering. He’d just sat there quietly, his green eyes simmering with anger, contempt for Hyle rolling off of him like steam.

You shouldn’t be with someone you don’t love, he’d said.

He’s right, she thought wearily. I probably shouldn’t be.

Being with someone she did love didn’t seem like an attainable option. It never had. Nevertheless, if she had to pick between someone she didn’t love or nothing at all, Brienne knew it would be better to choose nothing.

So why haven’t I? 

After all, she’d had ample opportunity to tell Hyle she wasn’t interested, and he wouldn’t have made a fuss if she had. Sansa and Arya, on the other hand, would have danced a jig, and Brienne would’ve been free of Hyle’s often-irksome attentions and her friends’ intrusive comments, all in one go.

And yet, she hadn’t.

Brienne supposed it boiled down to the fact that Hyle Hunt seemed like the best she’d ever have. She didn’t love him, but he wasn’t a terrible person. And he might be her one and only chance to be with a man that actually cared for her. Because, despite everything, Hyle genuinely seemed to like her just as she was—though she couldn’t for the life of her understand why. Perhaps with time, she might come to feel some sort of affection for him in return.

But was that enough?

When she pictured him, his hazel eyes and his crooked nose and the dimple in his chin, Brienne felt hollow and flat. Nothing at all like the warm flutters she experienced at the thought of teasing emerald eyes and a mane of golden hair.

Shaking her head, she clapped the magazine shut and tossed it aside. She didn’t want to spend any more time thinking about Hyle or Jaime. Managing the girls on this foolish expedition to the roadhouse was going to be more than enough trouble for one night. And if Margaery had a say in the matter, Brienne would have other men to contend with, too—even if her well-meaning friend had to drag them over to her.

With a sigh, Brienne looked up into the mirror of her dressing table and almost didn’t recognize the face staring back at her.

When the carrying on over the magazine had run its course a half hour before, Margaery had followed Brienne to her room and insisted on helping her get ready. She wouldn’t have Brienne sabotaging the night by not attempting to look her best, she’d said.

Brushing aside Brienne’s protestations—as well as a final attempt to dissuade Margaery from the whole scheme—her friend had serenely assured her that everything was taken care of as she picked out a dress and set about styling her hair.

Somehow, Margaery had tamed Brienne’s flyaway-ridden tresses into soft, voluminous waves that fell nearly to her shoulders. Then, she’d covered Brienne’s eyelids with a silvery-blue powder, applied a liberal amount of mascara, brushed her cheeks with just a dash of blush, and bid her to put on her usual bright red lipstick.

The makeup made her eyes look larger, her lashes darker, her cheekbones more defined. Although the cosmetics couldn’t hide her misshapen nose, the rest of her face looked as nice as it was capable of looking—and far nicer than usual. Margaery had even convinced her to dab on some of the sweet-smelling perfume from Ellaria Sand’s beauty kit.

Brienne had endured being dolled up only because she knew her friend’s plan wasn’t going to work. She’d end up sitting alone for a few hours while the other girls had fun. Maybe when that happened, and Brienne was proven right, Margaery would see reason and lay off the romantic advice.

Though, really, Margaery’s meddling was the least of Brienne’s worries. They could all get thrown out of the league if they got caught.

More than a week ago, she’d tried to convince Sansa and Arya not to take part in the foolish excursion, but the girls had accused her of being a killjoy. She’d intended to press them further, but after their conversation about Hyle on the bus, Brienne hadn’t really been in the mood to try again. Actually, she’d briefly entertained the idea of letting them go without her, leaving them to face the ensuing consequences on their own.

In the end, though, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She’d promised to look after them, and look after them she would.

A timid knock at her door interrupted Brienne’s train of thought. “Come in.”

The door swung open to reveal Sansa standing there in a cornflower blue dress, and Brienne spun in her chair to face her guest.

Meanwhile, Sansa hesitated for a second before stepping inside. “Margaery sent me to tell everyone that the cabs will be here in twenty minutes.”

“Okay.” Brienne glanced at the clock on her dresser. “Is…that all?”

“No, actually,” Sansa said quietly, giving Brienne a mournful look. “I wanted to say I’m sorry about the letter.”

“It’s fine,” Brienne tersely replied. “I know you only did it because—”

“But it isn’t,” Sansa interrupted. “It isn’t fine. No matter how I feel about Hyle, I had no right to read his letter, and I’m sorry. I promise I won’t go through your things again.” She shifted restlessly from foot to foot. “Do you think you can forgive me?”

Brienne looked up at her friend’s contrite expression. She wasn’t sure she trusted Sansa’s promise, but she appreciated it anyway. “Of course I forgive you.” 

Sansa’s face instantly brightened, and her usual chipper tone returned when she said, “You looked wonderful in the magazine, Brienne, and you look really nice tonight, too. I love what Margaery’s done with your hair. Oh, is that what you’re wearing?”

She pointed at the outfit Margaery had laid out on the foot of Brienne’s bed. The dress was navy blue with white trim around the square neckline, cap sleeves, and hem, and a pair of matching white and navy saddle shoes sat on the floor. Like everything else she’d been wearing for the past month and a half, the ensemble had come from Tyrell’s.

Brienne forced a bleak smile. “I guess so.”

“It’s beautiful. Do you need me to help you with your arm before you put it on?”

Brienne peered down at her two-week-old wound. It had healed well, leaving her skin shiny and pink, if a little raw. “I think I’m going to leave it uncovered tonight, but thank you for asking.”

“All right. I suppose I’ll go wait downstairs, then,” Sansa said, but she made no move to leave.

“What is it? Have you changed your mind about tonight?” Brienne inquired, trying not to sound too hopeful.

“Not at all.” Sansa waved her hand dismissively. “But I know you don’t want to go, and you don’t have to, Brienne, really. Arya and I will be fine. Not that I don’t want you to come, but…”

Brienne frowned. “You don’t want me to ruin the fun?”

“No!” Sansa passionately shook her head. “I just don’t want you to be miserable. It isn’t fair to you.”

“I’ll survive,” Brienne insisted, rising from her chair. “You know I can’t let you go alone. Your mother would kill me.”

~*~*~

Perched on a stool at the edge of the room, Brienne sipped a ginger ale and surveyed the large main hall of The Crossroads for signs of anything amiss.

She’d selected her seat—positioned at the smallest of the roadhouse’s three bar tops, on the right side of the low stage—because she could see almost the entire room.

From the rough wooden planks on the walls to the lurid glow of the neon signs to the hazy, smoke-filled air, nothing about the place appealed to her. But, Brienne supposed, it wasn’t as unsavory as it could have been. There’d been no fistfights or otherwise overly rowdy outbursts from the clientele, largely composed of men dressed in military uniforms or casual attire. And the music, though louder than she would have liked, wasn’t terrible. The band’s saxophone and piano players were quite talented, and the old man who occasionally sang along had a raspy baritone Brienne found oddly soothing.

Across the room, on the other side of the sizeable dance floor, the rest of the Peaches had set up camp at a cluster of tables covered with green-and-white checked cloths. For more than an hour, Brienne had been watching them attract a steady stream of men with whom to laugh and drink and dance. Every fifteen minutes or so, Margaery crossed the room and tried to convince Brienne to join them. Each time, she politely refused.

She had no desire to mingle; it was much easier to keep an eye on Sansa and Arya from her current vantage point.

The younger Stark had yet to move from her table with Yara and Lyanna, where she was drinking what Brienne hoped was a Coke and laughing with a group of sailors.

She’s safe enough with them, Brienne thought. Not that the ferocious little thing needed protecting. Brienne had no doubt in Arya’s ability to handle any man who tried anything funny with her.

Sansa, though, was another story. She’d always been far too susceptible to the flattery of attractive men, and the men hadn’t left her alone all night. Not that Brienne was surprised. With her clear blue eyes and perfect skin and lustrous red hair, Sansa looked incredibly beautiful.

Cat wasn’t wrong to be worried, Brienne thought, watching Sansa leave the dance floor with a striking, dark-haired young man. He’d just finished twirling her around to two straight upbeat numbers, but it didn’t look like he intended to return her to the other girls just yet.

Brienne flattened her lips as the man led Sansa to a small table in the corner. He sat down next to her and immediately leaned in to brush a strand of hair from her friend’s cheek.  Not wrong at all.

The sound of the stool next to her scraping across the floor made Brienne jump. She turned, expecting to see Margaery once again, but she found a tall stranger occupying the seat instead.

The man had wavy red hair, a thick red beard, and a build like Jaime’s, although he was slightly wider in the chest and thicker in his limbs. He wore a khaki-colored Army uniform with a matching tie at his throat and three chevrons on his sleeve—and he was smiling at her.  

“Hello there, doll,” he said, his low, gravelly voice still somehow sounding friendly. “You looked awfully lonely over here, all by yourself. I thought I might keep you company.”

“Oh, I’m, um… I’m not alone,” Brienne stumbled, pointing toward the other girls. “My friend will be right back.”

It wasn’t strictly true, but this man didn’t need to know that. And Margaery was about due for one of her regular check-ins. 

“Just until she gets here, then. Sergeant Tormund Giantsbane, at your service.” He dipped his head courteously in a strange, seated bow. “How about I buy you a drink, Brienne?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Did Margaery put you up to this?”

“She’s the center fielder, right?” Sergeant Giantsbane made a dismissive face. “I’ve never even spoken to the girl. She isn’t really my type. You, on the other hand…” His bright blue eyes slid appreciatively over her body. “It’s not every day a man comes across a dame like you.”

Ignoring his final words, Brienne asked tartly, “How do you know my name?”

He cracked a broad, toothy smile. “I’ve seen you play, Brienne Tarth. You’re pretty hard to forget.”

She clenched her teeth, preparing for his next words to be something insulting about her appearance. But, astoundingly, they were not.

“I’ve never seen a woman hit a ball like that before,” the sergeant continued, gazing at her in what Brienne could only describe as eager admiration. It was unusual—and deeply unsettling. “I haven’t seen many men hit it that well, either. And they sure as hell didn’t have eyes like yours.”

Nervously, Brienne bit the inside of her lower lip. The man seemed sincere, but his enthusiasm was making her uncomfortable. “I appreciate the offer, Sergeant, but…”

“Come on, doll,” Sergeant Giantsbane implored. “Let a man express his appreciation for the best player on the team.”

“No, thank you,” Brienne firmly replied. “As I said, my friend will be right back.”

“Just one drink,” the sergeant said, leaning forward on his stool to lay a hand on her knee. “I promise I don’t bite. And I’m sure your friend won’t mind.”

Her shoulders tightened, and Brienne considered slapping his hand away. But she didn’t get the chance.

“I believe the lady said no.”

Brienne’s head spun toward the sound of that familiar voice.

Jaime.

The air in the room seemed to get a little thinner as she looked at him, standing only a few feet away and glaring at Sergeant Giantsbane as though he’d like to skin him alive. He wore loose-fitting brown trousers and a light blue collared shirt with, to her amazement, short sleeves. He’d stopped wearing a long-sleeved shirt under his uniform the weekend before, but Brienne had put that down to the insufferable heat. Having his stump on full display in a place like this was something else entirely.

After a long, charged moment during which Sergeant Giantsbane made no move to leave, Jaime stepped closer, glancing briefly down into Brienne’s eyes as he rested his hand on her shoulder. She could feel the warmth of him through the lightweight fabric of her dress.

“If you’ll excuse me, Sergeant, you’re in my seat,” Jaime said, his voice dripping with artificial politeness.

Sergeant Giantsbane raised his bushy red eyebrows as his gaze shifted from Jaime to Brienne and back again. “You really shouldn’t have left such a magnificent woman on her own, you know.”

Jaime’s smile was feral. “A mistake I don’t intend to repeat.”

The sergeant grinned, then turned to wink roguishly at Brienne. “Let me know if you get tired of your friend here, doll. I’ll be right over there, and I’d be more than happy to oblige if you’d like to spend some time with a man with two hands.”

Brienne tensed, looking up at Jaime in alarm. But he appeared as calm and self-assured as ever, maybe even a bit amused.

In one smooth glide, Jaime moved so close to her that his hip pressed against her back. Simultaneously, he swept his hand up her shoulder and danced it across the bare skin on the back of her neck. Brienne trembled a little at his feather-light touch, but hopefully not enough that the sergeant could see.

“Don’t you worry,” Jaime drawled. “One hand is more than enough when you know how to use it.”

Sergeant Giantsbane barked a loud laugh before rising from his seat. With a final ardent glance that made Brienne’s skin crawl, he finally walked away with a muttered, “You’re a lucky man.”

Jaime’s eyes followed the sergeant until he’d rejoined a table of Army men in the far corner of the roadhouse. Only then did he sit down next to her on the now-empty stool.

“Before you say anything, I know you would’ve been fine on your own,” Jaime said. “But my way was quicker.”

“I was going to say thank you,” she replied, levelly meeting his gaze.

He looked a little surprised, and more than a little pleased. “You’re welcome.”

Brienne swallowed hard, waiting for him to continue—to explain his presence or to condemn hers. After all, he’d just caught the entire team red-handed, breaking the rules with abandon. As their coach, he had every right to be angry. But he said nothing.

So she asked quietly, “What are you doing here?”

“The same thing as you, I imagine,” he wryly declared, reaching for Brienne’s nearly empty glass. Jaime sniffed the remaining amber liquid, then took a sip. Seemingly satisfied, he raised a finger in the direction of the bartender and said, “Two more of these, please.”

Her brow had lifted at the familiarity of his gesture, but it now came crashing down. What exactly does he think I’m doing here?

“Relax, wench,” Jaime said, smiling. “I’m here because someone else wants me here. Tyrion asked me to meet him, you see. As you may have noticed, the only thing my brother is fonder of than drink is women. Although he might be a little surprised by the particular crowd here tonight.”

Brienne surged up off her stool, mirroring the rise of anxiety in her chest. “Jaime, please. If your brother is on his way, I have to get them out of here. If Tyrion sees them, he—”

Gently, Jaime reached out and curled his fingers around her wrist, urging her back down toward the chair.

“He won’t do a damn thing. Now sit down and let me finish,” he instructed, one corner of his mouth darting up into a smile.

Puzzled by his words, Brienne nevertheless heeded him, sinking back down into her seat.

“As I was saying,” he continued, releasing her arm, “I declined Tyrion’s invitation, as I always do. But then, about twenty minutes ago, I got a very interesting phone call from Ms. Frey. She told me she’d gone out on some kind of emergency family business, only to find that you’d all vanished by the time she returned. The woman is absolutely beside herself.”

Brienne grimaced, feeling embarrassed and guilt-ridden in equal measure. Poor Ms. Frey. So much for Margaery taking care of everything.

“Thank you for coming,” she murmured. “But how did you know where to find us?”

He quirked a dubious eyebrow at her. “As my brother frequently reminds me, this is the only place around here for a night out on the town. Where else would you have gone?”

“We shouldn’t have gone anywhere,” she responded grimly. “I’m sorry, Jaime. I tried to talk them out of it, but they wouldn’t listen. I hated the idea of breaking the rules, but I couldn’t let them come alone.”

A shadow passed quickly over Jaime’s face, but then he nodded sympathetically. “I know, wench. That’s why I’m here.”

Chapter Text

Jaime struggled to keep from frowning as he looked at her. He didn’t want Brienne to think he was angry, but the mention of his brother’s stupid fucking rules had set his teeth on edge. 

Of course the upstanding wench hated breaking them. Jaime had known that since the day they’d met, and he’d been trying to bury his desire for her because of it. No matter how much he wanted her—and good God, did he want her—it would all come to nothing. The rules would see to that.

So, to spare himself the well-known agony of pining after something he could never have, Jaime had spent several days trying to convince himself that his attraction to Brienne would pass. His body hadn’t reacted to her again since that night on the bus, so he’d written off that episode of intense arousal as an anomaly, a fluke induced by proximity and the intimacy of their shared secrets. It hadn’t meant anything. It was just a strange infatuation he would overcome soon enough. 

But now, sitting across from her, Jaime knew that had all been bullshit. His feelings hadn’t passed or diminished, and he doubted they would. In fact, if the violence he’d felt toward that Army sergeant was any indication, they were only getting stronger. 

Something fierce and possessive had reared up inside him when he’d watched the man pull out a stool and sit beside her. The sergeant had seemed absolutely enchanted—small wonder, with her looking the way she did—and Jaime had wanted to pound him into a pulp for the zealous, lustful way he’d looked at her. And when the lecher had dared to touch her, Jaime had thought he might kill him. 

Without thinking, he’d crossed the room to intervene, unable to watch the redheaded wild man drool over her for another second. To his surprise, Brienne had immediately played along with his ruse—been grateful for it, even—and Jaime had seen genuine relief in her eyes when he’d sent the sergeant on his way. But it was the way she’d shivered beneath his hand that had really intrigued him.

Movement at the periphery of his vision dragged Jaime out of his thoughts, and he turned just in time to see the bartender set two ginger ales down in front of them. Jaime thanked him, and the man gave him a brief nod before walking away.

When he returned his attention to Brienne, Jaime found her staring at him with a puzzled expression on her face. She glanced pointedly at the glasses on the bar, then back at him, as if to ask why the hell they were lollygagging over drinks.

Apparently, his words had failed to reassure her. Although she seemed less jumpy than she had a few minutes before, Jaime could see her lingering apprehension in the rigid set of her shoulders and the way her gaze kept darting around the bar. He could also see the way her unusually well-tailored blue dress flattered her modest figure and brought out the brilliant color of her eyes. 

“I said you could relax, Brienne,” Jaime said lightly, picking up his glass to take a sip. 

Her eyebrows lowered as she regarded him. “You’re not upset?”

“With you? Absolutely not,” he replied, absently swirling the drink in his hand and making the ice cubes tinkle against the glass. “Do you think I don’t know whose idea this was?”

Jaime glanced over to the other side of the hall where Margaery Tyrell sat at a table with Dany and Shireen, surrounded by admirers. The entire scheme bore her audacious, unmistakable hallmarks. He’d recognized them as soon as Ms. Frey had relayed her frantic tale. 

His certainty that Margaery had been behind it was how Jaime had known where they were. Who but Margaery would have been able not only to convince fifteen other girls—including the most principled, scrupulous person Jaime had ever met—to sneak out of the house, but also to orchestrate and afford the logistics? And where else but the only roadhouse in town would she have spirited the team off to?

All things considered, it was pretty damn impressive. If not for his little shit of a brother, Jaime might have tipped his hat to her and let the girls enjoy their night out.

“It’s not Margaery’s fault. She didn’t force us,” Brienne said, shifting restlessly in her seat. When she settled into a new position and crossed her legs beneath that bewitching blue dress, Jaime’s mouth went a little dry.  

“Maybe not, but you wouldn’t be here if not for her and the Stark girls,” Jaime countered. “And I wasn’t going to leave you to clean up this mess on your own.”

“It isn’t your mess, either,” she protested, shaking her head. As the champagne-colored cloud of her hair swished faintly around her neck, the dryness crept down Jaime’s throat. 

“No,” he hoarsely acknowledged, pausing to take another gulp of ginger ale before setting the glass down on the bar. “But I couldn’t have you doing something foolish, like trying to take the blame to save your friends.”

Brienne’s forehead lurched upward and her eyes widened, and Jaime smirked at her visible surprise. Do you think I don’t know you, wench?

He’d seen the way Brienne had been looking at Sansa before the red-bearded cretin had accosted her. The vigilant, protective expression on her face had put Jaime in mind of a mother bear watching over her cubs. Hell, he could see it there now: a resigned determination that said “better me than them” as clearly as if she’d spoken the words aloud. 

But he wasn’t going to let that happen. Preventing it was the reason he’d gotten in the damn car when he’d realized Tyrion would be running into them. Someone had to protect her.

“Am I wrong?” he asked when Brienne said nothing.

“No,” she admitted quietly, staring down at her knees. “But I promised their mother I’d look after them. While we’re here, they’re my responsibility.”

“Jesus, Brienne. The last time I checked, they were both adults. You’re not their fucking keeper.”  

When she raised her gaze to his, he could see the weariness in her eyes. “A promise is a promise.” 

Jaime shook his head in disbelief. “You’re…”

But he trailed off, not knowing how to finish. A saint? A fool? A valiant, good-hearted woman unlike any he’d ever known? 

Seemingly sensing his difficulty, Brienne held up her hand. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve wasted enough time already. Time we should have been spending getting the team out of here. Maybe if we take them out the back, we can—” 

“It’s too late for that,” Jaime interrupted. “Tyrion will be here any minute. I’m surprised he’s not here already.”

“How can you be sure?”

“Because he wanted me to meet him at ten o’clock.” Jaime pointed at the clock hanging on the wall behind the bar. It was almost quarter after. “He’s driving out to stay with me tonight so he can watch the game tomorrow. Naturally, he needed to stop for a nightcap first.” 

Brienne pressed her lips together in consternation, and Jaime’s awareness of everything but her abruptly fell away. 

The urge to kiss her overtook him so powerfully and completely that he’d leaned halfway across the space between them before he realized he’d moved at all. Then, instead of pulling back, he edged even closer, putting one foot on the floor to steady himself as he brought his mouth to her left ear. Her skin there smelled of lilac and jasmine, and he closed his eyes, inhaling deeply, savoring the feeling of being so close to her. 

“Do you really think I came all the way down here without a plan?” Jaime asked, watching his breath ruffle her hair and feeling a tremor course through her in response. 

A warmth bloomed in his chest. He could have ignored it once—put it down to nervousness or shock. But twice in one night? Either the wench is ticklish, or something else is going on

He very much hoped it was the latter. 

Reining in his impulse to press his mouth to her jaw and find out, Jaime continued, “I’m going to tell my brother this was my idea. That I invited you all to come here. If anyone gets in trouble, it’ll be me.”

Brienne pulled back from him, but the stool’s backrest prevented her from going too far. “You’d do that?”

He bobbed his head. “I would. Let them have their fun. They’ve earned it.” 

This close, Jaime could clearly see how dolled up she was: the dark color on her normally pale lashes, the blue powder on her eyelids, that distracting red lipstick. She was utterly captivating, and he had to ball his hand into a fist to keep from laying it on her knee. Or her waist. Or her face.

He forced himself back into his chair to avoid further temptation, putting as much distance between them as he could.

“But what if it doesn’t work?” Brienne clenched her hands nervously in her lap. “I’m grateful for your offer, Jaime, and the others will be, too. But bringing us all here doesn’t really sound like…well, you.” 

She had a point. It didn’t sound like him at all.

Granted, he hadn’t expected Tyrion to actually believe him, just to go along with his story and let the whole thing go. Even if the little imp were inclined to ferret out the truth, which Jaime didn’t think he would be, Tyrion would almost certainly forgive the team’s transgression anyway. What else could he do? Punish them all? Send his best-performing team packing, just when they’d gotten national press? 

Still, he could work a little harder to make the deception credible, Jaime supposed, just in case his father somehow got wind of the ordeal. Fucking Varys had eyes everywhere, and such a flagrant violation of the rules would be just the kind of thing to catch his attention. And if Tywin heard that the Peaches had compromised his precious image of them as wholesome, all-American girls, it could end badly for the entire league, not just the team. 

If the blame could be laid at Jaime’s door, however, the consequences would be much less dire. Oh, Jaime would pay, one way or another, but he was used to that.

Christ, I’m starting to sound like Brienne, he realized, rubbing his hand roughly along his jaw. Oddly, he was fine with that. 

Scanning the room, Jamie pondered how best to proceed. What would make Tyrion—or an observant bystander—believe that he wanted to be there? That he wanted the girls there? What would sell the lie? 

His gaze caught on the half a dozen couples swaying in slow circles around the dance floor, and something Tyrion had said to him weeks ago—the first time he’d tried to cajole Jaime into going out with him—floated across his mind. 

No one would expect it, Jaime thought wryly, as the idea began to take shape. That’s for damn sure.

It would be a risk, in more ways than one, but he honestly couldn’t think of a more perfect way to distract his brother and to make it look like he was enjoying himself. Because he would be. 

Maybe, if Jaime’s newly formed hunch was correct, he wouldn’t be the only one. 

Besides, it just might work, he reasoned, his eyes swinging back to Brienne. If the wench will agree. 

“You’re right,” Jaime acknowledged, tilting forward in his chair. “I’ll need your help to pull it off.”

Brienne lifted her brow doubtfully. “How can I help?”

“You’re not going to like it.”

Scowling, she retorted, “You don’t know that."

He smiled broadly. “But I do, Brienne. Because it involves you dancing with me.”

“What?” Color flared across her face and down her throat, and she quickly averted her eyes. “No. Absolutely not.” 

“See?” Jaime teased.

“Well, it doesn’t make sense,” she groused. “How would us dancing make any difference?”

“Because seeing the two of us enjoying ourselves in a place like this is the last thing Tyrion would expect,” Jaime explained, leaning even further forward and trying unsuccessfully to catch her gaze. “He still might not buy any of this, but I think we stand a decent chance if he sees you going along with it.” 

“I can’t,” Brienne eventually murmured, but he could see the indecision creasing her face. 

“Why not?” 

She shrugged. “I don’t dance, Jaime. And you know it’s against the rules.” 

God, she was stubborn. But so was he. 

“You’re already breaking the rules, wench. That’s the point. What do you have to lose by breaking one more?” When she remained silent, Jaime pressed on, this time more flippantly. “If you don’t want to dance with me, you can say so. If the idea is that repellant, I’m not going to force you.”

“But it’s not,” she blurted. “I just…” 

Her words tapered off as she finally looked up at him. For a moment, Brienne’s guard fell, and Jaime could see something laid bare in her extraordinary eyes. Something frightened and vulnerable and…hungry. 

Jaime felt a tug in his solar plexus. He hadn’t imagined it, then. Perhaps she didn’t want him as much as he wanted her, but there was something. She felt something. And that was better than nothing. 

Then, so softly he could hardly make out her words, she asked, “You really think it’ll work?”

He drummed his fingers on his thigh. “It’s the best chance we’ve got.”

“Fine,” she croaked. “But you have to promise me that you won’t let anything happen to Sansa and Arya. Even if I get in trouble, if we get in trouble…”

Jaime huffed. “They’re not going to throw you in jail for breaking the rules, wench. You’ll still be here.” 

Brienne set her jaw and fixed him with a resolute stare.

“Okay, okay.” He raised his hand and stump in surrender. “I’ll do what I can. I promise.”

She blew out a short, harsh breath, then reached for her untouched ginger ale. Brienne drained half the glass in two long swallows before setting it back down on the bar with a clunk. “Let’s get on with it.”

Jaime tried not to stare as Brienne uncrossed her long legs and rose from her stool, his whole body singing in anticipation of finally holding her in his arms. Even if only for a few minutes. 

He’d been dimly aware of the band playing while they’d been talking, but Jaime hadn’t paid any real attention to the music. However, as he took one last drink from his own glass, the opening bars of a slow, familiar song began to play. 

For a second or two, Jaime struggled to place it. Then, as he stood to join Brienne, a man began to sing in a rich, smoky voice. 

“Why do I do just as you say? Why must I just give you your way? Why do I sigh? Why don’t I try to forget?”

It Had to Be You, Jaime thought, a wide grin spreading over his face. How fitting.

As he took Brienne’s hand and led her onto the floor, Jaime saw some of the other girls studying him anxiously, as if they’d been waiting for him to storm over and shout at them. Margaery Tyrell, on the other hand, had a catlike smile of satisfaction on her face, like she’d won a game Jaime didn’t know they’d been playing. 

It should have pissed him off, but he couldn’t muster up the energy to care. Let her talk, he thought, a little recklessly. Let them all talk. 

The wench slotted into his arms with surprising ease, allowing him to readjust their joined hands and laying her left hand lightly on Jaime’s shoulder. She gave a little twitch when he rested his stump on the small of her back, though, and Jaime had to bite back a smile.

Brienne topped him in height, but only just, and he found himself grateful she wasn’t wearing high-heeled shoes. He didn’t care that she was taller, but heels would have put her face at a more awkward angle to his own. And with them so nearly matched, she was perfectly situated. 

Well, she would have been, had she not insisted on keeping such a demure distance. He envied the other couples, dancing practically cheek to cheek, and wondered if he had any hope of coaxing Brienne to come closer. Much closer.

Deciding not to push his luck, Jaime settled for humming along as the singer crooned the chorus. “For nobody else gave me a thrill. With all your faults, I love you still. It had to be you, wonderful you. It had to be you.”

It might have been romantic, had Brienne not been standing stiff as a board in his arms. 

“Is dancing with me really that painful?”

“I told you I don’t dance,” she mumbled, staring over his shoulder. “Not many men have asked me.” 

“Fools,” he breathed, more tenderly than he’d intended. 

Her eyes snapped to his, a liquid, piercing blue.

God, she’s beautiful. 

The thought caught him unaware, but it wasn’t unwelcome. Or untrue. He couldn’t tell her that, of course. But he had to say something. 

“You look very nice tonight, wench.”

Her footsteps faltered, and skepticism flooded her face. Glumly, Jaime realized she thought he was teasing her. 

Smooth, you idiot. Now try again.

“I mean it, Brienne,” he insisted, pouring as much sincerity into his voice as he could manage. “Blue is a good color on you.”

This time, her reaction was even more unexpected. Her chin gave a tiny wobble, and something sad flickered in her eyes. 

“Please don’t lie to me, Jaime,” she said, and the pleading note in her voice made his chest ache. “I know how I look.”

“Do you?” he asked huskily. 

He really didn’t think so. 

“I’ve been looking at me my whole life,” she replied, far too airily. “So, yes. And even with Margaery’s help, it’s nothing especially praiseworthy.”

“Stop that, would you?” he said fiercely, tightening his grip on her hand. “You say things like that about yourself all the time, and they’re not true. You’re not—”

“Ugly?” she interrupted with a cynical lift of her brow. “Yes, Jaime, I am.”

No, you are not.”

Her mouth twisted. “According to who?”

“Me.” 

Brienne’s whole body went taut. When Jaime searched her face, what he saw wasn’t anger or fear, as he’d suspected. It was astonishment.  

He could almost hear the gears turning in her head, and it wasn’t hard to guess what she was thinking. Clearly, she hadn’t forgotten that Jaime had called her ugly. But that had been weeks ago, before he knew her, before he really saw her. And he wasn’t sure he’d even believed it then.

Her tongue darted out to wet her lips. “You?”

The combination of her plush mouth and her breathy tone had Jaime once again overcome with desire. He wanted to bury his hand in her hair and draw her mouth down to his own, to push her against the wall and mold the staggering length of her against him. He craved the feeling of her skin beneath his fingers so much it burned.

When Jaime became suddenly aware that Brienne’s breath had shortened, the last of his willpower vanished. Sliding his stump further around her waist, he firmly pulled her closer, bringing her mouth within a scant few inches of his own. All it would take was a swift forward motion, with a slight lift of his chin, and he could taste those gloriously full lips, trace that cupid’s bow with his tongue. He knew she wouldn’t pull away. Jaime could see it in the soft darkening of her eyes. 

He shouldn’t, Jaime knew. It was a terrible idea. It was against the goddamned rules. 

But he was going to do it anyway.

“Well, well, well. What do we have here?”

Jaime froze, squeezing his eyes shut in frustration. He’d been so close. So fucking close. When he opened them again, he saw that Brienne’s cheeks had turned a violent shade of red. 

Still holding onto her, Jaime turned his head and regarded his brother. “What does it look like? Brienne and I are dancing.”

“Yes, I can see that,” Tyrion quipped, his eyes crinkling almost merrily. “But you said you weren’t coming. And she isn’t supposed to be here. Neither are they.” He waved a short arm toward the other Peaches, who were watching attentively from their little cluster of tables. 

Sighing, Jaime released Brienne so he could more squarely face his brother. She immediately distanced herself by taking a large step back, but she didn’t go too far. 

“I gave them permission,” he declared, loudly enough for all of them to hear. 

“Did you?” Tyrion’s eyes shifted momentarily to Brienne. “How generous.”

“They deserve to have some fun once in a while, Tyrion,” Jaime growled. “They’ve done everything you asked them to, including Daario’s damn article. And they’re not your fucking Diamond Gals tonight. They’ve earned this.”

Tyrion grinned, seeming not at all bothered by Jaime’s rant. “So they have. Of course, that doesn’t change the rules.”

“If you’re planning on lecturing me, you can save your breath.”

“Oh, calm down, brother. If it were up to me, they could dance and drink the whole night away, as long as they left a few drops for me.” Tyrion raised his hands in a mocking shrug. “Alas, it’s not up to me. You know as well as I do what Father would do if he found out. We need to get them all home before the wrong people see them, if they haven’t already.” 

“Fine,” Jaime agreed. “But if Father says a word about this, you tell him to speak to me. I won’t have him punishing my team.” 

“As you wish,” Tyrion said solemnly, but his eyes were still smiling. “Hopefully it won’t come to that.” 

~*~*~

Jaime hadn’t gotten the chance to speak with Brienne again before several cabs, summoned by Bronn at Tyrion’s request, had come to whisk the girls away. But she’d shot him a grateful glance across the room as she helped his brother’s man shepherd the team out the door, so at least he knew she wasn’t upset with him about the dance. 

After they’d left, Tyrion dragged Jaime back to his seat at the bar. His brother ordered a whiskey, but Jaime just settled his and Brienne’s unpaid tabs. 

“Have a drink with me,” Tyrion implored. “It won’t kill you, I promise. I’m still alive and well, after all.”

“No, thanks. You drink more than enough for the both of us.”

“That may be, but my drinking doesn’t do you any good,” Tyrion said playfully. “Perhaps if you had one for yourself, you’d loosen up enough to admit what you were really doing here.”

Jaime’s stomach churned at Tyrion’s insinuation, but he kept his tone casual when he asked, “And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“Do you think I can’t tell when I’m being lied to, Jaime? I don’t know what the hell happened here tonight, and I don’t care, but let’s not pretend a certain remarkable woman didn’t have something to do with it.”

“Leave Brienne out of this. She’s my player and my friend. That’s all.”

“Is that so? Because I’ve seen one of Barristan Selmy’s photographs that strongly suggests otherwise.”

“What?” Jaime snapped, but he knew exactly what his brother was talking about. Earlier that day, he’d scoured the copy of the magazine Tyrion had sent to his house, and that particular photo hadn’t been anywhere on its pages. “I saw the magazine, Tyrion. Selmy’s photos were as impressive as they always are, but none of them were of me and Brienne.”

“Oh, it wasn’t in the magazine,” Tyrion archly replied. “Barristan sent me his proofs. And let me tell you, brother, it’s true what they say about a picture being worth a thousand words.”

Chapter Text

Bleakly, Brienne stared down at the sheet of stationary on her dressing table. She’d been sitting there for ten minutes with her pen poised over the page, and all she’d managed to write were seven words—and lousy ones, at that.

“Dear Hyle, I hope you’re keeping well.”

No matter how much she willed it, nothing more would come.  

This is hopeless, she thought, her fingers itching to crumple the paper and toss it away.

But if she did that, Brienne knew she would abandon the endeavor entirely, and she’d already put off writing the letter longer than she should have. Hyle had sent his missive more than a week ago, and although Brienne couldn’t reciprocate the affections he’d expressed in it, she couldn’t keep ignoring that he’d offered them. Not forever.

Yet, when she’d sat down an hour before, resolved to finally craft a reply, she’d composed a note to Galladon instead. Then, she’d set herself to the task of removing the pages from one of the copies of Life, taking painstaking care to avoid tearing them, to enclose with her message.

Looking at the sealed envelope, neatly addressed to “Pvt. Galladon Tarth,” Brienne’s mood lifted a little. As much as she’d dreaded being part of the feature—and as unnerved as she still was by the idea of people around the country flipping open their magazines on Monday and seeing her face—she was also grateful for it, if only for her brother’s sake. Reading the article and seeing those photographs would be the next best thing to being at a game himself, and Brienne knew it would brighten Galladon’s day. She could only imagine what he would think when he read what Jaime had said about her.  

His name sent her sliding into memories of the night before—the earnestness in his eyes, the pressure of his arm against her back, the way he’d taken her hand so casually and naturally, as though he did it all the time. In all the years she’d known him, Hyle had never made her feel the way she had during those few, fleeting minutes with Jaime.

It had been a fit of madness to dance with him. Sheer, incontrovertible madness. But Brienne couldn’t bring herself to regret it, even though she should have. After all, Jaime’s absurd plan had worked, or so it seemed—although it would be a lie to say she’d gone along with it only for the girls’ sake. Some part of her, something small and long denied, had wanted to dance with him.

The harsh trill of the telephone echoed from below her, and Brienne popped up from her chair, eager to escape both her thoughts and that damned unfinished letter. But she only made it halfway to the door before the ringing ceased.

Sighing at her atrocious lack of discipline, Brienne trudged back to her seat and doggedly picked up her pen once more. You can do this, she told herself. You have to do this.

Desperate to get something written on the page, Brienne scratched out a few meaningless sentences about her week, the hot weather, the people back home. Then, after a thoughtful pause, she wrote, “I’m very grateful for the regard you expressed in your last letter, but—”

She stopped, already uncomfortable with the dishonesty in her words. She’d written them out of politeness, but that didn’t make them less of a lie. Because she wasn’t grateful. Not really. In fact, she wished Hyle had never written to her at all. Things would’ve been so much easier if he hadn’t, but how could she say that?

The sound of feet thumping rapidly up the stairs startled Brienne’s mind away from her conundrum. She craned her neck expectantly toward the hallway; only one person in the entire house was capable of making such a racket, and even she only did so when she was upset about something.

“Brienne!” Arya exclaimed loudly as she slipped through the open bedroom door, causing Ygritte to moan grumpily through their shared wall.

The redheaded pitcher was one of many who had clearly over-imbibed during last night’s outing. A full third of the team had missed breakfast and a handful, including Ygritte, were still in bed, despite it being nearly eleven o’clock. Fortunately, the day’s game wasn’t until late in the afternoon, or the Peaches might’ve been light a few players.

“Brienne,” Arya repeated, moderating her voice to a more civilized volume. “I need you to come downstairs.”

Brienne picked up the cap to her fountain pen and snapped it into place. “Why?”

“My mother’s on the phone,” Arya answered grimly.

“Is something wrong?” Brienne asked, unease churning suddenly in her gut. “Is everyone all right?”

“Everyone’s fine. But we won’t be if my mother finds out why she can’t talk to Sansa.”

“Oh,” Brienne replied, rising from her chair. “I see.”

Sansa, too, was still in bed. Brienne had discovered her there, complaining of an upset stomach and a splitting headache, on her way downstairs that morning. Yara, who’d walked by as Sansa was describing her ailments, had diagnosed her with a hangover.

Brienne, having never experienced the state herself, couldn’t vouch for the validity of that assessment, but Sansa had definitely looked wretched. At Yara’s suggestion, Brienne had brought her friend some Alka-Seltzer and an extra glass of water before urging her to get some more rest.

Sansa had cringed as she gulped down the fizzy remedy, insisting she’d only had a few drinks. If that were true, a few was all it had taken to leave her miserable. Brienne could only imagine how much worse it might’ve been had Tyrion not sent them home when he had.

“What did you tell her?” Brienne asked as she and Arya made their way down the hall.

“I told her the truth. She’s in bed, ill.” Arya smiled slyly. “I just didn’t say with what.”

“And?”

“She wanted me to get her anyway, so I said Sansa was sleeping. Then she asked to talk to you.” Arya turned to face her at the top of the staircase, her gray eyes unusually beseeching. “You know Sansa can’t lie to her, Brienne. Mother will see right through her.”

The fact that Arya was trying to protect Sansa from getting in trouble with Cat made it a banner day. Still, Brienne wasn’t sure she was going to be able to lie to their mother, either.

“And if that happens,” Arya continued, spinning to pound down the stairs just as clamorously as she’d come up them, “it’ll be all our heads, not just Sansa’s. And I am not going home because my sister was stupid enough to get herself soused last night.”

Ah, Brienne thought, not at all surprised that Arya’s motive wasn’t, as it had originally seemed, sisterly affection. That makes more sense.

She was right, too. Cat would be furious if she sniffed out the truth. And after how close they’d already come to getting caught, Brienne was unwilling to let Cat’s protective maternal instinct be their undoing—no matter how much she hated the idea of misleading her.

The two of them reached the bottom of the stairs and headed for the far side of the common room. There, beside a large window that overlooked the front porch, the telephone sat on an end table next to a floral armchair.

“No one’s going home,” Brienne said calmly. “I’ll take care of it. You go tell Sansa she’d better start getting up. We have to leave for the field in a few hours.”

“I’ll see if there’s any coffee left from breakfast.” Arya began heading toward the dining room. “By the looks of her, she’s going to need it.”

As Arya disappeared through the door, Brienne sank down onto the chair. It was too low for her, putting her knees at an uncomfortably sharp angle. Sighing, she picked up the receiver from where it lay on the table. “Catelyn?”

“Brienne,” Cat replied, sounding relieved. “Where’s Sansa? Arya won’t let me speak with her.”

“She’s still in bed. She has a little summer cold.” Brienne grimaced at the untruth. “We’re trying to let her rest.”

“You’re sure she’s all right?”

“Yes, she’s fine.”

“It sounds like they’re wearing you all out. Arya said you’ve played almost fifty games, and you’re not even halfway through the season. And in this heat?” Catelyn clucked. “It’s not safe, Brienne. No wonder Sansa’s ill.”

Brienne slumped more deeply into the chair. This was obviously going to take a while. “We’re perfectly safe, I promise you. We’re careful about staying hydrated and taking breaks in the shade, and Dr. Luwin, the team physician, takes good care of us.”

“I still think they’re asking far too much of you. Because it’s not just the games, is it? Arya told me about all the interviews you’ve been doing. She said there are going to be pictures of all three of you in next week’s Life magazine.” 

“Yes,” Brienne confirmed, confused by the censure she sensed in Catelyn’s words. It was hardly a salacious publication. “Not just us, though. It’s a feature on the whole team.”

“The local paper ran a story about the three of you, too, with some photos reprinted from one of the Rockford papers. Those uniforms they have you in are atrocious.” 

“They’re…not very practical,” Brienne hesitantly replied. “I suppose I’ve gotten used to them.” 

Actually, she still hated everything about them, but it did her no good to admit as much to Cat. 

“That team manager of yours gets to wear something normal, I see,” Catelyn went on, a hint of disapproval lingering in her tone. “Sansa is standing next to him in one of the photos.”

“Oh,” Brienne said, “does it show the whole team?” Perhaps it would make Cat feel better to put faces to the names of the girls she’d heard about from her daughters.

“No, just Sansa and your coach. You and Arya are in another one.” Then, attempting breeziness, Cat added, “He certainly is a handsome fellow, isn’t he? Quite famous, too, by the sound of it.”

Brienne pinched her lips into a frown. Why does she care about that?

“I suppose,” Brienne conceded. “But he’s just our coach, Cat.”

Our handsome, smart, kind, aggravating, stubborn, generous coach, her mind finished for her, and Brienne ground her teeth together at her traitorous thoughts.

“You don’t think…Sansa isn’t…” Cat began haltingly. “She doesn’t fancy him, does she?”

“God no,” Brienne blurted. Sansa had never shown an iota of interest in Jaime. “Not at all.”

“Because I know Sansa likes pretty men. She’s always had a weakness for them. And it would be so easy for a man like that to take advantage of a beautiful young girl.”

“Jaime would never do that,” Brienne replied, decisive and firm. “Never. He’s not that kind of man. Like I said, he’s our coach. It’s his job to look after us.”

“I’m relieved to hear you say so,” Catelyn said, sounding at least slightly mollified. “But I still wish you were all here instead of there.” A heavy, sad sigh resounded down the line. “I miss my girls, Brienne.”

Gazing out the window, she deliberated on how to respond. Sooner or later, Catelyn was going to have to accept that her girls were grown up. Brienne couldn’t imagine either of them, especially Arya, spending their whole lives in that sleepy little town. Especially not after this.

Instead of explaining that, Brienne just said, “The girls miss you, too.”

“I miss you as well, you know,” Cat said kindly. “As does your father. We spoke of nothing but you when I visited him yesterday.”

Brienne felt a pang of sorrow. She knew how lonely he must have been without anyone there to keep him company. “Thank you for checking on him.”

“Of course, my dear. I know the letters from your brother haven’t been coming very frequently lately, but your calls always seem to lift his spirits. He said you spoke last week.”

“Yes. I try to call when I can.”

This time of year, her father was outside working the farm seven days a week. His hours had been even longer with so many of the farmhands and laborers lost to the war. The team’s frequent evening games made it difficult to catch him, but Brienne did her best—even if there wasn’t much to say when they did manage to connect.

“You’re much more devoted than Sansa and Arya. It seems like they’d be happy not to speak to me until they came home in September.” Once again, Cat’s tone turned mournful. “I’m sorry, Brienne. I just feel like I’m losing them, one by one. It’s hard not knowing when we’ll all be together again.”

“I understand,” Brienne said, and she did. Better than anyone.

Robb and Jon would likely ship out before the girls went home, and it was impossible to predict how long they’d be gone—if they made it back at all. It didn’t surprise her, considering Cat had absolutely no control over the fate of her son and nephew, that she would hold on a little tighter to her daughters.

"Maybe you and Ned could come visit,” she proposed. It wouldn’t solve the overall problem, but the Starks could certainly afford the trip, and it might ease Catelyn’s mind if she saw that the girls were truly well and happy here. “Sansa and Arya would be thrilled to have you at a game.”

“That’s a lovely idea,” Cat replied, a little tightly, and Brienne knew she didn’t think it sounded lovely at all. “But Ned’s so busy with the dairy, and I couldn’t leave Bran and Rickon.” With a note of hopefulness, she continued, “Last time I spoke with her, Sansa said they were thinking of ending your season early. Is that still true?”

“I don’t know,” Brienne said. “I hope not. But even if that happens, you could still come see a game before we’re through.”  

Catelyn hummed. “I’ll think about it.”

No, you won’t, Brienne thought, but it wasn’t worth pressing the issue.

It took her ten more minutes, filled with numerous assertions that she would look after Sansa and bring the doctor if she wasn’t feeling better and have her call Cat as soon as she was up to it, to get Catelyn off the phone.

When she finally clicked the receiver down in the cradle, Brienne was relieved to have survived the conversation—and plagued by significantly less guilt than she’d anticipated.  

Before she could move from her seat, something tapped against the window, and Brienne looked up to see Margaery’s face peering through the glass. Her friend crooked a pink-tipped finger, beckoning her out onto the porch.

By the time Brienne walked through the common room and out the front door, Margaery had settled on the porch swing, where she was using the tip of one foot to rock herself gently back and forth. Brienne sat down nearby on a padded wicker chair and stretched out her legs.

“What was that all about?” Margaery asked, tilting her head toward the house.

“It was Catelyn Stark. She wanted to talk to Sansa, and she’s…”

“Indisposed, yes.” Margaery’s mouth tightened as she tried not to smile. “So I heard. Sorry about that.”

Sure you are, Brienne thought, giving Margaery a doubtful look. “I just had to talk to her for a bit, assure her that everything was fine.”

“And is it fine?”

“I think so. She has no idea about last night, at any rate.”

“Good,” Margaery said, flattening her foot on the porch to stop the swing from swaying. “I know you don’t like to fudge the truth, Brienne, but surely she’s better off not knowing.”

“No, I don’t. But you’re right,” Brienne concurred. “She’s imagining enough things to worry about as it is.”

“Imagining things?” Margaery leaned forward with arched brows. “Like what?”

“Apparently the local paper published a story about us, and Jaime was in one of the photos.”  

“That doesn’t sound so bad.”

“It’s not. But Catelyn is…I think she’s just sad, really, and it’s making her jump to strange conclusions. She managed to get it in her head that Sansa is sweet on Jaime, and she was worried he might somehow take advantage of her.”

Margaery laughed. “Well, she has nothing to worry about there.”

“I know.” Brienne shrugged. “That’s what I told her. Jaime wouldn’t do that, and Sansa isn’t interested in him anyway.”

“Oh, my darling Brienne.” Margaery shook her head softly. “Do you really not see it?”

“See what?” 

“The two of you can’t keep your eyes off each other,” Margaery explained, her gaze brimming with sincerity. “I’m not the only one who’s noticed, either. All the girls can see it.”

“They can?” Brienne warbled, appalled.

The idea of Jaime looking at her was unmitigated nonsense, but she was horrified that she’d allowed her own feelings to show that transparently. If the whole team knew, did he know?

Margaery nodded. “You’re always looking at him as though he’s the best man you’ve ever seen.”

Brienne felt herself flush from collarbone to forehead. Oh, God, am I really?

“But he’s even worse than you are.” Margaery waved her hand emphatically. “When he caught that foul ball, I really thought he was going to demand to kiss you right there in front of everybody. And at the roadhouse last night? First, he chased off that Army fellow, then he sat down and immediately bought you a drink.”

“He was just trying to help me, and he didn’t buy me a—”

But he had, Brienne realized. She’d never paid her tab, so Jaime had bought her a drink. Her whole night’s worth of drinks. Damn it.

Margaery widened her eyes imploringly. “See? And I haven’t even gotten to that dance.”

Brienne’s stomach gave a nervous clench. “It was just to help the team. It wasn’t a real dance.”

“The hell it wasn’t,” Margaery argued, frowning. “If you’d seen the view from my side of the bar, you wouldn’t doubt that the man is seriously attracted to you. He looked like he wanted to devour you, for God’s sake.”

“He doesn’t,” Brienne protested weakly. “He can’t.”

“Oh, yes he can. Arya said she heard him tell you not to be with Hyle. A man doesn’t say things like that to a woman if he isn’t interested.”

Brienne shook her head, too preoccupied with Margaery’s suggestion to feel more than a bristle of annoyance that Arya had eavesdropped on their conversation.

It can’t be true, Brienne thought. It can’t. She’s wrong.

“He’s just trying to be helpful, Margaery. Friends care about each other’s happiness. It didn’t mean anything.”

“Do you really believe that?” Margaery asked, her blue eyes sharp and questioning. “That he’s only interested in being your friend? I know that’s not all you’re interested in.”

Brienne sighed, massaging her forehead with the heel of her hand. “It doesn’t matter. He’s our coach. It’s against the rules.”

“So what? There are more important things in life than the rules, Brienne.” After a long, thick silence, Margaery leaned closer and rested a hand on Brienne’s knee. “Why is it so impossible for you to believe?”

“We aren’t…compatible,” Brienne said feebly, not knowing how to make a woman like Margaery understand. “I’m not…and he’s…”

“He’s gorgeous and you’re not, you mean?” Margaery exhaled a frustrated huff. “You really need to let that go. I know those little shits treated you badly, but it doesn’t matter what they thought of you. Or what other men think of you. Or even what you think of yourself.” She fixed Brienne with a meaningful stare. “I think you’re lovely, and so does Jaime Lannister.”

Brienne suddenly remembered the conviction with which he’d denied that she was ugly, the roughness in his voice, the hooded look in his eyes right before he’d pulled her closer.

Don’t, she admonished herself, fiercely blinking the memories away.

Margaery patted her knee. “You can’t just keep ignoring it, Brienne.”

But I have to, Brienne thought sadly. Because if she didn’t, and Margaery was wrong, she didn’t think she could stand it.   

~*~*~

A hot gust of wind blew into the dugout as Brienne grabbed the knob of her favorite bat and pulled it from the rack. Brushing a wayward strand of hair from her face, she walked to the end of the dugout to await her turn at the plate.

Margaery had managed to get on base with a single, but she’d advanced to second when Talisa walked on to first after the pitcher threw four straight balls. So far, the pitcher had lobbed two more to Dany—neither pitch close enough to the plate to even consider swinging at.

When the next toss came in wide again, the Peaches’ hometown crowd vigorously booed the Belles’ pitcher. Brienne couldn’t blame them; it was only the second inning, which was far too early in the game for such a lackluster performance. Coach Seaworth, who flung up his hand to call for a timeout, seemed to agree.  

The full house was restless as the coach strode across the field toward his pitcher, and several men boomed out suggestions and complaints. Brienne tried to ignore the noise, but she still hadn’t gotten used to how loud it always was now, with so many people watching them play.

Attendance had skyrocketed in the nearly two weeks since the magazine had been published, and they’d sold out almost every game, even the ones on weekday afternoons. It seemed like everyone in the tri-state area was flocking to their games.

People bought banners, rooted fervently for their favorite teams, and even threw flowers on the field. Some nights, when they went to board the buses, the teams had clusters of people waiting by the doors to get their autographs.

All the attention still made Brienne uneasy, but she knew their popularity meant good things for the league. In fact, not another word had been said about shutting them down.

Brienne knew she ought to be happy. They’d worked hard and, for the time being, there was nothing to worry about except making sure she played her best.

Nothing but Jaime.

Her eyes wandered to where he stood just to her right at the bottom of the steps, shielded from the baking sun by the overhang of the dugout roof. He had his back to her, but Brienne could tell by his posture—and the way his uniform stretched tautly across his shoulders—that he had his arms crossed as he watched the conversation on the field.

Brienne would never have admitted it to Margaery, but she’d spent the first few days after their trip to the roadhouse waiting for him to say something about what had transpired there. But it had been two weeks since the night they’d danced, and Jaime hadn’t brought it up once.

He hadn’t gloated about the success of his plan or teased her about the rules or even acknowledged that he’d taken the fall for the team’s indiscretion. She’d wanted to ask him about his father, to find out if there was any indication that Tywin had gotten word of what they’d done, but his avoidance of the topic made her leery of mentioning it.

It was as if he wanted to pretend the night never happened, which told Brienne all she needed to know.

Things between them were normal enough, she supposed. At least there wasn’t any awkward tension. She’d noticed, however, that Jaime never seemed to fully relax around her the way he once had. Perhaps he felt the need to be more professional, in case “the wrong people,” as Tyrion had called them, were watching.

Entertaining the alternative was far too painful.

Jaime suddenly turned his head, and Brienne jerked her eyes away from him, returning her attention to the mound. Coach Seaworth had left the girl in play, and she was nervously tossing the rosin bag as she waited for the umpire to resume the game.

When he did, the pitcher hurled the ball squarely over the plate, and Dany’s bat connected with it. The ball shot down the third-base line, crossing over into foul territory as it sailed toward the outfield. More than a dozen arms extended over the low wall, but the ball dropped just beyond their reach. Even from the dugout, Brienne could hear the collective groan of disappointment.

That day, like every other Friday—and Monday and Wednesday, for that matter—spectators could still win a kiss if they caught a foul ball. Tyrion might have been euphoric at their recent success, but it hadn’t dimmed his enthusiasm for his little contests.

Brienne had fallen victim to it only once, at a game in Kenosha the week before. To her relief, the shy, sweet young man who’d caught her ball had offered her a simple kiss on the hand along with a flower.

The crowd perked up when Dany smashed the next pitch into center field, applauding thunderously as she sprinted toward first base. The clapping and whistling continued, albeit at a decreased volume, as Brienne walked up the steps and took her place in the batter’s box with the bases loaded.

The first pitch didn’t come anywhere near the plate, so Brienne let it float by. The second was decent enough, so she took a swing. The ball popped up with a muted crack, a clear foul, and Brienne cringed. She knew before it fell that it was headed directly into the jam-packed stretch of seats between home plate and the Peaches’ dugout.

A loud whoop went up from the stands, and Brienne closed her eyes, praying for fortitude. But she could have never imagined how much she’d need it.

When she turned, her eyes immediately fell on a familiar, uniform-clad figure waving his arm like a triumphant lunatic, and Brienne nearly staggered backward. She’d hoped never to see the man again—least of all here. Yet there stood Sergeant Giantsbane with her ball in his hand and a wide, lascivious grin curving his lips.

Lips she was going to have to kiss.

Feeling a little queasy, Brienne dropped her bat into the dirt and took a few slow steps toward the stands, but Jaime intercepted her.

She half expected him to make some kind of scene, but he only looked hard into her eyes and said, “You don’t have to.”

Brienne tilted her chin up a little higher. “I do.”

Jaime’s expression darkened, but he eventually gave a compliant, somber nod. “I’ll be right behind you.”

“I don’t need you to,” she protested. “I’ll be fine.”

“Yes, you will,” Jaime glowered. “I intend to make sure of it. In fact, he’s lucky I’m not bringing a bat.”  

Lacking the energy to argue, Brienne resumed her advance with Jaime in tow. The sergeant was already waiting for her, eagerly leaning his long torso over the wall.

“Good to see you again, doll,” he said, grinning. “It must be my lucky day.”

Instead of replying, Brienne bent toward him, intending to give him a brief peck on the lips and get the God-awful moment over with. But as soon as she got close enough, Sergeant Giantsbane yanked her flush against his chest and smothered her mouth enthusiastically with his own.

Instinctually, she tried to pull away, but the man’s large hands clamped down around her upper arms. Before Brienne had time to react more forcefully, something streaked across the corner of her vision and made contact with the sergeant’s shoulder. The man reeled violently away from her, releasing his grip.

Brienne stepped back, well out of his reach. Only then did she become aware of Jaime standing next to her with his hand still outstretched and a downright murderous look on his face.

“Leave,” Jaime ordered coldly. “Right now.”

Sergeant Giantsbane rubbed his shoulder. “What’s the matter, coach? I was just collecting my prize from this spectacular woman. You can’t blame me for getting a little excited.”

“I can, and I will,” Jaime growled, skewering the sergeant with his hot green glare. “And if you don’t get the hell out of this stadium in the next ten seconds, I’ll remove you myself.”

The sergeant narrowed his eyes at Jaime and stood stock still for far too long. Then, just when Brienne was afraid it might come to blows, the man held up his palms and grudgingly turned to go. Brienne watched him swagger down the aisle until he reached the exit row, where he glanced back to give them a jaunty salute before he disappeared.

Brienne immediately turned to face Jaime, not knowing quite what she was going to say. To her surprise, he wasn’t even looking in the direction the sergeant had gone. Even more strangely, he looked utterly stricken—face ashen, lips folded into a thin line, eyes wide with dismay—and his hand was clenched so tightly at his side that his knuckles had turned white.

Alarmed, Brienne followed his gaze, and it only took a moment for her to discover the object of his attention. Five or six rows up, immediately behind where the sergeant had stood only moments before, a strikingly pretty blonde woman sat next to a rotund man with ruddy cheeks and a black beard. Next to him was a slimmer, more severe-looking man and a similarly austere woman who bore an astonishing resemblance to Shireen.

Brienne’s eyes swung back to the beautiful blonde as the realization settled unpleasantly in the pit of her stomach.

Only one woman would make Jaime look like that, Brienne thought, taking in the tiny, joyless smile on the blonde’s face. Cersei.

Chapter Text

Shireen waited for the other girls to file into the locker room before she approached Jaime after the game. At first, he thought she might walk right past him and head to the showers like everyone else, but her light footsteps slowed as she drew closer to where he stood by the doorway.

“Um, Jaime?” she ventured shyly. “My family came to the game today, and I was wondering if…if it isn’t too much trouble, do you think they could come down onto the field?” Shireen glanced up at him with hope in her deep brown eyes. “My parents were going to wait for me, but now my father says my aunt and uncle have to be somewhere else, so they can’t stay long. It would only be for a few minutes, so I can say hello before they leave.”

Jaime rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “I don’t see any reason why not.”

Actually, he could see quite a few, but none of them were worth disappointing this kind, innocent girl. She didn’t know what her aunt had done to him, or that the woman had likely engineered things precisely this way to put herself in Jaime’s path. Cersei had never been one to leave things to chance—not where something she wanted was concerned. And although he wasn’t yet sure why, she obviously wanted to see him.

None of that was Shireen’s fault, though. So when the girl beamed up at him in gratitude, Jaime forced himself to smile at her.

“Tell them to come down to the gate,” he said, pointing toward the outfield wall. “I’ll open it for them.”

“Thank you!” Shireen spun on her toes and bounded to the top of the steps, where she vanished around the corner of the dugout.

Strictly speaking, Jaime didn’t need to be the one to let them through. The entrance was just a metal gate mounted across a gap in the brick wall past the far side of the dugout. It wasn’t locked, and Shireen was more than capable of releasing the latch herself.

But Jaime wasn’t a coward. He’d always known the day would come when he would have to face this. Face her.

I’m not sure why it had to be today, he thought irritably, slogging toward the gate and trying to relax his shoulders. They’d hitched up an inch or two when he’d spied Cersei in the stands and remained permanently fixed there for the subsequent seven innings.

The sight of her had sent a renewed wave of bitterness and rage burning through his body—though, in fairness, he’d already been pretty pissed off. That great ginger buffoon had attacked the wench with his meaty paws and his greedy mouth, and Jaime had shoved the man off her with a ferocity and speed he hadn’t known he still possessed.

Naturally, he would have done the same for the other girls; he wouldn’t have stood for any of them being violated that way. But when he’d contemplated climbing over the wall to teach the bearded bastard a lesson, his motivation hadn’t been quite so noble. In fact, he’d had only one primal thought in his head.

Mine.

Jaime didn’t want any man laying his hands, much less his lips, on Brienne, even with her permission. Unless that man was him.

He’d been trying not to dwell on his feelings for her ever since the night they’d danced. Not because he had any lingering delusions about them fading away—he couldn’t deny wanting her any more than he could deny his need to breathe—but because of what he’d almost let himself do. If Tyrion had arrived seconds later, he would’ve caught him kissing Brienne instead of just dancing with her. If that had happened, or if one of Varys’ little birds had spied them, it would have been disastrous.

Tywin would never throw Jaime out of the league, but he would punish Brienne. And Jaime hadn’t been willing to risk that, even though his suspicion that the wench felt something for him in return made every nerve ending in his body twinge with longing. He could feel it in the soles of his fucking feet, every time she looked at him.

But Jaime had ruined his own career because he’d let desire trump good sense, and the thought of doing the same to hers had been more intolerable than anything else.

Until that jackass had slobbered all over her.

In that moment, Jaime hadn’t given a good goddamn about his father or the rules or the future, and he’d known he wouldn’t be able to restrain himself forever. But before he’d had time to think through what that meant, or what he was going to do about it, he’d spotted Cersei less than twenty feet away from him.

His ensuing spike of animosity hadn’t even been caused by the memory of what she’d done to him. Instead, he’d been incensed by her invasion of the life he was just beginning to make for himself. For all the years he’d been miserable, Jaime hadn’t seen so much as a glimpse of her. And now, when things were finally starting to improve, there she fucking was, like a predator catching the scent of blood.

Jaime glanced up at the stands as he rounded the corner and took his final few steps toward the gate. Stannis led the procession of Baratheons heading up the aisle, while Cersei had positioned herself last in the line. Unsurprisingly, she was staring straight at him.

He allowed himself to meet her eyes, and a disconcertingly self-satisfied smile appeared on her face. Jaime had seen that look before, many times, and it sent a familiar dread slithering through his gut.

She wanted her visit to hurt him, he realized. After all, there was nothing Cersei hated more than seeing someone else even approaching happiness if she herself was not. And Jaime suspected, watching her float along behind her red-faced oaf of a husband, that Cersei was far from content.

If that were true, Jaime knew her only aim would be to tear his old wound open again, just when it had finally begun to heal.

Well, don’t let her, said a voice inside his head—a voice that sounded alarmingly like Brienne.

I’ll do my best, wench, he answered silently, smirking at himself as he released the gate and stepped aside to let the Baratheons through.

Stannis and Selyse mumbled polite words of gratitude as they passed, heading straight for their daughter. As Jaime watched Shireen rush over and throw her arms around her mother, a heavy hand clapped down on his upper back.

“Jaime Lannister!” crowed a deep voice.

The pungent tang of alcohol hit Jaime’s nose as he swiveled to face Robert Baratheon.

“Robert,” Jaime said, plastering on a nonchalant smile and extending his hand. “It’s been a long time.”

Robert’s right hand made it halfway up before the man realized he needed to raise the other one instead. He jerked it back and reached out with his left, seemingly determined to make up for his fumble by gripping Jaime’s hand so vigorously that his knuckles ground together.

“I’ll say it has! I haven’t seen you in, what? Three years, at least.” Robert’s bushy black eyebrows lowered as he looked Jaime up and down. “And here you are, just as golden as ever, damn you, despite that missing paw of yours. The years have been much kinder to you than they have to me.” He patted his ample gut, which was indeed much larger than Jaime remembered.

Cersei cleared her throat, drawing the eyes of both men. She stood just out of reach at Robert’s side, and Jaime wondered if that distance had been as carefully calculated as everything else about her.

“Ah, yes,” Robert said flatly, waving his hand in Cersei’s direction. “You know my wife, of course. Better than I do, I’d wager.”

Jaime nearly cringed. The fool had no idea just how right he was.

Cersei, on the other hand, appeared completely unaffected by the comment. She looked as exquisite and imperious as ever—perhaps even more so in comparison to the boorish lush beside her—with her creamy skin and sultry green eyes and that haughty little smirk. Her hair, a shade lighter than Jaime’s own, fell past her shoulders in thick blond waves, and she wore a close-fitting red dress that drew attention to her svelte figure.

Objectively, she was perfect, but Jaime found himself startlingly unmoved. Not a single thing about her appealed to him.

Has her beauty always been so cold? he wondered.

“Good to see you, Jaime,” Cersei purred. “It’s been far too long—since before the wedding, I think. We did so miss having you there.”

You know exactly how long it’s been. And why.

“Cersei,” Jaime evenly replied. “I was sorry to miss it, of course, but I’m sure Father passed on my congratulations.”

At least, he hoped Tywin had. Jaime hadn’t actually wanted to wish the couple well, but he’d needed to avoid raising his father’s suspicions about the real reason he’d refused to attend the nuptials. Tywin had never known about his relationship with Cersei, or that he’d been with her prior to the accident, and he’d wanted to keep it that way.

“He may have,” Cersei acknowledged, pursing her full lips. Once, Jaime might have found the expression alluring, but now it just made her look petulant and pinched. “But it grieved me not to have my whole family there on such an important day.”

Oh, I’ll bet it did.

“As I’m sure you recall, I wasn’t in a particularly celebratory condition at the time,” Jaime said, managing a casual shrug. “It would have been a shame to spoil such a…happy occasion.”

Something sharpened around Cersei’s eyes, but that little smile on her lips never faltered. “Still, you could have—”

“What are you on about, woman?” Robert barked, interrupting his wife. “Stop your complaining. It was years ago, and you had plenty of other people there to fawn over you.” In a much more jovial tone, he then said to Jaime, “You did miss one hell of a party. Tywin paid for the whole damned thing—refused to let me cover a cent.”  

Jaime’s forehead twitched upward. If his brother had known that, he hadn’t shared it. “How uncharacteristically generous of him.”

Robert let out a booming laugh. “Believe me, it’s not what I expected from your old man, either. I thought he was going to shit himself when he found out a stag had snagged his precious lioness.”

“Nonsense, my dear,” Cersei said sweetly, and Jaime wanted to roll his eyes at her overly honeyed tone. Didn’t she realize how blatantly contrived she sounded? “He was just as pleased to see us happy as everyone else.”

Jaime held in a snort. He’d never seen his father pleased about anything that didn’t involve making the Lannisters more money. Come to think of it, though, uniting the Baratheon and Lannister families probably had made Tywin more money. Or at least saved him money, if he’d gotten Cersei’s husband to give him a discounted price on steel.   

As tempted as he was to ask Robert about it, Jaime decided against it. But he did say, with only a trace of sarcasm, “Of course he was. My father would never want to stand in the way of wedded bliss.”

“Ha! Bliss, indeed,” Robert guffawed. “Is that what you call this tedious state of affairs? Though I suppose we haven’t killed each other yet, which ought to count for something.”

“Robert, my sweet, you shouldn’t say things like that,” Cersei said, laying her hand on her husband’s arm. For the first time, Jaime noticed the large diamond ring sparkling on her finger. “Poor Jaime will think you mean it.”

But Robert did mean it, and the creases on Cersei’s usually impassive face told Jaime she knew it just as well as he did.

Robert scowled down at her, and for several uncomfortable seconds, Jaime thought the man was going to tell Cersei just how sincere he was. Instead, he winked a bloodshot blue eye at Jaime. “Bah! He doesn’t need me to tell him what’s what. He knows well enough who he’s dealing with. Don’t you, Jaime?”

Jaime smiled stiffly in response. Watching the two of them snipe obliquely at each other was one thing, but he wasn’t going to put so much as a single toe into that minefield.

“What I’d really like to know is what you thought of the game,” Jaime said, hoping the change of subject might bring the unpleasant conversation closer to an end. “Shireen played very well today.”

“Yes, yes, I’m sure she was fine. To tell you the truth, I don’t know a goddamned thing about baseball, but I definitely didn’t mind the view.” Robert waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “I couldn’t believe that the great Jaime Lannister had taken up coaching girls, but now I see why, you sly dog. All that running and sliding in those short skirts, and the tits on that shortstop of yours...” He expelled a low whistle. “Not a bad sight to see every day.”

Your niece is one of those girls, you lech, Jaime thought, his upper lip rising in disgust.

Before Jaime could think of a suitable way to castigate the man, Cersei gently touched Robert’s shoulder. “My love, why don’t you go say hello to Shireen? I have a family matter to discuss with Jaime, but I’ll catch up with you in a few minutes.”

Robert’s eyes shifted skeptically to his wife, then down to the expensive watch on his thick wrist. “I’ll give you five,” he said gruffly. Turning to Jaime, he added, “If she starts nagging at you, just walk away. That’s what I do.”

Jesus, Jaime thought as Robert lumbered off. If this is how he behaves in public, what’s he like behind closed doors? 

Despite his distaste, Jaime couldn’t deny being gratified to see that Cersei’s decision had resulted in what was plainly a torturous marriage. Yet, as he caught her glaring at Robert’s retreating back with a wrinkled nose and a tight jaw, Jaime almost pitied her. Almost.

But she’d saddled herself with the crude, profligate fool of her own volition, tossing Jaime aside like a useless broken toy in the process. Really, the two of them were perfect for each other—perfectly terrible.

By the time Robert joined the other members of the Baratheon clan, Cersei’s smooth facade had settled firmly back into place.

“How are you, Jaime?” she liltingly inquired, inclining her head in a way he guessed was meant to seem earnest. “You do look…better than I expected. Rather well, in fact.”

“Do I?” he asked lightly. “I’m flattered. Although it would be difficult to look worse than I did the last time you saw me.”

Barely a week out of the hospital, Jaime had still been gaunt, weak, and depressed—a shadow of the man he’d been only a month before. Even with the clean white bandages wrapped around his stump, hiding the horror of his mangled flesh, Cersei had been repulsed by it. She’d been unwilling to come anywhere near it—or him at all.

At the time, he’d stupidly hoped that her visit would bring him comfort and reassurance, that seeing her would aid him in envisioning a way forward. Then, instead of helping him to rebuild his life, Cersei had walked out of it, leaving Jaime with nothing but his mutilated body and a splintered, bitter heart.

“Yes, and look at you now. You’re nearly back to your old self.” Cersei raised one slender blond brow as she raked her gaze over him, lingering on his naked stump. “Though I suppose you’ll never be quite what you once were.”

Jaime waited for the flare of anger or shame to burn through him, but it didn’t come. Instead of unsettling him, her deliberate cruelty made him regretful and sad. Did I love this woman once? he wondered. How? 

“No, I suppose I won’t,” he said archly. “It isn’t going to grow back.”

A smirk once again danced on Cersei’s lips. “But surely you could have something fashioned. I know they have devices to disguise such…” She paused to extend her hand, palm up, toward his stump. “Disfigurements.”

A month ago, that would have rankled the hell out of him. Now, he saw it for what it was: a vicious attempt to get under his skin.

And he didn’t care. About her words, or her opinion of him, or her at all.

The realization was like casting off an old, rusty chain Jaime hadn’t even known was binding him, and the sudden lightness that filled his body made it difficult not to smile.

It also robbed him of any impulse to lash back at her. So he just said, “I have one, as a matter of fact, but I’m not too worried about disguising myself these days.”

For the first time since the accident, that was actually true. He’d gotten the modified prosthetic back from Pycelle early the week before, and the stodgy old doctor really had worked wonders with his new materials. But Jaime had gotten so used to going without it that he’d felt immediately uncomfortable when he put it on. Had it always been so heavy, so cumbersome?

Nevertheless, he’d resumed wearing it, only to find himself constantly fighting the urge to rip it off—a strange sensation, given how loath he’d been to part with the damn thing. After only three days, he’d given up and left it on his dresser, where it still remained. Everyone had seen his fucking arm already anyway, and no one seemed all that bothered by it. 

In fact, Jaime was beginning to think it had been his insistence on pretending—his inability to accept the loss—that had been haunting him, much more than the missing hand itself. He’d certainly noticed a decrease in his god-awful dreams, along with their phantom pain, since he’d cast the thing aside. 

“It must be so difficult,” Cersei said, reverting to the horrid, syrupy tone she’d used with Robert. “Being constantly reminded of what you lost. I worry about you, Jaime.”

“How thoughtful of you,” he replied, flashing her his most glib smile. “But, as you can see, I’m doing just fine. Coaching suits me.”

“It does, doesn’t it?” She sounded bemused, but the ire sparking in her green eyes gave her away. “I know how much you love baseball, but I have to say, your enthusiasm surprises me. I never thought a Kingslayer would be so happy to become a Peach.”

Jaime sighed, weary of her increasingly desperate attempts to bait him. “Why are you here, Cersei?”

Her throat tightened, and she bared her teeth in smile that was perilously close to a sneer. “To see sweet Shireen, of course. That magazine article made the whole thing look terribly exciting. And the last time I had lunch with Father, he told me he wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to let this—what did he call it? Oh, yes—‘foolish experiment’ continue.”

Did he? Jaime thought irritably. We’ll see about that.

“Naturally, we wanted to come while we still had the chance,” Cersei continued, her eyes drifting over Jaime’s shoulder as she spoke. “Does that creature want something?”

Jaime turned his head to glance back, but his whole body quickly followed when he saw who it was.

“Brienne,” he uttered, far more fondly than was sensible with Cersei so close.

But he couldn’t help himself. Still in her uniform, with a fine layer of dust and sweat stuck to every inch of her skin, the wench was the most welcome sight his eyes had ever beheld.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Brienne began, her long legs closing the distance between them in a few strides, “but we really need you in the locker room. I’m worried about Gilly’s knee.”

Jaime frowned. Gilly had jammed a finger the day before, but there was nothing wrong with her knee. Brienne was lying to him, but why?

Then he met her eyes, infused with both concern and resolve, and it hit him. She knows who this is, he realized. She knows and she is trying to help me.

A fresh blaze of want for her kindled inside of him, and Jaime wondered if Brienne could see the heat of it in his eyes.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me?” Cersei abruptly sidled up to stand at Jaime’s side, and her cutting gaze meandered over Brienne’s form, unmistakably sizing her up.

“No,” he answered shortly, trying to reposition himself between the two of them.

“Really, Jaime. There’s no need to be rude,” Cersei rebuked, sweeping gracefully around him to address Brienne. “I’m Cersei Baratheon.”

Brienne politely inclined her head in greeting. “Brienne Tarth.”

“Ah, yes. You were the one who had to kiss that man at the start of the game. He seemed a bit hysterical, poor thing.” Cersei looked up at Jaime with a wicked smile. “How fortunate my gallant brother was there to save the day.”

Fuck, Jaime thought, a hollow ache clutching inside his chest.

Cersei had said it deliberately, emphatically—a last-ditch attempt to rile him. Jaime didn’t give a shit about the word. He wasn’t really her brother, not by blood, even if they had grown up calling each other siblings.

But Brienne didn’t know that. Because that was the one part of the story he hadn’t told her.  

The wench’s throat bobbed, and she blinked her eyes slowly once…twice. Finally, they darted over to his, narrowing slightly as she looked at him, before returning to Cersei.

As though nothing out of the ordinary had occurred, Brienne’s mouth stretched into a tight-lipped smile. “I appreciated his help. Although I wouldn’t have needed it if your other brother didn’t insist on making us kiss every man who happens to catch a ball.”

“I suppose it stands to reason that you wouldn’t enjoy such things.” Cersei’s lips dipped into a pitying frown. “That magazine must’ve been quite painful for you, too. Though I must say, that photographer worked wonders. I hardly recognized you.” She tipped her head to one side, scanning Brienne from head to toe once more. “But I can see why a woman like yourself would prefer sticking to strictly…athletic endeavors.”

“That’s enough,” Jaime growled. “Brienne, wait for me inside.”

Her eyes flickered with uncertainty, but when Jaime pressed his hand to her shoulder, Brienne mutely acquiesced.

When he was certain she’d gone, he rounded on Cersei. “If you ever speak an unkind word to her again, I’ll—”

“Oh, please,” Cersei interjected, resting her hands on her hips. “What will you do? Get angry with me? How novel. Why do you care so much, anyway? It’s not like you’re…” She paused, peering up into his face, and then emitted a breathy little laugh. “My God, you are, aren’t you? You’re smitten with that great cow.”

Implausibly, hearing those barbed words drained the rage right out of him, and Jaime wanted nothing more than to get away from Cersei’s poisonous tongue. Because he was smitten with Brienne, and he wasn’t going to let Cersei soil it.

“Brienne Tarth is a better woman than you will ever be,” Jaime said coolly. “And my feelings for her are none of your fucking business.”

Cersei called his name when he turned his back on her, but Jaime ignored her, opting to take the unexpectedly sound advice her husband had offered him a short while before.

After all, he should have walked away from her a long time ago.  

~*~*~

The girls had all gone home by the time Jaime had showered and dressed, so he flipped off the locker room lights on his way out. But as he walked down the hallway toward the parking lot, a faint, repetitive sound coming from the field redirected his steps.

He saw the glare from the field lights before he reached the dugout door, but he didn’t see her until he walked through it.

Brienne stood at home plate, facing the creaky old pitching machine as its mechanical arm lobbed her ball after ball. The sun had already set, but color lingered in the sky behind her. A sliver of bright pink on the horizon blurred into a brilliant violet that gradually faded into a blue almost the same color as her eyes.

She wore loose work trousers he’d never seen her in before and a short-sleeved shirt patterned with blue plaid. Her hair was still damp from her own post-game shower, but the top layer must’ve begun to dry, because it floated out from her head in little wisps as she moved.

Her swings were measured and even, time after time, and the sound of the ball hitting her bat echoed around the empty field, a steady rhythm of crack, crack, crack. Jaime’s eyes roamed avidly over her stance, from the set of her feet to the strength in her thighs, up to the width of her hips and slight dip at her waist, and finally across those broad, capable shoulders.

The wench was so concentrated on her task that she hadn’t noticed him, even though Jaime had lost track of how long he’d been standing there. He could easily have turned around and let her be; perhaps it would have been kinder, after the day they’d endured.

But the pull he felt was magnetic, inexorable, and Jaime moved toward her like the tide rising toward the moon.

“Still here?” he asked, loudly enough to carry over the whir of the machine.

Her head whipped around first, and then she shuffled back—putting her clear of the line of fire—as she turned to face him.

“I admire your diligence, but I don’t really think you need more practice,” he teased, hoping Cersei’s words hadn’t permanently destroyed the easiness between them.

Brienne shrugged. “I needed to hit something.”

“An excellent idea,” Jaime said, grinning. Brienne smiled back, small and almost sheepish, and he took another few steps toward her. For some unfathomable reason, he needed to be closer. “It’s been that kind of day.”

She glanced down at the bat in her hand, then abruptly held it out to him. “You look like you need to hit something, too.”

He quirked his eyebrows. “One-handed?”

“Why not?” She shifted her grip on the bat to make it easier for him to grasp the handle. “What’s the harm in trying?”

It was foolish, and he would probably fail, but neither of those struck Jaime as particularly good answers. So he took the bat from her, testing the weight of it and relishing in the rasp of the grain against his palm.

Brienne moved out of the way, giving him a clear path to the batter’s box.

Might as well, he thought, stepping up to the plate. The day can’t really get any worse.

The pitching machine swept a ball at him, and Jaime took an awkward swing he knew would miss. The next time, however, the bat made contact with a resounding pop, and the ball sailed into the air, arcing elegantly to the ground in left field.

A long-absent thrill fluttered in his limbs, like oxygen surging into a part of him that had been slowly suffocating for years. When Jaime turned to amble over and share his contentment with the wench, he found an adorably crooked smile on her face.

“I wish I could’ve seen you play,” she told him, her eyes lit with a wonder that made Jaime’s breath come a little faster.

He wanted so badly to reach out and stroke her cheek, but he made himself shake his head instead. Because as much as he would have enjoyed playing a game with Brienne in the stands, he had a better idea. “I wish we could have played together.”

The blush that colored her face was much softer than usual, and she didn’t avert those glorious eyes when she murmured, “I would have enjoyed that.”

Chapter Text

Jaime smiled at her words, but it was different from his usual smiles.

Too small to bring out his dimples or the lines around his eyes, this curve of his lips wasn’t teasing or cocky or flippant, or even all that happy. But it made Brienne’s stomach flutter nonetheless.

Because while he’d smiled at her before, more times than she could count, it had never been quite like this. Never so gentle and achingly genuine—and for her. Difficult as it was for Brienne to believe, this smile made Jaime look like he was glad of her, like the sight of her pleased him in some bafflingly improbable way.

“Not as much as I would have, wench,” Jaime finally said, his smile widening into a grin. “Though Tyrion would probably have enjoyed it most of all. He’s rather fond of being proven right.”  

Bewildered by the sudden mention of his brother, Brienne asked, “Proven right about what?”

“That you’re better than me,” he answered, definitive and earnest, as though he believed the statement to be indisputable. “Haven’t I told you? He said that to me at tryouts, the day we met.”

The fluttering in Brienne’s abdomen crept up into her chest, threatening to steal her breath. He had told her—it’d been almost the first thing he’d said to her, in fact. And while he’d been arrogant and dismissive at the time, Jaime certainly wasn’t dismissing her now. He was lauding her abilities at the expense of his own, with seemingly no thought for his own pride.

“I remember,” she murmured, feeling a tremor along her jaw. “But I’m not—”

“You are,” Jaime forcefully interrupted, conviction blazing in his eyes. “You are.”

Suddenly, Brienne realized he wasn’t just talking about baseball.

Every fiber of her being rose up in protest, even as her eyes began to burn. No one, not even Galladon, had ever demonstrated such steadfast faith in her. Still, although it moved her deeply, Brienne knew she wasn’t better.

Jaime had his flaws, to be sure, but he was a good man in spite of them, an honorable man. Nothing he could say—none of his past deeds or mistakes, no matter how misguided or egregious—could dissuade Brienne from that belief. She’d seen it in him herself, time and time again. She’d seen the man he really was.

And she loved him.

The realization hit her like a burst of sunlight to the eyes, so bright and harsh and hot that it hurt her to look at it, and Brienne almost turned away for fear of being blinded or burned. But she didn’t. She couldn’t.

Because it explained everything—the feeling she had when Jaime was near her and even when he wasn’t. The feeling she hadn’t wanted to think about, hadn’t been able to name, because she’d never felt it before. The odd combination of longing and admiration and affinity and something ineffably more.

It has to be love, she thought. I love Jaime.

It was painful and preposterous—and true.

A solitary tear leaked from the inside corner of her eye, sliding down her cheek and catching on the edge of her nose. Brienne brought her hand up to wipe it away, hoping to disguise the truth by rubbing her index finger briskly between her nose and upper lip as though she had an itch.

But Jaime hadn’t noticed anyway.

He was still looking in her general direction, but his eyes had gone hazy and distant. Whatever he was pondering had stolen all the gentleness from his face, leaving a grimly set jaw and furrowed forehead in its wake.

Still rattled by her own revelation, Brienne didn’t even try to discern what had snagged his thoughts, though she doubted it was pleasant.

When his eyes began to clear, Jaime peered down at Brienne’s bat as though he was surprised to find it in his hand. He tucked his bottom lip between his teeth and looked toward the dugout; for a moment, Brienne thought he might stroll away and return the bat to the rack. Instead, he tossed it softly onto the grass and wiped his palm on the front of his trousers.

“I never thanked you for what you did earlier, with Cersei,” he said, his gaze flicking to hers and away again. “Or apologized.”

Cersei. His sister.

Since the uncomfortable encounter on the field, Brienne had been trying to remember what exactly Jaime had said to her about Cersei the night he’d helped bandage her arm. Had she misunderstood him, somehow? It certainly hadn’t sounded like he’d been describing the bond between a brother and sister. Brienne clearly recalled Jaime saying Cersei had left him to marry Shireen’s uncle, which had to mean they’d been in some kind of relationship. A romantic relationship.

The thought of it made her squeamish. How could siblings possibly feel such a thing for each other? Brienne loved Galladon with all her heart, but not like that. It was unthinkable.

Yet, as repulsed as she was by the idea, it almost bothered Brienne more that Jaime could have loved a person like Cersei than that he was related to her.

How could he have cared so much for a person who could be so calculatingly cruel? Granted, Brienne had been the recipient of far more atrocious insults in her life, but Cersei didn’t even know her. What reason could she have had for saying such deliberately hurtful things unprovoked and to a stranger? Was she that vicious all the time, with everyone? Based on what she’d done to Jaime, on how she’d been speaking to him when Brienne had walked onto the field, perhaps she was.

Brienne took a deep breath, trying to settle her jumbled, agitated mind. As serenely as she could, she said, “You don’t have anything to apologize for.”

This time, Jaime’s eyes fixed determinedly on her face. “Yes, I do. What she said, how she treated you—that was about me, not you. It was completely out of line, and I’m sorry.”

“It's fine,” she insisted. “It’s not your fault. Besides, I’m used to it.”

“It’s not fine,” he argued, taking a step closer to her, and then another. “She had no right to drag you into what was happening between us.”

Brienne’s heart thudded unevenly beneath her sternum. Jaime stood near enough to reach out and touch her, now—near enough that she could have touched him. The urge to lay her hand reassuringly on his forearm was almost as strong as her impulse to step back to a safer distance.

Rather than doing either, she said, “Maybe not, but I had no right to intrude. I know I shouldn’t have interrupted you, but I saw how upset you were when you noticed her in the stands, and I…”

I didn’t want her to hurt you again, Brienne finished silently, because she couldn’t bear to say the words out loud.

“And you what?” Jaime prompted.

Her shoulders lifted in a feeble shrug. “I wanted to help. It seemed only fair. You’ve saved me from that sergeant twice now.”

The corner of his mouth flitted upward. “So you were saving me?”

This is serious, Jaime, she thought, irked by the teasing lilt in his voice, by the glitter of amusement in his eyes.

Brienne gave him what she hoped was a chastening look, but Jaime only smiled more widely as he added, “I think you might be the gallant one, not me.”

“That’s ridiculous. What you did for me was very chivalrous.”

“That asshole is nothing compared to Cersei. I swatted a mosquito. You came into the lion’s den.”

Brienne huffed. If she were to choose an animal to describe his sister, that wouldn’t be it. A snake or a wasp, perhaps, but not a lion. “I’m not afraid of her.”

“I know,” he murmured, sounding more than a little impressed. “She thought she could intimidate you. Obviously, she was wrong.”

“She seems like the kind of person who’s wrong about a lot of things.”

“That she is,” Jaime agreed. “But not about everything.”

Brienne didn’t know what that meant, so she just looked at him, puzzled. As she waited for him to explain, the silence was broken only by the whir and rattle of the pitching machine.

“Oh,” she breathed, glancing over Jaime’s right shoulder. She’d completely forgotten the device was slinging balls behind them.

Or at least it had been. At some point, the basket of balls had run dry, so although the short metal arm continued to revolve, its cradle was empty when it snapped around for the release. Brienne’s gaze followed its trajectory, and she spotted at least a dozen balls laying in the dirt at the foot of the cage behind home plate. How had she not heard them clattering into it?

Jaime’s brow lifted quizzically when her eyes returned to him, and Brienne nodded toward the mound.

“Oh,” he echoed after he’d craned his neck to look. “I’ll get it.” Once he’d gone a few paces, Jaime called back over his shoulder, “Just wait here.”

Brienne blinked after him in surprise. Where else would I go?

His footsteps became a jog, and the movement sent ripples through the fabric of his loose-fitting blue shirt—the same one he’d worn the night they’d danced at the roadhouse. Brienne’s heart, which had only just leveled out again, spasmed at the memory.

I loved him then, too, she thought sadly, watching him bend to switch off the machine. I’ve loved him for quite some time now.

When he returned, Jaime’s steps seemed heavier, more deliberate, and he came to a stop a little further away than he’d stood before. While Brienne was grateful for the increased space between them, she was also troubled by the unfamiliar hesitation in his eyes.  

“I need to explain something to you,” he began, worried lines forming on his brow. “About Cersei.”

Oh.

“You don’t owe me an explanation, Jaime,” she gently replied, though she couldn’t deny being curious. In a pitiful, melancholy way.

“But you deserve one. I should’ve told you the whole truth before, anyway. I should’ve said I wasn’t meant to love her.”

Brienne swallowed. “Because she’s your sister?”

“No,” he said firmly, “she’s not. Cersei is my second cousin, but we grew up together. She was like my sister.”

Second cousins? Shock billowed through her, relief following closely in its wake. That seemed like nothing at all compared to being siblings. The situation was definitely odd, especially if they’d treated each other like brother and sister, but it was no longer repugnant.

“She’s the daughter of my father’s cousin, Stafford,” Jaime went on, stuffing his hand and stump into the pockets of his trousers. “A blundering idiot, my father always said. He died when Cersei was three. Fell from his favorite horse, of all things. Then her mother died in the flu epidemic when she was seven.” A faraway look came over his face, and the wrinkles on his forehead multiplied and deepened. “My mother had died just a few months before, so I doubt anyone expected my father to take her in. But she was a Lannister, so he did.”

Brienne couldn’t imagine how difficult that must have been for him. Not only had Jaime lost his mother, but he’d also gained two new siblings, one of whom had also suffered a great loss. They’d all been so young, with only cold, exacting Tywin Lannister to guide them through a time of transition and grief.

It was a wonder things hadn’t turned out worse.

“We were absolutely inseparable, right from the start. She was the only warm thing in that monstrous house.” Jaime frowned, gazing off into the distance. “My father made Cersei call him Father, and he made us call each other brother and sister. We looked so much alike that some people thought we were brother and sister.”

It would be an easy mistake to make, Brienne realized, between the hair, the eyes, and the dazzling attractiveness. They were a striking pair of golden people, both of them beautiful in a head-turning, breath-catching way. From that perspective, Cersei was exactly the type of woman Brienne had imagined Jaime being with.

“By the time we were teenagers, we’d fallen in love. Or I had, anyway.” Jaime’s eyes returned to hers, and Brienne expected to see the same anguish that she had so many weeks ago. But it had completely disappeared.

She didn’t know what to make of that.

“Our relationship was never…public. Cersei insisted we keep it secret, especially from my father. She was right, I suppose. He wouldn’t have approved.” Jaime frowned, but his green eyes kept burning into hers. “I didn’t care, though. I did whatever it took to be near her, to keep her happy, hoping that one day, we could come out of the shadows. The only thing I ever wanted was to marry her, to spend my life with the woman I loved.”

That he’d loved her at all was less mystifying to Brienne than it had been a short while before. She didn’t necessarily approve, but she could see how it had happened.

“Tyrion always knew the truth, I think, but no one else seemed to suspect. We were family, so it was easy enough to explain why we were always together.” Jaime removed his hand from his pocket, bringing it up to scratch the back of his head. “Did I tell you she was the only reason I stayed in Chicago with the Kingslayers? I had offers from other teams, in New York and Boston and St. Louis, but I wanted to be close to Cersei. Of course, Father hated that, too. He said I was threatening the Lannister legacy by playing in the same market as the Lions.”

Jaime dropped his hand and his eyes at the same time. His gaze seemed to be fixed on her stomach, but Brienne knew he wasn’t seeing her at all.

“Cersei loathed that I played baseball almost as much as he did. Not long before this happened,” he lifted his stump from his other pocket, “she told me she would marry me if I went to work for my father instead. But I wasn’t willing to give it up, even for her.”

She should never have asked you to, Brienne thought, feeling suddenly heartsick. All his life, she realized, Jaime had been manipulated, used, and disparaged by the people he loved most—by the people who should have loved him. He’d never been truly supported by anyone, except perhaps for Tyrion, and even he had a knack for leveraging Jaime to accomplish his own ends.

She knew Jaime might not have many options when it came to dealing with his father and brother, but Brienne wondered briefly why he had stayed with Cersei, why he’d tolerated such poor treatment from her for so many years. Had it been loyalty? Loneliness? Or perhaps he’d just loved her so much that he’d been oblivious to her faults.

A month ago, Brienne would have called him foolish for letting himself be so blind, but now… Well, she could see how such a thing might be possible.

“As it turns out,” Jaime continued, drawing Brienne out of her thoughts, “she was lying to me anyway. Tyrion told me she’d been seeing Robert for at least six months by the time she left me. Before this,” again, he jerked his stump away from his side, “even happened. There had been others, too, over the years. Sometimes I think the whole goddamned thing was a lie, and I wasted half my life being faithful to it.”

Brienne wanted desperately to comfort him, but she didn’t know how. What could she say? I’m sorry? It sounded meager and insufficient in her head, so she chose to remain quiet—even when it became clear that his story had reached its end.

“Say something, Brienne,” Jaime pleaded, his eyes snapping up to hers. “Shout at me or turn up your nose or call me a perverted idiot. Something.”

“I’m not going to shout at you,” she responded, her voice thick with sorrow. “And you’re not an idiot. Or a pervert.” A familiar heat flooded her cheeks. “I don’t blame you, Jaime. You didn’t decide to love her. It’s not a choice we get to make. It just…happens.”

She regretted the words as soon as they’d left her lips. Although he didn’t know of whom Brienne was really speaking, she did, and it broke her heart.

“Yes,” he said huskily. “It does.”

Brienne’s face grew even hotter under the sudden warmth of his gaze, until she was certain her entire head was glowing. But Jaime’s next words hit her like a splash of cold water.

“Would you choose to love Hyle, if you could?”

“I…” Flustered by the unexpected question, by the fact that Jaime had asked it, Brienne could only shake her head. “I don’t know.”

In some ways, it would be easier if she could choose Hyle. But did she really want to? 

“Are you going to keep seeing him when you go home in the fall?”

Why is everyone so worried about Hyle? Brienne wondered crossly. Why does it matter what I do, when all this is over?

“I might,” she muttered, and it felt like a lie. Like a betrayal.

Jaime’s neck stiffened as he sighed, and Brienne watched the tendons strain against his skin through the open collar of his shirt. “He’s going to ask you to marry him, you know.”

“What?” Panic surged through her so forcefully it made Brienne’s fingers tingle. “Why would you say that?”

Really, wench? Jaime’s eyes seemed to say as he tipped his head forward and arched his brows. “There’s only one reason a man tells a woman he can’t imagine his future without her.”

Oh God. He’s right.

The disturbing epiphany must have been evident on her face, because Jaime asked, “Will you say yes?”

She stared at him in silence, feeling the truth in every thump of her heart: no, no, no. But how could she answer him? How could she tell him why?

"You should be playing, not getting married,” he pressed when she didn’t reply.

Brienne sighed wearily. Baseball had nothing to do with it. “I told you before that I didn’t want to talk about it. I still don’t, especially not with you.”

“Why not?” Jaime demanded, raising his hand and stump imploringly. “Why especially not with me?”

“Because you don’t understand, Jaime.” Because I love you. It was so glaringly apparent to her now that Brienne wondered how she’d failed to see it for so long. “It isn’t your fault, but—”

“You’re right,” he cut across her. “I don’t understand. You love baseball. You don’t love Hyle. Where’s the difficulty in that decision?”

Brienne lifted her hands in a frustrated shrug. Even if she hadn’t been in love with Jaime, it wouldn’t have been that simple.

“Baseball can’t be my whole life. The war will end. The league will end, and I’ll be back playing softball on a dusty field in the middle of nowhere. What then? I don’t need Hyle, but he cares for me, and I’d like…”

“What, Brienne?” Jaime entreated. “What do you want?”

“A home that isn’t with my father,” she said, knowing this time her words were true. “A family of my own.”

Jaime’s expression mellowed, lightened, and the softness in his features bled into his voice. “You don’t need Hyle for that. You shouldn’t settle for someone like him.”

Hot tears welled in her eyes, blurring Jaime’s face. “Is it settling when you don’t have a choice?”

“Jesus, Brienne. He’s not the only man who wants you. Being here should prove that.” He flung his hand toward the stands. “People wave banners and chant your name and toss flowers at your feet.”

“None of this is real, Jaime,” she stressed, wishing she could make him understand. “The person I am on the field, in that ridiculous skirt, that isn’t me.

“Yes, it is,” he insisted, stepping toward her so quickly Brienne almost staggered back. “Look me in the eye and tell me the woman I know isn’t real. That the way she makes me feel isn’t real. That what I see in her eyes right fucking now isn’t real.”

Brienne’s lips parted at the same moment that tears spilled out of her eyes, and she was too astounded by his words to stem their flow. In fact, she suddenly realized she’d stopped breathing and had to remind herself to take a shaky gulp of air.

“I know I’m not alone in this,” Jaime said hoarsely. “Am I?”

She heard the smallest quiver of apprehension in his voice, like he wasn’t quite as sure as he wanted her to believe. But it was that very note of uncertainty that convinced Brienne he was being sincere. He did feel something.

A rush of vertigo washed over her, and Brienne almost put out her hands to steady herself. How could it be true? And why was it so terrifying?

“Am I, Brienne?” Jaime asked again, moving even nearer, until he was as close as he could get without his chest grazing hers. Suffocatingly, dangerously close.  

It would have been safer to lie. So much safer. But she couldn’t do it. Not with his piercing green eyes looking at her as though he’d die if she said yes.

“No,” she whispered, shaking her head.

A breath escaped him, a choked little huff, and Jaime reached up his hand to cup her cheek. He brushed at the damp trail of her tears with his thumb as he leaned his head toward hers.

He’s going to kiss me, she realized, hardly able to believe it.

And he did.

His lips were soft and pleasantly warm as they brushed against hers, tender and strong and Jaime.

After a few dazed moments, Brienne attempted to mirror his movements, inexpertly pressing her mouth back against his. When she did, Jaime’s hand slid from her face, making her shiver as it stroked down her neck and snaked under her arm, finally coming to rest on her back, where he used it to pull her flush against him.  

Somehow, Brienne was aware of her entire body, of his body, all at once—of his hand on her back and his stump on her hip, her chest flattened against his and her hands gripping his shoulders.

And, God, his mouth. His tongue was hot and wet when it swept across her lower lip, and Brienne felt the world spin even with her eyes shut.

This was nothing like the chaste, hesitant pecks Hyle had occasionally placed on her lips when he’d walked her to her door. Nothing like the overzealous mauling of Sergeant Giantsbane. It was nothing like Brienne had ever even expected to experience—and it was Jaime.

He brought his other arm around her, then, cradling her against him. Impulsively, Brienne slid one of her hands around his neck and up into his hair, and Jaime groaned against her mouth before he wrenched himself away.

Her lips, bereft of his, felt damp and cool in the night air as Brienne opened her eyes. Jaime stood several feet away, taking shallow breaths and running his hand through the same place in his hair that her fingers had just been.

“I’m sorry,” he rasped, looking at her with eyes full of regret. “I shouldn’t have done that. It was…it was a mistake.”

Pain slashed across Brienne’s chest. His words cut more deeply than any barb or insult that had ever been slung at her, and she felt something vital begin to seep out of her. A mistake?

“Yes,” she said, more breathlessly than she meant to. “I guess it was.”

Jaime flinched, then quickly shook his head and opened his mouth, but Brienne spun away before he could speak.

You’re a fool, she thought, striding toward the dugout and fighting the sting of yet another round of tears. An ugly, naive fool.

Just as she reached the top of the steps, Jaime’s hand shot past her, barring her way. When her steps faltered, he darted in front of her and closed his hand around her wrist. “Brienne, wait. That didn’t come out right. Please, let me explain.”

She clamped her teeth together to quell the tremble in her chin, but it didn’t work.

“Let me go, Jaime. You’ve said all you need to say.”

“I have not. Damn it, Brienne. I didn’t mean I didn’t want to kiss you. I’ve been wanting to kiss you for weeks.”

“I don’t ca—” Brienne stopped, narrowing her eyes as her brain registered his words.

Weeks?

“What?” she croaked.

“You heard me.”

A faint sense of hope flickered inside of her, but reality quickly snuffed it out. Even if that were true, he still clearly regretted actually doing it. Had she been that dreadful at it? That disappointing?

“Not what you expected, then?” she snapped, pulling unsuccessfully against his grip.

“No.” His eyes bored into hers. “It was not.”

A prickling sensation overspread her limbs, and an unsettling heat flared in her belly. Jaime’s expression said he’d like nothing better than to kiss her again. Immediately. So why had he apologized? Why had he called it a mistake?

Overwhelmed, Brienne shook her head. She was tired and confused and hurt—and unable to handle much more.

So she asked him the only question she could think of, the same one he’d asked her minutes before. “What do you want, Jaime?”

He stared at her for an agonizingly long time, his eyes wide and searching, and then his mouth settled into a frown.

Brienne huffed. What did you expect him to say? That he wanted you?

“I can’t do this, Jaime. We can’t. This…you…” she stammered, waving her free hand helplessly between them. “I just can’t.”

She wished it weren’t true. She wished she could set aside her reservations and questions and feelings and lose herself again in his glorious mouth. But Brienne loved him too much for that. She loved him too much to be his mistake.

Jaime gripped her tighter, looking just as wounded as she felt. “This isn’t over, Brienne,” he said, and it sounded like a vow.

Then he let her go.

Chapter Text

“Jaime? Jaime?”

“What?” he answered absently.

“I asked you a question.”

“Did you?” Jaime flicked his eyes up over the top of his newspaper to glance at his brother.

Tyrion, sprawled across Jaime’s sofa in his shirtsleeves and stocking feet, was propped up on the throw pillows just enough to sip easily from his highball glass.

“What can possibly have you so absorbed?” he inquired, cocking a thick eyebrow. “I read it on the way out this morning. There’s nothing that interesting in there.”

“Right,” Jaime replied dryly. “The war isn’t interesting at all.”

Actually, although he wouldn’t admit as much to his brother, Jaime generally only skimmed the news about the war. It took up at least half the pages on most days, whether it focused on politics or combat or rationing, and it didn’t tend to change much. But this particular headline—Last Lap Seen as Hardest for Yanks in Sicily—had caught his eye.

The article described how, after landing on the Italian island’s southern shores two weeks ago, U.S. troops had been successfully sweeping their way north and east with only minor losses. In the coming days, however, their advance toward Messina would take them into much more treacherous terrain.

It wasn’t the story itself that had captured Jaime’s attention; it was the possibility that Brienne’s brother might be among those men. She’d suspected he was somewhere in Europe, and, if that were true, Italy seemed as likely a place as any other.

“I’m interested in a different conflict,” Tyrion declared, smirking. “One that’s happening a little closer to home.”

With a long-suffering sigh, Jaime folded the paper in half and sent it sailing onto the coffee table with a snap of his wrist. It slid across the varnished wood and bumped to a stop against Tyrion’s half-empty bottle of scotch. After spending that first night in the house stone-cold sober, Tyrion had never again arrived without his own libations.

Turning his full attention on his brother, Jaime asked resignedly, “And what would that be?”

“What happened between you and Brienne?”

“What?” Jaime sat up a little straighter. “What do you mean?”

Ever since he’d hassled Jaime on the subject at the roadhouse, Tyrion hadn’t said another word about Brienne. And his brother couldn’t have overheard anything to arouse his suspicion at that morning’s game. The wench hadn’t exchanged more than a few necessary words with him, and not one of them had been about what had happened.

Tyrion shrugged, lifting his brow along with his shoulders. “The two of you are usually thick as thieves, but you barely acknowledged each other today. Brienne wouldn’t even look at you, which is not, shall we say, the normal state of affairs.”

“So I noticed,” Jaime mumbled. Hell, he could count on his remaining fingers the number of times she’d met his eyes since that night—and he wouldn’t even need to use them all.   

It was like a canyon had opened up between them, wide and impassable. Jaime could still see Brienne across the barrier, but he couldn’t reach her.

“Well then, would you care to tell me why that is?” The dark green cushions behind his head made Tyrion’s eyes look lighter and more impish than usual. “Did you do something to upset our magnificent friend?”

Jaime felt a flush of heat in his ears. “You could say that.”

“I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific.”

Instead of responding, Jaime stared uncertainly at Tyrion for several seconds. If he told the truth, he’d be admitting to breaking the rules. He’d be putting himself—and Brienne—at risk, which was exactly what he’d been trying to avoid in the first place.

Then he saw a look of real concern pass over Tyrion’s face, and Jaime realized his worry was unfounded. This was his brother, not his father.

“Jesus, Jaime,” Tyrion said, breaking the long silence. “Whatever it was, it can’t have been that ba—”

“I kissed her.”

Tyrion bolted upright so quickly that some of the amber liquid sloshed out of his glass. “You kissed her?” A damp patch bloomed across his shirt, but he didn’t seem to feel it. “You kissed Brienne? When? Where?”

“A few days ago. The night Cersei and Robert came to the game. Brienne stayed late for some batting practice, and I…we…”

“Shit.”

Jaime pinched his thumb and forefinger around the bridge of his nose, digging them into the corners of his eyes until he saw spots. “Yes.”

“Did you kiss her because of Cersei?”

“Of course not,” Jaime snapped, dropping his hand. “Cersei doesn’t mean anything to me anymore.”

He’d felt the truth of it when he walked away from her, but Jaime was even more certain of it now. He couldn’t find a drop of the fury and heartbreak and all-consuming desire that had kept him drowning in Cersei for so long; somehow, it had all drained away. Its absence hadn’t left him empty, though—just empty of her. And she hadn’t been the only person taking up space inside his chest.

“Huh,” Tyrion exhaled, his eyes wide with pleased surprise. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“What day?”

“The day that you would really move on from our dear sister. With Brienne Tarth, no less.” Tyrion shook his head, but he was smiling. “Don’t get me wrong, I’ve known you liked the woman for weeks, but I was starting to worry nothing would come of it. I’m glad I was wrong.”

His brother raised his glass in a salute before tipping his head back and downing the remaining ounce or two in a sharp swallow.

“Don’t be too glad,” Jaime advised him. “I don’t think anything will come of it.”

“Why not?” Tyrion peered playfully up at Jaime as he bent forward to set his glass on the table. “The kiss can’t have been that bad.”

“No,” he croaked. “It wasn’t.”

Jaime hadn’t been able to stop thinking about the breathy way Brienne had whispered “no,” about how much power there’d been in that tiny word, in the shake of her head, in knowing she cared for him in return. It had robbed Jaime of his reason, of his restraint, of any ability to resist his visceral need to touch her. Then he’d seen that endearingly incredulous look in her eyes, and he’d been lost.

After that, there had been only the heat of her plush lips, the softening of her strong body against him, the feeling of her fingers slipping into his hair, the rightness of having her in his arms.

It had been, quite possibly, the best kiss of his life.

His cock—which had, along with the rest of him, enthusiastically approved of having Brienne pressed so close—gave a small, wishful twitch as he dwelled on the memory. But it was nothing compared to the aching swell Jaime felt beneath his ribs.

“I didn’t think so.” Tyrion grinned. “So what’s the problem?”

“Things didn’t…end very well.”

“Again, I’m going to need you to be more specific.”

“What if I don’t want to be more specific?” Jaime retorted, rubbing his fingers firmly over his temple.

He didn’t need Tyrion to tell him he’d fucked it up. Jaime had known that the moment he’d seen the pain on Brienne’s face. She’d looked as though he’d slapped her—or stuck a knife in her gut.

Tyrion pulled his lips into an artificially bewildered frown. “How do you expect me to give you advice if you don’t tell me what happened?”

“I didn’t ask for your advice.”

“No, but you obviously need it. Come on, brother,” Tyrion cajoled. “You know I’m excellent with women.”

Jaime snorted. Tyrion’s romantic philosophy had always been based on quantity over quality. “Brienne is nothing like your kind of women.”

“You’re right, she’s not. But I happen to like her. Almost as much as I like you.” Tyrion shifted forward in his seat so he could pick up his bottle of scotch. As he unscrewed the top, he looked straight into Jaime’s eyes and added, “The two of you have been pining after each other for long enough. I won’t stand by and watch it fall apart now that you’ve finally made a fucking move.”

“I didn’t make a move,” Jaime objected. “It wasn’t—”

“Argue semantics with me later, Jaime,” Tyrion interrupted, splashing a copious refill into his glass. “You want to make things right with Brienne, don’t you?”

Jaime frowned but ultimately replied with a grudging, “Yes.”

He didn’t just want to; he needed to.

“So, tell me what happened.” Tyrion settled comfortably against the cushions with his drink in one hand and waved the other in a gesture for Jaime to begin. “What led up to this not-bad kiss?”

What led up to it? Jaime let his head fall back against the chair as a kaleidoscope of images swirled in his mind’s eye: Brienne silhouetted against the sky; her outstretched arm handing him the bat; the soft, stricken look on her face when he’d told her she was better than he was.

Those simple, tranquil moments had played their part, but Jaime couldn’t bring himself to share them with his brother. So he started in the middle, rather than at the beginning. “I told her the truth about Cersei.”

“And when you say the truth, you mean…?”

“Everything.”

“I see.” Tyrion took a long drink of his scotch. “And?”

“And what?”

His brother glanced exasperatedly toward the ceiling. “And…how did Brienne react? Badly?”

“No,” Jaime said quietly. “I thought she would, but she didn’t.” She’d only gazed at him with her sad, sympathetic eyes until he’d urged her to speak. “She said she didn’t blame me because we don’t get to choose who we love.”

“Ah.” Tyrion’s eyes sparkled with either mischief or liquor—it was getting hard for Jaime to tell. “Then you kissed her.”

“No.” But maybe I should have. “Then I asked her if she was going to keep seeing the jackass who’s been writing her love letters.”

“What?” Tyrion’s eyebrows shot up. “Are you telling me Brienne has a boyfriend?”

He wanted to outright deny it, and he almost did. However, although Jaime didn’t think that answer would technically be wrong, it also wasn’t that simple. The only way to fully explain would be to tell Tyrion about Hyle, what he’d done to Brienne, and how he’d weaseled his way back into her life.  

Jaime didn’t want to violate Brienne’s trust by divulging the details, but he disclosed enough to make his brother understand. But instead of expressing disgust or outrage—instead of sharing Jaime’s opinion that Hyle was a special kind of scum not even worthy of kissing Brienne’s cleats, let alone the wench herself—Tyrion seemed more confused than he’d been before.

“So, after you told her about your ex, who just happens to be not only related to you but also your adopted sister, you moved on to the much safer topic of whether Brienne is going to keep dating a man who once mistreated her and now, you suspect, wants to marry her?” Tyrion stuck out his free hand, palm up, and shook his head imploringly. “What the hell were you trying to do?”

“I was trying to figure out how she felt about me.” 

That’s how it had started, anyway. Then he’d needed Brienne to know that she was too good to throw away her life on a man like Hyle, even if she wanted nothing to do with a man like him.

Tyrion was looking at him as though he sounded like a fucking child. “Jaime, it’s obvious to everyone—except you, apparently—that Brienne Tarth is besotted with you. But if you really weren’t sure, why didn’t you just ask her?”

“I did,” Jaime replied limply. “Eventually.”

With that, he spewed out the rest of the story: what he’d said to Brienne about playing rather than getting married, the way he’d clumsily confessed his feelings and asked about hers, how he’d kissed her. And what he’d said after.

“A mistake?” Tyrion spluttered, nearly choking on the last swallow of his scotch. “You really don’t know anything about women, do you?”

“Is this you being helpful?” Jaime asked sourly. “It doesn’t feel helpful.”

Tyrion placatingly held up his free hand. “All right, here’s your first lesson. Never tell a woman doing anything with her is a mistake unless you want to make her hate you.”

Jaime scowled. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

And he hadn’t. He wasn’t sorry for kissing her. How could he ever regret a kiss like that? How could he ever regret her?

But he’d meant to talk to her, to explain how he felt and how long he’d been feeling it, to discuss the rules and what it might mean if they ignored them. Jaime had wanted to lay it all out for her consideration, to give Brienne a chance to acknowledge or deny her own feelings—to accept or reject him as she would. He’d never intended to pull her into his arms and kiss her before a word of that had been spoken.

Admittedly, the way he’d gone about explaining that had been a disaster. But a great deal of his blood supply had been otherwise occupied at the time, and the few thoughts his brain had managed to form had been hazy with desire.

“What, pray tell, did you mean?”

Jaime slumped more deeply into his chair. “That it was a mistake to do it like that. That I was sorry for losing control. But it came out wrong, and she thought…”

“She thought you meant she was a mistake.” Once again, Tyrion slid forward to plunk his empty glass on the table. This time, he remained poised at the edge of the sofa, his short legs dangling over the side but not reaching the floor. “Really, Jaime, can you blame her?”

“No.” Knowing Brienne, knowing the things she thought about herself, made it even worse. His poor choice of words had played right into all of the other bullshit she’d endured, and Jaime hated himself for it.

“Did you at least apologize?”

“I tried, but she was upset. When I asked her to let me explain, she…” Jaime set his teeth. He’d bungled that as well.

Tyrion expectantly widened his eyes. “She what?”

“She asked me what I wanted.”

“What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

“For God’s sake.” Tyrion ran a hand through the wavy mop of his hair. “Why? And if you say it’s because you don’t know, you’re a fucking liar.”

Jaime swallowed. Of course he knew.

Brienne. I want Brienne. But it’s not that easy.

When Jaime didn’t answer, Tyrion gave him a disapproving glare and, without another word, hopped down from the sofa and stormed off toward the staircase.

“Where are you going?” Jaime called after him.

“To make a point,” Tyrion shouted, sounding like a man three times his size as he thundered up the steps.

“What point?” Jaime yelled, but Tyrion either could no longer hear him or he wasn’t in the mood to reply.

Jaime crossed his left ankle over his right knee, restlessly jiggling his foot as he waited. When Tyrion finally thumped back downstairs a few minutes later, he was brandishing a file folder, which only heightened Jaime’s confused curiosity.

“Perhaps you’ll recall that I mentioned a photograph the night I caught the two of you swooning over each other on the dance floor,” Tyrion said as he walked across the room and stopped directly in front of Jaime’s chair.

Oh, I remember, Jaime thought. It had killed him not to ask questions, to demand to see it, to take Tyrion’s bait. And if that folder contained what Jaime thought it did, his brother had been keeping it right under his nose the whole damn time.

“Take a look,” Tyrion said, dropping the folder onto Jaime’s lap, “and tell me that man doesn’t want that woman more than anything in the world.”

Jaime flipped it open, and goosebumps erupted on his arms.

Selmy had captured the two of them from the waist up, artfully concealing the fact that Jaime’s arm didn’t have a hand attached to it. Truthfully, his stump could have been on full display and Jaime would’ve hardly noticed.

He and Brienne were gazing at each other with such undeniable joy and affection that it was difficult for Jaime to believe the moment had actually happened. Brienne’s big, crooked smile and the unguarded delight shining in her eyes made her look absolutely beautiful, even in black and white. She was fucking glowing at him. But it was his own face that had Jaime’s throat thickening.

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen himself looking that lighthearted, that content—that happy. His grin was so bright and full that it stretched over his whole face, from his chin to the corners of his eyes. It was the expression of a man who’d found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life looking at.

“Actually,” Tyrion added, “I think he more than wants her.”

Jaime’s eyes returned to Brienne’s face. Cersei had called him smitten, which he’d been more than ready to admit, but that term seemed paltry and insignificant now. What he felt was much larger and deeper and more, and Jaime only knew one word that could describe it.

“You’re right,” Jaime said, looking up into his brother’s eyes. “I love her.”

Tyrion’s creased brow abruptly relaxed, and his mouth curved into a small but genuine smile. “Good.”

Good?” Jaime rasped. It certainly didn’t feel good. In fact, it hurt like hell.

“Yes. Now, what are you going to do about it?”

“I have no idea.” It simultaneously changed everything and nothing. He loved her—now that he’d realized it, Jaime could feel it crackling in his heart like a fire—and it still might not be enough.

Stepping closer, Tyrion tapped a stubby finger against Jaime’s forehead. “Think harder, brother.”

Jaime twisted away from Tyrion’s touch. “What do you want me to say? It’s like you said, Brienne won’t even look at me. I told her it wasn’t over, and I’ve been trying to get her alone for the past five fucking days, but she won’t come anywhere near me unless there are at least three other people close by.”

“It probably won’t be easy, but you’re a smart, charming man. Not quite as smart and charming as I am, perhaps, but…” Jaime glowered at him for his teasing tone, but Tyrion merely winked in reply. “I’m sure you can come up with something. Find a way to tell her the truth.”

“Even if I do, it doesn’t matter,” Jaime grumbled. “You of all people should realize that.”

“Oh? Why’s that?”

“The goddamned rules, Tyrion. You’re the one who told me fraternization between coaches and players is forbidden, remember? God knows I haven’t forgotten it.”

“When have anyone’s rules stopped you from going after what you want?” Grinning, Tyrion nodded down at the photograph. “You’ve done far more foolish things for love. I think this one might turn out to be worth it.”

Chapter Text

Pick up the phone, Brienne.

She stared down at the black receiver, noticing the places where the grip of countless hands had dulled its glossy finish, but she didn’t reach for it.

He’s expecting to hear from you, Brienne reminded herself, tracing a flower in the chair’s hideous mauve fabric with her fingertip. You told him you’d call.

Although she hadn’t been specific about timing when she’d last spoken to her father, it had been more than a week since their most recent conversation. If she didn’t talk to him soon, he’d start to worry, and he already did plenty of that about her brother.  

Galladon, Brienne thought longingly, a telltale burn rising in her eyes. After the week she’d had, he was the only man in the world she wanted to talk to, and he was thousands of miles away.

The resonant chime of the grandfather clock drew Brienne’s eye across the room. The towering old timepiece, all dark wood and lofty spires, began tolling the hour with deep, melodic strikes, and Brienne found herself counting them even though she already knew what time it was.

When the final note faded into silence, Brienne shook her head and rubbed the outside of her stiff left knee. Eight o’clock. That meant she’d been sitting there for almost forty minutes, and she hadn’t even touched the telephone.

The other girls in the common room hadn’t moved much either, but they seemed to be enjoying their evening at home far more than she had been. Talisa, Ygritte, and Lollys sat around the larger of the room’s two square tables, playing what looked like a game of rummy. Nearby, tucked on opposite ends of the largest sofa, Dany and Missandei had their noses buried in books.

Margaery, meanwhile, was nestled on the small sofa directly across from Brienne’s chair, flipping leisurely through an issue of Glamour. Her attention seemed wholly fixed on the magazine, but Brienne couldn’t shake the feeling that Margaery’s acute blue eyes had just been scrutinizing her instead of the glossy pages.

Suddenly, someone coughed softly to her right, and Brienne’s head swiveled in surprise. When she saw Gilly sitting patiently in the armchair next to hers, a gentle question in her large brown eyes, Brienne felt like a selfish fool.

“I’m so sorry, Gilly.” Brienne clambered out of the low chair. How long had the poor woman been waiting, watching her sit there in silence? She’d been so lost in her own thoughts that she hadn’t even noticed Gilly enter the room, let alone sit down beside her. “I meant to call my father, but…”

She hesitated, trying—and failing—to think of an excuse that sounded reasonable. Fortunately, although she couldn’t possibly have guessed the real reason for it, Gilly seemed to sense Brienne’s discomfort.

“It’s all right.” Gilly offered her a sympathetic smile as she stood up from her own seat. “Sometimes it’s harder to hear their voices than it is not to hear them.”

Guilt poked Brienne sharply in the ribs as she nodded in reply. She did miss her father, but that hadn’t kept her from making the call. It wasn’t homesickness, either. It was just avoidance. She didn’t have the energy to put on a cheery voice and pretend everything was fine, let alone to explain why it wasn’t. She’d used up her already-limited reserves of false okayness to keep everyone else from suspecting how out of sorts she was. And it hadn’t even worked.

Sansa and Margaery had noticed immediately that Brienne wasn’t her usual self, or so they kept telling her. The two of them had been taking turns asking her what was wrong ever since Saturday morning, undeterred—and apparently unconvinced—by her repeated answer of “nothing.”

But then, she’d always been a terrible liar.

She wouldn’t be able to lie to her father, either—not forever, not even by omission. Because even though he would never have any reason to find out about Jaime, Brienne knew she’d have to tell him about Hyle.

But not today, she thought, stepping out of Gilly’s way. She had already spent enough time keeping the woman from her husband and son.

“You won’t miss them on my account, will you?” Brienne asked as Gilly took her place in the uncomfortable telephone chair. “Little Sam must be nearly in bed by now.”

Gilly grinned as she picked up the receiver and stuck her finger in the rotary dial. “Don’t worry about that. Sam has never been able to get him to bed on time.”

“Good luck, then.” Brienne did her best to smile in return, but her face had been having a hard time with that expression lately.

Gilly mouthed a silent “thank you” as she pressed the phone to her ear and waited for the operator to pick up on the other end of the line. With a final nod, Brienne turned away and made a beeline for the stairs. She moved quietly, avoiding eye contact with the others, but Talisa thwarted her attempt at an unobtrusive escape.

“Brienne!” she said brightly as Brienne passed by their table. “Come play with us! We need one more for euchre, and I’ll bet you’re a dab hand at it.”

“Thanks, but not tonight,” Brienne answered politely. “I’d make a terrible partner. I’m already tired, and we’re on the bus at five tomorrow.”

Ygritte groaned as she took a card from the stack at the center of the table. “I swear to God, just thinking about getting up that early makes me want to murder someone.”

Talisa rolled her dark brown eyes as she smiled up at Brienne. “Maybe next time, then. Sleep well.”

“You too.”

Before anyone else could say a word, Brienne hurried up the stairs, trailing her hand along the bannister and deliberately not looking back down into the room as she rounded the corner on the landing. The upstairs hallway was blessedly empty, but Brienne took care to step over the creakiest floorboards as she passed Sansa’s room and slunk into the safety of her own.

Once she’d clicked the door shut behind her, Brienne leaned back heavily against it. Letting her eyes fall closed, she allowed the relief of being alone—of having another day, another game, behind her—to gradually loosen the stiffness in her neck and shoulders.

Those few seconds of stillness were all it took for her mental guard to lower. And when it did, the thoughts she’d been so vigilantly keeping out slipped right in.

Warm green eyes, heavy-lidded and earnest. An even warmer body, wrapped around her own. Dizzyingly ardent lips, and the last words that had passed them.

This isn’t over, Brienne.

She could still see him, hear him, feel him, from the slickness of his tongue to the surprising softness of his hair. The memory of it sent blood rushing to her cheeks—and a fierce, unbearable yearning coursing through the rest of her.

No. She heaved her body away from the door. Don’t think about it. You’ve thought about it enough.

Brienne swept her gaze listlessly around the room before wandering over to the wardrobe. She didn’t feel like reading or sleeping or even writing to Galladon, but she could pick out the next day’s clothes. 

After swiping through every item twice, just to be sure, Brienne selected a lightweight brown cotton skirt and mint green blouse.

There, she thought, draping the outfit over the armchair by her window. One less thing to worry about in the morning.

Of course, what she was going to wear was far less troublesome than the endless bus ride she’d be wearing it on.

South Bend was nearly twice as far away as Racine, and that trip had been absolute torture. Brienne had spent the entire ride to Wisconsin two days before pretending not to notice Jaime glancing back at her every five miles. Then, when they’d finally arrived, he’d waited just outside the bus door as the team disembarked. Brienne’s foot had barely hit the gravel when he’d subtly brushed his fingers along the back of her hand, murmuring her name softly enough that only she could hear.

She’d made the mistake of turning to meet his eyes, and the sorrowful, pining way he’d looked at her had almost reeled her in. Fortunately, Yara had poked her in the back, telling her to “get a move on or get out of the damn way,” and Brienne had jolted away from him, falling in step with the others as they walked across the parking lot.

He’d had enough sense not to come after her, and she prayed the same good judgment would prevail on the way to Indiana. If Jaime did try to call her over—or, God forbid, attempted to sit with her—she’d have to feign sleep. Or illness. Or…something.

She could prevent the possibility altogether by sitting at the back of the bus, Brienne supposed, but avoiding her usual seat would be like announcing her distress with an air-raid siren. Sansa and Margaery—and the entire team, for that matter—wouldn’t just suspect something was amiss. They would know.

Even worse, they would know it involved Jaime.

So, she would just have to bear it. To sit two rows behind him and not stare at the back of his head, not think of his face and his arms and the solid breadth of his chest against hers. To not remember his words or the regret in his eyes when he’d uttered them.

“No, Brienne,” she admonished, out loud this time. Catching her own reflected eye in the window, she said it again. “No.”

“No?” echoed a familiar voice, and Brienne swung toward it so quickly that her hair swirled around and whacked her in the face.

Swiping the messy waves out of the way, Brienne saw Margaery standing on the threshold of the now-open door.

“Didn’t you hear me knock?” her friend asked, frowning. “I could’ve sworn I heard you tell me to come in.”

Brienne shook her head. She hadn’t heard a thing.

Margaery pointed over her shoulder with her thumb. “Do you want me to leave?”

Yes, she thought, noting the concerned creases on Margaery’s forehead, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it.

“It’s okay,” Brienne replied instead, hoping very much that it would be. “What’s going on?”

“I came to ask you the same question.” Margaery stepped into the room and gently closed the door. “It’s high time you told me what’s been going on with you this week.”

Brienne’s shoulders sagged. “Nothing is going on.”

Margaery pursed her lips, drawing the inside corners of her eyebrows down in a way that made her whole face look pointed and reproving. “We both know that’s not true. I’m worried about you, Brienne, and so is Sansa.”

“I’m fine.”

“Bullshit,” Margaery retorted. “You’ve been skulking around for days. You’ll hardly speak to any of us, and I just watched you sit by the phone for half an hour without even picking it up.”

“I was only going to call my father,” Brienne said, plunking herself down in the chair. She was probably wrinkling the clothes she’d just laid over it, but she didn’t care. This was obviously not going to be a brief conversation.

“Then why didn’t you?” Margaery marched over to stand in front of her. “Does it have something to do with why you threw out Hyle’s letters?”

“What?” Despite her subdued mood, a flicker of anger kindled in Brienne’s gut. “Sansa promised me she wouldn’t—”

“Sansa didn’t do anything,” Margaery interrupted, raising a conciliatory hand. “Arya saw you with them yesterday.”

Damn it, Arya, Brienne thought. She’d been sure she was alone.

Ms. Frey had taken most of the girls out for an afternoon of shopping and salon visits, and Brienne had purposefully waited until the house was empty before taking the bundle of letters down to the trash. She’d known that Arya and Lyanna had elected to stay behind, but they were supposed to have been out taking a walk.

But if Arya had been there, if she’d seen her throw the letters away, had she seen—or heard—anything else?

“How did she know they were Hyle’s?” she asked warily. 

Margaery lifted her hands to her hips. “Do you really think any of us would believe you’d put letters from your brother in the trash?”

She sighed. “No, I suppose not.”

With a satisfied nod, Margaery continued, “Out with it, then. What did that asshole do now?”

“What do you mean? He didn’t do anything.”

“Then why are his letters bound for the landfill?”

Brienne tucked her mouth into a tight line. Answering that question honestly would mean telling Margaery everything. And that would mean going through it all—the pain and anger and confusion—all over again.

“Please, Brienne,” Margaery said, sitting down on the edge of the bed. “I’m your friend, aren’t I? I just want to help.”

Tears began to gather in her eyes, and she blinked up at the ceiling to hold them back. It still astonished her, but Margaery was her friend. And even though she’d never expected to, Brienne trusted her.

“I couldn’t keep them. They reminded me of…” Brienne paused to swallow, but it didn’t clear the unpleasant constriction in her throat. She couldn’t think of Hyle without thinking of Jaime, and she needed not to think about Jaime. “They reminded me of how foolish I’d been. So I got rid of them, and I asked him not to send them anymore.”

“You did? When?”

“Yesterday. It was after five, and none of you were back yet. So I called him.”

Margaery shook her head slowly, looking both bemused and impressed. “Not that I’m not glad, Brienne, but why? Why now?”

Here we go.

“Jaime said he thought Hyle was going to ask me to marry him.”

A faint smirk lifted the corner of Margaery’s mouth. “Well, he’s obviously right.”

“I know. That’s why I had to call him.”

“How interesting. You haven’t listened to a single word the rest of us have had to say on the subject, but Jaime makes one comment…” Margaery’s smile widened until she was grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Are you still going to tell me there’s nothing going on between the two of you?”

Brienne’s heart clenched painfully inside her chest. She didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t nothing. Not for her.

Margaery must have seen the truth on her face, because she said, with sudden gentleness, “I didn’t think so. Do you want to talk about it?”

She didn’t think she did—she’d spent the entire week actively avoiding it—but the words began tumbling out of her mouth before she could stop them.

Margaery remained unusually quiet as Brienne relayed the events of that troubling day, but her changing expression made it clear how she felt about them. Her lip curled when Brienne recounted spotting Cersei in the stands, for instance, and she smiled almost wickedly at Brienne’s interruption of Jaime and Cersei’s conversation after the game.

Only when Brienne repeated Cersei’s cutting words did Margaery finally chime in, scowling darkly, “She always was a hateful bitch.”

Her friend’s irritation persisted when Brienne explained who Cersei was to Jaime, who they’d been to each other, but she didn’t seem at all surprised. It was only when Brienne described Jaime finding her on the field that the displeasure finally melted from Margaery’s face, and her smirk returned at the mention of Jaime’s comments about Hyle. Margaery didn’t break her silence again, though, until Brienne told her about the kiss.

“Finally!” her friend beamed. “It’s about damned time!”

“Shhh,” Brienne hissed, but Margaery ignored her.

“I can’t believe you waited this long to tell me! Though, really, I should’ve known something like this had happened. Jaime has been acting just as strangely as you have all week.”

“Has he?” Brienne rasped.

Margaery laughed. “Maybe you would have noticed if you’d looked at him once or twice. Honestly, if the two of you were trying not to draw attention to yourselves, you should have just kept acting normally.”

“No, Margaery, that’s not…” Brienne pressed her fingers to the hollow of her throat. “It’s nothing like that.”

“Really?” Margaery teased. “What’s it like, then?”

Wincing, Brienne blurted out the rest of the story—what Jaime said when he’d pulled away from their kiss, what she’d asked him, and how he’d failed to answer.

“Oh, Jaime.” Margaery blinked her eyes shut for a long beat. “He certainly made a hash of that, didn’t he?”

“It was my fault, too,” Brienne said sadly. “I should never have let it happen in the first place.”

She’d let herself get carried away, and Brienne Tarth did not get carried away. She lived her life by the rules, but she’d managed to forget they even existed the moment Jaime had touched her face.

“Of course you should have,” Margaery insisted. “Jaime’s an absolute idiot, but he’s crazy about you. You do know that?”

He did feel something—Brienne would never doubt that again—but he was also sorry for it. And if he’d really wanted her, Jaime, of all people, would have said so. She’d given him the chance to say so.

“It doesn’t matter.” Brienne dropped her eyes to the scuffed wood floor. “He was right. It was a mistake.”

“Like hell it was. I don’t know what Jaime was thinking when he said that, but he doesn’t actually believe it. If he did, he wouldn’t have come after you. He would have let you go.” Margaery must have shifted on the bed, because Brienne heard the springs creak. “How did you leave things, anyway?”

“He said it wasn’t over.”

“Do you want it to be over?”

“I don’t know,” she said numbly.

“But you love him.”

Alarm crackled through Brienne’s whole body as her gaze flew up to meet Margaery’s. Instead of judgment or censure, however, her friend’s face was brimming with kindness and unexpected understanding.

For a second or two, she thought about denying it. But when she opened her mouth to speak, Brienne found that she couldn’t. She wouldn’t. Inadvisable and difficult as it assuredly was, her love for Jaime was also honest and real. It didn’t deserve to be sullied by a lie.

“Yes,” she admitted. “I love him. But that doesn’t matter, either.”

“Of course it matters, darling. More than anything.” Margaery leaned across the space between them to rest her palm on Brienne’s knee. “And it’s been coming on for a while now, I think.”

Yes, Brienne thought, nodding weakly. It has.

She still couldn’t pinpoint it precisely—there wasn’t one moment that stood out over the others—but Brienne was fairly certain she could date it from the night he’d first told her about Cersei. Somewhere between the gentle pressure of his fingers on her wounded arm and the color in his cheeks when he’d handed over her blouse, Brienne’s heart had cracked open to him, and Jaime had curled up inside it.

“That’s why you really called Hyle, isn’t it?” Margaery inquired, retracting her hand.

Brienne gave a noncommittal shrug, but she knew Margaery was right, at least in part.

When she’d asked herself whether it was better to love a man she could probably never have or to marry a man she could definitely never love, Brienne had known the answer. After that kiss, after feeling so much for someone, she couldn’t go back. She could no longer tolerate the prospect of a bland, passionless future with Hyle, even if it meant facing the future alone instead.

“It wasn’t only about Jaime,” Brienne attempted to explain. “I tried with Hyle, for a long time, and he tried, too. But I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

“What did you tell him?”

“That I knew he wanted something more, and I didn’t, and it had been unfair of me not to say so a long time ago. That we shouldn’t see each other anymore.”

“Good,” Margaery declared. “How did he take it?”

“He was…surprised, I think,” Brienne said, trying to recall his tone. “And a little angry. He certainly wasn’t as unpleasant about it as he could have been. Not to my face, anyway.”

“Is that why you didn’t call your father? You’re afraid that jackass is slandering you all over town?”

“No. He wouldn’t do that.” Hyle wasn’t the brightest of men, but he wasn’t that foolish. She hoped. “My father has always liked Hyle, and he wants to see me taken care of. He won’t understand why I…why that isn’t enough for me.”

Galladon would. But Galladon wasn’t there.

“Brienne, I don’t know your father, but I’m sure if he knew the truth, he wouldn’t want you anywhere near Hyle.” Margaery shook her head. “He’d want you with someone who deserves you, someone who actually cares about you. Someone like—”

“Don’t say it.” Brienne tossed Margaery a forbidding glance.

“Why not?”

“Because it isn’t going to happen.”

“Why not?” Margaery asked again, then quickly held up a finger. “And don’t you dare quote the damn rules.”

“But—”

“No. Forget the rules. Forget the league. If you took Jaime home tomorrow, you can’t tell me your father would send him away.” Margaery considered her with soft eyes. “He’d take far better care of you than Hyle ever could. He’s smart and charming and surprisingly noble—and rich, which parents always seem to like. And he’s not nearly as arrogant as he used to be.”

“No,” Brienne murmured. “He’s not.”

Jaime, in fact, had proven himself quite capable of being amiable and gracious. He would win her father over in no time, provided he kept his teasing sarcasm to a reasonable level. Galladon, though…Galladon would adore him without Jaime having to try at all.

For just a moment, Brienne allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to bring Jaime to the farm, to show him the back field where she’d learned to hit a baseball, to introduce him to her brother. He had said he’d be honored, hadn’t he?

Galladon would swing a burly arm around Jaime’s shoulder and interrogate him incessantly about the Kingslayers, and Brienne knew with peculiar certainty that Jaime wouldn’t mind. In fact, she could see the two of them sitting on the battered living room sofa with their heads, one straw and one gold, bent together, talking and bonding and becoming…friends. She could hear Galladon’s deep belly laugh and see the smile lines framing Jaime’s eyes as they caught hers across the room.

“You’re smiling.”

Brienne blinked Margaery back into focus. “Am I?”

She must have been, though; Brienne could feel the stretch in her cheeks and at the corners of her mouth.

“Mm-hmm,” Margaery hummed. “If the man can make you smile like that without even being here, when you’re not even speaking to him, then I’m inclined to agree with him, Brienne.”

“With Jaime?” she asked, perplexed. “About what?”

“It’s not over. Not by a long shot.”

Chapter Text

“Sit,” Tywin commanded as soon as Jaime walked through the door.

Good to see you, too, Father, he grumbled internally, crossing the office and swinging himself down in the closer of the two chairs before his father’s massive desk.

Intently focused on the papers spread out before him, Tywin didn’t even glance up in greeting. Instead, he continued scratching his pen across the page for another full minute as Jaime looked on in growing annoyance.

One way or another, he always has to make me wait.

Only when Jaime began drumming his fingers impatiently on the armrest did Tywin finally raise his eyes, his mild expression instantly transforming into one of displeasure. His brow wrinkled disapprovingly as his cold gaze ran over Jaime’s torso before flicking up to his face.

He didn’t say a word, but he didn’t have to.  

“We had a game this morning,” Jaime found himself explaining, gesturing down at his short-sleeved shirt and trousers. “I came straight from there.”

“You couldn’t spare five minutes to properly attire yourself?” Tywin demanded, tossing his pen onto the desk.

Yes, I could have. But I didn’t fucking want to.

“What’s wrong with this attire?” Jaime drawled. “It’s better than my uniform.”

“And what about that?” Tywin glared pointedly at Jaime’s naked arm.

Jaime frowned as he looked down at his stump, at the tangle of faded scars crisscrossing his forearm and the slightly puckered flesh around his wrist.

He had expected some sort of comment; in fact, he’d almost worn his prosthetic just to avoid it. But then he’d heard that voice in his head—her voice—reminding him that he didn’t need an artificial hand to be whole, and Jaime had decided to fuck his father’s opinion and leave the useless thing at home.

Still, despite Jaime’s efforts not to care, Tywin’s words needled him.

That, he’d sneered. As though it was something offensive and unspeakable. As though it was a thing and not a part of his son.

“What about it?” Jaime retorted, far less flippantly than he’d intended.

“You know very well what,” Tywin said coolly. “Where’s your hand?”

“I lost it in a car crash, Father. I’m sure you remember.”

Tywin narrowed his eyes warningly. “What I remember is paying quite a lot of money for a prosthetic to remediate that problem.”

Indignation swelled inside of him, and Jaime’s fingers tightened on the arm of his chair. “The damn prosthetic was the problem, I’ll have you know. I wore it for weeks at the start of the season, and it turned me into a blistering mess. Pycelle himself told me to leave it off, unless I wanted an infection. Which I didn’t.” Jaime jabbed his stump into the air. “This might not be much to look at, but I’m very keen to keep what’s left of it.”

“That is…unfortunate,” Tywin acknowledged, but there wasn’t a drop of compassion in his voice. “I’m sure Dr. Pycelle could make some adjustments.”

“He said so, yes,” Jaime said. “That’s why I paid him to fix it for me. But the thing was still uncomfortable as hell, and I didn’t like wearing it. I never liked wearing it. So I don’t anymore.”

His father remained stone-faced, except for a small tic fluttering in his jaw. “Are you telling me you’ve been coaching like that?”

“Yes, I have.” Jaime forced his mouth into an acerbic smile. “Honestly, I thought you’d be pleased. You’re the one who said I’d wallowed long enough.” He shrugged. “This is me not wallowing.”

“That’s hardly what I had in mind.”

I’m sure it isn’t. God forbid the golden Lannister image be tarnished by the family cripple.  

As angry as he was at his father’s obvious disdain, Jaime also felt a pang of understanding. This was what Tyrion had endured for his entire life, all because he’d been born different. It was what Brienne had endured at the hands of narrow-minded fools who couldn’t see how beautiful she really was.

Brienne.

Somehow, it kept coming back to her. No matter where he was or what he was doing, Brienne was always waiting at the end of every train of thought. Jaime couldn’t get her—or that photograph—out of his head.

Not that he wanted to.   

It had been three days since Tyrion had dropped the truth in his lap, and Jaime was more determined than ever to make things right with her. How exactly he was going to do that remained just as elusive as it had when he’d spoken to his brother, but Jaime refused to be discouraged.

He’d think of something. He had to.

Otherwise, he’d end up blurting out something stupid, which was the last thing he needed, considering that’s what had gotten him into this mess in the first place. He’d nearly done it once already, two days before, when Brienne walked by his seat as she boarded the bus after their game in South Bend. He couldn’t help but look up at her, but Jaime had never expected her to look back.

It had been ages since she’d graced him with those eyes, and the sight of their bottomless blue—the sight of her in that soft green blouse with her hair falling around her face and that maddening red lipstick on the lips he’d kissed—sent the words charging up his throat and onto the tip of his tongue.

I love you. I’m an idiot. I love you. Forgive me. I love you.

Fortunately, before he could speak them, Brienne had passed him by, and Margaery stood next to his seat instead. She had told him with a glance that he was the world’s most pitiable moron, but then she’d lifted her eyebrows and tilted her head suggestively in Brienne’s direction.

“Fix it, you fool,” she’d seemed to say, and Jaime had felt a wave of hope so powerful it nearly swept him onto his feet.

Margaery knew everything, he’d realized. Brienne had told her everything. And she believed he still had a chance.

Making a public confession, however, would have been the surest way to squander it.

Jaime could imagine in vivid detail the look of horror Brienne would have given him had he been daft enough to approach her in front of the team. That image had kept him glued to his seat, running through dozens of other possible scenarios, all without success. His brother would have suggested a grand gesture or elaborate scheme, but that felt wrong to him, too.

It wasn’t about showing the world; it was about showing Brienne. And she needed—she deserved—something quieter, something genuine. Something just for her.

The abrupt slam of a drawer jarred Jaime out of his head and back into the room.

“—other business to attend to,” Tywin was saying, gazing down at a new folder that had appeared on his desk. “So, if you’ll tell me what prompted this unprecedented occasion, we can get on with things.”

“What occasion would that be?”

“My son asking to see me.” Tywin fixed Jaime with his chilly blue stare. “Presumably, you had a reason for doing so. I’d like to know what that reason is.”

Jaime’s mouth filled with a sarcastic reply, but he forced himself to swallow it and answer truthfully instead. “I want to make sure you’re going to let the league finish out the season.”

Tywin’s eyebrows bowed, deepening the wrinkles in his forehead. Clearly, that wasn’t the answer he’d expected. “As I told your brother—”

“I don’t care what you told Tyrion,” Jaime cut in. “I’m here because of what you said to Cersei.”

“Cersei?” his father scoffed. “I don’t recall telling her anything of consequence.”

“The fact that you’re still considering shutting us down seems fairly consequential to me,” Jaime snapped.

“That isn’t what I said.”

“That’s what she told me.”

“Yes, well. She told me a few things after Robert dragged her to your game.” Tywin slanted forward in his chair. “Should I believe them?”

Fuck.

He should have known she’d go running to Tywin. She hadn’t been able to wreak destruction in person, after all, so of course she’d find another way. Especially after what she’d seen. Especially after he’d walked away.

To hide his distress, Jaime shot back, “Dragged her?”

Shockingly, Tywin smirked. “Indeed.”

The leather creaked as Jaime shifted uneasily in his chair. If his father had already written off Cersei’s comments, he knew it would be wise not to probe more deeply. But his need to know—his need to protect the team and the league and Brienne from Cersei’s spiteful ploys—outweighed his rationality.

So, as casually as he could manage, Jaime asked, “What did she say?”

“That the whole thing was ludicrous and a waste of my time. Of the family’s time.” Tywin folded his hands on the desk in front of him. “She said the crowd was sparse and bored, the players were incompetent, and you were degrading yourself by coaching them.”

She’d put a foot wrong there, Jaime knew. Cersei obviously hadn’t realized Tywin wanted him to coach, and as much as his father seemed to enjoy commenting on everyone else’s choices, he did not like to have his decisions questioned.

“One woman in particular seems to have drawn her ire,” Tywin went on. “A great ugly cow, I believe she called her, with apparently no skills at all.”

Jaime’s mouth flooded with the bitter tang of bile. “Cersei doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about.”

“So I’ve gathered,” his father replied, inclining his head. “As a matter of fact, Varys tells me this Brienne Tarth is your best player. Perhaps the best player in the league.”

“Yes,” he said simply. “She is.”

“Strange, then, that your sister would tell me otherwise.”

“Not really,” Jaime muttered. “Cersei has never liked baseball. Or Tyrion.” Or the idea of me being anything but at her beck and fucking call. “Everything she said was total bullshit. The crowd wasn’t sparse. People were packed in up to the rafters, like they always are.”

“I know. Tyrion sends me weekly reports on ticket sales.”

And deposit records, no doubt, Jaime thought. Really, though, that worked in their favor. There was nothing Tywin Lannister found more persuasive than a solid profit margin.

“Does that mean you’re not shutting us down?”

Tywin’s lips peeled back into what counted, for him, as a smile, and Jaime had to suppress the urge to cringe. There was no joy in his father’s expression, only cunning and self-satisfaction, and that rarely boded well.

Which was why his next words came as such as surprise.

“No, I’m not. You’ve proven yourselves worthy of running out the year.” Tywin stuck his index finger up from the top of his folded hands. “However, I have not yet decided whether this experiment is worth continuing for future seasons.”

“Of course it is,” Jaime insisted, feeling a gust of annoyance alongside his relief. “The stands are full—and not just with the locals. People come from all over the Midwest to see the girls play. All over the country. They buy hats and banners and then wait after the games for the girls to sign them, for God’s sake. Tyrion has really turned this into something.”

We all have.   

“Yes,” Tywin conceded. “I must say, your brother has surprised me. But indulging him isn’t a good enough reason to keep this going. It has to be smart.”

“It is smart. And it’s not just about Tyrion anymore. Those girls, they put their hearts into these teams. They’re good. They deserve the chance to play.”

His father exhaled an amused huff. “And what, precisely, has inspired this change of heart?”

Brienne’s face swam before Jaime’s eyes, but he knew it wasn’t only about the wench. Although he undoubtedly would not have been sitting in his father’s office if it weren’t for her, he cared about the rest of the team, too.

“If you had bothered to watch any of the games, you’d understand,” Jaime said crisply. “Besides, I’m a manager. It’s my job to look out for my team.”

Tywin bent his head forward, blinking slowly as he peered at Jaime with his shrewd, steely eyes. “If I did bring them back next year, would you coach them again?”

Jaime bit his lip. Part of him—a large part, in fact—would have liked to say yes. He enjoyed coaching, and he might even be good at it. But he also knew what really mattered to him, and it wasn’t his damned job.

The woman he loved was more important than anything else, and his best chance of being with her was to leave the league. Because Jaime didn’t just want Brienne for a few measly weeks, until the season ended. If she would have him, he wanted her for life.

He wasn’t foolish enough to believe it would be that easy, of course, even if she did forgive him. It wasn’t only a matter of the rules; Jaime had realized that before he’d kissed her.

Seeing Cersei again had reminded him of the terrible things the Lannisters were capable of, and his father had just driven home the point. How would someone like Brienne handle people like that? How would she withstand their ruthlessness and brutality?

On the other hand, if the way she’d stood up to Cersei was any indication, Brienne might be able to hold her own in the lion’s den. She was a little naive, perhaps, and so goddamned good and honorable it was sometimes hard for Jaime to believe she was real, but the wench was also strong and stubborn and fierce.

Hell, she’d gone toe-to-toe with him, and he was a better man for it. Maybe she’d teach the other Lannisters a thing or two as well.

“No,” he resolutely replied. “I told you I’d coach for one season, and I’ll keep my word. But come September, I’m done.”

Looking disgruntled, Tywin opened his mouth to speak, but Jaime charged ahead before he could.

“You don’t need me, anyway. You wanted me as a coach to help establish the league, and it’s established. People don’t come for me. They buy tickets to see the teams, and I believe they’ll keep buying them for as long as you let them.”

After a long, thoughtful pause, Tywin sighed. “You may be right.”

Right? Jaime blanched. Had his father ever said that to him before?

“If the league’s popularity sustains itself through the end of the season, if it continues being profitable, then I’ll consider a second year.” Lifting a hand in Jaime’s direction, Tywin added, “And you will need to find something else to occupy your time.”

Jaime didn’t particularly like the sound of that. “Will I?”

His father’s mouth flattened into a harsh line. “Do you think I’m going to stand by and watch you go back to moping around your house like a sullen little boy? I won’t be here to run this business forever, and I need you to make something of yourself while you still can. It’s time for you to grow up.”

The chair scraped loudly across the wood floor as Jaime rose from his seat. Then, looming over the desk, he looked down at Tywin and faintly shook his head.

“I already told you I’m done wallowing,” he said, noting the surprise in his father’s pale eyes. “But it’s my life, and I’ll be the one deciding what to do with it.”

~*~*~

The next day, Jaime stood just under the eave of the visiting team’s dugout in Kenosha, squinting into the afternoon sun. He glanced at the scoreboard, knowing full well that the Peaches were still three runs up and two outs away from ending the inning.

Jaime just wished it was the ninth inning, rather than the seventh.

The relentless heat—it had to be at least one hundred degrees, without so much as a puff of wind—had made them outstandingly miserable all afternoon, and everyone had been eager to hit the showers since roughly the bottom of the fourth.

Not a soul in the crowd would have been able to tell by looking at the field, though, because the Peaches were playing with extraordinary zeal. Apparently, their enthusiasm at the news Jaime had shared with them that morning had yet to ebb.

Before they’d left Rockford, he’d stood at the front of the bus and told them all that his father had agreed to let them finish out the season and was even considering another, if things continued to go well. It wasn’t a guarantee, he’d been careful to say, but he sure as hell thought it was a good idea.

They’d greeted that with cheers and applause, and he’d been surprised at the happiness he felt, looking out at their sea of beaming faces. And then sweet little Shireen, of all people, had come up to hug him.

When she’d trotted back to her seat, leaving Jaime slightly stunned, he’d allowed his eyes—finally—to fall on Brienne. The wench had met his gaze openly, unflinchingly, and he hadn’t been able to keep himself from smiling. He couldn’t be sure, but Jaime thought he’d seen one corner of her mouth slide upward before she lowered her gaze.

Now, his eyes found her again, crouched low over the plate, her arms glistening with sweat as she flipped up her mitt and waited for the ball.

The batter, in an unexpected turn, bunted the incoming pitch and sped off toward first base. The ball hit the ground at a sharp angle, and Brienne sprang forward, somehow managing to snare it before it bounced away. She hurled the ball to Shireen a mere half-second too late, and Jaime momentarily thought the play was over.

Then, he spotted the runner.

She’d been headed toward third when last he looked, but the girl had just rounded the corner and started racing toward home, completely ignoring the stop sign from the base coach. Shireen saw her, too, and fired a frozen rope back to Brienne, who snatched the ball effortlessly out of the air before bracing herself across the plate, blocking the entire thing with her broad body.

Still, the girl kept running, full tilt, toward Brienne. It was utter madness to charge her: she was so much larger than the runner it was almost comical. But charge her she did, like a fucking freight train.

Brienne, undaunted, pressed her right hand into her mitt, strengthening her grip on the ball, and held it up in tagging position as the girl slammed into her. The force of it knocked Brienne off her feet, and the two of them went down in a tangle of limbs, sending up a cloud of reddish-brown dust.

Jaime leapt up the stairs, straining to see through the haze, but it took several seconds for the dust to begin to clear. When it did, he could just make out Brienne’s hand, held high—and still clutching the ball.

“You’re out!” the umpire shouted.

The crowd groaned on behalf of their home team’s runner, but Jaime grinned. That’s my wench.

His pride and delight fizzled almost immediately, though, because when Brienne went to rise, she made it only halfway to her feet before crumpling back to the ground.

Without a second thought, Jaime began to run.

Chapter Text

Lying on her side next to home plate, Brienne scowled down at her traitorous leg. The blinding agony had receded, but there was still a sharp, insistent throb in her left knee.

Annoyed and suddenly intolerably hot, she yanked the mitt from her hand and levered off her mask, tossing both into the dirt. The movement caused the top of her leg guard to shift against her knee, and Brienne gritted her teeth against a fresh stab of pain.

She was about to reach down and assess the full extent of the damage when something hit the ground beside her, and Brienne looked up to find Jaime kneeling over her with wide, concerned eyes.

“What is it?” he asked, his voice tight with worry. “Tell me, Brienne. What hurts?” His hand hovered near her side as his gaze roved over her limbs. “What did she do?”   

“It’s just my knee,” Brienne answered, confused. The Comet’s runner hadn’t done anything except bash into her. Well, and land on her, which hadn’t helped.

“The left one?” he asked, leaning toward her legs.

She nodded. “I think I twisted it when—”

Brienne’s words faltered when a shadow fell across her prone body; she twisted to squint up at its source and saw a familiar pigtailed head blocking out the sun.

“When that madwoman ran you down?” Scowling, Arya sank into a crouch and rested her hand on Brienne’s shoulder. Turning to Jaime, she asked, “How bad is it?”

“I don’t know yet,” he replied, and Brienne flinched in surprise at the press of his hand against her right thigh. “I need to see your other leg, Brienne,” he said gently.

Obliging him, she shifted her right leg back, so it was no longer stacked on top of her left. Again, the motion jostled her leg guard, which had begun to feel uncomfortably tight.

She winced, and Jaime frowned.

He opened his mouth to say something, but the thunder of approaching footsteps drew his attention away. Craning her neck to follow his gaze, Brienne spied several figures jogging toward them. Sansa, her face pale despite the heat, was only a few paces away; Yara, Shireen, and Margaery weren’t far behind her.

“Oh, God, Brienne, that looked awful!” Sansa cried as she slid to a stop, dropping immediately to her knees beside her sister. “Where are you hurt? What can I do?”

“I’m fine,” Brienne said. “I just tweaked my knee.”

“You are not fine.” Jaime lifted his hand to warn off the rest of the incoming pack. “Don’t crowd her.”

“We should get her off the field,” Yara suggested. “Can we help you get her up?”

Jaime shook his head and pointed at Brienne’s knee. “I’m not moving her until I get a look at this. But you can go tell Osha to put her gear on, and have Ms. Frey get an ice pack ready.” His gaze drifted to Margaery. “I need you to go inform Coach Martell that I’d like a word with him…and his runner.”

“There’s no need for—” Brienne began, but Jaime silenced her with a glare.

“Yes, there is,” he insisted.

Smirking, Yara flicked her eyes between Brienne and Jaime before darting a glance at Margaery. The two women shared an alarmingly knowing look before hurrying off in opposite directions.

Having already returned his attention to Brienne’s leg, Jaime hadn’t seemed to notice.

“I can’t see a damn thing.” He rapped his knuckles lightly on her leg guard, then slipped his fingers around the back of her thigh. “This needs to come off.”

Brienne forced herself to remain still as he began fumbling with the buckle just above her knee. His touch sent a warm tingle up her leg that had nothing to do with her injury, and she squeezed her eyes shut against the tangle of feelings that seized in her chest.

He’s just a coach examining an injured player, Brienne told herself. That’s all. This doesn’t change anything.

After a few moments, Jaime gave a frustrated growl, and Sansa shuffled down to help him.

“I’m perfectly capable of doing it myself,” Brienne objected, wrenching herself up onto her elbow.

She was grateful for their concern—for his concern—but they didn’t need to make such a fuss. It was nothing serious; Brienne was certain of it. She was fine.

Jaime stretched out his stump to bar her from rising, but it was the unexpected tenderness in his eyes that stilled her. “I know you are, but you’re going to let us help you all the same.” His eyebrows rose imploringly, but his voice dropped to a rough near-whisper when he added, “Please.”

A quiver started in her chin, and Brienne quickly nodded her head to hide it.  

Sansa hadn’t waited for her agreement, anyway. Her nimble fingers had already released the bottom buckles, and, after a twinge of increased pressure, Brienne felt Jaime loosen the top strap as well.

“The other one, too,” Jaime told Sansa as he lifted the leg guard away from Brienne’s shin. “Just to be sure.”

Brienne wrinkled her brow. Sure of what?

Before she could ask him, Jaime ran his index finger over the indent the strap had left in her lower thigh, and she had to suppress a hiss—and a shiver.

“It’s swelling already,” he announced. Then, after Sansa had peeled off the second guard, Jaime looked down at Brienne and asked, “Do you think you can sit up?”

“Of course. It’s not broken, Jaime.”

“It had better not be,” he muttered, reaching out to clasp her hand. Arya grabbed ahold of the other, and the two of them pulled her slowly up into a sitting position.  

Brienne wobbled a little as she shifted her leg; completely straightening it was impossible, but bending it too sharply wasn’t any better. As she searched for the least excruciating angle, Jaime gripped her even tighter, and Brienne’s palm felt like it was on fire.

Enough of that, she thought sternly. It’s not like he’s never touched you before.

That thought, though, brought with it the memory of the last time he’d really touched her, and Brienne’s cheeks grew hot.

“We should get that off, too,” Jaime said to Arya, pointing his stump at Brienne’s chest protector, and her friend quickly crawled around her back to undo the ties.

But Jaime wasn’t looking at Arya. He was still looking at her, his eyes warm and wistful, like he could see what she’d just been thinking. Like he’d been thinking it, too.

Loosening his hold, Jaime swept his thumb across her knuckles. “I’m sorry, Brienne.”

He was, she saw. Deeply and profoundly sorry. There was something else on his face, too, something more than mere contrition. Something that convinced Brienne he wasn’t sorry for her, like she’d thought before, but for hurting her. Something that looked an awful lot like—

“For what?” Sansa abruptly inquired, and Brienne jerked her gaze toward her friend.

Sansa’s puzzled eyes traveled repeatedly back and forth between the two of them before drifting down to their still-joined hands, and Brienne felt the heat in her face spread toward her scalp. Fighting the impulse to pull away from him—that would only make things more conspicuously awkward—Brienne looked pleadingly back to Jaime, silently begging him not to answer honestly.

Thankfully, Arya saved him from having to respond at all.

“Yeah,” she said, tossing a strap over Brienne’s shoulder. “It’s not like it was your fault.”

Oddly, Jaime’s expression darkened, and his fingers flexed briefly around her hand before he finally let it go.

Arya, oblivious to the effect of her words, slung over the second strap, and the chest protector slumped down into Brienne’s lap. Jaime, still frowning, pulled it the rest of the way off and handed it to Shireen, who’d begun gathering up the scattered gear.

His fingers left a smear of crimson across the brown pad, and Jaime looked down at his hand, then over at Brienne’s. “Are you bleeding?”

She glanced down at the red dots oozing from her palm. Oh.

“It’s just a scrape,” she assured him.

Apparently unconvinced, Jaime drew his eyebrows together and began edging toward her to take a closer look. Just as his fingers brushed her wrist, a deep, velvety voice made his whole body go tense, and Brienne watched as the care etched across his face twisted into white-hot anger.

“What can I do for you, Jaime?” Coach Martell inquired as he came up to stand beside them. The runner who’d bowled Brienne over trailed along behind him, holding her arm awkwardly across her chest. “Is she badly hurt?”

“You’d better hope not,” Jaime snapped. His flashing eyes caught Brienne’s for a sliver of a second before he shot to his feet.

“I do hope not, of course,” Martell smoothly replied as Jaime turned to face him. “Jennelyn here jammed the hell out of her shoulder, which serves her right for barreling into a brick wall.” The Comets’ coach smiled genially down at Brienne. “How can we help?”

You can’t help, but she can.” Jaime pointed at the runner and fixed her with a glowering stare. “I want to know what the fuck you were trying to do. And I expect the truth.”

The truth? Brienne wondered, watching the girl tuck herself closer to Coach Martell. What truth?

“I was…I was just trying to score,” the girl answered hesitantly.

“Score?” Jaime spat. “You thought you had a chance of that? Against her?” He ducked his head toward Brienne. “It wasn’t even a tying fucking run.”

The girl’s blue eyes flitted up to her coach’s face, but Martell was still looking at Jaime. “I know,” she finally mumbled, shrugging. “But a run’s a run.”

Jaime angrily shook his head. “If I find out you’re lying to me, I swear to God, I’ll—”

“Lying? Christ, Jaime, calm down.” Martell stepped forward, pacifyingly raising both hands. “Do you really think she would hurt your girl on purpose?”

“It sure as hell didn’t look like an accident.”

Martell sighed, looking just as bemused by Jaime’s accusation as Brienne felt.

Nearly all the Peaches had been hurt before, in one way or another; in fact, someone was always dealing with an injury. What reason could Jaime possibly have for believing that this one was different? Intentional? Who would want to do something like that?

“Listen, Jaime,” Martell said, lowering his voice so that Brienne could hardly hear. “I can see that you’re upset. And I don’t know what you think is going on here, but now isn’t the time to discuss it.” He rested a bronzed hand on Jaime’s shoulder. “For now, let’s get her off the field. Our team doctor is already on the way, and I’ll send him to you as soon as he arrives.”

Jaime nodded, but he didn’t look happy about it. And when he turned back toward Brienne, he started a little when he realized that she—and Sansa, Arya, Margaery, and Shireen—had been watching the entire encounter.

Huffing, Jaime dragged his fingers across his chin. “All right, let’s go. Back to the dugout, all of you. Sansa, help Shireen with Brienne’s gear.”

Brienne put out her hand as Jaime bent down next to her. “Just help me up. I’m sure I’ll be able to walk if—”

“Absolutely not,” Jaime said, slipping his left arm around her back. “You’re not putting any weight on that leg until the doctor looks at you.”

“Here, let me help,” Martell offered, coming up on Brienne’s other side. “If I take this arm, we can—”

“No.” Jaime waved him off. “I’ll get her.”

With that, he hooked his stump gingerly under her knees and hefted her into his arms.

As Brienne’s body lifted off the ground, panic flared in her solar plexus. No one, not even her brother, had ever picked her up before—let alone tried to carry her.  

“Don’t!” Brienne protested, feeling a tremor ripple through Jaime’s body as he strained to straighten his legs. “Put me down.”

“Why?” He jostled her a little as he adjusted his grip, and she instinctively wound her arm around his neck. “There’s no shame in needing help, Brienne.”

“I’m not ashamed.” She also did not, strictly speaking, need to be toted around like a child, but Brienne knew arguing that point would be futile. Besides, that wasn’t what was really worrying her. “I’m too heavy. You’ll hurt yourself.”

As he began walking toward the dugout, Jaime turned his head to look levelly into her eyes. “I most certainly will not.”

“But—”

“You underestimate me, wench,” he said teasingly, but there was a ferocity in his gaze that was completely at odds with the lightness in his tone. “I’m strong enough.”

And, so it seemed, he was—though Brienne could tell from the corded muscles in his neck and the increasingly labored cadence of his breath that it wasn’t as easy for him as he wanted her to believe. Still, his gait remained smooth and steady as he carried her across the field, holding her sticky body tightly against his own. Just as tightly, she recalled, as he had the last time she’d been in his arms.

Swallowing, Brienne looked down at the blood drying on her hand, at her swollen knee, then up at the high, wispy clouds creeping across the sky—anywhere but at his tanned throat or his sharp jaw or the sweat shining on his brow.

To her relief, it didn’t take much longer to reach the dugout. After a renewed surge of anxiety as Jaime trundled down the steps, Brienne was glad for the respite from his touch when he finally eased her down on the bench. Ms. Frey appeared at his side, ready and waiting with the ice pack, but he immediately plucked it from her outstretched hands.

“I’ll take care of her,” he said firmly. “I need you to go call Dr. Luwin. Tell him Brienne’s hurt her knee, and we’ll be coming straight to his office as soon as we get back.”

“That’s really not necessary,” Brienne told him, watching Ms. Frey hurry through the doorway toward the locker room. “Coach Martell is sending his doctor, isn’t he? And anyway, I’m fine.”

“Would you stop saying that?” Jaime dropped down onto the bench at her side and carefully placed the ice pack against her swollen flesh. “You couldn’t stand up. That’s hardly fine.”

“I’ll be fine in a minute. Osha will have to finish the inning, but I’ll be ready to—”

“Osha is going to finish the game, Brienne. You’re not going to hobble across this fucking dugout on your own, let alone go back on that field.”

Brienne frowned. “I’m not an invalid, Jaime.”

“No, you’re not,” he acknowledged, wiping the back of his hand across his damp forehead. “But I’m not going to watch you risk your health or your future because you’re too stubborn to take care of yourself. I won’t do that. I can’t.”

Something inside her softened at the pained concern in his voice, at how very much he seemed to care.

“Fine,” she quietly capitulated. “I’ll stay right here.”

A small smile began to form on his lips, as if he couldn’t quite believe it had been that easy. “Good,” he replied, a little throatily. “So will I.”

~*~*~

Between the mountain of pillows mounded under her leg and the pile stacked at her back, Brienne felt as though she was being folded in half. Ms. Frey had done her best to make her comfortable, she knew, but the well-meaning woman had gone a little overboard.

She set down the book she’d been attempting to read—Dany had thoughtfully brought her the new Agatha Christie novel half an hour before, saving Brienne from the torment of Margaery’s fashion magazines—and glanced toward her partially open bedroom door. When she was sure the coast was clear, Brienne reached down and slipped out the topmost cushion from beneath her bandaged joint. Her leg dropped a welcome few inches toward the bed, but the movement caused the giant ice pack molded around her knee to slide off with a rustling thump. Sighing, she resignedly leaned down to reposition it.

Brienne had already iced her knee several times that day, but Ms. Frey had insisted on applying yet another cold compress after seeing how swollen it still was when she and Sansa helped Brienne out of her bath and into her overly cushioned bed. Since the chaperone had also been kind enough to wrap up her leg and bring her a much-needed late supper along with the ice pack, Brienne hadn’t protested.

She’d tried her best not to get exasperated by everyone’s constant need to check on her, either. In the hour since she’d been confined to her bed, Shireen, Sansa, and Gilly—in addition to Dany and Ms. Frey—had all dropped by.

Brienne had never been so closely attended in her life, and while their outpouring of kindness and concern truly touched her heart, it also made her profoundly uncomfortable. After all, she was injured, not dying. Sure, she was in a bit of pain, and undeniably aggravated by her lack of mobility. But Brienne knew it wouldn’t last forever; she’d had her fair share of sprains before.

Because that, according to two doctors, was exactly what it was.

Jaime had frowned deeply when the Comets’ Dr. Caleotte pronounced the diagnosis after examining Brienne for less than two minutes. Clearly dubious about the man’s assessment, Jaime had nevertheless allowed him to bandage her injury for the journey home. He’d also insisted on being Brienne’s human crutch when she climbed the stairs onto the bus—he would probably have tried to carry her again, had the bus’s doorway not been too narrow to allow it—and again when they disembarked at the boardinghouse. Then, despite her protestations, he’d immediately carted her off to Dr. Luwin for a second opinion.

The Peaches’ team doctor had put her through a series of exercises and run his kind hands over every surface of the inflamed joint before concluding that it was, indeed, only sprained, but even that hadn’t been enough to assuage Jaime’s concerns. The x-ray Dr. Luwin eventually offered to appease him had revealed, as Brienne had known it would, that nothing was broken.

Ultimately, Dr. Luwin had sent her home with crutches and the usual instructions to ice, wrap, elevate, and rest. She was supposed to stay off her leg completely until he came to check on her in a few days, when he’d be able to give her a better estimate of her full recovery time. For now, though, the doctor had told her she shouldn’t plan on playing for at least two weeks—possibly up to four.

We’ll see about that, she thought, once again opening her book. There were only four weeks left in the season, and she wasn’t going to miss them all over a silly little sprain.

Brienne had only just found her place on the page when Margaery peeked her dark head into the room, tapping on the door jamb. “Brienne, you have a visitor.”

She knew by the smirk on her friend’s face who it would be even before Margaery pushed open the door to reveal Jaime standing behind her in the hall.

He looked tired but freshly scrubbed as he stepped into the room. His hair was slightly damp, and he’d swapped his filthy uniform for a pair of tan trousers and a white shirt with windowpane-patterned blue stripes. He also, Brienne noted, had a file folder tucked under his right arm.

That’s odd, Brienne thought. This didn’t seem like the time for paperwork.

“I’ll just leave you to it, then,” Margaery said sweetly, backing slowly into the hall. As she swung the door shut, she winked a delighted blue eye over Jaime’s shoulder.

Brienne’s gaze darted from the closed door to her own pajama-clad body as Jaime approached the chair near her bed. God knew the navy cotton pants and shirt—purchased from the men’s section of Tyrell’s—provided much more coverage than a flimsy women’s nightgown would have done, but Brienne still felt exposed.

She had never in her life been alone with a man in her bedroom, let alone a man like Jaime. A man she loved.

“Before you start in on me about the rules,” Jaime said lightly, tossing his mysterious folder on top of the magazines on Brienne’s bedside table, “Ms. Frey knows I’m here.”

Seemingly dissatisfied with the distance between the bed and his seat, Jaime bent down to tug the chair closer—so close that his knee brushed the floral-patterned comforter when he sat down.

“Not that I need her permission,” he added, trailing his eyes over her half-reclining body. It was a vigilant, evaluative gaze, not an appreciative one, but Brienne still felt a dull heat rushing to the surface of her skin. “I would like yours, though.” His eyes settled, finally, on hers. “Is it all right that I’m here?”

Brienne didn’t think she’d be able to answer without croaking, so she just nodded and quickly set her book aside.

The purposeful expression on his face softened a little, and Jaime cleared his own throat before asking, “Is it feeling any better?”

She shrugged. “Maybe a little. I’m sure it will by tomorrow morning.”

“I hope it does. But even if it feels like brand new, you’re not coming with us to South Bend.”

“What?” Brienne’s forehead crinkled in consternation. “Just because I can’t play doesn’t mean I can’t support the team. I want to be there, Jaime. I can handle it.”

He tipped his head forward in acknowledgment. “Yes, I’m sure you could. You’re one of the toughest people I’ve ever met.”

The retort she’d been preparing to make fluttered out of her head at his words. People, he’d said. Not women.

“That doesn’t mean you should,” Jaime went on. “You were in agony on the bus today.”

He has a point, she thought, frowning. Trying to elevate her leg while jammed into that tiny, narrow seat had been nothing short of hell. Every bump in the road had sent a hot pulse of pain through her knee; it had been so stiff by the time they got back to Rockford that she’d had difficulty straightening it out.

“You know I’m right, Brienne. And it’s only for one day. We have a home game on Thursday. You can come to that one.”

“Fine, I’ll stay,” she conceded with only a touch of irritation. “Only because I don’t want to make it worse.”

His mouth canted into a smile. “Good. I’ve already spoken with Ms. Frey, and she’s going to stay here with you.”  

“But she can’t,” Brienne protested. “Who’ll chaperone the girls?”

“No one, but Tyrion already agreed that it was the best solution. Having someone here with you is more important.” Jaime leaned forward in the chair, resting his elbows on his thighs. “Getting you better is my—our—top priority. And if you rest now, hopefully you’ll be back in top form for the World Series, at least.”

“I’m not waiting that long, Jaime. I’ll give it two weeks, like Dr. Luwin said. If it feels better after that, I’m going back on the field. And if you think you can stop me, you’re—”

His hand darted out to cover hers, making the words stick in her throat.

“I don’t want to argue with you,” Jaime said softly. “That’s not why I’m here.”

“I know,” she replied, trying not to enjoy the rough press of his palm. He hadn’t come to pick a fight.

“No, I don’t think you do.” He paused to let out a short, harsh sigh. “We need to talk about what happened last week.”

Brienne’s muscles instantly tightened in alarm, but it was useless. She couldn’t escape him, not this time.

It wasn’t that she was afraid to hear what he had to say: she knew he was sorry for what had happened and was only trying to make things right between them. She wasn’t really angry anymore—or even all that hurt. But if they talked about it, Brienne knew it would make her chest ache.

If they talked about it, Jaime might see the truth on her face. Because Brienne didn’t think she’d be able to hide it, not with him sitting so close. Not with him staring at her with those clear green eyes like he’d forgotten there was anything else in the world to look at.

“No, we don’t,” she eventually countered. “It doesn’t matter anymore. We don’t ever have to speak of that again.”

“Goddamn it, Brienne. It matters to me. You matter to me.”

She’d already known that was true, but hearing the words from his lips, with his voice so achingly sincere, sent something warm sinking down into the core of her, where it settled against her heart.

“I was an idiot for kissing you without telling you that first, and a bigger idiot for not telling you after,” Jaime continued, squeezing her hand more tightly. “I was rash and stupid, and I’m sorry for not being the man you deserved.” His throat bobbed. “Can you forgive me?”

“I do forgive you,” she murmured, tears gathering in her eyes, “but you don’t have to—”

“This isn’t about what I have to do. It’s about what I want.” Jaime lifted his hand to cup her cheek. “And I want you, Brienne.”

An electric hum prickled down her limbs. “Me?”

Mistaking her surprise for disbelief, Jaime nodded sadly. “You have every right to doubt me. In fact, I thought you might. That’s why I brought this.”

He reached for the folder he’d set on the table and placed it gently in her hands.

“I told you that night I’d been wanting to kiss you for weeks,” he explained while Brienne curiously flipped open the cover, revealing a crisp photograph of Jaime staring rather adoringly at…her. “Since that day, to be exact.”

Inhaling sharply, Brienne recalled the terror she’d felt when the flash bulb had gone off, how desperately she’d wanted to believe Jaime’s assurances that the ensuing image would never see the light of day.

Yet here it was, in her hands. And it was unlike anything she could ever have imagined.

Generally, Brienne would’ve focused on all the ways standing next to someone like Jaime made her look even uglier than she normally did. She would’ve cringed at the way the camera had captured her crooked nose, her wide, foolish smile, the unfeminine breadth of her shoulders. But, for once in her life, she didn’t see any of that.

All she saw was love.

The photo swam out of focus, and Brienne raised her moisture-laden eyes to his. “Where did you…?”

Jaime grinned. “Tyrion.”

“Oh,” she breathed, glancing down to trace her eyes over every inch of it once more. “We look so…”  

“Happy,” he finished. “I know. We could be happy, Brienne.”

Could we? she wondered. The idea had seemed utterly impossible, laughable, completely out of reach. Until now.

As she looked over at Jaime’s handsome face, Brienne realized he was gazing back at her no less fondly than he had been when that photo was taken, and a faint glimmer of possibility—of hope—sparked to life inside of her.

But it was quickly doused by the wave of trepidation that rolled through her when Brienne realized Jaime had said his brother’s name.

“Tyrion knows?” she asked warily.

“Yes,” Jaime replied a bit grimly, as if he could sense where she was going.

Brienne flipped the folder closed and set it down next to her on the bed, annoyed with herself for forgetting, even if only for a moment. “He’s not angry with us for breaking the rules?”

Jaime shook his head. “No. But that’s not important right now.”

“Yes, it is,” she insisted. “Even if Tyrion doesn’t care, your father might. After how hard we’ve worked, after he finally agreed to let us finish the season, I won’t give him a reason to change his mind. It wouldn’t be fair to the other girls. It wouldn’t be right.

“I know that,” he answered calmly. “And I’m not asking you to jeopardize them, or yourself. I would never do that.” He tilted even further forward, peering earnestly into her eyes. “But I need you to take the rules out of it for a minute and tell me the truth. I need to know what you want, Brienne. Because if it isn’t me…”

He looked so stricken at the idea that Brienne nearly reached out her hand to comfort him. How can you possibly not know how much I love you, you foolish man? she wanted to say. But she couldn’t. Not just yet.

She did, however, muster the courage to murmur, “It is.”

“It is?” he repeated, and the hope in his face made Brienne feel as though a balloon had inflated inside her chest. “You want me?”

“Yes, Jaime, but…”

“I know, I know.” He flung up his hand and stump in a gesture of surrender. “The rules.”

“Yes. The rules.” She scooped up the folder and held it out to him. “So you should take this back.”

“No.” Jaime pushed it back toward her, looking far happier than Brienne thought he should. “It’s yours.”

“But I thought you said Tyrion gave it to you?”

“He did, and now I’m giving it to you.” When she didn’t retract her hand, Jaime snatched the folder from her and returned it to the table, but he never took his eyes from hers. “Like I said, it’s yours.”

Brienne had the strangest, most nonsensical feeling that he wasn’t only talking about the photograph. She didn’t have time to dwell on it, though, because Jaime had already taken her hand again.

“If I hadn’t given my father my word that I’d finish the season, I’d quit tomorrow, and the rules could go hang themselves,” he said dryly. “Maybe I’ll quit tomorrow anyway.”

“You absolutely will not.”

“You’re right.” He smiled. “I won’t. Not with your honorable heart as my compass.” Shrugging, he caressed her knuckles with his thumb for the second time that day. “So, we’ll wait.”

“Wait?”

He nodded. “My feelings aren’t going anywhere, Brienne. We just need to get through the next four weeks, and then…” he trailed off with a smile, slow and full of promise. “Then I’ll be able to woo you properly.”

Ignoring the teasing lilt in his voice—and the clutch it inspired behind her sternum—Brienne asked, “You’d really do that? You’d wait for me?”

This time, his smile was tender. “For as long as it takes. Provided, of course, that you’ll agree to at least look at me once in a while for the time being. I can’t go a whole month without those eyes, Brienne. Or that smile.”

She felt it curling her lips, then, even though she didn’t want it to. “As long as you agree to behave yourself.”

Jaime laughed, then lifted his stump to draw a clichéd—yet strangely endearing—X across his chest. “Cross my heart, wench. I can keep my hand to myself for a few weeks. After that, though…” His eyebrows twitched toward the ceiling. “Well, you wouldn’t want me to make a promise I couldn’t keep.”

Chapter Text

Jaime remained at her side for at least another quarter of an hour, contentedly tipped forward in his chair, his fingers laced with hers. He teased her a little and looked at her a lot, the affection in his eyes shifting from soft to searing and back again as he told her about all the ways he intended to woo her when their wait was over.

They’d go for a leisurely drive along the lakeshore in his convertible, he said, and sit in the best seats in all of Lannister Field for a Lions’ game. He’d take her to Lincoln Park Conservatory to wander through the greenhouses and to Montrose Beach, where they’d stroll along the sand and watch the sunrise over the lake.

Sunrise? Brienne wondered, feeling heat lick across her skin. Jaime’s voice was filled with nothing but easy certainty, but the glimmer in his eye suggested he had a few ideas for why they might be together that early in the morning.

Then again, he’d clearly been thinking quite a lot about all the ways they could spend time together. He’d given it far more consideration than she would ever have imagined, and that awareness made something familiar—something Brienne only felt when he was near her—dive and rise and soar in her solar plexus.

Meanwhile, Jaime had either not seen the color on her face or had chosen to ignore it, because he’d continued rattling off ideas for what he obviously intended to be frequent outings.

“I’m not usually one for the movies,” he was saying, “but I’d be happy to take you to see anything you like. We can go for dinner, too, anywhere you want to go.” His eyes dropped abruptly to her mouth. “Or we could skip straight to dessert. There’s a little place in Irving Park that has the best ice cream in the city.”

Generally, the less-than-subtle innuendo in his words would’ve intensified her blush; now, however, his talk of movies and ice cream summoned unwelcome memories of the last man who’d bought her a nickel cone.

Oh, she realized. He doesn’t know.  

She would have told him, right then and there, if Sansa hadn’t come springing into the bedroom without so much as a tap on the door. Brienne shot a worried glance at Jaime, but he flashed her a relaxed, lopsided smile before sliding his hand away from hers and straightening in his seat.

“Hello, Sansa,” he said genially.

“Oh!” Sansa exclaimed, her blue eyes exaggeratedly wide as she fixed them on Jaime, as though he’d somehow escaped her notice until that moment. “I’m sorry for interrupting. I didn’t know you were still here.”

Yes, you did, Brienne thought, blowing out a sigh that was nearly a snort. She was willing to bet there’d been at least two sets of eyes watching the stairs. Probably more.

“That’s all right,” he replied, grinning. “Have you come to check on our patient?”

“I have.”

“Don’t mind me, then.”

Sansa’s lips pinched together as she began moving purposefully across the room, and Brienne knew her friend was fighting to keep the pleasant smile on her face from stretching into something larger.

“Ms. Frey sent me to give you this,” Sansa explained, stretching forward to hold out an aspirin. Brienne promptly offered her hand to accept it, and Sansa retreated a few steps, lifting the ice pack from Brienne’s knee as she went. “And to take this.”

“Thank you,” Brienne uttered, relishing the rush of warm air around her half-numb joint. She knew they were trying to keep the swelling down, but surely it needed some circulation in order to heal.

“You’re welcome,” Sansa chirped, backing gradually toward the door. “I guess I’ll just…come back later. Unless you need anything else?”

Brienne shook her head sharply, and Sansa, looking amused and a bit too gleeful for Brienne’s liking, slipped into the hall and quietly closed the door.

As soon as the sound of her footfalls faded, Jaime began to chuckle. “Best of luck with that one.”

“It’s not funny,” Brienne admonished, rolling the aspirin around in her palm. “If she says something—”

“She won’t.” Seeing that she was about to argue, Jaime held up his hand. “Don’t get me wrong, she’ll definitely be back, and I have no doubt she’ll do her damnedest to pry every detail out of you. But Sansa strikes me as the kind of friend who’ll keep your secret, if you ask her to.”

“Our secret, you mean,” she grumpily corrected.

A sudden, dazzling smile lit his face, so radiant and joyful that Brienne could only blink at him in awe.

For one wild moment, as she watched the creases deepen around his mouth, Brienne wondered if she’d hit her head and imagined it all, if everything after that woman had plowed into her had been nothing but a delirious dream. Because the sight of this breathtaking man—this man who’d carried her and cared for her and wanted her—beaming at her like she was something miraculous seemed far too fanciful to be real.

But it was, she knew, as Jaime reached out his hand to cup her face. She wasn’t imagining the ardor in his touch or the darkening of his eyes or the way he was slowly inching his head closer to hers. It was all real.He was real.

“Yes,” Jaime agreed, stroking the pad of his thumb along her cheek. “Our secret.”

He was so close that his words were warm against her lips, and God, she wanted him to kiss her. More than she could ever remember wanting anything.

But Brienne knew what would happen if his lips touched hers, how impossible it would be to pull herself back. And she couldn’t risk that. Not yet.

She lifted her hand, fisted around the aspirin, and pressed her knuckles lightly into his chest. “You promised you’d behave yourself.”

The corners of his eyes crinkled. “Indeed I did.” He gave her cheek a final caress before reluctantly leaning away. “Good thing I have you to hold me to it.”

She smiled at him, just a little, and against her better judgment. The last thing he needed was to be encouraged, but Brienne couldn’t help it. He was so earnest, so open in his desire for her, and she’d never loved him more.

Returning her smile, Jaime reached for the glass of water on her bedside table and handed it to her. “You should take that.” He nodded at her closed hand. “And I should go. I have to be back here in,” he paused to peer at the clock, “eight hours.”

Brienne popped the aspirin in her mouth and took a sip of water as Jaime stood to leave. Once she’d finished, he took the glass back and replaced it on the table. “I won’t wake you in the morning, but I’ll look in on you when we get back.”

She nodded mutely, still a little deflated at the thought of staying behind.

"They’ll be plenty of other games,” Jaime said, looking very much like he wanted to stretch out his hand to her once more. Instead, he began backing toward the door. “Right now, though, you need to get some rest, so I’ll say goodnight.”

Brienne opened her mouth to bid him goodnight in return, and that’s when she remembered.

“Jaime?” she called after him, just as he was reaching for the doorknob.

He turned, a gentle smile on his lips. “Yes, Brienne?”

“I told Hyle not to write to me. I told him I didn’t want to see him anymore.”

His eyebrows shot up. “I see. When?”

“A few days after we…after that night.”

Jaime stared at her for several seconds, his shoulders rising and falling as he took a deep, slow breath. Then, with a few swift strides, he was at her side again, bending down to place a lingering kiss on her forehead.  

“Four weeks, Brienne,” he murmured against her skin. “Not a day more.”

~*~*~

As soon as she heard Jaime’s car door slam, Brienne lurched up off the bed. Shoving a crutch under her left arm, she grabbed the file folder from where Jaime had left it atop the pile of magazines and wobbled over to her dressing table to tuck it safely in a drawer.

That, she vowed, would be their secret, too.

A floorboard creaked in the hall as Brienne clambered back onto her heap of pillows, and she’d only just managed to situate herself when Sansa once again flung open the door—this time with Margaery hovering close behind her.

Sansa didn’t bother disguising her purpose; she just marched straight over and perched herself on the edge of the bed, demanding a full account of Jaime’s visit. Margaery, after closing the door, took up Jaime’s seat in the chair with nothing but a knowing smirk.

Looking at Sansa’s eager face and Margaery’s canny one, Brienne knew there was no point in demurring—not after all that had passed that day, after all they’d seen and heard. And she would much rather tell Sansa the truth than allow her friend’s vivid imagination to conjure up all manner of madcap scenarios.

So, after eliciting solemn promises that they would keep the information to themselves, Brienne began recounting the events of the evening.

It took far longer than it should have to relay the tale—Jaime hadn’t been with her for that long, after all—but several probing interruptions from Sansa ultimately forced Brienne to share what had transpired the week before as well. That story elicited quite a few squeaks and one very disappointed groan from her redheaded friend.

By the time Brienne finished, though, Sansa had fallen silent—so silent that she would have been concerned, if not for the dreamy little smile on the girl’s face.

“I knew it,” Margaery eventually said, her eyes sparkling with satisfaction.

I didn’t!” Sansa cried, shaking off her starry-eyed stupor. “Not until he picked you up on the field today.” She glared accusingly at Brienne. “I can’t believe you didn’t tell me before.”

Brienne shrugged. “There wasn’t much to tell.”

“A kiss is hardly nothing!”

“It might have been,” Brienne attempted to explain. “I didn’t know if he…if it meant anything. Not until today. Nothing else happened, anyway, and nothing else is going to happen until the season is over. It’s—”

“Against the rules,” Margaery cut in dryly. “Yes, we know.”

“He really said he’d wait for you?” Sansa asked, her voice breathy with wonder. “For as long as it takes?”

Finding her throat suddenly too thick to speak, Brienne simply nodded.

“So you’ll be staying, then.” Margaery’s smirk spread into a heartfelt smile. “I’m so glad.”

“Staying?” Brienne asked. “What do you mean?”

“I mean staying here,” Margaery replied, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world. “To be with Jaime.”

“I…” Brienne swallowed. “I don’t know.”

And, to her chagrin, she genuinely didn’t. How could such a critical, conspicuous problem have so utterly escaped her notice?

Jaime, she thought wryly. That’s how.

With him so intoxicatingly close to her, saying such impossibly wonderful things and continuously touchingher, Brienne hadn’t bothered to consider the full implications of his words. Now, she felt like a fool for not immediately comprehending that a future that included Jaime would not include going home.

“Yes, you do,” Sansa declared. “You’re staying. You have to. And you won’t be the only one.” A guilty look passed briefly over her friend’s delicate features, but it was quickly supplanted by a staunch determination. “We didn’t want to tell you before because we knew you’d try and talk us out of it, but Arya and I have already decided that we want to stay in Rockford. We’re going to get jobs somewhere close by while we wait to see if there’ll be another season. A lot of the other girls are, too. So, you see, it’s perfect. You can stay with us.”

Well, Brienne mused, Catelyn will love that.

Truthfully, she wasn’t surprised. Her young friends had experienced their first real taste of freedom, gotten a glimpse of what life was like in the wider world; it would have shocked her if they had wanted to give it up.

“Or with me,” Margaery offered. “Highgarden has more than enough room for all of you, at least until you find someplace permanent. I’d be happy to help all of you find jobs, too. We always need girls at Tyrell’s, if nothing else.”  

“That’s kind of you, Margaery, but…” Brienne trailed off, unable to stop her thoughts from veering back to Jaime.

Is that what he’d pictured? Had he believed she’d get a job in the city and stay?

He must have, she realized. All the beautiful things Jaime had listed, all the ways he meant to court her, were here. In the city. Where he lived. And he certainly hadn’t said anything about driving his convertible across Iowa to take her out.

“You just haven’t had time to think through all the details yet.” Margaery cocked her head reassuringly to one side. “It will all work out. We both know Jaime will make sure it does.”

“You have to stay,” Sansa added before Brienne had time to respond. “I know you like it here, Brienne. I’ve never seen you this happy. Ever. And you deserve to be happy.”

A sharp pang dove through Brienne’s chest.

We could be happy, he’d said, and she’d believed him—or at least she’d wanted to. She still did. But there were no guarantees. They’d only known each other for a few short months, and they hadn’t even liked each other at the start. Could they really be together? Could it last? Was it worth upending her entire life, leaving her family, to find out?

“Brienne,” Margaery said sternly. “Do something for me. Forget, for one minute, about all the questions you’re asking yourself that you don’t have the answers to.” Brienne’s eyes jolted to hers, and Margaery gave her a perceptive, meaningful look. “Now, tell me one thing: can you imagine your life, the life you want to have, without Jaime?”

No. The answer came to her immediately, automatically…decidedly. No, I can’t.

She didn’t say the words aloud, but Margaery seemed to hear them, nonetheless.

“I think you have your answer, then.” Margaery leaned forward to lay her hand on Brienne’s forearm. “Don’t let what you aren’t sure of make you lose sight of what you are, Brienne.”

What is it you think I’m sure of? she wondered, looking into her friend’s astute blue eyes.

But, once again, the truth was somehow there, echoing irrefutably inside her mind.

Jaime. I’m sure of Jaime.

~*~*~

The doorbell rang in the middle of the following afternoon, and Brienne looked up from her book to watch Ms. Frey scurry toward the foyer. She craned her neck to glance out the large front window, but the door—and whoever stood on the other side of it—was just out of Brienne’s line of sight.

It might have only been the mailman, for all she knew, but even that would’ve been a welcome distraction from the long, listless monotony of the day.

At least, she supposed, she hadn’t been confined to her bedroom. Ms. Frey had taken pity on her after breakfast, helping her slip into a blouse and loose trousers and then holding on to her for dear life as Brienne teetered slowly down the stairs. The kind woman had set her up with a fresh stack of cushions on the largest sofa in the common room, where Brienne had been ensconced ever since with only Agatha Christie, a portable radio, and an endless supply of ice packs for company. 

Just as she was about to turn her attention back to the mystery unfolding on the page, Brienne heard the soft buzz of voices in the foyer. She couldn’t see anything except the back of Ms. Frey’s gray suit, but she could’ve sworn she’d heard a low male voice accompanying the chaperone’s ever-cheerful tones.

As she shifted to try and get a better view, Brienne banged her elbow on the arm of the sofa and hissed in irritation.

A bruise had blossomed there overnight; presumably, though she had no memory of doing so, she’d thrown it out to break her fall the day before. The angry reddish-purple mark started at her elbow and reached halfway to her wrist, but it was nowhere near as bad as the one that had appeared on the curve of her hip. There, a patchwork of mottled blue and purple stretched from her upper thigh to the top of her hip bone, reaching just far enough around her backside to make sitting on a firm surface moderately uncomfortable.

Between that and the dull throb in her knee, Brienne knew she would never have been able to tolerate nearly four hours on a bus to South Bend. Jaime, much as she hated to admit it, had been right to make her stay.

“Brienne.” Her eyes swung up to find Ms. Frey standing in the doorway between the common room and the foyer. “There’s someone here to see you.”

With that, the plump woman stepped out of the way to reveal the last man Brienne had expected to see.

“Tyrion,” she blurted, surprise palpable in her voice.

Smirking, he removed his fedora and dipped his head in her direction. “Brienne.”

“Have a seat, Mr. Lannister.” Ms. Frey gestured to the chair nearest to Brienne’s sofa. “Can I get you anything to drink?”

“No, thank you. That won’t be necessary.” Tyrion took the indicated seat and flashed the chaperone a charming smile. “If I could just have a few minutes with Brienne, I’ll be on my way in no time.”

“Certainly,” she replied, tossing Brienne a final glance as she began walking toward the door that led toward the dining room. “I’m here if you need me. Just give a shout.”

Tyrion waited patiently for Ms. Frey to leave the room before tilting forward to run his eyes over Brienne’s knee. The thick roll of bandage was clearly visible through the fabric of her pants, but she knew he wouldn’t be able to make out much else.  

“How is it feeling?” he asked, peering up at her from beneath lowered brows in a way that reminded her strikingly of Jaime.

“Sore,” Brienne admitted, bending down to set her book on the floor. Then, with a small smile, she added, “But I’ve had worse.”

Tyrion grinned. “Well, I’m glad to find you in good spirits, at least. It’s bad enough that my best player is out of commission, but Jaime made it sound like you’d been permanently crippled.”

“I most certainly have not.” She managed to stop herself, but only just, from rolling her eyes. “Did he send you to check on me?”

“Jaime?” Tyrion’s eyebrows rose. “No. Why would he?”

Brienne felt the beginnings of a blush warm the skin of her neck. “He’s worrying too much.”

“Don’t I know it. He called me twice last night to discuss your prognosis. Among other things.” Tyrion cleared his throat and tossed his hat onto the nearby side table. “Anyway, I’m happy to find that things are much less dire than he led me to believe.”

“They are. As I’ve been trying to tell everyone, I’ll be fine.”

He winked at her. “I never doubted it.”

“How’s the other girl doing?" Brienne asked, trying and failing to recall her name. "Have you heard about her?”

“The…other girl?”

“The one who ran into me,” Brienne clarified, puzzled by the note of caution she’d heard in Tyrion’s voice. “Coach Martell said she hurt her shoulder. Jaime was so upset by the whole thing that I didn’t want to ask him about her last night, but I’d like to know if she’s okay.”

“Last night?” Tyrion’s brows lifted even higher this time, until his eyes were almost comically wide. “Jaime was here last night?”

The heat in Brienne’s neck crept upward, fanning out over her cheeks. “Yes. He came to check on me.”

“Did he?” Tyrion lilted. “And he didn’t tell you anything about the other girl?”

“No.” She frowned. “Is there something to tell?”

“I’d say so, considering he wanted to throw her out of the league,” Tyrion said blandly, and her head twitched back in surprise. “Fortunately, reason prevailed, and I was able to talk him into a suspension for the time being.”

“Does he still think she did it on purpose?” Brienne’s frown deepened, puckering her chin. “That’s nonsense. She was just playing the game.”

“Sadly, I don’t think she was. I doubt Jaime’s right about all of it, mind you, but he may be right about that.”

“All of what, exactly?” 

Tyrion gave her a long, thoughtful look. “Jaime told me you’ve had the misfortune of becoming acquainted with our sister.”

“We’ve met,” Brienne said tersely. What could Cersei possibly have to do with this?

“Well, Jaime is convinced she’s behind it, somehow.”

“What?” she spluttered. “But that’s…” Preposterous. Insane. The most ridiculous thing she’d ever heard. “She wasn’t even there.”

Tyrion expelled a dismissive huff. “That doesn’t matter. When my sister decides to hurt someone, she’ll do whatever it takes. There’s no distance too great and no price too high. And speaking of price, it wouldn’t exactly have been difficult to bribe one of the girls. I’m sure any number of them could do with a little extra money in their pocket.”

Reeling, Brienne shook her head slowly. “Why would she want to hurt me?” Cersei had been in her presence once, for a few minutes at most. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Sure it does.” Tyrion smiled sadly. “Cersei could see how much my brother cares about you. Not that it’s difficult. Anyone with eyes could tell you that.”

“But I thought she left Jaime?” Brienne protested, ignoring the latter part of Tyrion’s remark. “And married someone else.”

“She did. That doesn’t mean she wants him to be happy.”

“That’s terrible,” she muttered, horror-struck and outraged on Jaime’s behalf. “And…cruel.” 

“That, my dear, is Cersei. Jaime knows better than anyone what she’s capable of, and he’s prepared to burn the world down to get to the bottom of it. To protect you.” Tyrion stroked a hand along his chin. “God only knows what he’d do if he found out she’d really done it. Fortunately—depending on how you look at it, I suppose—I don’t think he’s going to get the chance.”

“Are you saying she didn’t do it?” Brienne asked, feeling more bewildered than ever.

“No. I don’t think she had anything to do with it.” He paused to hold up a finger. “Not that I fault Jaime for his instinct on the matter, because I don’t. It was a completely reasonable conclusion. But Bronn and I took a trip up to Kenosha this morning to have a little chat with the Comet in question, and she told us a very different, and very convincing, story.”

Brienne entreatingly arched her brows, and Tyrion grimaced.

“It’s not a hell of a lot better than the alternative, frankly, and Jaime is going to be almost just as angry. It sounds like Oberyn Martell made an ill-advised comment about his team not having a chance in the World Series as long as you were leading the Peaches, and this young woman took it upon herself to do something about it.”

“She wanted to win that badly?” Brienne was appalled—not just by the cheating, but by the callous disregard for another human being.

“I don’t think so, no. I think she’s a lovesick little girl trying to impress that ass of a coach. She didn’t say so, of course, but I could tell.” Tyrion’s eyes shifted to hers. “I can always tell.”

I certainly hope not, Brienne thought, levelly holding his gaze.

A trace of a smile formed around his eyes, just for a second, before he continued, “He flirts with them too much. He flirts with everyone too much. God knows how many women he’s given the wrong idea, and this one might lose her place on the team because of it.”

“Please don’t do that. Don’t punish her.” Brienne remembered how the girl had looked to Martell, and the way he hadn’t even seemed to register her presence. “It was a terrible thing to do, but I…I don’t blame her. If anyone should be thrown out, it’s him."

Tyrion’s head listed to one side as he considered her. “That’s very good of you, Brienne. My brother may very well agree with you, when the time comes. For now, though, he won’t be satisfied until Varys has confirmed the girl’s story. So, we’ll just have to wait and see.”

“Varys? The scout?”

“He’s a man of many talents,” Tyrion answered with a brief, enigmatic curl of his lips. “Hopefully he’ll use them to confirm what I’ve found, and we can put this matter behind us. Focus on getting you better in time for the World Series, and then look forward to next season.”

“I thought your father hadn’t decided about that yet.”

“He hasn’t. However, barring any further catastrophes, we’re on track to set a record profit this month. We’ll be outselling the Lions,” he told her, with no small amount of pride. “And I know my father. If something is making money, he’ll be loath to say goodbye to it. So, in preparation for the inevitable, I’m talking to all my top players to make sure they plan to come back next year.”

“Oh,” Brienne exhaled. So that’s why he’d come.

“Oh, indeed.” He ran a hand through his slightly shaggy hair. “You know how important you are to the league, Brienne. I sincerely hope you’ll consider remaining with the team. I’m happy to pay for your ticket home and another for you to return in the spring, if you wish.” Tyrion fixed her with his steady green gaze. “Or I could help you find a place here. Some of the girls are talking about staying in the area, finding jobs to get them through to next spring.”

“So I’ve heard.”

“You’ve thought about it, then?” he asked hopefully.

Brienne nipped at her lower lip as her eyes wandered to the floor. She’d thought of little else since her conversation with Sansa and Margaery the night before. “Yes.”

From the start, Brienne had always believed she would only play for one season; she’d never planned to do anything other than go home when it was over. But the prospect of leaving the league, the girls, the game… Brienne could never have anticipated, when she’d boarded that train, how intolerable the loss of it all would seem to her now.

And then, of course, there was Jaime.

He hadn’t said as much, but Brienne knew he believed she would play again if a second season came to pass, which could only mean that he intended to give it up. For her. Because the rules would still be the rules come next May, and—if they really were going to be together—they couldn’t both be Peaches.

When she hadn’t spoken for what must have been at least a full minute, Tyrion ventured, “I know you had your doubts about it at the start, but a lot of things have changed since then.”

“Yes,” she said thickly. “They have.”

“It certainly seems like you love to play.”

“I do.”

“You also love my brother.”

Brienne jerked her head up in alarm, but her nerves settled almost instantly when she saw the soft, affable expression on Tyrion’s face. Sensing the futility of any attempt at denial, she nodded wordlessly.

“Have you told him?”

She shook her head. “It’s still against the rules, so we decided that nothing can…happen between us until the season is over.”

Tyrion slanted forward slowly, as if he wasn’t sure he’d heard her correctly. “But something is going to happen? You and Jaime have spoken about this?”

“We have. A bit.”

“What, precisely, did my brother say?” Tyrion probed, his former incredulity giving way to a delighted anticipation. “I hope to God he did better than the last time.”

Brienne pursed her lips to hold back a smile. She sure as hell wasn’t going to tell Tyrion everything, but she found she didn’t mind the idea of him knowing at least part of the truth.

“He did,” she confirmed. “He told me he cares about me. That he wants to court me properly when the season is done.”

“Well, it’s about damned time,” Tyrion declared, grinning broadly. “You agreed to this proposal, I hope?”

“I did,” Brienne replied. “But…”

“But what?” Tyrion’s smile tipped into a frown. “Do you doubt him? You shouldn’t, Brienne. My brother has only ever wanted one woman before in his life, and he never looked at her the way he looks at you.”

“No, I don’t doubt him.” And she didn’t—not in the slightest. Not anymore. Her concern wasn’t about that at all. “But it’s not that simple.”

“Isn’t it?” he asked. “You’d get to be with a man who worships you and play the game you were born to play. I know you’re close with your family, but they’re only a few hours away. It seems like a win-win to me.”

“It’s not,” she contended. “If Jaime and I are…together, it wouldn’t be fair to him if I played next season. He likes coaching, and he’s good at it. I can’t ask him to give that up for me, Tyrion. Not when he’s already lost baseball once.”

“I don’t think you’ll have to ask him,” he gently replied. “And the fact that Jaime is willing to give it up, voluntarily this time, tells me a great deal. He obviously thinks it will be worth it.”

Maybe it would be, she thought, but… “That doesn’t mean it won’t be hard.”

“You’re right, it doesn’t,” Tyrion acknowledged. “I know Jaime comes along with rather a large amount of baggage, and a family that would send most women running for the hills. Lucky for him, you’re not most women. In fact, the moment I set eyes on you, I knew you were something special. Jaime did, too. Believe me, I was there.”

Brienne remembered that day so clearly, it might as well have been playing on a screen right in front of her: the first time she’d seen him, looking half a god as he sat in the stands, gleaming in the sun; the way he’d grabbed ahold of her and dragged her across the field, commanding her to bat; the look in his eyes when she’d hit that first home run; the lilt in his voice when he’d called her wench.

A tear she hadn’t even felt gather in her eye rolled hot and slow down Brienne’s cheek. She could never have imagined, then, how much she’d love him now. Or how impossible it would be, as Margaery had so shrewdly pointed out, for her to picture her life without him.

Oh, she knew could do it, if she had to. She could walk away; she could go back to the farm, to her job at the dairy, and try to forget his emerald eyes and that staggering, incomparable smile. But she didn’t want to do any of that. She wanted the league. She wanted Jaime.

She wanted to stay.

Brienne looked up with a start, suddenly aware that Tyrion had come to stand in front of her. He pulled a handkerchief from his jacket pocket with an exaggerated flourish and pressed it into her hand.

“Do you know what Jaime used to say,” he began, while Brienne swept the soft fabric across her face, “when I’d ask him why he played baseball, against our father’s wishes, against Cersei’s wishes, when it was so hard? Why he wanted to sweat himself to death on a hot fucking field when he could be in a comfortable chair behind a desk? He said, ‘The hard is what makes it great.’” Tyrion rested his hand lightly on her shoulder. “He’s a lot wiser than he gives himself credit for, I think.”

Something tightened deep inside Brienne’s chest, and she bobbed her head firmly in agreement. Jaime was a lot more of everything than he gave himself credit for.

“You don’t have to answer me now, or even before the end of the season,” he said, taking a few steps back to collect his fedora from the side table. “But I hope you’ll consider my offer. And Jaime’s. Because there’ll always be a place for you in the league if you want it.”

“I do want it,” she responded, more fervently than she’d meant to. “But I can’t say yes until I talk to Jaime.”

“That, my dear Brienne, is by far the best answer I could have hoped for.”

Chapter Text

Jaime slid into the back seat of Tyrion’s Cadillac and pulled the door closed behind him.

“So,” he said, looking pointedly at his brother, “would you care to tell me where we’re going?”

“Good afternoon to you, too,” Tyrion drawled, not bothering to glance up from the newspaper he held out in front of him. “And you know where we’re going. We have a meeting.”

“Yes, so you said. But you didn’t say who we were meeting.”

Tyrion leisurely flipped the page. “Didn’t I?”

Jaime scowled. The perverse little imp knew damn well he hadn’t disclosed anything when he’d called to arrange the meeting the day before. As soon as he’d set the time, Tyrion had made a hurried, unconvincing excuse about urgent league business and rung off before Jaime could press him for details.

It wasn’t unusual for Tyrion to play his cards close to the vest when it suited his ends, but this was excessively cagey, even for him. What was he playing at? Who could possibly require such prompt attention, under such secretive conditions?

Whatever the answer, Jaime doubted he was going to like it.

Looking toward the reflection of Bronn’s profile in the rearview mirror, Jaime asked, “Do you know where we’re going?”

The man’s blue eyes flashed up and briefly caught Jaime’s in the glass. “Aye. Be hard to drive you there if I didn’t.”

Jaime glanced flatly at Tyrion. The quirk at the corner of his brother’s mouth belied his otherwise bland expression, and the sight of his amusement nudged Jaime from mild frustration into outright annoyance.

“There’s ten dollars in it for you if you tell me where that happens to be,” Jaime offered, turning his attention back to Bronn’s reflection. The man had always been something of an enigma to Jaime, but he did know one thing for certain: if anything could match Bronn’s impertinence, it was his greed.

“We’re going to that roadhouse where we found you and the girls last month,” Bronn answered immediately, a sly smile appearing on his lips. “Just outside of town.”

“The Crossroads?” Jaime swung his gaze back to Tyrion. “Who would want to meet us there?”

Tyrion lowered his paper with a sigh and, at long last, lifted his eyes to Jaime’s. “Varys.”

“Varys?” A cold certainty sank into Jaime’s gut. “What did he find out?”

Tyrion had told him what Oberyn’s player had said the day after she’d injured Brienne, and the tale had left Jaime seething at the coach’s careless stupidity. Yet, despite the story’s plausibility—Oberyn had always been a cocksure, irresponsible cad—Jaime had been unwilling to exonerate Cersei until Varys had investigated properly.

Planting such a tale in the mouth of her pawn would have been a sensible course of action, one that Cersei was more than capable of plotting. Jaime had no doubt she’d go to any lengths, orchestrate whatever complex lies were necessary, to achieve her ends. And if Varys had discovered that she’d deliberately set out to hurt Brienne, Jaime wouldn’t rest until he’d made her pay.

“Nothing new, I’m afraid,” Tyrion replied lightly.

“Nothing? He found nothing?”

Jaime hadn’t been entirely sure what Varys would uncover, but he’d never entertained the possibility that the man would come up empty. Even Cersei’s most calculated scheming was no match for Varys and his little birds. Jaime didn’t even know who the hell these “little birds” actually were, only that the wily scout cultivated them everywhere.

“I didn’t say that.” Tyrion’s paper rustled loudly as he folded it and laid it in his lap. “I said he hadn’t learned anything new.”

“Damn it, Tyrion,” Jaime growled, fed up with his brother’s evasive replies. “Do you know what happened or not?”

“Oh, settle down. Of course I know what happened. Varys agrees that the girl is telling the truth, just as I suspected. The fault, such as it is, lies with Oberyn Martell, not our sweet sister.” Tyrion arched one sandy brown eyebrow, and his mouth twisted into a bitter smile. “Far be it from me to prevent you from hating her. I am, after all, one of the few who understands just how richly she deserves it. But this is one crime you can’t lay at her door.”  

Jaime let his head fall back against the upholstered seat. He’d been so sure.

He felt a momentary hollowness, a vague sense of disappointment at being wrong, but relief swiftly took its place. If Cersei hadn’t been involved, if she hadn’t targeted Brienne on his account, then the wench wasn’t at risk of a repeat attempt. She was safe.

Of course, that didn’t mean Cersei would never be a problem. Far from it. As a matter of fact, Jaime could perfectly envision the look of contempt on her cruel face when she realized just how serious he was about Brienne Tarth.

And he was serious. So much so that he hoped she wouldn’t be Brienne Tarth for very much longer. A few months, if he was lucky. A year or two at most.

Knowing the wench, she’ll make me wait, Jaime thought, a smile rising unbidden to his lips. Which I will. For as long as it takes.

In the meantime, Jaime doubted Cersei would do much more than stew in her own displeasure, especially once Tywin found out his son had finally set his cap at someone. And Jaime didn’t plan on keeping Brienne, or his intentions toward her, a secret from his father for any longer than he needed to.

Tywin would undoubtedly prefer what he would term a more suitable match for his eldest son—Margaery Tyrell, for instance, or a woman of her ilk. However, Jaime suspected his father would be so pleased at the prospect of him getting married to anyone, at the possible continuation of the Lannister family line, that he’d throw his full support behind the relationship. At the very least, he wouldn’t stand in their way.

And Cersei would never go against Tywin, not if it meant directly threatening his precious legacy. Even shewasn’t that foolish. Or that bold.

“You’re sure?” Jaime tipped his head to flick a sideways glance at his brother. “She had nothing to do with it?”

“Yes,” Tyrion said. “Quite sure.”

“Then you need to fire Oberyn Martell.”

“Do I?” Tyrion smiled wryly. “And how exactly would I explain why to Father? Without exposing that my brother is desperately in love with one of his players?”

“Tell him the truth, damn you, and leave Brienne out of it. I’d want that jackass fired no matter who’d been hurt.” That it had been Brienne only made Jaime want to see the man lose a few teeth as well as his job.

“I’m sure you would. But there are only three weeks left in the season, Jaime. You can’t honestly expect me to find another coach now. Besides, any whiff of a coaching scandal would be terrible for the future of the league. You must see that.”

Jaime frowned. He hated the idea of Oberyn going unpunished, even for a little while, but Tyrion had a point. If it meant the league’s future…

“Fine,” he grudgingly agreed. “But I want your word that he won’t coach again next season.”

Tyrion shook his head. “I’m afraid I can’t give you that.”

“Why not?” Jaime demanded.

“Well, my dear brother, I’m fairly certain I’ll already be replacing one coach next spring. I don’t know if I can manage two.”

Jaime’s eyebrows darted up as he stared down at his little brother, wondering how he’d managed to steer the conversation in this direction.

“Well?” Tyrion prompted when Jaime remained silent.

“I’m sorry, was there a question in there somewhere?” he asked dryly. “I’m afraid I didn’t hear one.”

Tyrion let out an exaggeratedly beleaguered sigh. “I am going to have to replace you, aren’t I?”

“We both know you’d rather replace me than Brienne.” Jaime shot Tyrion a knowing look. “Don’t pretend that’s not exactly what you hoped would happen after you spoke with her.”

“Ah. So she mentioned that I stopped by.”

“She did.”

She had, in fact, told him all about Tyrion’s visit the very day it had occurred.  

Brienne had been propped up on one of the sofas in the common room when the team returned from South Bend, her blue eyes wide and alert and trained on the door, even after all the girls had already trudged through it.

Jaime’s breath had caught when her gaze locked with his, and he’d felt giddy with the knowledge that she’d been watching—waiting—for him. He’d practically floated over to her, hardly feeling his feet touch the floor, grinning like the besotted fool was.

Then, before he could even say hello, Brienne had told him that they needed to speak in private, and Jaime had abruptly felt the full force of gravity slamming him into the ground. For a few terrifying seconds, he’d feared the worst: with a day to think about it, alone in that huge house with sweet, dowdy Ms. Frey, might Brienne have had a change of heart? Perhaps the prospect of a washed-up, one-handed man nearing middle age no longer seemed as attractive as it had the night before.

But when Jaime had really looked at her, at the determined set of her jaw and the soft gladness in those magnificent eyes, his worry had fallen away. The wench obviously had something on her mind, but it hadn’t been regret or uncertainty, and that was all he had needed to know.

He’d helped her up from the sofa and looped his arm around her waist to guide her up the stairs, but only after she’d soundly rebuffed his offer to carry her. Once they’d reached her room, Brienne sat on the end of the bed, and Jaime pulled over the bench from her dressing table so she could prop up her still-swollen leg. Then he’d sat down beside her, his right arm brushing lightly against her left, leaving him lamentably unable to reach for her hand as he would have liked. Now that she’d permitted him such contact, he was loath to do without it at any available opportunity.

Jaime had settled for leaning his shoulder into hers instead. He’d been considering slipping his stump around her back to tuck in closer when Brienne wrapped her fingers lightly around his forearm. She’d begun to say something, then, but he’d had to ask her to repeat herself after only a few sentences. Jaime had been too lost in the feeling of her hand, so gentle on his scarred skin, to hear her words the first time.

Brienne had patiently begun again, relaying the details of her conversation with his brother. He hadn’t been surprised to hear of Tyrion’s offer, but Brienne’s refusal to accept it without first discussing it with him had rendered Jaime speechless.

It had taken him a full minute to collect himself, but once he had, Jaime insisted that she say yes. The honorable wench had balked at the idea of forcing him to quit, but he’d brooked no argument. He could find something else to do with himself; Brienne had to play baseball.

“You needn’t have bothered, you know,” Jaime eventually continued. When Tyrion fixed him with a quizzical stare, he added, “I already told Father I wasn’t coming back next year. Brienne deserves the chance to keep playing, and I’d never stand in the way of that.”

“I suspected as much,” Tyrion replied, eyes twinkling. “But I needed to know if she knew that. I needed to know what she wanted, whether or not the two of you had worked things out.”

“We have.”

“I know.” Tyrion grinned, broad and sincere. “It seems like things are going well?”

Jaime allowed himself an answering smile. “They are.”

It had only been a little over a week since her injury, but Brienne’s knee was healing quickly, and Jaime had been fighting an ongoing battle to keep her off of it as much as possible. She hated not being able to play, and Jaime felt bad for her, truly. But he also didn’t mind having her sitting next to him in the dugout for the entirety of every game.

Somewhere during those long, sweltering hours, things between them had settled back into a comfortable familiarity, with just enough of an electric charge around the edges to keep Jaime on his toes. He’d taken to teasing her again, and he relished the way Brienne’s mouth would twitch at the corners before she bantered back, her eyes flashing with defiance and vexation and—on the best days—a warmth that made his blood boil in his veins.

Jaime had known better than to attempt another kiss, even though he’d desperately wanted to, every damn day. Hell, every hour. But he did let his hand linger on her shoulder or her knee or the back of her hand whenever he came near her, and not once had she swatted him away. She’d even reached out for him on occasion, when she thought no one could see.

“I’m happy for you,” Tyrion said earnestly. “I’m happy you’ve found someone who makes you happy.”

“Thank you,” Jaime croaked, tapping Tyrion’s shoulder affectionately with his stump. “You know none of it would have happened if not for you.”

Tyrion’s smile grew brighter. “Well, I can’t take all the credit. Though I will, of course, accept gifts of gratitude at any time.”

Before Jaime could fire back an equally playful reply, the car bumped into the gravel parking lot of The Crossroads, and Bronn pulled up near the door of the large, battered building. It looked even less impressive in daylight.

Might as well get on with it, Jaime thought, swiveling to open his door.

“Jaime.” Tyrion’s tone had gone strangely somber. When Jaime turned to look at him, he found his brother’s green eyes heavy with concern. “There’s something else you should know.”

“All right,” Jaime hesitated, unsettled by the sudden shift in Tyrion’s mood.

“It has nothing to do with why we’re here, but I feel I should mention it, on the off chance that it comes up,” Tyrion explained, sounding very much like he was trying to convince himself he was doing the right thing. “In the course of his investigation, Varys discovered some rather surprising news about our sister.”

“What kind of news?”

Tyrion frowned. “It might be difficult to hear.”

I doubt it, Jaime thought dismissively. Now that he knew Brienne was out of danger, Jaime was past the point of being upset by anything Cersei decided to do. Neither her actions nor her words had the power to wound him anymore, so unless Varys had discovered that she’d been slandering Brienne to their father—or cooking up some other scheme that Tyrion had somehow forgotten to mention—Jaime didn’t give a dusty fuck what she was up to.

“Consider me warned.”

“I’m serious.” Tyrion rubbed his short fingers worryingly across his chin. “You’re not going to like it.”

“Christ, Tyrion, just tell me.”  

“She’s pregnant.”

Oh.

Jaime blinked at his brother in silence for a long while.

“Pregnant?” he finally repeated, and Tyrion nodded slowly.

Well, he thought, that is a surprise.

Cersei hadn’t wanted children, as far as Jaime knew; a few years before, for the brief time she thought she was carrying his child, she’d alternated between panic and fury.

Maybe she just didn’t want children with me. 

At one time, that notion would have filled Jaime with agonizing grief. He had, after all, imagined Cersei with a baby in her arms more times than he could count—a child with emerald eyes and golden curls and tiny, perfect features. Now, he could see her with a different child, one with Cersei’s eyes and Robert’s jet-black hair.

Suddenly, the picture in his mind melted into another: Brienne with child on her hip, and Jaime himself kneeling down as two more little ones rushed to meet him. Children with blond hair, big blue eyes, and crooked, heart-stopping smiles. Their children.

“Jaime?” Tyrion murmured, and the image disappeared. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine,” Jaime said, and he meant it. “I’m glad for her. I hope it makes them happy.”

“You…you do?”

Jaime nodded. “I do. For our sake as well as hers. If she’s happy, maybe Cersei will finally stop tormenting the rest of us.”

And find some peace, for once in her life, he added silently. Jaime wasn’t sure she deserved it, but he wished it for her, nonetheless.

A choked laugh that was almost a groan burst from Tyrion’s lips. “Wouldn’t that be a miracle?”

~*~*~

“You never did tell me why we’re here,” Jaime said as he and Tyrion walked side by side into the roadhouse’s cavernous main hall.

It was dimly lit and hazy with smoke, even in the middle of the afternoon. There was no band, no joyful crowd, just a handful of men nursing cocktails at the establishment’s various bar tops. Varys stuck out like a sore thumb, alone in the far corner of the room, his bald head shining an unpleasant shade of yellow under the overhead lights and an expression of distaste on his face.

“You’re correct, I did not.” Tyrion smirked up at him. “If I’d told you Varys had an interesting proposition regarding your future, you never would have agreed to come.”

“What future?” Jaime asked quietly as the two of them crossed the empty dance floor. His Oxfords clicked on the polished wood, and Jaime couldn’t help but remember the last time he’d stood in that spot, spinning slowly with Brienne in his arms.

He wondered fleetingly what it would take to get her to agree to another dance. To get her back in that phenomenal blue dress.

“Exactly,” Tyrion declared, his voice low and crisp. “If you’re not coaching the Peaches, you’re going to need something else to do.”

With a wink, his brother ambled over to the table where Varys sat waiting for them, leaving Jaime with no choice but to follow.

“Varys, my good man,” Tyrion bellowed. “Good to see you.”

“Tyrion.” The scout rose from his chair to shake Tyrion’s hand, then swiftly reached out to Jaime with his left. “Hello, Jaime.”

Jaime returned the pleasantry while gripping Varys’ offered hand, and the two of them sat down across from each other. Tyrion, meanwhile, jerked his thumb in the direction of the nearest bar.

“I’ll be over here if you need me,” he said, sauntering off without another word.

“Some things never change,” Varys muttered, watching Tyrion clamber onto an empty stool. Then he turned his full attention to Jaime. “On the other hand, some things do.”

Jaime searched the man’s serene brown eyes for any hint of what was to come. Finding nothing, he asked, “What can I do for you, Varys?”

“It’s really a question of what I can do for you,” the scout responded, folding his hands neatly on the table in front of him. “Didn’t Tyrion tell you why I wanted to speak with you?”

“He said something vague and unhelpful about my future.” Jaime darted an irritated glance at his brother’s back. “But I fail to see what you’d be able to do for me in that regard.”

Varys’ mouth puckered into an amused smirk. “He tells me you won’t be returning to coach for the women’s league next season.”

“That’s correct.”

“Do you not like coaching?” The scout considered him discerningly. “It certainly seems to like you. Your team is first in the league, by a long shot, and you look like a different man than you did three months ago.”

I feel like one, too, Jaime mused, wondering when exactly that had happened. Perhaps it dated to the day he’d first sat next to Brienne on the bus, trying to apologize for being the world’s most stupendous ass. He’d started trying, after that. Trying to be better.

“I do like it,” he said, thinking carefully about how much he wanted to divulge. “My reasons for leaving the league are personal, not professional.”

“So you would coach again, if such an opportunity came along?”

“I suppose I would.” Jaime studied the scout’s placid face. Varys wasn’t interested in casual conversation; his question had a purpose, just like everything else he did. “Why do you ask?”

“A little bird recently told me that the Kingslayers are shopping for a new coach. And they’re interested in you.”

“Me?” Jaime nearly laughed. “That’s ridiculous. Marbrand would never get rid of Arthur Dayne, and he certainly wouldn’t replace him with me.”

Dayne had been the Kingslayers’ manager for nearly a decade, and Jaime had spent the best years of his career playing for the man. He was by far the finest coach he’d ever had—that he’d ever seen. Firm but fair, Dayne was the kind of coach who inspired his players to stretch themselves just because they could.

“Arthur Dayne is retiring,” Varys imparted matter-of-factly, “and he recommended you for the job. Apparently, he’s seen you coach, and he thinks you would make an excellent replacement.”

“He’s seen me coach?” Jaime asked, incredulous. “When?”

“That I don’t know. But he obviously liked what he saw.”

Jaime had admired the man more than he could say. It meant a great deal to have his endorsement, but it didn’t make him qualified to coach a Major League Baseball team. He only had a few lousy months of experience, for God’s sake. And while Jaime held his players in the highest possible regard, he knew many men still thumbed their noses at the idea of women playing professional baseball. The same men would likely say he hadn’t yet earned his stripes as a real coach.

“Addam is taking Dayne’s opinion very seriously,” Varys continued, as if he could sense Jaime’s doubt. “My understanding is that the job is yours for the taking.”

“Addam? Since when does he make decisions about the team?”

It was Addam’s father Damon who owned the Kingslayers, and he’d kept a firm hand on the managerial reins for as long as Jaime could remember.

“Since his father put him in charge of the team. From what I gather, he doesn’t intend to squander the opportunity,” Varys explained. “The two of you were friends, I think?”

“We were.” Had Jaime not cut ties with everyone from his old life, they probably still would have been. “He’s a good man.”

“I agree. And he’d like another good man in his service, or so it would seem.” Varys steepled his fingers. “What should I tell him? Are you interested?”

Jaime leaned back in the chair and crossed his arms. The thought of going back to his old team, of stepping into Arthur Dayne’s shoes, was terrifying and exhilarating in equal measure. It would be a challenge, to be sure, one he could very well fail to meet. But could he live with himself if he didn’t try?

How could he pass up a chance to do something with himself, to forge his own path in a world he’d thought was lost to him forever? How could he walk away from an opportunity—the only one he was likely to get—that allowed him to keep both of the things he loved most in his life? How could he say no to a future that gave him baseball and Brienne?

As soon as his thoughts wandered to her, Jaime heard the wench’s voice inside his head, repeating words she’d uttered weeks and weeks before, when they’d barely even begun to be friends: There’s still time for a new dream, isn’t there?

“Yes,” he said, wondering if it counted as a dream if you’d never dared to hope for it. “I absolutely am.”

Smiling, Jaime supposed he would have to ask her.

Chapter Text

“No, Brienne, don’t touch those.” Ms. Frey nodded at the stack of plates Brienne was gathering from the dining room table. “I told you all I’d take care of it, and I won’t have you cleaning up after your own birthday celebration.”

Brienne glanced from the woman’s kind face down to the tray of leftover pineapple upside-down cake balanced in her hands. “I don’t mind,” she replied honestly. It was the least she could do, after the trouble the chaperone had gone to on her account. “You were very kind to do this for me at the last minute.”

Ms. Frey’s cheeks went round and rosy as she smiled. “Of course, my dear. I only wish someone had told me earlier. We could have had something much nicer for your special day than this little cake.”

“The cake was delicious,” Brienne said. “Thank you.”

“You’re most welcome.” Ms. Frey used her ample hip to nudge open the door that separated the dining room from the kitchen. “I’ll just wrap it up, and you can help yourself to the rest whenever you’d like.”

Brienne smiled her gratitude, and Ms. Frey swept through the door. 

In truth, Brienne would have been happy to have the day pass by without any kind of birthday celebration. And it might’ve, if Arya hadn’t needled her about being another year older across the breakfast table that morning. 

A general outcry had gone up at her secrecy, and Margaery had immediately insisted they do something to mark the day. She’d begun polling the girls for their suggestions, but Brienne, recalling the near-catastrophic results of Yara’s birthday outing all those weeks ago, had cut the conversation short by announcing that she needed to rest her knee for the next day’s game.

The girls hadn’t yet known it, but Jaime had taken Brienne back to Dr. Luwin’s office the previous evening, exactly two weeks to the day since she’d been injured. The doctor had marveled at her speedy recovery; the swelling had gone completely, as had the pain, and the bruising had faded to a splotchy yellowish-brown. She’d been walking and climbing stairs normally, crutch-free and with lessening discomfort, for a week. 

After running her through a series of evaluations, Dr. Luwin had cleared her to return to play, but he’d limited her to three innings in just one game for a start. If that went well, she could play three in Friday’s game, too, and he’d assess her again after that. 

Unsatisfied, Jaime had pressed the kindly old man, worried that Brienne needed more rest, that she couldn’t possibly have recovered so fully in such little time. Dr. Luwin had only shrugged; her knee shouldn’t have healed that quickly, he’d acknowledged, and he couldn’t explain why it had. But she was better, and there was no reason not to let her try.

At that, Jaime had offered a grudging grin. If anyone could heal by sheer force of will, he’d said, looking at her more affectionately than he should have, it was her. 

Brienne smiled to herself as she resumed stacking the dessert plates, scraping a few sticky crumbs onto the topmost dish. She’d left that part out of the story when she told the girls about her recovery; in fact, she’d left Jaime out of it entirely. She didn’t really have much choice now that Sansa had taken to shooting her a little smirk every time his name was mentioned. 

Thankfully, the news that she would be returning to the field had been enough on its own to distract her teammates from their elaborate birthday plotting, though they’d been unwilling to let it go completely. After breakfast, Ms. Frey had demanded Brienne reveal her favorite cake, and then the good-hearted woman had rushed off to the store for some tinned pineapple and a jar of cherries so she could make it herself. 

The smell of it baking had filled the whole house in the early afternoon. When the cake was done, Sansa and Shireen had taken hold of Brienne’s arms and tugged her into the dining room, plunking her down at the head of the table as the whole team sang a rollicking rendition of “Happy Birthday.” Fortunately, they’d only managed to scrounge up three candles to stick in the glossy, colorful dessert, instead of twenty-seven, so it wasn’t quite as mortifying as it might have been.

In fact, as she looked around the table, Brienne had felt overwhelmingly grateful for all of them. She couldn’t remember the last time someone had made anything especially for her, and she’d never had so many smiling faces gathered around to celebrate her. That’s why, when they’d urged her to blow out the candles, there’d been only one wish Brienne could make.

Let there be another season, she’d silently hoped, extinguishing the candles with a single puff of breath. For all of us

Her friends had laughed and cheered as three wisps of smoke curled toward the ceiling, saying her wish was certain to come true. Brienne didn’t usually believe in such childish superstitions, but in this case, she hoped the girls were right. 

As Brienne picked up her now-towering stack of plates and headed toward the kitchen, she wondered how long it would be before they found out. Would Tywin Lannister keep them waiting to the very end of the season, or even beyond? How likely was he to make a favorable decision? Jaime and Tyrion seemed to think there was a good chance, but even they couldn’t be sure.

Brienne was just about to use her elbow to push open the kitchen door when the one on the opposite side of the dining room swung open, and she turned to find Sansa beaming at her from the doorway.

“There’s been a delivery,” her friend chirped, gesturing over her shoulder toward the common room. “For your birthday.”

“A delivery?” The china rattled as Brienne shifted the plates between her palms. She hadn’t even heard the doorbell ring. “For me?”

Sansa nodded, her blue eyes shining with delight. 

“You’re sure?” Brienne asked doubtfully.

Her father certainly wouldn’t have sent her anything—something like that would never occur to him, and he couldn’t afford it anyway—and she couldn’t think of anyone else besides the Starks who even knew it was her birthday.

“Yes, I’m sure,” Sansa exasperatedly replied, but her smile hadn’t dimmed. “Come see for yourself if you don’t believe me.”

Curious, and still a little incredulous, Brienne set the dishes down on the end of the table and wiped her hands on her skirt before following Sansa into the common room. They’d only gone a few steps when her friend stopped and raised her arm, pointing toward the side table closest to the front door.

Really, though, Sansa needn’t have bothered. Brienne had already spotted the spectacular array of white and purple and green—the most beautiful bouquet of flowers she’d ever laid eyes on. 

Dumbfounded, Brienne shook her head. “Those can’t be for me.” 

Sansa laughed. “Well, they are. But I’m sure someone else would be happy to take them if you don’t want them. They smell divine.”

They do, she marveled, inhaling deeply, even from across the room

“What are you waiting for?” Sansa prodded her in the arm. “Go look at them!”

With a mute nod, Brienne heeded her friend’s words. As she approached the table, the fragrance grew stronger, and she realized that the heady, sweet scent was coming from the large white blossoms that dominated the arrangement. Without thinking, she reached out and stroked a finger lightly along one of the creamy blooms and was surprised by the waxy softness of the petals. Then, she let her fingertips brush across the clusters of small, bluish-purple flowers nestled among the abundant white. Those, at least, Brienne recognized: forget-me-nots. 

While she admired the flowers in stunned silence, Margaery sidled up beside her. Brienne turned, intending to ask if she had been the one who’d sent them, but her friend’s elfish grin stopped her short. 

She wouldn’t look half as tickled if she were responsible for this, Brienne realized. But if it wasn’t her…

As if Margaery had read her thoughts, she held out a small white card. “This came with the bouquet.” 

Brienne studied the elegant lettering scrolled across the thick paper. It read only Happy Birthday, Brienne.

“They’re glorious,” Margaery murmured appreciatively, wrapping her slim arm around Brienne’s waist. “Quite the romantic, isn’t he?”

Jaime. Brienne pinched her lips together to hold the corners of her mouth in place, feeling like a fool for missing the truth of it right away. Of course it was Jaime.

Brienne didn’t know how he’d come to learn it was her birthday. She certainly hadn’t told him. Then again, she had no trouble imagining Jaime rifling through her league paperwork or hassling his brother to gain the information. Actually, she wouldn’t put it past Tyrion to have volunteered it.

She should have wanted to scold him for doing something so extravagant, for taking such a risk when all the girls would see. But she didn’t. She was just glad

“I don’t know what you mean,” she mumbled, setting the card down on the table.

“Oh, I think you do. He sent you flowers, Brienne. Gardenias.” Margaery nodded at the white blooms. “Not exactly subtle.” 

She gave her friend a quizzical look, and Margaery winked. 

“Secret love, my darling. They mean secret love.” 

Love? Brienne drew in a slow breath, and her heart swelled along with her lungs. He had never expressed such a sentiment aloud, or even hinted at it—no more than she had. But Jaime’s actions had always spoken much more loudly than his words. 

“Oh, Brienne,” came a voice on her other side. “They’re so beautiful.” 

Brienne swiveled to find Shireen gazing at the bouquet with Gilly, Dany, Missandei, Sansa, and Arya standing just behind her.

Just what I need, she thought wryly. A crowd.

“What a lovely birthday gift,” Dany breathed, stepping forward to bury her nose in the blooms. “Who sent them?”

“We don’t know.” Margaery shot Brienne another sly wink before turning to face the girls. “The card isn’t signed.”

“Oh, a secret admirer.” Dany’s cobalt eyes sparkled as she smiled up at Brienne. “How charming.” 

A few weeks ago, Brienne herself would have dismissed such a thing as impossible, but none of the others seemed to find the idea preposterous at all. On the contrary, they greeted Dany’s words with giddy smiles and bright, affirming glances.

All except for Arya, who just muttered, “Not that secret.”

Sansa stuck a furtive elbow in her sister’s ribs, and Brienne held back a sigh. She hadn’t objected when Sansa asked her permission to tell Arya what had happened with Jaime, but perhaps she should have. Discretion had never been her young friend’s strong suit. 

“Is it that fellow back home, then?” Gilly asked, looking first to Arya, then over at Brienne. “The one that was writing you letters?”

“No,” Sansa and Arya said, definitively and in unison, and a broad smile dimpled Margaery’s face. 

Gilly opened her mouth to say more, but the trill of the telephone interrupted her.  

“I’ll get it,” Dany volunteered slipping through the cluster of girls and heading in the direction of the telephone. Gilly and Shireen moved closer to the table, filling the space she’d vacated.

“Sam sent me flowers once,” Gilly remarked. “Before we were married. But they weren’t so pretty as this.” 

“I’ve never seen any flowers as pretty as this,” Shireen declared, lifting her hand to caress the blossoms, just as Brienne had done.

Neither have I, Brienne thought, unable to keep from smiling as she imagined how pleased with himself Jaime would be if she ever told him that. 

“The white ones especially,” Missandei added. “That smell is enchanting. Do you know what they are?”

Before Margaery could answer—thank God—Dany called out across the room. “Brienne! It’s for you.” 

“More wishes for the birthday girl, no doubt,” Margaery said, and Brienne supposed she must be right. Who else would call her on a Wednesday afternoon? 

Leaving the girls behind to continue their admiration of her gift, Brienne strode across the room and took the telephone from Dany’s outstretched hand. When she raised her eyebrows questioningly, Dany whispered, “It’s Catelyn Stark.”

“Thanks,” she mouthed in reply, pressing the receiver to her ear. She hadn’t spoken to Catelyn in several weeks, but it was typical of her friends’ mother to make a point of calling on her birthday. Catelyn never forgot a thing. “Hello,” Brienne said warmly, but no response came. For a few seconds, there was only the dull buzz of the telephone line. “Hello?" she eventually repeated. "Catelyn? Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here.” Instead of the pleasant tone Brienne had expected, Catelyn’s voice was thick with worry. “Brienne, are the girls there with you?”

Something ominous and heavy coiled itself behind Brienne’s ribs. “Yes, they’re here. Why? What’s going on?”

“Brienne, I’m so sorry. I know it’s terrible timing, today of all days… 

Slowly, Brienne sank into the chair next to the phone. “Is it my father?”

“No, no. Selwyn’s fine.” The sadness in Cat’s voice robbed Brienne of the relief she might have felt, replacing it with dread. “Brienne, it’s…it’s about Galladon. A messenger arrived this morning.”

No. Her throat tightened, and the sudden heaviness in her chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. No, no, no.

“What’s happened? Is he badly hurt? Is he…?” Brienne swallowed roughly but couldn’t bring herself to finish.

Catelyn was silent for so long Brienne thought the line had gone dead. Then, in a small, strained voice, she said, “He’s missing.”

Brienne squeezed her eyes shut against an onslaught of grief, but several hot tears leaked out of them anyway. “Where?” she rasped. “When?”

More questions rattled through her mind, but she didn’t speak them: Had he been wounded? Gotten separated from his men? Was he lost? Captured? Worse?

“Brienne, you really shouldn’t—”

“Tell me, Cat,” she demanded.

Catelyn sighed wearily. “In Italy, two weeks ago. There was a battle, and his company was trapped between the enemy and the sea. They didn’t find him among the wounded, but…”

A sob welled up inside her, and Brienne’s shoulders convulsed as she fought to suppress it. She knew with sudden clarity exactly what that “but” meant. Especially after two weeks. Especially like that. It meant that her brother—her kind, wonderful brother—was gone. “But?”

“They think the water swept him out,” Catelyn answered softly, sounding as though every word was breaking her heart. “They say he’s presumed dead.”

Galladon’s face—smiling and jovial, so full of energy and life—swam before her tightly closed eyes. Unable to bear it, Brienne blearily blinked them open, only to find Sansa, Arya, and Margaery standing over her, their faces lined with concern.

“Brienne?” Catelyn asked. “Brienne, are you still there?”

Brienne nodded, and it took her a few moments to remember that Catelyn couldn’t see her. “Yes,” she rasped, dead still ringing in her ears. “What about my father? How…how is he?”

“Oh, my dear girl. He’s heartbroken, just like you. But he’s here with us for now, and he can stay as long as he needs.”

“Thank you," she said hoarsely, knowing it should be her at her father’s side, not Ned and Cat. “May I speak to him?” 

“Of course. Sit tight while I get him.” 

While Brienne waited, she glanced up at her friends, not bothering to dry the tears from her cheeks.

“What is it?” Sansa whispered.

Brienne felt her face begin to crumple. “It’s Galladon. He’s…”

Sansa let out a strangled groan as she rushed forward, sinking to her knees on the floor beside the chair and placing her hand on Brienne’s thigh. Margaery, too, stepped closer, shuffling around Sansa so she could rest a consoling palm on Brienne’s shoulder. 

Arya stood still as stone, but Brienne saw the girl’s gray eyes glisten as she mouthed, “I’m sorry.”

Something rustled on the other end of the telephone, and then her father’s deep voice rumbled in her ear. “Hello, Brienne.”

“Hi, Dad.” The words sounded thin and feeble and not like her at all. “I’m so sorry.”

“You don’t have anything to be sorry for, kiddo. I’m sorry.” 

“Dad, I’m…I…” She tried clearing her throat, but it was useless. No other words would come. 

“I know.” His voice cracked. “I know. I didn’t want to tell you, not on your birthday, but Cat said it wasn’t fair to keep it from you.”

“She was right.” Brienne swiped at the tears dripping from her chin. “I’m sorry I’m not there. I’m sorry you were alone when…”

“Stop apologizing, Brienne. It’s not your fault. It isn’t anybody’s fault.” His words were calm and even, and if she’d been standing in front of him, Brienne knew he’d have placed his large hands reassuringly on her shoulders. “And you’re right where you’re supposed to be.”

“I’m not,” she insisted, wondering how he could say such a thing. “But I will be. I’ll book a ticket, and I’ll come home as soon as I can.”

“No,” he said with a firmness that surprised her. “You won’t.”

“What? But I should—”

“There’s nothing to do here but grieve and wait,” he explained, cutting off her argument. “The only thing you shoulddo is stay there and keep playing. It’s what he would’ve wanted.”

Brienne pressed her knuckles against her lips as another wave of sorrow wracked her body, and she felt Margaery’s hand tighten on her shoulder. “What about you?” 

“Don’t you worry about me. I’ll be fine.” After a long pause, he added quietly, “I just want what’s best for you, kiddo. I want you to be happy.”

How can I be? Brienne didn’t know how she’d ever be happy, truly happy, again. Not in a world without Galladon. 

“I know that seems like a tall order right now,” he continued, “but I want you to try. And you can start by finishing the season. It’ll be good for you, to be with your friends. To have something to do with yourself. There’s nothing for you here.”

There’s you, she thought sadly. “But—”

“I mean it, Brienne. Stay. Play. Win. Do it for Galladon. Make him proud.”

~*~*~

By the time she hung up the phone, Brienne’s tears had dried, leaving tacky trails on her cheeks and down her neck. All the lightness and contentment she’d felt such a short while before had been wrung out of her, leaving only a hollow, aching despair. 

Sansa scrambled up from the floor, extending a hand to help Brienne out of the low chair and pulling her into a lingering hug. Margaery came next, murmuring quiet, compassionate words into Brienne’s shoulder as she embraced her. Even Arya slipped in, clutching her arms briefly around Brienne’s waist.

Then, to her dismay, Brienne noticed that her distress had also attracted the attention of the others. Missandei and Dany remained standing near her flowers, but Gilly and Shireen had wandered closer; all four of them wore pained, sympathetic expressions. 

After what felt like an endless silence, it was Margaery who finally asked what exactly had happened. The girls listened with glassy eyes as Brienne managed a short, halting summary of what Catelyn had told her. When she’d finished, several voices spoke at once, saying how terrible it was, how sorry they were, asking what they could do. 

Nothing, she thought. There’s nothing anyone can do.

Suddenly, Brienne couldn’t bear their words, their attempts to console her, the sorrow and pity in their eyes. She couldn’t bear the walls of the room hemming her in, or the ticking of the grandfather clock, or the way Sansa and Arya kept looking at each other like they were afraid she was about to shatter. Even Jaime’s beautiful flowers looked like little more than a funeral wreath to her now. 

“I need…” she began, faltering when she realized she had no idea what she needed. She’d always turned to Galladon when things were difficult. Her stalwart constant. Her best friend. But she would never feel his steady, comforting presence again. “I’m going to go for a walk.” 

Several pairs of eyebrows lifted at her words, but Brienne ignored them, avoiding their gazes as she moved briskly toward the foyer. 

“What about your knee?” Margaery asked from close behind her. “Are you sure it’s a good idea—”

“It’ll be fine,” Brienne interrupted, pushing open the front door. “I’ll be back soon.”

“But it looks like rain,” came Sansa’s voice, and Brienne turned to see that she, as well as Arya and Margaery, had followed her onto the porch. “What if you get caught in it?”  

Brienne peered up at the thick, gray sky before descending the front steps. “I won’t go far.”

She hadn’t intended it as a lie—not when she slipped through the front gate, or when she got to the end of the block, or even when she left the neighborhood entirely. In fact, Brienne didn’t realize where her feet were taking her until she’d walked well over half of the three-mile distance to the baseball field. 

Just as she began to contemplate turning back, the wind kicked up, gusting hot and sticky on her face. The air had the sharp, charged smell of a summer storm, and Brienne once again raised her eyes to the sky. The low blanket of clouds she’d spied back at the house had been replaced by towering dark thunderheads…and they were rolling steadily in her direction.

There’s no harm in getting a little wet, she thought, pressing on. Besides, the field is closer. I can wait it out there.

She was only a few blocks away when it started to rain, just a smattering of fat, warm drops at first, but it was coming down in earnest by the time she reached the field. The players’ entrance was locked, as were the main doors, but the groundskeepers’ gate in the fence along the third-base line was open. Brienne slipped inside and quickly made her way down the low brick wall; when she came to the metal gate near the dugout, she lifted the latch and let herself into the stands.

Not bothering to seek shelter under the roof that covered the back half of the bleachers, Brienne sat down heavily in the second row, under the weeping sky. She wanted to feel the chill of the water on her skin, to feel anything besides the dull throb in her knee and the tremendous sadness threatening to break apart her chest.

As she stared out at the field, at the grass that seemed to be growing greener with every passing minute of rain, her thoughts turned almost immediately to Galladon. It didn’t seem possible that she would never get to talk with him again, never get to play another game with him watching from the stands, never hear that ear-piercing whistle. She’d never sit beside him with his bulky arm slung around her shoulders, never be crushed to his chest in a bruising bear hug that made her feel small. She’d never get to introduce him to Jaime.

I can’t believe he’s gone.

Brienne let her head drop forward until her chin nearly rested on her chest, closing her eyes and listening to the rain drum on the roof behind her.

She could vividly recall how he’d looked the last time they’d been together, when he’d come home for a short visit after basic training with his perpetually mussed hair shorn almost to nothing and his gray eyes lit with pride. He’d been far more excited than nervous when they’d seen him off at the train; Brienne still didn’t know how she’d managed not to cry when she watched him wave goodbye. 

Now, even though it hurt like hell, Brienne wanted to etch that memory into her mind forever—along with every swing of the bat, every snowball fight, every lazy summer afternoon of staring at the clouds while he chattered about the Kingslayers, every evening spent arguing about what to listen to on the radio. She didn’t want to forget the nights they’d slept on the front porch because it was too hot in their bedrooms, or the times they’d hurried through their chores so they’d have more time to play baseball, or even the look on her brother’s face when Sansa had told him about Ronnet Connington’s stupid bet. 

These things, these moments, were all she had left. 

“Brienne.”

Her eyes flew open at the sound of his voice, and she was greeted by the sight of his scuffed two-tone Oxfords, shiny and slick with rain. When she brought her gaze up, Brienne saw that his shirt was damp, too, and getting more so by the second, the blue fabric darkening at his shoulders and across his chest.

“Jaime.” Relief, strong and unexpected, surged through her as his green eyes roved over her face. She’d thought she wanted to be alone, but perhaps she’d just wanted him. “What are you doing here?”

“Looking for you.” His hair fell in wet clumps over his forehead, and rain dripped steadily from the ends as he stared down at her. “Margaery called me. She told me what happened, said you’d gone out walking an hour ago and hadn’t come back. I drove around for fifteen minutes before I realized what an idiot I was for not coming here straight away.” 

Brienne felt a hot tear sluice through the cool water already coating her face. If anyone could understand why the field brought her solace, it was Jaime. 

“I’m sorry about your brother,” he said softly, his tone as gentle as his eyes. “I know what he meant to you.” He frowned, and his shoulders twitched in a helpless shrug. “And I know I can’t make it better, but I’m here. For whatever you need.”

More tears spilled from her eyes at his words. Because somehow, inexplicably, he did make it better. Not a lot, but…enough. 

“Thank you,” she whispered, finding herself unable to manage more.

Jaime’s forehead creased, and he took a tiny step closer, looking as though he was thinking of pulling her against him or dropping down into the seat beside her. But before he could do either, lightning flashed brightly in his eyes. Thunder boomed over their heads, and it seemed as though the sky had cracked open. Torrents of rain gushed down, soaking them both almost instantly to the skin and flowing off the roof like a waterfall. 

“We need to get inside,” Jaime told her, nearly shouting to be heard over the deluge. He took her hand, and his palm was damp but warm as he tugged her up from her seat. 

Her feet squished unpleasantly in her shoes as she followed him through the gate, into the dugout, and down the dark hallway to his office. Only then did he release her hand to fish the keys from his pocket and unlock the door. 

“How’s your knee?” he asked once they were both inside the small, dim room. “Sore?”

“A little.”

“Sit, then. Please.” He pointed to one of the wooden chairs sitting against the wall. Frowning, he added, “You shouldn’t have walked so far.”

“I’m fine,” Brienne retorted, bristling, but she did as he bid her. “If you think you can keep me off the field tomorrow—”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Jaime replied, a faint smirk appearing on his lips. Then, to her surprise, he began deftly unbuttoning his shirt with his left hand as he approached a pair of open lockers on the other side of the office. “I have more important things to worry about right now, anyway. Like getting us both dry.” 

Brienne stared unblinkingly at his back for a moment too long before bending down to remove her sodden shoes. She’d gotten them unlaced but not off when Jaime spoke from directly in front of her. 

“It seems I’m fresh out of towels.” 

When Brienne sat up again, Jaime was pulling off his drenched shirt, peeling it down his arms until he stood before her in just a thin, white undershirt that clung to the muscles of his chest. Seemingly oblivious to the fact that Brienne could see everything through the wet fabric, Jaime flopped his discarded garment over the back of the chair next to hers with a splat and wiped his hands on his slightly less saturated trousers.

“I’ll be right back,” he said, turning toward the locker room. 

Fortunately, he disappeared through the door before Brienne could ogle him further, and she shook her head at the color she felt rising on her face. For God’s sake, he’s just getting out of his wet clothes, she chastened herself, glancing down at her own soggy attire. I should, too.

With that, she kicked off her shoes and leaned over to wring some of the rain from her hair. Brienne longed to strip off her stockings as well, but she didn’t have time to discreetly unclip them before Jaime returned carrying a stack of folded towels. He might not have any scruples about disrobing in front of her, but she wasn’t keen on hiking up her skirt while he could see.

Jaime set the towels down on the edge of his desk and removed one from the top of the pile. But instead of using it to dry himself, he walked over and draped it around her as smoothly as he could with only one hand. 

“Do you have a change of clothes here?” he asked, his hand lingering on her shoulder. “We can’t have you catching cold.”

“I should have something in my locker,” she answered, hoping he hadn’t noticed her blush. “I’ll go look.”

She rose swiftly from the chair, bringing her almost nose to nose with Jaime. For a few long seconds, Brienne remained still, waiting for him to step back, to clear the way for her to pass. But he didn’t. He just stood there, staring into her eyes. 

His gaze brimmed with concern for her, and a tenderness so palpable it stole her breath. There was something more there, too. Something that looked like love. 

Slowly, as though he was being gradually tugged forward by an invisible string, Jaime tilted toward her. Then, when his face was only a few inches from her own, just as her own eyes were beginning to go closed, he jerked to a halt and abruptly leaned away again.

Even amidst her pang of disappointment, Brienne comprehended what had happened—and why. Jaime had realized what he’d been doing and chosen to keep his promise. He’d behaved himself. He’d followed the rules. 

But suddenly, for the first time in her life, Brienne didn’t care about the rules at all.

“Let me,” he insisted huskily, beginning to turn, but she stopped him by placing her hand on his bare arm. 

Because Brienne didn’t want him to go. She didn’t want to lose the feeling she’d had ever since she heard his voice in the rain—the feeling that somehow, someday, things might be okay again. That she hadn’t lost everything, even though she’d lost her brother. That there was still one thing in the world she could be sure of. 

As Brienne drank in every detail of his familiar, handsome face—from his sea-glass green eyes to his sharp, stubble-shadowed jaw to the way the water had darkened his golden hair—she wondered why in the hell she’d been holding him away. 

Yes, they still had to be careful; Brienne would never jeopardize the league, not for anything. But she could have allowed far more than she had. She could have told him how she really felt. 

Pain squeezed like a fist around her heart as she thought once more of her brother, of the life he wouldn’t get to live. Brienne hadn’t told him enough, how important he was to her, how much she cared. She’d hardly told him at all. He’d known, she hoped, but she should have said it more. Shown it more. And now she’d never have the chance.

She didn’t want to make the same mistake with Jaime. Not with this beautiful, imperfect, wonderful man, with his painful past and his snarky tongue and the big, honorable heart he didn’t let many people see. This man who wanted her, who was willing to wait for her, who’d come to find her when she needed him most. This man she loved.

Brienne didn’t want them to run out of time before they’d even begun. She didn’t want to risk losing him, too, not when she’d only just found him. 

She didn’t want to wait anymore.

Chapter Text

Jaime watched Brienne’s expression change as she looked at him, those big blue eyes trailing intently over his face. The worried creases that had been stamped between her brows since he’d found her in the stands slowly disappeared, replaced by a yearning softness that made the air thicken in his throat.

It took everything he had not to reach for her. 

Frankly, it still surprised him that he’d managed to stop himself from kissing her a few moments before. He probably wouldn’t have, if not for the whisper of that obnoxious little voice inside his head, reminding him of what he’d promised.

When did you become so principled? he’d wondered at himself, half irritated and half amazed. But then he’d looked at the woman standing in front of him and known the answer.  

Still, as the seconds passed, Jaime began to doubt that his restraint would hold, promise be damned. It would only take one word, one breath, one look, and he’d be lost.

In truth, he was halfway gone already. A man could only take so much for so long, and Brienne was far too close to him, her hand pressed far too firmly to his skin. Never mind the way her yellow blouse had gone partly translucent with rain, or how her wet skirt was plastered to her muscular legs, or that her flushed cheeks were almost the same shade of pink as her beguilingly bare lips.

Suddenly, Brienne’s grip tightened on his forearm, and his eyes returned to hers. Something both mournful and resolute rippled in their endless depths, and Jaime nearly opened his arms to her. But then he didn’t have to, because she reached for him.

It felt like a fucking miracle when she stepped forward and slipped her arms around him, laying her palms against his back. And when she tipped her head down to rest it in the crook of his shoulder, his heart rose up to meet his Adam’s apple.

Jaime let his eyes fall shut as he wound himself around her, not caring when he knocked her towel to the floor. His stump tucked effortlessly in the small of her back as he settled his hand between her shoulder blades, urging her closer than she already was. He didn’t even have to dip his head to nestle his lips against her hair. 

She was made to be in his arms. 

He’d never had the opportunity to savor it before, but he sure as hell did now—every single sensation. In fact, Jaime lost himself so completely in how good it felt to hold her, how damned pleased he was that Brienne had sought his touch, that he began to forget where they were and what had just happened. He began to forget everything that wasn’t the heat of her breath on his neck or the brush of her thighs against his or the thundering pace of his own pulse. 

It wasn’t until Brienne shifted, though, sliding her hands up to curl around his shoulders, that Jaime felt a heat stir low in his abdomen. He had the fleeting thought that he should set her away from him, to put some distance between them before he did something rash—before he lost the ability to think at all.

But he didn’t. Instead, Jaime allowed his own hand to wander upward, snaking under the damp curtain of her hair to cup the nape of her neck. His thumb stroked the soft patch of skin just behind her ear, and a delicious shiver rippled through her. 

His body responded with immediate and intense enthusiasm, sending what seemed like his entire blood supply surging into his trousers, and Jaime felt like the world’s biggest ass for wanting her so much. For how badly he ached to push her against the wall or across his desk or down to the goddamned wet floor and…

No, he thought sternly. Not right now. She’s grieving, you idiot.

He dragged in a deep, stuttering breath, attempting to calm the heady rush of his desire, but the lingering smell of rain and flowers in her hair only made him want her more. In the end, he was left with no choice but to slowly pull back his hips so she wouldn’t feel him stiffening against her.

Brienne must have misread the subtle movement—which Jaime supposed he should be grateful for—because she responded by clinging to him more tightly, as if she feared he meant to let her go.

Don’t worry, he thought, clutching his right arm around her waist. I’m not going anywhere.

Jaime gradually pulled himself back just far enough to tell her that, to reassure her that he was there, and would be for as long as she needed. But Brienne opened her mouth to speak before he had the chance. 

“Jaime, I…” His name uttered in that low, thrumming tone of hers sent one bolt to his heart and another to his cock. “I…” 

Although her words faltered, Brienne didn’t lower her eyes, and Jaime marveled at the way they managed to look pleading and frustrated and determined all at once. 

“You what?” he murmured huskily.

She took a shallow breath, seemingly gathering her courage, and Jaime sensed the tension mounting in her body. Panic flickered through him—what is she so afraid to say?—but before it could take hold, Brienne’s lips crashed into his. 

Their noses knocked clumsily in her haste, and Jaime swayed backwards under the wondrously unexpected assault. It was artless and a little awkward, but Brienne didn’t hesitate—and the pressure of her fervent, full lips was even more glorious than he remembered. 

Kissing her again was like taking a gulp of air after nearly suffocating, like watching the dawn break after an interminable night. She even tasted like the sunrise. Like goodness and certainty and hope. Like life. Like home.

Bringing his hand to her face, Jaime angled his head, guiding her to a slower rhythm and coaxing her lips apart, caressing and exploring with his lips and teeth and tongue. Brienne responded in kind—the wench was a delightfully quick study—and the first brush of her tongue along his lower lip had him groaning into her mouth.

She’d managed to wedge her hands between their bodies, too, and their roaming only aggravated the tightness in his trousers. She moved them restlessly from his chest up to his arms and shoulders and neck and then back down again, as though she didn’t know exactly where she most wanted to touch him, so she was trying everywhere. Then, in what was quite possibly the most arousing moment of Jaime’s life, they slipped down and found purchase on his hips, tugging them back toward her own. 

And suddenly he was surging forward, kissing her desperately and clinging to her like his life began and ended in the lush warmth of her mouth. He was hard and hungry and enthralled by the way her body burned hot even though her skin was chilled, and the pressure of her fingers so dangerously close to his ass made Jaime half lose his mind. 

Before he knew it, his fingers were tugging at the hem of her blouse. Brienne made a soft, startled noise in the back of her throat, but it turned into an enticing little moan when he worked the fabric free and slid his hand across the sticky skin of her lower back.

Unfortunately for Jaime, something about that sound awoke his nearly forgotten conscience, and it reared up with a vengeance. You crossed your heart, for fuck’s sake, it reminded him. You promised.

Ignoring the argument firing in every muscle of his body, Jaime ripped his mouth from hers. For a moment, he just looked at her, relishing the sight of her kiss-reddened lips and the soft, dazed expression on her face. “If we don’t stop now,” he finally said, “I won’t be able to.”

Her eyebrows lifted a fraction, but then she gave him a wobbly nod. “That’s okay.”

“It…is?” Jaime gaped at her, so startled he could have laughed. Brienne nodded again, and he almost launched himself back at her devastating mouth, consequences be damned. Almost. “No, it’s not,” he whispered. More firmly, trying to convince himself just as much as her, he added, “No. We can’t. I can’t.” 

“Oh.” Brienne’s eyes darted downward, and a fresh splash of color appeared on her face. “I thought you meant…that you wanted to…”

Jaime shook his head, grinning. “You thought right, wench,” he replied, his voice somewhere between a croak and a growl. “God, do I want to. Want you.”

She swallowed, and he could tell it was taking a great deal for her to continue the conversation. “Then why…?”

“Because I gave you my word, and I mean to keep it.” Jaime saw the why lingering in her eyes, and he leaned forward to nudge his nose against hers. “Because I don’t just want you, Brienne. I love you. And the woman I love deserves better than to be ravished in this shitty office by a soggy, frantic man.” 

He felt the hitch in Brienne’s breath as he spoke, and, for a heartbeat, Jaime regretted having blurted it out like that, with his damn hand still tucked beneath her shirt. He certainly hadn’t planned to say it that way. Then he watched her lips fall open as she stared at him, her mesmerizing eyes wide and warm and full of awe, and Jaime wasn’t sorry at all. Because it was true, and he saw that she knew it. 

“Don’t get me wrong,” he went on, his mouth slanting into an irrepressible smile, “I will happily ravish you another time. As many times as you’ll allow, in fact, after the season is over. But for now, this,” he paused to kiss her lightly, “is enough. More than enough.”

Tears sprang to her eyes at that, glittering in the low light, and Brienne tried to blink past them. But it didn’t work. Instead of receding or rolling down her cheeks, the drops clung to her lashes like dew on blades of grass. She quickly slithered a hand out from under his embrace, bringing it up to wipe them away.

At least that’s what Jaime thought she was doing, until Brienne reached for his face instead of her own. 

Her long fingers brushed along his cheek with such tender reverence that he felt his eyes begin to burn. “I love you, too, Jaime.”

It wasn’t only her words that undid him; it was her smile, small and sweet and so fucking perfect it made his chest hurt. It sent a feeling of weightless joy rushing through him, too, so powerful he could’ve sworn that gravity had ceased to function and Brienne was the only thing keeping him anchored to the ground. 

Jaime kissed her again, long and deep—he couldn’t help himself—and Brienne sank against him, her hand still cupping his jaw. But when he finally pried his mouth away, he opened his eyes to find a familiar and disconcerting pair of lines between her eyebrows.    

“What’s wrong?” he probed, trying to keep his tone light. Her eyes flashed with surprise, and he quirked his head at her. “I know that look, Brienne. Don’t tell me you’re worried about the rules again.”

“No.” Brienne tried to smile, but it was laced with sadness. “The rules don’t seem quite as important as they did before. But…” She trailed off, gently pulling herself free of his arms and taking a few shuffling steps back. 

The cool air rushed in where her warmth had just been, leaving Jaime feeling damp and bereft and more uneasy than he wanted to admit. Why had she moved away? 

“You said something just now, about us…after the season is over.”

“Yes.” That had been their plan for weeks now. As far as he was concerned, what had just passed between them only made it more sure. 

“What if there isn’t an ‘after’? What if I need to go home?” she asked, quiet and raw in a way that made his stomach twist. “My father told me to stay, that it’s what my brother would have wanted, but he just meant for a few more weeks. He’s expecting me to be there, after that. I should want to be there.”

Jaime frowned. He knew he should support her, encourage her to do what was best for her family, but he didn’t think he could. He may have been a better man than he was three months ago, but he wasn’t that good. Not when it came to Brienne.  

The thought of saying goodbye to her made Jaime feel as though someone had torn open his chest, and he knew that actually losing her would be like losing another limb. Maybe even worse, because Brienne wasn’t some meager appendage that he could replace with a facsimile of the original, that he could adapt to life without. The hole she would leave behind could never be filled; he was certain of that to his very core. And maybe it made him a selfish bastard, but he loved her too damn much to just let her go—not without at least trying to find another way. Especially now that he knew she loved him, too. 

“But you don’t, even though you should.” When she didn’t deny it, Jaime closed the distance she’d put between them. “Then don’t. Don’t go home.” He reached for her hand. “Stay. You belong here, Brienne. You belong in the league.” 

You belong with me.

“We’ll get your father help for the farm, if he needs it,” he continued, too intent on making his case to care about the desperate edge to his voice. “I’ll buy as many train tickets as you want so you can go home and visit. Hell, I’ll drive you there myself. Whatever it takes.” He twined his fingers with hers, then ran his stump down her forearm and across the back of her other hand. “Just…stay. Please.” 

Her eyes glistened as she closed her hand around his scarred wrist. “I want to stay,” she murmured. “In the league…and with you.”

His heart clenched so violently Jaime thought it might implode. At first, he assumed it was relief, but then he realized it was love. He’d just never felt so much of it before—for someone, or from them. 

“Thank God,” he said baldly, his throat suddenly very thick. “I don’t think I could do without you, wench.” He tipped his forehead against hers and added, only half teasingly, “I’d have followed you home like a stray dog, and then where would we have been? I doubt I’d make a very good farmhand.” 

“No, you probably wouldn’t.” Brienne smiled earnestly this time, but her expression swiftly sobered. “Did you mean what you said? About helping my father?” 

“Of course I did. I’m on your side, remember? Although it’s my side, too, in this case,” he mused. “Our side, really.” 

“Thank you,” she breathed, so sincerely it made his heart spasm again. “Really, Jaime, I…thank you.”

He shook his head faintly. Didn’t she know that he was the one who should be grateful?

Before he could say as much, Brienne bit her lip, and Jaime knew she was about to tell him something he wasn’t going to like. 

“I know it’s terrible timing, Jaime, but my father needs me now, not later. Even if I only go for a week or so, it will be long enough to spend some time with him. Make sure he isn’t alone. And I can help with any,” she paused, swallowing stiffly, “arrangements for my brother.”

Jaime squeezed her hand. He couldn’t bring himself to tell her that, with no body, there likely wouldn’t be any arrangements to make, not until the war was over. 

“I can explain to him about next season, too, about my life here. So he understands.” She pressed her eyes shut. “God, I hope he does.” 

“He will,” Jaime affirmed with more confidence than he felt. Though, if Brienne’s father was anything like her, he wouldn’t begrudge his daughter a chance at the life she deserved. Whether he would think Jaime fell into that category was another question entirely—one he would happily put off answering until another day.

Brienne nodded, but there wasn’t much conviction in it. “You don’t mind that I’ll miss a few more games, do you? I know Tyrion won’t like it, but I’ll make sure to be back in time for the series, if we make it in, and—” 

“Don’t you worry about my brother. I’ll call him tonight and explain what happened. He might not be happy about it, but he’ll understand.” Jaime would make sure of it. “And I will take you to the train station myself, whenever you want to go. Just as long as you promise to come back.” He flashed her a bright, fond smile. “I know how seriously you take your promises.”

She gave him a vaguely reproachful look, but amusement tugged at her lips. “I promise.” 

“Good.” He leaned in to drop another kiss on her upturned mouth, just because he could. “Now that we’ve settled that, I really should get you back.” He brought her hand to his lips and kissed that, too, for good measure, before releasing her and moving toward the desk for another towel. “Margaery will send out a search party if you’re not home in time for dinner.” 

“She probably would,” Brienne grimly replied, taking the towel he offered and pressing it to her chest. “As it is, I’m sure she’ll take it upon herself to organize the rotation for the evening.” 

“Rotation?” he asked, pulling another towel from the pile. 

“They did the same thing when I hurt my knee. Sent someone in every fifteen minutes to make sure I was all right. I know they mean well, but…” Her chin quivered. “They were there when Cat called, and they looked so sorry for me. And I’m sure it made Sansa and Arya worry about Jon and Robb.” She swiped the towel down one arm, then the other. “They’ll hover and pity me and try to make me feel better, and it’ll only make it worse.”

Jaime scrubbed his towel absently through his hair. He understood what it felt like to be pitied, and how deeply it could cut. When the worst happened, sometimes a person just needed to be treated as normally as possible and allowed to deal with their grief in their own time. Tyrion had been the only person in his life who’d done that for him; maybe he could do it for her.

“What if you come home with me instead? Just for tonight?” 

Brienne’s eyes flared wide, and Jaime laughed. She looked endearingly scandalized for a woman who’d been perfectly willing to let him make love to her only minutes before.

“I have extra bedrooms, wench,” he said, still smirking. “On my honor, I’ll leave you in perfectly respectable peace.”

She arched a mildly disbelieving eyebrow at him. “You’re serious.” 

“Yes. You can stay in Tyrion’s room. It’s by far the nicest one. There are probably a few decent books stashed in there, too, if you’d rather read than talk.”

“But Ms. Frey—”

“Will be appalled, I’m sure,” he cut in, “but even she ought to understand, after the day you’ve had. And if she doesn’t, well…” Jaime shrugged. “I don’t really care. I suppose the girls might talk, but I’d hope they’d be decent enough not to gossip too much at a time like this. Half of them must know the truth by now, anyway.” 

Brienne stared at him for so long, silent and utterly still, that Jaime was certain she was going to say no. It was unreasonable for him to think of it as a rejection, and yet he did. 

But then she surprised the hell out of him by saying softly, “All right, then. If you’re sure.”

“I am,” he beamed, knowing that he sounded far more chipper than he should have.

He was, after all, doing this entirely for her. He had nothing whatsoever to gain from having her entirely to himself for a whole evening, tucked away in the safety of his house. Nothing at all.

Jaime reached for the phone on his desk, fully aware of the argument he was about to get from Ms. Frey—as well as the shit he’d get later, from his brother—and still feeling like it might be one of the best days of his fucking life. “I’m absolutely sure.”

Chapter Text

“I don’t see why she has to go home.”

“Don’t you?” Jaime’s hand clenched around the telephone. He’d expected Tyrion to resist, but he’d thought his brother would at least show a little compassion. “So if I died, you’d just carry on as though nothing had happened?”

“You nearly did die once already,” Tyrion quipped. “It would be rather dramatic of you to do it again.” Jaime heard the unmistakable sound of a cork popping in the background, followed by a splash of liquid. “And I was quite beside myself at the time, if you recall, though I certainly didn’t rush to comfort Father.” 

“Brienne’s family is different.” 

“Even so, I refuse to believe that she really wants to go. Dr. Luwin phoned me this morning to say he’s finally cleared her to return to play.” Tyrion took a muffled sip of what Jaime assumed was wine. “You know the series starts in two weeks. We need her.” 

“Some things are more important than baseball,” Jaime said tersely. “She doesn’t want her father to be alone, and I’m not going to let you or anyone else stop her from doing what she feels is right.”

“I’m not trying to stop her,” Tyrion replied, his tone a little softer, “or to persuade her that family doesn’t matter. I am still a Lannister, Jaime. I’m only suggesting that she might not have to choose between the two.”

Jaime sighed. Of course Tyrion had already cooked up a plan. “What exactly do you propose?”

“Instead of sending Brienne to her father, why don’t we bring him to her? We can book him a ticket, put him up in a classy hotel, let him see some sights. Meanwhile, Brienne can finish the season and spend time with her father. Everybody wins.”

He nearly growled a rebuke into the phone—this wasn’t about fucking winning—until he paused to consider the possibility. Even though it irked him that Tyrion was motivated more by the desire to keep his star player than any heartfelt concern for Brienne, Jaime had to admit that it wasn’t a terrible idea. In fact, he was a little disappointed he hadn’t thought of it himself.

If Selwyn Tarth came to Rockford, he wouldn’t just get to see Brienne; he would get to see her play. Jaime didn’t think the man knew much about baseball, but even someone completely ignorant of the sport couldn’t miss how damn good she was. Maybe it would help Selwyn understand the choice she was making, too, if he saw how alive she was with a bat in her hands, how being on the field lit her up. 

It would also give him the chance to make a good impression on the man whose daughter he aimed to spend the rest of his life with. 

It was far from a new thought; Jaime had known he wanted a future with her from the moment he’d laid eyes on that photograph. And after the few hours they’d just spent together, he was more determined than ever to make it a reality.

Even with a hint of sadness hovering around Brienne like a cloud, Jaime couldn’t remember having spent a more enjoyable evening in his life. It had been after six by the time they pulled into his driveway, and he’d gone straight to the kitchen, hoping he had something suitable for them to eat. Fortunately, courtesy of Bronn’s ability to procure scarce and illicit products of all kinds, there’d been a few nice steaks in the refrigerator. Jaime had some potatoes to boil up as well, which Brienne had insisted on peeling. Then, eager for something else to do, she’d set about chopping some vegetables for a salad.

True to his word, Jaime hadn’t touched her, aside from an occasional bump of his arm against hers as they shuffled around each other. He did, however, have to resist the urge to duck in for a kiss at least once every three minutes. She was just so damned irresistible.

The outfit she’d changed into before they left the field hadn’t helped matters, either. The only things in her locker had been a pair of navy trousers and a white and blue striped t-shirt that she’d tucked in, presumably to torture him. 

To distract himself from the way her pants hugged certain curves of her body in a way that skirts definitely did not, Jaime had resorted to making small talk about the other teams and their odds of making it into the World Series. They’d both agreed that the Belles were their most serious competition, but Jaime insisted that the Blue Sox had their strengths as well. That line of discussion led them to a debate over the coaching styles of Seaworth and Clegane; Brienne’s soft spot for the old Irishman niggled Jaime more than it should have, and he’d sung Clegane’s praises just to vex her.

Somehow, their back-and-forth had devolved into bantering about the appropriate doneness of their steaks. Brienne preferred hers fully cooked, thank you very much, which Jaime insisted was a crime against the gods of meat. And when he’d peeked over her shoulder and poked fun at the precise way she was cutting everything into perfectly neat pieces, she’d arched her eyebrows and thrown a whole half tomato on his plate, asking him if he liked that better.

He’d just grinned at her, and Brienne shook her head, reaching almost immediately to take it back. Jaime had beaten her to it, though, snatching it up and biting into it like an apple, and she’d shocked him by laughing—brief and bright and absolutely glorious—when the seeds ran down his chin.

Brienne had almost seemed startled by it, like she hadn’t expected such a thing to come out of her own mouth. Jaime, on the other hand, had been so delighted he almost kissed her, seeds and all. 

He’d come close once more a short while later, when he turned from the stove with her well-done steak to find Brienne cutting up the one he’d already deposited on his own plate. After she realized he was watching her, Brienne had looked up at him with a soft little smile, and Jaime nearly dropped the skillet and pulled her into his arms. 

Fortunately, he’d restrained himself—again—and settled for telling her about the Kingslayers instead. As they sat down to eat, he’d recounted the whole tale, from his unexpected meeting with Varys to his subsequent phone calls with Addam Marbrand. The only thing left to do, he’d explained, was drive to the city and sign the contract, but he’d been waiting to speak to her about it first.

Brienne’s eyes had gone round as he spoke, a full, crooked smile spreading across her face. When she told him he deserved it more than anyone she knew and insisted on him taking the job, if he wanted it, the earnest pleasure in her voice had been enough to bring him near to tears. 

It was a marvelous thing for someone to understand exactly what it meant to him, to be that happy on his behalf. He’d never had that before, not even with his brother. 

And Jaime couldn’t help but think, as he’d reached out to squeeze Brienne’s hand, that all the difficult things in his past had been a small price to pay if this, with her, was where they’d brought him. If this was the life he’d been meant to live all along. 

Now he just had to hope that Selwyn Tarth wouldn’t stand in the way of it. That if the man came to Rockford and saw that Brienne was happy—saw how serious Jaime was about making sure she stayed that way—maybe he wouldn’t want to.

“Well,” Tyrion prompted, “what do you think? Will Brienne agree?”

“I don’t know,” Jaime answered honestly. “It might not be that easy. He does have a farm to take care of, you know.”

“What use is spectacular wealth if we can’t use it to solve those kinds of problems?” Tyrion paused to pour another generous-sounding glug of wine. “I’m sure we can hire someone to look after it for a few days while he visits. Hell, I’ll send Bronn if I have to.”

“That may be the worst idea you’ve ever had.”

Tyrion laughed. “All right, not Bronn, but there are plenty of other people in the world. Why don’t the three of us get together in the morning and discuss it? I can stop by and pick her up on my way to your house.”

Jaime pressed his stump into the center of his forehead. He had thus far neglected to mention Brienne’s presence in order to avoid Tyrion’s ragging remarks, but he knew he couldn’t put it off any longer. “That won’t be necessary.”

“What won’t?”

“You don’t need to pick her up.” 

“Why not?” Tyrion sounded sincerely perplexed. “I have a feeling she’d like to be part of the conversation.”

“She’s already here.”

“She’s there?” Tyrion spluttered. “At your house? Right now?”

“She is.”

“And you’ve convinced her to stay the night?” A sharp whistle reverberated in Jaime’s ear. “Perhaps you’re not as hopeless with women as I thought you were.”

“Piss off,” Jaime shot back, annoyed. He couldn’t see Tyrion’s amused smirk, but he could hear it. “I didn’t convince her of anything. She just didn’t want to go back to the boardinghouse. They would have smothered her with sympathy, and she wanted to be left alone for a little while.”

“Is that so?” 

Jaime scraped his teeth together. “Yes.” 

“But she isn’t alone, is she?” Tyrion rejoined, his tone obnoxiously light. “She’s with you.” 

“Not at the moment. For all I know, she’s tired of me, too.” Jaime adjusted the phone against his ear and craned his neck to peer up the stairs. After dinner, he’d taken Brienne up to Tyrion’s room so she could deposit the small bag she’d brought from the field and peruse his brother’s collection of books. It had been at least twenty minutes, and there was still no sign of her. “She might have decided to spend the rest of the night reading alone in your room.”

“My room? Why would she be in there?”

“Because that’s where she’s staying.” Miraculously, Jaime stopped himself from adding, you idiot.

“That hardly seems like the best choice.”

“Are you suggesting I make her sleep in one of those tiny beds instead?” 

The only other bedroom in the house was furnished with a simple set of bunk beds. Jaime certainly wasn’t going to force Brienne to accordion herself into one of them when there was a perfectly good adult-sized bed down the hall. 

Tyrion blew out an exaggerated sigh. “Are you being deliberately obtuse, or has your affection for the woman addled your brain?”

Jaime rolled his eyes. “Do you always have to be such an ass?” 

“I have no idea what you mean,” his brother said, feigning innocence. “I’m merely pointing out that what you have here is a golden opportunity. The only bed that woman belongs in is yours.”

“Brienne is not an opportunity,” Jaime muttered, casting another furtive glance toward the stairs. “And you know damn well I didn’t bring her here to seduce her.” Technically, he wouldn’t have needed to, but Tyrion definitely did not need to know that. 

“More’s the pity.”

“I can’t believe you’re trying to talk me into this,” Jaime protested, rubbing his stump along his jaw. “Isn’t it your job to counsel me against this sort of rash behavior? You’re supposed to at least pretend to care about the rules.”

“Oh, please,” Tyrion scoffed. “It would hardly be rash. And she’s already in your house, Jaime. You might as well light the rules on fire in the middle of the field and dance a jig around them while they burn. Not that it matters. The only actual danger would be if Father found out, and I’m certainly not going to tell him. Varys won’t, either, not now that he’s brokered your deal with Marbrand. So you’ll have to find another excuse.”

“It’s not an excuse.”

“Sure it is. Come on, Jaime,” his brother reproached. “We both know this isn’t really about the rules.” 

Jaime expelled a sigh of his own. He didn’t have the energy to argue, not when Tyrion wasn’t entirely wrong. 

“I can’t risk fucking this up again,” he admitted, keeping his voice low and his eyes on the stairs. “I need to do things the right way. Brienne deserves that. She deserves a man who keeps his promises, and I promised her we’d wait.”

“I admire your dedication to honor where Brienne is concerned. I really do. It’s very admirable. But I also think it’s entirely unnecessary.” 

“It’s not.”

“It is,” Tyrion insisted. “Has it honestly not occurred to you that this promise you keep harping on may be far more important to you than it is to her? For God’s sake, she might even want you to break it.” 

Jaime thought back to Brienne’s eager kisses, to the hot press of her body and the way her hands had kept grasping for more of him—to that tremulous but decided little nod. He had been the one to stop them, not her. 

And he wasn’t sorry for it, not truly. As tempting as it had been at the time, Jaime didn’t want a hurried, clandestine fuck. He wouldn’t do that to her. Or to himself. Not again. And he’d meant it when he told Brienne that she deserved better than his dingy office. 

But they weren’t in his office anymore. 

“Just think about that, will you?” Tyrion went on when Jaime said nothing. “And if you happen to come to the conclusion that I am, as usual, right about this, there’s a tin of Romeos in my dresser.” 

“What?” Jaime asked vaguely, his mind wandering unbidden to an image of Brienne’s pale skin against his crisp white sheets. 

“Rubbers, brother. I know it’s been awhile for you, but I’m sure you remember—”    

“Jesus Christ.” Jaime squeezed his eyes shut. “Stop talking.” He didn’t even want to think about why Tyrion kept prophylactics at his house.

“Why? You’re both adults. And I’m sure you’ll agree that it’s important to take precau—”

“For fuck’s sake, I said stop talking. I am absolutely not discussing it with you.” Jaime shook his head. “Why the hell are you pushing this?”

“Is it wrong of me to want you to be happy? Or maybe I just want to spare us all from watching you pine after each other when you’re three fucking feet apart. All this restrained longing is getting rather ridiculous.” 

Try living it, Jaime thought wryly. He’d need more than his remaining fingers to count the number of times he thought about touching her or kissing her or wanting her whenever he was in Brienne’s presence. It was the sweetest kind of agony.

“Always so considerate,” Jaime drawled. “But I’m still not—”

“I know, I know. You’re not discussing it with me. You said that already.” Tyrion huffed. “Have it your way, then. Do—or don’t do, as it were—whatever you want to with your evening. Just make sure you speak to Brienne about her father. And do try to be convincing, would you? Tell her how much we need her.”

“It isn’t about what we need,” Jaime reminded him. “And if Brienne doesn’t agree to it, I need your word that you’ll let it go. Let her go.” 

“If I don’t agree to what?”

Startled, Jaime looked up to find Brienne standing at the bottom of the stairs with a slight frown on her lips. 

Shit, he thought. Shit, shit, shit. How much did she hear?

“I have to go,” he told his brother. 

“Ah, that must be Brienne. Give her my condolences, would you?” Tyrion’s voice dropped to a conspiratorial near-whisper. “And don’t forget what I said before. They’re in the top draw—”

“Goodbye, Tyrion,” Jaime said loudly, hanging up before the little imp could get in another word. 

Brienne was still frowning as Jaime rose from his seat and slowly walked toward her. 

“You didn’t find a book?” he asked, glancing at her empty hands. 

“No,” she replied. “They all seemed a little…sad.”

Jaime nodded sympathetically. Tyrion’s tastes sometimes tended toward the melancholic, and she certainly didn’t need that right now. “Well, I’m sure we can find something on the radio.” He turned, intending to go switch it on, but Brienne stopped him with a hand on his arm.

“What was that about?” she asked, tipping her head toward the phone. 

Jaime hated the worry on her face, the suspicion in her voice. “You,” he answered candidly. There was no point in delaying or dissembling, not when she’d already heard. “Tyrion’s plotting to keep you in Rockford, which is no surprise, and he wants me to convince you that it’s a good idea.” Brienne’s eyes narrowed, and Jaime smiled. “I told him it was completely your decision.” 

“I heard you,” she admitted, and the lines on her face softened. “But I’m not going to change my mind, Jaime.”

“You might,” he contended, his tone an incongruous blend of skepticism and hope. “Let’s sit, and I’ll explain everything.”

He sank down in his favorite chair, and Brienne reluctantly took a seat across from him on the sofa. She folded her long legs beneath herself, looking strikingly doe-like as she gazed over at him with big, slightly wary eyes. 

“As you suspected, my brother is less than thrilled about losing his best player right before the World Series,” Jaime began. “So, naturally, he suggested an alternative.” He went on to tell her about Tyrion’s plan for her father and the farm, including, of course, that they would pay for everything. 

When he’d finished, Brienne stared thoughtfully into the middle distance. “He might not want to come. He doesn’t really like to travel.” 

It was a much more favorable response than Jaime had thought he’d get. At the very least, it suggested that Brienne didn’t dislike the idea; she just wasn’t sure her father would feel the same way. 

“You never know. A change of scenery might sound pretty good to him right now. And if it doesn’t, we’ll get you a train ticket, just like we planned.” Jaime leaned forward in his chair, and Brienne’s eyes finally slid to his. “Tyrion’s coming by in the morning to talk it over, so nothing has to be decided until then. Just think about it.”

“I will,” she said quietly, and he believed her.

~*~*~

A few hours later, Brienne hovered uncomfortably in the doorway of his bedroom as Jaime rummaged in his dresser for a pair of pajamas. 

She’d meekly asked if she could borrow some when they headed toward the stairs to retire for the night. He had immediately said yes—why would he refuse her?—but the thought of her in his clothes had Jaime half hard by the time they’d reached the landing. He’d done his best to blink the image away as he led her down the hallway, but it hadn’t proven effective in the least.

“They might be a little short in the legs,” he said thickly, turning to hand her the nicest pair he had, which just so happened to be light blue. “But otherwise they should fit.”

Her fingers grazed his when she took them, and his brother’s words rang in Jaime’s ears. 

“Thank you,” Brienne replied. “For today. For everything.”

“You’re most welcome.”

For the first time that day, the silence that fell between them felt awkward and unsure. To break it, Jaime did the only thing he could think of, stretching forward and giving her a peck on the cheek. It was more than he should have done—more than he intended to do—and yet, he swore Brienne looked disappointed when he eased away from her.

But the expression was gone in an instant, and she took a step back into the hall. “Goodnight, Jaime.” 

His whole body screamed for him to stop her, to invite her back in, to tug her against him and show her why it would be so much better if she stayed. But he only murmured, “Goodnight, Brienne.” 

He watched her walk toward Tyrion’s room with an ache in his chest and a throbbing in his trousers, waiting until he heard her door click shut before closing his own.

Jaime took a series of deep breaths as he stripped off his clothes and donned the gray pajama pants he’d pulled out for himself, eschewing the matching buttoned top in favor of a simple white t-shirt. Then he climbed in bed, trying to think of Addam Marbrand and the Kingslayers and his father’s face when he heard the news—anything but her. But it was all for naught. 

His final conscious thought, as he drifted in that ephemeral place between waking and sleeping, was of Brienne, dripping wet and trembling in his arms. 

~*~*~

The next thing he knew, Jaime was standing on the pitcher’s mound, his brow beaded with sweat and his right hand burning with pain. 

The field lights beat down on him, blinding and harsh, demanding something from him he couldn’t give—just like the crowd. Jaime couldn’t make out their faces, only a shadowy mass of thousands stirring in the stands, but he could hear their angry rumbles. The longer he stood there, the louder they grew, hurling all manner of threats and growls and insults in his direction. But he was powerless to satisfy them, unable to do anything but look down at his ravaged hand, gripping a ball that was slick with his own dripping blood. 

His whole arm felt leaden, and when Jaime finally attempted to raise it, the ball slipped from his tattered fingers. As he watched it roll away, leaving a red trail across the grass, the buzz of the crowd swelled into a roar, and the mob began to pour onto the field. 

Then the lights went out, and fear tightened like a vise around his throat. 

He waited, frozen, for that tidal wave of hate and disappointment to come and drag him under, but someone appeared at his side before it could reach him.

Not just anyone. Brienne.

He shouldn’t have been able to see her, tall and strong and calm, standing there in her uniform with her shoulders squared like she was going into battle. But an ethereal silver light glowed around her, dazzling Jaime’s eyes as he took her in. 

She radiated the same power and confidence she always did when she strode onto the field, and her presence alone drove back the terror of the darkness. Then she closed her hand around his arm and whispered his name, steady and full of love, and the fear receded a little more.

“Jaime,” she repeated, more firmly this time, and the world began to dissolve around the edges. The sound of the throng faded to a distant whir, and the pain drained out of his hand. “Jaime, it’s all right. You’re dreaming.” 

He woke with a start, blinking rapidly until Brienne came into focus. Somehow, she was still there, kneeling at his side with her hand gently clasping his stump. She was still glowing, too, a liquid silver glistening on her skin…but that was impossible.

“Brienne?” he asked blearily, his brain striving to sort illusion from reality. 

“I’m here, Jaime,” came her soothing voice. “It was just a dream.” 

He swiped his hand across his damp forehead as he looked at her, noticing her creased brow and worried frown. His racing heart began to slow, and he gradually became aware of the room again, from the covers bunched at his feet to the moonlight flooding through the window. 

“I’m sorry,” he croaked. “It happens, sometimes. I should have warned you.”

“There’s nothing to apologize for.” Brienne’s eyes swept over him. “Are you all right?”

“Yes.” Jaime heaved himself up until his back rested against the headboard, and then he patted the small strip of space beside him. Brienne seemed reluctant, but she eventually perched herself on the edge of the bed.

She listened attentively as he explained about the phantom pain, about the dreams and what usually happened in them. They’d lessened over the summer, he told her, ever since he stopped wearing his prosthetic hand, but they still plagued him from time to time. 

Brienne responded with her usual compassion, leaning closer to rest her hand on his arm, and Jaime tried very determinedly not to notice the way the peaks of her nipples were visible through the thin fabric of her shirt. His shirt. 

He knew he shouldn’t be aroused, but, fuck, he was. How could he help himself, with that picture of her branded in his head? She’d looked like an ancient warrior goddess, like an Amazon or a goddamned Valkyrie in cleats.

“I’m sorry if I woke you,” he blurted, mostly to keep himself from yanking her onto his lap.

“You didn’t. I was on my way to get a glass of water, and I heard you.” 

“Ah.” He hadn’t known he made noise when he dreamed; Tyrion had never said anything, and there’d never been anyone else to tell him.

“I shouldn’t have barged in like that,” she offered apologetically, slipping her hand from his arm. “But it sounded like you were in pain, so I stopped to listen, to see if you were okay. And then…”

“And then?” he prompted when she didn’t continue. 

“Then you said my name.”

“Did I?” He lifted his eyebrows. “That makes sense, I suppose. You were there.”

“In your nightmare?” she asked, aghast.

Jaime smiled, twisting toward her so he could reach across and take her hand. “Well, it was. Then you came along, and it wasn’t anymore.” 

He hoped she could see in his eyes that he meant it. And not only about the dream. 

“Jaime,” she breathed, and the sound shot straight down his spine. He didn’t think he’d ever tire of hearing her say his name. 

“Maybe it’s true what they say about dreams reflecting reality,” he ventured softly. “Or maybe I’m still dreaming.”

“You’re not.”

“I must be,” he insisted, inching his head closer to hers. “You can’t possibly be in my bedroom. In my bed.”

Color rose in her face as Brienne glanced down at the mattress, but she didn’t lean away. 

“And yet,” she said, sounding a little bemused by it herself, “it seems I am.”

“Would you stay, if I asked you?”

The words left his lips before he’d fully thought them through, but he didn’t regret saying them. Seeing her in his dream had shattered what little restraint he’d had left, and Jaime didn’t think he could hold back, not if she wanted him as badly as he wanted her. Not if Tyrion was right and she really didn’t care about his damned promises. 

Her eyes darted to the empty space on the other side of him. “I would.” 

“Brienne?” He bent his head closer still.

“Yes, Jaime?”

“You understand,” he said hoarsely, “that I’d very likely break my promise if you did?” He paused, rubbing his thumb across her hand. “Do you think you’d mind that?”

Brienne blinked at him, wide-eyed, then shook her head faintly. “No, Jaime, I…” A quiver shuddered through her chin. “I wouldn’t mind.” 

“Thank God.”

And then he was kissing her, or she was kissing him. Jaime couldn’t really be sure, and it didn’t matter, because her body was melting into him and her lips were plush and hungry and welded to his. 

She didn’t resist when he pulled her over until she was half on top of him, or when he slid down the bed, taking her with him. He buried his hand in the silky waves of her hair and wrapped his arm around her waist, trying to haul her closer, but it wasn’t enough. Jaime needed more. More leverage, more friction, more heat, more contact with every strong, soft inch of her. 

In one swift motion, he rolled her over and pressed himself against her, trying not to buck his hips as he reveled in the feeling of having her beneath him. Then her thighs parted, allowing Jaime to slot perfectly between them, painfully hard against the center of her, and he suddenly realized he needed to go get Tyrion’s fucking tin. Now.  

“Brienne?” he asked, lips still brushing hers. “Are you sure?”

She looked up at him intently, all flushed cheeks and lidded eyes, her pulse thrumming at the base of her neck. This close, Jaime could see that her pupils had spread, making the thin rings of her irises look darker and even more intensely blue.

In that moment, he felt as though she was staring straight through to the core of him, to a place no one else had ever bothered to look. A place even he didn’t always see. And Jaime wanted her desperately, which didn’t make any sense, because he had her. She was right there.

Slowly, Brienne brought her hands up to cradle his face. “I am,” she murmured, sounding shy and certain all at once. “I want this. With you.”

He surged down for another kiss, and then another, barely keeping himself from grinding against her as his tongue slid along hers. 

“Don’t you dare move, wench,” Jaime groaned as soon as he’d managed to pry his mouth away. “I’ll be right back.” 

It took every ounce of his willpower to climb out of that bed, especially with Brienne watching him go. He couldn’t risk glancing back at her, either; one look at her spread alluringly across his pillows and Jaime knew he wouldn’t have made it to the door.

As it was, he practically sprinted down the hall, and his hand was shaking when he pulled open Tyrion’s dresser drawer.

Easy, Jaime, he told himself. There’d been no one else for him, besides Cersei, and no one at all for nearly three years. He knew he needed to calm down if he wanted this to last any time at all, and he really, really did.

Because he wanted to make it good for her. He wanted to make it something to remember.

He forced himself to make the return trip at a more languid pace, closing the door behind him before his eyes sought her out. To his surprise, Brienne hadn’t moved, but she raised herself up on her elbows as he approached the bed.

“Where…?” she began, but her question tapered off when he tossed the tin down onto the sheets beside her. “Oh.”

Jaime grinned. He was looking forward to spending an extensive portion of the night discovering all the ways to make her say that. 

Desire simmered low in his abdomen as he pulled his shirt over his head, and Jaime thought he might catch fire when Brienne raked her gaze over him, from his mussed hair to his naked chest to the prominent tent in his pants. 

She trembled when he crawled back up on the bed, looming over her as he began clumsily unbuttoning her shirt. Jaime growled impatiently when he fumbled for the third time, and Brienne lifted her own hands to help him. Her fingers shook as she undid them, one by one, but she didn’t take those wondrous eyes from his, even when she shrugged the fabric from her shoulders.

Jaime allowed himself a brief, blissful moment to marvel at the full glory of her before bending to press a tender kiss to her lips. He dropped one on her forehead, too, and on each of her eyelids and the soft shell of her left ear, and even the tip of her nose. Then, he leisurely kissed his way down her neck, stopping to swirl his tongue in the hollow of her throat.

He felt her tense beneath him as he trailed his lips over her collarbone and lower, toward the gentle swells of her breasts. But Jaime just kept touching her, reverent and reassuring, coaxing her to relax with his fingers and mouth and stump. Soon enough, Brienne’s hands slipped into his hair and the sweetest little gasps escaped her lips, and he couldn’t help but smile against her skin. 

And a little while later, when he slid inside her in an achingly slow stroke, the pleasure was so intense it sent a shudder rippling through his limbs. The searing heat of her against him and around him was so good, so perfect—because it was Brienne and he was finally as close to her as it was possible to be—that Jaime thought he might come apart before he even began. 

Braced above her on his forearms, he ignored the pulsing of his cock and strained to keep himself still as he searched her face for signs of discomfort or doubt. But Brienne didn’t look timid or pained. She looked fucking beautiful. And she was gazing up at him like he was something precious to her, as though she somehow believed she was the lucky one.

Jaime wanted to tell her that she had it all wrong, that she was the gift. That she’d given him hope and possibility and a future he actually wanted for the first time in years. That she’d brought him back to life. 

But as he stared down at her, watching the moonlight dance on the seas inside her eyes, Jaime realized there were really only three words that mattered.  

“I love you,” he rasped.

Brienne’s lips curved in the barest hint of a smile just before he claimed them in a deep, fierce kiss. He hadn’t given her the chance to say it back, but it didn’t matter. Jaime could taste it on her tongue, hear it in the rapid drumming of her heart, feel it in every breath, every muscle, every moment.

As he drew his mouth back from hers, Jaime gave a slight, shallow roll of his hips, sucking in a sharp rush of air when he felt Brienne tighten around him. One of her long legs hitched up to hook instinctively over his hip, pulling him just a little bit closer, and her breath caught when he settled fully inside her. 

“Jaime,” she whispered, low and warm and wanting, and it was somehow both permission and a plea. 

I’m yours, he thought, resting his forehead against hers as he began to move in slow, steady strokes. Finally. Always.

Chapter Text

Brienne woke to the warmth of sunlight on her face. 

She cracked her eyes open slowly, letting them adjust to the brightness of the morning, and wondered hazily at the softness of the sheets against her bare skin and the languorous feeling in her limbs. Blinking away the sluggishness of an unusually deep sleep, she gazed out into a room that wasn’t hers but was still somehow familiar.

Instantly, her awareness sharpened. Jaime’s room.

And the sun-dappled bed beneath her was Jaime’s bed. Where she’d slept. After he’d made love to her.

A buzzing heat licked through her, warming Brienne from the inside out as memories of the night before flooded her senses. 

Jaime, hovering over the top of her, his green eyes glittering in the dark. His lips burning a trail down her body, kissing her in places she’d never even been touched by another person—that she’d never allowed another person to see. His fingers caressing her broad planes and slight curves like he adored every ungainly inch of her, like he wanted to map and memorize every jut of bone and sweep of muscle. The unrestrained desire on his face and in his touches, and how it had stoked an answering desire inside of her, replacing any shyness she might have felt with something ardent and burning and unlike anything she’d ever felt before. 

She remembered every second, every sound, every sensation, from his stump ghosting over the remnants of the bruise at her hip to the rasp in his voice when he said he loved her to the impossibly marvelous feeling of his body moving against her—inside her. The way it felt as though her whole being had contracted around him in that sudden, rapturous moment, every muscle in her body arching and flexing and spasming as seemingly endless waves of pleasure crashed over her. She hadn’t even cried out, she’d been so surprised by it. But she’d squeezed her eyes shut so tightly she’d seen stars. 

Jaime had stilled above her, just for a moment, before increasing his pace, his movements less careful and controlled than they’d been before. A few seconds later, he’d shuddered inside her, exhaling her name on a groan before pressing his mouth to hers in a hot, fervent kiss. 

His body had slumped more heavily against hers, after that, but she hadn’t minded. Brienne had enjoyed having him close enough to feel the pounding of his heart, the sticky bursts of his breath on her neck, the coarseness of his chest hair against her breasts. Feeling relaxed and content and so very full of love for the man staring down at her, she’d reached up to cradle Jaime’s face with her hand, stroking her thumb along his stubbled cheek. 

The love had spilled out of her, then, heartfelt words escaping in whispered rush. Brienne hadn’t been able to hold them back after the extraordinariness of what had passed between them—she hadn’t wanted to. Jaime had just smiled that dazzling smile of his, the one that dimpled his cheeks and creased the corners of his eyes, and turned to kiss her palm before leaning down to claim her mouth again.

In truth, part of her was still in awe that it had happened. But Jaime had asked her to stay, and she had. She’d chosen to. She’d wanted it just as much as he had. Because she’d wanted him, yes, but also because she loved him and he loved her and somehow they’d started planning their futures around each other. Brienne had never thought she’d get to have that, any of it, in all her life. And she was glad. She was glad it was with Jaime. 

Brienne smiled as she recalled the way she’d fallen asleep with him curled around her, his stump tucked into her waist and his nose pressed to the nape of her neck. But he wasn’t curled around her now. In fact, she realized, as she gradually turned toward his side of the bed, he wasn’t there at all. 

Without thinking, she stretched out her hand beneath the rumpled covers, feeling for his warmth, but the bed was cold. 

Disappointment twinged through her, along with a vague sadness that Jaime had left her to wake up alone. Then she spied the alarm clock on the far side of the bed and immediately understood why: it was well after nine o’clock, and Tyrion could be arriving at any moment. 

After a quick glance at the closed bedroom door, Brienne threw back the covers and climbed out of bed. Her borrowed pajamas had been gathered up and draped neatly across a wingback chair next to the dresser, and Brienne found herself unexpectedly grateful for Jaime’s absence as she padded across the floor to retrieve them. She didn’t think she could have endured those sparkling eyes watching her every move, naked in the bright, revealing light of the morning. Because she knew they would have. Shamelessly. Avidly. 

And she doubted very much that he would have confined himself to merely looking. It unsettled her a little that she wouldn’t have wanted him to. 

Brienne tried not to think of Jaime’s gaze—or his hand or his mouth or any other part of him—as she slithered into her pants and slipped on her shirt. Instead, she looked slowly around the room, taking in the surroundings she hadn’t paid attention to the night before: a few pieces of antique furniture in dark, polished wood, gray damask wallpaper covered with sprays of white flowers, gauzy gray curtains with cream-colored ruffles. 

None of it looked in the least like Jaime. In fact, if it weren’t for his prosthetic hand and red Rockford cap sitting on the dresser, Brienne would never have known it was his room at all. 

She’d thought the same thing about the downstairs the night before. Its jewel tones suited him better than this drab room did, but even they weren’t quite right. The space was appointed well enough, to be sure, but it didn’t feel like home. It didn’t feel like his.

That’s because it isn’t, Brienne reminded herself, doing up the last button on her shirt. He’d only rented it for the summer—or, more likely, Tyrion had rented it for him. Its decor no more reflected his tastes than the floral patterns and pink pillows in her bedroom at the boardinghouse reflected hers.

Brienne ran her hand absently along the bed before beginning to straighten it, wondering what Jaime’s realhome looked like as she pulled the covers up toward the headboard. It wouldn’t have the same battered coziness as her family’s farmhouse, but she didn’t think it would be as meticulously neat and polished as this place was, either. Or as plain. 

She imagined it filled with blues and greens and warm golden light, with sturdy, comfortable furniture that a man of Jaime’s build could easily stretch out on. He’d have photographs of his family scattered about, at least of his brother and his grandfather. Maybe even of his mother. There would be a small collection of well-tended potted plants by the windows, a few dirty dishes in the sink, and a tabletop radio trilling out the bright notes of Harry James’ trumpet or the smooth baritone of Crosby or Sinatra. And when the weather finally turned cold, crackling orange flames would dance and flicker in the fireplace.  

Brienne could see him there, relaxing with a lazy grin on his face. She could see herself there with him.

Giving the pillows a final fluff, Brienne shook the thought away. There were plenty of things to contend with before that daydream had any chance of coming true.

Tyrion, first and foremost, and she certainly wasn’t going to face him wearing Jaime’s pajamas. 

The house seemed quiet as Brienne swung open the door and made her way to Tyrion’s room, where she quickly donned her clothes from the previous day. But when she returned to the hallway, the unmistakable murmur of Jaime’s voice greeted her ears. Listening intently, Brienne padded quietly down the stairs, but she couldn’t make out his words, nor did she hear an answering voice when his died away. 

Maybe Tyrion isn’t coming after all, she thought. Maybe Jaime called and told him not to.

She didn’t have time to decide how she felt about that, because Jaime began to speak once more. First he said her name, then Kingslayers, then father. From his tone, she guessed he was referring to his father, not hers.

Her foot landed on the living room floor just as he fell silent again. Brienne only had a second to take in the back of Jaime’s tousled golden head, registering that he was nowhere near the telephone, before a pair of glinting green eyes caught hers across the room. 

Tyrion was perched comfortably in Jaime’s armchair, tieless and in his shirtsleeves—the most casually dressed Brienne had ever seen him. Jaime, in the white t-shirt and pajama pants she’d watched him remove a few short hours ago, sat across from his brother on the sofa. 

“Well, good morning,” Tyrion said brightly.

Jaime scrambled to his feet so quickly he nearly spilled the cup of coffee in his hand.  

“Brienne,” he breathed, and somehow all the tenderness of the night before was there, in just her name. “Good morning.”

Tyrion darted his gaze up to Jaime before returning it to her, a smirk tugging at his lips. “Sleep well?”

Brienne felt her face brighten to what was surely a spectacular shade of red. Somehow, she managed to respond with a level, “I did, thank you.”  

Tyrion smiled, and Jaime shot him an ominous glare before setting his cup down on the coffee table and swiftly moving toward her. 

“I didn’t have the heart to wake you,” he murmured when he was close enough that only she could hear. “I heard him come in, and I had to get downstairs before he came up. Otherwise…” He gave her a soft, meaningful look and leaned in to kiss her cheek. 

Brienne could feel the weight of Tyrion’s stare as Jaime’s lips brushed her skin a second time, near her ear, and she had to stop herself from reaching out for him. Jaime, on the other hand, seemed much less concerned. His fingers skimmed her wrist and his breath tickled her neck as he added, “Believe me, I had other ideas for how we might spend our morning.” 

The heat in Brienne’s cheeks spread down her neck, clear to her clavicle. She had surprisingly little trouble imagining what he may have had in mind. 

Jaime had his lips pressed flat when he finally drew back from her, but his eyes crinkled as they traveled over her blush. “Then again, there’s always—”

“Care to share with the rest of the class?” Tyrion interrupted loudly. “I’m feeling quite left out.”

“Not in the least,” Jaime retorted. Then, with a fond tilt of his head, he asked Brienne, “Coffee?”

She nodded, trying not to look at Tyrion over his shoulder. “I think I’m going to need it.”

Jaime grinned. “Oh, he won’t cross the line. He’ll come damn close, but he’ll stay on the right side of it. Besides, we both know he has other things on his mind.” He took a few backward steps toward the kitchen, still smiling. “Go ahead and sit down. I’ll get that coffee.” 

When he’d disappeared through the door, Brienne slowly walked over to the sofa and sank down onto it, hoping to give her flush time to fade. It hadn’t, though, at least not enough, judging by the knowing gleam in Tyrion’s eye. Still, she forced herself to tip up her chin and steadily hold his gaze as she waited for whatever teasing or irreverent remark he was about to make. 

But he didn’t say a thing. He just stared at her, looking inordinately satisfied. 

After several agonizing seconds, Brienne could no longer bear his scrutiny—or the silence. “I hope I didn’t interrupt anything important,” she said, sounding painfully stilted, and pursed her lips to keep from frowning. It wasn’t the first time in her life she wished she was better at pretending.

“Not at all,” Tyrion replied, easy as ever. “Jaime was just telling me he’s decided to accept the coaching position with the Kingslayers. I take it you encouraged him?” 

“Of course I did. I think it’s wonderful.”

Knowing he wouldn’t have to give up baseball had filled Brienne with the same warm joy she’d felt when Jaime had told her he loved her. She knew what it meant to him to get a second chance, to have someone recognize his skill and potential. And the fact that he’d waited to say yes until he could talk to her about it had made her want to smile and cry at the same time. 

She’d been happy, truly happy, on a day she believed that feeling to be impossible. That it had been Jaime who’d proved her wrong, more than once, made her heart all the fuller. 

Granted, none of it had taken away her pain over Galladon—nothing had the power to do that. But Jaime had shown her that good things, hopeful things, were still possible, even in the midst of grief. 

“I agree,” Tyrion said, chasing her thoughts away. “I just hope he has enough sense not to tell our father until after the season is over.”

Brienne hadn’t given the smallest consideration to how Tywin Lannister would take the news, but given what Jaime had told her about his past, she doubted it would be well. She also doubted Jaime would let that stop him. 

“Jaime said he already told your father he wasn’t coming back next year. Why should it matter what else he does?”

“Yes, he did tell him,” Tyrion affirmed. “That doesn’t mean our father has accepted it. And he’s rather accustomed to getting his own way.” 

Not where Jaime is concerned, she mused. God, just wait until he hears about me. 

Her shoulders went rigid at the thought, and Brienne quickly shoved it out of her head. That was a problem for a different day. “I’m sure Jaime will do what he thinks is right.” 

“Indeed.” Tyrion tapped his fingers restlessly on the arm of the chair. “The question is, will that be the right thing for the league?”

“There are more important things than the league, Tyrion,” Jaime admonished, appearing in the doorway to the kitchen with a mug in his hand and a scowl on his face. 

“So you keep telling me.”

“For all the good it’s done.” Jaime stalked across the room and handed Brienne a still-steaming cup of coffee. He smiled at her murmur of gratitude before dropping down next to her on the sofa, sitting so close that his left thigh rested against her right one. “If it makes you feel any better, I wasn’t planning on informing him. Not until I have to.” 

“It does, actually.” Tyrion’s mouth quirked as he glanced down to where their legs touched. “I’ve got him very close to agreeing on a second season, and I see no reason to needlessly jeopardize that possibility.” He looked pointedly at Brienne. “Which brings me to the purpose of my visit.”

Brienne bristled. Her going home was hardly needless. She was about to tell Tyrion as much when Jaime slipped his hand onto her thigh. 

“Brienne and I discussed everything last night, and she agreed to think about it,” Jaime informed his brother, a note of warning in his tone. “Like I said, it’s her decision.” 

“Don’t worry, I remember. But there’s something else I’d like to discuss before we get to that.” Tyrion’s expression sobered, and when he spoke again, his voice was quiet and unusually kind—and directed squarely at her. “Despite what my brother seems to think, I care about more than just the league, Brienne. I was terribly sorry to hear about your brother, and I apologize for asking you to do anything other than exactly what you’d wish to, under the circumstances.” 

She didn’t know what to say to that, so Brienne just bobbed her head.

“I hope you know that I wouldn’t, if I didn’t think it absolutely necessary.” Tyrion edged forward in his seat and peered earnestly into her eyes. “If I didn’t think it mattered to you, too.”

Her throat thickened, and Brienne took a few sips of her hot coffee to try and clear it away.

Tyrion was right. It did matter to her. Her team, the league, its future…all of it. But so did her father.

“No matter what you decide,” Tyrion continued, “I’d like to dedicate this afternoon’s game to your brother, if you’ll allow me to. Along with all the other missing and fallen soldiers we’ve lost in this goddamned war.” 

Tears stung Brienne’s eyes, and the room swam out of focus. It would be difficult to stand on the field and listen to the announcer speak Galladon’s name, and she most definitely didn’t want him turned into some kind of gimmick. Not even for the sake of the league. 

Jaime rubbed a slow, reassuring circle on her thigh, telling her wordlessly that she was allowed to say no. But when Brienne wiped her eyes and looked once more at Tyrion, she saw nothing but sympathy and sorrow in his gaze.  

“Galladon would have liked that,” she finally replied, knowing it was true. “Thank you.” 

“No thanks necessary. It’s the least I can do.” For a moment, Tyrion looked genuinely pleased, then he raised his eyebrows uncertainly. “I take it that means you’ll at least stay for the game?”

Brienne took another sip of coffee before stretching forward to set her cup down on the table. “I will.” 

“And after that?” Tyrion inquired. “We could put you on a train tomorrow, of course, if that’s what you want, but I hope you’ll consider letting us bring your father here instead.”

Brienne sighed. “I have considered it.”

She’d gone over and over it the night before, in fact; it’s why she’d been roaming the upstairs hallway long after she should have been asleep. 

It wasn’t that she disliked the idea of her father coming to Rockford. On the contrary, the longer she’d thought about it, the more attractive it became. But her father hated traveling, and while Brienne had many reasons for wanting to stay, his only incentive in coming would be to see her play baseball. And since he’d never watched her games when they were five minutes down the road, she couldn’t imagine him wanting to take a train across two states to do it now. Especially when the only thing baseball would do was remind him of Galladon.

“But you think he’ll say no?” Tyrion prompted.

“No. I think he’ll say yes, even if he doesn’t want to, and I don’t want him to do that.”

“I see,” Tyrion said, but Brienne knew he didn’t. Not really.

“I don’t want to make things worse for him,” she tried to explain. “At home, he has the farm. He has the Starks. If he comes here, he’ll have nothing to do and no one to keep him company when I’m traveling with the team. It’s not like he’s going to take the bus with us to South Bend. And I hate the idea of sticking him in a hotel by himself.”

“Well, now,” Tyrion began, “those are far from insurmountable concerns. Dr. Luwin tells me you need to go easy on that knee anyway, so why don’t you take a few away games off? It’s a far cry from having you gone for a week or more. I’ll even arrange for a car, and the two of you can take a daytrip into the city. You’d also be welcome to stay in the hotel with him, if it would ease your mind.”

“Or,” Jaime interjected, “he could stay here.” 

Brienne jerked her head sharply to look at him, and the nervous hope glimmering in his eyes made her throat catch. 

“I know this place isn’t exactly homey,” he added, “but it’s better than a hotel.” 

“You think he should…stay here? With—with you?” she stuttered. “You would do that?”

“Anything for you, wench.” Jaime’s smile was teasing, but his words were soft, and Brienne marveled at how completely he seemed to mean them.

“Besides,” he went on, “I’d like to get to know him. And if he doesn’t want to stay with a stranger—”

“You’re hardly a stranger,” she protested.

“I am to him. For now.” Jaime lifted his hand from her leg, reaching to twine his fingers with hers. “I intend to remedy that, but if it would make him more comfortable in the meantime, you could stay here, too.” 

Brienne flinched in surprise, and Tyrion choked out a cough that sounded suspiciously like a bark of laughter.

Jaime shook his head with a smirk, but Brienne caught his eyes wandering to her mouth. “I have plenty of space for all three of us. You can take my room, your father can have Tyrion’s, and I’ll stay in the smallest one. Your father’s presence should alleviate any potential…concerns about the arrangement.” 

Tyrion mumbled something about an ulterior motive that Brienne didn’t quite catch, and Jaime flashed him a wry smile. 

“Don’t worry, brother. Brienne knows me well enough not to paint me as some kind of selfless paragon. She knows I’m doing it for myself, too.”

She wasn’t going to argue with him, not in front of Tyrion, but Brienne had a feeling he’d have done it even if there was nothing in it for him at all. Because it was good and kind and generous, and so was he. 

“Jaime.” She squeezed his hand. “Thank you. I’d like that, I really would, but…”

“But what?” Jaime asked, disregarding Tyrion’s disappointed groan.  

“We need to have some sort of…service. For Galladon.” Ignoring the clutch in her chest, Brienne continued, “Part of why I wanted to go home was to help make the arrangements, and just to be there. I don’t feel right about postponing it.” 

“Postponing it?” Tyrion’s eyebrows shot up. “My dear Brienne, even if you have a funeral, it won’t be until the war is over. And by the looks of things, that won’t be anytime soon.”

“Why wouldn’t we have a funeral?” The clutch spread into a burning ache that engulfed her ribs. “He’s…”

Dead, she thought. He’s dead. Again, she tried to say it, but the word refused to pass her lips. 

Tyrion tilted forward in his chair, and Brienne sensed that, if he’d been closer, he would have reached for her other hand. “Missing people are occasionally found, Brienne. Presumed dead or not, there’s always a chance.”

Brienne swallowed hard, willing herself not to cry. Saying he was presumed dead was just a technicality, since they hadn’t yet recovered his…him. Wasn’t it? 

Though, now that she thought about it, neither her father nor Catelyn had mentioned anything about a funeral service.

There’s nothing to do here but grieve and wait, her father had said. Is that all he intended to do? Could Tyrion be right?

If he was, Brienne was out of reasons not to at least ask her father to come to Rockford. If there was more for her here than that, maybe there could be more for him, too.  

When she told her companions she would call home that evening to find out, Tyrion nearly jumped out of his seat.

“Excellent,” he proclaimed, smiling widely. “As soon as he gives you an answer, I want you to call Jaime and let him know. Either way, we can have a train ticket booked for one of you within a day.”  

He’d said either way, but it was clear Tyrion believed he was about to get exactly what he wanted. Jaime must have thought the same thing, because he warned his brother not to get his hopes up too high. 

“A little hope never did anyone any harm,” Tyrion cheerfully rejoined. “For instance, I’m hoping Brienne’s knee holds up admirably at the game today.”

“If it doesn’t, I’ll haul her off the field myself.” Jaime slanted her a twinkling glance. “And she already knows I can.” 

Brienne arched her brows, preparing to inform him that he’d never tried to do so against her will, but Tyrion spoke again before she could. 

“Ah, yes, that reminds me. There is one more thing I’d like to say.”

“Is there?” Jaime drawled.

“Yes.” Tyrion held his mouth in a serious line, but, Brienne suspected, only just. “I have no objection to you two sharing a roof while Brienne’s father is here. Actually, I have no objection to you sharing a roof at all.” He gave a lackadaisical shrug. “However, my opinion isn’t the only one that matters.”

Brienne pressed her free hand to the bridge of her nose. They’d been so close to not discussing this at all. 

“Tyrion.” Jaime’s eyes narrowed to thin shards of green. “I suggest you think very carefully about whatever you’re about to say.”

“Oh, come now. There’s no need to threaten me when I’m only trying to ease her mind,” Tyrion retorted before settling his gaze on Brienne. “Fear not, my dear. I don’t know the particulars about this,” he waved his hand between herself and Jaime, “development, and I don’t need to know. No matter what has or hasn’t happened, I don’t want you wasting your energy worrying about any repercussions as far as the rules are concerned. As the enforcer of said rules, I’m quite happy to make an exception.” He winked. “Provided you continue to be discreet, we’ll be just fine.”

“Do you really think we won’t be?” Jaime snapped.

“No, actually. I’m not concerned in the least.” Tyrion dipped his head at Brienne. “Though you should be prepared for questions when you get back to the house. I spent fifteen minutes on the phone with Ms. Frey last night, insisting that everything about your stay here was aboveboard, but I doubt I’ve squashed her suspicions entirely.” 

She felt a prickle of guilt. It was one thing to break the rules herself; it was another to make someone else lie on her behalf.

“I’m sorry about that,” Brienne said. “But thank you. For speaking with her, and for the warning.” 

“Not at all. Thank you for being open to my request. I hope your father agrees to it.” Tyrion hopped down from Jaime’s chair. “Now then, I need to be off. Jaime, walk me out, would you?”

Brienne rose along with Jaime to bid Tyrion goodbye, then waited in the living room as the Lannister brothers disappeared out the front door. After only a minute or two, she heard a car door slam and an engine start. 

When everything had gone quiet again, Jaime walked back through the door and, with startling speed, crossed the room to stand in front of her.

“Well,” he exhaled, letting his eyes drift over her, “we survived.”

“Yes, I guess we did.”

Before she could say more, Jaime took another step, reaching out to pull her close. She couldn’t believe how effortlessly they slotted together, how easy it was to lift her hands to his chest as his stump slid across her lower back.

“Have I ever told you how phenomenal you look in blue?” he asked, sweeping his fingers back and forth over the fabric of her trousers, right at her hip.

“You have, actually,” Brienne smirked, recalling their dance at the roadhouse. She hadn’t believed him then, but she did now. 

Jaime smiled back with a hum, and the low sound reverberated in his chest and out into her hands. “Good. It’s still true.”

And then he kissed her, sensual and slow, with his hand in her hair and his hips pressing into hers, until she was warm and breathless and half hoping he’d suggest going back upstairs. 

“What was that for?” she rasped when they finally broke apart. 

“For?” He grinned. “It wasn’t for anything. But it’ll be weeks before I get the chance to kiss you like this again, and I don’t intend to waste the opportunity.” 

The next kiss was lighter, sweeter, and when Jaime leaned away, he ran his index finger gently down the bridge of her nose.

“I’ve always wanted to ask about this,” he mused, pausing his progress on the bump where her old break had healed poorly. 

“You have?” She couldn’t imagine why.

He nodded, tracing his finger down over her lips and chin, all the way to the hollow of her throat. “What happened?”

“Galladon hit a line drive, and I didn’t duck fast enough." Her mouth twisted into a sad smile as she remembered. “It bled so much I was sure I was going to die. Galladon had to hold a towel to my face the whole ride to the hospital.”

Jaime winced. “How old were you?”

“Ten, I think. Galladon would’ve been fourteen. He felt terrible, especially when it healed so rough and ugly, but father always said it was better that than losing some teeth.” A tear trickled down her cheek. “We were back out on the field two days later.” 

Jaime’s arm tightened around her waist. “You were a player, even then.” 

Brienne shook her head, and more tears spilled from her eyes. “I miss him, Jaime,” she blurted, and it was oddly cathartic to say the words out loud. “How can I miss him when it’s only been one day?” 

He tugged her closer, and she tucked her chin onto his shoulder. “Of course you miss him, Brienne. He’s your brother, and you love him.”

Love, she thought. Not loved. 

“Do you really think he could be alive?” she whispered, not knowing if she believed it—or even if she wanted to. No matter what Tyrion said, hoping might only make it harder.

“He could be,” Jaime replied, nudging his head against hers. “If he’s half as stubborn as you are.” 

Brienne blew out a breath that was part huff, part sob. “He’s more.”

She felt Jaime smile against her temple. “Well, then. I’d say his odds are better than most.”

Chapter Text

A cool, dry wind ruffled Brienne’s hair and billowed Jaime’s shirt around the collar as his convertible whirred along the highway. In the fields beyond the road, the dew-laden grass sparkled like a carpet of woven light in the morning sun, and the cloudless sky had turned that brilliant, deep shade of blue that always heralded the end of summer.

A perfect day, Brienne mused. At least it would have been, if not for the tight tangle of anxiety lodged in her chest. 

She angled a glance at Jaime, searching for signs of worry in his forehead or the set of his jaw. But he looked as relaxed and confident as usual, with his hand loosely clasped around the top of the steering wheel and his stump resting easily in his lap.

Brienne would never have expected him to be jittery with nerves, but the fact that he seemed so utterly untouched by apprehension made her frown at her inability to control her own. He was the one meeting her father for the first time, after all. Of the two of them, she should have been the calm one. 

As though he could read her mind, Jaime reached over and tapped her thigh reassuringly with his stump. “Relax, Brienne. It’s going to be fine.”

She hummed halfheartedly in reply, and his mouth tipped up into a smile. 

“Just because you didn’t like me the day we met doesn’t mean I’m incapable of making a good first impression. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I can be quite charming when I put my mind to it.”

“You can also be quite irritating,” Brienne said dryly.

Jaime let out a bright bark of laughter, and the sound shook something loose behind Brienne’s breastbone. Unexpectedly, she felt a smile pulling at her lips for the first time in what felt like days.

“Is that so?” Jaime nudged her hand with his stump like a cat in search of attention, and she obligingly curled her fingers around it. “Well, I’ll be on my best behavior today. I swear.” 

The notion that he wouldn’t had never even occurred to her. No matter how unperturbed he seemed, Brienne knew this mattered to him. If it hadn’t, he wouldn’t have insisted on coming with her. She didn’t doubt his ability to make a favorable impression, either—not in the least. He and her father would shake hands, say hello, and undoubtedly get along just fine.

Of course, her father had no idea who Jaime really was yet, or about her plans to remain in Rockford, and Brienne had been carrying the weight of those untold truths ever since she’d spoken to him the week before. 

It had made sense to put off telling him at the time—how could she have explained everything when she’d been sitting in the common room, where all the girls could hear? Besides, having the conversation in person, when she could look him in the eye and break it to him gently, seemed like the right thing to do, the courageous thing. Her father deserved that, and Brienne was determined to give it to him, no matter how much she dreaded it. 

She’d spent the better part of a week imagining a slew of possible scenarios for how he might respond, and precious few of them were favorable. Most involved the stony frown he reserved for unwelcome news or, worse, a shadow of disappointment or resignation in his eyes. Brienne already felt like the worst, most selfish daughter in the world, and it hadn’t even happened yet.  

The only hope she could cling to was how utterly wrong she’d been about his willingness to come to Rockford. If she’d misjudged that, Brienne supposed there was a chance—please, God, let there be a chance—she might be wrong about this, too. 

Honestly, she still couldn’t believe he’d agreed to come at all, let alone so quickly. She hadn’t even finished explaining the details before he’d spit out an enthusiastic, “yes, that sounds wonderful,” leaving Brienne so baffled it had taken her several seconds to form a coherent response. She couldn’t remember the last time her father had described anything with that word. A much-needed rain or a plentiful harvest might merit a “good,” but most other things in Selwyn Tarth’s world were simply “fine.” 

To her continued surprise, he’d immediately agreed to stay with Jaime, seeming almost pleased that she’d be staying there with him. He did not, however, agree to receive any other assistance from the Lannisters: he wouldn’t hear of Tyrion arranging for someone to look after the farm or wiring money for a train ticket. Brienne had known better than to try and persuade him, even when he’d told her it would take him five or six days to get his affairs in order. 

Initially, the delay had disappointed her. The whole point had been for them to be together as soon as possible. Then Sansa, ever the optimist, had pointed out that it would give her extra time to get back into the game, so she’d be ready to play more than a couple of lousy innings by the time her father arrived. 

While Brienne doubted the amount of time she spent on the field would matter to her father, she still wanted to play as much and as well as she could in the time she had left. So, with nothing else to do but wait, she had applied herself zealously to the task. 

Well, inasmuch as she could, with so many watchful eyes monitoring her every move. 

Dr. Luwin had, to her surprise, been the easiest hurdle to clear. After her first few games left her with no new pain and only minimal stiffness, he’d authorized Brienne to play up to six innings per game for the subsequent week. If that went well, he’d told her, he would allow her to resume unrestricted play just in time for the World Series—presuming the Peaches ended up playing in it.  

The girls had been thrilled by the news and glad to have her back, but they’d also taken to following her around like a brood of concerned ducklings. They sat next to her on the bus, checked on her in her room at night, and constantly offered to help carry her gear or bring her one of the ice packs Ms. Frey somehow still believed she needed. The only thing they hadn’t done was utter a single word about the night she’d spent at Jaime’s. Whether it was out of pity or because Margaery and the Starks had not-so-politely suggested they refrain from commenting, Brienne still wasn’t sure. Either way, she wasn’t going to complain, even if the price of their silence in that area was putting up with inquiries about how she was feeling at least twenty times a day.

Then, of course, there was Jaime. 

Not only was he skeptical of Dr. Luwin’s prognosis, but he also seemed to think he knew Brienne’s limits better than the doctor. In an infuriating use of coachly authority, he had taken to pulling her from the field whenever he decided she’d had enough for the day, no matter how fervently she disagreed.

Just two days before, she’d been especially annoyed when he rotated her out after only four innings, giving her some ludicrous explanation about being able to see it in the way she moved. She’d insisted she was fine, he’d argued that she was not, and they’d been off, voices and tempers rising as they volleyed back and forth. Before she knew it, Jaime had stepped forward to seize her waist, threatening to throw her over his shoulder and carry her to the showers if she needed to cool off. 

The sparking heat in his eyes as he spoke, and the way it made something equally hot pulse low in her abdomen, had snapped Brienne back to her senses. Suddenly aware that the whole team was staring at them, she’d tugged herself free of his grasp and sat down on the bench, her anger fizzling into embarrassment at letting herself get so carried away.

Jaime had kept an unusual distance from her for the remainder of the game, then called her into his office when the rest of the team hit the showers. She’d thought he intended to apologize, or at least give her some sort of conciliatory speech about how he was looking out for her best interests. Instead, as soon as she closed the door behind her, he’d pulled her into his arms and kissed her madly.

She should have put a stop to it immediately; it was a risk they couldn’t afford to take, separated from the team only by an unlocked door. But Brienne had been too enthralled by the feel of him hard against her hip, by the way his hungry mouth claimed hers again and again, pausing only to gripe about how torturous it was not being allowed to touch her, to do anything but cling to his shoulders and kiss him back.

Brienne didn’t know what had come over her, but she understood exactly what Jaime meant.

On the surface, not much had changed between them since they’d spent the night together, at least as far as others could see. Jaime still teased her, still consulted her about the game, still flashed her that broad smile that teetered on the edge between mocking and suggestive. But inside was an entirely different story. Where once that smile had inspired birds to flutter in her belly, now it set her nerve endings alight. And every time he was near her, Brienne felt a reflexive desire to touch him—a magnetic pull she couldn’t explain but that took all her willpower to resist.

Even now, with his arm in her lap, she wanted to be closer. 

Brienne gripped Jaime’s stump a little tighter as she looked over at his face, allowing her gaze to linger over his wind-mussed hair, the impossibly sharp lines of his cheekbones, the prominent jut of his Adam’s apple. 

Her uneasiness should have curbed her longing for proximity, for contact, but somehow it only made it stronger. Despite the knot in her chest, she wanted nothing more than to run her hand across his back and feel the steadying warmth of him beneath her palm. To lean over and lay her head on his shoulder or press her lips to his cheek or…

“Eyes front, wench,” Jaime quipped, grinning. “We’re here.”

He gently pulled his stump from her fingers as he turned into the parking lot of the train station and steered the car into a vacant space. Brienne could see the train, gleaming silver and trailing a thin wisp of smoke as it idled at the single platform. A few disembarking passengers were already trickling through the double doors of the ticketing office, making their way out onto the sidewalk.

Brienne frowned. They’d planned to be there in time for her to greet her father at the platform, but that ship had obviously sailed.  

“The train must have been early,” Jaime said, glancing at the clock on the convertible’s dash.

Nodding, Brienne lifted her hand to the door handle. “I’ll go in and find him.”

“I don’t think you have to.” Jaime inclined his head toward the building, and Brienne followed the line of his gesture with her eyes. 

There, unmistakably, was Selwyn Tarth, at least half a foot taller than everyone else in the crowd, making the doorway seem small as he walked through it. He looked tired and older than she remembered—when had he begun to hunch around the shoulders?—and the sight of him made her both happy and supremely sad.

Brienne opened the door and got out of the car as her father scanned the parking lot, but his gray eyes found her before she took a single step. His entire face softened into a smile as she began to walk toward him, and he was still smiling when they met in the middle of the pavement.

“Hi, Dad.”

“Hi, Brienne.” He peered down at her from under the brim of his well-worn straw Panama hat, his eyes traveling slowly over her face. After a long moment, he awkwardly waved her closer with his suitcase-free hand. “Come here and give your old man a hug.” 

Trying not to let her astonishment show on her face, Brienne haltingly stepped forward, bringing her arms around his sturdy chest and burying her nose against his shoulder. His coarse cotton shirt smelled of farm dust and Ivory soap and home, and she had to bite her lip to keep tears from welling in her eyes.

“It’s good to see you, kiddo,” he said softly, after he’d released her. “Sorry it took me so long to get here.”

There was something odd about his tone, a hint at a meaning beyond what his words conveyed, but Brienne couldn’t decipher it. So she replied, “I’m just glad you could come, and I could be here to meet you.”

“I’m glad, too.”

And he was. It was evident in every weathered line of his face.

They stared at each other in silence for another few seconds before her father nodded toward the car, where Jaime was leaning against it, watching them.

“It looks like we’ll be traveling in style, too,” he declared, giving the convertible an appreciative once-over. Then, with a wink, he added, “Though it’s hard to say which is better looking, the car or its driver.”

Brienne’s eyebrows rocketed toward her hairline. Who was this man? First, he’d been openly affectionate, and now he was joking with her? 

He’d always been kind, even indulgent, but also solemn and sedate, as slow to humor as he was to anger. It was where her own serious-minded nature had come from, for God’s sake. 

“He seems quite keen,” her father genially continued when she made no move to go. “It would be unkind to keep him waiting.”

Still reeling, Brienne nodded vaguely and fell into step beside her father as he began to walk across the parking lot. 

When they approached the car, Jaime pushed off from his perch against the driver’s door and took a few slow strides toward them. He flashed his most dazzling smile, all teeth and dimples and charm, and her father smiled back, politely doffing his hat. 

Brienne opened her mouth to introduce them, feeling significantly less nervous about it than she had only moments before, but Jaime had already extended his hand.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Tarth,” he said warmly. “I’m Jaime Lannister.”

Her father looked down at Jaime’s proffered hand, then swiftly transferred his suitcase from his left hand to his right so he could reach out and clasp it. “Yes, of course, Brienne’s coach. The pleasure’s mine. And please, call me Selwyn.”

Jaime gave an amiable tilt of his head. “I’m glad you were able to make the trip, Selwyn. Though I am sorry it wasn’t under more pleasant circumstances.”

“I am, too.” The warmth on her father’s face dimmed, but only briefly. “Even so, I’m happy to be here. It’s been too long since I’ve seen my daughter, and far too long since I’ve seen her play.” 

“In that case, you’re in for something special. Brienne’s an exceptional ballplayer. Our best, in fact.” 

Her father’s brow creased as his gaze darted over to her. “Is she?” 

Brienne shook her head. “There are a lot of very talented players in the league. We all have our strengths.”

Jaime grinned, and the fondness in it tugged at Brienne’s heart—even though she knew he shouldn’t be showing it. 

“She’s just being modest,” he told her father. “When she gets on the field, you’ll see what I mean. Even with her injured knee, she’s one of the best batters I’ve ever seen.”

This time, her father’s eyes were sharp when they sought hers. “You’re hurt?” 

“I’m fine,” she insisted. “It was just a sprain. They happen all the time.” 

Apparently unconvinced, her father frowned, and Brienne looked pleadingly at Jaime. He twitched his brow apologetically, but she couldn’t really blame him. He didn’t know she hadn’t told her father about that, either. 

“Our doctor has been taking excellent care of her, I assure you,” Jaime explained, his tone calm and authoritative. “He said there’ll be no lasting damage as long as she doesn’t overdo it, and I’ve been seeing to that myself.”

Her father huffed, his face relaxing into a wry smile. “Well, that can’t have been easy. I know my daughter, and she can be very stubborn when she wants to be.” 

Something flickered at the corner of Jaime’s mouth. “She certainly can.” 

Brienne bristled as she glanced between the two men, wondering if they remembered she was standing right beside them. She was grateful for what appeared to be a burgeoning rapport, but she’d rather they didn’t bond over a discussion of her faults. 

She was about to change the subject entirely when Jaime’s eyes wandered to hers. “But that’s part of what makes her so good. You can’t help but admire it, really, even if it does drive you mad.”

The early prickle of a blush skittered beneath her skin, and Brienne willed it not to bloom. Though she soon realized that, even if it had, her father wouldn’t have been paying attention. At least not to her.

He was studying Jaime in silence, his eyebrows slanted upward and his mouth set in an indiscernible line.  

When Jaime finally noticed, he looked slightly uncomfortable—maybe even a little alarmed. But he managed to keep his voice light when he said, “Though I’ll grant you, it has made for a few interesting games.” He jerked his thumb toward the car. “Speaking of which, we should probably get going. The game starts in about forty-five minutes.” 

Her father, still wearing that strange, unreadable expression, agreed, handing over his old brown suitcase when Jaime offered to take it for him. While Jaime walked around the car to toss it in the trunk, Brienne asked her father if he’d like to ride up front. He graciously declined, saying he’d prefer to stretch out in the back after being so cramped on the train, so Brienne climbed into the passenger seat herself.

Jaime soon slid in beside her, and the two of them shared a lingering glance while he started the car. The sunlight brought out the gold flecks swimming in the liquid emerald of his eyes, but it was the muddled mix of relief and triumph and love she saw shining in them that had Brienne aching to reach out for him again. Since she couldn’t, she allowed her knee to brush his leg when she spun in her seat to ask her father about his journey.

His answer—that it had been uneventful and shorter than he’d expected, though not especially comfortable, thanks to an abominably small seat—took less than a minute, so Brienne resorted to inquiring about things back home. 

She quickly learned that the labor shortage and the ungodly hot, dry weather had made for a difficult year. The only bright spot, her father said, had been Jory Cassel, who’d left the dairy at Ned’s insistence to work for him instead. He’d been an enormous help, and although the harvest wouldn’t be their best, it was shaping up much better than her father had expected. 

He was careful not to say anything about Galladon, or even about being alone. In fact, he took pains to mention that Jory and his uncle Rodrick, as well as her father’s oldest friend Goodwin, often dropped by to play cards in the evening. Ned even joined them on occasion, when he was free.

Catelyn, though, was his most frequent visitor, by the sound of it. He swore she stopped over nearly every other day, usually with some sort of baked good in hand. Last time, it had been his favorite: a lemon meringue pie. Brienne felt a surge of gratitude for Cat at that; it was Sansa’s favorite, too, and she knew it must have made the Stark matriarch more than a little sad to bake it. But she’d done it anyway. 

In what felt like no time at all, they had arrived at the field, and Jaime was offering to see her father to his seat. Tyrion had allegedly reserved one right down in front, and Jaime could easily escort him through the players’ entrance and up into the stands from the field. Her father, while appreciative of the offer, expressed an interest in getting the full spectator experience, so Brienne agreed to take him in the main gate instead.

The two men shook hands once more, and her father thanked Jaime for the ride—and the generous offer of his home. Jaime waved it off, insisting he’d been happy to help on both counts. Her father’s eyebrows jumped when Jaime added that he looked forward to getting to know him, but his expression was undeniably jovial as he responded in kind.

Unsettled, Brienne bid Jaime an awkward farewell in the middle of the parking lot—she waved at him, of all things, even though she’d be seeing him again in a matter of minutes—before steering her father along with the rest of the crowd. 

When they approached the usher collecting tickets at the gate, Brienne realized with a jolt that she didn’t have any tickets to give him. Fortunately, the young man excitedly waved them through as soon as he recognized her, his chest puffing up as he informed her that Mr. Lannister had asked him to look out for her himself. 

Brienne smiled her thanks, grateful for Tyrion’s foresight, and led her father inside. 

As they walked through the hall, past the food vendors and the merchandise stand, her father seemed to be trying to look everywhere at once, his wide-eyed expression suggesting that, whatever he’d expected, it hadn’t been this. He started to ask her a question about attendance but was cut off when a group of young girls accosted them, staring up at Brienne with eager, joyful smiles and begging for her autograph. 

She couldn’t turn them away, so she hastily scrolled her name across several Rockford pennants and the brim of one red hat. When she’d finished, she glanced up to find her father looking oddly dazed, as though he’d been beaned by a wild pitch. 

Concerned, Brienne asked if anything was the matter, but he just shook his head jerkily and urged her to lead on. When she did, he followed closely behind her, through the archway that led out into the stands and down the stairs toward the green expanse of the field. 

They’d nearly reached the bottom before Brienne spotted a short, familiar figure waving his fedora to get her attention. 

“I was starting to worry you weren’t going to make it,” Tyrion said once they’d made their way over to him. He’d selected seats right along the wall, dead center between the Peaches’ dugout and home plate.

“I didn’t know you were going to be here at all.” When Jaime said Tyrion had reserved a seat, she hadn’t realized he’d meant in person.

“I thought your father might like some company.” He grinned up at her, eyes twinkling green and gold in the sun, just like Jaime’s. “Aren’t you going to introduce me?”

Sighing, she awkwardly shuffled around to Tyrion’s other side so he could greet her father face-to-face—or, in their case, face-to-waist. “Dad, this is Tyrion Lannister, Jaime’s brother. He handles marketing for the league. Tyrion, this is my father, Selwyn Tarth.”

“A pleasure, Mr. Tarth.” Tyrion stuck out his hand, and it looked comically small when her father stretched down to enfold it in his much larger one. “I’m also the man who recruited your daughter. My greatest contribution to the league, if I do say so myself. She’s one of our best.”

Her father sank down into the free seat next to Tyrion’s. It still didn’t put them at eye level, but they were quite a bit closer. “That seems to be a popular opinion around here.”

“Ah, I take it my brother has already been singing her praises?” Tyrion smiled far too knowingly. “She’d never admit it, but she deserves every word. Though I suppose you already knew that.” 

Her father’s eyes darted from Tyrion to herself and back again, and Brienne swore she saw a hint of shamelurking in his gaze. “I certainly had no idea she was doing so well.”

“That she is,” Tyrion replied. “So well that she’ll be competing for the league championship next week.”

“What?” Brienne squawked. “Does that—are you saying we’re in?”  

Tyrion hopped up onto the seat beside her father and hooked his hat over the armrest. “Yes, my dear, you are. Not that I had any doubt, of course, but as of yesterday afternoon, the Rockford Peaches have officially secured their place in the World Series.” 

An electric thrill crackled through her. “Have you told the others?”

“I have, as a matter of fact. You should head down to the locker room and join in the celebration. I’m sure it hasn’t let up quite yet. In the meantime, I’d be happy to get Mr. Tarth up to speed on the game.” He shot her a cheerful wink, then leaned conspiratorially closer to her father. “For instance, as it’s Wednesday, you’ll be rewarded with a kiss if you manage to catch a foul bowl. This is prime seating, so make sure you have both hands at the ready.”

For a moment, her father looked absolutely thunderstruck. Then, he startled both Brienne and Tyrion by erupting in a fit of deep, booming laughter so loud it drew the attention of half the people in the stands. He sounded so much like Galladon that it drove a shard of pain between Brienne’s ribs, even as it made her smile.  

“And afterwards,” Tyrion continued when her father’s laughter had faded into an amused grin, “Ms. Frey, the team chaperone, has invited all of us to join the girls for dinner at the boardinghouse tonight.”

“She has?” Nobody had said anything to her about it, though Brienne supposed it would be nice for her father to meet the girls. 

“At Margaery’s suggestion, I believe.”

Well, she thought. That explains that.

“Sadly, I won’t be able to accompany you, but I can see to it that Mr. Tarth finds his way to Jaime’s office after the game.” 

“Thank you,” Brienne said, meaning it more sincerely than she’d expected to. It made her glad that her father wouldn’t be sitting in the stands alone. 

“You are, as always, most welcome. Now,” he waved his hand toward the field, “you’d better get a move on. I won’t have my brother blaming me for you being late.”  

Brienne turned to look at the field clock and was shocked to see that she had less than fifteen minutes to get ready for the game. With no time to argue, she dipped her head to Tyrion, gave her father’s shoulder a quick pat, and hurriedly shuffled past them to get back to the central aisle. 

She didn’t have the energy to fight her way back inside, so she hastened toward the gate on the far side of the dugout. When she arrived, she met another friendly usher, who wished her good luck as he let her through.

From there, Brienne bounded across the grass and took the dugout steps two at a time, then rounded the corner into the locker room hallway at speed, keeping her eye on the often-slick concrete floor. Consequently, she only made it about a half dozen steps before nearly colliding with Jaime.

“Easy, wench,” he admonished, lightly gripping her upper arm. “I promise we won’t start without you.” 

“You’d better not,” she fired back, and even in the half-dark, she could see the lines fanning out from the corners of his eyes. “Did you know your brother was here?”  

“Only because the girls just told me. I take it he’s sitting with your father?”

She nodded. “Coaching him on his foul-catching technique.”

Jaime laughed, sliding his hand down her arm to tangle his fingers with hers. “At least Tyrion will make sure he enjoys himself. All things considered, I’d say things are going fairly well.”

“They are,” she acknowledged. But this had also been the easy part, relatively speaking, and things were likely to get a whole lot harder before the end. 

“Brienne.” Jaime stroked his thumb along her wrist. “It’s going to be fine.” 

She found herself unable to either argue or agree, so she squeezed his hand in lieu of a reply. Instead of pushing the conversation, Jaime just smiled in that soft way he reserved only for her, giving her a look so intent and perceptive that Brienne felt sure he could see straight through her—all the way to the small, quiet part of her that desperately wanted to believe him.

Chapter Text

Brienne’s father could hardly have picked a better game to watch if he’d had the entire season’s worth to choose from. 

The Racine Belles were in top form, gunning for their own place in the World Series, and the Peaches had to give it their all to match them. Technically, it no longer mattered if they won or lost—they’d finish with the best record in the league, regardless—but none of the girls were playing that way. And neither was Jaime.

He told Brienne he was pulling her at the end of the fourth inning, after an impressive sequence of hits and outs on both sides had done nothing to budge the 1-1 tie score. 

A wounded indignation flared in her gut as she flung down the chest protector she’d been about to put on and whirled to face him. It wasn’t her fault they were losing.

Smirking, Jaime raised his arms placatingly, forestalling the argument he clearly knew was coming by explaining that he intended to save her for later in the game, when she could do the most good.

Oh.

His words drained the anger out of her, but they did nothing to curb her antsy frustration as she sat on the bench for the next three innings. It was agony, especially with her father in the stands, but she knew it was a sound strategy. Even if she hated every minute of it. 

When Brienne finally rotated back in at the top of the eighth, Racine led them 3-1, and the Peaches were determined not to let the lead widen. Arya pitched two straight strikeouts, and when the third batter bunted, Brienne launched herself forward to recover the ball, snapping it to Shireen for the final out. 

Margaery and Lyanna opened the bottom of the inning by hitting a single apiece, but Gilly’s pop fly was caught easily in center field. After that, Racine’s pitcher, obviously flagging, threw two wild pitches at Dany before managing to get one over the plate; Dany sprung at the chance, driving the ball deep into left field and bringing Margaery home. Lyanna, the little spitfire, slid feet-first into third, narrowly avoiding the tag, and Dany made it safely to second. 

Brienne watched the Belles’ dugout as she walked to the plate, half expecting Coach Seaworth to call a timeout to conference with his pitcher. With the lead narrowed to one and two runners in scoring position, it would have been an excellent time to call for some relief.

When he didn’t, Brienne stepped into the box and raised her bat. She swung hard at the first pitch—a fastball, right down the middle—thrilling at the sharp crack of contact. The crowd roared its approval as she tossed away her bat and raced toward first, then exploded into deafening cheers as soon as the ball floated over the right-field fence. 

She’d just given them the lead.

Brienne felt a familiar surge of satisfaction as she jogged around second base, but it paled in comparison to the joy that welled up inside her when she raised her eyes to the stands. 

Tyrion and her father were both on their feet—Tyrion standing on his seat, by the look of it—and cheering loudly. Her father had swapped his straw hat for a red Rockford cap, and he was clapping his large hands with such enthusiasm that Brienne swore she could hear the slap of them above all the others. 

He looked happy. He looked amazed. He looked proud.

By the time she crossed home plate, Brienne had her teeth clamped together so tightly her temples ached, refusing to allow the tears burning behind her eyes to spring free. Instead, she gave the still-thundering crowd a wave of gratitude and the biggest smile she could muster before hustling off to the dugout. 

Jaime, too, had been watching the stands from his usual perch at the top of the steps, but his gaze shifted to her as she approached him. She saw the momentary softening in his forehead, the way his eyes took in every emotion she was trying to hide, before it all vanished into a cocky smirk.  

“See, wench?” he crowed. “You proved me right again.”

“Did I?” she retorted, returning his smirk with one of her own. “How exactly does my hit make you right?”

“I told your father you were one of the best hitters I’d ever seen.” Jaime winked, and it somehow managed to be both playful and sincere. “If he didn’t believe me before, he sure as hell will now.” 

~*~*~

The front door of the boardinghouse swung open when they were only halfway up the path. Sansa burst through it first, chirping words of welcome, with Arya following right behind her. 

The two girls hurried across the porch and down the stairs, making a beeline for Brienne’s father. Both of them had waved at him from the field during the game, but they hadn’t gotten the chance to greet him properly. Clearly, they intended to make up for that now. 

Brienne stepped out of the way as her father swallowed Sansa in a hug, then clapped his hands on Arya’s shoulders. As both of her friends began asking him questions at the same time, about his journey and how everyone was doing back home, Brienne felt Jaime move to stand beside her. She didn’t need to look at him to know he was smiling. 

He’d been smiling earlier, too, when she found him with her father after the game, but his smile hadn’t been the one that startled her. 

Brienne had forgone the victory celebration in the locker room—the Peaches had kept the Belles at bay in the ninth and gone on to win the game 5-3—in favor of the quickest shower of her life. After throwing on her clothes, she’d hastened to Jaime’s office, pushing open the door without bothering to knock, expecting to see three men and finding only two.

Jaime had been lounging against the edge of his desk, dimples framing his upturned lips, while her father grinned radiantly at him from one of the wooden chairs along the far wall. Frozen by surprise and a staggering, aching hope, Brienne had stood silently in the doorway until they’d both turned to look at her. 

Not wanting to seem as discomposed as she felt, she’d asked, as calmly as she could, where Tyrion had gone. Her father had astonished her again by being the one to answer, explaining that the younger Lannister had already left for Chicago. Tyrion had apologized for missing dinner, her father had relayed, but he had a meeting about the league first thing in the morning and had needed to get back. Brienne had caught Jaime’s eye at that; the meeting had to be about next season, though she’d been grateful Tyrion hadn’t said as much to her father. 

When she’d gone on to ask if he wanted to go to dinner, her father had assured her that he did. Apparently, he and Jaime had already discussed that—along with God knew what else—because the latter quickly rattled off their plan. Both of them wanted to shower and change after the girls cleared out, and then he would drive the three of them to the boardinghouse. She’d had little choice but to agree, though she hadn’t liked the idea of the two of them being alone in the locker room, even if only for a few minutes. 

Brienne risked a glance at Jaime, wondering what they’d talked about during those minutes, about the reason for her father’s smile. But Sansa’s voice soon drew her out of her thoughts. 

“I’m so sorry about Galladon,” she was saying, her tone soft and earnest. “We’ve been thinking of you every day and praying for good news. Not just Arya and me, either. The whole team. Melisandre has even been lighting a candle for him every night.” Sansa laid a hand on her father’s arm. “We’re not giving up hope.”  

Brienne swallowed thickly as she waited for her father to reply. It was the first time her brother’s name had been spoken all day.

“Thank you, Sansa. That’s very kind.” He darted an uncertain look at Brienne. “It’s good to have hope.”

Sansa nodded decidedly, as though that settled the matter, then looped her arm through his. “Let’s get you inside. Everyone is so looking forward to meeting you.”

With that, her father allowed himself to be led down the path, a Stark on either side of him, while Brienne and Jaime trailed behind. They didn’t speak, but Jaime pressed his palm into her lower back as they climbed the stairs, letting it linger there until they reached the door.  

Inside, the entire team was waiting for them in the common room. After an overwhelming flurry of introductions and handshakes and welcoming smiles, Ms. Frey appeared and herded them all into the dining room for dinner. 

Her father, the guest of honor, was placed at the head of the table, with Brienne in the seat on his left. When Sansa pulled out the empty chair on her left, Brienne nearly suggested her friend take the one directly across from her instead, on her father’s other side. It would be nice for him to have another familiar face close at hand. 

But someone else sat down in it before she could say a word.

Brienne met Jaime’s eyes—sharp and glinting with annoyance—across the table, and she knew even before she spotted Margaery’s hand on his shoulder that occupying the seat had not been his idea. In fact, he looked more disgruntled than she’d seen him since the day Daario Naharis had come to interview them. 

Then Margaery let go of his shoulder to pull out the chair next to him, and his expression changed in a flash. A smooth, relaxed smile slid onto his face, but it didn’t reach his eyes.

While it troubled her to see it, Brienne was left with no time to dwell on what it meant. As soon as everyone else sat down, dishes were passed and plates were filled and the bright sounds of chatter and laughter began to fill the room. Before long, the girls were taking turns regaling her father with tales from Brienne’s time in the league—catching Shireen’s wild throw at tryouts with her bare hand, writing their very first lineup, standing her ground against the runner who injured her knee—and he listened attentively, smiling all the while. 

Jaime seemed amused by the way they all praised her, but he refrained from joining in. He would answer questions with his usual lightness and good humor when they were asked of him, but otherwise he remained shockingly quiet. 

Something deep in Brienne’s gut prickled with suspicion the longer it went on—had something happened? was he having second thoughts?—but halfway through the meal, a more pressing situation demanded her full attention. 

Talk around the table had already splintered into several smaller conversations when Brienne heard the girls nearest to her begin sharing their plans for the off-season. It was innocent enough, she supposed, but it still made her uneasy.

“Sam and I are thinking of leaving Ohio, depending on what happens with the league,” Gilly remarked, unintentionally nudging the discussion closer to perilous territory. “It would be nice if I didn’t have to be so far away from him and little Sam next year. If there is a next year.” 

Frantically, Brienne tried to think of a way to change the subject, but she wasn’t fast enough. 

“Oh, there will be,” Sansa declared. “You should ask Margaery to help you look for something nearby. She already found a house a few blocks away for me and Arya and B—” Sansa’s words abruptly devolved into an affronted squeak when Arya jabbed her elbow into her sister’s side. 

Heart thudding in her ears, Brienne glanced furtively at her father. Fortunately, he seemed engrossed in conversation with Jaime, who was explaining something about what sounded like the transmission in his car. 

Brienne turned her attention back to the girls in time to hear Margaery ask Dany and Missandei about their plans for the fall as cheerily as though near-disaster hadn’t just struck. When Dany began bemoaning her return to her family’s dreary clifftop estate, Brienne felt Sansa’s hand close around hers beneath the table. A few seconds later, her friend’s contrite blue eyes sought Brienne’s.

And they weren’t the only ones. 

Jaime’s gaze began flicking to hers with increasing frequency, making it strikingly obvious that he hadoverheard, even if her father had not. And the more Jaime looked at her, the more her father looked at him. Once, Brienne even caught her father glancing back and forth between the two of them, his eyebrows stretched up in a way that was becoming disconcertingly familiar. 

By the time they finished dessert, Brienne couldn’t wait for the night to be over, and she jumped at the chance to help Ms. Frey clear the table as the others filtered into the common room. 

Without so many eyes on her, Brienne soon found herself feeling more composed. She had to acknowledge that the evening hadn’t been a complete disaster, even if it had edged dangerously close to it. If nothing else, her father seemed to be enjoying himself.

She planned to rejoin him after she’d taken the last armful of dishes through to the kitchen, just to make sure no one else said anything they shouldn’t. But on her way back through the dining room, Brienne found Margaery crouched down and rummaging through the china hutch.

“What are you doing?” she asked, peering at where Margaery’s arm had nearly disappeared into the cavernous bottom cupboard.

“Looking for…ah, here it is.” Margaery removed her arm and waved a small glass ashtray up at Brienne as she stood.

“What do you need that for?” she inquired, confused. As far as she knew, smoking was still definitely against the rules. 

Not that she would say anything if the other girls broke them; Brienne knew very well that she could no longer stand on that particular moral high ground. But if they were going to sneak in a clandestine cigarette—which they obviously had before, given that Margaery knew exactly where to find the ashtray—it would be better to wait until Ms. Frey had gone to bed. 

“Your father went out to the porch to smoke.” Margaery crossed the room and held the ashtray out to her. “I thought he might need it.” 

“Oh,” Brienne said softly. “Thank you. He’s out there now?”

Margaery nodded. “You’d better go join him before someone else does.”

~*~*~

The sweet, pungent smell of tobacco hit her nostrils as soon as Brienne opened the front door. Her father was leaning against the porch rail, bathed in the dim yellow light shining through the front windows, a thin wisp of smoke trailing from the pipe he held at his mouth. 

He turned to look when she pulled the door closed and uttered a few words of appreciation when she walked over and set the ashtray down on the rail beside him. Then, for several moments, they just stood there together in silence, staring out into the dark, listening to the crickets chirp. 

“That’s quite the group of girls in there,” her father finally said, and the amusement in his voice startled Brienne into looking at him. “They sure do like telling stories.”

She couldn’t help but smile. “That they do.” 

“Were they true?” he asked, but he didn’t sound skeptical. Just curious. 

“Most of them.” Brienne wondered if he found that odd. “Though I’m sure the girls exaggerated a little. They can’t seem to help themselves.”

“I don’t think Jaime was exaggerating.” Her father’s gray eyes were difficult to decipher, but she thought they looked a little regretful. “After today, I have to say I think he’s more than justified in his praise of your talents.”

Brienne’s throat constricted. Had he just complimented her?

“I suppose he would know, since he used to play himself. He is the player Galladon liked so much, a few years back, isn’t he?” He paused to take a puff of his pipe. “I must have seen that baseball card a hundred times.”

“He is,” she confirmed, surprised he’d remembered that. 

“He must have been quite good, in his day. Before…” Her father held up his hand. “A shame, of course, but he doesn’t seem to let it slow him down.”

“He doesn’t.” Not anymore. “He’s a good coach.” 

He hummed. “Well, I wouldn’t know anything about that, but he seems like a very decent fellow. It's not just any man who would welcome a stranger into his home. It’s kind of him, even if—”

He stopped abruptly, and Brienne frowned. Even if what?

But she didn’t get to ask him, because the front door opened and Jaime himself stepped out to join them on the porch.

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” he said, a polite smile flashing across his handsome face. “But I thought I’d see if you two are ready to head out. It’s been a long day, especially for you, Selwyn, and I thought you might like to get some rest.”  

“I would indeed.” Her father pulled his pipe out from between his lips. “But I promised Sansa I’d look at something before we go. A feature in Life magazine, I think she said?” He cast a sidelong glance at Brienne as he tapped the smoldering remains of his pipe into the ashtray. “She seemed upset that I hadn’t already seen it.”

“Of course.” Jaime stepped out of the way, clearing her father’s path to the door. “Take your time. There’s no hurry.”

Selwyn gave him a grateful nod and, with an unusually warm smile at Brienne, headed back inside. 

She waited for several seconds after the door closed behind him before she turned to face Jaime, who had already crossed the porch to stand nearer to her, now that they were alone.

“Have a nice chat?” he asked.

“We…did, I think.” 

His mouth twitched. “You think?”

Unsure how to explain—she hadn’t processed it all herself, just yet—Brienne shrugged. “It’s hard to tell with him sometimes.” That wasn’t entirely true. It had been hard to tell with him that day. “But he did say againhow kind of you it was to invite him into your home.”

“Did he?” Jaime looked oddly relieved. “I hope you told him it’s my pleasure.”

“I didn’t really have the chance. But I will, if you like.” She gnawed at the inside of her lower lip as she considered him. “I was worried you might be regretting it.”

He didn’t look regretful, but she needed to be sure. Especially after his strange silence at dinner. 

“Regretting it?” Jaime took another step, then one more, until he was so close she could feel his breath on her face. “Brienne, the only thing I regret is that you’ll be all the way down the hall.” He smiled, slow and impish, brushing his fingers lightly down her forearm where it hung at her side. “Now that I’ve had you in my bed, it’s rather lonely without you.”

Jaime,” she hissed, hurriedly pushing him back toward the corner of the porch. “You can’t say things like that.” 

“Relax, wench.” A grin deepened the lines around his eyes. “They can’t hear us.”

“You don’t know that,” she argued, trying to be stern but sounding only vaguely doubtful. He’d closed his hand over the one she’d raised to shove him, holding it firmly to his chest, and the warm pressure was annoyingly distracting. 

“Yes, I do. I stood in the foyer for at least two minutes trying to make out what you were saying, and I couldn’t hear a word.”

“You did?” Brienne shook her head in disbelief. He’d been eavesdropping? Were all the men in her life trying to confuse her?

Seeming amused by her surprise, Jaime nodded. “So I promise you, even if they’re trying—and I wouldn’t for a second put it past them—they can’t hear us any more than I could hear you.” 

Brienne frowned. Even if what he said was true, it didn’t mean they didn’t need to be careful. 

She was about to tell him as much when Jaime hooked his stump around her waist, tugging her back until his hip bumped against the railing at the far end of the house, where they were well clear of the light pooling from the windows.

“And now they can’t see us, either.” 

“Jaime—”

He surged up on his toes to cut her off with a kiss, and the firm, lingering press of his lips swiftly replaced her anxious thoughts with warmer ones. She should have been upset with him, when he finally pulled away, for taking such an unnecessary risk. But she wasn’t. How could she be, when all she wanted was for him to kiss her again?

“I mean it, Brienne,” he said hoarsely, staring at her so intensely she thought he might be trying to memorize her face. “I’ve done nothing but miss you all goddamn week.”

The passion in his words, and in his gaze, made Brienne’s heart hop and squeeze behind her ribs. She wondered if she’d ever get used to having such a man say things like that—feel things like that—about her. 

“I haven’t gone anywhere, Jaime,” she murmured. “I’m still right here.” 

“So you are.” He leaned in to kiss her again with a smile on his lips, and his eyes were twinkling by the time he pulled back. “But here isn’t where I want you.” 

Brienne did her best to give him a reproachful look, ignoring the sudden tug of her own desire. “We shouldn’t be out here at all. My father—”

“Your father knows exactly where we are. He left us here, remember?”

“Well, yes. To talk.”

Jaime quirked a dubious eyebrow.

“What?” A knot formed in the pit of her stomach. “You can’t honestly think he knew you would…that we would…”  

He grinned. “I’m sure he didn’t think I would drag you into the corner and ravish you, no. But he seems like a perceptive man.”

Oh God, she thought. Jaime must have noticed it, too—the way her father had been looking at him, at her, at them

“Is that why you were so quiet in there?” 

“Was I?” he asked mildly. “That doesn’t sound like me.” 

“Jaime,” she chastened. 

“Fine, wench.” His grin turned rueful. “You caught me. Let’s just say I seem to find it impossible to open my mouth without expressing my regard for you, in one way or another.” His shoulders flexed in what would have been a shrug if his arms hadn’t still been around her. “So it seemed wise to keep it shut, especially after Sansa let it slip about your living arrangements.” 

Brienne frowned. “You think he heard her?”

“The whole table heard her.” 

Sighing, she let her head fall forward until it met his shoulder. She’d really thought they might have gotten away with it. 

“Stop worrying, Brienne.” Jaime slid his arms down until he was framing her waist with his hand and stump. “He’s going to be more understanding than you think, especially now that he’s seen you play.” He gave her a gentle shake, prompting her to raise her head and meet his eyes. “That’s all he talked about while we were waiting for you after the game. He went on for at least five minutes about how incredible you were.” 

“He did?” she croaked. 

Jaime nodded. “I agreed with him a little too strongly, and he looked at me in the same way you do, when those eyes of yours let me know I don’t have any secrets.” 

“But I don’t—”

“Oh, yes, you do. All the time, in fact.” 

Brienne narrowed her eyes, and Jaime laughed softly. “I didn’t say I minded. I just know that look well enough to realize what it means.”

“If that’s true, maybe we shouldn’t stay with you.”

“Don’t you think that would just make him more suspicious? Besides, you’re going to tell him the truth in the next few days. I’ll just have to work a little harder at being discreet in the meantime.” 

She huffed, allowing herself a small smile despite the circumstances. “It’s never been your forte, you know.”

Jaime’s eyebrows rose along with the corner of his mouth. “You underestimate me, we—”

The door banged open, cutting off his words, and Brienne sprang away from him as forcefully as if a bomb had detonated between them. Her terror quickly receded, however, when she saw it was only Margaery.

“Your father said you were leaving soon.” Her friend’s mirthful eyes darted between them. “I wanted to find out if you’d like some help with your things.”

“Thank you.” Brienne didn’t actually need help; her bag had been packed since the night before. But she did need to get off of that porch. “I’ll come right now.” Then, to Jaime, she said, “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

She made it nearly to the door before Jaime called after her, “Pack those blue pajamas of yours, would you?”

Brienne turned to scowl at him over her shoulder, but her irritation melted into a different kind of heat when he grinned at her, his eyes dark and glittering in the low light. 

Damn the man.

Chapter Text

“Shouldn’t you be halfway to South Bend by now?”

Jaime turned from where he was frying bacon at the stove to find Brienne standing in the doorway, still wearing her pajamas. Her navy blue pajamas. 

An irrepressible grin sprang to his face. He’d been sure she’d bring a different pair, if only just to spite him.

“Don’t look so chuffed with yourself,” Brienne grumbled. “They were already in my suitcase.”

His grin stretched even wider. “Of course they were.” 

She shook her head, seemingly in exasperation, but Jaime saw her lips purse in the subtle way they always did when she was trying not to smile. 

A loud pop from the sizzling skillet drew Jaime’s attention back to the stove. After giving the bacon a quick flip, he turned to find Brienne walking toward the percolator, where an empty mug sat waiting for her. 

The deep blue fabric of her pants stretched around her legs as she moved, clinging to her magnificently sculpted thighs and bombarding Jaime with memories of what it had been like to settle himself between them, not so long ago—of how they’d felt cradling his hips as he buried himself inside her. 

His cock stirred at the thought, and Jaime forced himself to look away from her before his trousers turned into a pup tent. He fiddled with the heat on the pan even though he didn’t really need to, wondering wryly if her proximity would ever not arouse him. It seemed unlikely, when the mere sight of her was enough to send desire fizzing down his spine like a lit fuse. 

He wasn’t necessarily complaining, but it was damned inconvenient—and it made watching her on the field difficult as hell. Every move she made seemed specially designed to torture him, from the rock of her hips when she settled in at the plate to the stunning power in her legs when she shot up from a crouch. He’d been clenching his fist so often, trying to keep his cock in line, that he fully expected to find permanent half-moon divots stamped into his palm by the end of the season. If he didn’t pop a tendon first.

Even across the dinner table the night before, with her modest smiles and watchful eyes and her father sitting right fucking next to her, Jaime’s body had ached for her. As soon as they’d been alone on that porch, he hadn’t been able to overcome his need to touch her, to taste her, to hold her. But it had only left him wanting more. 

Soon, he promised himself. Very, very soon. Once the season is over and her father knows the truth…and isn’t in the next goddamned room.

“Jaime.” Brienne’s voice, right at his shoulder, jarred him out of his thoughts. When he looked over at her, he saw that she was topping up his mug where it sat on the counter next to the stove. “Are you really not going to tell me what you’re doing here?” 

Trying to ignore the way the collar of her shirt had shifted, exposing a tantalizing stretch of collarbone, Jaime smirked and nodded at the skillet. “I’m making breakfast.”

Brienne rolled her eyes before returning the percolator to its base. “Yes, I can see that. But it doesn’t explain why you’re here instead of on the bus when the game starts in three hours.” 

“Ah, yes,” he drawled. “You have my brother to thank for that.” 

“Do I?” she quipped. “What exactly am I thanking him for?” 

Jaime pressed his stump to his chest, matching her playfully light tone when he retorted, “Aside from the unexpected pleasure of my company? I suppose moving today’s game to Rockford would be a good place to start.”  

“What?” The amusement fell from her face, and a furrow appeared between her eyebrows. “Why? Did something happen?”

“Apparently there was some sort of water pipe problem at the field, and they had to turn off the showers in one of the locker rooms,” Jaime explained. “Tyrion called me before sunrise to tell me the Blue Sox would be coming to us instead.” 

“He’s making them come all the way here because of a few broken showers?” she asked, disbelief clear in her voice. 

“So it would seem.”

He couldn’t fault the wench for her skepticism—Jaime himself had doubted the tale’s veracity as soon as it had come out of his brother’s mouth. Even if there was a water problem, the game could easily have been postponed, or even cancelled. Either option would have made a hell of a lot more sense than packing the Blue Sox on a bus at the last minute. 

Truthfully, Jaime could think of only one compelling reason for Tyrion’s insistence on holding the game at Rockford, and it was standing right in front of him. Brienne and her father had been planning to stay behind while the Peaches went to South Bend, but this way she would get to play—and Selwyn would get to watch her. 

When Brienne’s forehead suddenly softened, Jaime knew she’d come to the same realization, and he smiled at her before turning back to the stove. 

“I think you’re overlooking the most astonishing part of the story, Brienne.” He could feel her watching him as he removed the bacon from the pan, adding it to a plate piled with the strips he’d cooked before she came downstairs, and poured most of the grease into a nearby tin can. “My brother was awake and sober at six o’clock in the morning.”

When he spun to grab the bowl of eggs he’d already whisked, Brienne raised her eyebrows at him. “Because of his meeting?”

“Has to be.” Jaime poured the eggs into the skillet. “I suspected it was serious when he skipped dinner last night, but now I know for sure.”

“Did he say who it was with?”

“No, which is interesting. He never misses the opportunity to complain about sitting through a meeting with our father.”

Brienne came up alongside him and turned so her hip was resting against the counter, standing close enough that he could glance up and meet her inquiring eyes. “But he’d have to be there, wouldn’t he? If it’s about the future of the league?”

“I suspect I’ll find out this afternoon. Tyrion’s coming to discuss it with me after the game.” 

Frowning, Brienne asked, “It couldn’t wait until Saturday?”

Jaime had thought precisely the same thing when Tyrion informed him he’d be making the trip. The Peaches were playing a doubleheader at home against the Comets on Saturday, and Tyrion had already planned to come join Selwyn in the stands. They would have had more than enough time between the two games to discuss…whatever it was. 

“Apparently not.”

Brienne bit her lower lip, which only made Jaime want to lean over and soothe the worried surface with his tongue. He didn’t—but he came damned close. 

“If it’s that urgent,” she eventually said, “maybe he has bad news.” 

Jaime shrugged, tearing his eyes away from her mouth. “Maybe, but I doubt it. He sounded absurdly cheerful on the phone, which generally bodes well—at least for Tyrion. God only knows what it means for the rest of us.”

“What a comforting thought.” 

“Well,” he said, unable to fight the upward pull of his lips, “I should probably be more generous. Some of his schemes have worked out pretty well for me.” He winked at her. “Now, pretend we never had this conversation and go tell your father that breakfast is ready.” 

There was something reluctant in Brienne’s blue eyes as she nodded and turned to go, but when she returned a few minutes later, she was smiling. 

“He said he hasn’t smelled anything this good in a long time,” she said softly, grabbing the percolator and a basket of blueberry muffins Ms. Frey had sent home with them the night before.  

Selwyn repeated his comment directly to Jaime as soon as the three of them sat down to eat, and the man wasted little time before digging in to enjoy it. He’d gone through at least three strips of bacon, half his eggs, and an entire muffin by the time Brienne finished telling him about the change in plans for the day. 

He greeted the news with an enthusiasm that seemed to surprise her, but it was nothing less than Jaime had expected. 

“Tyrion will be coming out, too,” he added, “so you’ll probably have his company, whether you like it or not.” 

Selwyn smiled as he swallowed a large forkful of eggs. “I don’t mind at all. He was very kind to me yesterday, and I’d enjoy seeing him again.” The man looked over at his daughter. “Sansa tells me he’s the one responsible for putting the three of you on the same team. I hadn’t thought about it before, but I suppose it wasn’t a coincidence.” 

Brienne glanced at Jaime. “Well, I…” 

“No,” Jaime jumped in when she trailed off, “it wasn’t. My brother insisted on keeping them together, and I was more than happy to agree. But I’m sure he knew I’d do whatever he wanted to get your daughter on my team.”

Selwyn’s eyebrows contracted as he looked up from buttering a second muffin. “Is that so?”

“To be fair, I’d have been a fool not to,” Jaime replied. “She was the best player on the field at tryouts, even if I did have to practically drag her to the plate for her to prove it.”

“Practically?” Brienne’s voice was thick with reproach, but there was a warmth in her eyes. “You actuallydragged me, if memory serves.” 

You dragged her?” Selwyn grinned at him. “I think I would have liked to see that.” 

“It was the least remarkable thing about the day, I promise you,” Jaime said, grinning back. “As soon as I put a bat in her hand, she hit two balls over the fence in as many minutes. I’d never seen anything like her.”

Selwyn was still smiling, but the sudden gleam in his gaze struck Jaime as unsettlingly shrewd. Unnerved, he shifted his eyes from Selwyn’s knowing gray to Brienne’s steady blue. 

See? he told her silently with a dry lift of his brow. This is why I’m not allowed to talk

~*~*~

Despite the relatively mild weather they’d had the day before, the heat returned with a vengeance that afternoon. It didn’t stop the Peaches from trouncing the Blue Sox 8-2, but it made Jaime especially grateful that he didn’t have to suffer through a four-hour bus ride after they had. 

Instead, when the girls filed into the locker room, he took a comfortable seat behind his desk and waited for Selwyn or his brother—or both—to join him. 

Selwyn had expressed interest in procuring some souvenirs for the Stark family from the merchandise stand, so Jaime didn’t expect to see him right away. But as the minutes ticked by and his brother also failed to appear, he began to wonder if Brienne had been right. Maybe something had gone wrong. Maybe Tyrion didhave bad news. 

Before his mind could begin to unravel what that might mean for Brienne—for them—the door finally swung open and Tyrion swanned in, looking immensely pleased with himself. 

A tautness Jaime hadn’t even noticed building in his neck and shoulders abruptly relaxed. That was not the face of a man with troubling information to share.

“You took your time.” Jaime peered over his brother’s head, half expecting to see Selwyn’s tall form appear behind him, but the hallway was empty. “Selwyn will be down in a minute.”

“No, my dear brother, he will not,” Tyrion announced, closing the door. “Bronn is taking him back to your house with Brienne as we speak.” 

Suspicious and perplexed in equal measure, Jaime squinted down at his brother. “Brienne is in the locker room.” 

“She was.” Tyrion hoisted himself into a chair on the other side of Jaime’s desk. “I collected her.” 

“Would you care to tell me why, exactly?” Jaime asked lightly, but he already knew the answer. 

It annoyed him that Tyrion had meddled without checking with him first, but Jaime also appreciated that his brother had taken steps to ensure that Selwyn wouldn’t overhear whatever he wanted to discuss about the league. 

“So I could have you all to myself. Why else?” Tyrion smirked as he removed his fedora and flopped it down on the desk. “I’m dying to know how things are going.”  

Tipping back in his seat, Jaime crossed his arms and blew out a shallow sigh. “Fine, as far as I can tell. Selwyn is definitely enjoying watching her play, and he seemed to like meeting the girls last night.” 

“And does he like you?”

“I don’t think he dislikes me.”

Tyrion’s forehead rippled. “But?”

“But I think he suspects something, so he might not be all that excited about me, either.”

“Ah.” His brother nodded sagely, as though it didn’t surprise him in the least. Jaime expected a crack about his woeful lack of subtlety, but Tyrion only added, “I take it she hasn’t told him yet.” 

“When would she have? You’ve spent more time alone with him than she has.” 

“That’s true,” Tyrion conceded. “But I intend to remedy that tomorrow.”

“Oh?” The Peaches had the following day off, and Jaime had assumed Margaery and the girls would want to snag some time with Brienne and her father. At the very least, he expected another invitation to the boardinghouse for dinner. “How will you manage that?” 

“I’m sending a car to take them into the city, just like I said I would,” Tyrion replied. “So the two of them can do a bit of sightseeing. Alone.”

Jaime’s eyebrows rose. It would be easier, hypothetically speaking, for Brienne to speak with her father if the two of them were off somewhere on their own, rather than in his house. With him there. 

“That’s…not a bad idea.” 

Tyrion laughed. “Why thank you, brother. I’m glad you approve. I just hope it will help move things in the right direction.”

“I do, too.” If it didn’t, Jaime wasn’t sure what they’d do. 

He tried not to think too much about it as he sat in silence, waiting for Tyrion to hassle him with more questions about his houseguest. When he didn’t, Jaime uncrossed his arms and leaned forward, resting his elbows on the edge of the desk. “I take it your meeting went well?”

“It did.” The smug expression his brother had been wearing when he strolled through the door returned as if on cue. “Very well.”

Jaime cocked his head expectantly. “And?”

“And,” Tyrion paused, his green eyes glowing with satisfaction, “I have officially secured a second season for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.”  

“I’ll be damned.” Relief and triumphant happiness pulled Jaime’s mouth into a broad smile. “You finally got Father to agree?”

“I did.” 

“How?”

“With more money, naturally. I’ve been courting other investors for the last few weeks, and I finally have a taker.” 

Jaime’s smile slackened. “Please don’t say it’s the fucking Baratheons.” 

“Come on, brother.” Tyrion waved a dismissive hand. “Would I do that to you?” 

Of course you would, Jaime thought, if it meant getting what you wanted. However, he didn’t think Tyrion would be quite so gleeful about the news if that had been the case. 

“Who, then?”

Tyrion grinned. “The Tyrells.” 

It was Jaime’s turn to laugh. While Mace Tyrell was ostensibly in charge of the family’s business holdings, he didn’t do anything without his sharp-tongued mother’s explicit permission. “You mean Olenna Tyrell. Father must have loved that.”

“Oh, I think he rather likes the old bat, even if he’d never admit it. And he certainly likes her money.” Tyrion edged forward in his chair. “With their backing, we’re not just going to get a second season. We’ll be able to expand. The Tyrells have connections in Minneapolis and Milwaukee already, and that’s just the start.” 

Jaime saw genuine excitement in his brother’s eyes, and suddenly he wasn’t just happy about what this development meant for Brienne and himself and the league. He was happy for his brother. 

“Congratulations,” he said earnestly, startled by the way Tyrion’s face softened at his words. “You’ve earned it.” 

“We all have.” Tyrion tipped his head to one side, sending a few messy waves of hair falling across his forehead, and Jaime felt the sudden urge to give it an affectionate tousle, the way he had when they were young. “I hope you know I couldn’t have done it without you, Jaime.” 

“Sure you could have,” Jaime assured him. “But I’m glad you didn’t.”

~*~*~

Jaime arrived home to a strangely quiet house. He wouldn’t have known Brienne and Selwyn had returned at all if not for the absurd amount of Rockford merchandise that had appeared in his living room. There had to be half a dozen red caps and at least twice as many pennants in a neat little pile on the coffee table.

He paused at the bottom of the stairs but didn’t hear a sound, so he went through to the kitchen, hoping to find Brienne but coming upon her father instead.

Selwyn was leaning against the counter next to the refrigerator with two empty ginger ale bottles close beside him and a third, dripping with condensation, clasped in his large hand. 

“Nothing like a few cold drinks after being out in the sun all day,” Jaime remarked by way of greeting.  

The older man smiled as his gaze slid over Jaime’s dusty uniform. “I’m guessing you’d rather have a hot shower than something cold to drink, but I’m afraid Brienne beat you to it.” Selwyn turned to pull another green bottle from the refrigerator. After he pried off the top, he held the beverage out to Jaime. “She just went up, so you might as well have one while you wait.” 

Jaime accepted the bottle with a nod of gratitude and immediately took a long, cool swig, trying not to imagine the rivulets of water streaming over Brienne’s naked skin somewhere above his head. “She didn’t shower at the field?” 

Selwyn shook his head. “She wanted to, but your brother sent us off in his car before she could.” 

“Is he responsible for the merchandise stand that’s sprung up in my living room, too?” Jaime asked, grinning, and Selwyn smiled back at him.  

“I made the mistake of telling him I wanted to get some things for the Stark boys, and he just started shoving it at me. I tried offering to pay, but he wouldn’t even let me finish.” 

“He’s probably hoping you’ll wallpaper your town with it and recruit a whole new batch of Rockford fans.” 

Selwyn laughed. “I don’t think I’ll have the chance. The Stark boys will lay claim to half of it straight away, and I’ll have more than enough people lined up for the rest. Ned will want one of each, I’m sure, and even Cat might like a flag.”

“Do you think so?” Jaime took another sip of ginger ale. “I got the impression that she wasn’t exactly pleased about Sansa and Arya joining the league.”

“She wasn’t,” Selwyn acknowledged. “But I think she might still come around to the idea, especially once I tell her how well they’re doing.” 

“Well then, I certainly hope she does—for her daughters’ sake and Brienne’s. I know she feels very responsible for those girls.” 

Selwyn hummed in agreement as he lifted his bottle to his lips. “When she told me she was coming here, she said it was because Cat asked her to look after them. I knew that wasn’t all of it, that she must have wanted it at least a little bit for herself. And I could tell when we spoke on the phone that she was enjoying herself, but I never expected to find her so happy here. She’s happier than I’ve ever seen her.” 

Frowning slightly, Selwyn stared over Jaime’s shoulder with soft, unfocused eyes. “I know she had a hard time of it, back home. Even when people supported her on the team, it was nothing like this. I don’t think they ever really understood her.” His gaze abruptly returned to Jaime’s. “Of course, it didn’t help that she was six feet tall by the time she was twelve years old, or that she never looked like the other girls. Her brother told me the boys were especially cruel on that score.”

Anger flashed through Jaime’s limbs, and his hand clenched involuntarily around his bottle. 

“They’re idiots.” A lengthy list of more colorful words sprang to his tongue, but he forced himself to swallow them. Selwyn didn’t seem like a prudish man, but Jaime doubted spouting profanity would be the best way to impress him, even if it was in defense of Brienne. “Vicious, blind idiots.” 

“Yes, they are.” Selwyn’s mouth turned up in a sad sort of amusement. “Something tells me the same can’t be said for you, though.”

Jaime hoped his smile didn’t look as sardonic as it felt. “Oh, I’ve had my moments. But I’d like to think I’m smarter than I used to be.” 

Selwyn nodded soberly, but a ghost of a smile lingered on his lips. “That’s good to hear. My daughter deserves a smart man.”

Jaime froze, too stunned to even breathe, his ginger ale hanging in the air halfway to his mouth. As soon as he realized how ridiculous and surprised and caught he must have looked, he forced himself to coolly bring the bottle up, draining the remaining carbonated liquid in two deep gulps. It was far from the smooth recovery he’d hoped for, though—the second mouthful snagged in his throat as he swallowed, leaving him feeling like he had a lead ball lodged behind his Adam’s apple. 

When he finally spoke, his voice came out in a half-strangled rasp. “I’m not sure that’s any of my business.”

“I think we both know it is.” Selwyn’s weathered forehead wrinkled as his eyebrows peaked. “I would have to be a blind idiot not to notice the way my daughter looks at you, and the way you look at her.” He dipped the neck of his bottle in Jaime’s direction. “It’s not only her skill on the field that you admire, is it?”

Jaime slowly reached over to set his now-empty bottle on the counter. It was pointless to deny it—hell, he didn’t want to deny it—but he couldn’t be the one to have this conversation with the man. Not when Brienne had been waiting so long to do it herself.

“You should really talk to Brienne about that.” 

“I will,” Selwyn replied. “But right now I’m talking to you.” 

“You shouldn’t be,” Jaime said quietly, glancing quickly over his shoulder toward the open door. “It’s not my place to tell you how she feels.” 

“I’m not asking how she feels. I’m asking how you feel.” Selwyn’s face bore no trace of anger or annoyance, just a calm certainty and that piercing, astute gaze that reminded Jaime so much of Brienne. “And if I’m not mistaken, you’re in love with my daughter. Aren’t you?”

Raking his hand through the hair at the back of his neck, Jaime willed himself to think of something to say that wasn’t dishonest but that also wasn’t of course I am.

“That yes is getting louder by the second, son.”

Jaime huffed, begrudgingly impressed at how effectively this unassuming man had backed him into a corner. Selwyn must have known he wouldn’t lie. Not about Brienne. Not to her father. 

Which meant the truth was all he had left. 

I tried, Brienne, he thought, flicking his eyes toward the ceiling before returning them to resolutely meet her father’s stare. If he was going to do this, he wasn’t going to leave the man any room for doubt.

“You’re right,” Jaime declared, firm and clear. “I am.”

“And she knows how you feel?” 

“She does.” 

“Good.”

Jaime blinked, wondering if he’d experienced some sort of auditory hallucination. Surely Selwyn hadn’t actually just said good. Had he?

“I’ve never seen Brienne serious about a man before,” Selwyn added, scratching thoughtfully at the silver stubble coating his chin, “but it’s not difficult to see that she’s serious about you.”

A light, effervescent hope filled Jaime’s chest. “And you’re not…upset about that?”

If he wasn’t, if he didn’t object, then the very last barrier standing between Jaime and a life with Brienne would be gone. The future he’d dared to imagine only in snatches—a life better than the one he’d lost, better than anything he’d even known to hope for—wouldn’t just be a distant possibility. It would be right at goddamned hand. 

Selwyn’s jaw worked silently for a torturously long moment, and Jaime held his breath as he waited for him to reply. 

Eventually, the man’s broad shoulders hitched up, then fell. “Why would I be? I never would have guessed she’d end up with someone like you, but what does that matter?” His hooded gray eyes scanned Jaime’s face. “If you’re the one she wants, if being with you makes her happy, that’s what counts. And the fact that you think so highly of her is a testament to your character.”

Jaime, heady with relief, blurted out the first thought that skated across his mind. “I think it might be the other way around.”

Selwyn chuckled. “I suppose that means I can save my speech about how special she is. You obviously already know that.”

“I do,” he affirmed. “She’s the best person I’ve ever known.”

A slight smile formed around Selwyn’s eyes at that, but it vanished as soon as he began to speak. “I won’t ask you to take care of her, either, because she’s more than capable of taking care of herself.” He tipped his head forward, looking down at Jaime with a gentle solemnity that was more powerful than a hundred of Tywin Lannister’s most authoritative glares. “Just promise me you’ll be careful with her. Brienne is…much softer than she seems. She might have inherited my body, but she has her mother’s tender heart.”

“I will,” Jaime vowed, his throat suddenly thick. “I swear. I’d do anything for her.” 

“I believe you would.” Without warning, Selwyn took a step forward, stretching out a long arm until his hand fell on Jaime’s shoulder. “A good man is all I ever wanted for her, and I’m happy to see she’s finally found one.”

Despite Jaime’s best efforts to hold it back, a watery burn rose to his eyes. 

He’d been telling Brienne for more than a week that things would turn out fine, and he’d truly believed they would. Granted, he didn’t have much experience with kind, reasonable men, but he’d been certain the man who’d raised her would be one. And what kind, reasonable man would want to stand in the way of his daughter’s happiness? 

Still, he hadn’t expected it to be quite this…easy. He hadn’t thought Selwyn would actually approve of him, and knowing he did made Jaime’s chest swell with gratitude and elation and a quiet, unfamiliar pride.

“I hope I can prove myself worthy of your good opinion,” Jaime croaked. “Worthy of her.” 

“There’s no need for that, son.” Selwyn’s hand tightened on his shoulder. “You already have.”

Chapter Text

Brienne walked out into the stands under a bright, cloudless sky. As she blinked into the blinding sun, the field—just as vividly green as she remembered—came into focus, and her eyes fell on a familiar ivy-covered outfield wall. 

“You hit two balls over that?” her father asked, coming up to stand beside her. He nodded at home plate. “From there?”

The corner of her mouth lifted of its own accord. “I did.”

It certainly looked like a much greater distance than it had seemed at the time. Then again, she had been fueled by a desire to prove herself in the face of a certain pushy, obnoxious man.

Brienne’s smile widened as she looked around the field, suddenly awash in nostalgia. She hadn’t set foot in Lannister Field in more than three months, since the final day of tryouts. Somehow, it felt simultaneously as though it had been only yesterday and so long ago that it belonged to a different Brienne, in a different life. 

She could still pick out the exact door in center field that Mr. Varys had led them through that first day, and Brienne pointed it out to her father. When he prompted her for more, she showed him the grassy patch of infield where the Rockford Peaches had gathered as a team for the first time, the exact spot where she’d caught Shireen’s wild throw, and the place in the stands where Tyrion and Jaime had sat to watch them play.

“How did he manage to drag you across the field if he was sitting in the stands?” her father asked, and when she turned to look at him, Brienne saw that he was smiling. 

Huffing, she gestured to a stretch of wall running along the bottom of the stands. “I was right over there, doing drills with Arya and Ygritte, and all of a sudden he was standing in front of me.” 

The memory of Jaime shaking her hand—and holding onto it, long after he should have let go—came rushing back to her. 

Her father hummed and went back to studying the field, but the smile didn’t budge from his lips.

In that moment, Brienne knew it was time. Whether he suspected anything or not, she needed to tell him the truth. About Jaime, about the league…about everything. 

She understood Tyrion had arranged the day’s outing for them, without Jaime or any of the girls tagging along, so she could have precisely that conversation. And even though the words had been lurking at the edges of her mind all day, there hadn’t been a single opportunity for her to voice them. In fact, this was the first time since Tyrion’s car had arrived to collect them that they’d been truly alone

The forest-green Cadillac had pulled into Jaime’s driveway promptly at eight o’clock that morning, just as Tyrion had said it would. Its driver, a friendly young man named Podrick, had greeted them with warm brown eyes and an earnest smile, and Brienne had instantly preferred him to the gruff, craggy-faced fellow who’d chauffeured them the day before. 

That man had looked her up and down as he’d opened the back door of Tyrion’s car, lifting his eyebrows in a way that managed to be both offensive and approving. Then, with an amused twist of his lips, he had declared, “So, you’re the one.” 

I’m the one what? she’d nearly snapped, holding back only because her father had been close enough to hear the answer, and Brienne had doubted it would be suitable for his ears. She’d settled, instead, for scowling at the man as she climbed into the back seat and slammed the door in his smirking face. 

Podrick, in contrast, had politely called her “miss” as he held the door for her—and he’d persisted in addressing her that way, despite her repeated insistence that Brienne would do just fine. He’d been unfailingly kind and attentive, too, behaving as though it was a privilege to escort them for the day, rather than his job. 

All in all, they couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide.

He’d taken them to Jackson Park, the site of the 1893 World’s Fair, so they could wander the idyllic tree-lined paths and marvel at the historic Museum of Science and Industry; to Grant Park, where they’d gaped at Buckingham Fountain as the beautiful three-tiered structure shot water more than one hundred feet into the air; and along Lakeshore Drive, allowing her father a spectacular view of Lake Michigan as it stretched blue and endless toward the horizon. He’d even gone out of his way to drive by Ashemark Park, home of the Kingslayers. 

Brienne suspected that Tyrion had asked the young driver to include the stadium in his tour because of what it meant to Jaime, but all she’d been able to think about, as she looked out the car window at the stately brick entrance, was Galladon. For that reason, Brienne had immediately declined when Podrick offered to stop and take them inside.

With Jaime, for Jaime, she would manage it. But not with her father. It would have hurt too much.

To his credit, Podrick had just nodded cheerfully and proceeded to steer them through the streets of downtown Chicago instead, pointing out theaters and hotels and landmark buildings on nearly every block. Then, in the early afternoon, he’d dropped them off in front of a place Brienne actually recognized: Tyrell’s department store. 

Brienne had visited Tyrell’s months ago, on her shopping trip with Margaery and the Starks, but the twelve-story building was no less impressive on second viewing. Her father, seemingly overwhelmed by both its size and its opulence, hadn’t been able to get over the idea that the entire building—which took up the entire block—was home to a single store. And when they had first walked inside, he had tilted his head so far back to marvel at the glass mosaic ceiling shimmering five stories above them that he nearly lost his hat.

They’d eaten a late lunch of chicken pot pies in the Rose Room, Tyrell’s well-renowned restaurant, before heading down to the men’s department, where Brienne had insisted on buying her father a new fedora. He’d protested, but much less than she’d worried he would, and eventually let her choose a slate gray one that brought out the color of his eyes.  

Afterward, when Podrick had picked them up again, he’d announced that their last stop of the day would be Lannister Field, on the far north side of the city. On the way there, though, Tyrion had suggested he drive them up a section of Michigan Avenue called the Magnificent Mile. 

Brienne hadn’t been sure how a stretch of road could be magnificent, but then they’d approached the Chicago River and she’d seen the buildings rising on its other side.  

A pillar of gray stone and glass had stood on the right—Tribune Tower, Podrick had informed them—decorated with a series of ornate buttresses near the top that made it look as though the structure wore a crown. But it was the building on the left that had utterly transfixed her, majestic and white and gleaming in the sun. Somehow, it seemed to grow brighter and brighter as her eyes traveled up the stone walls to the central clock tower’s slender spire. 

Then Podrick had told her what it was: The Lannister Building. 

Built in 1920 by Tywin Lannister, it was, according to Podrick, the headquarters for the family’s extensive business operations. 

She had been undeniably awed by it, by the fact that Jaime’s father had built it. Looking up at that skyscraper, Brienne had also become keenly aware of how powerful Jaime’s family really was. Knowing that the Lannisters owned railroads and baseball teams and God knew what else was one thing; seeing such an imposing physical representation of their empire had been quite another. 

A fresh admiration for Jaime had blossomed in her chest as Brienne contemplated the courage it must have taken for him to defy his father, to choose baseball over a life trapped in that very building. At the same time, the idea that Tywin had valued constructing that building more than taking good care of the three young children who’d needed him had soured her impression of the man even further.  

“Brienne.” 

Her own father’s voice snapped her attention sharply back to the present, and Brienne was startled to find that he’d taken a seat in the nearest row while she’d been lost in thought. 

He nodded at the empty seat next to him, and she walked over and lowered herself into it. Then, before she had a chance to think of how to begin, her father did it for her.

“I wish your brother were here to see all this.” His eyes darted toward the field, then returned to fix on hers. “To see you.” 

Brienne felt a painful clench deep in her solar plexus, and a tremor of sadness rippled along her jaw. So do I, she wanted to say, but the words refused to come out. 

“I wish I’d gone with him to see some of your games back home, that I’d listened when he told me how good you were.” He lifted his shoulders, holding them in a long shrug. “I thought he was just being, well…Galladon. You know your brother always thought the world of you.” Shaking his head wistfully, he continued, “But he was telling the absolute truth. You’re a brilliant baseball player, Brienne. Watching you here has been remarkable.” 

Hot tears brimmed in her eyes, and when one leaked out and ran down the crease of her nose, Brienne lifted her hand to brush it away. Her father’s mouth dipped into a concerned frown, and she had to look down at her lap, away from the sadness and regret in his eyes, as she tried to swallow the hard lump of emotion in her throat. 

She had never thought of her father as being particularly disappointed by her, but Brienne also knew she’d been far from a conventional daughter. And while he hadn’t once questioned her choices or tried to hold her back from playing, he’d never spoken a supportive or encouraging word about it, either. 

Having him praise her now shouldn’t have mattered, she supposed, and yet…it did. It more than mattered; it made Brienne’s heart full in a way she hadn’t even known she’d been longing for. 

Her father cleared his throat, breaking the silence that had settled around them. In a slightly lower voice than before, he added, “I completely understand why you would want to stay and play again next year.”

“What?” Brienne’s head jerked up. “I…but…why would you…” 

She abandoned her stammering struggle for words when she noticed that her father's expression was laced with kindness rather than anger or resentment or despair. His eyes, never wavering from hers, seemed to ask gently, Am I wrong?

Brienne let out a long sigh. “How did you know?”

His lips pinched together with a thoughtful sort of reluctance, but he eventually gave her a one-word answer: “Sansa.”

The disappointment that rose within her must have shown on her face, because her father quickly raised his hand in a pacifying gesture. 

“Don’t be upset with her,” he said. “She wouldn’t have said a word if I hadn’t asked her about the house she mentioned at dinner the other night. I thought the poor girl was going to cry when I brought it up, she felt so terrible, but then the whole story just spilled out of her.” 

“The whole story?” Brienne desperately needed to know what, precisely, that encompassed. 

Her father nodded, explaining that Sansa had told him how some of the girls were planning to get jobs in Rockford after the season was over, in hopes that the league would continue the following year. “Naturally, she refused to say anything specific about your plans. But it wasn’t difficult to deduce that you were planning to do the same thing, at least until you heard about your brother.”

“I was,” she admitted. “But I—”

Brienne intended to tell him she’d never meant for him to find out that way, that she was sorry she’d kept it from him, but he cut her off before she could. 

“No, Brienne. No buts. No matter what happens with Galladon, you need to stay here.” His voice was tight and strained, but his eyes were earnest. “I know it’s hard, facing the fact that he might be gone, but you’re still here. You still have time to make the most of your life.” He stretched out his large hand, hesitating for a moment before closing it over her knee. “You deserve to be in a place where you can make that happen, with people who can make that happen.”

Tears swam in her eyes again, a mixture of relief and guilt and grief, but this time she managed to hold them at bay. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” she said quietly, laying her hand over his. “I’d only just decided when we got the news about Galladon.”  

Her father’s hand flexed beneath her fingers as he squeezed her knee. “The last thing your brother would want is for you to change your plans because of him.” 

“You’re right,” she acknowledged, trying desperately to keep her voice from cracking. “That’s why I’m not going to change them.”

His eyebrows lurched up in surprise. “You’re not?”

Brienne slowly shook her head. “I thought about it. A lot. But I’ve decided to stay.” She glanced down at her persistently pale hand overlapping his sun-bronzed one. “I want to be here, Dad. For Galladon, for the league, for Arya and Sansa…” She swallowed hard. “And for Jaime.” 

“I know.” 

The smile in his voice drew Brienne’s gaze back to his face, and she found it there, too—broad and sincere. 

“You know?” she asked. “About…”

“Jaime?” His eyes twinkled as he nodded. “As soon as you told me we were going to stay with him, I had my suspicions. And when I met him at the train station and saw the way he looked at you…” Slipping his hand out from under hers, her father pointedly raised his index finger. “I know that look, Brienne. I don’t think he even knew he was doing it, but it was obvious that he’s crazy about you. It didn’t take me long to see that you feel the same.” He paused, letting his eyes meander over her face. When he spoke again, his voice was uncharacteristically rough. “I’m happy for you, kiddo. For both of you.” 

Brienne’s heart swelled so swiftly she thought it might burst through her ribs. “You are?”

“Of course I am. Though I’ll admit I was a little worried, at first, what with him being your coach. I’m sure there are rules about that kind of thing, and it surprised me that any man could inspire my daughter to break them.” He rubbed his fingers across his chin. “But then I talked with him, and I wasn’t worried anymore.” 

“In the locker room, you mean?” It would certainly explain the smile he’d been wearing when she’d walked in on the two of them. 

“No,” he replied. “Yesterday, at his house. You were upstairs when he got home, and I took advantage of my window of opportunity. Call it a father’s prerogative.” He shot her an unusually sly wink. “Jaime didn’t want to talk about it before I’d spoken to you, but I wore him down, in the end.”

Dazed, Brienne just shook her head. It was incredibly jarring to realize her father had somehow become an expert at wheedling information out of people—and, if she were honest, a little bit impressive. 

The fact that this interaction had only happened the day before explained why Jaime hadn’t told her about it; they hadn’t been alone for more than a few seconds since she’d watched him cook their breakfast. And although Brienne wasn’t upset with him—after all, it sounded like he’d tried to avoid it—she did want to know what he’d said.

“Enough to convince me he’s in love with you, which is the most important thing,” her father told her once she’d worked up the nerve to ask him. With a heartfelt smile, he added, “He’s a good man, Brienne, and a good match for you. I like him very much.”

“I’m glad,” she whispered. 

It didn’t come close to expressing the happiness and gratitude she felt, knowing she had his blessing, but when he pressed his weighty shoulder into hers, she knew it was enough. 

~*~*~

Two days later, on a drizzly Sunday afternoon, Brienne stood on the platform of the train station, staring up at her father’s face through a rain-speckled window.

When the whistle blew, loud and shrill, and the train shuddered into motion, her father leaned close to the glass and tipped his new fedora. Fighting against an unexpected wave of melancholy, Brienne forced herself to smile as she raised her hand to wave goodbye.

The last time they’d parted—when she had been the one getting on a train—it hadn’t exactly been easy, but it also hadn’t felt so final. She’d never doubted, then, that she would be back home within a few months, that life would continue on as it always had. Now, watching him slowly pull away from her, it seemed unlikely that she would ever live under her father’s roof again.

“Don’t worry, wench,” came Jaime’s voice, and suddenly he was standing beside her, close enough that his shirtsleeve brushed against her arm. “You’ll see him again soon.” 

A tear spilled from her eye as she turned to look at him, and Jaime’s gaze traced its path down her cheek.

“You can go home and visit any time you want, you know,” he said softly. “It’s only a few hours away.” 

Grateful for his presence and for his attempt to comfort her, Brienne reached over and threaded her fingers through his. “I know.” 

Jaime responded immediately, pressing their palms together and stroking her thumb with his own. “I’ll go inside right now and buy you a ticket for the day after the series is over, if you want.” 

Despite her heartache, a smile flickered on Brienne’s lips. “I appreciate the offer, Jaime, but I think I’ll wait a little longer.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded. “I told him I’d come next month, but he wants us to go for Thanksgiving instead.” 

A wide, dimpled grin spread across Jaime’s face. “Us?”

“Us,” Brienne confirmed, and the word tasted strange and wonderful on her tongue. “We usually spend it with the Starks, though, so I’d understand if you don’t want to co—”

Her words died away when Jaime used the leverage of their joined hands to draw her closer, leaning in until his nose was precariously close to hers. 

“Oh, I want to,” he said throatily, but the smile still shone brightly in his eyes. “Just try and stop me.” 

For a moment, as his green gaze traveled down to her mouth, Brienne thought he might kiss her, right there on the platform. 

He didn’t, though, not until he’d led her back to his car, and they were safely hidden beneath the convertible’s canvas top. And even then, it wasn’t the fierce, hungry kiss she’d expected, but something slow and intent and gentle, with his fingers cradling her jaw and her hand braced lightly against his chest.

Before long, he pulled his mouth from hers, although Brienne could tell by the heat in his eyes that he would have preferred not to. 

“One more week,” he whispered against her lips, and the rasp in his voice made her shiver.

Jaime groaned, and Brienne watched his willpower strain—but ultimately hold—as he heaved himself back into his seat and started the car. 

~*~*~

It had started to rain in earnest by the time Jaime dropped her off at the boardinghouse, and Brienne made a hasty dash from the curb to the porch. 

Her hair and shoulders were damp by the time she reached the front door, but it didn’t seem to faze Sansa, Shireen, or Dany when the three of them met her in the foyer. They hugged her and asked after her father and said they were glad to have her back, and Brienne was surprised by just how happy she felt to be back. 

That feeling stayed with her as she made her way upstairs, returning even more happy greetings from the other girls sitting in the common room. And when she reached the landing, Brienne found another welcoming face waiting outside her bedroom door. 

“Did Sansa tell you the good news?” Margaery asked.

Brienne slipped past her friend and set her suitcase down on the floor. “There’s been news since yesterday?”

Nodding, Margaery leaned against the jamb. “From the Starks.”

“Cat?”

“No, actually. Ned.”

Margaery proceeded to explain that he’d called to tell his daughters that Robb and Jon were coming home for a quick visit before shipping out to the coast. “He’s going to do his best to get them here for a game or two of the World Series, if the timing works out,” she concluded. “Though I doubt they’ll make it before game three.” 

Given that the game in question would take place on the forthcoming Friday, Brienne was hardly surprised. In fact, she was both shocked and pleased they were going to attempt the trip at all. 

“That’s wonderful,” she said earnestly, sitting down on the edge of her bed. “Sansa and Arya must be over the moon.” 

“They are.” Margaery slid out of the doorway and turned to close the door behind her with a quiet snick. “Which is why I’m surprised Sansa didn’t tell you about it. I know I heard her voice downstairs, just now.” 

“You did,” Brienne affirmed, shrugging. “Maybe she thought it would make me sad.” 

Margaery dropped down beside her. “Does it?” 

“No. It makes me very happy.” 

And it did. Robb and Jon, despite being several years her junior, had always been very kind to her. She would enjoy spending time with them again, even though it would doubtlessly make her heartsick to see them in uniform—and to say another goodbye. 

“What about your brothers?” Brienne couldn’t recall the last time Margaery had mentioned either Garlan or Loras. “Have you had any news?” 

“As a matter of fact, yes. Grandmother called yesterday to say she’d heard from Loras. Apparently, he was wounded in the arm a few weeks ago.”

“I’m sorry,” Brienne murmured. “Is he going to be all right?”

“Oh, he’ll be fine. It was nothing serious, by the sound of it, but grandmother thinks it’s sobered him a little.” Margaery patted Brienne’s leg. “But enough about that. Grandmother also had a much more cheerful piece of news.” Her friend’s blue eyes sparkled with delight. “She told me Jaime has taken a new coaching job. With the Kingslayers.” 

Brienne stretched back in surprise. “How does she know that?”

Margaery laughed. “She knows everything, my dear. And now that she has a vested interest in the league, she’ll want to be especially well informed about things like this.”

The day before, the locker room had devolved into a raucous, tearful celebration when Tyrion came by to tell them the league would be continuing next season. Margaery had pretended to be as shocked as the rest of them when he’d revealed that her family’s partnership had helped make it possible, but Brienne hadn’t been fooled for a second.

She knew her friend well enough to be certain she’d at least been aware of the possibility—and, more than likely, encouraged it. She might even have suggested it. 

“I hope you know how happy I am that things are working out for the two of you, Brienne,” Margaery continued. “Even though I am a little sad for myself.”

“You’re sad he’s leaving?”

“Not Jaime, you silly goose. You.”

“But I’m not going anywhere.” That was, as Margaery ought to know, the point of Jaime leaving the league in the first place. 

“Oh, I know you’ll still be on the team. But you won’t be here.” Margaery swept her hand at the room around them. “And the house won’t be the same without you.”

“Why won’t I be here?” Brienne asked, perplexed. “Where else would I go?”

Smirking, Margaery shook her head. “Even you must know Jaime Lannister means to marry you, Brienne, and he has never been a particularly patient man. If he hasn’t put a ring on your finger by the end of the year, I’ll eat my mitt.”

Chapter Text

“So, this is it. Your last game as a Peach.” Tyrion smirked at him from the other side of the desk. “I don’t suppose I can convince you to toast the occasion with me?” 

“You cannot.” Jaime shook his head wryly as he watched his brother remove a small silver flask from the inside of his jacket. “But that’s never stopped you before.” 

“It won’t stop me today, either.” Tyrion unscrewed the cap. “How do you expect me to survive an entire game refereeing between Father and the Tyrells without a little fortification?”

Jaime frowned. “He actually came?”

Tyrion had told him a few days ago that their father was planning to attend, but Jaime hadn’t really believed he would. 

“He didn’t have much choice after Olenna got that reporter on the hook. They’re outside talking to him now.” A sour smile twisted his brother’s mouth. “It wouldn’t do for the Tribune to run a feature on the new Lannister–Tyrell partnership without a quote from Tywin Lannister himself. We can’t have the Tyrells getting too much credit.” 

Or you, Jaime thought bitterly. Some things never fucking change.

“Why aren’t you out there?” he asked. “Surely you have far more to say about the future of the league than either of them.” 

“My presence was not required.” Tyrion’s shoulders jerked in an artificially apathetic shrug. “I’d rather be talking to you anyway.” He raised his flask to Jaime in salute before taking a long swig. 

“That didn’t sound like much of a toast.” 

His brother huffed a sardonic laugh. “I guess it wasn’t.” Lifting the flask again, he said, “To a hell of a good season, then. To my brother, the best manager in the league. To the Peaches.” 

Lacking a glass to raise, Jaime just bobbed his head. “To the Peaches.” 

Tyrion sipped once more from the flask before spinning on the cap and tucking it back into his jacket. “How are they holding up?” 

Jaime glanced toward the door separating his office from the locker room. “I haven’t been in to see them yet, but I’m sure they’re more determined than ever. They want to win.”

Grinning, Tyrion tipped forward in his chair. “I shouldn’t really take sides, but you know I hope they do.” 

“I know.” He felt an answering smile on his own lips. “So do I.”

That, in fact, was putting it mildly. Jaime couldn’t ever remember wanting a championship title so badly, even when he had been the one taking the field to play for it. He wanted it for them. He wanted it for her.

Before the series began, he’d honestly never expected they would make it to the fifth and final game. The Peaches were by far—based on their record across the entire season—the more talented team, and he’d been certain they’d take the series by game four. But the Racine Belles had given them one hell of a fight. 

The Peaches had won the first game and then nearly the second, but Racine had rallied in the ninth to take the game. The Belles had ridden that momentum into another marginal victory in game three, and the Peaches had responded by hammering them in a seven-run victory in the fourth. 

And so, after one hundred and twelve games and more than three months of sun and dirt and sweat, it had all come down to this. 

“What are you going to do when it’s over?” Tyrion’s grin turned impish. “Not another group outing to the roadhouse, I hope?”

Jaime tried to give his brother an appropriately withering look, but he wasn’t sure he managed it, thanks to the eternally distracting memory of Brienne in that enticing blue dress. “Definitely not.” 

“Just you and Brienne, then?” 

“Yes, as a matter of fact,” Jaime admitted, because—he realized with relish—he could. In a few hours, the season would officially be finished, and he and Brienne would be free to do whatever they liked.

No more discretion. No more sneaked kisses. No more goddamned restraint. 

He half-expected his brother to tease him with a bawdy, suggestive remark, but Tyrion only jerked his head toward the locker room. “How is our leading lady, by the way? Knee any better?” 

Jaime snorted. “That depends on who you ask.” 

The wench had refused to admit the damned thing was bothering her in the first place, but he’d seen it clear as day by the beginning of game three—a subtle difference in the way she moved, a fractional slowing of her usual fluid speed that let him know something wasn’t right. 

She’d looked so furious when he told her he was pulling her for the second half of the game that Jaime had thought she was going to disembowel him. But then she’d winced walking down the dugout steps, and all the fight had drained out of her. Well, most of it, anyway. She had still found the energy to scowl at him from the bench for the next five innings, and, when they lost the game, to badger him until he swore he’d let her back on the field the following day.

“I’m asking you, Jaime,” Tyrion said, his voice suddenly serious. “You are letting her play today, aren’t you?”

“You say that like you think I could stop her.”

“Perhaps you could, if you wanted to.” Tyrion flicked his eyes toward the single sheet of paper sitting on the corner of the desk. There, in the last Rockford lineup he would ever write, Jaime had scrawled Brienne’s name in her usual position. “But I suspect you don’t.” 

Jaime sighed. He didn’t. He wouldn’t. Not for such an important game. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t concerned. 

“She shouldn’t be playing this much so soon after an injury,” he grumbled. “I don’t care what Dr. Luwin says. She’s pushing herself too hard.” 

Tyrion smiled. “Would you expect anything less?”  

“No,” he conceded. “I suppose I woul—”

The sudden jangle of the telephone cut off his words, and Jaime quickly turned in his chair to answer it. When he did, the buzz of the crowd in the background was so loud he had a hard time hearing what the fellow on the other end was saying. 

He asked the man to repeat himself, but the results weren’t any better: “This is…I’m…ticketing office…I have…for Tyrion Lannister. He…urgent…speak with him.” 

“Someone needs you at the ticketing office,” Jaime told his brother after he hung up the phone. “Apparently, it’s urgent.”

“Did he say who it was?” 

“I think he tried, but I couldn’t hear a damn thing. It sounds like pandemonium out there.” 

“Does it?” Tyrion’s face brightened, and he hopped down off his chair. “Well then, I should find out what’s going on.” 

“Maybe that reporter wants to speak to you after all,” Jaime suggested, taking a quick look at the clock. They were due on the field in a little less than half an hour. “If I don’t see you again before the game, I—”

“Oh, you will,” Tyrion interrupted, peering over his shoulder just as he reached the hallway door. “Something tells me I’ll be back before you know it.”

Then, with a wink, he was gone.  

Jaime spent the next few minutes rolling Tyrion’s enigmatic words around in his head, hoping they didn’t mean he would be traipsing back through the door with a reporter or Olenna Tyrell or their fucking father in tow. He had no desire to ruin the day by speaking to any of them. 

He did, however, need to speak to his team, so Jaime hoisted himself out of his chair and knocked on the locker room door. Almost immediately, Gilly’s voice called out, beckoning him to come in.

When he opened the door, Jaime found the room crackling with nervous anticipation as the girls laced up their cleats and gathered their gear, but the buzz of activity tapered into silence as he walked to the center of the room. 

At least one of them, however, seemed to have no compunction about breaking it.

“Margaery says her grandmother is here today,” Arya said, looking up at Jaime with rapt attention. “And your father. Is that true?”

“It is,” he confirmed. “But you don’t need to worry about that.” He needed them focused on the people on the field, not the ones looking at it. “Arya, the lead-off batter can’t hit a curveball to save her life, so I want you to start with that. And Brienne,” he could feel her eyes on him even before he met them with his own, “if she sticks to her usual pattern, the second hitter is going to bunt, so be ready.” She bobbed her head, and Jaime nodded in return before sweeping his gaze over Lyanna, Margaery, and Gilly. “Outfielders, I want you to play a couple of steps deep. They’ve been hitting a lot of long balls, and I don’t want to give anything up today.”

When their murmurs of assent died away, Jaime spun in a slow circle, surveying the sixteen faces staring back at him. He was glad, just then, that he’d given them the news about his departure before the series had begun; he didn’t think he could have managed it now, not with such a palpable sense of do or die weighing down the air.  

But there was something else he needed to tell them. Something they deserved to hear. 

“I know how important this is to all of you,” he said, “and how hard you’ve worked for it. But no matter what happens today, you should be proud of yourselves. You’ve played a hell of a season.” Jaime raised his index finger, pointing toward the stadium above them. “Three months ago, all the people up there rooting for you right now were laughing at the idea of girls playing baseball. And you didn’t just prove them wrong, you won them over. You are what got us here. Not the gimmicks or the press, or even my brother. You. And even though I won’t be here, I hope you all come back to play again next season. The league would be poorer for it if you don’t.” He paused, trying to swallow the unanticipated thickness in his throat. “You’re damn fine ballplayers, and it’s been a privilege to be your coach.” 

Jaime felt a pang of regret as his final words echoed off the concrete floor. He wasn’t sad to be leaving, precisely, not with all he would gain. But he would miss this—miss them

“It’s been a privilege to have you,” Margaery said, her eyes unusually soft. “I mean that.”

A chorus of agreement rippled around the room.

“We’ll miss you, Jaime,” Dany added. “It won’t be the same without you.”

“Best coach in the league, right here,” Yara declared, and this time, the answering chorus was louder. 

Trying not to grin, Jaime raised his hand and stump to quiet them. “All right, that’s enough of that. We’ve got a game to play, and I—”

The door banged open, making several of the girls jump. Jaime looked up, annoyed, only to find his brother standing on the threshold with an exultant smile plastered across his face. 

“Yes?” Jaime asked wearily. 

“I’m sorry to interrupt,” Tyrion said, and Jaime rolled his eyes. He certainly didn’t look sorry. “But one of the girls has a very special visitor, and I didn’t want to make him wait.” 

Jaime’s forehead furrowed as Tyrion slipped into the room and motioned to someone standing out of sight in the hall. Half the Stark family had shown up two days before, as had Gilly’s husband and son, but his brother hadn’t brought them down to the locker room. 

Before he could puzzle over it further, Jaime heard a shuffling scrape in the hallway, and a tall, broad-shouldered figure in an Army uniform appeared in the doorway. 

And Jaime knew—even before the man limped awkwardly into the room, revealing his right arm in a cast and his right foot encased in some sort of oversized boot; before he heard Sansa gasp; before Brienne’s catcher’s mask clattered to the floor—exactly who it was.

He’d known it the moment he set eyes on those shoulders. They couldn’t belong to anyone but a Tarth.

Brienne choked out a strangled noise, so raw with pain and relief that Jaime thought his chest might crack in two. In response, the man just smiled, and Jaime recognized that, too. It was wide and crooked and toothy, just like hers.

“Hey, sis,” the man rumbled, grinning. 

“Galladon.” The name fell from her lips, a raspy whisper that Jaime could barely make out, even though the room had gone so quiet he could hear his own heartbeat throbbing in his ears. “You’re—we thought you were…” Slowly, Brienne staggered toward her brother until she finally stood directly in front of him. “What are you doing here?” 

Still grinning, Galladon Tarth stretched out his left arm in an uneven shrug. “Did you think I’d miss the chance to see my little sister play in the World Series?”

Brienne’s shoulders gave a little heave, and Jaime didn’t need to see her face to know that she was crying. Hell, he was nearly crying, just like half the damn room. Margaery hadn’t bothered to wipe away the tears on her cheeks, and Sansa had a hand clamped over her mouth so tightly he wondered how she was managing to breathe. Even Arya was watching the reunion with damp eyes.

And when Brienne launched herself forward, wrapping her arms around her brother and pressing her face into his shoulder, the entire locker room erupted with whoops and whistles and applause.

Jaime added his own whistle to the cacophony, and Brienne abruptly turned in her brother’s arms. Her eyes, wide and shining and radiantly blue, came up to meet his, and then she smiled.

There was an invitation on her face, a plea he understood without her needing to speak it aloud, and Jaime’s feet heeded it almost before he knew what he was doing. 

“Galladon,” Brienne said, stepping back from her brother as Jaime approached them. “This is my…” She hesitated, biting her lip. “This is Jaime.” 

Galladon’s eyes—a familiar, penetrating gray—widened when Jaime extended his hand, and the man gave a slight, awed shake of his head as he reached out to take it. “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Lannister.” 

“Please, call me Jaime.” He squeezed Galladon’s hand. “And I assure you, the honor is all mine.” 

~*~*~

“Was this you?” Jaime asked his brother when the two of them returned to his office a short while later. 

“I appreciate that you think me capable of such a feat,” Tyrion answered, amusement glittering in his eyes, “but no, I’m afraid I did next to nothing. Selwyn called two days ago to enlist my assistance, but Brienne’s brother was already en route to Chicago. So, I just made sure young Podrick was there to collect him from the train station this morning.”

Crossing his arms, Jaime leaned against his desk. Even though his brother and Selwyn had been thick as thieves during the man’s visit, it still disturbed him that Brienne’s father hadn’t called him

“Oh, don’t give me that look.” Tyrion squinted knowingly up at him. “Selwyn asked me because he knew you wouldn’t have been able to keep it from her, and her brother evidently insisted that it be a surprise.”

“Well,” Jaime said with a mollified smirk, “I can’t argue with him there.” Even if he’d tried to keep the secret, the wench’s eyes would have seen right through him. “Did Selwyn tell you what happened?” 

“A mortar shell, by the sound of it. The poor man went through two field hospitals and three surgeries to get all the shrapnel out of his leg—not that he remembers. He can’t recall a single thing before he woke up with a cast on his arm and a bandage on his leg.” 

Jaime scraped his hand along his jaw. “Jesus.” 

“Quite. Though he’s actually very lucky it wasn’t worse.” 

Being in an artillery explosion hardly counted as lucky, in Jaime’s opinion, but when he considered how unlikely it was that Galladon had come out of it as unscathed as he had—that he’d survived at all—he realized Tyrion had a point. 

“How did they find him?” he asked. “And how the hell did they get him back here so fast?”

“There, my dear brother, is the rub.” Tyrion’s brow lowered. “It turns out he was never even missing.” 

Apparently, as Tyrion went on to explain, a very damaged set of dog tags and Galladon’s intermittent unconsciousness had resulted in the Army misidentifying him as Allan Tarth, a private from Oklahoma serving in a different battalion. They hadn’t realized the error until a few days before, when they’d issued him his discharge papers and stuck him on a plane back across the Atlantic.

“He didn’t have a chance to call Selwyn until he landed in New York on Friday.” Tyrion spread his hands. “And now here we are. No place like the World Series for a family reunion.”

Jaime’s gaze wandered to the locker room door as he thought of Brienne and her watery, tremulous smile. After his brief introduction to her brother, he’d sent the girls to the dugout so Brienne could have some time alone with him, but now he found himself itching to peek his head in, just to see how she was doing. To get another glimpse of the incandescent happiness that had brightened her face when he’d shaken Galladon’s hand. 

“Speaking of family,” Tyrion continued, and the hesitation in his brother’s tone drew Jaime’s eyes back to his face. “Father would like a word.” 

“With me?” Jaime’s mood curdled. “Why?” 

As far as he was concerned, there was nothing left for the two of them to discuss. 

Tyrion shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I staved him off once already, but he didn’t relish being kept waiting.”

If he hadn’t been so irritated, Jaime might have laughed. Well, isn’t that just too damned bad. 

“I don’t have long,” he called after his brother, who had already disappeared down the hall.  

“Then I’ll hurry,” Tyrion shouted back. 

And he must have, because their father walked through the open door barely three minutes later. Tyrion, conveniently, was nowhere in sight. 

Jaime could practically see Tywin’s nose wrinkle as he surveyed the shabby office. His cool eyes briefly assessed Jaime, too—up from his cleats to the Rockford crest on his uniform and down his arm to his stump. 

Instead of speaking, however, his father just stood there, arching an expectant eyebrow.

Still perched on the edge of his desk, Jaime waved his hand toward the chair closest to him. “Have a seat.” 

Tywin glanced distastefully down at the plain wooden chair. “There’s no need. This won’t take long.” 

“Suit yourself,” Jaime drawled, lazily crossing one ankle over the other.  

For once, his father chose to ignore both Jaime’s tone and his posture, but the tension in Tywin’s jaw suggested it pained him to do so. “I assume you know why I’m here.”

“I truly don’t.” 

“Of course you do. Your brother must have told you by now that the league will be continuing operations for another season.”

“He did,” Jaime said. “Thanks to the generosity of the Tyrells.”

His father’s eyes flashed. “Theirs—and mine.” 

“Either way, I don’t see what it has to do with me.”

“Then allow me to enlighten you.” Tywin gave Jaime a sharp, joyless smile. “You’ve done well with these girls, Jaime. Very well. Willas Tyrell tells me the odds are 3-1 in your team’s favor today, and Rockford has been the only team to sell out every game for the last four weeks.”

Jaime’s brow twitched in surprise. Of all the things he’d expected to come out of his father’s mouth, it certainly hadn’t been a fucking compliment

“I’d like you to reconsider your decision about managing again next year,” Tywin continued. “We’re expanding into at least two new markets, and we could use you in one of those cities to help get things off the ground.” 

Of course, Jaime thought, shaking his head. He should have known better than to think Tywin Lannister would say something so favorable without an ulterior motive.

“No.”

No?” Tywin asked, the single syllable dripping with disdain. 

“No,” Jaime repeated. “I already told you the league doesn’t need me. You have Tyrion, and you have good players. You’ll be just fine.” 

His father opened his mouth, presumably to argue, but Jaime spoke again before he had the chance.

“Even if I wanted to come back, which I do not, I’ve already accepted a coaching position with the Kingslayers.” A wave of shock washed over Tywin’s face, and Jaime enjoyed it more than he should have. “I signed the contract last week.” 

“The Kingslayers?” Tywin sneered. “You would rather work for the Marbrands than your own family?” 

“I would,” he snapped. “Addam Marbrand offered me a job because he thinks I’ve earned it, not because he thinks I could be useful. Which man would you rather work for?” 

For half a second, Jaime thought he spied something akin to respect flickering in his father’s eyes. But it vanished as soon as Tywin blinked, replaced by his usual cold stare.

“Jaime,” his father said sternly, “if you think—”

“I think,” Jaime interjected, “I’ve made myself quite clear. I will not be returning to the league next season—or any other season, for that matter. That’s the end of it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a game to coach.”

Tywin glared down at him. “We’re not finished.” 

“Yes.” Jaime stood, feeling oddly free. “We are.” 

~*~*~

“Brienne, did Olenna Tyrell just wink at you?” 

The wench ducked her head as Jaime fell into step beside her. They were the last two to traipse back to the dugout after lining up on the field for the national anthem, during which Jaime had noticed the Tyrell matriarch gazing down regally from the stands. 

At first, he’d thought the intimidating old woman had been studying him from her perch, and the hint of a smile on her face had made him want to squirm. But when the old bat had winked as the last operatic note trilled away, Jaime realized she’d been looking at the person standing directly in front of him—Brienne. 

“She did, didn’t she?” Jaime prodded, bumping his shoulder discreetly against hers. “How do you know Olenna Tyrell?” 

“I met her months ago, when Margaery took us to their department store.” Brienne lowered her voice, looking studiously down at the dirt as she added, “She said I was marvelous.” 

Jaime laughed. “She’s right, of course. And I’m sure I’m not the only one here who thinks so.”

He nodded toward a row a few below the one Olenna occupied, where Galladon towered over both the redheaded Stark boy and the dark-eyed, broody one standing on either side of him. When he saw them looking his way, Brienne’s brother waved ostentatiously, and Jaime lifted his own hand to wave back. 

A radiant smile bloomed on Brienne’s face as she turned to look at him, her blue eyes dancing with happiness and wonder and a light so bright it took his fucking breath away. In all his years on the mound and behind the plate, Jaime didn’t think he’d ever felt so much joy on a baseball field as he did in that moment. With her. For her.

That joy stayed with him for the entire game, too, as Jaime watched his team play some of the best baseball he’d ever witnessed. 

Arya came out impossibly strong, opening the game with three no-hit innings that helped the Peaches secure an early 3-0 lead. Her stunning streak broke in the fourth, and, with two runners on base, Racine’s best hitter slammed a triple into deep center that narrowed the lead to one. The score stalled there, with an extraordinary flurry of hits and catches and outs that somehow resulted in no additional runs for almost four innings. 

Then, in the bottom of the eighth, the Peaches fired off a string of hits. By the time Brienne picked up her bat and marched out to the plate, Sansa, Dany, and Lyanna had loaded the bases.

Her thighs flexed as Brienne rocked into her stance, bending her knees and squaring her shoulders. The pitcher wound up and released the ball with striking speed, and Brienne clobbered the hell out of it anyway. 

Jaime felt the resounding crack clear down to his bones as he watched the ball shoot up into the sky, straight toward right field. When it dropped, Brienne’s twenty-fourth home run of the season fell so far past the outfield fence that he suspected it had landed clear out in the street. 

With one swing of her bat, she had all but guaranteed their victory, and he couldn’t tear his eyes away from her as she flew around the bases, or when the girls practically tackled her in celebration as she crossed home plate. And when the crowd began chanting her name—Tarth, Tarth, Tarth—the hairs on Jaime’s arms stood on end.

An earsplitting whistle drew his eyes to the stands, where Galladon beamed down at his sister while the Starks clapped and cheered beside him. Several rows behind them, sandwiched between a smirking Olenna Tyrell and Jaime’s bemused-looking father, Tyrion was waving his hat and shouting like a madman. 

But none of that could hold Jaime’s attention for long. Not when Brienne was jogging toward him, triumphant, shining like the goddamned sun. 

Without thinking, Jaime opened his arms, and she shocked him by flinging herself into them with such force that it knocked the hat from his head. 

All too quickly, she began to lean away, worry creasing her sweat-dampened brow. “I forgot your father was here.” 

“I didn’t.” Jaime locked his arms around her waist. “And I don’t care.” 

And he didn’t. He didn’t care about his father or the crowd or the rules. He cared about her. Brienne. The woman he loved.

So, he kissed her, long and fierce and deep, heedless of the renewed cheers and whistles coming from both the dugout and the stands. 

When they finally broke apart, Brienne was smiling breathlessly and her cheeks had turned his favorite shade of pink…and Jaime didn’t want to do without her. Ever. 

“Marry me.” 

Brienne’s eyes widened until he could see the entire circle of her extraordinary irises. “What?”

“I’m asking you to be my wife, Brienne. If you’ll have me.”

One corner of her mouth crept slowly upward. “Someone once told me that I should be playing baseball, not getting married.” 

His face split into a wide smile. That, as she damned well knew, had been about getting married to someone else.

“You’re a talented, energetic woman,” Jaime lilted. “I’m sure you can do both.” Then, more seriously, he said, “We can keep the house in Rockford or buy a new one, and you can move in. I’ll drive out from the city to stay whenever I can during the summer, and for the rest of the year…” Jaime tightened his arms around her. “You’ll be all mine, wench. We can go wherever you want. Chicago, Rockford, your father’s farm. As long as you’re with me, I don’t...” 

Brienne’s hands on his neck made him lose his train of thought, and he forgot it entirely when she pulled him close for another kiss. 

“Yes, Jaime,” she murmured, a breathy burst of air against his lips. “Of course I’ll have you.”

He couldn’t stop smiling after that, even as he surged forward to kiss her again, and his teeth bumped hers repeatedly when their lips touched. But Jaime didn’t mind. And judging by the way Brienne’s fingers were tunneling through his hair, she didn’t either. 

“Are you two about finished?” Yara barked. “We’ve got a game to play.”

Brienne tensed, jerking her mouth away from his, and Jaime groaned into her neck. “She’s right, isn’t she?”

He felt her smile. “I’m afraid she is.”  

“Fine.” Jaime grinned, nuzzling his nose against her flushed cheek. “I suppose I can wait a few more minutes, if I have to.”

Then, with a quick turn of his head, Jaime captured Brienne’s lips in one more heated kiss before he finally released her.

“Now,” he said huskily, “go win the World Series.” 

So she did.

Chapter Text

 

Cooperstown, New York, November 1988 

The ache in Jaime’s stump told him rain was on the way as he approached the three-story brick building, walking arm and arm with his wife. 

It had been more than twenty years since they’d last visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame, but it would have looked exactly the same if not for the large “Women in Baseball” banners hanging prominently on either side of the entrance.

Last time, when he’d been honored with an induction, their children and Brienne’s brother had all accompanied them, but Brienne had insisted they make this trip on their own. Honestly, Jaime still felt lucky he’d gotten her there at all. 

She’d argued with him over it for months, insisting that she wasn’t actually being inducted, so there was no need to fly halfway across the country. It wasn’t, she had insisted, that important.

Jaime, as well as all three of their children, had vehemently disagreed with her, and the four of them had joined forces to try and talk her around. 

Duncan, the only one of them to inherit his parents’ love of the game, kept insisting what an honor it was that she and the league were being recognized for their contributions to the legacy of baseball. Anne, meanwhile, had tried a different tack, repeatedly reminding her mother that all her old teammates would be there. Brienne still kept in touch with Sansa and Arya, though they didn’t see each other as frequently as they once had, but she hadn’t seen some of the other women in years. Decades, even. What better time, Anne had asked, to have a reunion?  

Jaime had a sneaking suspicion, however, that part of his wife’s reluctance had more to do with the people who wouldn’t be there than with those who would. They’d lost Galladon a little more than a year before, and Margaery Tyrell had passed away just six months after that. Brienne, he knew, still felt both their losses sharply. Hell, he missed them, too. 

He’d tried suggesting that they would have wanted her to go—that she should do it in memory of them, if not for herself—but Brienne had remained unmoved.

It had been their eldest, Genna, who had finally convinced her, and Jaime still didn’t know exactly how she’d done it. Genna, who Brienne had carried while she still played, who had traveled with her mother on a bus, although she was too young to remember, and who was also most like her. She had his bright green eyes, but everything else about her was Brienne.

She’d also been the one to hold off her brother and sister when they’d angled for invites to the opening, seeming to understand that her mother needed to do this on her own.

Now, as he and Brienne walked through the large double doors and headed for the escalator to the second floor, Jaime was glad of it. He was glad he didn’t have to share the day with anyone besides her. 

Well, except for his brother, who just happened to be waiting for them outside the exhibit doors, leaning heavily on his cane. 

“I was beginning to worry you’d changed your minds.” Tyrion poked his thumb over his stooped shoulder. “You missed the ribbon cutting.”

Behind him, a snipped ribbon trailed limply across the floor, still attached to a pole on one side of the entrance. Above it, a large sign read, “Women in Baseball, 1943-1954,” with the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League logo emblazoned in crisp red, blue, and white.

“Our flight was late.” Brienne’s mouth tipped into an apologetic frown. “I’m very sorry we missed it, Tyrion. I know how hard you worked to make this happen.”

Jaime felt his eyebrows lift. He knew Tyrion had been fighting for years to get the league acknowledged in the Hall of Fame, but he hadn’t realized Brienne had been paying that much attention. 

“It doesn’t matter, my dear,” Tyrion good-naturedly replied. “I made my speech quite short. I’m well aware that no one is here to see me.” He winked at Brienne. “There are some people inside who’ll be very happy to see you, though.”

As though his brother’s words had summoned her, Sansa Stark suddenly appeared in the exhibit doorway. “Tyrion, are you—oh!” A brilliant smile swept across her face. “You came!” 

She hurried forward to embrace Brienne, holding on to her friend for several long seconds before turning to give Jaime an equally lingering hug. 

“Do you mind if I steal you away?” Sansa asked, once again stepping closer to Brienne and resting a hand lightly on her arm. “Arya, Shireen, and Dany are inside, with Yara and Gilly and some of the others, and Dany wants to take a photo of the original Peaches.” 

Brienne looked at Jaime with a question in her eyes. 

“Go,” he told her. “I’ll come find you in a minute.”

Jaime watched the two women walk away, Brienne’s striking silver head still towering over Sansa’s reddish-gray one, until they disappeared through the door and around the corner. 

When he finally looked back down at his brother, Tyrion was smiling. “I’m glad you got her here, Jaime.”

He nodded. “So am I.”

“I’m sorry the kids couldn’t make it.” Tyrion peered around Jaime in the direction of the escalators, as if to be sure he hadn’t missed them. “Duncan would have loved this.”

“Oh, he wanted to be here. They all did. But Brienne…” Jaime shrugged. “I don’t think she wanted the whole pride of Lannisters tromping around the place, making a fuss over her.”

“She deserves to be fussed over.” 

Jaime smiled. “I agree, but you know how she is. Genna is already planning a family trip in the spring, though. You’re welcome to join us.” 

“I’d like that, brother. I’d like that very much.”

“Good. I’ll have Genna call you with the details. Now,” Jaime tipped his head toward the door, “care to give me the grand tour? I’m sure you know this place better than anyone.”

Tyrion grinned up at him. “I’d be happy to.” 

His brother’s cane clicked across the floor as the two of them made their way inside, where, once his eyes adjusted to the slightly dim lighting, Jaime almost didn’t know where to look.

Framed photographs and newspaper clippings of all sizes lined the walls, and there were numerous large glass cases filled with uniforms, gear, scrapbooks, and other memorabilia. On the other side of a large central pillar, he even saw the edge of what looked like an old section of Rockford lockers. 

To his left, Jaime spotted Brienne, Sansa, Arya, and at least a half dozen other former Peaches looking at the photos arrayed along the nearest wall. Brienne caught his eye for just a moment, and the joy on her face made his chest give a pleasant little squeeze.

“This is incredible,” Jaime said when he eventually turned back toward his brother. “Where did you get all of this stuff?”

“Oh, here and there. Once we knew the museum was interested, I put out a call to former players, and the stuff came pouring in.” 

Jaime gave him a doubtful look. “You’re telling me a former player had those lockers stashed away somewhere?” 

“Well, no,” Tyrion acknowledged. “Those were donated by the City of Rockford. Apparently, they kept a lot of things when they refurbished that old field. Fortunately for us.” 

“And the uniforms?”

“Most of them were donated, but I volunteered a few from my personal collection to fill the gaps.”

“Personal collection? I didn’t know you had—”

“Jaime!” Brienne’s voice, low and urgent, cut across his words. “Jaime, come here.” 

He turned to look for her—she hadn’t spoken that loudly, so she had to be close by—but he didn’t see her anywhere. 

“She’s just around the corner,” his brother informed him, waving his hand toward the other side of the pillar.

Frowning, Jaime asked, “How do you know?”

“Trust me.” Tyrion’s clear green eyes sparkled. “I just know.”

Jaime shook his head at his ever-impish brother, but he heeded Tyrion’s instructions nevertheless.

When he rounded the indicated corner, Jaime did indeed find his wife, standing stock-still with her hand at her throat as she stared up at a photograph that took up half the wall. 

The photograph. Their photograph.

They still had a copy of it somewhere, in a box of old photos that their children, and now their grandchildren, periodically pulled out to rifle through. But the sight of it so large, with them both looking so incredibly young, sent goosebumps prickling down Jaime’s arms—just like it had the first time he’d seen it, all those years ago. 

And suddenly he was there again on that blazingly hot field, staring into Brienne’s radiant face, seeing the flash of Selmy’s camera and hearing the buzz of the crowd. He could see her in her uniform, striding to the plate with her head held high and that skirt swishing around her thighs, as clearly as though it had been yesterday.

Like an old film reel spinning in his mind, more images flashed before him: their first dance, their first kiss, the first time he’d told her he loved her. The day he’d carried her across the field, the day he’d met her father, the day he’d asked her to be his wife. 

That year had changed his life. That year had made his life. And what a life it had been. 

Silently, Jaime moved up beside Brienne, slipping his hand into hers and beginning to read the text printed across the bottom of the image. 

♦♦♦

Jaime Lannister played Major League Baseball with the Chicago Kingslayers from 1929-1940. He pitched 46 shutout games and hit more than 400 home runs during his career. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1965.

He coached the Rockford Peaches in the AAGPBL’s inaugural season, leading the team to the first-ever women’s World Series championship title. After leaving the league at the end of 1943, he returned to the majors to coach for the Chicago Kingslayers. He managed the team for 12 years before retiring from coaching in 1955 to take over ownership and management of the Chicago Lions, his family-owned team.

Brienne Lannister (née Tarth) was one of the original members of the AAGPBL and is widely regarded as one of its finest players. She helped the Rockford Peaches win three World Series victories before a knee injury forced her to retire after the 1948 season. In 1951, she returned to manage the Peaches until the league ended in 1954.

Her record-high batting average of .429, set in 1945, was never broken; in fact, she remained the only player in the league to ever top .400. She also holds the AAGPBL records for most home runs in a single season (29) and most total bases (254), also set in 1945. 

Following her time with the AAGPBL, she became one of the first female scouts in Major League Baseball, working for the Chicago Lions from 1955-1968.

♦♦♦

“Are you glad we came?” he asked softly.

She nodded, still looking up at the photo. “Thank you for talking me into it.”

Jaime rubbed his thumb along hers where their hands were joined. “No, Brienne. Thank you.” 

Brienne’s eyes found his, and even after forty-five years, their astonishing blue still cut straight to the center of him.

“For what?” she murmured, a familiar pair of lines etched deeply between her brows. 

“For getting on that train with my brother. For breaking the rules for me.”

For the best years of my life, he nearly added, but the subtle smile on her lips made him realize there was no need. 

She knew. She always knew. 

Brienne shuffled a little closer to him, tightening her grip on his hand. “Sometimes it feels like none of it really happened.” 

“It did,” he assured her.

She let her gaze wander around the room, briefly taking in the exhibits and the old friends gathered around them, before returning her attention to the image in front of them. “It was a rather marvelous time, wasn’t it?”

“It was, wench.” Jaime looked over at his wife, unable to stop himself from grinning at the sight of the wide smile on her face—the smile that so closely matched the one beaming down at him from the wall. “It really was.”