“Come lounge with me,” complained Jaime from the grass.
Brienne sent another arrow whistling to the bullseye.
“You’re already lounging.” Brienne’s plait, laying against the back of her neck, was flat and flaxen-white in the midday sun. She bent to retrieve her fourth arrow from the quiver.
“Alone! It’s a day for lounging, and here you are insisting on the coward’s sport.” The early autumn sun had made him drowsy and wheedling. There was a chill in the air, the sea to the west with its pale sands was turbulent and biting, but in the sun it was alright; there were a few weeks of nice weather remaining yet. Jaime stretched and said, “Come, come lounge and play cards.”
Brienne paused in taking her aim and turned to look down at him, sprawled and careless in his waistcoat and shirtsleeves. She considered him, stepped back five giant paces, and then aimed the arrow at his leg and let it loose.
Jaime yelped. The arrow zinged into the grass half an inch from him.
“Coward’s sport, is it?”
“You want me to lose another limb!”
“I want you to be quiet.”
Jaime yanked it out of the ground and pointed it at her. “You are a chit. An errant...schoolroom chit.” Brienne scowled at him and then began to fish for another arrow.
“There’s chilled berries and wine,” Jaime attempted, but still she took her aim and said nothing. “Well at least let’s duel, then,” he whined. “Or let’s ride. Something, cruel harpy.”
“When the Tyrells come, all they’ll want to do is ride.”
“You aren’t being very sporting, Lady Brienne.”
She huffed and dropped her form, looking down at him again. He tried not to grin. It was so fun to provoke her. Brienne said, “If I go out and ride with you, you’ll connive some way for us to stop under a tree or go to the beach, and then I’ll have wasted an afternoon that I could have spent shooting.”
“And why must you shoot so much? Are you practicing so you can hit something in particular?”
“Would it be so terrible to spend an afternoon on the beach with me? My lady,” Jaime sighed, “You’ve dealt a mortal blow.”
“Your brother’s company will arrive soon. And it’s cold on your beaches.”
“Yes, I forgot. Our delicate islander.”
She was churlish. “I haven’t brought a sweater.”
“And thank the gods for that.” Brienne owned many a hideous sweater, the kind sailors wore to man lighthouses or fishermen wore to cast their nets, thick and knitted from local wool, lightened by the sea spray. She hadn’t even the decency to wear a wool shawl, the madwoman. In colder months, and if there was no company, she just cavorted around in sweaters and trousers as though it were the norm.
Magnanimously Jaime said, “I will lend you a coat.”
Brienne hit another bullseye. She cut a tall and glorious form from his angle on the ground, wearing a man’s get-up entirely: high black trousers, plain shirt and tan waistcoat, jacket discarded. Much better than those unfortunate knits. Things were done a bit differently on Tarth, which was why she was mostly allowed her eccentricities, even in proper mainland society; when Tyrion’s company came, though, she would be forced to lace herself up miserably in a dress.
Jaime let himself sigh. He’d been proud when his brother became Prime Minister, but the pride receded a bit each time that Tyrion asked for use of the Rock for his yearly house parties. Anyone who was someone in Westeros was expected to attend, and Brienne and Jaime, unfortunately, were someones. She was just always so miserable at them, spending the whole time hunching in her shoulders and looking left to right at the colorful plumage of all the other birds. The heir to Tarth was a calm dove among screaming peacocks, but of course she didn’t think of it so.
Brienne said, “No coat.”
“Will you ever allow me to be gentlemanly?”
“You’re not funny,” she said, but Jaime hadn’t been joking.
There was a sudden flurry of servant’s voices from inside the estate. Jaime groaned. The distant sound of hooves only vexed him further. Brienne sighed herself, and turned and squinted out at the Rock, its silhouette cutting hideous and huge against the sky. “They’re here,” she announced dully.
The resignation in her voice stuck into his heart. “Hang my brother’s gathering. I’ll send all the peacocks away. We’ll stay here and shoot until evening. Have dessert for dinner.”
Brienne thought he was joking again; he could tell from her half smile. She offered out her hand and Jaime took it, and suddenly he found himself hauled to his feet, having to give a little hop to keep his footing. She really was incredibly strong.
“Put your jacket on,” she commanded. “It isn’t meet.”
“Oh, it isn’t meet,” Jaime groused, but called Peck over from where he sat on the grass at a distance watching their game, and made the boy help him get it on. As they walked back, eventually falling into the jagged shadow of the Rock, Jaime said, “We should withdraw from Westeros entirely, Brienne. Let’s leave this place and go to Volantis. We’ve played along with society long enough, but good gods, it isn’t for us.”
Brienne was quiet. When he looked to her she had a strange expression, a frown of trepidation and puzzlement and hurt. Had he injured her? But how? Then she gave him a little smile. “No,” she agreed, “it isn’t.”
The old bat and Miss Tyrell and General Mace Tyrell had been shown to the sitting room, and were situated on a red brocaded couch set against one of the Rock’s original, crumbling medieval walls, directly beneath a full-body portrait of some Renaissance Lannister patriarch named Tywaid. He glared down, bald and disapproving, at their Highgarden finery. Truly they could not have been more out of place: The old bat wore a rich, complicated drape of blues and browns; Miss Tyrell was clothed resplendently for travel in a green muslin concoction that would have made Cersei jealous, her brown hair pinned up elegantly with ringlets falling loose; General Mace Tyrell had peacock feathers in his hat.
Jaime slanted a look to Brienne, but she resolutely would not return it, for fear of laughing.
“My dear!” The old bat exclaimed upon seeing Brienne, and Miss Tyrell said, “Lady Brienne!” And they stood and flocked on her like a pair of bloody vultures, pinching her and hugging her and kissing her and prodding her. At least, Jaime thought, they were earnest in their affections. He shook Mace’s hand tiredly. The man had the grip of a wilted petunia.
“You’ll forgive my brother,” Jaime said to them all. “He hasn’t arrived himself, yet.”
“A terrible host, that little man,” the old bat chided. Brienne actually let out a little laugh, which had the unfortunate effect of making Jaime jealous of an old woman. “Lady Brienne makes up for any absence. Look at you! Oh, I wish I’d had the balls to dress this way when I was young.”
“Grandmother!” said Miss Tyrell.
“I will change for dinner, of course,” Brienne said, as though in apology. “Only we were having some sport outside.”
“Don’t you dare; it’s marvelous,” the old bat insisted. “You cut a better figure than Lord Casterly, that’s for certain. Were you rolling in the mud, Captain, or just sitting in it?”
Startled, Jaime said, “Rolling.” He’d forgotten all his social graces, or what few he had in the first place. It had been ages. How was one meant to make polite conversation? “The bloody woman insisted on shooting the day away.” Probably not like that.
“Shooting!” Miss Tyrell exclaimed, clapping her little hands. “We should ride and hunt until His Excellency arrives!”
“You wouldn’t like any refreshments?” Brienne asked.
“We’ve been cooped up in that bloody carriage for hours,” Olenna Tyrell declared. “Let’s go out. You young people will ride, and I shall find Podrick Payne to keep me in lemonade as I sit by the fountain.”
Miss Tyrell was pleased, hanging off of Brienne’s arm and squeezing it. “There’s pheasants, aren't there, Lord Casterly?”
“You ladies are very eager for bloodshed,” Jaime commented. Mace was looking a bit queasy at the thought. Jaime called, “Peck!”
Brienne handled the smalltalk with the Tyrells. She was usually very bad at that sort of thing, but the Tyrells loved her, and all she had to do while they chatted her ears off was nod in the right places. Jaime had been forced to give the old bat his arm. He was sure they looked a sight, the ancient Tyrell matriarch and the disgraced Lannister cripple. Cersei, lounging somewhere in her great sprawling apartments in Kings Landing, was probably laughing herself hoarse.
“How long have you been at the Rock?” Miss Tyrell asked Brienne, as they strolled outside to wait for the horses. The day was becoming overcast, and if he listened carefully he could hear the waves breaking on the crags to the west, the seagulls swooping and screaming for fish.
Brienne cast a slightly alarmed glance back at Jaime.
“Oh,” she said. “Little more than a week.”
Jaime, annoyed to be excluded, supplied, “It’s been slow at Evenfall of late, and Lord Casterly invited her for some sport, ahead of his brother’s gathering.”
Brienne had been sent to a liberated girls’ school in Highgarden after her mother’s death, where she’d met Margaery; they seemed to have some kind of brief and silent conversation, with Brienne’s eyes getting very big and saying no, and Miss Tyrell’s placid smile saying yes, and then Miss Tyrell finally said, “How kind of Lord Casterly! He does invite you so much to the Rock, doesn’t he? Don’t you, Lord Casterly? Why Brienne, Lord Casterly invites you so much, I hardly get to see you!”
Miss Tyrell smiled at him over Brienne’s shoulder. It was a smile with far too many teeth.
Jaime said, “Take her back to Highgarden, then. She keeps trying to shoot me in the foot.”
There was a brief issue outside the stables after Peck fetched the dogs, when it was discovered that there were no ladies’ saddles readily available, as all were in storage. “Then hang the ladies’ saddle!” Miss Tyrell caroled. “Lady Brienne rides astride, and so shall I!”
“Margaery!” Said her father in alarm, but she’d already leapt onto the horse with a practice that belied experience. The old bat told him to quit his squawking; off they went, with Miss Tyrell saying, “Race me to the trees!” And so, with one wry glance of apology for leaving him with Mace, Brienne was spurring her horse and disappearing off with the girl, the dogs yapping after them, guns in hand.
Jaime had wanted to go riding with Brienne, not anyone else, but of course the daft woman hadn’t realized that much. He didn’t give a damn about the Tyrells, and conversation with Mace was tedious as ever. Mace asked him how he found shooting with his new pistol, which he’d received as a gift from the Tyrells after his injury, specially fitted to his left-handed grip; Jaime demonstrated that he found it quite well by shooting a pheasant mid-flight, and Mace yelped. While Peck ran off to collect the bird, Mace began a monologue about his daughter’s wit and intelligence and social graces, and how lonely Casterly Rock must be without a woman’s touch, and on and on and on.
“The virago is here most times,” Jaime said idly, searching the skies. There were distant sounds of other rifles firing, and whoops of victory.
“The —? Oh, yes, yes,” Mace muttered. “But a proper womanly touch.”
Jaime slowed his horse and turned. “A proper womanly touch?”
Mace seemed to realize then what he’d said, and far after the fact. Still, he blustered on: “A friend is not a wife, my lord. Your friendship with the lady is unusual in the extreme,” he continued, as Jaime sighted a bird, “as she’s by now a proper, ah, well —“
“Yes?” Jaime squinted one eye.
“Spinster,” Mace said, and Jaime pulled the trigger and killed the next pheasant in an explosion of feathers, and Mace jolted in his mount. Peck ran miserably to go fetch it, poor lad. Jaime wheeled his horse around. Mace spurred his on to catch up.
“Is she,” Jaime said.
“I mean no offense, of course,” Mace said, following at a trot. “But it helps neither of your reputations, to carry on so with this kind of behavior, more often seen among men than with a lord and lady. I understand,” he said quickly, “That you have shared a captor, that you feel some soldierly bond, and that you are both — eccentric. Yet it remains that—“
“I’m not going to marry your daughter, Mace,” Jaime said, pleasantly enough. “Miss Tyrell is a lovely girl to be sure, but she needs a younger man with all his limbs intact, and I need a woman who doesn’t make every sentence a squeal. Oh, and my gold mines are fast running dry; think on that, and then maybe you’ll put this idea out of your head.”
“Oh,” said Mace, frowning.
“And if you call her ladyship a spinster again,” Jaime said, “In or out of her hearing, I shall know of it, and you’ll find yourself jealous of those birds Peck is scraping off the ground.” He nodded at him and set off at a gallop back to the manor.
Wasn’t Highgarden meant to be free and easy with social code? Jaime wondered that all the way back, and while he made his excuses to the old bat and retreated inside to wash. Don’t you know your little fop of a son lets all the handsomest lords pork him in your kitchens? Jaime was going to demand that of him, next time he saw him. So if your gallant boy flouts convention like that and you turn a blind eye, what business is it of yours how Brienne dresses, what business is it of yours that she takes time from her year to visit her snide old friend Lord Casterly?
“She’s twenty times the shot you are, General Tyrell,” Jaime muttered angrily to his reflection, as he fumbled with his evening necktie. “She’d be a hundred times the soldier if they’d let her. Womanly touch. ” He couldn’t get the damned thing on. “Gods be — Peck! Pod! Pia! Someone!”
The door swung open, and it was Brienne, looking flushed from her ride and windblown and concerned. She brought sunlight into the dour room. It had once been Tywin’s, and it was hideously big and draped in red curtains and furnishings. It had a brutal look to it, and Jaime slept badly there. But he couldn’t be bothered to change it. The only thing that was different from Tywin’s day was that he’d removed the portrait of his mother from above the hearth. That was too morbid, even for him.
“Thank the gods,” Jaime griped. “I can’t tie the bloody thing.”
“I thought something was wrong.”
“Come here and help me.”
“I’ll fetch Pod —“
Brienne flushed. “I’m sure Peck —“
“Will you just come here?”
Brienne stalled for a moment, and then did as she’d been told. She was very close all of a sudden, and redder by the moment. Jaime tilted his chin up, and Brienne got to work on his necktie. Her hands were gentle and sure, despite her eyes, which were staring with far too much concentration at what her hands were doing.
He studied her openly. “Why have you turned that color?”
“You’re abominable,” Brienne snapped.
Jaime was undeterred. “Did Miss Tyrell put notions in your head about men and women and closed doors? Did she read you passages from some novel again?”
Brienne was positively puce. The blush looked horrible against her freckles. Jaime was very interested in it. Then she yanked on the tie and he choked and coughed. She said, “I don’t read novels.”
“I read novels.”
“I know.” Brienne scowled, like it was the worst thing about him.
“I like novels,” Jaime announced. “They’re very romantic.”
“What did General Tyrell say to you?” Brienne wasn’t usually so adept at changing a subject.
Jaime groaned. “I’m sick of that yellow-belly,” he said. “Don’t make me sit next to him.”
“He’s not a bad man,” Brienne protested, but it was all she could really say of him.
“Ask to sit by me.”
“I always sit by you.”
“Ask, so that I know you like me best.”
“Won’t you sit by me, Lord Casterly?”
“I accept, Lady Brienne. Thank you.”
Brienne fought a smile and finished his tie. The color in her cheeks had receded and he rather missed it. There was a little errant, limp string of hair hanging out of her plait and into her face that he wished to tug on, so she’d slap his hand.
Brienne asked, “What did he say?”
“Nonsense,” Jaime replied. “He wouldn’t stop going on about fair Miss Tyrell until I told him I don’t actually shit gold. That shut him up.”
“Margaery is a good young lady,” Brienne said, rather carefully. Jaime peered at her.
“I’ve told you a hundred times, you great bull calf of a woman,” he said. “I am not marrying Margaery Tyrell. Is that all you’ll say today? Have you become a parrot? He’s not a bad man, she says. Margaery’s a good young lady, she titters.”
Brienne frowned again. “I don’t want to be uncharitable.”
“I wish you’d be uncharitable.”
“And I don’t titter.”
“Not everyone deserves your kindness.”
Brienne studied him, the serious, plain lines of her face thoughtful, her thick mouth downturned. He thought that she would ask him what he meant, but instead she realized he was looking at her, looking and looking, and abruptly jerked her gaze away. “I’d best change.”
“Don’t change,” Jaime said, suddenly incensed. “Don’t change, damn them!”
“My lord, there’s ladies in the house!”
“And in this room, by my sword, but I’ll still say what I like! Don’t bend to them,” Jaime said, and grabbed her arm. “Don’t make that face, either. The Tyrell women, as much as they annoy me, want you as you are. And who gives a damn about Lord Yellow-Belly or the Winterfell Starks or whoever else comes by with Tyrion?”
“Jaime, what happened?”
Jaime looked at her, her concerned, calm gaze. His heart had crept up to his throat. How he wanted to take her away from all those prying eyes raking over her, all the murmuring mouths. He said, “Let’s go to Volantis. We’ll be adventurers.”
Brienne smiled helplessly. “Jaime,” she said, and shook her head. “Alright. I won’t change. But you should shave.”
Bloody woman. “Shan’t."
“You look like you have mange.”
"Don’t forget you’re sitting beside me.”
Brienne sighed at him and then took her leave.
Jaime managed to stay upstairs as most other people arrived, having set the triple P’s to the duty of greeting people. Tyrion was the host, damn him, it was his bloody weekend and his bloody dinner; Jaime was only lending out the Rock. He hadn’t participated in society for years, and he didn’t have to play gentleman anymore.
It was dreadfully boring without Brienne, though. Jaime thumbed through a book and couldn’t find the will to unscramble the letters on the page, so he put it back down again. Sound reverberated strangely through the dense stone of the Rock; sometimes he heard snatches of laughter from the Tyrells in the sitting room, sometimes the shuffle of servants or the shout of a cook, and sometimes absolutely nothing at all — a silence to eat the world.
In that silence he started rummaging around in Tywin’s big clawfoot desk, which he had not bothered to empty out years ago upon his death and still couldn’t be bothered to touch. There were papers on papers, which Jaime wrinkled his nose at, and some fancy-looking pens, and, in one of the deeper drawers, a pipe.
“Oh-ho,” murmured Jaime. He wondered if it had belonged to his uncle, because it seemed very unlikely that Tywin had ever smoked. Dignified as it would make him look, Tywin believed smoking was detrimental to the lungs, and a mark of sloth and gluttony besides, especially as tobacco became more popular in Highgarden and Dorne. Jaime blew the dust from it and put it in his mouth. Eccentric, Tyrell had said. He certainly felt very eccentric and bohemian with it.
There was a commotion outside the window then. Jaime, the pipe still dangling from his lips, walked to it. On the private road before the fountain Tyrion’s carriage rolled up, followed by a slew of other richly decorated horses and riders and carriages and baggage carts. He’d brought the whole of King’s Landing, from the look of it. Jaime sighed. He braced himself and shoved the pipe in his pocket. He fastened on his golden hand with only a little bit of fumbling, and went down the million and one stone stairs to greet them.
“My lady,” Tyrion was saying to Brienne, as Jaime descended the steps, “You are as improbably mountainous as ever.”
“You look well yourself, my lord.” Jaime was pleased to see she’d only put on a nice dinner jacket.
Tyrion spotted Jaime then, reaching the landing. He said, “I didn’t know Lady Brienne was here.”
“You’re welcome to her, she nearly shot off my leg,” Jaime said. He looked at Tyrion, and Tyrion looked up at him. His brother seemed older and kinder and tireder, and Jaime wished to drop to his knees to pull him close. But they had been strained at best since Tyrion returned from the East and took office, and before that — the situation of Tyrion's leaving — well, it wasn't worth thinking on. Finally Jaime said, more impatiently than he had intended, “How are you, then?”
“Well, brother. I’m well.”
Behind Tyrion, coming in his door, really was half of King’s Landing, peering around wide-eyed at all the ugly gilding and ostentatious furniture. Jaime shook hands with Bronn, who said he looked scummy with the beard. All the Starks filtered coolly past, sans Lady Catelyn; Ser Grey and his wife nodded at him without much interest; Lord Gendry, who’d grown, squinted and allowed a handshake; old Selmy grunted at him and allowed a handshake. Edmure Tully — damn the man, unfailingly polite as he was — had the foresight to use his left when he grudgingly reached for his hand. Soon Jaime lost sight of Brienne in the crush of it, and he was deeply relieved when Tyrion called for dinner.
Jaime found himself shuffling to the dining room beside Lady Sansa, who gave him a polite curtsey which he returned with a bow. Just a little mocking. “My lord.”
Jaime was always amused by her courtesy, as though she had not once, in a little inn in the Riverlands, fallen asleep on Jaime’s shoulder at dinner. After old Ned’s sudden death in the city, the Starks had been scattered to the winds; Sansa was trapped for a time as Cersei’s ward in King’s Landing while her mother settled affairs at Winterfell. Business negotiations between the Lannister mines and Winterfell manufacturing had found Jaime caught up in a mess with Lady Catelyn, who had agreed to sign his contract only if he helped Brienne return Sansa to her safely. He’d found Brienne loathsome in the extreme then, but agreed to it nonetheless.
They’d been attacked by bandits on the way to fetch the girl, and then Cersei took one look at the stump of his arm and curled her lip in disgust. That provided an illuminating revelation about his cousin, to say the least. Hang Sansa’s bouts of public narcolepsy; she’d changed the bandage on his stump unflinchingly more than once, on their return journey from King’s Landing to Winterfell, and when they’d said goodbye -- Sansa finally with her family, Brienne going home to Tarth, and Jaime to the Rock, as it was the only place for him -- Sansa had kissed his cheek so fleetingly he thought he’d made it up. Why she was still so proper escaped him. Jaime had the sneaking suspicion it was because she thought it was funny.
“The Rock is beautiful,” Sansa said.
“Not nearly so lovely as you, my lady.” He looked around as they made their way in. The servants really had done their best, lighting the hall brightly and dusting everything off, but it was still a cruel and empty place. Jaime said, “You hate it, don’t you?”
“I think it’s exactly the kind of place that suits you, my lord,” she said innocently. The girl had a little smile, though. She wasn’t insulting him too terribly if she was smiling.
Then she seemed to spot something across the way, and swiftly tucked her hand in his arm and drew him through the door in a flurry of polite excuses. The crowd parted for her like the sea, and Jaime was jealous of it.
“How do you do that?” He asked, but Lady Sansa ignored him and called in her birdsong of a voice, “Lady Brienne! Lady Brienne, won’t you greet me?”
It was only then that Jaime spotted Brienne, looking a bit lost as she waded through the crowd on the other side of the dining hall and its two great dining tables. Without knowing it, she stepped directly in front of one of Martell’s daughters, who Jaime realized belatedly had been prowling toward him. He needed to put an advertisement out in the paper that the Lannister mines were swift reaching the end of their usefulness, as he saw no other way to fend off women winnowing at him through the crowd.
“There you are,” said Lady Sansa happily, and wrapped her arms around Brienne when she reached them, and went on her toes to kiss both her cheeks. “I’ve missed you so much. We’ll speak after, won’t we?”
“Of course,” Brienne said. “But aren’t you joining us?”
“Certainly, later with the other ladies,” Lady Sansa said, and pulled out the nearest seat for her, and squeezed her arm and swanned down the table.
“Is something the matter with her?” Brienne wondered.
Jaime took his seat beside her. They were at the table Tyrion would preside over, though a bit removed from the head of it, which was fine by Jaime. He had no desire to speak with anyone else for the remainder of the evening, except maybe Lady Sansa if she were to come round again. He unfolded his napkin and Brienne's and poured them both water from the decanter. “She spotted one of the Dornish stock scenting my blood and brought you to my rescue. She knew I meant to sit with you.”
“How would she know that?”
“Brienne,” said Jaime, ceasing his morbid inspection of the gold-leaf dinnerware, “You said it yourself. I always sit with you.”
“An unfortunate state. Imagine the peace I’d have otherwise.”
“Imagine the boredom,” sighed Jaime. “So, how many pheasants did you get?”
“What?” Jaime asked, but then realized. “Did you panic about something and kill ten of them again?”
“No,” Brienne muttered.
“Fifteen,” she hissed.
“Fifteen!” Jaime hooted. “Good gods, fifteen? Are you trying to make them go extinct?”
“Miss Tyrell was — talking — and I kept shooting, and —“
“Talking about what, pray tell?”
“Gossip,” Brienne said firmly, “Which I did not wish to hear.”
“It must have been scandalous gossip, if it compelled you to eradicate a whole species of bird.”
“It was untoward and — anyway, there’ll be enough for pies for everyone.” She added, “And Miss Tyrell caught two.”
“I wonder how she managed that, between all the salacious stories.” Jaime nudged her foot with his under the table, and when she scooted away he leaned closer. “So who was it about?”
“I am not telling you.”
“Was it about Lady Sansa and Clegane? Or a rumor about Duchess Targaryen and her lover, that handsome bounty hunter? Was someone’s corset torn in a fit of passion?”
“I’m going to — you —“ Brienne attempted, and when he threw his head back and laughed she kicked his foot back and said, “Shut up.”
“I did once catch twenty myself,” Jaime said, having mercy. “It was at Crakehall. We had a competition, Marbrand and I. I won, of course.”
“And so humble.”
“That’s what makes me charming.” Jaime added helpfully: “My humility.”
Tyrion stood then, clinking his glass, and silence fell. He did all the speaking of welcoming everyone and praising his benefactress the Duchess Targaryen, and the wonderful simplicity of returning to the quaint countryside — Brienne, with a gilded crystal goblet halfway to her mouth, snorted — for a sojourn of autumnal festivities, etcetera. The point of the whole thing was of course for Tyrion to renew his society connections and do some politicking where he could, and it made Jaime feel a bit slimy to listen to.
So he watched Brienne instead. Her hair was in a severe, pathetic little bun. Her collar was neatly pressed and rested against her freckled neck, her capable hands folded in her lap, a kind of polite attention on her face. She was unpretty and fierce; she looked the way a sword did in a sheath, a gun in a holster, a hunting hawk with its blinders on.
He leaned near her, and she tilted her head to hear his whisper without seeming to realize she did it at all. A response borne from years of knowing him. “Do you know what else is good about Volantis?” He didn’t wait for a reply. “We won’t have the slightest idea what anyone is saying. It won’t be rude to stand up and wander off when people get boring.”
Brienne turned to whisper back. Her breath stirred his hair. “You’re a ridiculous man.”
Tyrion reached his punchline. Jaime gave his falsest, lordliest laugh, which always made Brienne laugh on account of its pomposity, and laugh she did. Or laugh for Brienne, at least: pursing her lips to stop the smile.
Servants came with the first course, and Brienne held her hand over her glass when offered wine. “Don’t start,” she said primly, while Jaime sipped his.
“Have you ever had fun even once in your life?”
“Not with you around.”
Brienne ate her food. She had better table manners than Sansa Stark, with her impeccable posture and little neat bites. Everything made Jaime want her, but for some reason that did in particular. She was so full of contradictions, sitting there strong and big as an oak in her trousers and dinner jacket, and then eating her food like that, in little finicky movements.
He abandoned eating to prop his elbow on the table and gaze at her. “Dance with me after dinner.”
A brief clutch of longing took her face, but still she sighed and said, “No.”
“Come, my lady. Even a short country reel.” She sighed again. Jaime tried, “We’ll only use the foils. No one will hear.” He knew then she never would, because the Tyrells and Lord Renly and what would Lady Catelyn say and blah blah, but it was so fun to tease her, so he kept on. “Brienne, I am so bored. Look at all these intellectuals around us, discussing the newest philosophies. I hate intellectuals. Let’s go and show them a waltz. I know you want to dance with me, my lady, you always do. Don’t be a coquette now.”
Brienne gave him a look so flat he wanted to hire a painter so he could gaze on it always and be reminded of his proudest achievement. He said, “Oh, there’s my glower.”
“It’s not —!“ Brienne said, and then put a bite of fish into her mouth primly and took her time chewing and swallowing it down. Finally she said, “It is not your glower.”
“It is my glower.” Jaime was pleased. “Your face at this moment says ‘Jaime Lannister, Lord of Casterly Rock,’ as clearly as if I’d scrawled it there with a pen.”
“You’re not serious,” Brienne decided. “We couldn’t just up and disappear to spar.”
Jaime grimaced at the unasked question, plaguing him left and right every time anyone who wasn’t Brienne came round: What would people say?
“I’m a bohemian now, just like those artist-urchins in Highgarden,” he announced. “They think I’m mad? Let them. Have they come to gawk at the shut-in eccentric? My lady, I shall give them a show. It’s far better than what they used to say of me.”
She couldn’t argue with that.
“Hah,” said Jaime, smug. “You can’t argue with that. And do you know, now that I am an eccentric, I find this collar rather tight.” He tugged it open, and took off his dinner jacket, and sprawled comfortably as though he were sitting with a drink in the lounge. “Serving boy!” He called. “Bring me absinthe.”
Pia, who was not a serving boy, but who was nearest, scurried forward, confused. “M’lord, I don’t think we are in possession of any absinthe, ser.”
Loudly Jaime whispered, “Not to worry, my dear. I am only antagonizing the lady.”
Brienne rolled her eyes. They got through the first course and then the second, and Jaime did manage to swap their glasses and had a great deal of fun watching her cough at the taste of his wine. During dessert, some inventor from Qarth started to talk with Tyrion about the technology of still images; he even had a few from his own device, which made quite the splash and were passed all around the tables. There were two: one of a building and one of a street. Both had no color, and were so blurry and dark it was difficult to see a single thing in them.
But then Sansa cried, “Is that a person?” And pointed joyously to a little figure in the second one, which was indeed a man some ways down the street, a man having his shoes shined.
“In twenty years, we’ll be able to freeze the human voice on wax or paper and hear it again,” boasted the inventor.
While the table erupted into chatter about that, Jaime, watching them all examining the thing and swooning over it, said, “I want a wax device of you insulting your old crippled friend so I can prove to people how kind and thoughtful you aren’t.”
Brienne considered. “I want one of you admitting I beat you when we first dueled.”
“You did not beat me.”
“Yes I did.”
“You did not.”
There was a little smirk on her face when he looked sideways at her. “Right, I forgot that you slipped.”
“There was a loose rock —“
“A loose rock.”
“That’s what I want,” decided Jaime. “You saying ‘a loose rock.’ That’s practically an admission.”
Brienne laughed silently, trying not to grin as she did. Spinster, thought Jaime, suddenly annoyed. A spinster, they say. As though she didn’t sit beside him and laugh that way, the youngest, most honest laugh he’d ever heard. Spinsters were dusty old creatures like the poor Greyjoy matriarch, wandering her widow’s walk. Brienne was no one’s maiden aunt. Brienne was not “on the shelf.” She had a swordsman’s control of every long muscle in her body; a hot, living flush for each of his innuendos; he’d even finally taught her to use sarcasm. She was only twenty-four. Spinster.
Dinner ended, and while servants edged in, all the ladies started standing up and chattering about going into the parlor and convening some kind of hiding game wherein the gentlemen would look for them. Brienne slunk further and further into her seat, which Jaime watched with grim amusement.
“Lady Brienne!” called Miss Tyrell inevitably, walking past with her arm in Sansa’s, “Are you still with Lord Casterly? You must come to the parlor!”
Brienne pasted a polite grimace on her face and stood. Jaime caught her jacket in his hand. “Hide behind the tapestry.”
“Lord Casterly,” said Miss Tyrell, “It seems your brother has need of you.”
Jaime turned to look where Tyrion had been to see he wasn’t there; when he turned back, Miss Tyrell and Sansa were making off with Brienne, hanging on by each arm and carting her away. Brienne looked back; Jaime waved his gold hand at her in rueful goodbye.
It was best that he didn’t follow, anyway. Miss Tyrell was right about him, of course. If it wasn’t the Duke’s murder, it was his reputation for dueling; if it wasn’t his reputation for dueling, it was the whole business with Cersei; if it wasn’t the business with Cersei, it was the general work his family did, their gutting of the Stark estate in a series of dirty deals, that nasty encounter at the Frey wedding. And he was old, on top of it. The two gray bristles in his beard had somehow become patches of silver at each temple. No, it wouldn’t do to go in there with the other bachelors and play at grabbing someone’s waist in the dark. His gold hand was so cold, she’d probably scream.
So Jaime went outside instead. It was nice on the grand steps outside the entryway. In the dark he could almost pretend the Rock wasn’t such an ugly prison. A coat wouldn’t go amiss as the sea cooled the nighttime air, but he didn’t mind the chill.
He was bored in a matter of moments, though. No pleasant twinkling of the stars could do away with that. Jaime had never liked being alone. It made him restless and maudlin. He missed the easy rapport he and Tyrion once had; he missed Dayne; he even missed how Selmy used to be with him, and Brynden Tully too, before everything. But none of them had ever asked why he killed his own commanding officer, only turned their backs on him. Not one of them had ever once asked.
The opening of the doors and her telling shuffle saved him from his thoughts. Jaime turned.
He said, “I'm the last lady to be found, I fear.”
Brienne shivered even in her dinner jacket. Inside the quartet began to play; there was to be a little dancing.
“Who caught you?” Jaime asked.
“He was surprised too. I think he was looking for Arya Stark. And he didn’t catch me, anyway.” Jaime moved so she could sit beside him on the step. He was so relieved to have her presence break the silence. “He caught Margaery, and so we all just stood up.”
“We?” Jaime wondered.
“Sansa and Margaery and I. We were under the pianoforte.”
Jaime tried to imagine Brienne somehow contorting herself to fit beneath that thing. “I thought you’d all hide in different spots.”
Brienne gave him a baffled look. “Why would we do that?”
“It’s the point, isn't it?”
“Jaime, why do you think ladies want to play these silly games?”
“Well, for the bachelors to find them.”
“It’s so that they can talk in private,” Brienne informed him. She considered it. “And for the bachelors, I suppose.”
Jaime pulled the pipe he’d found from his coat and some matches. He asked, “What did they have to say? Is it a secret?”
“That’s disgusting,” Brienne said, of the pipe.
“Is it a continuation of Miss Tyrell’s story from this morning?”
“Don’t light that.”
“Everyone smokes now. It’s very fashionable in Highgarden, you know.” Jaime lit it, inhaled, and promptly choked.
“It’s bad for the lungs.”
“Surely not.” He was still coughing. His eyes watered. “It’s a bit dashing and roguish, I think. Am I not the picture of debauched bohemian life?” He tried to affect an attractive pose, but was still choking. Brienne gave him a withering look. Jaime said, “What are they doing in there now, anyway?”
“Oh, cyvasse,” said Jaime solemnly. His throat finally recovered.
Brienne was positively despondent. “I think they’ll turn to charades next.”
“Tyrion is excellent at charades.”
“No.” Jaime grinned. He said winningly, “No charades in Volantis.”
Brienne worked her mouth in thought for a while. Jaime waited. She finally burst out, “You cannot possibly know that.”
“I do! Bronn went there once —“
“Bronn toured the brothels, I don't think they play too many parlor games in those.”
“Only one way to find out.” Brienne gave him a flat look. Jaime waggled his eyebrows. Then he sang, “Six maids there were in a — ow!”
“M’lord,” came Pia’s voice, “M’lady, one Sergeant Hunt.”
Brienne’s mouth flattened. Jaime didn’t miss it. Her expressive eyes gave him a warning, which he promptly ignored. He turned to find a plain looking young man before them, brown-haired and tailored in his fine red uniform.
“Hunt,” Jaime said, rolling around the name. “I don’t know of you, I’m afraid. I can tell you’d like to join us, only I’m quite busy, you see, regaling the lady with tales of Volantene brothels. I’m quite bohemian, for a lord.”
Brienne’s voice was tight. “Lord Casterly.”
“Excuse him,” Brienne said, though she didn’t stand. Her voice was clipped. There was applause inside, the end of one dance and the beginning of another. The quartet started up again. “What is it, Sergeant?”
“Oh, wait,” said Jaime, when Hunt opened his mouth to answer. He smiled slowly. “I do know you.”
“My lord.” Brienne, a warning.
Jaime stood, pleased to learn he towered over him. He was aware of Brienne unfolding herself, too. Jaime had always wondered how Hunt looked; he was a little rat, by Jaime’s estimation. That he'd presumed to make that wager when he was stationed in Highgarden -- it was ludicrous. “Who on earth invited you?”
Hunt’s teeth seemed to be grinding. “Lord Casterly. Your brother invited my regiment to honor our service in—”
“Have you ever encountered the rhetorical question?”
Hunt said, “Right. Well, my lord, I would speak with the lady.”
Jaime laughed. Hunt’s polite attempt at a smile froze on his face.
“My lord,” said Brienne. She could address him a thousand ways with a thousand inflections, each with a different meaning; he knew that one, but he didn’t have to like it.
“I’m sorry, my lady,” Jaime said. “I’m so very sorry, excuse me. It’s very amusing.” He turned back to Hunt, and puffed his pipe. “Did you come to ask for a dance?” The murderous twist on Hunt’s face made Jaime laugh harder. “Is that it, really? You came here to grovel?”
Hunt plainly wanted to punch him. “I would merely speak with the lady. My business is my own, as your business is your own.”
"She is my business, and you will not presume to ask her for an audience so long as I draw breath.”
“Jaime,” said Brienne, sounding surprised. He turned to look at her, and found her eyes wide, her lips parted. She closed her mouth and lifted her chin. She gave him that look she had, the one that said to let her fight her own battles.
It isn’t a matter of that, you daft beast, Jaime thought. But her eyes pleaded with him to let her deal with Hunt once and for all, and Jaime could never deny her anything she truly wanted.
He turned back to Hunt, then, who was looking between them, suddenly amused. Jaime gave him a nasty smile and surveyed him head to toe. “Hm,” he said, and licked his thumb, and used it to put out his pipe. His shoulder knocked Hunt’s when he walked past him. “I’ll be just inside,” he called, more for Hunt than Brienne, and went.
It was tempting to linger by the door and see what Hunt would say, for amusement if nothing else, but Jaime quelled the urge. Brienne would be annoyed, probably, and had seemed horrified enough that Jaime had laughed at him. He knew he was sneering as he made his way around the edges of the dancing guests to the wall and tables to pour himself a drink, but found it difficult to care.
He found Arya Stark stuffed into a pink dress and sulking by the punch, her arms folded over her chest.
“Ugh, you reek,” she complained, as he came and poured himself a glass.
“You look like a sausage.”
The girl gave him an unimpressed look. Then she dug around in some kind of secret pocket within her billowing skirts and pulled out a flask. Jaime said, “Really?”
She looked shrewdly at him. “Because you’ve never brought a flask to a party.”
“I never did, actually. That was usually my brother.” He watched as she expertly pulled from it and swallowed, with only a little grimace. “Where did you get that?”
“Give me a drink, then.”
“What crawled up your bonnet? Is your little lord not fawning over you?” Jaime looked around to try and spot Gendry Baratheon. While she was distracted for a moment and looking too, Jaime swiped it from her paws and drank. He grimaced. “Was this made in a bathtub?”
She yanked it back and put it in her pocket, though not very deeply or well. “Probably.”
“What have they been teaching you in Bravos?” The girl had been such a pain in Cersei’s side that she’d had her shipped to a girls’ boarding school abroad years before, after the great mess with old Ned’s death. It turned out that the girl loved it there, as there was a focus on fencing in the curriculum. Lady Catelyn couldn’t convince her youngest daughter to leave, and so she returned once a year to prove to her family she wasn’t yet dead in compromise. It was quite the scandal. She reminded Jaime of another someone, who had once muscled her way into the Bitterbridge men’s boxing club and summarily dumped each and every posturing peacock there on his backside.
“Ah, there he is,” Jaime said, and nodded out at the crowd. Gendry was dancing a reel with Miss Tyrell. Jaime was amused. “He likes little roses, I see.”
“And where’s Lady Brienne? I’m glad she finally escaped from you.”
Jaime drank his punch. It was none of her business. “I bloody hate these things.” Arya made no reply, looking out at the dancers mulishly instead. “They’re going to start singing soon, just watch.”
“Why do you host them, if you hate them so much?”
He glanced down at her. “Why do you come?” He laughed when she scowled at him. “Family, duty, honor,” he said. “Say, how do you find Essos?”
“Thinking of taking Lady Brienne?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
“It’s cruel, what you’re doing,” Arya Stark said, after a minute of thoughtfully watching Gendry Baratheon disentangle himself from Miss Tyrell’s clutches. He had a look of pure relief on his face when he did, and started casting around the great ballroom for someone. Arya herself, no doubt. “She could be married by now.” She wrinkled her nose at the prospect, but then reminded herself, “Lady Brienne wants to get married.”
“She’s free to marry whomever she likes.”
The girl gave him a look like she wanted to stomp on his foot. “You’re selfish.”
“Everyone’s selfish,” said Jaime flippantly. “What about you, running off to Essos and worrying your mother sick so you can play with swords? That’s selfish.”
“What do you care where I go to school?” Arya demanded. She made to slink away. “You don’t deserve her.”
“Not going to stay? I think Baratheon is looking for you.”
“Remember that you don’t.”
“You remind me every year,” Jaime said after her, and she was gone, slipping silently from the hall. Poor Gendry looked around in puzzlement, seeming sure that he’d just seen her a moment ago. The lad had been bastard-born, but legitimized in Robert’s will, and seemed as baffled by the nobility around him as Jaime sometimes was. They made eye contact across the crowd, and Jaime gave a shrug in return. He believed in honor amongst thieves, and he and the girl were of similar, churlish ilk at heart. He wouldn’t give her away.
He sipped his punch. He turned to look outside, and through the door saw Brienne’s back, tense and solid, and Hunt gesticulating as he spoke to her. Surely that had been enough time for him to beg her forgiveness, Jaime thought. He put down his punch and made for the door.
Miss Tyrell intercepted him from nowhere in a swirl of muslin. “Lord Casterly,” she said, smiling sweetly, “Won’t you have a turn about the room with me while the dancing ends?”
“That’s rather forward of you.”
There were all her teeth again. “I feel we have some matters to discuss.” Miss Tyrell noticed then that he was distracted, though, and looked through the door. “Oh, no,” she muttered. Her regular voice was not that simpering thing she put on for men, but low-pitched and unamused.
Jaime followed her gaze darkly. Brienne seemed even more tense, half-turned to the door, while Hunt spoke passionately with her, gesticulating insistently. “She sent me out.”
Miss Tyrell turned back to him, suspicious, and then seemed to realize from the look on his face that he knew the whole history. “Stay here,” she said, economical and serious, and went for the door. Jaime watched, and tried not to look like he was watching, as Miss Tyrell went out.
“Looking for your shadow?” asked a passing voice, and Jaime was forced to turn. That was why he hated these things, too: people everywhere, always watching.
“Renly Baratheon,” Jaime said. “Looking for yours?”
He peered behind Jaime’s shoulder and made a hum of recognition at what he saw outside. Jaime fought the powerful urge to turn around and look. “I can’t decide which one of you has the sword,” said Renly. “You or Brienne.”
“I can’t decide which of you fucks the other up the arse,” said Jaime. “You or Loras.”
Lord Baratheon turned, very slowly, to look at him.
Jaime said, “I think it might be Loras, actually. He beat me in a match once. Strong lad.” Jaime liked Loras. Loras reminded him of himself, being very handsome and chivalrous. But once he’d confessed in Jaime what Lord Baratheon thought of Brienne really: that he found her vaguely ridiculous and laughable, like a trained bear, and only liked her because she’d fawned over him whenever he visited Highgarden. Jaime had never forgotten that.
Renly Baratheon sulked off then in the direction of the lounge, where the gentlemen were gradually headed.
When he looked outside, Miss Tyrell and Brienne and Hunt had all disappeared. Jaime went to the door and stuck his head out, but there was no one on the steps. Perhaps they’d gone into the yard, or through some back entrance? Jaime had half forgotten all the secret passageways in the Rock. He shut the door and pushed past some pockets of people to see down hallways and corridors, but there was no sign of her anywhere. He circled back to the ballroom, the dancing over, and fast emptying in favor of the men’s lounge and the ladies’ parlor. No sad, flat blonde plait to be seen. Jaime decided he would try outside again.
When he turned, though, he ran directly into a great tall wall of a person, and it was Brienne.
“Good gods, you’re all limbs. Where the bloody hell did you get off to?” Jaime demanded. Then he saw she seemed quite upset, and demanded with more heat, “Where is he?”
“Jaime,” she began, sounding tired already.
“Where is he?”
He pulled her with him to a deserted side hallway. A claw-footed day seat upholstered with hideous gold brocade was pushed against one wall, and he shoved her into it and sat beside her. “Tell me.”
“It’s nothing, I don’t —“
“If you won’t tell me—“
“Just leave it,” Brienne said sharply. “Alright?”
Jaime looked over her face, taut and annoyed and biting something back, and sighed. “Do you want a drink?”
Brienne sighed back. “Why not?” Brienne said, and when he offered her the flask, she took it and sipped at it and wrinkled her nose. They went back and forth like that for a bit, sipping and drinking in silence, until the whole little flask was gone, and then they sat in silence together, looking at the dark jagged stone of the wall before them. Muffled sounds of servants cleaning the ballroom filtered through, and occasional baritone chatter from the men’s lounge, sometimes punctuated by a laugh from one of the women cloistered in the parlor.
Brienne said miserably, “I think you’ve finally gotten me drunk.”
“That wasn’t my intention, I assure you,” Jaime said. “Just wanted you to…” he waved a hand. It was the false hand, and he frowned at it.
“Where did you get this?” Brienne wondered, of the flask.
“Arya Stark. I picked it out of her pocket.”
Brienne frowned. “A young lady shouldn’t have a flask.”
Jaime smiled at her, on the verge of laughter, until she said, “What?” and he said, “Most agree a young lady shouldn’t wear trousers, either.”
Brienne laughed a little and pushed him, but then sighed, after a bit of silence. “How much longer do you think we can stay out here?”
Jaime didn't want to think on that at all. “Don’t remind me. I’m so tired.” He flung his hand over his eyes. “Brienne, don’t make me go.”
“It’s like having a child,” Brienne griped under her breath, and Jaime bit back his smile. “You have to go, they’re your guests.”
“They’re my brother’s guests.”
“It’s your Rock.”
He peeked at her through his fingers. “Then come with me.”
“To the men’s room! Oh, they’d like that.” When she sighed, she slumped, and her shoulder pressed all along his. She was so sturdy to lean on, even half drunk and loose-limbed. “I don’t see at all why that would be a bad idea.”
“Then I’ll come with you.”
“To gossip and practice your stitching?”
“If you hold the cloth and I hold the needle, we could probably manage it between the two of us.”
Brienne laughed. Jaime, feeling daring and a little drunk, reached down and held her hand. Brienne went very still very suddenly and looked at him, blushing red all over her freckles. Jaime let himself look over her face, study it as he usually didn’t allow himself, all the mismatched parts of it. Even her crooked nose went red. And her eyes, the color of midnight after the bourbon, so guileless and calm.
“Brienne,” Jaime murmured, “I am so bloody tired.”
Her face softened then, every inch of it, melted in sympathy for him. “I know,” she told him. Her hand was warm in his.
“I’m tired of all the peacocks. Nothing they ever wanted means anything, did you know?”
“I know,” Brienne said again. Something about her made him want to tell her everything, every worry and every pain, every silly complaint and every sin.
Jaime let his brow furrow, looking at her. She did know already, of course. She knew everything about him, either because he’d told her or because she simply knew it inherently. Once in the Riverlands, just after he’d lost his hand, in fact when they both still barely tolerated each other, she’d idly done up his toast perfectly without even asking how he took it — a little butter, lots of orange marmalade — and he’d looked at her in wonder for a few moments while she went about sipping her tea, oblivious.
Jaime sighed. “I hate this place. I don't know how you can stand to come here.” He stroked his thumb over her skin, feeling his typical drunken chatter coming on. “It’s horrible. Especially with people like those men in there, nattering. All they do is drink and talk about their sons and the newest politicking in Parliament. It seems they’ve never wanted anything real or important. Sometimes they make me think I want things too much, that something must be terribly wrong with me. Empty words in empty men, and all of it clangs around inside my head. There’s only one person on earth who doesn’t bore me to death and it’s you.”
Brienne looked at him with her face open for a long moment, only Jaime was too drunk to read it. “Want things too much,” she finally echoed softly.
“Do you know?” Jaime wondered.
“Yes,” Brienne said. “Yes, I do.”
Jaime felt himself smile at her, simply pleased that she understood.
“I like the women, at least,” she said finally, glancing away. “They’re good women. They’re my friends.”
“I’m glad you have friends.”
Brienne studied his face a moment and then chuckled. “Thank you, Jaime.”
“I never had any friends. I don’t think Cersei and Tyrion were ever my friends. Well, Addam. But I never trusted him. And you can never be friends with your family. Not really.” He was talking too much, but Brienne said nothing. Jaime blinked up at her. “They love you, too. The women. Not all of them, but Margaery, Sansa, they love you. And Arya Stark thinks you stepped out of a storybook. Like Duncan the Tall, or Visenya on her dragon.”
Brienne was giving him a funny look. “Maybe.”
“They do. I’d be so angry if they didn’t.”
Brienne blurted, “You’re the only person on earth who doesn’t bore me, too.”
That chased away Jaime’s bad thoughts. “Really?”
“Everyone needs a respite from friends once in a while.”
Pride bloomed in his chest. “But not from me.”
Brienne narrowed her eyes. “I take it back.”
“Go in there,” Brienne said, pushing him away with her shoulder. “Go on.”
Jaime groaned. “Let’s sit here all night and you can tell me about Tarth.”
“It isn’t nearly so pastoral and idyllic as you’d like to believe.”
“Nothing ever is.” Still, anywhere that had Brienne was certainly better than any place that didn’t. He didn’t get up, and Brienne didn’t push him again.
Jaime managed a lopsided grin. “Volantis?”
Brienne’s look was wry. “You don’t do anything by halves.”
“You wouldn't like me if I did.”
“I’d like you a great deal more, but I wouldn’t —“ Brienne snapped her mouth shut and looked away. She took her hand from his and stood, stumbling only a little, and said, “Up. We’ll shoot tomorrow in the morning, so don’t drink any more.”
Jaime sighed. He pulled out his pipe and studied it. “My lady —“
“I dare you to take it in there and pull it out and smoke while all those hens gossip.”
The men’s lounge was boring, as ever. Jaime sat beside Edmure Tully because he thought it would be funny. He asked after Roslin, and Tully glared at him. He poured Tully a bourbon and Tully glared at him. He started a monologue about how he’d spoken to Lady Sansa earlier, and Tully, with a little smile full of detestation pinning up his frogmouth, said, “What are your intentions with my niece?”
“My —? Bloody hell,” Jaime sighed.
He avoided Edmure after that, but, unwilling to join in on Tyrion’s spirited politicking with the other gents, found himself beside Ser Grey, who was as serious and silent as ever. Jaime didn’t drink any more, but he did smoke until his throat no longer burned. A traveling merchant came knocking just as Mace was beginning to tell Tyrion about his son Willas, brave brave boy, would be an excellent asset to Parliament, very good head for numbers; Jaime bid Peck to let him in.
“What have you here?” Jaime asked of the merchant and his wares, grateful.
“He’s a rich man, my friend, oversell all of it,” Tyrion advised, from across the room.
The first thing the merchant drew from his trunk was a floor-length house coat of the purest green wool, embroidered with a ludicrous number of pink flowers and adorned with an equally ludicrous number of tassels.
“I’ve been waiting for you!”
Brienne’s face morphed into a study in exasperation as she trudged over to him across the grounds. She was squinting mightily against the first glimmers of sunlight. “What are you wearing?”
Jaime gave a pleased twirl. “Do you like it?”
“I’ve heard it’s the greatest fashion in —“
“Don’t say —”
“Highgarden. A merchant came along and pulled out his wares while we sipped our liquor. Now I look the part.”
“Are you wearing shoes?”
“Are you going to shoot without shoes? Do you have —” Brienne went an interesting shade of scarlet. “Jaime, do you have trousers on?”
“Please.” Jaime jogged over. Usually they were of a height, Brienne just a bit taller, but he was suddenly shorter than her without shoes on, with her in her boots. He had to properly look up into her eyes and didn’t find it objectionable. “All your years as a little changeling girl-child on Tarth, don’t tell me you ever wore shoes when you felled those pirates.”
“I didn’t fell any pirates.” Still, Brienne had to concede to his point. “Well,” she said, as he started forward, and she, as always, followed, “If you cut your foot, I won’t help you.”
“I’d never expect it. Now say you like my coat.”
“You’re a bit like a dog,” Brienne mused. She pinched the bridge of her nose and breathed through it carefully. “I have to tell you you’re very handsome, else you’ll quit doing your work.”
She looked delicious in the early morning light. She always did, but there was something about her that morning in particular. Maybe it was that she had not been overly bothered to button her shirt up to her neck for once. Jaime wanted to wrestle her down into the grass and peel her out of that bothersome linen. His imagination threatened to run rampant with it.
It hardly helped that he’d seen her nude once. When they were rescued from the bandits, he’d stumbled half-conscious into the baths at the ancient Harrenhal keep, and found her already there, scrubbing herself raw. She’d been so scandalized, and very boxy and tall and flushed. There’d been quite a lot of her. Her legs were very, extremely long. Then he’d spilled his life story at her feet and fainted, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that her legs were very long.
Being just after dawn, Brienne said they should do a bit of footwork with the foils before getting to the shooting, because they’d wake everyone up otherwise.
“But I want to wake them all up,” Jaime whined. “Imagine how they’ll scream, it’ll be hilarious.”
Ultimately he was vetoed. They had a good few matches, once Jaime could concentrate enough on it, and he even got her once, right in the heart, the foil bending at the force of the thrust. After a bit they switched to proper swords, and he was so well pleased when he actually managed to disarm her in the fourth bout that he swept her up like a bride and waltzed her around, singing; she went still with shock that he could lift her — he was missing a hand, not weak , and she weighed the same as he did — and then bright red, punching him in the arm until they both went down. Brienne regained her winner’s title, though: once they hit the ground together, they had a brief and extremely messy wrestling match for the remaining blade, until Brienne head butted him hard enough to put stars in his eyes.
“Gods,” she moaned, flopping off him.
“Going to be sick?” Jaime asked cheerfully. “That’s what you get for drinking. How very unladylike. What ever would Lady Catelyn say?”
“You gave me the flask.”
“I am irresistible, that’s true.” They laid there for a bit, staring up at the sky. “Oh, Brienne,” he murmured, as she massaged her forehead, “The matches we could have, if not for this bloody useless limb.”
She turned her head to look at him, grass tickling her freckles. Suddenly she grinned, a brilliant rare gift. “Oh, I don't know,” she said. “I think we get on alright.”
And Jaime found himself grinning back.
Eventually they were up. Jaime complained that he hadn’t woken Peck to bring them some water; Brienne said he was pampered. Really he was boiling in the house coat, but he thought it was funny that Brienne assumed he was fully naked under it, so he kept it on. Jaime suffered, for his very funny jokes. He was like a great artist that way.
He did sober up for the shooting, though. As the Rock woke up, distant sounds of servants shouting and washerwomen working, they moved to the targets from yesterday and then Brienne jogged a ways off to throw the wooden birds up. He’d demolished the pheasants yesterday, Peck had reported to him sadly. Sure he’d killed them, but he’d hit them in the body, not the wings or the head, and they were inedible. No use in war, no use in the city guard — even Barristan Selmy, twenty years his senior, was of use in the city guard. No use shooting pheasants on his own estate. Useful for very few things, greying Lord Casterly with his silly gold hand.
“It’s better,” Brienne said, inspecting some of the birds when they were done. She offered one over that had been cleanly hit in the beak. “Look at this one.”
“One in twenty, is it? What a great improvement.”
“Ten in twenty.” When Jaime looked at her, she said, “I counted.”
“Better than none.”
“Not as good as —“
“Will you stuff it?”
So he did.
Brienne said, “You’ll do another round.”
So he did that, too.
The chill of dawn had dispersed by the time they were done, the early autumn sun warm enough he could almost pretend it was still summer. “Twelve,” she announced, as smug as someone like Brienne could muster. She reached up and undid her plait as they walked back to the courtyard and then just tied it in a flat little tail at the nape of her neck, plainly annoyed that it kept falling in her eyes. Jaime let himself watch her do it, let himself trail his eyes over her skin. She always flushed blotchy red with exertion. Once, early in their acquaintance, he’d called her an ugly cow because of it.
“Does it still bother you?” He wondered abruptly, half in his thoughts. Surely it didn’t.
Brienne, who had been contemplating the high walls of the Rock in pleasant silence as they walked, said, “What?” Then she began patting around on herself suspiciously. “Did you put another spider on me?”
“That was funny.”
“It was juvenile. I’m not even scared of spiders.”
“You did scream, though.”
“Because you put a spider on me!”
“Like a little girl. Squealing. Lord Casterly, how dare you!”
She shoved him, and Jaime let himself stumble and fall to the ground. Brienne looked at least a bit contrite, and Jaime put up his hand pitifully, for help.
Sweet, trusting Brienne. She took it, and Jaime yanked her down.
“I hate you,” Brienne wheezed.
“I know,” said Jaime, pleased. He laid back. “Now let’s watch the clouds. That one looks like a tit.”
“Mother, Crone and Maiden, have mercy,” Brienne said. “Up.”
“But does it?” Jaime asked.
Brienne, sitting, brushed dirt off her trousers. “Does what?”
“Does it bother you, that…” It was such a silly question. She squinted at him, truly baffled.
That she would be so unfailing good, so unwilling to hold a grudge, so oblivious to the things which preoccupied other people — retaliation, pettiness, spite. “When first we met, I was no better than Hunt.”
Brienne considered it. “That’s true,” she said. “You were much worse.” Was she joking with him? She was. Jaime laughed and Brienne looked pleased that he’d caught it. She sobered. He appreciated how she thought about her words carefully, to be sure she didn’t misspeak. Finally she said, “You’ve proven yourself since. You are no longer...”
“Yes? A rake? A handsome cad?”
“You are not as you were. You are not the -- the man you were.” Brienne ducked her head suddenly then, as though surprised she’d said it. “You’ve proven yourself since, my lord. Time and again.”
Jaime somehow managed to rally and form a response. “That isn't what he was trying to do last night?”
Brienne sighed, looking out across the grounds. “Jaime…”
“Tell me.” He nudged her. “Come on. I’m tired of talking.”
“No, I’m not. Brienne.” She looked at him then, frowning, her gaze so worried. He said, “Tell me.”
She sighed. Jaime dug in the housecoat for his pipe. Brienne snatched it out of his hand. “It reeks,” she explained crossly. Jaime looked at her, and Brienne looked back. Then she held out her hand.
Jaime grinned, fished for the matches, and dumped them in her palm.
Glowering, Brienne fixed the pipe between her lips and held the match to it. She puffed until it lit to her liking, inhaled, and exhaled the smoke politely away from his direction. She’d learned to smoke from old Selwyn, she’d told him once. Ladies on Tarth got away with such things.
Jaime took it from her and took a few puffs at well, waiting for her to speak.
“He asked for my hand.”
Jaime was sure he’d misheard. “In marriage?”
Brienne sighed. She was full of sighs, and none the nice kind. “He apologized. He pointed out — rightfully, I think — that I’ve done myself no favors over the years.”
“Associating with me, you mean.”
Brienne gave him her sad, reproachful cow-eyed look.
“Well, you can’t be considering it.” When Brienne looked away, Jaime’s throat became tight in fear. “Brienne.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed.” She said, that mulish scowl on her face. “I haven’t many other options. It’s true that Tarth would have no heir. And my father —“ She gave a sharp jerk of her head, as though stopping that thought before it began. Jaime realized she wasn’t going to say any more.
“Your father,” muttered Jaime bitterly. “Your father, your island, your duty, your honor.”
“What would you have me do?” Brienne said abruptly. “What would you have of me, really? That I should disappoint him more than I already have? That I should keep eschewing my duty —“
“You owe him nothing.”
“I owe him everything.”
“And what of the things you owe me?” Jaime demanded. “If you yoke yourself to some slobbering illiterate soldier and spend the rest of your days letting him fumble around inside your trousers, keeping his household for him and popping out a little squalling brood, then I have saved your life time and again in vain.”
Brienne flushed an ugly red in anger. “You will not—“
“Oh, yes I will, woman. I’ll speak to you however I bloody well like. Don’t play the blushing miss now; we both know damn well what he’d expect of you. It isn’t like those pretty songs you filled your head with as a child —”
“I’ve spent enough time with men to know —“
“You’d hate it, every minute of it, every second of his pawing and panting."
“Then who would you have me wed?" Brienne demanded. “Who, Jaime?”
“I would have you be yourself, just like this, your own independent creature!”
“Because it is ridiculous that I should marry.”
“Because it is preposterous that you should be anything but what you are, sitting before me now!”
“And what am I?” Brienne asked, a tinge of hysteria in her voice. Her beautiful eyes were wide and furious and had a fine sheen: tears brimming. It made Jaime murderous, immediately. “What am I but a woman unfit to be a woman, a son who isn’t a son, a -- “
“You are a magnificent thing, a bird of prey, and there are a hundred slavering fools who would relish the chance to lock you up and snip your wings in order to become Lord Tarth. And I swear to you, Brienne, I swear to you on my life, I will gut each and every one of them groin to gullet before I sit back and watch you waste yourself on their ilk, Hyle fucking Hunt included.”
Brienne flushed deeply, but her jaw was set, her blue eyes aflame. She jutted her chin at him. “You could not stop me.”
Jaime’s mouth curled into a mean smile. “Oh, I could.”
Brienne clenched her teeth and then looked away, back out at the grounds. Jaime found he couldn't look at her a moment longer, either. He flexed his hand and he wished for his sword. The one thing he couldn’t abide was men like that, like Hunt and Aerys Targaryen and Robert. They were all only shades of the same violent, brutish species.
“You are so bloody difficult,” Brienne swore at last, viciously, into the silence. “You’re too much, Jaime.”
That was him, of course. Always too-much-Jaime.
“I wouldn’t,” he confessed at length. “I wouldn’t lift a finger if it was really what you wanted. But I know you too well, virago.”
Brienne looked at him. Her expression was inscrutable.
Hoping to apologize without apologizing, Jaime offered after a moment, “You do have other options.”
Brienne was wary.
“You do,” Jaime said. “I was talking to Arya Stark last night. Essos is lovely this time of year. Let’s go tomorrow. Blast these people and their bloody rules.” Brienne gave a rueful shake of her head. “We’ll be pirates. Or treasure hunters. Swashbucklers. You’ll sustain some kind of dashing facial scar and I’ll replace the hand with a hook.”
“A hook?” She was fighting off a smile at last.
“We’ll be notorious, Brienne. Twenty years we’ll be notorious, and then we’ll die of scurvy.”
Brienne smiled despite herself. Jaime catalogued it all carefully, from the reluctant tug of her mouth to the light sparking her lovely eyes.
Jaime offered quietly, “I’ll send him away.”
“You musn’t. It’d be rude.”
“It’s less rude than what I’d like to do to him.”
Brienne shook her head. Then she stood and dusted off her trousers, and he stood too. She said, “How is Miss Stark? I only saw her briefly.”
“A little monster. She reminds me of someone, in fact, stubborn and churlish and annoying gnat she is.”
“Is it your reflection?”
Jaime grinned and put out the pipe and pocketed it. Brienne shook her head at him like he was hopelessly annoying, which he was, and then turned to go.
Before Jaime knew what he had done, he’d flung out his hand and caught hers. Her skin was warm against his, her hand large and callused and strong. She stilled in surprise, turning back to look at him, her gaze startled and searching.
“Brienne,” he said, and the way it exited his throat surprised him: rough and commanding.
Brienne seemed to be trying to collect herself. She blinked rapidly. Her voice was very quiet. “What?”
“Swear to me you’ll marry for love. Or if not for love, at least for friendship.”
Something unbelievably sad overcame her eyes then. “No, Jaime,” she said. “I expect I’ll never marry for love.”
“Don’t see him again.”
Brienne, exasperated and angry, snapped, “Jaime —“
"I cannot make that promise. I will not.”
There was the sound of quick footsteps on the stone behind them. Brienne jerked her hand from his; when Peck appeared, Jaime could have killed the boy.
“My —“ he gave Jaime’s outfit a strange look. “Er. My lord. His Excellency has need of you.”
He’d set Tyrion up in a guest room with a considerable study in the east wing, far away from Tywin’s room and far away from where either of them had grown up. Jaime thought he’d never get used to his brother that way, staunch and straight-backed and serious. It seemed just yesterday he’d been the little brat who snuck ladies of ill repute in through the secret passageways. Tyrion looked impressive in the big wing-backed chair, a pair of reading glasses on his nose. He’d grown a beard since climbing the ladder, and it was somehow thicker and nicer than Jaime’s. He seemed at home beneath the towering portrait of some Lannister named Tytos, but then he had always been more Lannister than Jaime.
“The Right Honorable Prime Minister,” Jaime said, wandering to inspect the room for the bourbon. “To what do I owe the summons?” He couldn’t find any.
Tyrion said, “I didn’t expect you to actually wear that.”
“Why ever not?”
“Thank you, by the way.” Tyrion folded up the papers he was looking at and took off the glasses. “I appreciate your opening the Rock for these functions.”
Jaime nodded and looked away. “You've really stopped drinking, haven’t you?”
“Do you mean to tell me that you’ve started? Of all the family poisons, alcohol was never yours.”
“I’m a Lannister,” said Jaime, with only a little loathing. “Our shit is gold and our blood is wine and when we weep it’s — well, we don’t weep, do we?” Tyrion didn't even smile. Jaime couldn’t fault him; it was a bad joke, anyway. “The virago would have me black and blue if I showed up to a match stumbling. No need for you to worry .” The truth that only Brienne knew was that Jaime was terrified of having the stuff in excess or too regularly. Tyrion had been a slave to it once; Cersei was a slave to it now.
Tyrion said, “Have a seat."
“Yes, Your Excellency.”
Tyrion studied him. His sharp gaze could be so unsettling. “Is it true?” Tyrion asked suddenly. “About the Stark girls. That you pay for their schooling.” Jaime looked at him, surprised. Tyrion said simply, “Varys.”
“Yes,” Jaime admitted. No point in lying. “Cersei gutted their business after old Ned died. They couldn’t afford it otherwise.” Tyrion was making an odd face at him. Jaime said, “It’s nothing.”
“Do all the Starks know?”
“Only Lady Catelyn. And you won’t breathe a word of it. I won’t have any of the sons learning I’m not a remorseless cad. It’s a useful reputation to have, you know.”
Tyrion looked at him shrewdly for a minute. Then he said, “I don’t suppose I could convince you to make that public, when you begin your campaign.”
“Jaime,” said Tyrion, “Promise to listen to me. You owe me that much.”
“ Listen. The opposition is growing stronger every day, and it’s time to begin thinking of the next elections. I’ve been speaking with Varys —“
Jaime laughed. “You’re joking.” But Tyrion didn’t smile. “Brother. Tell me that you’re joking.”
“We need a strong voice in the majority. And more than that, we need to maintain our majority in the first place. Now, it’s not going to be easy --”
“Who on earth is going to vote for me?”
“— found votes that can be bought? No.”
Tyrion's expression was beseeching. “Varys has canvassed. A few speeches, a few appearances, a few charities —”
“Charities!” Jaime laughed bitterly. “You want me to slither around luncheons and dinners with you, is that it? Are you so lonely? I killed my commanding officer, people will remember me for that until I die.”
Tyrion’s voice was tight with annoyance. “You’re being unreasonable. You’re still a Lannister.”
“And you sound like Father. No,” Jaime decided, “worse. You sound like Cersei. She asked me for this once, too, you know. Only she was much more charming about it. I still said no.”
“You can’t possibly mean to stay here until you wither and die.”
“Frankly, I don’t see how it concerns you.”
“How it concerns me?”
“Cersei —“ Jaime jerked his gaze away to look at their father’s massive oak desk, at which Tyrion sat. He had barely even spoken to Brienne of it; she had understood what he intended, because she understood duty, encouraged him silently — with her firm glances, her gentle hands — to be responsible for the things he was responsible for. But he had not yet said it aloud in full, with intent; had done nothing more, in fact, than say to Brienne, Tommen, to which she had nodded, her eyes so solemn and sincere.
When he looked back at Tyrion, he had that carefully blank expression on his face, the one he used only for Jaime and particularly naive children, to conceal pity and disappointment. Disgust at his own cowardice roiled in Jaime’s belly. He said, “The last time I saw the children, they were frightened of her.”
“I can’t say I’m surprised.”
“It is...I must find some way to...” Words abandoned him. It didn’t matter. Jaime’s hand flexed. “I never wanted the Rock, I never wanted the inheritance, I never wanted any of it. I certainly don’t want a bloody office.”
“Then what do you want?” Tyrion demanded, with a vehemence that surprised him. “What do you want, Jaime? I’m not actually sure. I’m not sure you are, either. I’m not sure you ever have been.”
“What are you saying?”
“You know what I’m saying.”
Jaime’s spine became stiff. “I have always been my own person.”
“You’ve done very little to prove it.”
The anger that lanced through him so suddenly was tempered with something else. Jaime pushed back his chair and stood. “Lovely talk, brother. A word of advice: Don’t pretend you still know me when I see you once a year.”
“Jaime, wait.” Jaime paused with his hand on the door, angry at himself for his weakness. Tyrion said, “That you don't want it is exactly why you’d excel at it. I want power, I always have, and even now it causes me to misstep. And though we have had our disagreements —”
“You are just and you are honorable, even I will say that, and your presence in the House would elevate that nest of vipers. You’re more persuasive than you know. Perhaps, with you, we might finally get something done. And you owe me a debt.”
Jaime said nothing. He only left.
The day only grew worse from there. He asked Peck where Brienne had gone and was informed that she was having lunch with Sergeant Hunt. He had half a mind to go find them and knock the little lickspittle on his back.
That was the greatest joke of all, of course. Tyrion was wrong, perhaps for the first time in his life. Jaime knew damn well what he wanted.
Would that he could marry her. But he would not yoke her to a murderer, would not force her to choose between him and her love for the Starks. Would not foist upon her Cersei or his bastards, a situation she was completely unequipped to deal with. The thought of Cersei even looking at Brienne made him feel faintly ill.
He slouched around his father’s room and then went to slouch in the back courtyard. Sansa and Miss Tyrell trotted up to him with seemingly every lady in Westeros — he had no idea where they were all sleeping; the Rock was large, but even this amount of young misses was ludicrous — to ask formally if they could use his coaches to go for a shopping trip at Lannisport, as the men were going out for a hunt.
“I don’t give a damn what you do,” Jaime said, and went to slouch in the front courtyard.
Arya Stark, of course, was right. So was Miss Tyrell. He was being selfish. He had thought that it would be amenable, acceptable even, to ask Brienne round several times a year, as his friend. The honorable route. And it had been amenable, and acceptable, and honorable, for a time. For two years they had done it, hunting and shooting and eating and arguing and laughing for a few months in the summer and a few months in the fall, and then she went back home to attend her duties, and he was alone again. It was a compromise, Jaime had thought; a way to have her without having her.
But his plan had failed. In reality, he’d kept her locked up at the miserable Rock, like she was a beautiful princess and he some covetous ogre. He understood that everyone assumed their bond was strange and wholly masculine because Brienne seemed strange and masculine, and that it was this and Brienne’s ugliness which kept her reputation from becoming tarnished beyond repair, for it was assumed he would not and could not want her, and that their unnatural friendship was entirely benign. Regardless, it was true that hardly anyone would want to marry her with the kind of gossip his company had foisted upon her.
And now his brother was coming to collect. Though Tyrion had said terrible things before he left for Essos all those years ago— that he wished he’d killed Father, that he was not sorry Joff had wasted from typhoid, that he would like to see Jaime’s head decorate a wall beside Cersei’s, so none can ever part you— he had done none of those things, where Jaime had done something terrible indeed. Ultimately it was action which mattered. Jaime would have to carve a pound of flesh from somewhere to present to his brother. It could not and would not involve Brienne.
The evening careened toward him. While he stewed about Hunt, the Rock bustled with servants putting together the dinner and sweeping in fresh flowers and decorations. The ladies arrived back with a great deal of shopping bags mid-afternoon. Jaime tried to stay in a bloody mood about it, but it was funny to stand at the window and watch Peck make an attempt to carry every pretty girl’s bag at once. Podrick, though younger, was much better at it, and being cute and chubby-cheeked, received far more attention from the ladies.
Brienne didn’t come to dinner. That brought his mood back. Jaime had to wave over Pia to cut his steak for him, feeling oddly bereft. Usually Brienne would do it without making a fuss.
The dancing came next. Jaime was about to bid a retreat and go back to his room to drink when Lady Sansa emerged from a sea of identical dancing gowns and slipped her little hand in his elbow. Jaime had no choice, because Sansa was not the type of girl one denied.
He was towed along in silence to the floor, and obediently bowed to Sansa’s curtsey when the quartet began to play.
“Margaery is angry with you,” she informed him.
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Father forbid I incur your wrath,” Jaime said, not joking in the slightest. “Did you enjoy the shopping in Lannisport, my lady?”
“Don’t be coy.” There was a little crack in her perfect smooth mask then, when they moved together, and her gaze was very, very calculating. “I know that you pay for my governess and Arya’s schooling abroad.”
Gods. “Don’t —“
“I won’t.” There was a little smirk on Sansa’s face. “Arya would be furious and insist it a trick.”
“But you know me better?”
Jaime let himself laugh. “Very well. But did you enjoy the shopping?”
“You only worry if you’ll be getting a cloak from Winterfell for your birthday this year or another cravat.”
“Between the two of us, I do have a surplus of cravats. You might tell that to whomever sends the birthday gift.” They both knew well Sansa made them herself.
They were separated by the steps for a moment, and when they came together again, Sansa said, “You’ll come to Winterfell, after. I know you mislike the cold, but I want Brienne to see more of my home.” She smiled suddenly. It was a young girl’s smile, and reminded him of Myrcella’s. Then she gave a curtsey, and he a bow, as the dance was over.
“Wait,” said Jaime, as Sansa went on her way to her next dancing partner, “After what?”
Edmure Tully glared furiously at him while Jaime went to sit in the empty parlor before the fire; Jaime, too baffled still to do much more, frowned at him and was on his way. Sitting, looking into the flame, Jaime considered lighting his stupid pipe, and didn’t. Instead he sat and sat, for how long he had no idea, sipping plain punch and listening to the reels playing in the next room. After ten minutes or thirty — he did not know — there were footsteps in the hall, a familiar gait.
Jaime looked from the fire. “Virago?” he called.
The footsteps stilled, retraced three steps, and then there was a shadow in the doorway.
She wore the blue dress he’d had made for her a lifetime past in King’s Landing, when they’d returned muddy and a hand short between them, both wearing veritable rags. It was one of the only dresses she owned, and certainly the nicest one. The dressmaker had padded the bodice around the bust for shape, which Jaime found helplessly funny; but the fabric was the exact deep blue of her eyes, which had the unfortunate effect of rendering him helplessly speechless. She could only look better if she’d take that silly padding out and let him see the actual silhouette of her tiny breasts. Hang how everyone said a woman should look; he’d seen her unclothed on one objectively terrible occasion and thought of it so often that he’d once wondered if he shouldn't seek some kind of psychoanalytic treatment for it. Of course she’d look infinitely better smeared in sweat and mud in the yard, grappling with him for his foil, getting in a dirty punch when he least expected it. Flushed down her throat with exertion, her powerful body flexing along his. Jaime trampled that thought very firmly.
Jaime stood. He gave a stupid bow. “My lady. There you are.”
“Here I am,” Brienne agreed, sounding suspicious.
Jaime pulled out the chair beside his and held it until she sat. Then he returned to his own and looked her over. Something rather funny occurred to him. “Are you trying to impress your beloved in a dress given to you by another man?”
Brienne went an apoplectic shade of scarlet. Her mouth jerked into a hurt frown and then, immediately, a snarl. She made to stand. “I don’t know why I even —“
“No, wait, wait,” Jaime said. He couldn’t reach her arm, so he grabbed a handful of her skirt. “Damn it, wait. Sit. Brienne.”
She glared at him, but shoved her skirts out of the way, ungainly in them, and sat again, glaring. The fabric fell from his hand. She seethed in silence for a moment, and then said, “You are absolutely —“
“Insufferable, abominable —“
“— Yes, and rude and difficult and —“
“— awful and horrid?”
“Don't interrupt me when I’m telling you off,” Brienne said. “That's exactly the kind of thing I’m talking about.”
“Forgive me. Brienne. I’ve been a proper -- a proper bastard all day.”
Brienne’s jaw was set, but he saw her eyes soften. “That’s uncharitable to bastards.”
She huffed, glancing at him and then away. “Not probably.”
“You wound me, my lady. A bullet to the heart.”
“I wish it was to the lung, so you’d die slower.” He did love her horsey teeth, how they dug into her lower lip in an attempt to stop the smile. She admitted, “The housecoat was a little funny.”
“It was very funny.”
“That isn’t what I said.”
“It’s what you meant.”
“How was your day?”
“Horrible,” Jaime confessed. “Tyrion wants me to run for office.”
Brienne listened patiently while he relayed the whole thing, a furrow in her brow. “I don't know,” she said, “I know you don’t think you’d like it, but you’d be good at it. You would.”
“I don’t know the first thing about lawmaking.”
Brienne was thoughtful. “Those who don’t want power are generally the ones best suited to it.”
“You sound just like my brother,” Jaime complained.
“He — I spoke to him today, too,” Brienne said.
Jaime was surprised. “To Tyrion?”
“Yes.” She thought about it for a moment. “He told me something.” Jaime waited while Brienne looked at him, a kind of scrutiny on her face. “He said you pay for Lady Sansa and young Arya’s rearing and schooling. I think he wanted to be sure I forgave you.”
“How did he know we fought?”
Brienne went a little red. “I asked him that. He said usually you’d be with me, so he knew something must’ve happened.” She huffed. "Which is ridiculous. I have — friends. Other friends.”
Jaime leaned toward her, pleased. “But none you like as much as me, if I recall.”
“Stop,” she said, sternly, and then, glancing at him and away again — it would drive him to madness — said softly, “Jaime.”
“I only do it because the Duchess Kingsland would have a cow if she found out. It’s all very droll, my lady.”
Brienne gave him a look that said frankly she saw right through him. “Is that why,” she said flatly, “The duchess.”
“You spend thousands a year on these girls on the off chance your cousin the duchess, with whom you have not spoken in two years, should ever discover it.”
Innocently Jaime said, “Yes, of course.”
“You’re…” Brienne’s gaze had gone so gentle again.
“No, no, none of that,” Jaime said. “Stop that with your eyes. And I won’t have them knowing, so not a word. He shouldn’t have told you.” That wasn't the point of it. Swiftly he said, “And how was lunch with Sergeant Hunt?”
Brienne gave him a look that was somehow hard and begging at once. Jaime found himself in a contradictory situation too: he was pleased she hated him, but dismayed she’d have to spend any time at all with someone who disliked her. How many snide things, he wondered, had Hunt managed to say, in the span of just an hour? How many backhanded compliments? “Don’t be angry, I’m really wondering. Did you wear this for him?”
Brienne bristled. “I wore trousers to lunch.”
“I’ve only seen you in it once before. You must admit that it’s a strange coincidence.”
Brienne said, “I wear it —“ she shut her mouth.
Jaime felt himself become very still, looking at her, as though he were sighting a doe. If he moved too quickly, she’d flee. “You wear it? When?”
“At Evenfall, for functions. In the city, when I have to go. I can hardly wear trousers to a dinner in the city.” More quietly, she said, “You gave it to me.”
“Yes,” said Jaime. “Yes, I did.” He’d had no idea. He thought it collected dust in her trunk. Jaime tried to clear his head and found he couldn’t. Brienne was looking back at him, still a little startled. He was suddenly awash with questions. Did everyone know, he wondered, that he’d had it made for her? What did she say when it was complimented — for surely it was complimented, it was the finest money could buy. Did she say it was a gift, did she say from whom, did she think of him when she put it on, when she took it off? Could she admit that it looked well on her, even though she thought herself hideous in gowns? She certainly didn’t look conventional in gowns, but he liked the long line of her thick freckled neck, the surprising delicacy of her collarbones.
Jaime tried to unstick his thoughts. “Well, the color does become you.” He trailed his hand down between their chairs and brushed his fingers on the fine silk. “A lucky choice, of course, on the part of the dressmaker. Still, how unfortunate to only have the one. You must look a pauper.”
Brienne smiled a secret smile, just to herself. “Not in this.”
“I’ll commission you some more.”
“Commission anything and I’ll leave at once.”
“Can you even lace this thing yourself? It looks terribly complex.”
“You —“ Brienne huffed. “No.”
Jaime pinched the silk of her skirt between thumb and forefinger and rubbed it. He knew he had to drop his hand, but absolutely could not bring himself to do so. “Who helps you?”
“Whoever’s there, I don’t know. Maids, or -- or Lady Sansa.” She was flustered. “What are you doing?”
“Admiring,” Jaime hummed, and gathered a handful of her skirt. It was cool in his palm when he crumpled it. “I wish you’d let me send you to my tailor for new trousers and a new riding coat. Something blue, for your eyes.”
She blinked a few times and then opened her mouth and closed it. Finally she scoffed and jerked her gaze away. “Don’t tease.”
“I’m not.” Brienne became very still. Jaime smiled. “Though I do so like to tease you. Come, come, my lady,” he murmured, cataloguing the pink spreading over her nose, “Let me dress you in the finest things. I like this on you, it suits you well. And you like it on you, too. Do you know how I know?”
Brienne’s gaze was fixed on his. She seemed to realize belatedly that he’d asked her something. “Know what?”
“Know that you like the dress, pay attention.”
“I am paying —“
Jaime kissed her.
It was sudden and off-center, but the warmth of her mouth was shocking, the hesitancy and gentleness there mystifying. His hand flexed in the fabric of her skirt and then found her cheek, her long neck. She let him, but didn’t only let him: she met and matched him, careful and then slowly less careful.
“Look at you,” he said, nudging his nose to hers, and then to her cheek, and then to her ear. “You're blushing, Brienne.” He put his mouth on the hot shell of it, and she made a helpless, shocked noise. “All down your throat and to your chest and past the neckline of this dress, you’re red, red as a sunset, and it’s driving me mad, you are driving me out of my —“
She grabbed his forearm and somehow he’d kissed her again. At first Jaime did it gently, as gently as he knew how. She’d never been kissed at a dance before, of that much he was certain; never been kissed at all, of that he was also fairly sure. When he pulled away she was bewildered and soft and yearning, a little furrow between her brows, her full mouth red and bitten. He dropped his hand to her leg and pressed hard enough to feel the muscle. She gasped and it was lost between their mouths. He thought of the first time they’d fenced, the first time he’d ever seen her blood, and the type of hunger that little red blossom high on her thigh had stirred in him, one which had frightened him with its suddenness and intensity. The silk warmed under his palm; her hand clutched his right forearm; her mouth opened to his and gave and gave and gave.
He’d have her now, right now in the parlor; he would push up those skirts he’d bought and curse them; he’d press her to the wall or tumble with her to the floor or pull her on top of him in the chair so that the world was Brienne; the muscle that corded her arms, her exploratory tugs on his lip with her teeth, the little peaks of her breasts. He would part her thighs and bury himself there — the only part of her he hadn’t seen — until he’d taught her the meaning of satisfaction. Was this how she felt, helping him relearn how to ride and shoot and fence? She had to know all the things her body would do for her outside of taking a battering, and he had to be the one to show her, wanted no one else to do it.
Would that she were his wife.
Slowly Jaime pulled away.
“Jaime?” Brienne asked, breathless and low and puzzled. Color was high on her nose and cheeks, her gaze sparkling; she was still so close, close enough to kiss again. “Are you alright?” She asked, her eyes searching his. “Do you — do you see me quite clearly?”
“Do I see you?” Jaime could have laughed, but it was too painful. “Do I see you?” Damn it; she was all he ever saw. “Go,” he said to her, though he looked at her mouth and imagined the long athletic pull of her body, the strength in her torso at Harrenhal when he’d said something vile and she’d stood in a rage, naked and dripping water, some avenger come down from the sky. She was going to kill him and he was going to be glad of it.
“Go,” Jaime said again. “Go, or I’ll…”
Brienne flushed again when she took his meaning, but still her brow was drawn in vague confusion.
“Damn it, Brienne, get out,” Jaime said, with none of the heat he’d meant to use, and before he knew what he’d done he kissed her again, her mouth soft and shy and eager on his, opening to him, wanting him, insisting she would not regret him. He let himself have it, those few minutes, clutched her leg through the blue dress and met his tongue with hers and felt every pleased, surprised hum she made; he let himself have it and have it until he knew the next time he moved his hand it would be to start waging war on the front of her silly padded bodice, and then he pulled away and gazed at her, eyes dark and so blue, and forced his legs to stand and carry him out of the room.
In the morning he had Peck help him dress and then walked alone to the city.
He thought the stink of the place would help to clear his head, or that the sight and sounds of the sea would bring him some kind of memory which he needed then. He did not often go into Lannisport, instead sending Peck to fetch whatever it was he might need — leatherwork or shoe repairs and the like. In fact, he realized, as he strolled oddly unfamiliar streets, he had not been into town for two or three years at least, or perhaps more. Not since he had inherited the Rock and locked himself away in it.
It was not nearly so big as King’s Landing, but still a respectably sized city, with plenty of shopping and a few taverns, merchants lining some streets with foreign sweets and tapestries, peddlers of rugs and cloaks, cobblers, stonemasons, sellers of jewelry and fine fabric. There were wineries and goldsmiths, and in that way, though Lannisport was not a seat of any particular gubernatorial power, it was richer than King’s Landing.
Jaime stood at the cliff overlooking the dock for a time, watching cargo and passenger ships load and unload. Sunlight rose and slanted, glittering on the water, turning the windows of every shop pink and then orange. He remembered coming to the same spot as a child with Tyrion and Cersei, hiding from their governess, pointing at the sailors and making up stories about where they were headed and what they would do once they were there. Then he’d make as though he would shove her into the water, and she would scream to wake the dead that her hair would get wet.
I will forever regret it, he thought, that I did not somehow convince her to marry me, but he knew even as he thought it that it was a lie. He did not regret it, precisely. He regretted her rage and her sadness, but he knew now that if they'd been married, she hardly would have been happy. A lifetime of her stinging little hand slapping his face when he asked again if she'd fucked another man, the glazed green glass of her furious drunken eyes. She reminded him of Robert when she was drunk; if he ever said that, she’d scratch him bloody. He might even deserve it. Her newest plaything was a woman, he'd heard. So that would be his life now, if they'd wed: Cuckolded by Lady Merryweather.
And, of course, if they’d been married, he would hardly have ever found himself in the Riverlands. It had been such an empty life before, one lived in stolen moments. Then the virago walked in on Lady Catelyn’s arm, that absurd girl who became a glorious hawk of a woman, and it became a very full life indeed.
Purposefully, watching the sun walk higher and higher into the sky, the sailors sweating and unloading and loading barrels of wine, Jaime thought of Tommen and his three little kittens, of Myrcella reading her novels. He wished he was like poor stupid Lancel and could just pray for them and believe that the prayers would do anything. That the prayers would somehow absolve him of duty. It didn’t matter. He would not be absolved so easily.
He trawled around the high street next, peering into markets and looking at the shops. No one recognized him because he never showed his face; that was nice, he thought, because he just looked like a rich gentleman unless someone spotted his hand. He found himself at a lady’s fabric shop, and touched all the fine muslin and silk and calico, sifting through the patterns. Nothing, of course.
Perhaps it would be an apology, for infringing upon her. Perhaps it would be a bribe, the way his father would’ve bribed her or any other unsuitable woman, to leave and not come back. Jaime went to a tailor next, and even as he estimated her measurements and made his order — a riding coat, fine trousers, a dinner coat, a slew of shirts and waistcoats — he wondered how he would justify gifts, when really he was only giving them because he liked the thought of it, of filling her wardrobe with expensive clothes and her room with fine furniture and her armory with whatever instrument of war she fancied on any given day.
“Where is this from?” He asked the tailor, of a fine leather belt.
“Volantis,” the tailor said, and Jaime smiled a private smile.
“I’ll have it as well.”
It wasn’t so bad, to be out among people. He misliked stares at the hand, and would mislike even more stares at an empty sleeve, but the Rock was suffocating at absolute best, and he liked the sound of people bustling, talking. The sunlight gleamed a wonderful orange on the waves and the glass windows of shops.
Lannisport did clear his head. Jaime walked back to the Rock knowing precisely what he would do. It was a grim thing, duty, but he would perform it. Offer those gifts to Brienne in apology for his fowardness. Swallow his heart and stop trying to deter her from marriage to Hunt. Claim the children as his own, in order to save them from Cersei. Live at the Rock and wait for Brienne to visit. It would be survivable. He’d watched the duke light men on fire and laugh back in the war; he’d had his hand lopped off and weathered the ensuing infection; he’d managed not to touch Brienne for years. This too he would survive.
At the Rock he walked through familiar halls, dim despite the sunlight slanting in, and nodded at Tyrion’s guests, passing to eat breakfast or partake in a morning ride, or whatever it was those people liked to do. The Volantene belt was in his coat; he would find Brienne, and give it to her, and she would understand, and then he would drink until dinner. It was a wonderful plan.
He expected he would find her in the yard, dutiful and pigheaded as she was. He thought he would change from his morning coat and give himself a moment to think of whatever it was he would say, but walking from one foreboding hall to the next to reach Tywin’s room, he heard her voice, deep and clear as water, carrying from a nearby parlor.
“You dislike children?” She was saying, bland and uninterested to an untrained ear. Jaime knew, though, that she was annoyed; Brienne loved children, of course, damn her. Jaime paused just behind the open door to listen.
“I don’t mind a few, but Lord Casterly does employ a cacophony of them.”
“Podrick is in my employ, not Lord Casterly’s.”
“Even worse.” There was the sound of silverware on fine plates. They were having breakfast together. “How did you come to take him in?”
“He was a footman for the Prime Minister for a time, but his service was no longer needed when His Excellency took office. He started to follow me around, hoping to find work, and so I agreed.”
“You owed him nothing.”
“I felt sorry for him.” She sounded baffled. “He’s an orphaned child.”
“You still don’t owe children anything.”
“I think all of us owe one another kindness.” Oh, Brienne.
Hunt laughed. “I forgot I was talking to a woman. You heart’s as soft as this porridge. Can it be? Somewhere inside this trouser-clad mountain is a mother just squirming to give birth.” Blank rage seized Jaime’s chest. To speak to her so vulgarly —
Hunt was laughing again and saying, “Forgive me. All I mean to say is that you need a man for such an endeavor. A husband, preferably.”
“I fear you still hope to win your wager.”
“You do not trust me.”
“You’ve done nothing to earn my trust. If you’re playing some game…”
“It’s no game. Men have done more for a tenth of the prize.” Jaime could hear his ugly smirk. “I mean Tarth, of course.”
“If you are playing a game, ser, play it with someone else.”
“So speaks a young miss who has never played the game with anyone. Learn it and you’ll take a different view. In the dark, you’d be as beautiful as any other woman.”
Surprised, Brienne said, “Jai-- my lord.”
In her proper men’s clothes, a crisp white shirt and brown waistcoat and trousers, she sat tensely, facing the door; Hunt’s back was to Jaime. They seemed to be sharing bowls of fruit and porridge and eggs. Jaime tried to force the coil of rage from his shoulders and found it impossible. Hunt turned and followed Brienne’s gaze.
“Hunt,” Jaime said, and smiled the smile which he knew was a knife. “Won’t you step outside with me?”
“Why don’t you come and join us instead?” Hunt said. “I know you've heard what I said. There’s no need to pretend. Do you disagree?”
“Come outside,” Jaime said. “It’s better discussed there.”
He looked to her then. She was fresh and clean and sunlit and mortified. Her jaw was so tight she might crack a molar.
“Don’t you wish me to?” He asked her lowly. “I wish to, Brienne. I wish to very badly.”
“No,” Brienne said. “No, I do not.”
“And why not?”
“You know why not.”
“Because it is ridiculous.”
“I confess I disagree.”
“And I confess I don’t know what you’re talking about, and frankly, I don’t care,” said Hunt, tossing down his napkin. “Soon you’ll be back in King’s Landing with your mad cousin or sister or however it is you’re related. You have no claim to this conversation.” He turned back to Brienne then. "Brienne, stop wasting your time. You can’t truly be considering him. If it’s children you want, I’m perfectly capable. I have one bastard to prove it, and she won’t trouble you; her mother doesn’t speak to me.”
Though that was hilarious, Jaime was beyond laughing. Smiling grimly at Brienne, he said to Hunt, “Get up.”
Hunt laughed. “Why?”
“He doesn't want to stain the rug,” said Brienne, though still she looked at Jaime.
Hunt glanced between them. There was half a smile on his face, and Jaime watched with a curl of satisfaction as it slowly dropped.
“I’m going to shoot you,” Jaime promised quietly. “I still have the aim for that, I assure you.”
“Are you challenging me to a duel?” Hunt demanded. When nobody laughed, he did, a brief disbelieving bark. “She isn’t even yours!”
“You’ve insulted her, speaking to her so vulgarly, propositioning her like a tavern whore. She is a highborn lady, ser, and you will treat her as such, or you will come with me outside and we will discover who is the quicker draw.”
Hunt stared at him for a moment in naked fear. Then suddenly he scoffed. “How long has it been since your last tour? It’d hardly be fair.”
“Come outside and see.”
“Both of you stop it,” Brienne demanded, pushing to her feet. “No one is dueling.”
“I don’t blame you,” Hunt said. “I’d be afraid that that cowardly cripple would lose, too.”
Brienne went very still, looking down at him. Jaime thought he knew all her tells, but she did none of them — no tightening jaw, no clenching of fists. She just grabbed Hunt’s hateful face between her hands and in one movement raised her knee and cracked his head on it. Hunt made a grunt of pain and slid out of his chair to the ground with a thump.
Jaime stared. Brienne looked back at him with wide eyes, and then swiftly knelt and pressed two fingers to Hunt’s neck. He was alive, from her expression. Unfortunate.
Jaime said, “I thought no one was dueling.”
“Oh, piss off, Jaime.”
Hunt came back to life, groaning and sniffling with his broken nose. He hacked and coughed and spat out a great glob of dark blood.
“Look,” Jaime said, “You’ve ruined my rug anyway.”
“This place is a bleeding circus,” Hunt moaned. He stumbled to his feet, trying to catch his balance on the chair, and slipping. Jaime snorted. “The cripple and the bearded lady and the imp.”
“I can still kill you,” Jaime said, though he was feeling much better about the entire situation. “Brienne,” he asked loudly, as Hunt felt his way out, “Do you think he can be trusted to find the door?”
Hunt left cursing, but Jaime felt his smile become a flinty line on his face when he looked back to Brienne. She held her big hands awkwardly, first flexing at her sides and then clasping them, behind her and then in front of her. She looked at him and away and then back again. Jaime ducked his head, finding her gaze difficult to bear.
She said at last, “I apologize if you waited for me in the yard this morning, my lord.”
Brienne blinked, but did not look away. “I apologize for the rug —“
“Oh, bloody buggering hell, sod the carpet,” Jaime said, with forced lightness. “It’s ugly anyway. He might still want that duel, you know. Perhaps we should flee while we can. A ship to Volantis —“
“Stop it,” Brienne hissed. Jaime looked at her, startled. “Stop, Jaime.”
“Why?” Jaime swallowed. “If not adventurers, we could make a living sailing tourists about the shore.”
“Don’t joke.” It was a plea.
He’d thought he could do it, walking back to the Rock; he really had. But looking at her, Jaime knew he could not. He worked his jaw for a moment, looking at her backlit by the morning sun, impossible and strong and tall and brave. He tried to contain it, he tried to stop himself; he thought deliberately of Tommen and Myrcella, of Cersei’s stinging slaps, her hissing at Tywin’s funeral, his son’s tears: none of it was any good. Brienne stood before him and he was dumbfounded by admiration.
“Say you do not want me,” he said suddenly.
Brienne’s hands clenched. That flush began up her neck. They glared at one another for a moment, at an impasse, until Jaime said, “Did my touch repulse you, Brienne?”
Her ears, sticking out from her flat little plait, went pink. She jutted her chin at him and said nothing.
“You know that it did not.”
Jaime’s hand flexed uselessly by his side. He felt so helpless in the face of her. “Well then,” he said. “Well. Very well.” She looked at him, wary and startled, like a doe. He nodded shortly. “Then you must demand it.”
“Say what you would have of me.” Brienne’s mouth parted in surprise. Jaime heard his pulse thunder in his ears. He pinned her with his gaze regardless. “Demand it, Brienne. You will be the Lady of the Rock if that is what you want. Only you must demand it.”
Brienne stared. Ire built in him.
“I cannot offer you that which I know would harm you,” Jaime said, through gritted teeth. “So demand it, Brienne, and it shall be yours.”
She seemed to be scarcely breathing. “You’ve lost your —”
“My wits are perfectly intact.”
Brienne colored and tried again. “Then you confuse --”
“Friendship with desire? I plainly do not.”
“Don’t lie to me,” Brienne choked. “Don’t you lie, don’t you laugh —“
“Am I laughing?” Jaime demanded. “Am I?”
"You cannot,” She said faintly. “No, you do not.”
“It is not for you to tell me what I can and cannot want.”
“Then I’ve somehow deceived you.” At once she was striving to seem firm and sure. "I’ve been untruthful, or I’ve misrepresented myself, or —“
“And how exactly have you done that? Bewitched me with some witch’s brew, cast a little spell? Your plait is as flat as it ever was, your nose as crooked, your eyes as blue! Is that what you want to hear, that you’re plain and mannish? Brienne, you are plain and mannish. Are you satisfied? I want you all the same.” She had gone a frightening shade of white. Jaime demanded, “What escapes you? Was I so cold and passionless that you cannot believe me? I wanted you the first time we danced. I want you as you stand before me now.”
Brienne’s fists clenched. She seemed to tremble. Jaime realized all at once that it was with fury. It had finally made her unselfconscious; her mouth twisted in rage, an ugly expression, but he had never seen a lovelier thing. She spat, “Do you think because I’m ugly and obscure that I feel nothing?”
“I do not --”
“You stood up and you left, and now you tell me that if I want something I must demand it from you, I must give chase, I must -- I must toss myself at you and live and die by your mercy!”
“On the contrary, I am at your mercy entirely!” Brienne flinched as though he’d raised his hand. Jaime cast around for the words. “But I cannot offer you myself, not when I am -- when all of this around me -- Brienne, it’s all poison.” He strode toward her, and Brienne, brave to the last, did not move. Jaime reached out his hand, but fell short of touching her cheek, suddenly unsure. He gathered the courage for it somehow, and when his palm found her skin, her beautiful eyes fell shut. She was holding very still.
“I know you,” he said quietly. “Do I not know you?”
“Look at me,” he said, and she did. “Do I not know you as I know myself?”
“No,” she protested weakly. “No. You cannot.”
“I do. Look me in my eyes and say you do not know me too.”
Brienne’s mouth was pressed flat, her brows drawn. Her eyes were saying something to him, something expressive and longing which she could not speak aloud.
“It’s the queerest thing,” Jaime murmured. He moved his thumb over a spatter of freckles high on her cheekbone. “You are the queerest thing. I think I met you in a dream, or a thousand years ago. Say I’ve gone mad, say you do not feel the same, and I will never speak of it again, though I fear I will feel it forever.”
Brienne squeezed her eyes shut, and twin tears spilled to her cheeks. Jaime was gripped by fear, and a directionless kind of anger he did not understand. She clenched her jaw and gave a tight shake of her head. Jaime made a questioning noise of concern.
She looked at him and said miserably, “You must go back. You will go back.”
“Back for the children.”
“Back for her.”
“I’ve washed my hands of her, damn you. When I went with you to return Sansa Stark, I ignored every plea, every letter. I have for years. I’ve made my choice.”
“Don’t.” Brienne pinned him with a watery glare. “Jaime, please.”
“Stop these tears.”
“I am not crying.” Brienne gave a sniffle and looked down. He pressed his forehead to hers and breathed in the scent of her, lemon from her morning bath. How could he make her believe him? How could he prove to her he would accept her immediately when she asked, that this was not some game? How did she not know already?
She extricated herself gently. Always stronger than him, Brienne: Jaime could not have moved from her then if the room was on fire. She said nothing more. That she moved away from him was answer enough.
“I'd have had you yesterday,” Jaime said, when he found his tongue. “I imagined it a hundred ways. I would love you well, my lady.”
“I do not doubt you,” Brienne said. She was almost unable to look at him. ”But it is no longer yesterday.”
“I didn’t mean to insult you, you know,” came Tyrion’s voice, and Jaime started and turned from where he sat, staring out the window in Tywin’s cavernous room.
“Only a little.”
Tyrion shut the door behind him and went to the bookshelf, behind that great ugly desk.
“Do you ever picture Mother and Father in here?” Tyrion wondered, picking through the titles. He pulled one out and blew dust from it, flicking through the pages. “How strange it is that they had a life together, a private life, forever inaccessible to us. How strange it must be for you to sleep here, in their room.”
Jaime looked back to window. Outside in the yard the men were preparing for a ride, poor Gendry listening to their conversation with a look of vague bewilderment. Jaime asked, “What are you getting at?”
“You are the ghost in Casterly, brother,” Tyrion said. “Living in the shadows of this awful place, pacing its halls, growing lichen and mold. Sending shivers through anyone who dares look at you. You haunt the Rock as surely as Joanna Lannister.”
“And why do you care?” Jaime asked, and turned to look at him at last. His brother’s gaze was inscrutable and intelligent as ever. Jaime had wondered for too long to stop now. “Why do you care what becomes of me?”
“You’re my brother.”
“You wanted me dead,” Jaime pointed out. “It was deserved, well deserved, I will give you that. But you wanted me dead all the same.”
“Jaime,” chided Tyrion. “You’re still my brother.”
“I couldn’t help but wonder if this idea about Parliament wasn’t some elaborate scheme, some joke at my expense.” Jaime mused, and looked back out once more. The men were riding away in the direction of the cliffs and the sea; from where Jaime sat, it looked like they would plunge off the edge of the world. “I read so slowly, you must admit it’s rather droll to suggest I become a lawmaker. You must still hate me, I think, to suggest it. ”
Oncoming fog blurred the window. “Truly?”
“Truly,” said Tyrion, and Jaime could not bring himself to look at him. “I’ve had a great deal of time to think, first in Essos, now back here. I have seen and heard things which have — reminded me of the importance of family.” Softly he said, “You were a boy, Jaime. And you didn’t know what Father would do to her.”
“I should have.” There were so many regrets, that young girl high among them. “Did you ever find her?”
“No. I never found her.” When Jaime said nothing, Tyrion asked, “Well, don’t you have something funny to say?”
“There’s nothing funny to say to that.”
“Gods, you are boring like this,” Tyrion griped, and Jaime turned to look at him in surprise. “I liked you better when you were a proper rake, dueling men in the streets with that awful haircut you had. You were far more exciting then, you and your sideburns.”
“Exciting isn’t the word I’d use. Oh, but I did nearly start a duel today.”
“You did? With whom?”
“Sergeant Kyle Cunt,” said Jaime tartly, and his brother laughed.
“There you are.”
“Here I am,” Jaime agreed. “Have a drink with me?”
“If we must.” Tyrion poured them both a finger from the desk and came to join him at the sill. “I was wrong, I think. Savor this moment, I don’t admit to that often.”
“Wrong about what?”
“This has nothing to do with Cersei, does it? You don’t intend to return to her. You intend to take the children from her.”
“Take them,” Jaime said, and drank. “Take them. I’m not a thief or a kidnapper.” He sighed. “You should have seen them, at Tywin’s funeral. She was beastly to them, Tommen especially. I cannot hide here, hide away, while they are...”
“I feared the worst, when you mentioned it,” Tyrion said, when Jaime said no more, lost in the memory of Cersei’s eyes, glazed and burning, burning like Targaryen’s. “I see now that I shouldn’t have.”
“I did not go to her, when those septas took her to their asylum. She asked for me, begged for me, and I did not go. West I went instead, to take the Stark girl home.”
“Three months she was confined,” Tyrion remembered. “Are you proud or horrified?”
“Tired,” Jaime said. “I am tired.” Brienne, Brienne: what was it that she’d said? She’d looked at him with that endless well of empathy while Sansa Stark slept soundly in a bed they guarded. It is a terrible thing for any woman to be confined, but perhaps especially a woman such as her. No one deserves it . He wondered if she hated that he had not rescued Cersei or was glad for it; he wondered if it was both.
“Cersei is not who she was,” Jaime said. “Neither am I.”
“On the contrary,” Tyrion replied. “I think she’s exactly who she’s always been, and you are, too.” He let out a sigh. “So tell me, then, why you won’t entertain my idea. It’s a good idea. Most of my ideas are.”
Jaime said nothing. Tyrion rolled his eyes.
“Alright. Then I shall guess. Let’s see. You wish to retreat to hermitage. You resent seeing any reminder of your family —“
“That isn't true.”
“ — and it would interrupt your time with the Lady Brienne, spearing wild hogs or inventing new types of siege weaponry or whatever it is you two do together. Am I wrong?”
“That isn’t true,” Jaime insisted. “I don’t resent you.”
“But you resent society.”
“Society,” Jaime said, “resents me.”
“Oh, you,” Tyrion said. “Society resents you, I see.”
“Don’t pull that.”
“Don’t pull that!” Tyrion laughed. “Don’t pull that? It’s the only card I have left to pull, now that I'm the most powerful man in Westeros. I’ve had it much longer than yours, and it’ll never go away.”
Jaime held up his useless gold hand. “This will never go away either.” Jaime shook his head tightly. “They sneer at me, at this ugly horrid place. Not a single man would listen to me. What would be the point of it?”
“The point would be to try, I imagine,” Tyrion said, and Jaime looked at him sharply. “Why not? You’ve nothing to lose. It could be your chance.”
“My chance at what?”
“Oh, don’t make me say it. It’s so common.” Tyrion eyed him and finally groaned. “Fine. Your chance at —“
“I hate that you’re a lawyer.”
“It isn’t only me.”
“The children? You don’t have to claim them to gain custody. Even if you do, some new scandal will replace it in a matter of months; I don’t think it would impede an election too badly. We can spin anything.”
“No, it’s — what’s worse is that —“ He glanced at his brother again, wondering if he could admit it. It sounded so silly. “What’s worse is that they sneer at her.”
Jaime looked at him, unwilling to force her name past his teeth. “Lady Brienne.”
“They snicker behind her back, they call her vile things. I don’t mind being resented, I don’t mind being mocked. I’ve been mocked and resented since Aerys Targaryen. But I would rather move to Sunspear than see one more brat sewn into a hundred-dragon gown looking at her like she’s a dog walking on hind legs.” Jaime drank, agitated. “They’ve picked her to the bone, and me as well. I think of her sitting in the lady’s parlor having to embroider and it makes me murderous. Do you know what Mace Tyrell said to me?”
“I can guess.”
“So, you see,” said Jaime sourly, having another drink, “Society.”
Tyrion was silent for a moment. Finally he began, “I don’t quite understand how she factors into your moving to the city and joining Parliament.“
“Her name is tied to mine and you know it. I’ve sullied her reputation nearly as well as I have my own. If I were to return myself to society, she’d become the gossip of the country.” He grimaced. “I can see the caricatures in the papers now. The MP’s Albatross . Worse, more likely. One of me in a gown on her arm while she’s got a mustache, something of that sort.”
Tyrion stared at him, utterly serious, and then sighed. A kind of realization, almost pitying, had overtaken his face. “You —“
“Don’t, Tyrion,” Jaime said. “Don’t.”
Tyrion frowned at him. Then he said, as though it were the simplest thing in the world, “Marry her.”
“She won’t have me."
“She’s all but said it.” Tyrion was silent, and Jaime studied the sky outside. It was beginning to look like it might rain. Poor Gendry, caught out in that with a bunch of posturing gentlemen. “What I have to my name is a trail of murders and bastards. Do you remember what you asked me, the first time you met her?”
“I confess I don’t.”
Jaime couldn't help the laugh. “You asked if she was joking, being how she was. So…” Jaime waved a hand. Tyrion wrinkled his nose. Jaime said, “Yes, like that. Kind. But I am not a kind man, and ours is not a kind family, and we don’t live in a kind world. Invite her here a few times a year to let the sunlight in, that I will do. But chain her to me for a lifetime? Can you imagine if she ever had to meet Cersei? Can you imagine if I dragged her through the legal proceedings, the scandal to get the children? I won’t do it, Tyrion, I won’t. I won’t let her do it to herself.” He drank. “I keep this awful old place out of duty. It’s the one good thing left for me to do, keeping the Rock. And a fitting end, I think, that I should turn to dust here. One less of us in the world, at least.”
“What happened to you?”
“What happened to you, Jaime?”
Wrong-footed, Jaime tried, “Are you going to say I should be selfish, a Lannister, take what I want and damn the consequences?”
But Tyrion studied him in silence for a moment. Finally he said, “I had a brother once. He was funny and tall and strong, and I would have been bitterly jealous of him had he not been so good-hearted. When we went to Riverrun as children, he hung on Brynden Tully’s every word. Stories about honor and valor and love Tully told him, again and again, because he begged to hear. My brother wanted so badly to live so he could make true those tales, bring new ones to life. And he wanted so badly to live just to live — only for the sake of living, purely for the joy of it. Where is my brother, Jaime? Have you seen him?”
The fog on the window grew thicker, rolling in from the sea. Jaime took a moment to speak. “Oh, Tyrion,” he managed at last. “I wish you’d found Tysha.”
“You think you don’t deserve her.”
“I don’t think it, I know it.”
Tyrion drank. “I’m glad I didn’t. She wouldn’t want anything to do with me.”
“I don’t know why you’d want me to be happy for a moment.”
“You do.” Tyrion waited until Jaime looked at him. “You are my brother.”
Jaime nodded. Roughly he said, “Alright.”
“I said you owed me a debt.”
“So I do.”
“I won’t hang Parliament over you. That wouldn’t be quite fair. But you do owe it to me to grasp whatever joy there is to be found. You owe it to me to at least try.”
Jaime studied him. He didn’t know when Tyrion had become so wise. He threw back the rest of his bourbon for the burn of it, to feel braced. “The man who left for Essos would say I owed you Brienne’s head in a vat of honey.”
“The man who left for Essos was cruel and drunk and tired.”
Tyrion tipped his glass. “And inventive.”
Outside seagulls swooped over the grounds, headed toward the rocky shore.
After a time, Tyrion left. Jaime found himself at a loose ends. He wandered for a while, feeling as though he was looking at the Rock for the first time in years. Here and there, he thought, I will remove that couch and that ugly curtain and that horrible portrait of Father. And if he ever bothered to open the windows, the sunlight would not rely solely on Brienne: it would come in by itself to warm the place. All he had to do was unlatch them and push.
He ran into Tully near the lounge, who apparently hadn’t wanted to ride out with the Baratheons and Tyrells; who could blame him? Tully gave him a curt nod and moved to brush past him, but Jaime asked abruptly if he had spoken to his uncle in recent months.
“Yes,” said Tully, suspiciously. “I see him often.”
“Will you tell him —“ Jaime began, and paused. “Tell him that he’s welcome here, for these things. I see he never comes. And your sister.”
“I don’t know why they would.”
“Be a good dog and tell them,” Jaime said, and then, realizing that was rude, attempted: “Thank you.”
It was only noon, but it seemed like the whole day had gone. He walked the yard, and then went to the armory, and it was only when he caught himself in the courtyard, squinting into the windows of the upper floors, that he realized he was looking for a flat blonde plait. He didn’t know what he would say when he saw her, only that he must find her. He could not lose her so easily, with a few quiet words in a parlor. Not when they had survived bandits and imprisonment and dismemberment and the woods and society parties together.
That was when there came a little shrew’s voice. “Lord Casterly.”
“Gods be good,” Jaime barked, spinning to see her. “How long have you been there?”
“Oh, a while. What did you do? She’s furious.” The old bat waved her hand. “Come sit. You know, when I was your age —”
“I’m nearly forty,” he said. “She’s angry?“
“And that was forty years ago for me. When I was your age, my husband was still alive, and I dreamt about the excitement that would come from the kind of circus your life has become. Bastards born of incest, a drafty old castle upon a rocky shore, a young miss swooning for love of you. Are you going to sit, or give me a crick in my neck?”
Jaime sat. The old bat sipped her water and lemon. “You know,” said the old bat eventually, “I usually only give these talks to women.”
Jaime looked at her mildly. “Should I be insulted?”
“I’d take it as a compliment.” Lady Olenna studied him with her shrewd eyes. “For a long time I thought there was no hope for you, repugnant, snide, drawling little worm that you were. But I believe you might secretly be one of us.”
“Sane people, Lord Casterly. Keep up.”
“And how have you come to that conclusion?”
“Well, you hate these things. Your surly derision has become outright mockery. I heard from a servant that you lamented going to the men’s room for bourbon, which I agree is ridiculous. So imagine my surprise when I listened to Pod inform Pia that Brienne is preparing to leave in the morning — oh yes, that is what she’s decided.” She heaved a sigh. “Whatever it is that’s stopping you, let it. Few people will care. But I know Brienne. She would mourn for you all her days, and what a waste that would be.”
Lady Olenna fixed him with her beady stare, and then said, “If she does leave, let me say, good riddance to you, and I was mistaken to count you among us for even a moment.” She turned her head then, and called, “Podrick Payne! Hurry, lad, it’s going to rain.” When Pod trotted out from the shade to help her to her feet, Lady Olenna jerked her head at the treeline.
Jaime set out to it at once. The trees were thick and old, but not so dense that one couldn’t hunt in them. As he walked he realized swiftly what it was Brienne was doing. He wondered what her choice of tree would be — somewhere where she could swing around without her impressive arm span impeded — and pressed forward to the clearing he knew of, where he used to take Tyrion to look at the turning seasons. That was when it began to drizzle.
He heard her, first. Small angry grunts through clenched teeth, followed by the crack of steel on bark. Then in a few steps he saw her: In the clearing, surrounded by moss and flora, she stood, beating the living hell out of an oak tree, her pale hair in disarray, her shirtsleeves rolled up to the elbow.
“You’ll ruin that sword,” Jaime said. Brienne paused, and he watched her shoulders heave for breath. Then she turned and pinned him with a stare, sweating and flushed.
“Come inside,” Jaime said. “The rain’s only going to worsen.” It already was, the drizzle becoming fat drops.
“What are you doing here?”
“What are you doing here?” He jerked his chin at the ground beside the tree. “Why have you brought three swords?”
“So that when I dull this one, I have two more.”
“I’ve made you so angry?”
“You have not made me angry!” Brienne said at him, nearly in a shout. She clenched her jaw, her eyes burning. There was a tremble to her chin. Her hair was getting soaked, curling at the water; she blinked rain out of her eyes.
“I don’t want to, Jaime.”
Jaime strode forward to the swords.
“What are you doing?” Brienne demanded stiffly.
Jaime picked up one, a finely balanced blade that had been in the family for a generation or two. Rainwater slid off it in rivulets. He tested it in his hand and then turned to her, flicking wet hair from his eyes. “Don’t you hear the music, my dove?”
Brienne swung at him so quickly and with such force that he barely met her thrust with a parry. It was the type of fight he had not had in years, not the civil fencing that they so often did together, not the polite shooting practice. The steel was sharp enough to cut parchment, Brienne was strong as a bull, and Jaime was alive with each blow he took and made. In a flurry of attacks she had him stumbling back against a tree, wrong-footed. She looked at him with blazing anger, the blade balanced beneath his chin.
“That scorn,” Jaime panted, leaning on the oak for balance. “Don’t you know it was that very look of scorn which so transformed me?”
Brienne’s face twisted, and she barely gave him a moment to recover before she was at him again. Jaime managed to wrest himself into the offense, and drove her back and back until finally she found a clever bit of footwork and flung him off.
“Are you mad or just stupid?” Jaime demanded, viciously pleased to see her flinch. The rain was coming harder; he had to raise his voice above it. “I keep you imprisoned with me here for as long as I can every year, far beyond the bounds of decency. I turned on my family to find Sansa Stark at your urging. When I wanted nothing more than to die, Brienne, you commanded that I live, and so I lived. Only the gods should have that power, and yet here you stand before me, flesh and blood and real. Do you understand me, you impossible thing? You’re real.”
Brienne stared at him for a long moment, her brow twisted. The rain pounded down, but she did not seem to notice. “How funny it is,” she finally said, “How funny that I ever fancied myself to know love, to be in love with Renly Baratheon.” Her sword suddenly hung limply in her hand, dragging the forest floor. “And I wish that was love,” she said, fiercely and thickly, through sudden tears. “Would that it were.”
“Am I so terrible?”
“No,” Brienne said, wretched.
“It is not imprisonment,” she confessed. He thought he’d have to creep closer to hear. “I hate to leave.”
“You are the only warmth in this place.”
“You should open the windows, then.”
Jaime couldn’t help his smile. “Do you believe me now?”
Brienne’s brow twisted like she might cry again. She nodded slowly.
Relief washed through Jaime. She was so bloody stubborn. “Then why are you trying to gut me?”
Her jaw worked, and he knew she would not answer.
Jaime raised his sword again, and Brienne set her shoulders and did, too. They followed one another in a slow series of steps, blocking and thrusting in half-time.
“Tell me why you’re angry.” He feinted quickly and engaged her fully again. “Tell me.”
Brienne parried with a gasp. She caught his leg on a turn, the live steel of her blade sliding along his with a screech. She grunted with the effort of trying to wrest it from him, but even one-handed Jaime had enough strength to make it a fight. Her wet face was close enough to kiss. Her mouth snarled in anger. “You are a good and just and honorable man.”
“You are a stubborn and willful and pig-headed beast.”
She shoved him off with a grunt. “You cannot --”
“Damn it, Brienne, it is not for you to tell me what I can or cannot do!”
She stared at him. When he raised his sword again, Brienne swatted it out of her face with her own like it was a fly. “Then it is not for you to tell me what will or will not harm me! Who do you think you are? Who the bloody hell do you think you are? Answer me,” Brienne demanded, and when he said nothing, she shouted, “Answer me!”
“I would protect you —“
“From Cersei Baratheon?” Brienne asked incredulously, her pale brows flying up her forehead. She looked momentarily shocked by the derision in her own voice, but went on. “What is she going to do, sneer at me? What are any of them going to do but sneer at me? Do you think me too simple to captain my own life?”
“Of course not, but --”
“So let me. If you truly want me, then I will not do the asking for you, I will not absolve you of the responsibility of your own desire! And if you will have me demand something, then I demand that you say what you wish to say, instead of trying to trick your way into getting what you want!”
“You are the most damned frustrating creature I’ve ever met!”
“And you are acting like a coward!”
“Gods, be quiet!”
"Then let me ask!”
“Be my wife!”
Brienne blinked at him in shock. Jaime blinked at her back, and belatedly tossed his sword at her feet. Then he dropped to his knee beside it.
“You’re right,” he said. “Brienne.”
She pressed her mouth in a line. Weakly she said again, “Get up.”
“You’re right.” He wondered how he hadn’t realized the insult he’d couched in his paltry offer before. Mud sank through his trousers; he didn’t care. “If I wish to be -- I must -- you will decide for yourself, of course you will, and it is I who must -- Brienne. Be my wife. Marry me.” He was too frightened to take her hand. “Come with me to Volantis. If you like.”
“Jaime.” She sounded as though something had caught in her throat. Her hand clenched on the sword. “I demand -- I demand that you do not joke.”
“Each time I’ve asked, it’s been in earnest,” he said. “Every time, every single time, I have meant it. Be my wife and let’s go to Volantis. I want to see you walk among the pyramids. I want to share a little room with you by the sea and scandalize hotel maids with the noises you’ll make when I touch you. I want you to come with me. Brienne, come with me. Be with me.”
She looked down at him, blanched that frightening white color again, scarcely breathing. “What of the -- the children?”
“I’ll begin proceedings before we leave, and by the time we’re back the lawyer will have a case.”
Jaime thought on it. “Tommen will like you best. Myrcella reads novels.” Soon Tommen would be at Crakehall, and Myrcella had already reached an understanding with some Martell son, of all people. They would not see Brienne much. “The duchess…”
There was no use in softening it. “You do not know her. She was cruel before she was a drunk and now she is even crueler. She will find a way to reach you, even when I bar the way. Cersei will call you terrible things, tell you horrible lies. Horrible truths.”
“Truths I do not know?”
Jaime smiled wryly. “You know everything, my lady. But her words are dangerous as rapiers. Remember...”
“I love you. Remember. Will you?”
Brienne was stunned for a moment, as though somehow she had not known. Finally she said faintly, “Parliament?”
“I haven’t decided.”
“We’d have to go to King’s Landing then.”
“Are you going to be stubborn about it?”
“No,” Brienne said, and then after a moment of thought: “It’s just that truly I believe —“
“No complimenting, or we’ll go round and round until nightfall. It’ll be very embarrassing, and besides that, we’d freeze out here in this rain.” Brienne pressed her lips together to stave off the smile. Jaime prodded, “My lady, forgive me, but you haven’t yet answered.”
Brienne gazed down at him, still seeming vaguely disbelieving. But she was not running away. She was soaked from head to toe, water dripping from her chin, and shivering a little in the cold, but still she stood with him, still she was not leaving. Finally she said, “Did it need answering?”
“No,” Jaime admitted. He sighed. “But I went through all this trouble, you see, and I’m still down here, and my knees aren’t really what they used to be, and —“
“Are you certain?” Brienne asked. She could be so shy.
Jaime reached for her free hand, the one not clutching the sword. Brienne took a breath and looked down at them, their hands joined. Jaime murmured, “You are the only woman I wish to even look upon. Yes, I am certain. But I confess you are beginning to frighten me.”
She became soft all at once. “Oh, Jaime. There’s nothing to fear. I will. Of course I will. Yes.”
“So solemn, virago.” She pulled him to his feet. He leant near her, so the world became her eyes. “Am I such a burden?”
“Yes,” Brienne complained instantly. Jaime couldn’t help his grin, and Brienne looked a little abashed. “Miss Tyrell will send assassins for you in your bed. She’s been telling me all weekend what a monster you are.”
“A monster! It’s you who has me in your thrall.”
“No,” Brienne said firmly, flushing her blotchy, delicious red, even under the cold and rain.
“Yes. I’m allowed now.”
“I disallow it.”
“But you’ve seduced me.”
The look she gave him was so shocked and scandalized that Jaime laughed aloud. “You have,” he insisted. “You’ve no idea.” He became serious and touched her cheek, pushed back her wet, mussed hair. For a moment he looked over her face, all those freckles and the crooked nose, her wonderful wide mouth. “Really,” he said. “You’ve no idea.”
Was she pleased by that, his lady? That was almost a smile that he’d won. She could not meet his eye. “You could have stopped inviting me. If it was such a problem.”
“Oh, a pronounced one.” No, he couldn’t tease her too much in that direction. Jaime cleared his throat. “You could have stopped accepting. Maybe it is I who seduced you after all.”
“Yes, with that famous humility?” She asked that of his neck tie, pink around the ears.
“Charm,” Jaime corrected. “It’s my charm,” and Brienne bent her head and kissed him, a proper kiss, and not so shy as he would have expected. She dropped the sword. It was nice to kiss her while she held a sword, but far nicer when her broad hands landed on his shoulders. Jaime pressed close along her, as closely as he could, and found her nose was cold, her mouth warm.
“We really must flee the country,” Jaime said, when she’d pulled away, looking surprised and pleased with herself. “What if he truly wants that duel?”
Brienne was startled into laughing aloud. Her head fell back when she did, accepting the downpour with a joy that startled him; her hands still grasping his shoulders, her smile so sudden and genuine that Jaime found himself laughing too. She said, “I forgot about him entirely.”
“You’ve a very precise way with that knee, had you done that before?”
Brienne said only, “Connington,” and Jaime gave a smug hum and slung his arms around her waist.
“At the Bitterbridge men’s boxing club,” he realized.
“I would have liked to see that. We should go back.”
“I’ve been banned.”
“Because you’re a woman or because you broke his nose?”
“A bit of both, I imagine.” The smile slid off her face slowly, and she was left looking at him with a little line between her brows. “Is this madness?”
“I don’t care if it is.”
“I know.” He tugged her closer and she came. “I’ll write your father tonight --”
“I’ll write my father. He won’t believe it, otherwise.”
“You’ll write him and send it express. We’ll leave in a week, if Hunt hasn’t shot me dead by then.”
“But when will --”
“He can be here in a week, can’t he? We’ll just walk into town.”
“I’ve never heard of such a short engagement.”
“Do you well and truly think,” asked Jaime in her ear, “That I will wait longer than a week?”
She ducked her head and let him kiss her neck. He could hear a smile in her voice even before he pulled away and saw it. “Alright.”
“That’s my favorite word in your mouth,” Jaime said. “Yes, yes, yes.”
Brienne flushed red, and let him kiss her again.
“Wait,” said Jaime, stopping short, “Wasn’t there something about having to fight the man you agreed to marry? Must I best you in single combat?”
“Jaime,” Brienne said warningly, as he flopped out of his jacket and took his stance, “Don’t —“
But he did.
“It was half a joke,” Brienne grunted. She had him on top of her, on his back, in the worst chokehold he’d ever suffered. Later he’d admire her form; then he was concentrating on not succumbing to blissful unconsciousness. She might as well have been wearing armor, for how steely her bicep was under his chin. “My father never expected anyone to actually —“
“I’m not winning anyway, I’m not winning anyway,” Jaime wheezed, tapping on her arm. “Bloody buggering fuck,” he coughed, when she let him go. He flipped them once and then again; still had that. He wrestled her without any gentlemanliness to speak of, skidding green all over their clothes and then kissing her again when she moved too much and he had to. Finally he yanked back to gaze down at her, mussed and mud smeared, looking back at him so fondly, and with lessening disbelief. Though neither of them were particularly delicate, and though they were both filthy and wet and cold, he enjoyed knowing he was shielding her from the rain. He kissed her again and again, blanketing and warming her, until the back of his jacket and shirt were fully soaked through.
“You know,” he said, as they walked back to the Rock, the rain lessening, “You’ve twigs in your hair.”
“Oh no,” said Brienne flatly, well aware of the mud-covered situation of her back, “How ever will I show myself now.” They walked for a moment before she said abruptly, “And I you.”
“You said you --” Jaime slowed, and Brienne ducked her head. “I love you,” she said, to her muddy boots. Then she glanced at him, her eyes startling in the gray storm of the afternoon. He had thought her acceptance of his proposal had done him in, but those words from her seemed to ignite him, reforge him, make him something new. Oblivious to this alchemy, Brienne said, “I love you, Jaime. I love you. Of course I --”
Jaime kissed her. He plunged his hand into her hair and pulled her so tightly against him she gasped, and he kissed her and kissed her, blind with gratitude, speechless with a sheer kind of burning joy he had never experienced before. He forced himself to pull away and found her mouth smiling against his, even before he opened his eyes. Then, when he did, he saw Brienne’s eyes still closed, the smile still on her mouth.
He nudged her nose with his, and then tugged her along, walking again toward the Rock. “Lunch, my intended?”
“I -- yes,” Brienne said, flustered and blissfully ignorant of what she was about to endure, as usual.
So Jaime said pleasantly, “I hear there’s a surplus of pheasant.”
Brienne glowered at him.
“Miss Tyrell was talking about me, was she? That’s why you went the approximate color of a lobster when I asked.” She’d given it away by mentioning her before. Jaime was very pleased. “That’s why you hunted all the pheasants in the Westerlands to extinction. What did she say about me, after calling me a cad for always inviting you round? Did she say that I’m terribly handsome? Did she say I must wish desperately to ravish you? Did she say this place is very gothic and romantic, what with all the rocks and such?”
“You read too many novels. She said no such thing.”
“She did, and then you coldly murdered fifteen pheasants.”
“I provided us,” said Brienne, “With lunch.”
“And dinner. And breakfast.” Jaime added, “For a week.” As they emerged from the trees, Jaime surveyed the Rock. Olenna Tyrell had long since gone inside; the place was bustling with preparation for the last night of Tyrion’s shindig. Dinner, dancing, games, and then the silly men’s lounge for drinking and the silly women’s room for sewing. Jaime would be damned if he was doing that again: No, he and Brienne would sit together all night. They were allowed, because she was to be his wife, and if people would talk, let them. He quite looked forward to that, in fact. What could they do but sneer?
Well, Arya Stark would stomp on his foot for certain, in part because he still had her flask. But that was a small price to pay, and ultimately that nightmarish child would be grateful that it had distracted from her own scandals.
“Let’s gut this place,” Jaime said as they walked. “I’m going to burn every portrait. Oh, let’s have a portrait done.”
“That is excessive in the extreme.”
“Wait,” Jaime said, remembering something. “Speaking of excess.”
“I went to town this morning.”
“No, the other town. Yes, Lannisport.”
“What do you mean, excess?”
Jaime told her of the orders he’d placed, enjoying very much the outraged O of her mouth. “And this belt,” he said, pausing in their walk, after fishing around in his pocket for it. He presented it to her. “Guess where it’s from.”
Brienne took it. She touched the fine leather for a moment and then looked back at Jaime, squinting a bit against the slowing rain, the returning sun. A smile flirted with her.
“You are a thorn in my side,” she said at last.
“Thank you,” Brienne said. She was not thanking him for the belt. “Jaime.”
“Thank you,” he said. “Brienne. Thank you.”
She smiled, a tremulous thing. He touched her waist, the little nothing dip of it. Then he dug his finger in and she yelped, a bray of laughter escaping before she could shove him away.
The leaves would fall and she would remain with him; winter would come and still she would remain. Spring and then summer, Volantis and Winterfell, the Rock and the city, and always Brienne.