Brienne had known this was a terrible idea. But Renly had been so convincing, his expression entirely guileless as he explained that he wanted her to attend his brother’s utterly ridiculous Christmas party, with him. She knew it wasn’t like that, not even in her deepest, most secret heart would she believe that, but… he was her friend. Who was going to a horrible family function hosted by his drunkard brother and his viper of a wife. And wanted her protection from the more egregious sneering at his inclinations; better an unsuitable woman than a man. (That it had worked in the past despite Renly’s complete lack of subtlety said quite a deal about how horrible Robert Baratheon could be.)
Except this ‘intimate family gathering’ was, in fact, a 150-person strong event, complete with champagne towers and a string quartet playing a strange combination of Christmas hymnals and the worst modern seasonal songs. There’d been at least three arrangements of Frosty the Snowman since she’d arrived two hours ago. The entire room seemed to be shades of gold, from lighting to burnished wood to an obscene amount of gilding on every available surface. And Renly had, in essence, dumped her in a corner and started making the rounds. Again. She’d never bloody learn.
And so she sat at the elegant bar nestled at the back of the ballroom, nursing a whiskey and wondering how long, precisely, she had to stay. In theory she was supposed to drive Renly home—and that meant she really was nursing her drink, trying to make it last—but she knew chances were good he’d end up making out in the back of Loras’s ride and she’d be driving home alone. They’d already disappeared to a table in a corner to eyefuck—she could see the two of them from here, doing a damn poor job of being inconspicuous. Which was fine, honestly, she knew that Renly was—he was a good man, but he was also blind to all the little ways he could be thoughtless. It was just that she wanted to know how much longer she had to stay.
A question that quickly morphed into why she hadn’t left earlier when she heard a voice calling her name.
“Brienne? Brienne Tarth? I’d recognise you anywhere.”
She spun around in her seat, taking in the red-haired man who was staring at her with a mingled look of amusement and derision. Fucking hell.
“I knew it was you! How have you been?”
It was perfectly jovial, all smarm-masquerading-as-charm. She glanced around, wondering if there were people watching the exchange and ready to laugh. She didn’t see any, which didn’t mean they weren’t there, but either way…. She would not punch Ron Connington in the face. Not here. Not as a guest of Renly. Not when she’d spent the last fifteen years not giving him power over her. Fuck him.
“Good,” she said, plastering on that fake smile that she knew was awkward but was better than the alternative. “I was just made junior partner at the clinic. How’s the job?”
Ron shifted from foot to foot, as if they weren’t both perfectly aware his career had been a lesson in lingering in mediocrity.
“Oh, you know, same old, same old. I’m focusing a lot on my personal stuff, you know, following my passion. You gotta just keep putting yourself out there, not just be a slave to the 9 to 5.” He laughed, derisive. “Or, I mean, I guess you can be. Junior partner, that’s great! Must not leave much time for a family though.”
Ah, lovely. Can’t go after the ugly bitch for her career, so aim at her personal life. Clearly he hadn’t gotten any more clever with age.
“Oh, are you married?” she asked innocently. “Starting a family?”
“Oh, I had presumed…” She looked him over, noting the grey hairs at his temples, the softness in his body. The sudden image of him in a cubicle and dressed in a poorly-tailored suit as unpresuming as his appearance struck her, and she had to stifle a laugh. He’d always thought himself more handsome than he was, but time had not been particularly kind to him. He looked miserable. “I thought you must have a family of your own, you seemed so concerned about mine.”
He flushed angrily, looking past her to order a drink from the bartender before turning back to glare at her. They stared at each other in silence as he waited; like hell would she look away first. The whole thing was nearly a victory, the sort of moment bullied children fantasised about as they cried themselves to sleep. But real life was rarely so satisfying.
“Are you here with someone?” Ron asked when his drink was in hand, a familiar cruel glint in his eyes. No doubt he expected her to be alone, or attending with someone suitably below him.
“Oh, yes,” Brienne smiled, waving her hand behind her to where Renly had been sitting for the past 15 minutes. It was probably a vain hope that he and Loras had turned down the eyefucking by now, but Ron wasn’t the most observant man in the world at the best of times. It should be fine. “The host’s brother, actually.”
Ron followed the movement of her hand, his jaw dropping slightly. Good. He began to laugh.
“There is no fucking way,” he said slowly, “that you are here with Jaime Lannister.”
Not good. She turned on her seat, her heart sinking when she realised the table recently occupied by Renly was now hosting a frankly astonishingly beautiful man she knew vaguely by sight and well by his ruthless reputation. The brother of Robert’s wife. Very, very not good.
And Brienne might have still been able to recover, explain that she meant a different brother of the host (who was, she suspected, currently in some nook just outside the main ballroom with his tongue down Loras Tyrell’s throat, but best not to mention that), except Ron was clearly smarting from her earlier parrying of insults and downed his drink in one, slamming the glass onto the bar.
“No. Fucking. Way.” he repeated, and then a smile slashed across his smug face and Brienne knew it was too late. “I’ll fucking ask him.”
Jaime was well aware that he was an asshole when he was bored, and occasionally when he wasn’t. But may his dead mother rise from her grave and beat him senseless if he ever reached the depths of pure, petty dickery that Ron Connington managed on a daily basis. Every time he had to deal with the man at the satellite office in Griffin’s Roost—which seemed to happen every time he pissed off his father—he came away with an immense urge to punch him. Or possibly send him to the new offices north of the wall. Or just fucking fire him, which was the most logical choice. Not that his father would ever let the last option stand—the Conningtons had worked for the Lannisters for decades, and that meant Ron got away with being an utter dick.
All of which to say, when the man spotted Jaime at a corner table of a completely dull Christmas party and made a beeline right for him, a tall blonde woman trailing behind and looking as if she might throw up, Jaime was in no way inclined to give the man what he wanted.
“Jaime Lannister!” he boomed. “I’ve been hearing the most interesting things from your beautiful date here.”
He gestured to the woman, who was looking even more nauseated by the derision in his voice. She was even bigger up close—tall, but solid as well, her face nearly as white as the pantsuit she wore; striking, perhaps, but by no means describable as ‘beautiful’. Not by a man like Ron. Another one of his cruel japes then, meant to humiliate whoever was on the receiving end. He suspected she was the latest of Renly’s fake dates—he’d seen the other man at this table before he disappeared with Tyrell, and he’d been doing this for years. And Jaime—well, his sister had always accused him of being impulsive.
“Angel!” he exclaimed, rising from his chair to take her hand and press a kiss against it. “I thought you’d abandoned me! I didn’t want to interrupt your conversation with Ron—” he tugged at her hand slightly to draw her closer, intending to wrap an arm around her waist. She stumbled, barely righting herself before her body collided with his; he glanced down to see she was near-teetering in heels, the same silver-blue as the belt at her waist. She had to have at least half a foot on Renly even without them. “I missed you,” he purred.
She still looked nauseated, but her paleness had been replaced by a rising flush so red his father would consider it nearly Lannister.
“Jaime,” she said. “I was expecting you at the bar. Did you speak with…”
It was almost smooth, the lie; he squeezed her hip and tilted his head up to meet her eyes. Which were a truly stunning shade of blue, like the first moments of twilight, with a hint of… softness almost, that was in contrast with her physical appearance. He gave her a reassuring smile—at least he hoped it was reassuring—and turned to Ron.
“What were you saying?” he asked.
From the look on Ron’s face, this was not how he had expected the conversation to go. Good.
“Oh, just that it was so nice to run into Brienne the Beauty.”
The woman—Brienne, it seemed—flinched, the moniker clearly meaning something to her, and Jaime felt a sneer cross his lips.
“We really must catch up after Christmas, Ron,” he said, allowing all his pent-up irritation with the man to shine through. “There’s an opportunity in the company I think you ought to consider taking. Beyond the Wall. If you’ll excuse us, however, my date and I have an appointment on the dancefloor.” He turned to Brienne, smiling when Baby, It’s Cold Outside was struck up by the musicians. “What do you know, Angel? They’re playing our song.”
She ought to be blowing him kisses, not standing with mouth agape like some sort of demented fish. Though a kiss from a fish might be preferable.
“This is not our song,” she managed, sounding only a little strangled.
“Sure it is,” he said, waggling his eyebrows suggestively before taking a final moment to turn to Ron. Who was still dumbstruck, so Jaime would consider it a victory. “She’s a stubborn one, isn’t she? But her legs. God, a man could die happy wrapped between them.”
“Sorry, Angel,” he said, with a shrug that made it abundantly clear he wasn’t sorry in the least. From what he could see through her trousers, it wasn’t even a lie. She probably crushed watermelons as a party trick. “Dance with me and I’ll make it up to you.”
She followed him onto the dancefloor without complaint. Not that she’d particularly had a choice. They moved into position to dance, hands fumbling slightly as they figured it out. Her hand was warm, her grip steady.
“Let me lead,” Jaime ordered, earning himself a scowl. Well, too bad for her—she’d probably been roped into dancing the lead at school, given her height, and not danced since, and Jaime had no interest in humiliating himself for this act of chivalry. “So…” he said as they began to move. “You’re here with Renly?”
“Yes,” she muttered.
“And you do know he’s…?” There’d been at least one young woman who hadn’t been aware, which was rather unkind on Renly’s part.
She looked at him coolly. “Bisexuals do exist, Mr Lannister.”
He tried—and failed—not to smirk. “I’m aware,” he said, tone dry. She flushed again as she caught his meaning. “Renly Baratheon, however, is one of those rare creatures perfectly content to perch exclusively on a throne of cocks. Pity, really. The world is such a varied place. I’ve never understood the point of denying yourself that.”
Not that he was particularly prone to sampling the wares, but it was the principle of the thing.
“You can’t help who you love,” Brienne snapped, a little defensively, and this time he laughed.
“Again, I’m aware. I’m making conversation, Angel. You might like to try it some time. If our mutual friend Ron is watching, I wouldn’t want him to be suspicious.”
She frowned in agreement.
“You didn’t have to play along,” she said, mulish. “I’ve had worse.”
The air of resignation was rather depressing.
“Believe me, if it comes down to humiliating a stranger who’d done nothing or humiliating Ronnet Fucking Connington, you didn’t—” She was trying to take over again. “I’m leading, remember, which means follow my lead. You didn’t stand a chance. He’s the worst employee I’ve ever had the displeasure of dealing with.” It won him a tiny smile, or what he thought might be intended as one. Dour woman. “How do you know him?”
Jaime waited for her to elaborate, but apparently she felt the monosyllabic response sufficed. God, she was dull. He’d have to carry the entire conversation by himself at this rate.
“Is that intended to be funny?” she snapped, pulling back slightly. Those remarkable eyes of hers flashed in her anger.
“Angel. Did you think it was clever?”
“I thought,” Jaime snarled, “that I had no idea what your name was. Between the outfit—excellent choice, by the way, a real fuck you to the Baratheons to opt for white and silver-blue—”
“Of course you weren’t. You are the antithesis of the entire decor—” he swept his hand around the room laden with gold and black and hints of red, “—entirely by coincidence. Regardless, between the outfit and your… presence—”
“Your presence. You looked like an angel. Not, like, one of those delicate little things on top of the tree, but, like the archangel Gabriel? Big man, flaming sword, told Mary she was knocked up which was kinda a dick move?"
She looked at him like he was an utter idiot. “Gabriel didn’t have the sword. That was Uriel.”
Jaime shrugged. “I’m sorry my improvised rescue failed to meet your exacting standards, Angel. Next time give a man warning.”
“Believe me,” she scowled. “There will be no next time.”
The last strains of Baby It’s Cold Outside died out, replaced by a particularly saccharine version of Santa Baby. Too busy glowering at each other as they moved in unison, neither one of them took any heed.
They had argued their way through half-a-dozen songs, on topics ranging from the quality of the champagne (“Robert’s a cheap bastard,” was Jaime’s assessment, while Brienne pointed out she hadn’t actually tried it but she was sure it was sufficient) to the proposal of a new stadium for King’s Landing FC. She wasn’t even entirely sure they’d disagreed on the latter, their stances equally opposed to the expense when the city infrastructure was in such poor condition, Jaime just had an immense knack for saying things in the most aggravating manner possible and she’d wanted to throttle him anyway. Especially when he’d looked so damn smug afterwards, as if he’d won. Which he hadn’t.
The only time he hadn’t been entirely insufferable was when he’d brushed against the topic of her family—she’d flinched and then braced herself, not willing to expose a weakness that could be turned against her. He’d slowed their dance for a moment, studying her face, and then shrugged.
“Mine too,” was all he’d said.
And now, somehow, they were still on the dancefloor as rendition four of Frosty began and bickering about the historical accuracy of the latest high-budget medieval drama, or rather which transgression was the most egregious.
“The military tactics are… hilariously inaccurate,” Brienne said. “There are documented sources and they are still relying on—”
“What looks coolest, yes. But come on, Angel, there isn’t a single female character with a decent plotline at this point. Which… this is a period with Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Empress Matilda, even if you don’t crack open a book beyond that.”
Brienne snorted. “Yeah, you get used to it. Best not to have any expectations.”
He chuckled. Chuckled. It was a lovely, warm sound, not at all the sharp-edged flashes she’d seen before, and Brienne smiled for a moment before realising they were still moving, still…
“Why are we dancing?”
Men like him didn’t dance with women like her, not without an ulterior motive. She’d almost presumed he was just an ornery bastard who hated Ron as much as she did, but this… chuckling, this sudden near-enjoyment, the easiness of movement, it was— She glanced around the dancefloor, expecting people to be recording it, silently laughing, or money being exchanged, or—
Jaime shrugged. “There’s nothing suspicious about dancing, whether someone thinks you’re here with Renly or me. At least so long as they don’t see your face.”
“Oh, fuck you,” she snarled, pulling away. Of course this came down to her damned appearance. Fucking asshole. “I didn’t ask you to be my knight in shining armour.”
She shoved past him to head towards the exit, cursing her decision to wear heels. Even above the music and the quiet murmurs of the other dancers who were turning to watch her, she could hear the sharp, accusatory click at each step, asking her why she’d ever followed him to begin with. It had seemed the better option at the time, a mild embarrassment with a stranger instead of Ron again, years of history tipping the scales in favour of a golden-haired man. Even when said stranger was Jaime fucking Lannister and his—
A strong hand on her arm had her spinning around, hissing as she pulled out of his grip.
“Leave me alone,” she spat, appalled that he had the audacity to look hurt. Of course he looked hurt, the man had probably never been called out for his presumptions in his life.
They were near the door to the ballroom. Before he could open his mouth and say something horrible like I’m sorry—because any apology would be to placate his own ego, nothing more—she turned once more and exited. Walked hurriedly, thankful to be away; his footsteps fell behind her, and she turned down a small corridor and spun around to confront him, hands clenched into fists.
“I said to leave me alone, Mr Lannister.”
“Because I want you to is more than reason enough,” Brienne said.
“Oh, come on, Angel. I at least deserve an expl—”
“No, you don’t. Fuck. Off.”
“You’re a prickly one,” he remarked, an odd glint in his eyes. He probably wasn’t accustomed to being told no. Well Brienne was quite happy to disabuse him of that.
“I thought we were having fun?”
“No, you were having fun. At my expense,” Brienne hissed. “Forgive me if I didn’t want to continue.”
“What are you talking about, you maddening woman?”
She blinked, incredulous. “What am I—are you drunk? Dropped on your head as a baby? You were just—”
“Trouble in paradise?” came Ron’s sardonic voice, and Brienne and Jaime turned in tandem. The red-haired man was watching them, arms folded and a sneer on his lips.
“Foreplay,” Jaime said easily, his arm snaking around her waist.
“Gets our blood flowing,” Brienne added. “Broke a bed once.”
She was close enough to hear Jaime’s strangled snort, though he didn’t let it show on his face.
“If I get her mad enough, she bites,” said Jaime, tone salacious.
The image popped into her mind unbidden, the muscles and curves of his shoulder, the taste of him. Absolutely fucking not. (He’d probably groan in pleasure, and then complain she was a half-inch off. Bastard.)
“Always did think she was a beast,” Ron sneered.
Jaime tensed as if to lunge, and Brienne raised a hand to his chest in warning. She would not be responsible for a brawl, even if she wouldn’t mind watching it. She was only human, after all. He looked at her and she raised an eyebrow, hoping he would understand. Annoyingly, he seemed to—he tilted his head and took a step back.
“Your loss,” Jaime said, teeth clenched. “Not that you could handle a woman like her.”
God, maybe he really did hate Ron as much as she did. It made it a little easier to smile, to lean down and murmur something against the shell of his ear. Admittedly it was less sweet nothings and more a remark about the size of Ron’s… ego, but it served its purpose. The two of them shared a laugh, and Ron’s face turned near purple with rage.
“I’ll leave you two lovebirds, then,” he said tersely. “Try not to…” he spluttered, looking for an insult, “break any furniture.”
He turned on his heel and started walking.
“No promises!” Jaime called after him, deeply cheerful. Brienne hid her laughter behind her hand—the last thing Jaime Lannister needed was encouragement.
And then they were alone again, and for a brief moment there was only the sense of shared relief, And then they remembered who they were, and where, and....
“Right,” he said, grabbing her arm and pulling as if to move her, but she stood her ground. Like fuck was he going to manhandle her. He gave her an exasperated glare. “We’re finishing this in private.”
“There’s nothing to finish.”
The real problem was that Brienne was both far too nice and far too susceptible to a pretty face, even one attached to a man like Jaime Lannister. One second of seeming sincerity and a slightly charming pout and she caved. “Fine.”
She allowed him to pull her into the nearest room, some sort of library. He shut the door and crossed the room to lean against the desk, folding his arms across his chest and glaring at her. He was really fucking pretty, the strain of his thighs against his trousers and the way the low lighting threw his sharp features into relief only making it more obvious.
“Care to tell me what I did wrong? One minute we’re having a discussion—”
“That wasn’t a discussion, you were insulting me.” Which… on second thought he hadn’t been, strictly speaking, but the intention was there.
“Only a true idiot takes dissent for derision, Angel.”
She was filled with an urge to punch the cocky look right off his face. Insufferable man. “I suppose I just imagined you calling me ugly, then?”
“I did no such thing.”
“I’m fairly certain I know what I said.”
“I know what I heard.”
He arched an eyebrow in her direction. “Please, enlighten me.”
“‘At least so long as they don’t see your face,’” she quoted, mimicking his voice as best she could out of sheer irritation.
He raked a perfect hand through his perfect golden hair and exhaled. Perfectly, damn him.
“Fucking hell,” he said. “That is what you’re het up about? I didn’t—I’m an asshole. I’ll fully admit that I’m counting the number of reds this—” he wiggled his fingers in her general direction, “can go before you haul off and punch me like you clearly want to. But I’m not out to humiliate you. I meant that nobody seeing your sour expression could think you were enjoying yourself.”
“Oh,” she snapped. “That’s so much better.”
“Well it can’t possibly be worse. Unless you wanted me to insult you?”
They stared at each other for a long moment, breathing far harder than their argument warranted, uncertain what else to say. The sheer bloody-minded rage had abated, somewhat, but god she still wouldn’t mind punching his stupid, perfect face. Especially when he smiled at her with his perfect teeth, gave his head an inviting tilt.
“Shall we head back in then?”
No, was the obvious answer, nearly snapped out without thought, but then, Well, why not? It was just the last in a long line of terrible ideas. And it might be fun—they could probably give Ron an aneurysm if they played their cards right, and she had nowhere else to be.
“Fine,” she said, less reluctantly than she felt. “But I lead the next dance.”
He extended a hand in offer, giving a sardonic smile. “Come on then, sweetling, the music’s still playing.”
“Probably Frosty,” she muttered, and he laughed.
Jaime felt like he was in a Cinderella story, if Cinderella were a towering giantess with a defensive attitude and a laugh that could be heard in fucking Narnia. She’d looked horrified, the first time the braying noise had slipped past her lips, so he’d promptly set about making her do it again. He was almost enjoying himself—it had been a long time since anyone had thought to argue back with him, and yet she was so delightfully easy to fluster. They’d danced, had a couple of drinks—“Alright,” she’d conceded grudgingly when she’d had some champagne, “Robert is a cheap bastard.” and wrinkled her nose—and then retired to a table in a corner where she was proving that she was as pig-headed as she was wrong. But eventually every clock struck its metaphorical midnight, and she stirred from whatever spell had held her at the party this long.
“I really do need to head off,” she said, standing. “I think Renly left like an hour ago.”
Jaime stood as well. “Let me see you home,” he said, and gave a subtle nod to where Ron Connington was sulking over his drink and glaring at them.
Brienne rolled her eyes, but did not protest. Once in the corridor, Jaime pulled his phone out of his pocket.
“I’ll call you an Uber,” he said, opening the app and handing it over. “Just put your…” he waved vaguely. “And I’ll wait with you until it arrives, if you don’t mind. I could use the fresh air.”
Brienne gave him a look that bordered of mischievous. “You mean you aren’t following a strange woman home?”
“And risk being murdered?” Jaime asked, mock appalled. “Not a chance, Angel. You’ll have to find yourself some other victim.”
“Like you were my first choice, anyway.”
“Is that because I’m too pretty to kill?” he asked, fluttering his eyelashes at her in a way that was certain to drive her mad.
She flushed bright red and didn’t reply, though he could tell she was considering it. Homicide, not replying. They collected their coats and headed outside, sitting side-by-side on the top of the stone steps. She folded her arms over her bent knees and tilted her head back, as if to study the stars, an oddly contented smile on her face. Jaime focused on his phone, unwilling to break the strange peace that had descended between them, until a notification came through.
“Car should be here in a minute,” Jaime said, glancing up.
She turned from the sky and was watching him, her bottom lip caught between her teeth. “I suppose I should thank you for an… interesting evening, Mr Lannister.”
“Come on, Angel,” he said, waggling his eyebrows, “we’ve broken a bed together. The least you can do is call me Jaime.”
She glared a him, clearly unamused. Which meant he was fucking hilarious, as far as Jaime was concerned.
“I appreciated the rescue,” she managed to grit out. “Ron’s…” she took a breath, as if to explain, but at that moment her Uber pulled into sight.
“That’s you,” Jaime said, strangely disappointed.
“That’s me,” she agreed, standing up and brushing the back of her thighs absently. “Good night.”
She trotted down the few steps and was just climbing into the car, her long legs folding as she slid into the seat, when a thought occurred to him.
“Brienne?” he called out; she turned to look towards him. In the dim lights thrown by the house, she truly was striking. “I don’t suppose you’re going to be at Olenna’s New Year’s Eve soirée?” The old bat would probably have a heart attack if it was referred to as something as plebeian as a party.
Brienne just gave an enigmatic smile. “I just might, Jaime.”
And then she shut the door and the car pulled away, Cinderella leaving no glass slipper behind. But he knew where she’d be in just over a fortnight.
Jaime really hoped that it wasn’t too late to change his RSVP.