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The breeze that drifted through the window was light and salty and rustled the gauzy curtains in a dreamy, gentle way. It had been years since she’d left Tarth, so it had been years since she’d smelled that briny air. Brienne was surprised by how much she’d missed it.

When she’d left her island behind, she had thought she was leaving the worst parts of her life there. The disappointment of her father, the judgement of her people. Three dead siblings and three failed betrothals. None of that mattered when Renly had taken her into his service. The scorn and the pitying looks hurt less when she had her sword in her hand. She was doing what she was meant to do: protecting others, serving others. She’d found honour in that, or tried to.

As if honour had been some simple thing to cling to, some easy principle to grasp and hold close to her chest; a touchstone in the darkness.

The salt in the air was fresh and light and reminded her of her father when she was young. It was the way that she had felt safe, wrapped in his arms. The sound of his voice when he carried her to bed, her ear pressed to his chest.

“How do you like your rooms?” Jaime asked from where he stood beside her, leaning casually against the balcony rail. He had invited himself to share her midday meal, as he had done the day before, and the one before that. Her childhood Septa would not have approved of the hours spent alone with a man alone in her rooms, but Brienne couldn’t find it in her heart to care. What good was propriety when faced with their history? Her reputation was beyond repair, already, and she’d much rather the company than spend her days alone.

“They are very nice,” she admitted, looking out across the bay. The ocean air might have reminded her of home, but Blackwater Bay was nothing like the cove at Evenfall. Even now, with the sun setting behind them, small fishing skiffs and trader’s sloops zipped across the water on their last-minute journeys, delivering goods or returning back to the docks with the day’s haul.

Jaime made a choked noise. “Oh, very nice, are they?” he said, and she turned to look at him, worried, at first, that she had offended him, until she saw that the corners of his lips twitched upwards, and his eyebrows were raised just a little too high for him to be truly indignant. “Half the kingdom is on their way to King’s Landing to celebrate my nephew’s upcoming nuptials, and despite that, I was able to secure these very nice rooms for you—rooms that, I might add, have an unparalleled view of Blackwater Bay, a better view than I, the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, am afforded. Very nice.”

“Yes. Nice,” she insisted, and only barely restrained the urge to roll her eyes. This, too, was part of their budding routine. She would say something well-meaning, and he would find some way to mock her for it.

“I suppose you must have been spoiled in your accommodations these last few months,” he allowed, and she could tell he was hitting his stride. “These very nice rooms do not have the ambiance of your room in Harrenhall or the rustic appeal of sleeping under the stars. I, myself, have struggled to fall asleep at night of late without feeling ants crawling down my trousers.”

“Those were lice.”

“I miss them, too.”

He pointedly rubbed his hand across his face, freshly shorn of the matted beard he had grown after a year in captivity. Without it he looked younger, healthier. Though the healthy flush of his cheeks was probably more the result of three hearty meals a day. She, too, had gained a little flesh back and felt all the better for it. She had Jaime to thank for that as well. By rights she should’ve been imprisoned the moment she’d set foot in the city and fed whatever slop it was they gave to prisoners of war. Afterall, she was the sworn sword of Lady Catelyn Stark. And if that wasn’t enough, Jaime had lost his sword hand while under her protection.

But he had refused to allow her to be treated as anything less than his honoured guest, and she appreciated it, truly. But she could never find the words to convey that gratitude. Nor could Jaime seem to find it within himself to take her attempts seriously. It had almost become a game, played daily while they shared their meal.

“Well I’m happy to be rid of mine,” she said, then scratched the back of her head, where her skin faintly itched. She stopped when she saw that Jaime’s twitch of a smile had morphed into a full-blown grin.

There was a soft knock at the door, followed quickly by the entrance of one of the serving girls, carrying a tray laden with their midday meal. Wedges of cheese, from the hard cheddars she recognised, to the soft, sharp white cheese that Jaime had goaded her into trying the day before. There was a ham hock, a steaming roast chicken, and a freshly baked loaf of bread filled with all sorts of seeds and nuts. Alongside this were little jars of preserves and fresh fruit alike: quinces and figs and grapes. It all smelled delicious, and the sight of it made her stomach grumble, like she had swallowed some sort of angry creature instead of the plain boiled eggs she’d had for breakfast.

It was exactly the sort of meal they’d shared each day since they’d arrived back in the city. It was far too much food for one, but the servants seemed to understand they needed to cater for the both of them. Brienne certainly had never instructed them as much, though she wouldn’t put it past Jaime to have spoken to the maid himself as part of his campaign to play the perfect, magnanimous host.

“Finally!” Jaime said, heading into the room to take a seat at the little table they always sat at to share these meals. He surveyed the day’s fare and then playfully gasped, in a way that could only be described as scandalised, “Lady Brienne of Tarth! Are you finally forgoing your vow of temperance?”

For a moment, she was confused, before he reached onto the tray and lifted up a crystal flagon, that sloshed with amber liquid.

“I didn’t…”

“I beg your pardon, milady,” the maid said, looking a little embarrassed to be speaking out of turn, “But it was a gift from the Tyrells.”

Brienne frowned. It had only been two days since she met with the Lady Margaery and her grandmother Lady Olenna. They had talked of Renly and of what had happened since they had parted ways after his death, but she had done nothing that necessitated a gift from them.

But before she could say as much, Jaime was removing the cork, looking pointedly at her. “Oh no you don’t, my lady,” he said, with a tone that reminded her, eerily, of her father when he was about to gently chide her for her poor manners. “This is Arbor Gold. You don’t turn that away, no matter who gives it to you.”

Before she could protest any further, he dismissed the maid with a wave, and settled in to his task. He moved with determination to pour them each a glass, every move a little slower as he used his off hand to complete the task, while his new, polished golden hand hovered uselessly in the air as if he were using it to balance. Brienne resisted the urge to step forward and help him. She had helped him with so many things, but she recognised it was important for him to regain his independence. If he needed the help, she would not deny it to him, but for now she would let him try.

But he completed the simple task without knocking either goblet over, nor did he overfill the glass. Or rather he did overfill the glass, but she was beginning to see that Lannisters just preferred a fuller cup than what she was used to. All decadence to her frugality.

Jaime set aside the flagon and wedged the stopper back inside the neck before he took one of the goblets and held it out for her to take. He did it with a mocking bow of his head, “If my lady will join me in a toast?” he said, voice low and melodious, igniting a warmth in her belly that was becoming all too familiar.

She rolled her eyes at that—she was only human after all—but she took the cup from him in any case, and when he picked up his own and held it up, she lifted hers to its level. Sometimes it was easier to humour him, and this seemed harmless enough.

“To the future,” he said, looking directly at her.

It felt intimate, too intimate, locking eyes with him this way. It felt like he would see too much, and he already knew too much about her already. But if she was safe with anyone in this city, surely it was him. So she didn’t look away, despite every fibre of her being telling her to blink, to turn, to drop her eyes to the floor.

“To the future,” Brienne repeated softly, then quickly brought the cup to her mouth to take a sip before he noticed that her voice had shaken a little.

Because what was their future? What could she possibly do, now? Now that the woman she served was dead. Now that the daughters she had sworn to protect were beyond her protection, one missing, one bound to the very family she needed to be protected from. And her, sharing a meal, drinking the finest wine, with someone from that very same family. On the surface it looked as though she had forsworn her vow, and betrayed her promise to Lady Catelyn.

But she hadn’t. Of course she hadn’t. And Jaime was the last person who would force her to give it up. He knew how much it meant to her, and she truly believed that he wanted to uphold his own vow, alongside her own. The wine burned her lips, a little, but it warmed her on the way down, and by the time they were seated at the table, and she had had another sip or two more, her worries did not seem so terrible. Brienne sliced the ham, and cut off hearty slices of the bread, while Jaime sniffed the pots of preserves before he found the tomato relish she had enjoyed so much the day before, and he offered it to her once she divided the cuttings onto their two plates.

“Does Tarth have any delicacies?” he asked, looking between her and the jar of relish with an amused look on his face.

She thought for a minute, while she spooned the relish onto the slice of ham, resolutely ignoring any sense of shame she felt. Having a favourite food, and having someone know what it is was nothing to be shy about. “There is a special kind of lobster found in one of the coves,” she said finally, setting the jar back down on the table so that she could cut herself some cheese. When it became clear that Jaime was waiting patiently for her to elaborate, she added, “It’s blue, and very fine when roasted with spices and mushrooms. It was a treat my father would always have made for his nameday.”

“Not yours, too?”

She shook her head. “Too much trouble to arrange. The lobsters are not found year-round, and the spices must come from Essos.”

“Blue lobsters?” Jaime’s eyes widened while the rest of him stilled, the sprig of grapes he’d retrieved held comically frozen in the air. It left him looking much like one of the absurd portraits that lined the walls of the great keep: a regal, gloriously pretty man completing a ridiculously mundane task. “Surely not. You’re pulling my leg. I’d sooner believe you ate grumpkins or nargles than blue lobsters.”

Instead of honouring that ridiculousness with a response—not that she could think of one—she chose to eat instead. The ham was smoked to perfection, and the orange-honey glaze had a pleasant heat to it she hadn’t expected, but blended wonderfully with her favoured tomato relish. However, while the bread was crusty and fresh, it was a little on the dry side, to the point that she took a little sip of wine with each mouthful chewed, so that she might swallow it all without complaint.

Jaime, however, did not seem to want to let the topic drop quite so easily. He took another sip from his own cup, placed it back on the table and then asked, “What else, other than roasted blue lobsters, did little Brienne grow up eating? You seemed very comfortable hunting for our food on our journey here. When we were allowed to do so, of course.”

She flushed, heat rising from somewhere beneath her collar, likely making her neck and cheeks a blotchy red. He liked doing that, making a joke of her disastrous escort south, and though he harboured no ill-will against her, she never knew how she should respond. So Brienne did as she always did, and ignored any mention of it, focusing instead on his probing questions into her childhood. “We fished, mostly,” she said. “I cannot remember a time when I didn’t know how to sail. I would go out on the large fishing trawlers and helped them bring in huge deep-sea tuna. They were bigger than I was, and a single one would easily feed the castle for a week.”

Jaime’s eyes widened, “It must have been a big beast, to be bigger than you!”

“I was a child, I wasn’t always this tall,” she said with a laugh, as she felt the warmth flush ever higher, until she was sure even her ears were rosy.

“Nonsense. I cannot fathom you an inch shorter than you are right now,” he said, dismissing her with a wave of his golden hand. “You arrived in this world precisely as you are, and I’m sure you’ll never change. Not a hair on your head or a nail on your finger.”

He wiggled the fingers on his real hand, then hiccuped, then laughed at himself, and it set her to laughing too. They locked eyes, and the laughter bubbled up anew, until it felt like some infection, passed back and forth between them in an endless It was absurd, this whole thing, this whole year. It was absurd that she was here, with him sharing a meal and laughing. Sitting across from the most beautiful man she’d ever set her eyes upon, and that he seemed to prefer her company above all else. Above even his family. Absurd! Never could she have foreseen this! Not after everything that had happened to her. Not after Renly, and the shadow, and Catelyn, and Locke and sapphires and the bear and everything everything everything.

Brienne was still laughing. So was Jaime.

She couldn’t stop.

She wanted to, it was beginning to hurt, her chest tightening in an uncomfortable way, her face hot now with flush.

She couldn’t stop.

It felt like a fever, an impossible, irrepressible, inflammatory fever, burning her up on the inside, and it was no longer funny. She reached out and gripped the edge of the table, looked at Jaime, properly, while she could make her eyes cooperate—she was having difficulty focusing. Everything was blurry, everything was tilting. But he was close, so close, just across the table. So close. She could reach out to him if she tried, if she could, if she tried. And still the laughter continued, more gasping, squeezing, than anything remotely joyful. It took more strength than it should, to extend her arm across the table to him, clumsy and off and she almost missed the mark. But he was there, and grasping too. His hand, his true hand, clawed at her fingers and gripped tightly, anchoring her to the room for a moment, fending off the dizzying, spinning that had started sometime, but now didn’t seem to stop.

In that moment, that anchored moment, she looked at him and he looked at her. Green eyes and blue eyes. Green and green and worried and he gripped her fingers tighter, choked out her name, “Brienne.”

The room went dark. Quiet and dark.

Nothing.


Brienne was not where she was. That was the first thing she thought, when finally she was able to blink her eyes open. They were heavy, too heavy, just as the air she drew in through her nose was too thick.

It was the ceiling that gave it away. It was not the same as hers. Though it was made of the same yellow sandstone as the ceiling in her own room, the light played differently here. The room Jaime had given her was light almost every moment of the day. Even when the sun set, the maids set candles just-so about the room, the fiery light playing off the walls to keep the room bright. It was only when they were extinguished that the room ever felt dark, and that was only because the moon had waned in the weeks she’d been here.

But this room, wherever it was, was dark. For while there were torches lit, hanging in sconces on the wall, they did not seem able to penetrate the gloom. That was not the only disconcerting thing about the room; a cloying, strong smell permeated the air and seemed to stick in her nostrils.

She began to realise, more slowly than she liked, that she was not alone in this strange, unfamiliar room. Somewhere behind her head she could hear someone moving about. Shuffling slowly, occasionally muttering something under their breath she could not quite make out.

She tried to move, to crane her head back to see who it was, or where she was, but her muscles did not obey her commands. It sent a thrill of fear up her spine and sent her heart pounding in her chest, in her throat, in her ears. What had happened? How had she got here? Where was Jaime—he had been with her, hadn’t he? They had been having lunch, that was the last thing she could remember. Or was it?

And now she was here.

Whoever it was continued to move around behind her, seemingly unaware that she was awake. She could hear the occasional clink of glass on metal, and an uncomfortable noise of what sounded like one stone grinding against another. Liquid poured. More scraping.

What would they do if she tried to speak, to let them know she was awake?

Before she could decide what to do, whoever it was behind her moved to settle a tray on a table beside the bed she lay in. She could see now that they were the rough-spun robes of a maester, though she did not recognise the man. His chains hung heavily around his neck, and she wondered whether they rattled, and if they did, did he find it a distraction from his work?

It was a strange thing to think of. She could recognise that much. But her head did not quite seem under her full control, just as the rest of her body did not want to move.

But perhaps she could speak?

“Where…” Her voice cracked painfully on the word, spoken so softly it was only a little louder than her breathing. But hearing it gave her heart, nonetheless. The maester, whoever he was, took no notice, though.

So she licked her lips—her dry tongue doing little to lubricate her throat—and tried again, this time trying to put a little more power into it. “Where am I?”

It felt like a scream, with the effort it took, but her voice rang out clearer now, and it succeeded in getting the man’s attention. He turned with a start and stepped close enough to her cot for her to see that it was none other than Grand Maester Pycelle.

“Lady Brienne,” he said, his voice croaky too, though with the rasp of the old rather than the infirm. “You’re awake.”

Brienne tried to reply, but the little exertion she’d managed had already been too much, it seemed. “I didn’t expect the antidote to work so quickly,” Pycelle muttered, and turned away from her once more and stepped out of sight. It made her heart lurch with a soft kind of panic. To wake in an unfamiliar place, with a man she barely knew was one thing, but to have him step away from her, even if it was just for a moment, filled her with dread. She had too many questions: What had happened? Where was she? How had she gotten here? What antidote? Did that mean she was poisoned? How? Who? Why? Why?

Pycelle returned to her field of vision within a few minutes, though they felt longer. He held in his hands an earthenware pitcher and matching mug. She heard the hollow sound of liquid being poured, before he set the pitcher down beside her. Then he tucked his bony hand behind her head, cupping her skull, and pressed the mug to her lips and tilted it.

“Drink,” he commanded. Before she could protest, liquid filled her mouth and she was forced to swallow or else choke on the stuff. But it was just water. Clean and crisp, and the moment she’d gulped down her first mouthful, she desperately wanted more. The cool feeling of it coursing through her chest only highlighted how warm she felt, how dry her lips and skin were. The headache which had been raging before, seemed to swell and pound at twice the intensity it had before.

But still, she swallowed all she could of it before Pycelle removed the cup and pulled his hand away, letting her head thump back against the hard bed.

“More,” she gasped, more successfully, the water having lubricated her dry throat well enough to give power to her voice this time.

“No,” Pycelle said, the briskness in his tone taking her by surprise. “You’re just as like to throw it all back up if you have too much now. You can have more later, once you’ve slept a little longer.”

She wanted to protest that. She didn’t feel remotely nauseous, nor tired, but she did feel thirsty. If she could just sit up, she could pour herself another cup, without needing any assistance from him. But again when she tried, her arms would not move. There was a heaviness to them that was strange. It felt like she should be able to lift them…

She raised her head a little off the table. It was heavy, and it hurt her neck to strain in such a way, but when she was able to see why she’d had such trouble.

Thick leather belts strapped her down. At least three that she could see: one across her shoulders, another over her stomach and elbows, and another across her pelvis, that trapped her wrists too. She suspected her legs were similarly bound, but from the hips down she was covered in a course blanket and so couldn’t see for sure.

“Why am I bound?” she asked, letting her head fall back down, tilting her chin up so that she might be able to see Pycelle where he was behind her. It didn’t work; he remained just out of sight.

“So that you would not hurt yourself.”

Hurt herself? Why would she hurt herself?

“Take them off,” she said, more calmly than she truly felt. To wake in a strange place, with no memory of how she’d gotten here. To find out she’d been poisoned, and that she’d needed to be bound because she was a danger to herself. It was almost too much. But though she approached the edge of panic, she held herself back from the precipice through sheer force of will. Panic would not help here here, just as it had not helped her when she stood face-to-face with a bear, in an ill-fitting dress, holding nothing but a wooden sword.

The maester huffed, clearly displeased at being commanded in such a way, but he did as she asked, starting first with the buckle above her clavicle, then the one across her stomach. By the time he’d released the one across her hips, and her hands were free, she used them to push herself up into a sitting position.

Pycelle made a noise of protest, and tried to push her back down, but she batted his hand away. Almost at once, she regretted the move; the sudden change in altitude made her head spin, and she had to close her eyes and swallow against the rising bubble that threatened from her belly. But it passed, and when she opened her eyes again, cautiously, her vision was clear and steady enough.

Brienne considered her surroundings. It was the maester’s quarters, almost certainly. On one side of the room were several floor-to-ceiling bookcases. One was filled with weighty tomes, and the other beside it held jars of various sizes and colours, filled with all sorts of substances, none of which she knew precisely, except that the maester’s chambers at Evenfall had been similarly well-stocked. Straight ahead of her sick-bed was the fire, overwhich was hung a cauldron. She could hear it bubbling, though she could not see or smell precisely what was cooking.

“What happened?” she asked

“Lady Brienne, I must insist you rest,” Pycelle said from where he hovered beside her, uncomfortably close. He tried to lay a hand on her shoulder to push her back down, but she batted it away.

“What happened?” she asked again, a little more forcefully, looking Pycelle in the eye as she spoke. He was frustrated with her, she could tell, but she couldn’t find it in herself to care.

“You were poisoned,” he said. “The Tyrells delivered a flagon of wine to you which was laced with a substance called The Tickler. In small doses it simply renders the victim insensible with laughter, akin to drinking several flagons of wine, but the amount they poured into the wine was enough to kill a man, strangling them from the inside as your throat seals shut. It works very quickly, and you’re very lucky your maid found you with enough time for me to attend you and give you the antidote.”

“Poison?”

Brienne’s throat tightened, and for a moment it felt as though she couldn’t draw enough air in. It was that feeling, all too familiar and frightening that awoke her memory. She had been eating in her room, just as she had done most days since arriving in the city. Sharing her meal with Jaime.

Jaime.

He had drunk the wine too.

“Ser Jaime?” She forced the words through her teeth. He had been so happy, so jovial. He had poured the wine for her and shared a glass. If she had been poisoned, then…

“His sister insisted he be moved to the White Sword Tower, rather than convalesce here.”

Brienne’s heart leapt. “He is recovered then?”

Maester Pycelle made a face, then sighed. “I only had enough antidote for one.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You were insensible when I arrived, but Ser Jaime was clear-headed enough to explain what happened. He insisted that you be the one given the antidote, and so I did as he bid me and administered it to you without delay. You have been asleep for a day, but you should recover your strength soon and be as you were before the Tyrell’s attempt on your life.”

“But…” she couldn’t say the rest, but whatever look was on her face Pycelle understood well enough.

“It seems Ser Jaime ingested less of the stuff than you did, so he was less affected at first, but it was still enough to incapacitate him. Perhaps a year ago, when he was at the peak of his health, he would have weathered this storm with more ease, but given everything that he has suffered…” Pycelle trailed off with a shrug, as if the rest was a foregone conclusion, inevitable and unchangeable and fixed.

It was all too much to take in. Completely overwhelming. She wanted to bury her face in her hands and cry at the absurdity of it all. Three times he had stood between her and certain death, put his body on the line for her. Defended her from Locke, and then against the bear. Now this. No one had ever protected her, nor had she asked for protection, yet time and time again he had.

It was only luck he’d survived the first two times.

Perhaps this was the gods’ idea of a joke. There was no other explanation.

“Can you make more antidote?” she asked, finally, resisting the urge to curl in on herself as she had done as a girl—weeping would not help her now, not that it ever had.

Pycelle moved away, to the bench he had been working at when she woke. “The recipe is at the citadel. I have sent a raven to Maester Ebbrose requesting it, but I doubt the bird will return with it in time.”

She closed her eyes against her pounding heart. It was beating so hard she could feel it in her ears, and in her belly; her hands tingled, then felt strangely numb, and it wasn’t the fault of the poison.

“I want to see him,” she said, when she felt, finally, that she would be able to speak without her voice betraying her. Still, her hands shook as she tossed aside the blanket that still covered her legs, so she could work at the buckles that kept her strapped to the table

“I cannot allow that, my lady,” Pycelle said sternly, as if the stern word from an old man would be enough to put her in her place after all these years. He reappeared at her side, pressing one hand to her shoulder while the other held a vial of something that smelled sickly sweet. “There is nothing you can do for him now. His fate is in the hands of the gods, while you must recover your strength., Some sweet-sleep will help with that...”

He brought the vial to her lips and attempted to pour whatever it was down her throat, but Brienne was having none of it. She did not know this man, nor did she particularly trust him. So she pushed the vial aside with a firm, “No. I’ve slept enough.”

He tried again, but her legs were no longer trapped, so she twisted her whole body away, setting her feet firmly on the floor. When she stood, her vision went black for half a heartbeat as something deep within her ears rebalanced. It felt, for a moment, as though she might throw up, or worse, faint, but she kept a firm hold on the bench she’d been laid out on, and the feeling passed, leaving behind a clawing, ferocious hunger.

“Lady Brienne, I must insis—”

She held up a hand and cut him off, and straightened to her full height, towering easily over his hunched, arthritic form. “Take me to him.”


The White Sword Tower was on the opposite side of the keep to Pycelle’s chambers, and before they were halfway there, Brienne felt her energy flagging. It was night time, she knew that much, but she had no clue whether she had been unconscious for a few hours or a day, or perhaps longer. In any case, she was still exhausted. And if that wasn’t enough, her stomach roiled and raged in equal parts, clamoring for something to eat one moment, and the next feeling like she would purge whatever was left inside her. It was a horrible feeling, but she pushed through it, ignoring the cramps of hunger that clawed in her chest and swallowing the bile down when it rose. There would be time for food, later. Or time to vomit. Hopefully some time to rest. What there wasn’t time for was feeling sorry for herself.

Pycelle reluctantly led her to her destination, muttering under his breath all the while. What he said, precisely, she could not say, focussed as she was on putting one foot in front of the other, but she did not need to hear his words to know his meaning. He thought her foolish, he thought her survival a waste.

She could not let it bother her. She had survived worse than the judgement of old men. She would survive worse, still.

Jaime lay dying because he had wanted her to survive. Again he had put himself in harm’s way for her.

No one had ever thought her worthy of protection. Perhaps her father might have tried, if he had known the extent of the hurt she had endured from the world.

She had hid that from him, just as she had tried to hide it from everyone else. As far as she was concerned, it was something for her to manage, for her to cope with. The gods had seen fit to give her an unwomanly body, so she had taken up the sword. They had given her an ugly face, so she had perfected her manners and courtesies so they could never be frowned upon. But they had given her a maiden’s heart, and try as she might she had never found the right weapon to protect it.

Yet thrice Jaime had stood between her and certain death. Locke’s men, the Bear, and now this.

And it was this time, because he had chosen to share a meal with her, that he would pay the ultimate price.

She wasn’t worth the sacrifice.

It was still too much for Brienne to wrap her mind around, though it didn’t stop her from trying. By the time they reached the doors to the White Sword Tower, her thoughts had spiralled enough around the same worn paths that she felt dizzy with it and had to press her hand to the wall to keep her steady as she ascended the stairs behind Pycelle.

Finally, after climbing five flights of stairs, they reached the sleeping quarters. Brienne wanted desperately to lean against the wall to catch her breath; never before had she felt fatigue such as this, but she was loath to show such weakness to the Maester. She was in no mood for the judgement of men, not when…

Pycelle opened the door without fanfare, stepping into the hallway as though he had every right to barge on into the private space of the Kingsguard. If he hadn’t been leading the way, Brienne would never have dared to venture there herself. Ser Duncan the Tall and Ser Gwayne Corbray had walked these very halls, slept in these very rooms. She had read stories of those knights, fallen asleep many a night reading of their adventures and their accomplishments, their knightly achievements.

She followed along, trailing only a few steps behind as they walked past door after identical door, when Pycelle stopped abruptly before a door to his left. He opened it before she could catch her breath, or prepare, but it hardly mattered. Whether she’d had a few minutes, or year, there never would have been enough time in the world for her to prepare for what she saw.

Jaime lay abed, and the best that could be said for him was that he was asleep. Or at least she hoped it was sleep, because for all intents and purposes he was surely in the Stranger's arms. His skin was grey and looked almost paper thin, like one good breeze would be enough to slice it open.

But it was not his appearance that truly shocked her.

"What are you doing here?" A voice said, cold enough to send a chill fluttering across Brienne’s skin.

Her eyes had been drawn to Jaime, a moth to a flame, and she hadn’t noticed Queen Cersei standing at the window. She wore a blood-red gown and a sneer, her dress almost the colour of the goblet of wine she held against her chest.

“I came to see Ser Jaime,” Brienne said, hating how thready her voice sounded.

Pycelle had followed her into the room and was now bending over Jaime, tugging back his eyelids to look at the whites of his eyes. Jaime didn’t stir. While he continued his examination, he cast a withering look over his shoulder, and said, with clear disdain, “She insisted.” His obsequious tone was a bit of a shock, but made it clear where his loyalties lay.

Every instinct, every nerve in Brienne’s body, told her she should turn and leave the room. Escape. Flee. The Queen looked every bit the lioness of her sigil, proud and hungry for a kill, and Brienne had no weapon to wield in her own defence.

And looking down at Jaime, seeing the pallor of his skin, the way he seemed to sink into his bed, she wasn’t sure it would be worth it.

Cersei stepped away from the window, moving to stand between her brother and Brienne. “I should have expected you’d come to see the fruits of your labour.”

The queen tilted her head to the side, as though looking at some curiosity from across the Narrow Sea. “The thought upsets you. I understand it must be hard to find your loyalty is such a curse, Lady Brienne. First Renly, then Catelyn Stark, and now my brother. No wonder the Tyrells acted as they did, lest you swear yourself to their service next and damn them to the seven hells as well.”

“I did nothi—”

"—And yet the record still stands. He will die, like all the other poor souls you’ve forsworn, and it will be your fault,” Cersei said sharply, her familiar green eyes acidic with rage. She looked Brienne up and down, clearly disgusted with what she saw. “All because you couldn’t stomach a lunch alone.”

Brienne clutched at the door frame for balance, suddenly struck by a bout of lightheadedness. He will die.

To hear it so plain was worse than any blow. Worse than the pain in her head and the thought of her own death. How could one endure the agony of sacrifice, when you were the one saved time and time again? When it wasn’t earned or warranted or deserved? The guilt of it all swelled in her throat, and down her spine, and for a moment she wondered whether the antidote had worked at all.

Cersei’s lips twisted into a bitter smile, before she tilted the cup of wine to her lips, finishing the last of it off with one neat swallow. She set the cup back down on the table beside Jaime’s bed, gathered her voluminous skirts and made towards the door. Brienne was still clutching at the door frame for balance, inadvertently blocking the way, and she stepped aside more out of habit than of any desire to be polite. But before she could, Cersei reached out to grab her wrist, burying her fingernails sharply into the thin skin at her wrist. Brienne tried to pull away, but the queen was surprisingly strong—or perhaps Brienne was weaker than she thought—and she held on tightly.

“We are twins, Jaime and I. The maester said that I came out first, then he came out screaming, just after, his hand grasping my ankle. We have been together ever since. We came into the world together, and we were to leave this world together.” Cersei’s grip tightened on Brienne’s wrist, the bite of her nails surely drawing blood. The queen did not seem to care. “You took him from me.”

She dropped Brienne’s wrist as quickly as she’d grabbed it, and left the room without another word. Her skirts brushed up against Brienne’s legs, their volume giving them weight enough that they would have destablised her, had she not still been holding onto the door frame for balance.

Brienne felt dizzy. Her head spun, with the exertion of the climb, with the shock of Cersei, of seeing Jaime, everything. She wanted nothing more than to stumble across the room and lay down on the bed beside Jaime. She doubted he would mind; they had slept close enough together on the journey from Harrenhal.

At first she had hated it, had hated sleeping so close to anyone. Never in her life had she had to share her space in such a way, but he had insisted—not because he sought to take advantage of her, but that he feared their companions might. After all, he was the valuable quarry, not her, though whether he was truly capable of protecting her in the state he was in was somewhat questionable. But sick as he was with the loss of his hand, each night he had placed his bedroll beside hers without fail.

It had seemed unnecessary to her, and she had protested. “I can look after myself, Jaime,” she had said, more than once, and he had conceded that with a bow of his head each time.

“You can, but I will lay beside you in any case.”

Surprisingly quickly, she had become used to the noises he made in his sleep, the way he softly snored if they’d had ale with their supper, or the way he would shuffle closer to her, seeking her warmth when the nights turned cold.

It was only now that she recognised that it was not just the familiarity, or the protection that she missed, but the comfort. When had he become a comfort to her? When had he taken up that place in her heart?

As much as she wanted to, however, she could not crawl into his bed. Not here. Not now. Never again. Pycelle was still in the room, for a start, and surely he would not hesitate to inform the queen of anything she might do.

But she couldn’t bring herself to turn away from him. She breathed in as deeply as she was able, and walked into the room, coming to stand at the end of Jaime’s death bed.

He looked small, covered as he was by the blankets, and sleep smoothed out some of the lines on his face, making him look younger. A few remained, hinting at pain and discomfort that she wished, desperately, she could ease.

“Will he die?” she asked, lowering herself to sit, perched carefully on the end of the bed. Her hand came to rest beside the lump that was his feet beneath the blankets. Now that she was close enough, she could hear him drawing in wheezy breath after difficult wheezy breath.

“Most likely,” Pycelle said, and having finished his examination stood up, tucking his hands into his pockets. “He might not have had enough of the poison to kill him straight away, but it will not be a pleasant death. And even if he does live through it, his mind is just as like to be addled beyond any cure I know of.”

She reached a hand out to gently grip Jaime’s ankle through the fabric. He was solid enough to the touch, and it helped anchor her to the present, when all she wanted to do was cry.

“Can I—” her voice hitched, catching in her throat like a fishing hook buried tightly in the gullet of a snapper. With difficulty, she swallowed around it, and tried again, “Can I have some time alone with him?”

“I have other things to attend to. I’ll not wait around for you,” Pycelle said, his mouth twisted in judgement. Brienne knew, without a doubt, that the queen would know of her request before the hour was out, but she didn’t care. “Once you have said your goodbyes, you will need to make your way back to your own rooms by yourself.”

“I know the way,” she said.

Pycelle left without another word. He closed the door behind him as he went.

Brienne shuffled around the bed so she was sitting at Jaime’s side, rather than at his feet. She was careful not to jostle the mattress overmuch, for fear that it would cause him more pain, but he slept on. She was close enough now to see the line of sweat that beaded along his hairline and his lips, which seemed too blue to just be the fault of the moonlight seeping through the high window.

He will die.

Brienne wanted to believe otherwise, wanted to trust that he would rally and survive against the odds, as he had done for her before. But it was hard to fathom when she was close enough to hear each painful rattle of every fighting breath.

You took him from me.

Cersei’s words echoed like a hunter’s call in a forest, ominous and full of deadly promise. Nothing about this made sense. She had not poisoned him, would never have even dreamed of such a thing. If she’d wanted to kill him, it would have been easy enough, now that he was without his sword hand, but in truth she hadn’t entertained the thought since they’d been captured by Locke and his men.

If anyone was to blame, surely it was the Tyrells, not her. How could she be to blame for their misguided revenge, if that was what it truly was? And even then it didn’t make sense. She knew Lady Margaery only a little, and Loras a little better still, but the Lady and Brienne had dined with Lady Olenna not three days earlier and she had made it plain that the family held no ill-will about what had happened to Renly. And even if Loras still held a grudge, he was just as likely to use poison against his enemies as Brienne herself was.

In any case, the Tyrells had gifted the wine to her, not to Jaime, so she was the intended target. Whether or not they were the true culprits, Jaime was the innocent bystander who suffered the consequences.

“I’m sorry, Jaime,” she said softly, reaching out to grasp his hand atop the blankets. But as she did, she was surprised to find her hand gripped something rigid and hard and cold.

The golden hand.

She frowned. Why had it not been removed while he slept? Surely he had no need of it, now. Not while he slept and ailed away the hours. Brienne had noticed how much it had pained him to wear, the unyielding metal too harsh on his still-healing stump and had wished, on many occasions, that she could convince him to set it aside, even if just for the hour or two he spent with her.

Before she could change her mind, she drew back the blankets and carefully threaded his right arm out until it lay atop the blankets. She began to work at the straps that held the godsforsaken thing to his wrist. It was easy enough for her, with her two whole hands to remove it, and once she had she set it aside, on the same table that Cersei had left her empty cup. Then she carefully removed the bandage wrapped around the stump.

It became clear, quickly enough, that the dressing hadn’t been changed in days, probably since he’d been poisoned. There was a distinct pungent smell, and the dressing itself was yellowed with fluid, though it had dried and stuck some to the tender skin, but with persistence and care she was able to remove it all, exposing the stump to the fresh air it sorely needed.

The stump was red with irritation, and she could see a little bruising that was likely the fault of the golden hand, but she was certain she’d done the right thing. If he was to die, soon, he would have no need of his hands, flesh or gold alike. But if its removal relieved even the slightest bit of pain or discomfort, then she had done right by him.

Brienne lifted his elbow, gently holding his forearm as she did so that she could check the wound had not reopened, but when she did, he let out a soft moan. It startled her enough that she almost dropped the arm.

“Jaime?”

She leaned forward, so that her face was close to his.

“Jaime, can you hear me?” she asked, as her heart began to pound in her chest.

Brienne watched him carefully, eyes wide, afraid to blink, even for a second, in case she missed something vital.

He moaned again, a guttural, choked thing that felt worse than a knife to her gut. She reached out with her free hand to smooth the hair back from his face. He was hot to the touch, and clammy with sweat, but it felt like he pressed his face up into her palm, like a cat begging for attention.

“Jaime,” she tried again. This time his eyes fluttered beneath his closed lids, the muscles twitching this way and that. A dream. Or a nightmare.

Brienne set his arm back down by his side, then pressed a hand to his chest, just above his heart. She could feel the way it pounded, erratic beneath her fingers. So strong and yet so fragile it made her want to cry. Instead she leaned closer still, until her mouth was right by his ear. “It’s all right,” she whispered, “Everything will be fine. I’m here. I’ll protect you.”

“Cersei?”

It was almost a physical blow, but one that left her feeling cold and small and desperately tired. She almost pulled her hands away from him in shock, but it was against every fibre of her being to retreat from something that frightened her.

“No. It’s Brienne,” she said, more calmly than she truly felt. Her heart beat wildly now, matching its rhythm to his. She could still feel it thumping beneath her hand, each beat vibrating up her arm like a heavy blow.

Again he moaned, and shifted a little in the sheets; his short arm knocked against her hip. “Cersei!” he said again, sounding almost frantic this time.

“She—she was just here,” she said, trying a different tact.

It seemed to her he was close to waking. His eyelashes fluttered and his blue lips twitched until he bared his teeth in what could only be described as a grimace. Between that and the sheen of sweat that covered his entire face, his neck, and seemed to have started to soak the neckline of the tunic he wore, he was almost certainly in pain. She wished, desperately, that there was something she could do to ease his suffering, but all she had was her hands and words, unwomanly as they were. She had never been good at providing gentle comfort, but for him she would try. He deserved nothing less than that from her.

“Don’t,” he said. “Stop… she… Cersei...”

Brienne made a soothing noise, more of a hum than anything resembling words, then she tore her eyes away from Jaime to search for anything that might help her offer him some relief.

“Please,” he begged, rough voice cracking further still.

Brienne’s heart clenched. “She’s coming back soon, Jaime, I swear,”

But the lie sat heavy in her throat for the rest of the night. For while Brienne didn’t leave his side, Cersei wouldn’t return.


In the days that followed, Brienne’s health returned remarkably quickly. Each meal she ate and kept down felt like some restorative draught, and soon enough she felt as though she was back to near the peak of health.

Jaime, though. He did not fare so well. It went just as Pycelle said: he slept fitfully most of the time, and even woke once or twice, though he was insensible and distraught and called relentlessly for his sister through choked, raspy breaths.

Yet despite his many desperate, begging requests, Cersei did not return to his room. At first, Brienne had faithfully relayed his requests to the servants who attended the room. Tell her that her brother calls for her, she had said, more than once. Each time they had promised, faithfully, to deliver the message, but days passed, he deteriorated further and Cersei did not come.

Instead, Brienne stayed.

She wasn’t sure quite why. At first she had felt out of place in his room, and she told herself she would leave once someone else arrived. It did not seem appropriate to be alone with him when there were four walls and a roof surrounding them.

But though she waited for other visitors to take her spot at his side, none came. She knew the king was not the kind to visit an ailing relative, but it seemed absurd to her that his father would not visit, or his brother. Both were in the capital, she knew. She’d met them both, briefly, the day she and Jaime had arrived in the capital, dirty and sore and worse for wear but alive. And given how Jaime spoke of his family—the love and devotion he felt for them all was clear to her, even before Harrenhal—she’d expected Tyrion, at least, would make an appearance. When she asked the maids about it, they said that Tywin had visited his son, briefly, on the first day, when she was still recovering from the effects of the poison in Maester Pycelle’s quarters. Tyrion, too, they said, had come to see his brother, but neither had returned since Brienne herself had awoken and she could not fathom a family so heartless.

So she stayed. She stayed until someone arrived to take her place. She stayed by his side for as long as she could each day, only retreating back to her room at night to sleep. Even then, she felt guilty leaving him. He was dying because of her, because, yet again, he had sacrificed himself to save her. Keeping him company while he coughed and retched and drifted in and out of hallucinations was the least she could do.

Each day he lay abed, it seemed to her he became smaller and smaller, as if he was wasting away in front of her very eyes. Brienne felt, absurdly, that if she took her eyes off him for too long, that he would disappear completely, as if he had never existed in the first place. It hurt her heart to think about it.

And it was not as though she was ever truly alone with him for long. Maids and servants constantly drifted in and out of the room. Maester Pycelle visited regularly, though never for long. She would watch him carefully each time he examined Jaime, as he pulled back his eyelids and checked his eyes, as he took his temperature with the back of his hand, as he palpitated Jaime’s bruised and swollen throat, watching for any slip of his expression that might indicate improvement, or deterioration, anything but the days and days without change.

But he remained frustratingly enigmatic, so she was forced to watch for herself instead. When she wiped the sweat from Jaime’s face, she let her fingers linger against the lined skin of his forehead to feel for a fever just as Maester Pycelle did. When he was calm, she trickled a little honey water into his mouth. And when he struggled from the bed in his hallucinatory moments, calling desperately, persistently, for his sister, she pressed him back and swore that she would bring his sister to his side.

But Cersei wouldn’t come. Not while Brienne stayed.

You took him from me.

Perhaps it was selfish of her to stay. It was not her name Jaime called.

But try as she might, she could not leave him alone.

So she stayed.


At first she didn’t notice she had company. It was late, but Jaime was finally resting peacefully enough that she’d finally given in and had begun to explore his room. It was surprisingly austere, for a Lannister. She’d expected gold and rubies bedecking every surface, velvet curtains, silk sheets. But it was a practical space, and not at all gaudy. Brienne wondered whether it was a choice he’d made, or whether it was just the lot of a Kingsguard. Other than the bed that he occupied, which was neatly tucked in against the wall, there was the side table, a bureau, a chest of drawers and a small wash table. All were made of the same, sturdy wood, all lacking even the simple kind of ornamentation she’d grown used to seeing about the castle.

The only frivolous thing the room contained was a shield and a pair of crossed swords that hung above the mantle, and a small collection of books stacked neatly above the chest of drawers. It was the books that she was flicking through, wondering whether or not it might be nice to read aloud to Jaime, in case he should hear it through the fog of the poison.

Brienne’s own father had often read to her when she was laid abed with some childhood illness, and later some adolescent injury. The words might not have helped her to heal any faster, but they had been a comfort nonetheless. And she had cherished the hours her father had spent with her above all else. Her childhood had been lonely, in many ways, but her father had always found time for her each day. It was what had made leaving Tarth so hard, as necessary and inevitable it had felt at the time.

In a way this situation was her fault. If she’d never left Tarth, then perhaps Renly would still be alive. The Tyrells would not be trying to kill her with poison. Jaime would likely still have his hand, and along with it his health and his sister. If she’d never left Tarth, then she would be bored, but safe, and at her father’s side. At least there she knew she would be loved. She’d left because she’d dreaded the future her life promised, sole heir to a dying house, and in that way she was a coward. Women endured that life every day and were not the lesser for it. Perhaps it might not have been as bad as she’d thought it would be. It was hard to remember why she’d found the prospect so terrifying.

Brienne opened the book, which fell open to a well-worn page. There was only a little text, a paragraph at most on one side, and the letters painted far larger than she was used to reading. The other page was covered by a detailed, intricate illustration of an armoured, gilded knight brandishing his sword in the direction of some kind of mythical beast; whether it was a grumpkin or a snark, Brienne couldn’t say—she always got the two creatures confused.

She began to read.

Without hesitation, Ser Gallant drew his blade, and stood between the lady and the chimera. Its teeth dripped with noxious venom and it snarled and growled and raked at the ground with its sharp claws.

“Never fear, my lady,” Ser Gallant cried. “I shall protect you!”

The lady...

“Aren’t you a little old for fairytales, Lady Brienne?” Tyrion said, startling her with his entrance. Brienne turned and snapped the book shut, reminded sharply of the time Evenfall’s cook had caught her taking an extra orange biscuit from the baking tray.

With a fresh scar healing across his face sharp against the pallor of his face and his unkempt, burnished curls, Tyrion looked weary. As though he’d been poisoned by the same substance that had felled his big brother, though had been denied the mercy of unconsciousness. And there was a telling redness about his eyes that made her feel like she should avert her eyes to allow him a little dignity.

“Lord Tyrion,” she said, proud of the calmness she heard in her voice. She certainly didn’t feel particularly calm.

“How fares my brother?” he asked, shuffling to stand beside his brother’s bed. Jaime’s short arm lay atop the covers and Tyrion didn’t hesitate to grasp it like it was whole, seemingly unbothered by the angry, still-healing scars.

Brienne swallowed. “About the same.”

Tyrion closed his eyes, pursed his lips tightly. She could see his throat moving, Addam’s apple bobbing up and down as he swallowed words, and worked at others.

“I wanted to come,” he said, finally opening his eyes to look over his brother. He stroked Jaime’s arm gently, with a tenderness that made her heart ache. “If it had been me in this bed he would not have left my side unless it was to find and kill whoever was responsible.”

It had never been in her nature to be reassuring—it was one of the many ways she’d failed as a woman—but he seemed so desperately in need of comfort that she felt the need to try. “He hasn’t woken. Not really,” she said.

It wasn’t the right thing to say.

Tyrion shook his head, and a bitter expression flashed across his face. “I should be here, whether he is awake to notice me or not.” He dropped his brother’s arm and reached out to lightly touch his face instead.

Brienne was struck by the intimacy of the gesture, by the love and affection writ clear on Tyrion’s mismatched features. It made her feel like she was intruding on some precious, private moment. She eyed the door, already in half a mind to leave, but before she could Tyrion was speaking again. “I did visit, before, though I doubt you’d remember. You were just as insensible as Jaime was, at the time.”

A warmth filled her face and neck, though she knew, truly enough, that it was nothing to be ashamed of. But it made her feel like she was back in that bear pit, wearing that hideous pink gown, armed with nothing but a flimsy wooden sword, except this time she wasn’t fighting a bear, she was fighting the unknown. There was no victory there, for her.

But Tyrion didn’t notice her discomfort, for he only had eyes for his brother. “I was angry when I found out that he had insisted you receive the antidote instead of him. I know my brother. If you had asked me what he would do in a situation such as this, I would have predicted this exact scenario. He has always valued the lives of others over his own life, and I have benefitted from that too many times to count, so I shouldn’t have been angry. But I was. Why was I angry?” He asked it of himself, but then he turned to look at her once more and repeated his question, sounding young and hurt and despondent. “Why was I angry?”

Brienne wasn’t sure what to say. She did not know Tyrion much at all, save what Jaime had told her of him. But he needed an answer, needed one desperately, so she said, “Because you don’t want to see someone you love die for such a meaningless reason.”

Her voice wavered, her throat seemingly more raw than she’d expected. So she turned away to pour herself a glass of water. It didn’t help. It just left her feeling heavier in the stomach, a feeling dangerously close to nausea.

“No,” Tyrion said firmly, the fierceness shocking her a little. “No, that’s not it at all.”

A hand grabbed her elbow and turned her around. She looked down at him, because she had to—where else could she possibly look? He was staring back at her with an intensity that she was beginning to think was something hereditary in the Lannister line. It terrified her and intimidated her all at once. It felt like he had some god-given power to see through her very core, until her soul was bared for all to see. Surely he would find it wanting.

“When I said that Jaime values the lives of others over his own life, I misspoke. He protects the weak and innocent, that much is true, but he would die for his family. He always loved us best, far more than we really deserved.”

“But he doesn’t—”

Tyrion cocked his head, waiting for her next words, but she could not voice them aloud. She was physically incapable, and more than that she was a coward. A coward and a disappointment of a woman, and surely he hadn’t … not for her…

She wanted to leave, or curl up in the corner under a blanket, or for Jaime to suddenly rise from his bed, or to shout out, or anything to offer a distraction that would divert Tyrion’s gaze from her.

Something flickered in his eyes: a softening in the wrinkles at the corner of his eyes, a flash of kindness or compassion. He changed the topic, “In truth I have been kept from the room because I was investigating how this happened.”

“Maester Pycelle said the Tyrells—”

“They have been arrested, yes… Lady Margaery, Loras, their grandmother, too. The remaining Kingsguard acted swiftly and bravely to subdue a 70 year old woman, I’m sure it will be a tale told for generations.” Surely Tyrion should be happy that the culprits were arrested, that they would face the consequences of their crimes, but the sardonic tone confused her. What was she missing? “I have spoken to them all,” Tyrion continued, “And I have questioned your servant too, and theirs, and the women working in the kitchen, and quite frankly, Lady Brienne, I was left with more questions than answers, so I came to question you.”

Her stomach dropped. Surely he didn’t think…

“I didn’t poison him. I would never,” she said, quickly. “If I’d have been conscious enough, I would have made him take the antidote, I swear.”

Tyrion raised a hand to quiet her, “Please. I did not mean to accuse you. You are, perhaps, the only person I can say is entirely innocent in this.”

Brienne didn’t understand. “I don’t know how I could help you. I don’t remember anything. We were having lunch the same as we had done every other day that week. We shared the wine the Tyrells sent me, and I remember nothing else after that.”

“Who told you it was the Tyrells who sent you the wine?”

She wracked her brain. “My maid,” she said.

“They did not send a note with it?”

“If there was, I didn’t see it.” It hadn’t even occurred to her to ask the maid if the flagon had come with a missive. But then, that in itself wasn’t so strange, given the intended purpose of the gift, “Why would they write a note for a gift intended to kill me?”

Tyrion brightened a little. There was something hopeful in his eyes, now. It was the same expression she had often seen on her old trainer’s face when she finally figured out some complicated manoeuvre or defence. His next question was similarly leading, “And does it make sense to you that the Tyrells would try to poison you?”

Brienne shook her head. The idea had puzzled her since Maester Pycelle had told her of the culprits. “We had talked, a day or two before, about Renly. I know I’m not… I am sure they believed me when I explained what happened. I did not kill him. I would never. Lady Margaery seemed sincere when she accepted my apology for not protecting Renly better. And Loras…” he had been less willing to believe her story, not that she blamed him. A shadow wearing Stannis’ face was a hard thing to accept. She had trouble believing it herself and she had seen it. But if he was still out for her blood then he would have called her out that very day, and he hadn’t. He would not resort to poison any more than she would. It was too dishonest. “Loras wouldn’t either.”

Tyrion nodded. “That is what I have surmised as well. For what it’s worth I agree with your assessment: the Tyrells meant you no harm. I suspect they are a convenient scapegoat for the true culprit.”

The true culprit? Her throat and chest felt tight, like someone was carefully, relentlessly, squeezing her with a belt, or perhaps a giant hand. Someone else who wanted her dead? Who else had she betrayed so that they would feel the need to poison her? She voiced the question aloud, “Who else would want to kill me?”

But just as soon as she said it, a voice came to her suddenly, and it turned her insides to ice.

You have taken him from me.

No.

Impossible.

It couldn’t be…

A hand touched her wrist, grasping it firmly, then tugged her forwards. He was stronger than she expected, like a particularly forceful child, but soon he had her sitting, perched on the end of Jaime’s bed.

“Breathe, Lady Brienne,” he was saying, though it took her some time to realise that he was speaking, and then some more time to understand his precise words. Now she was seated, he was almost eye level with her, and the compassion and assurance was clear to read there on his mis-matched features. “Breathe,” he said again, then took a deep, exaggerated breath in through his nose, letting the air puff out of his mouth in a warm stream.

She did as he bid, and breathed. At first it was hard. It felt impossible. But each indrawn breath felt a little easier than the next, and Tyrion kept her hand in his, squeezing it encouragingly as she improved.

“I am sorry,” he said, eventually. “I did not mean to cause you any distress. I simply wanted to get to the bottom of this.”

Face-to-face as they were, the family resemblance between him and his brother was more obvious. Their eyes were different, and Tyrion’s hair was curlier, but they had the same mouth and the same nose, though Tyrion’s was bisected by a nasty, recent scar. It made it easier to trust him, though she knew she shouldn’t. Not if… Not if…

He dropped her hand so that he could turn and fetch her another glass of water. “It seems that you and I are now members of an exclusive society, Lady Brienne.”

She accepted the cup with both hands, though she did not drink. She was too confused to drink, too distrusting.

Her confusion must have been clear on her face, and he smiled a wry smile, and pointed to the lurid red scar on his face, “You are not the only one she has tried to kill and failed.”

“Why?” she asked, the only thing she could think to say. She had done nothing to Cersei. She hadn’t met the woman until after she had recovered from the poison herself. Was it because she was Lady Catelyn’s sworn sword? Or had been.

Tyrion shrugged, and returned to his position at Jaime’s side, taking up his brother’s wrist in his own two hands once more. Jaime looked no better. Still pale and sickly, though his stretches of unconsciousness were longer now. Longer and quieter.

“She has never liked to share her things,” Tyrion said, sadly. “And it seems she won’t have to. Pycelle told me earlier that he isn’t likely to survive the night.”

“But he’s not...” she began, but the rest died in her throat before she could speak them aloud.

Silence fell over the room, then. Tyrion stroked the skin of his brother’s wrist and she watched them both, these brothers. The Lannister brothers, and their sister, each disgraced and maligned in their own way, yet loving just the same. A love she did not recognise, a passionate, fierce, destructive kind of love, but here she was embroiled in it all. She did not know if she could bear it.

After some time, as the sun traced deeper shadows across the room, Tyrion broke the silence. “I must leave and speak to father, and to Varys, perhaps,” he said to her, then he stood on tip toes and leaned over to place a kiss on his brother’s face. “I love you, Jaime,” he said. Brienne could see the shine of tears on his cheek. “You were the best brother the gods could have given me."

Her heart ached, pounding in her chest. She was not sure it would ever beat properly again.

Tyrion stepped back from the bed. “I will try to return, but if I cannot, it helps to know that he won’t be alone when he… if he…”

“I will stay until the morning,” she promised. It was the least she could do. But… “Will she come?”

Brienne did not know what she would do if Cersei returned. The prospect was terrifying.

Tyrion tilted his head with a little shrug. “I don’t know. I doubt it. But she has been unpredictable, of late. If I can find a way to stall her, I will.”

“Thank you,” she said, unable to find anything else to say.

“Thank you for protecting him so faithfully, Lady Brienne,” Tyrion said, before he finally left, leaving her alone in the darkening room, by Jaime’s side as he faded with the light of his last day.


Night came.

Servants drifted in and out of the room quietly. They lit candles, they removed the basin of dirty water and the tray of food that Brienne had only picked at and when there was nothing else for them to do they left her alone with Jaime.

It was hard to pinpoint precisely when he had made a turn for the worse; perhaps he had turned within the hour, or maybe it had happened earlier that day, but there was no mistaking it now. The poison had him in its clutches, and he surely wouldn’t last much longer. His skin could no longer be described simply as pale, when she had seen corpses with better colour. His dirty brown hair was stained dark with sweat and periodically his whole body was wracked with shivers.

Brienne did what she could to make him comfortable. She wet a cloth and wiped his face and neck clean of the clammy sweat, and tucked the blankets more tightly about his chest. But as the night darkened, darker than ever before, without even a sliver of moon to light the sky, it grew colder and colder; the blankets were made of thin cotton, suitable for summer but not for the height of winter, or the inconstancy of a fever.

There was nothing else she could do. She locked the door, barring even the most helpful servants from entering, then, before she could second guess herself, she toed off her boots, drew back the covers and settled herself in beside him, lending him the warmth of her own body instead.

It was a small bed, not truly made for two, but she didn’t care for her own comfort. She delicately shifted him a little so that she was pressed up against him, her head sharing his pillow and her hand on his chest. It brought her some comfort to feel the way it rose and fell beneath her hand, slowly, and sometimes wavering, but it still moved. And while it still moved, and his heart beat steadily onwards, there was still time.

For a while she simply lay there beside him. Closed her eyes. Felt. Felt the way his heartbeat became thready, and the way his breathing laboured. Felt the weakness in her own chest as he faltered.

The candles burned lower, taking minutes, or days, rather than hours to dwindle. She felt out of time, untethered to reality, here in the darkness with him. But then that was their story, wasn’t it. She had not known him long. Six moons, perhaps, since Catelyn Stark had dragged him forth, thrust his chains into her hand and bid her escort him to King’s Landing, yet it felt like he knew her better than anyone ever had. And soon, very soon, he would be gone, and she would be alone again.

There was so much between them she hadn’t said. That he hadn’t said. He would never be able to…

But she still could.

“Jaime.”

She opened her eyes and watched his face. This close she could see the colours of the hairs on his face where his beard was beginning to grow back and the cracked skin of his lips. Still he slept on; her hand rose and fell with his chest.

“Jaime,” she breathed into his ear, which was so very close to her lips. “Jaime, I’m sorry.”

He did not respond, but she did not expect it. It was too late now. Much too late. He would be gone, soon. But she couldn’t let him… She swallowed. Kept talking.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t protect you better. I’m sorry that this is happening to you, because of me. I should have left the capital as soon as we arrived, as soon as we learned that Arya wasn’t here. I should have trusted you would do what you could to help Sansa. I know you would have. I know your honour, better than anyone, I expect. I know you would have protected her. Because you have protected me.

“We never spoke of it, but I know you lost your hand because you spoke up for me, and you risked your life when you refused to leave me behind with the bear. I should have thanked you earlier. I don’t know why I didn’t. I didn’t know what to say, I guess. I don’t know what to say. No one has… no one has ever defended me, or stood up for me, not the way you have, so many times…”

Brienne drew in a deep breath, or tried to, but it hitched in her throat. She turned her face into the pillow to dry her tears.

When she felt she could trust her voice again, she continued. “I don’t want you to die, not for me, not at all. It’s not... romantic like I thought it would be. To have someone sacrifice everything they are for you… I don’t think I can live with the burden when it would be easier to love you—”

She couldn’t finish the thought. Her voice was too tight, and the tears could be stoppered no longer. So she tucked her face into the crook of Jaime’s neck, curled more tightly around his frail body and let herself cry. She had never had a talent for words, and it likely didn't matter anyway. Even if she could have found the words, he was insensible and would not hear them anyway. But perhaps her tears would say what she could not. Perhaps he would somehow absorb them through his skin and grasp the enormity of everything she felt.

Perhaps it would be enough.

She lay there wrapped around him for hours, drifting in and out of sleep herself as the candles burned lower and lower. Each time she would stir back to wakefulness, her heart would lurch in panic, wondering whether he lived still, if she had missed his final breaths. But his chest still rose and fell and his heart still beat, a steady lullaby that lulled her back to sleep.

When she woke for the last time, the candles had long since burnt out, but the room was filled with a gauzy light.

Morning.

How in the gods had she slept through the night? She must have been tired, so very, very tired. Why had she woken?

"Brienne?" The voice was soft, barely more than a whisper but she was close enough to hear it. It was right by her ear.

She opened her eyes to see green eyes looking back at her.

"Jaime."

He still looked ill, and the heavy sunken bruises beneath his eyes spoke of an exhaustion that Brienne herself was all-too-familiar with. But there was a pinkness to his cheeks that had been missing for days, and beneath her palm, which still rested lightly on his chest, his heart beat true.

And then his face split into a smile so pure and light it transformed his face. More god than corpse and beautiful all the same. “It worked,” he said, voice crackled and too quiet, but it didn’t matter. He was alive.

Brienne had to laugh. There was no other way to reply, “Yes, you idiot,” she said, before she hitched in another breath, and felt tears return again—not that she cared. He was alive.

He frowned a little and raised his hand to cup her face, however it wasn’t his hand, but his stump. When he saw it he frowned once more and tried to withdraw it from view, but she was quicker, and healthier, and she reached out to pull his arm back to her cheek, nuzzling against it.

Jaime watched her with slowly blinking eyes. Perhaps he had tears, too, she didn’t care to tell. She was happy, and that was enough.

“Brienne… where is Cersei?” he asked.

Her heart skipped a beat in her chest. Whatever expression she wore must have been cause for alarm, because Jaime began to explain, “She was the one… The wine came from her.”

“I know. Your brother, Tyrion, he’s looking into it all,” she said.

“She tried to—” his voice cracked again, but this time it was from something more than misuse. She understood the feeling.

“—but she didn’t, thanks to you, you reckless fool.”

Jaime smiled at that, and she smiled back. “Is that. Is that any way to thank your knight in shining armour?”

Brienne leaned forward until her forehead rested against his. This close she could see the flutter of his eyelashes, breathed in the air he exhaled, could hear the soft smacking noise of his lips parting. “Thank you, Jaime,” she said, before she leaned in and kissed him.


 

Jaime recovered.

The faithful called it a miracle. The sceptical said it was just good luck.

Brienne didn’t know what to think of it—it was too much to comprehend at once, the probabilities, the possibilities, what had happened, what might have happened. What would happen now. She couldn’t wrap her head around it, and before she had the chance to consider it, or talk to Jaime at all, he was taken from her.

Not like that, thank the gods.

But upon hearing of his son’s unlikely recovery, Tywin Lannister had ordered Jaime removed from the White Sword Tower to recover in one of the rooms afforded to the Hand. To say that Brienne was confused about the move was an understatement: why leave him alone when he was dying, only to drag him back to the lion’s den once he had recovered? She simply came to the conclusion that she would never understand Lannisters, their loyalty, their passion, their twisted form of love.

Every time she had tried to visit him she had been turned away without explanation. It was a hard thing to bear, after having watched him struggle through the worst of the poison, not to be allowed even to see him for a minute or two, but thankfully Tyrion took pity on her.

At first he only gave her updates on his brother’s recovery: “he sleeps, overmuch, but Pycelle says that is to be expected” and “he has graduated from broth to gruel, and complains that they are all under seasoned”. She was grateful for the information he offered, but it did little to ease her anxiety, or, loath as she was to admit it, the strange feeling of loneliness that suddenly welled within her.

Perhaps Tyrion had sensed her disquiet, though she had done her best to conceal it from others, because he sought her out one afternoon and invited her to dine with him and his new wife in their solar that evening. She didn’t particularly want to dine with any Lannister, given what had happened the last time she had, but she had been trying to find a reason to speak to Sansa Stark since she had arrived in the capital. So she accepted.

It was a strange experience. She had not had much to do with Tyrion in the weeks since she’d arrived in King’s Landing, but she had heard Jaime speak of him many times throughout their journey south and had heard a little of him, too, from Lady Catelyn. But neither account seemed to match the reality of the man. To Lady Catelyn, Tyrion had been, at best, a well-meaning menace, but at worst a conniving whorer. Jaime, obviously, had spoken of his brother more fondly—perhaps too fondly—he had all of Jaime’s cleverness, but little of his conviction. And he seemed far, far too occupied with the political machinations behind the throne for her liking.

But he was kind enough, and he clearly loved his brother, and was the only one who seemed to think she deserved to be kept informed of Jaime’s recovery. Brienne was happy to see, too, that he treated Sansa well. The girl was achingly shy, the kind of shy that Brienne recognised as being born of hurt, rather than any kind of natural lack of confidence, but her manners were impeccable. She thought that Lady Catelyn would have been proud of her daughter’s resilience in such a terrifying situation. If their positions were reversed, and Brienne had to stay here in the city for as long as Sansa had, she wasn’t sure she would have survived so well.

Still, it was a pleasant evening, the most enjoyable she’d had since before the poisoning. Brienne watched the way Tyrion treated his new bride. He was careful with her, and protective in his own way, and though Brienne was not much experienced in the subtleties of marriage, she sensed that this was a marriage in name only.

Perhaps Tyrion was more like his brother than she’d first thought.

It was late in the evening when Tyrion’s swaggering bodyman arrived and requested a moment alone with the little lord. He gave the two women his apologies before stepping out, leaving Brienne alone with Sansa for the first time. She knew this was her opportunity; she might not have another chance to speak to the girl without risking the ears of another.

But sitting across from the waif of a girl it was hard to find the words. What could she possibly say? Delicacy would surely be required for such a situation, but delicate she was not. Though the situation was very different, it reminded her a little of the fated dinner she and Jaime had shared with Roose Bolton. There had been conversations within the conversation she'd sat through that she could barely follow; still, she could tell the stakes between the two men were far higher than she could afford to risk, so she had stayed silent as long as she could

This conversation felt similarly precarious. Brienne was sure Jaime would be able to manage it with more finesse than she, but he was still recuperating. She had to try.

However before she could, Sansa spoke up, surprising Brienne a little. “My Lord husband tells me you knew my mother,” the girl said, quietly still, as though wary of being heard. She glanced at the door Tyrion had closed behind him as he’d followed his bodyman before returning her gaze to Brienne.

“I did,” Brienne agreed. “She was… she was a kind woman and she loved you very much.”

It felt strange to talk of such things, and her heart clenched painfully in her chest as she remembered the gruesome way Catelyn had died. Murdered at a wedding. Brienne should have been at her side, but she had been with Jaime instead, a week or two’s journey north of King’s Landing.

But this was not the time to think of her own feelings, not when the woman’s daughter sat across from her. Her face showed little, but there was a still quality about it that Brienne recognised. Sansa was hiding something behind her impassive expression, a mirror-still ocean that concealed a roiling, dangerous current beneath. Brienne had tried for the same expression many times, and most times had failed to perfect it, but then she had never been surrounded by enemies, married to the very family that had murdered her mother and brother and all chance of rescue.

“She was a good mother,” Sansa said, and her eyes shimmered a little, a white-peak of foam cracking the surface. Brienne feared the girl would begin to cry, but she kept her composure, and sat up a little more straight in her chair. “But I am gla--”

The door opened, and Tyrion returned with what could only be described as a delighted grin on his face. “Excellent news!” he cried, reclaiming his goblet from the table along with the flagon of wine. He refilled Sansa’s cup, then his own as he continued, “My sweet sister has been remanded to her room by my father. The doors are locked and only my father carries the key. She shall terrorise us all no longer.”

He made to fill Brienne’s goblet as well, but she held her hand above the rim. Her heart pounded. “Does he have proof, then?”

“Not exactly. She was clever enough to cover her tracks, so a trial would likely not get us very far, nor is father likely to allow any Lannister to go on trial before the crown, but I think my brother finally cut the birthing cord that bound them these last forty years and abandoned her to her fate.”

Sansa’s eyes were wide with shock. “I still do not understand why she would poison her twin.”

Tyrion turned to Brienne, his smile unchanged. He held up his goblet, “To freedom from tyranny,” he said, and Sansa giggled and knocked her own cup against his. Brienne hesitated a fraction, hackles rising a little at the thought of being even a little mutinous towards the crown. But then the memory of Jaime’s bloodless face came back to her, and with it her courage. She clinked her goblet against the others, and took a long gulp of water.

It became a bit of a habit, or a routine, for her to sup with Tyrion and Sansa. They were never entirely enjoyable, not like her lunches with Jaime had come to be, but she began to relax a little in their presence. And it was nice to have company, someone to talk to at the end of a long, lonely day.

But though she asked after Jaime’s health, daily, and Tyrion faithfully updated her with what he knew, she was still prevented from seeing him by Tywin. The hand of the king held the keys to his children tightly in his fist and seemed determined not to let anyone see them, for better or worse. A lion protecting his cubs.

Until one day, a little over two weeks later, Tyrion found her walking along the Blackwater pier--the expanse of water was calming, and from down here, at sea level, it was easy to imagine it was the Narrow Sea, rather than the dirty, sewerage-filled bay. When she spotted him, she slowed her pace so that he wouldn’t have to exert himself over much--she was quite a bit taller than he.

“Lady Brienne,” he said, a little puffed despite her attempt at consideration. “I have been looking all over for you. You must come with me!”

His tone was concerning, and it wasn’t just because he was huffing from the exertion. There was a worried furrow to his brow that she did not like, so she obeyed without question. In her distraction she didn’t think to ask why he hadn't sent a servant to find her--his odious bodyman or his shy squire.

It wasn’t until they arrived at the base of the White Sword Tower that it occurred to her that perhaps Tyrion had brought her here under false pretenses. There was only one reason he would bring her here.

Her heart began to pound.

She turned to Tyrion

“He’s waiting for you,” he said simply, the smile on his face saying far more than words ever could. “In the Round Room.”

Brienne ascended the stairs to the tower once more. It was much easier, this time. Her health returned, and along with it her stamina and a deep well of energy. Yet it was harder, all the same. Hard while her heart fluttered in her chest at the thought of what she would find waiting at the top of the stairs. Hard to think of what she could possibly say to him, and what he might say to her. Hard to find the courage, when it would be so easy to return to her rooms.

But she didn’t. She couldn’t.

Three flights of stairs later, Brienne reached the door to the Round Room, the sacred meeting space of the Kingsguard. She hadn’t had reason to see it, though she had read about it many times: the carved weirwood table, the White Book, all of it. It had been a dream of hers since childhood to visit it, yet she had been but a floor away from it all this time, and hadn’t spared it a thought.

She stood a moment outside the door, gathering her scattered thoughts. Took a break. And opened the door.

It was bright in here, white and light like the sun on a clear day. The walls were painted white, white curtains adorned the windows, fluttering softly in the morning breeze. The room was dominated by the large table, hewn into the shape of a shield, weirwood timber polished and gleaming. But nothing in the room was so brilliant as the man standing over the table, free hand tracing the pages of what could only be the White Book.

It was suddenly hard to draw breath. It was not dissimilar to the tight feeling The Tickler had induced, and for a moment she was truly frightened. But then he looked up at her, and smiled, and the feeling in her throat eased.

“Brienne!”

“Ser Jaime.” She took another step into the room, clasping her hands together at the small of her back.

Jaime’s smile grew, his green eyes twinkled. “Surely we are past formalities,” he said, the reprimand fond and teasing, and she felt her face warm lightly.

“Jaime,” she allowed, with a little bow of her head, but then she hesitated, not knowing what she should say. “It is good to see you recovered.”

“The feeling is mutual,” he said, then waved his hand to the side of the room. She turned to see another, smaller table laden with platters of fresh bread, fruit, hunks of cheese and cold cuts. There was a flagon, too, and goblets to match. “I thought it would be nice to continue our meal, which was so rudely interrupted, and celebrate our continued survival against the odds.”

She raised an eyebrow pointedly at the flagon. “Isn’t it a little early in the day to start drinking?”

He laughed and went to pour her a glass anyway. But instead of the golden yellow of Arbor Gold, or the deep red of Dornish Red, it was clear. “I thought we should stick to water. I’ve rather lost the taste for wine, I think.”

Then he picked up the cup and held it out for her to take. When she took it, her fingers brushed against his. It sent a shiver through her, a tiny bolt of lightning arcing up her arm. She was still frozen in place, thinking of it, when she realised he had poured himself a glass and had raised it to her.

“To the future,” he said.

“T-to the future,” she agreed, and knocked her cup against his, then took a long gulp of the fresh, icy water. It felt like some purifying brew, cooling her flushed skin and the heat of her feelings, until she could feel her heart settle back into a patient rhythm. There was nothing to fear, here. She was safe. Safe with him.

They settled into their light lunch as easily as they had before, which was a true comfort. She had worried that she would feel differently, that it might be awkward now, between them, but it never happened. Familiarity took its place, and with it a warm fondness, as he let her have first pick of the cheese and cold cuts, as she sliced and buttered his bread for him.

As they ate, he told her tales of his recovery: funny anecdotes about clashing with his father, of trying to escape his forced convalescence to find her sooner. In return, she told him of her dinners with his brother, and Sansa. He seemed to like that she had formed a tenuous friendship with Tyrion, and seemed unsurprised by her assessment that, against the odds, he treated his wife uncommonly well.

“Tyrion has some experience with a young, unhappy marriage,” Jaime said, mopping up some stray relish with a wedge of strong cheese. “My father forced them to marry, but Tyrion would die before he took advantage of Sansa. I know it is not ideal, and it will make returning her north to Winterfell more of a challenge, but her marriage to Tyrion will protect her better than the alternative. And when the time comes, I know he will not stand in the way of an annulment.”

“You’re sure?” she asked, though her instinct was that he was right. Lady Catelyn had been wrong enough about one Lannister brother.

“I am,” he said, eyes open and clear. “Sansa will be safe, here, for the time being. But…” and then for the first time since she had arrived, he hesitated, seeming to take great care over what he wanted to say next. “But I fear that you will not be safe if you stay much longer in the capital.”

“But Cersei is confined to her rooms,” she said, voice even and calm despite the roiling bubble of nerves that erupted in her stomach.

“Cersei is…” Jaime sighed, and looked away, though he could not completely hide his troubled expression. “She is confined, yes, but her influence is not, and that is the far more dangerous thing than when she freely walks the halls of the keep.”

Brienne set her fork down on her plate so that she wouldn’t grip it tightly.

Jaime stood then, tossing his napkin across his plate, and walked over one of the tables that lined the wall. It was covered in a cloth. She’d assumed it was to keep away dust, but he drew it off with a flourish to reveal a sword in its scabbard. Her chest tightened. She had not seen Jaime wield a sword since they had been in the hands of Locke’s men and though the situation was very different now than it had been then, she still worried.

But he picked it up and drew the sword from the scabbard. It seemed to cut the air as he did it, the noise metallic and polished. The blade caught the light strangely, and it wasn’t until, after a little fumbling, he presented it for her to take. The metal was darker than she had expected, and seemed to glow red, like burning coal in a fire. She had never seen a blade such as this in person before; she had only read descriptions.

“Valyrian steel?” she asked, a little breathlessly. The blade she held was priceless beyond measure. Most Valyrian steel blades had been lost or destroyed, as far as she knew--the ones that remained in Westeros could be counted on two hands. And yet she was sure she held one now.

Jaime nodded, and it set her heart aflutter once again, though for a very different reason now.

“My father had it forged from Ned Stark’s greatsword. This and another he planned to give to Joffrey as a wedding present.” The last was said with an ironic lilt. With the postponement of the wedding, there was little chance of wedding presents. Tyrion had talked often of how displeased the Tyrells were at being accused with and held for attempted murder. Lord Tywin’s plate was full with the mess Cersei had caused.

“It’s beautiful,” she said, for there was no other way to describe it. Even the lion’s helm on the pommel had been intricately forged, the glittering rubies for eyes a brilliant counterpoint to the bloody sheen of the blade.

“It’s yours,” Jaime said softly.

She froze in her examination and looked up at him. His face was unguarded and genuine, and ignited such a feeling inside her she would never find the words to describe. It was too much. “I cannot accept this,” she said.

He shook his head. “I insist. I want you to carry it and with it find Arya Stark.”

“But is she not dead?”

“I thought so too, but Tyrion thinks otherwise. He has friends, or spies, I cannot quite tell to be honest, who think she escaped the city walls not long after the death of her father. I did not know her well, I admit, but she was head-strong and reckless but above all things brave. I know it will stretch your imagination to put yourself in shoes such as hers, but where would you expect she would go?”

She gave the jape a pointed look, but could not deny the truth of the assessment. “I would go home,” she said.

“Whether you find her on the way, or meet her at Winterfell… This sword would be better used protecting Arya, and hopefully, eventually, her sister too, than it would ever be in my hands. Ned Stark’s sword protecting Ned Stark’s daughters in the hands of Catelyn Stark’s sworn sword.”

Brienne didn’t know what to say. For half a heartbeat she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to speak again, her throat felt so tight--with feeling this time at least, not poison. But Jaime was looking at her with such feeling, such faith, such steadfast hope; she had to find the words.

She swallowed. Nodded. “I’ll do it for Lady Catelyn,” she agreed, then, “and for you.”

He looked up sharply at that, as though she had said something truly shocking. His throat worked, his Addam’s apple bobbing up and down frantically. “As you say,” he said, and bowed his head to her.

Jaime passed her the scabbard, and she carefully sheathed the sword, relishing the size and the lightness of the blade. She could already tell that to wield it would be an exciting, exhilarating thing. Otherworldly and powerful.

He took a step back, but before he could she snatched out a hand to grab his own; in the absence of his golden hand she caught his stump instead, but held fast despite it. Jaime raised an eyebrow in a silent question. “There is one more thing I need to know,” she said, keenly aware, now, of the closeness between them. When they were last this close together, she… she had… She blushed, but battled past it for composure, “How did you know it was Cersei who poisoned the wine?”

Whatever he’d thought she was about to say, it wasn’t that. The surprise on his face was real, and it was his turn to be at a loss for words. Eventually, he said, “When we were young there was a girl… Melara…” but he trailed off, and she noticed that colour had gone from his cheeks, his recent illness startlingly present in the lines in his face. Whatever it was that had happened, whatever it was Cersei had done, however long ago, still weighed on him, still haunted him, that much was clear.

“Come with me,” she blurted, rather than wait for him to finish his story. Finding she did not care to know, after all. She squeezed his stump, too tightly, perhaps, but she did not feel she should ever let him go.

“Come with you?”

“Yes. Come north with me. Help me find Arya. Honour your own vow to Lady Catelyn,” she breathed.

She regretted her words almost instantly, when at first he did not respond. He still looked surprised, the skin around his eyes tightening a fraction, she could see the way his nostrils flared as he breathed.

“You said it yourself,” she continued on, unable to wait a second longer without a reaction, needing to fill the silence with something, anything. “Cersei could still be dangerous. But surely her influence does not extend so far beyond the walls of the city. And if it does… If it does, I will protect you.”

Jaime leaned a little closer then, brought his hand up to cup the side of her face. She almost pulled back, pulled out of his grasp, but he held her steady. His thumb gently stroked the skin of her cheek. It was absurd how pleasant it felt, such a soft touch. His green eyes glistened with an openness and a vulnerability that she recognised in herself.

“All right,” he said, and her heart leapt. “It would be an honour.”