"You should have heard him," Brienne laments to Ygritte, leaning a bit closer toward her from where they sit behind the front counter of the gaming shop. "'So it'll be just you? Again?' I swear I could hear his holiday spirit deflating over the phone." Brienne inherited her height from her mother and thus has a few inches on her dad, but every time she tells him that no, she's not bringing anyone home this year, either, she feels like a little kid, trying to explain to him why she'd been sent home again for getting in fights.
"Next time you should tell him you're becoming a Silent Sister," Ygritte suggests. "That way when you tell him it's just that you're not bringing a boyfriend home, he'll be relieved in comparison."
"I don't want a boyfriend!" Brienne bursts out. "I don't know how many times I have to keep telling people this!"
Ygritte holds up her hands in front of her. "Hey, you're preaching to the choir. Hit it and quit it, that's my motto." Then she bares her teeth in her typical voracious grin. "Of course, you don't hit it, either--that's my only concern about you."
"Ugh," is all Brienne answers. It's easy for Ygritte to say--she's cool in a way that has always felt effortless to Brienne, with her piercing eyes and the black and purple streaks winding their way through her hair and the array of vaguely threatening earrings making their way up the shell of her ear. And even beyond how she looks, the coolest thing about her has always been her ability to legitimately give zero fucks about anything. She's even somehow managed to both get and be reasonably good at this job without ever giving even the remotest appearance of fuck-giving.
Brienne, on the other hand, gives many fucks. Brienne gives a whole shitload of fucks. In some cases that's a good thing, such as in the fact that she's done her best to make the little gaming shop where they work into a haven for misfits and outcasts like her. The flip side is that when it comes to her father and holidays, all those fucks that she gives unfortunately mean being twenty-five years old and dreading having to admit that she's yet again going to uphold her perfect record in disappointing him that she's maintained since puberty.
She knows that she's perfectly fine on her own. Her dad, however, can't quite seem to grasp that, and while she can reject that kind of old-fashioned patriarchal bullshit easily enough from the world at large, her dad has been the only family she's had for a long time now, and she just can't quite seem to excise that particular fuck-giving from her life.
"Excuse me," comes a voice from behind one of their larger racks of games. Brienne jumps in her chair and looks over; there's been a tabletop Dance of Dragons game happening in the back for the past hour or so, and she'd assumed everyone would be safely distracted. But not Tyrion Lannister, apparently, who makes his entrance with his typical level of flair, his fingers steepled in front of him.
He approaches the front counter. "I couldn't help overhearing." Brienne holds in a snort. Tyrion has some sort of preternatural Detect Rumor ability that seems to go far beyond what a normal person should be capable of, even a rich one; she should have known that she shouldn't share anything remotely sensitive with him anywhere in the vicinity.
Brienne waits for the other penny to drop, and after another suitably dramatic pause, it does. "I have a proposition for you," Tyrion intones, as though he's an NPC with information to give up if she just asks the right question. His ability to talk like he's in a game at all times does help with getting them all into character during their campaigns, even if it can be a little out of place elsewhere.
In this case, Brienne can only sigh. "I'm not setting you up with any of my friends, Tyrion." Technically Tyrion is one of the shop's best customers and so she should be doing what she can to retain his business, but he seems to appreciate forthrightness from her. Also, the one time she'd tried to set him up, he'd brought another woman to dinner too, without advance warning, so she's learned her lesson on that one.
He waves a hand, climbing up on the stool that Brienne keeps for him near the counter. "That's not the proposition. What I'm referring to is that it seems that you're in need of a date for the holiday season, and I'm in need of preview access to the new release of Valar Morghulis III. All of my usual sources are failing me, and I've been feeling very put out about it."
"So you want me to set you up with me?" Brienne asks incredulously. Tyrion has flirted with her before, in the knee-jerk way he seems to flirt with everyone; she's never given it much credence. She'd certainly never expected him to take it any further.
"Oh no, not with me," Tyrion says. "I couldn't climb that high without getting vertigo. I meant with my beloved brother."
"Oh." Brienne hopes to all the hells that the sudden warmth at the base of her neck isn't translating to her face at all, or if it is, that Tyrion will think it's a trick of the light or a reflection off of Ygritte's hair. It's a vain hope, she knows, but maybe there will be a Sevenmas miracle. "I don't--Jaime's not--"
"Jaime is single," Tyrion interrupts, "and determined to remain so. You're single, and determined to remain so. So this seems to me like the perfect opportunity for a mutually beneficial partnership with a cleanly-defined expiration date. A side quest, if you will, with an unusually high probability of success."
Brienne blinks at him, her surprise warring with her vague sense of affront at being referred to as a side quest. She glances at Ygritte for help reacting to the situation, but her friend is just watching the proceedings with far too much amusement. Rude, Brienne thinks. "I'm pretty sure you're not authorized to offer up your brother's services for a week, especially when you'd be the one benefiting."
"Oh, he'd benefit, too," Tyrion assures her. "Since Jaime decided to break ties with the family business earlier this year, he and my father haven't been on speaking terms, so our family celebrations are likely to be even more awkward than usual. I've developed armor about such things, but Jaime seems to keep failing those saving throws, if you catch my meaning."
"Oh." Brienne has noticed that Jaime's started hanging around the shop even more often in the past few months, and showing up in jeans and even sweats rather than the expensive suits he and Tyrion had been wearing the first time that Tyrion had dragged him in over their lunch hour. She'd had no idea that Jaime had made such a major change, though, and it pulls at her a bit, the idea of him passing a miserable holiday season while his father glares silently and disapprovingly at him. Still, "That still doesn't mean you're authorized to make a deal on his behalf. And," as the thought occurs to her, "why should you get access out of this, anyway? You're not the one who'd be giving up a week of your time to do someone else a favor."
"But I'm the broker," Tyrion points out, as though it's the most obvious thing in the world. "I know Jaime. I can present this to him in the most favorable light. Then I can provide you with his phone number, and you do the rest."
Brienne hesitates; she doesn't like the idea that Tyrion might somehow trick Jaime into agreeing to this scheme.
"How about this: I'll roll you for it," Tyrion offers, grinning and producing a D20 from his pocket that Brienne is pretty sure has a very thin layer of gold plating on it.
"Fine," Brienne says, after a moment's consideration, "but we'll use my dice." She reaches for one of their display sets, a pretty mottled blue and green one that has always reminded her of home, and dumps out the D20. It spins out on the counter, and Brienne claps her hand down over it with a little more force than is necessary or in fact recommended for the strength of the glass. But she can't back down now, so she meets Tyrion's eye. "Call it."
Tyrion inclines his head. "As befits our statures, I'll take the under, you take the over. All right?"
"All right." Brienne shakes the die and lets it clatter out onto the counter, feeling her heart seem to rattle around in her chest as she does it. Each little clack of plastic against glass seems like it's directly striking one of her nerves, until finally, finally, it comes to rest. She peers at it.
The number 3 is displayed clearly on the upper face, mocking her for all it's worth. Brienne feels dizzy, though not exactly disappointed, but she doesn't have time to unravel what any of that means because Tyrion is too busy whooping in victory.
"Just his number," Brienne tells him firmly, over the sound of his elation. "No trying to sell him on any ideas." There's no commitment inherent in getting his number. It's just a piece of paper. She's not obligated to ever use it. And as for Tyrion's preview access, he'll more than make up for it by buying the game and every expansion pack that's released, and giving it honest online reviews that will help drive sales, too, so that should turn out to be a win-win at least.
"Deal," Tyrion says. He takes one of the shop's business cards from the stand on the counter, liberates a pen, and begins scrawling numbers down in a blocky hand. "I'm trusting you to hold up your end of the bargain," he adds as he writes. "No running off with my brother and leaving me without my payment."
"You'll have the access code as soon as I do, and if you don't believe me, then feel free to cancel the deal right now," Brienne replies, insulted that he'd imply she would do anything else.
Tyrion just slaps the pen down decisively and slides the card across to her. "I believe you, Miss Tarth," he says, in what she recognizes as his Formal Tone of a Successful Negotiation. "And with that, my work here is done. Good evening, ladies." He bows a bit, then hops down off the stool and swans out the door.
In his wake, Brienne can't quite help staring, wondering what devil's bargain she's just made.
Next to her, Ygritte leans in. "Bringing Jaime Lannister home for Sevenmas, huh?" Her grin is even more fierce and feral than usual. "Can I come too? And bring popcorn?"
"Shut up," Brienne mutters, and shoves Jaime's number in her pocket.
* * * * * * *
It stays in her pocket, even after she's back in her tiny apartment and microwaving the night's meal. She's got Braavosi leftovers, one of the few luxuries she allows herself, and it smells so good her mouth is practically watering. She'd intended it as comfort food to steel herself before she called her dad and made the final confirmation of her plans--or rather, the lack thereof. Now it's officially become consideration food, as she weighs just how terrible an idea it would be to do something with the little card that seems like it's going to burn her hand every time she even thinks about touching it.
She knows, in her heart, that being single is nothing to be ashamed of and she should just be able to declare it to her dad and move on. But every year he seems so hopeful, and every time he seems so sad that somehow she's failed to snare literally anyone. She's told him a million times that she's not looking; even though she and her dad don't tend to talk much about deep feelings, she's even gone so far as to heavily hint that experiences like finally falling head-over-heels for someone only to find out you were his last-ditch effort at self-denial before he came out as gay haven't exactly made her more excited to put herself out there. But even beyond that, she'd been old enough when her mom had died to see exactly how much it had devastated her dad--devastates him still, to the point where he's never dated anyone since. So despite whatever the possible advantages might be of falling in love, it's just not something she's interested in signing herself up for.
There's also the fact that taking Tyrion up on his offer is a bad idea for a lot of reasons. Jaime has hung around the shop enough that their initial frequent verbal sparring matches have mutated into a sort of friendship, but they've never spent any time together outside of that, and for all she knows, if they try this, they'll be at each other's throats within a day. Or, even worse, she could ask him and he could just laugh himself sick and hang up on her. He could stop coming in the store, which would be bad for business as well as for her ego. There's also the matter of how she'd be lying to her dad, which she's never liked or been good at doing.
But this festival is one of the most important in years; unusually strong storms had ended up keeping tourism down on the island over the crucial summer months, and if the activities she's in charge of can help draw a good turnout at the festival, it would be a boon to the local artists and artisans. If she doesn't have her dad's vaguely disappointed, vaguely regretful face hovering in her mind at all times--or, gods forbid, the clumsy or halfhearted attentions of one of the guys he sometimes tries to set her up with--it's going to be a lot easier to concentrate. And as Tyrion had mentioned, Jaime has made his stance on dating very clear, almost as many times as she has. Even if he hadn't, while she's seen Jaime flirt in a friendly sort of way with Ygritte and with more than one woman who's come into the shop, he's never once flirted with Brienne, so with all that in mind, there shouldn't be any danger of them getting confused as to the exact nature of this arrangement.
It's a week, and there will be enough people around that they can be doing their own thing for the majority of it without causing any raised eyebrows. How wrong could things go in a week?
Before she can talk herself back out of it, she pulls Tyrion's card out of her pocket and types Jaime's number into her phone.
It takes him five rings to answer. "Yeah?" She can hear something in the background, guns firing and repetitive shouts. She wonders if he's playing the new FPS game she'd sold him the other day.
"Hi, um, this is Brienne Tarth."
The noises stop abruptly. "Tank." He's called her that since the first day he'd walked into her shop, when she'd taken one look at his perfect hair and his emerald-green eyes and his athletic build and judged it impossible that he would be there for any other reason besides duress or mockery. At the time, he'd blinked at her and said, "Good gods, Tyrion, you didn't tell me there was an actual tank working the front counter," and she'd had to give him points for at least knowing the lingo, while simultaneously subtracting points for everything else about it. She'd snapped at him that he could be respectful or he could leave the store, and that had shut him up for about five minutes. But he'd kept coming back, kept plunking himself in the middle of their campaigns and arguing with her over strategy, and she'd eventually had to admit that her initial judgment of him had been a gatekeeping instinct of its own kind. Not that she's going to shed a lot of tears for the plight of good-looking, athletic men in the world, but if her policy during her shifts at the shop is that everyone with a genuine interest is welcome, then it had been only fair to apply that to Jaime as well.
He, meanwhile, has continued to call her Tank no matter how many times she's rolled her eyes at it, and now, something about hearing that familiar nickname without being able to see his smug, too-handsome face feels dangerous in a way she hadn't anticipated. He sounds warm, home-for-the-night warm, and it freaks her out.
"I keep telling you not to call me that," she says, trying for a little distance.
"I keep hearing you telling me not to call you that," he says blithely. "So to what do I owe the pleasure?"
"I.. well." She's realizing, too late, that it might have been a good idea to have let Tyrion at least soften the ground for her. She opens and closes her mouth a few times, but somehow, the words I was hoping to hire you to be my fake date for a week, no there's no money or sex involved, it's just for the sheer joy of helping a near-stranger just won't come. "You know what? I was going to ask you a question, but I'm pretty sure I've answered it for myself, so--"
Brienne winces, clutching the phone to her ear. This is a disaster, and now it's a disaster she can't get out of without looking like a coward. Which she is, absolutely, but she doesn't want to look like one.
"Is this about Tyrion's idea?" Jaime asks.
Brienne squeezes her eyes shut. She should've known that Tyrion couldn't resist gossip like this. She should've known that Jaime hadn't seemed surprised enough to be hearing from her out of the blue. "Yes, and I don't know what he told you, but whatever it was, I promise that--" She's not even sure what she's about to promise--I'm not a stalker comes to mind--but Jaime interrupts her before she can get that far.
"Take it easy, Tank. I know he can embellish sometimes, but in this case, he just told me that you and I had similar but opposite problems regarding the holidays, and he'd come up with a solution that let him take a little bit off the top, which is his favorite way of celebrating this season and all the rest."
When he puts it like that, it sounds very nearly reasonable. Brienne's breath whooshes out of her at the abrupt release of pressure, and she winces again as she realizes that Jaime must have heard it on the other end of the line. She takes another deep breath and lets it out, quietly, with the phone angled away from her mouth.
She can feel herself teetering on the edge between attack and retreat, and just thinking the word retreat helps make the decision for her. "So what do you think? I know it's a lot to ask, but--"
"I'm sure Tyrion told you that I'm not exactly psyched to be headed back to the warmth of the Rock," Jaime says dryly. "Having a good excuse to get out of it would be helpful--even more so if I can give my dad some hope that I might do my part to contribute to the Lannister line after all, since I've failed to embody it myself--and seeing the famous Tarth Sevenmas Festival wouldn't be so bad, either. What's your dad's liquor cabinet stash like?"
Brienne snorts at the unexpected right turn. "Do you like rum?"
"You islanders are on brand, aren't you?"
"But if you feel like you need to be drunk the whole time to get through this, then it's a bad idea," she points out, her hackles rising as she considers it further.
"Relax, I'm just getting an idea of our supply list. What are the mission parameters?"
Even though he says it with an amused lilt to his voice, the familiar framing helps Brienne settle down a bit. "Well, the festival is seven days, and my family has helped run it for decades now, so I have to be involved. I organize most of the games and activities for the kids, but you wouldn't be required to participate in that unless you want to."
"As you know, I do dislike games," Jaime muses. "What else? Logistics?"
Brienne scowls into the phone, but keeps her tone even with some effort. "We can meet at Storm's End and take my car over the crossing; I'll compensate you for gas or a plane ticket or whatever you want to do, and I'll pay for the ferry trip there and back. We'll probably eat mostly at my dad's, but I can cover anything beyond that. We go out the day before the festival starts, and we can leave as soon as you want after the last day. After a few weeks, I'll tell my dad that we broke up, and you never have to see either one of us again if you don't want to. And for that matter," she adds, "you can back out at any time. I'm not interested in keeping anyone somewhere that they don't want to be."
"I appreciate that," he says, his voice tilting slightly upward with something that sounds like surprise. Brienne wishes she had some sort of spell that would let her see his face. "And I think I can agree to those terms."
There's a pause, and Brienne realizes that he's not going to say anything else--for him, it really is that simple, apparently. "Okay," she says, belatedly. "I'll--I'm gonna call my dad later tonight, so I'll firm up plans with him and then we can figure out the details."
"Sounds good. I do have one more condition for myself, though," Jaime adds.
"What's that?" Her heart sinks into her stomach. Here's where he's going to tell her to fuck off, or ask her for something hideous, or--
"You're not allowed to fall in love with me," he says solemnly.
A cackle bursts out of her before she can help it, though she's not entirely sure how much is amusement and how much is annoyance. So more or less the way she feels around Jaime on a regular basis. "Goodnight, Jaime."
"Goodnight, Tank." He sounds like he might be laughing, too.
* * * * * * *
As soon as Brienne sees Jaime coming to meet her at the ferry landing--the sun shining on his golden hair, the fur at the hood of his olive-green winter coat tickling the line of his neck, the rolling suitcase that indicates this is actually a thing that's going to happen--she very nearly chickens out and dives into the sea. She manages to keep her feet, though, and even works up a small smile for him as he comes to stand next to her car.
"Hey, Tank," he greets her.
And there's her bubble bursting all over again. "Hey, don't call me that around my dad, all right? He won't get the reference and he'll think it's an insult."
Jaime's grin goes a little too glossy, a little too practiced, and Brienne sighs inwardly; she'd hoped they could make it more than ten seconds before anything got awkward. But at this point, the only way out is through. Maybe it will settle out as they go on. "There's a guest room at the house, and my dad will pull the overprotective dad thing so you don't have to worry about us having to share a room."
Jaime nods. "Okay. Any other ground rules I should know about?"
Brienne makes a humming noise, considering, and then the other cars around them start to fire up their engines; the ferry is boarding. "Just get in the car," she says, and Jaime slings his suitcase into the back and obeys.
On the trip over, she manages to distract herself from the strangeness of being alone with Jaime in an enclosed space by figuring out their backstory. They decide to keep it simple and stay as close to the truth as possible, only embellishing--at Jaime's suggestion--that he'd asked her out after a marathon Dance of Dragons session. Brienne can remember the exact session he's referring to, too; technically the game had been scheduled to end at midnight, but they'd all been having such a good time, everything between them seeming to flow like water currents gliding into each other, that none of them had mentioned the clock. Daenerys had been acting as Dragon Master, and she'd guided them through caves and over mountains. Brienne had been playing a knight, and Jaime a ranger, and it had seemed like every time an idea had occurred to her as to what they might do next, Jaime had suggested it first, and every time she'd made a move in battle, Jaime had looked at her with surprise, like he'd been on the verge of doing the same thing. They'd eventually handed an army of wights a resounding defeat somewhere around three in the morning, and Brienne had looked around the gaming table--scattered as it was with cans of various beverages and half-empty bags of chips--and had felt a brief stinging at the backs of her eyes for the lonely little girl she'd been once, playing dragons in the sand by herself along the seashore.
In any case, she reasons that that campaign is a good night to choose because she remembers it so clearly. Jaime agrees, and then it's mostly just a question of quizzing each other on their family trees, education histories, and food preferences before the announcements come over the loudspeaker, heralding their arrival on Tarth.
When they pull up in front of Brienne's childhood home, she can't help glancing over at Jaime. Her father had spent years lovingly restoring the house after they'd first moved in, and has spent the years since lovingly maintaining it. It's somewhere between a lodge and a cabin, with its blue cedar siding and natural trim, and just seeing it makes something settle in Brienne's soul. I should come here more often, she thinks, as she always does.
Jaime, meanwhile, has wide eyes and a smile teasing the corners of his mouth. "Nice place, Tank." When she glares at him, he just lifts a shoulder unrepentantly. "Just getting it in now while I can."
"Ugh," is all Brienne can answer. She gets out of the car and stretches, her arms over her head, her back arched until she can feel a cool breeze tickling the slice of skin over her stomach where her shirt has ridden up. The ferry ride isn't so long, all things considered, but she always seems to stiffen up on the way. When she lowers her arms, she catches Jaime looking away from her. She ducks toward the back seat to grab her duffel bag and hide her blush.
Her heart starts to thump harder with every step that she takes up the front path, and by the time she's on the porch, it's hammering. She's already felt like she's had several points of no return, but this is really it. She glances at Jaime again. He's looking at the door like he's hoping he'll somehow be able to see through it, and she can see him adjust his grip on his suitcase. She has a sudden, irrational impulse to take his hand.
"You sure about this?" she asks him instead.
He raises one eyebrow and slants her a grin that looks a little shaky at the edges. "You're asking me now?" he says incredulously, and then the door is opening and she finds herself in her father's arms.
She just holds on for a minute, tucking her head down over his shoulder, his strong grip reassuring her that he's as hale as ever. "My girl," he says in her ear, thumping her on the back. Tears spring into her eyes. She really should come here more often.
"Hi, Dad. I missed you," she murmurs.
"And this must be the famous Jaime," her dad goes on as he releases her and eagerly--too eagerly--sticks his hand out for Jaime to shake, and oh. Right. That's a big part of why she doesn't come here more often.
Jaime's wearing a smile she's rarely seen before, and usually only when he's hanging over the front counter to talk to her and her boss walks in. He takes her dad's hand; she can tell by the way Selwyn's smile widens that he likes Jaime's grip. The right handshake is a big deal with her dad, like that's the best way to tell something about a person's inner workings.
"It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Tarth," Jaime says. So cheerful and polite that no one would ever know that he spends a good portion of his time tormenting her. Well, she can't fault his commitment to the character.
"Oh, we don't stand on ceremony here, boy, come in, come in." Her dad--her quiet, taciturn dad--is nearly giddy as he ushers them into the house. Brienne can feel sharp little claws of guilt begin to prick her conscience, scraping over the raw marks already left by her awareness that this is all just a barely-attached bandage on a situation that's not likely to improve anytime soon.
"I'm sure Brienne will give you the full tour later, but for now, I'll show you to your room so you can start to get settled in." Selwyn starts up the stairs, and Jaime looks at Brienne with an eyebrow cocked. She shrugs, as best she can when she's got one side weighted down by her duffle bag.
"There you go," says her dad, gesturing grandly through the open door to Brienne's bedroom. She looks across the hall, intending to point Jaime to his place, and… oh.
The guest room is packed nearly floor to ceiling with boxes marked Highgarden Glass.
"Oh," says her dad, "I told Margaery and Sansa they could store some of their back-stock here for the festival. I hope they won't get in your way."
"I--" Brienne darts a panicked look at Jaime. "I thought that--"
"You're an adult, Brienne, I'm not going to make you and your boyfriend sleep in separate rooms," Selwyn tells her with a laugh. "Now you two get your things organized and then meet me back downstairs for dinner." He pulls the door nearly shut behind him; she can hear him whistling as he heads down the stairs.
She closes her eyes and drops her head. Already, this is so much worse than she'd imagined.
"Is that Renly Baratheon?" she hears Jaime ask--thereby somehow, impossibly, making things worse yet. Her head jerks up so fast she can practically hear the muscles in her neck pinging in protest. Sure enough, Jaime is leaning in toward the weathered wooden dresser that she's had as long as she can remember. The top of it has a few framed photos scattered over it, including the one that Jaime's inspecting now: Renly with his arm around her, kissing her cheek while she stares, doe-eyed, into the camera. She keeps it around to remember Renly, but mostly she keeps it around to remind herself, while her dad is busy throwing guys at her, of just how badly things can go.
"You know Renly?" She doesn't know why she's surprised; there's probably a club for beautiful rich boys somewhere that automatically grants admittance at puberty.
Jaime nods, still peering at the photo. Brienne wants to snatch it away from him, but that would just give him more reason to ask questions. "Isn't he--"
Fuck restraint. She reaches over to flip the photo flat on the top of the dresser. "Yes."
The corners of Jaime's eyes crinkle in something that could be a wince or a laugh, and she hates both alternatives. "Ah."
It's been five years, and every time, it's still humiliating when people find out; she can't look at his face. The only problem is that in glancing to the side, she ends up looking at the bed instead. The one bed in her room. Her very small room. Has her room always been so small? "Listen," she says, lowering her voice with some effort, "about the whole thing with you sleeping here, I didn't know that--"
Jaime shrugs. "It's okay."
The sound of her dad's whistling drifts up the stairs again. "Is it?" she demands in a furious whisper. "I'm lying to my dad. We're lying to my dad. Don't tell me what's okay and what's not."
Jaime blinks and takes a step back. "I'm just trying to help."
"Well, there's nothing you can do, so stop trying," she snaps.
As she watches, the expression on his face darkens. "Hey, it wasn't anywhere in our deal that you get to treat me like shit just because you're pissed off and have buyer's remorse."
"I didn't buy you, don't make it sound like that," she half-growls at him. "And I told you, you're welcome to leave anytime you like."
"Great. Then maybe I will." He curls his hand around his suitcase again, and shifts his weight on his feet, angling himself toward the door.
She lets him get an entire step before another avalanche of guilt comes crashing down on her and she lunges out to grab his arm. "Wait. Don't go."
He spins on one heel, that fucking eyebrow arched again, this time in challenge.
"I mean," she says, swallowing hard and retracting her hand, "go if you want--that is part of the deal. Just don't go like this."
His jaw clenches, then releases. "I don't want to go."
"Okay." She runs her sweaty palm over the rough surface of her jeans, grounding herself. "I don't want you to go either. Please." As much as she'd underestimated how much she'd hate lying to her dad, it's too late now--he'd be that much more upset if Jaime left at this point. And she definitely doesn't want Jaime to leave angry, not when he's doing her a favor. "I'm sorry for snapping at you," she adds. She probably should have led with that, but better late than never, she hopes.
To her relief, Jaime nods back, slow and thoughtful. "Okay."
"Okay. So." She takes a deep breath and imagines herself going back to a respawn point. "Do you want to hang here for a bit, or do you want to go back down and talk to my dad? I know he was kind of a lot just now, but hopefully he'll chill out soon. I think he's just… excited."
Jaime nods again. "Sure." Then he grins, though the smug edge of it feels a little pasted on. "I can understand how he feels. I'm a very exciting person."
Brienne snickers and punches him lightly on the shoulder. He makes an exaggerated face and rubs the spot she'd hit, and she feels a tiny bit steadier as she leads him down the stairs.
* * * * * * *
They make it through dinner without incident; there's one tense moment when Selwyn asks about their first date and they both give different versions of the options they'd discussed--she'd wanted to say they'd gone to a pop culture museum, he'd wanted to say they'd gone to a barcade. Fortunately it's easy enough to pivot to there having been a barcade in a pop culture museum, which her dad seems to buy readily enough. He even, in keeping with his apparent determination to do the absolute most, says he'd like to go there sometime, even though most of his prior experience with video games is yelling up the stairs at Brienne to turn them down.
Fortunately, Brienne knows she's never going to be called upon to make good on that invitation, because she's sure her dad is going to lose all desire to go as soon as she tells him that she and Jaime have broken up.
She keeps a close eye on Jaime, though, in case he needs either a rescue or some level of smackdown, but he's friendly and respectful, listening with cheerful interest as her dad pulls out all his greatest hits from his youth as a seaplane pilot. At one point Selwyn tries to launch into some no-doubt-embarrassing stories about Brienne's childhood, too, but Brienne has to draw the line there.
"No. None of that until the next trip at least." She says it without really thinking, and the combination of the happiness on her dad's face and the flicker of surprise on Jaime's is almost enough to make her flip the table just to change the subject.
They offer to do the dishes, after, and her dad waves them off.
"No, don't be ridiculous, you've had a long day of travel."
He won't be moved despite their protests, and when they finally, reluctantly agree--on the condition that Selwyn won't do another dish while they're in the house--Selwyn hugs Brienne again, then extends his hand to Jaime.
"So good to meet you," he says warmly, bringing his other hand up to cover Jaime's.
"The pleasure is all mine, sir." The house is evening-dim and it has been a long day, but Brienne thinks she might actually see Jaime blushing.
"Bah," is all Selwyn says in response, and claps Jaime on the shoulder.
On their way up the stairs, Brienne can't resist muttering to Jaime, "I think he's gonna adopt you, have you had all your shots?"
"Shut up," is all Jaime comes up with instead of his usual sharp comeback, and Brienne grins.
Her amusement lasts right up until they're back in her room and Jaime is closing the door behind him. The clicking noise that it makes, combined with the very obvious darkness visible through her window, gives her the sense that she's just stepped on a booby-trap.
"Oh, uh." Jaime keeps his hand on the doorknob. "Sorry, I wasn't thinking. Is this okay?"
"Sure," she says. Lies, but whatever. She'll fake it till she makes it. Fortunately, while her dad had been spinning one of his longer-winded tales earlier, she'd devoted some mental energy to a plan. "I figure we can take turns sleeping in the bed, and the other one can take the floor. We've got eight nights here. Want to roll to see who gets the bed first?"
He smiles a little. "Sure." He reaches toward his messenger bag, slung onto the floor next to the doorframe, and digs out a dice bag. The D20 he shakes out into his palm is ocean blue with silver specks in it; she remembers selling that set to him a couple of months back, after he'd spent the afternoon needling her over some arcane application of the Dragon Master's Manual. He dumps the die into her hand.
She rolls her eyes a little--he does that sort of thing to needle her, too, she knows for a fact--and lets the die spin out onto the top of the dresser. "Call it."
"Evens, I get the bed first," he says.
The die rolls to a stop, the number 11 winking up at them both like an unfinished emoji. Brienne feels a little bad, since Jaime's the one who's spending the night in a stranger's house for the next week; maybe she should've just given him the bed first. But they'd agreed to roll for it, and they both respect the sanctity of the dice too much to tarnish it. "The bathroom's across the hall," she tells him. "Why don't you go get ready and I'll make up a spot for you."
He agrees and rolls his suitcase with him across the hallway. While he's gone, Brienne digs her old camping pad out of the closet and spreads it out on the floor a few feet away from the bed. She layers a couple of blankets on top of it, with a fluffy sheepskin-lined one on the bottom to provide a little more cushion between him and the pad. She completes it with a pillow off her own bed, and she's standing back, head cocked to assess its likely comfort level, when Jaime comes back from the bathroom.
His feet are bare, his hair is tousled; he's wearing soft-looking sweatpants and a t-shirt from one of her favorite shows, a cartoon about a kid who has to master all the elements in order to save the world. She gets a faint whiff of mint as he leaves his suitcase propped against the wall and comes to stand next to her. "Luxurious."
Brienne could swear that each pore on her body has built its own individual campfire. She and Renly had never progressed much beyond first base, so she's never had a barefoot guy in her room before. And definitely not one she's used to seeing at her workplace. At least he'd left the door open this time, and the light of the bathroom seems like it's illuminating her way to salvation.
"My turn," she says, "make yourself at home," and she grabs her own duffel bag and flees with it before he can respond.
Once she has the door closed and locked safely behind her, she stares sternly into the mirror and gives herself something that she intends to be a pep talk, only it starts out much more like a lecture instead. Don't be a chickenshit, is the opener. He's just a human person. An extremely hot human person. Who will be sleeping very close to your bed tonight. No, this is going off the rails. You're a rational adult, she tries instead as she squeezes toothpaste a little vengefully onto her toothbrush. You can spend the night near another rational adult without freaking out about it. You have literally made this bed, Brienne Tarth, and now you're going to stop being a coward and go lay in it.
She goes on like that for a little while, until finally the embarrassment of spending a suspiciously long time in the bathroom outweighs the embarrassment of going back to her room, and she grits her teeth and heads back across the hallway.
Jaime is curled up underneath the blankets, one hand behind his head, scrolling through something on his phone. He looks up at her when she comes in. His eyes are annoyingly green, and she's hyper-conscious of the frayed hems of her sweatpants.
"Are you gonna be okay down there?" she asks, because it seems like the polite thing to do. Gods, why is her room so small?
He grins up at her. "Tyrion used to make me come sleep in his room when he was a kid and scared of thunderstorms. And he kicks in his sleep. So believe me, this is an upgrade."
She forces a laugh. There's a swirl of fire on the front of Jaime's shirt, and she finds her eyes tracing it down to where it disappears beneath the line of the blanket.
"Hey," Jaime says, and Brienne jumps guiltily. Fortunately, her own personal Sevenmas miracle is that Jaime isn't looking at her, he's looking at the TV stand across the room that holds her old gaming console. "Is that a Kraken 54?"
"Oh. Yeah." It's a relief to focus on literally anything else. "I've had it since I was a kid."
"That's amazing." Jaime emerges from his cocoon and crawls over to inspect it, presenting her with a too-distracting view for a few seconds before she becomes utterly fascinated with the blank TV screen. "I used to have one of these too, but eventually my dad decided that if I was going to be, and I quote, 'wasting my time with video games,' that I should at least have the latest model to do it on so that I could understand the industry standards." He reaches out to trace a finger over one of the two controllers that's tucked under the cabinet. The second one hasn't seen much use; Brienne has a moment of embarrassment that it's as dusty as it is, but Jaime doesn't comment. "Does it still work?"
"As far as I know, yeah." He turns back to look at her at that, his eyes blatantly pleading. The laugh comes easily this time. "You wanna play?"
"Oh, well, only if you really want to." He's got the controllers in one hand already, and the other one is opening the cabinet so he can peruse her game selection. Brienne grins and drags over a couple of the cushions that are stacked against the wall.
They settle on Golden Arakh, a fantasy adventure game that Brienne had played as a teenager until she'd worn out two copies of it. When she'd started working at the gaming shop, one of the first things she'd done with her employee discount and newfound connections was obtain every iteration of it in duplicate. She chooses the Dothraki princess character, and Jaime plays the dwarf, and before Brienne knows it, it's one in the morning and they've beat the first seven levels and only ended up accidentally killing each other twice. On top of that--and more fantastical than twenty manticores--having Jaime next to her in her bedroom is starting to feel almost normal.
"Yes!" Jaime exclaims, both arms up in the air, when they finally defeat the gryphon that guards the end of the seventh level.
"Shh," Brienne reminds him, snickering, "you'll wake up my dad."
"Shit, sorry." Jaime shoots her a guilty grin. "I'm out of practice. I used to get in so much trouble for staying up all night playing games."
"Oh, gods, me too," Brienne says. "One time I slept through a final because I'd been playing Planetos: Invasion for three days straight."
"Okay, but that game had some sort of addictive property to it. I mean, like, chemically," he insists while she laughs. "You can't be held responsible for that."
"Yeah, well, tell that to my dad. He might actually believe it coming from you," she says wryly.
His amusement seems to soften a little at that. "You and your dad seem pretty close," he offers.
"Yeah." She lets her eyes drift around the room, wondering how it looks to Jaime: the teddy bear in the corner that she's had practically since birth, the spray of dried wildflowers that have been stuck to the wall since she was ten, the crossed drumsticks from her foray into working out her teen angst through bashing on things as hard as possible. Through all of it, her dad has been her only constant, and he's always loved her, even if he doesn't completely understand her. She glances at Jaime, and catches the wistful look on his face before he ducks his head to inspect a slightly loose button on the controller in his hand. Based on what Tyrion had said, bringing up his own dad doesn't seem likely to help the situation, so she offers instead, "Like I said, you've made a pretty great impression on him, too."
Jaime huffs a laugh, his eyes still on the controller. "Of course I have." It's got his usual cocky lilt to it, but it feels hollowed-out somehow, like a crust of ice over the top of a snowbank that will break underfoot as soon as it's stepped on.
Brienne shifts a little on her cushion. "Jaime--"
"Big day tomorrow, huh?" he interrupts, looking up at her again with a smile pasted on. It's only a shadow of his genuine delight over the game, and something twinges in Brienne's chest.
"Yeah," she answers, unsure of what else to do. She'd given him the rundown on it already on the ferry: the next day marks the opening day of the festival, and the Day of the Smith, which means the grand launch for all of the artists' and artisans' booths as well as an extensive craft table setup that Brienne has been responsible for organizing the past five years or so. It's not a game, exactly, but the kids love it, and there's enough of an overlap in her skills that she's become pretty good at it. Even if most of her art ends up looking like one of the five-year-olds did it.
"We should probably get some sleep, then." Jaime takes the controller out of her hand and stacks them both back in their slot in the cabinet. Brienne watches him, wishing she had a time machine to go back just a few minutes and keep him laughing like he had been before.
He pushes his cushion back against the wall and knee-walks over until he can slide back under the covers of his makeshift bed.
"Are you sure you're gonna be okay in there?" she asks, caught between wanting to help and not wanting to pry.
He adjusts the pillow a bit. "Yeah, like I said, I'm all good. I'm always all good." He stretches out his arms above his head, then crosses them over his chest and closes his eyes.
She can't just leave it like that. "Jaime."
"This was fun tonight," she tells him, before she can chicken out. "I'm glad you stuck around after all."
His eyes blink open at that, startled and startling green. One corner of his mouth curls up. "Yeah. Me too, Tank."
She wrinkles her nose at him, and he laughs. But the laughter sounds real, at least, and that eases the ache in her chest enough that she can lean over to ruffle his hair. It's his turn to wrinkle his nose, then, and he's still trying to straighten the mess she's made of his hair when she flips off the light on her nightstand and crawls into bed.
* * * * * * *
"You don't have to come," Brienne tells Jaime, as they pull up to the parking lot behind the building that serves as command central for the festival. It's cold enough in the early morning that it's snowing very lightly, tiny flakes drifting down to her windshield when she kills the engine.
"Yes, you've mentioned that," Jaime says. "Probably six or seven times, actually. Do you not want me to come or something?"
It's only when he says it back to her that Brienne catches up to the possible innuendo in there, though he does say it with a straight face. Still. "I want you to do whatever you want," she says firmly, to cover whatever sleep-deprived tangent her brain is going on. "I just don't want you to feel obligated, or anything."
Jaime rolls his eyes. "I don't feel obligated. And the question of me coming or not is kind of moot, because I'm here." He spreads his hands out in the air in front of him. "I've come already." Brienne's inner teenager is giggling hysterically. She tells her, in no uncertain terms, to hush it. "So unless you want me to wait in the car like I'm five years old, let's go inside, shall we?"
Brienne has to escape from the car to keep herself from bursting out laughing.
Inside, they're greeted by a squeal, followed by a swirl of red hair and black fur-lined jacket as Sansa throws herself into Brienne's arms.
Brienne closes her eyes and squeezes her tightly. It's a relief, being able to offer her affection so freely and know it will be welcomed; she's known Sansa for more than a decade now and they've been roommates twice during that span, so Sansa is firmly in the category of knows all my shit and loves me anyway. She lives in Highgarden now, though, and Brienne hasn't seen her since the summer. "Sansa. I didn't know if you'd be here yet!"
"The million boxes in your guest room didn't give it away?" asks Sansa's girlfriend Margaery, grinning her slightly crooked grin over Sansa's shoulder. Then she blinks in surprise as she sees Jaime. "Jaime Lannister! What are you doing here?'
Brienne releases Sansa and turns to gape at Jaime. "Do you know everyone?" she demands.
"Margaery and I went to boarding school together," Jaime explains.
"He and Loras fought so much I was sure they were gonna make out at any moment," Margaery says. Brienne's stomach twists; she can't possibly be dating--well, pretending to date--a gay guy again, can she? Margaery, meanwhile, pops up to kiss Brienne on the cheek, then offers her hand to Jaime, palm-down. He bows over it with an exaggerated flourish. She laughs and retrieves her hand to tuck it through the crook of Sansa's arm. "Jaime, this is my girlfriend Sansa. Feel free to be jealous."
"Jealous of which one of you?" Jaime asks, fluttering his eyelashes. Brienne shakes her head a little; he's certainly able to flip the switch into Flirt Mode with disconcerting speed. Margaery laughs. "Nice to meet you, Sansa," Jaime adds.
"Nice to meet you too," Sansa replies. "So what brings you to Tarth, Jaime?"
Jaime glances at Brienne, and she can practically feel her throat closing up. Everything had happened so fast and she'd been so busy working out their backstory for her dad that somehow it hadn't occurred to her to figure out what she'd tell her friends. "We're, uh--" Jaime starts, then looks at her more pointedly, clearly indicating that the lead is all hers on this one.
"We're dating," Brienne blurts out.
"You're what?!" Sansa squeals again, then hurls herself at Brienne again. "Brienne! I can't believe you didn't tell me!"
"It's--it's pretty new," Brienne says, patting Sansa on the back ineffectually. So much for Sansa knowing all her secrets. But she hadn't had time to evaluate all the pros and cons of truth versus lie, so she'd just gone for the most obvious choice.
"I knew you talked about him too much for him to just be a customer," Sansa goes on, and Brienne wants nothing so much as for some sort of magical void to open up and swallow her forever.
"She talked about me, huh?" Brienne refuses to look at Jaime's face, but it doesn't help in the slightest; his smugness is like an invisible hand reaching out to tap her on the shoulder.
"Speaking of work," Brienne says too loudly, "we've got a lot of it to do and not a lot of time to do it."
"You're right, of course." Sansa pulls back and beams at both Brienne and Jaime briefly before grabbing Brienne's hand. "Come on, let me show you what we brought. Margaery outdid herself this time." She tugs Brienne over toward one of the piles of boxes in the corner. Brienne allows herself to be tugged and hopes she's only imagining Jaime's eyes boring into her back the whole way.
* * * * * * *
"Well, you survived the opening," Margaery says several hours later, appearing at Brienne's paper-strewn table with a bright smile and one artful tendril of hair, having decoratively escaped from her messy bun, falling over her shoulder.
"We did," Brienne agrees, then goes on with a grin, "How are sales of the exclusive Tarth Festival Highgarden Glass?" Every piece of Margaery's that she's seen seems to be more stunning than the last, whether it's delicate blown glass or colorful leaded glass or even beautifully--and sometimes faintly suggestively--shaped barware.
Margaery's dimples flash. "Amazing, obviously."
"Obviously. Thank you again for agreeing to do this," Brienne says fervently. "This was such a terrible year for the island, and to have work as well-known as yours here has been so good for attendance." Even just Margaery's presence in the craft tent is attracting fascinated attention.
"Of course." Margaery plops herself down in the chair next to Brienne's, though she somehow manages to plop gracefully, which is something Brienne can't even fathom. "Sansa and I would do anything for you, Brienne, you know that."
"You know I feel the same way--I'm so lucky to have you both." Brienne smiles at her. It's been one of her happiest surprises, getting to know Margaery over the past few years. Not that Brienne hadn't had her moments of panic when Margaery and Sansa had started getting serious; first, the fact that Margaery's brother was Renly's boyfriend had been awkward to say the least. But even beyond that, Brienne has never found social connections to be particularly easy, and it had worried her a little to see Sansa growing so close to someone else. It's turned out to have multiplied Brienne's joy in their friendship, though, giving her two friends instead of one, and she can only shake her head at her past self who had been so narrow-minded.
Margaery squeezes Brienne's hand. "It looks like the kids are thrilled with your work, as usual."
Brienne lets herself recline back in her chair a little and surveys the scene around them. It's an unholy mess, of course, with paper and glitter and paint and plastic figurines of all the gods and random bits of string scattered on every possible surface. There are also gleeful, industrious faces everywhere she looks: flushed cheeks and proud grins and tongues caught in the corners of mouths, brows furrowed deeply in concentration.
Among them, too, is Jaime, who's two tables away, his head bent close to the head of a little girl who looks maybe nine or ten years old. She's painting one of the Warrior figurines, and she's giving it bright purple armor, and Jaime seems to be giving sincerely thoughtful advice regarding the proceedings. Brienne has to give him credit, he's been a trooper today--he's done whatever she's asked, from hauling boxes to helping set up tents to distributing safety scissors. Given that she's used to seeing him lounging around her store, it's been an interesting new perspective. She's also been surprised to see how good he is with the kids, with all of his typical impatience and distractibility funneled into following along with all of their whims.
Margaery leans in to murmur in Brienne's ear. "If you like him so much, why aren't you dating him?"
That brings Brienne back to herself with a shock. "What?" She laughs, a braying sort of noise that's much more about panic than amusement. At the noise, Jaime looks up from his table and smiles when he sees her, offering her a wave. She waves back, weakly.
"Brienne." Margaery's voice is low and wry, though it's affectionate, too, which saves Brienne from complete humiliation. "I watched you two during setup. If you can honestly tell me you've ever put your mouth on that man's mouth, I'll donate twenty percent of my sales to the kids' shelter."
Brienne can only glare at her. She briefly considers going over and kissing Jaime right then and there, just to prove Margaery wrong, but it doesn't feel right, to just lay one on him when that was never part of the deal. "You'd really bring the kids into this?" she asks instead. "That's low."
"Of course not," Margaery scoffs. "I meant to tell you--I'm donating twenty percent of my sales to the kids' shelter. But," she goes on before Brienne can seize on the subject change, "my point stands. What's the deal with you two?"
It seems fruitless and frankly insulting to try to maintain the lie at this point. Brienne sighs. "I just wanted to get my dad off my back." She pulls a piece of craft paper closer to her and starts drawing little designs on it, geometric shapes building on each other in a sort of uneven crystal structure. "He gives me such a hard time every year about being single, and I just. I needed a break." She adds another layer to her crystal, making a deeper groove into the paper. "I'm sorry for lying to you and Sansa. I hate lying, as it turns out--to my dad more than anyone." She's more or less managed to bury those thoughts behind her to-do list for most of the day, but she'd woken up with them front and center, images of how eager and happy her dad had been the night before.
Margaery slides her chair sideways until her shoulder is just barely touching Brienne's. "I can understand why you'd do it," she says quietly. "Sometimes if you care about someone, and you keep telling them something and they're not listening, it starts to feel really tempting to just tell them something different."
Brienne glances over at her in surprise. Not that she'd been expecting condemnation from Margaery--for all that Margaery had been intensely pragmatic about her relationships before meeting Sansa, that had been borne out of spending most of her life surrounded by dramatic romantic entanglements of one kind or another. But Brienne hadn't been expecting to have her problem neatly wrapped up and handed back to her on a silver platter. It occurs to her to wonder if everyone in Margaery's family had been as accepting of her sexuality as Olenna is.
"Yeah," Brienne says as she digests Margaery's assessment, feeling like she's been given some sort of cheat code to reduce her guilt by fifty percent. "Yeah, that's it exactly." She nudges Margaery's shoulder with hers. "Thanks for understanding."
Margaery gives her an affectionate wink. "I know it's not ideal. But hopefully at some point you'll be able to break through to your dad about it. In the meantime," she goes on, grinning now, "having brought a hot guy home for the holidays isn't the worst thing, right? At least he's good eye candy."
Brienne snorts and starts adding little starbursts around her crystal doodle, though in her mind, all she can see is how Jaime had looked the night before, all stretched out next to her bed. "He is that." Then she's reminded of another horrifying thought, and she's already deep enough in embarrassment on this that she might as well dig just a little bit more. "Hey, what you said before about Jaime and Loras--Jaime is into women, right?" She doesn't care if he's into guys too, she just can't go through all the pitying looks again, with everyone knowing a secret that she doesn't.
"Why does it matter, if he's only your fake boyfriend?" Margaery asks, her eyebrow arched, and Brienne glowers at her. Margaery's laugh sounds like honey. "I would put money on him and Loras having at least made out in high school, but I've definitely known Jaime to date women, yes. I think he just never found anyone he was serious enough about to make it work for more than a few months. After a while, it seemed like he just sort of stopped trying."
Brienne shifts her gaze to Jaime, who now appears to be consulting on the best color for the Warrior's sword. It's oddly validating to know that someone like Jaime, who has his share of options, is choosing to be single just like she is. She wonders if he gets more or less crap about it than she does.
"I'll tell you something, though," Margaery says after a minute.
Brienne cocks her head. "What?" she asks warily. She knows that tone of Margaery's--half fond and half teasing--and she's pretty sure that whatever's coming next is going to make her blush.
"I never saw Jaime look at Loras the way he looks at you," Margaery says. And with that and a friendly pat on Brienne's knee, she rises to her feet.
"Not funny!" Brienne calls after her, glaring, but Margaery is already gliding away.
The Day of the Warrior dawns clear and cold, which turns out to be perfect weather for Brienne's planned activities.
"Get him!" Jaime shouts as Willow, the young girl he'd been helping with her Warrior figurine, continues whaling on her opponent with her foam sword. The boy she's fighting is named Peck, and Brienne had held him once when he was a baby. Now she's thinking that maybe it would have been kinder to have just spirited him away back then and saved him getting his ass kicked in front of this whole crowd in the town square.
She elbows Jaime. "We're not supposed to show favoritism."
He makes a scoffing noise. "Come on. You can't tell me you're not rooting for her, one tank to another."
She elbows him again, harder this time, but when she steals a look at him, he's watching the kids still, a wide, admiring grin on his face as Willow gets in another good blow to Peck's shoulder. Hearing him say "tank" with that expression puts it in a light she's never considered before, and it's more distracting than she wants to admit.
"Watch the head!" she yells to Willow. The kids have puffy helmets to go with their foam swords, but still, there are safety rules that need to be observed.
"Thirty seconds left!" calls Dacey Mormont from where she's dividing her attention between the match and the stopwatch she's holding in her hand.
"Finish him!" Jaime intones, too quietly for the kids to hear. Brienne hides a snicker behind her hand as Willow does exactly that, dodging Peck's wildly flailing foam sword to poke hers into his stomach, making him double over with giggles. She holds her sword to his neck, and he holds up both hands in surrender as Dacey declares the match over.
The kids yank off their helmets, still giggling, hair a sweaty mess, and Brienne walks over to grab Willow's hand and hold it up in the air. "Our champion!" After the cheering--and whistling, in Jaime's case--dies down, she grabs the kids' shoulders and maneuvers them both to face each other. "Bow, and thank your opponent."
Both kids obey, and she hands them each a prize: a palm-sized piece of chocolate for Willow, wrapped in gold foil and shaped like a shield, and a lollipop shaped like a sword for Peck.
"Today's games are closed," Brienne tells the assembled crowd, "but thank you for attending! Don't forget to visit our incredible artisans' booths on the way out, and don't forget that you can still buy a ticket to our grand Feast for the Day of the Mother--all the proceeds go to vital local programs!" The attendees begin to drift away, chattering happily, and Willow and Peck run back to their parents to show off their prizes.
Dacey makes her way to Brienne, grinning. "Another successful day of bouts, I'd say."
"Me too," Brienne agrees. She surveys the scene with pride, though not without a little bit of despair at the idea of cleaning up the dismembered bits of foam scattered all over the ground.
Dacey sticks out her hand to Jaime. "We didn't have too much of a chance to chat earlier. I'm Dacey Mormont."
"Jaime Lannister." Jaime smiles up at her. "They certainly grow them tall on this island, don't they?"
"I'm an import, not a native species," Dacey says. "From Bear Island, though, so you're not too far off. Brienne," she goes on, turning Brienne's way, "did you finally find a tiny man to fit in your pocket?"
Jaime claps a hand to his chest, laughing. "Hey!"
"Serves you right," Brienne tells him smugly. "Commenting on other people's height all the time."
"It's a compliment, Tank," he insists.
"'Tank'?" Dacey repeats. "Brienne, do you want me to hold him or do you want to just kick his ass yourself?"
Brienne is shocked to see Jaime's expression go infinitesimally sheepish. "It's a reference to--"
"I know what it's a reference to," Dacey interrupts him. "So does that mean you'd enjoy getting your ass kicked?"
"I don't know," Jaime answers, looking up at her from underneath his eyelashes. Flirt Mode engaged, Brienne thinks, and for some reason it's a little less amusing than it had been with Sansa and Margaery. "Will it be you doing the kicking?"
"How about Brienne?" Dacey suggests, and there's something a little harder in her voice now.
Jaime looks over at Brienne--yes, hi, I'm still here, she thinks, annoyed--and nods. "A round with the champion of the island? How can I refuse that?"
"Here." Dacey walks a few feet away to the pile of foam swords, presenting one to Jaime and one to Brienne. "Twenty dragons to the local cause of your choice for whoever wins."
It's a tradition Brienne had started years ago, a few casual little wagers with her friends throughout the festival; between this and Margaery's threat yesterday, she's starting to mildly regret that.
"You don't have to," she tells Jaime, because sportsmanship dictates it. Beating him up hadn't been part of their agreement, either.
"This lady has impugned my honor," he says, in the same voice he'd used when he'd played a paladin once. "I must defend it."
"Gods." Brienne rolls her eyes and leads him out into the center of the little fencing ring they've marked off with foam posts.
"I think it's only fair to warn you," Jaime tells her, testing the flexibility of his "blade", "I took fencing in college."
She's still vaguely irritated enough to snort. "Jaime, I work at a gaming shop. Half the people I know took fencing in college. Myself included."
He raises his eyebrows, his mouth making an exaggerated ooh. "Well then." He drops into an approximation of a fencing stance. "On your guard, Ser Brienne."
Despite what either of them might intend, technique goes out the window pretty quickly given that there's only so seriously that foam swords can be taken, and it only takes a few advances and retreats before they're just more or less whapping each other at will. Brienne is laughing before she knows it; she catches a glimpse of Jaime's eyes glinting bright with amusement. Then he lunges in underneath her guard and she brings her elbow down to trap his blade against her side and takes a step back. Off-balance, he stumbles forward and knocks his shoulder against her sternum, their legs get tangled together, and they go tumbling to the ground in a heap.
A heap where she's on the bottom, and Jaime is lying on top of her, just… breathing. He's heavy, and warm, and when he levers himself upright a little bit, she can feel his hipbone pressed against hers.
"Sorry," he says, looking down at her.
"Same," she answers. He's got a bump in his nose, and his canine teeth are just the slightest bit crooked, and his eyelashes look so soft she wants to run her fingertips over them.
"I'm declaring Brienne the winner," Dacey says from somewhere to their left.
Jaime clears his throat and then rolls sideways until he's kneeling in the dirt, which should theoretically enable Brienne to breathe again, but doesn't quite do the trick. "Why?" he demands with an exaggerated pout.
"Because she had more solid hits, and besides." Dacey bares her teeth at him. "I like her better."
Jaime just laughs. "Well, I can't fault you for that." He climbs to his feet, then extends his hand to Brienne and helps pull her to hers. "At least it's all for a good cause." And with that, he brushes some of the dirt off his palms and begins applying himself to collecting the bits of foam littering the ground. Brienne just watches him for a moment, still struggling to shake the sensation of his weight on her.
"What's the deal?" Dacey asks quietly when he's out of earshot. "Why aren't you actually dating him?"
"What?!" Brienne demands, aggrieved. Gods be good, are they not fooling anyone?
"I've watched you with him all day," Dacey says. "You're practically attached at the hip, but you don't touch each other. Just now you looked like you didn't know whether to run away or make out with him. Nothing about your body language says that you've seen each other in anything near a state of nudity."
Brienne massages her temple with her fingers. "This was a terrible idea."
"I'm just saying, Brie--I can certainly guess at some reasons that you'd want to do this, but whatever they are, you might want to work on your performances a little." Dacey tugs lightly on Brienne's hair, then heads off to help Jaime.
* * * * * * *
Brienne wrestles with Dacey's advice for the rest of the evening, trying to figure out the best way to bring it up to Jaime without things getting weird. It is, however, an inherently weird situation, so she finally just resigns herself to said weirdness and informs him, "We have a problem," as soon as they've said goodnight to her dad and are safely behind the door of her room.
His face goes grave with concern. "What? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine, it's just--" Just lay it all out on the table, Brienne. Or the bed, actually, since that's where she's sitting. "We don't touch each other."
His eyes go wide for half a second, and then she can practically see each muscle shift as he arranges his face into a perfectly expressionless mask.
"Not like that," she says, impatient. "Or, well, maybe kind of like that, I don't know--it's just that Margaery and Dacey, and probably Sansa too, all clocked us as faking this. And while my dad's not as observant as they are, if we keep this up, at some point he's probably gonna notice too."
"So what are you saying?" Jaime asks. "You want me to--touch you?"
Hearing him say it makes Brienne's stomach do a quick involuntary dive and roll. She may not want a boyfriend, but she's only human, and her own hands can only take her so far. It occurs to her that maybe her bedroom wasn't the ideal place to have this conversation, especially when it only takes her an instant to vividly recall how he'd felt on top of her earlier. With that in her mind, she's unsettled enough to blurt out, "And also, you flirt with other women, which is fine, but you don't flirt with me, and that looks weird, too." Well, that hadn't been one of her planned conversation topics, and she can only pray that he doesn't read anything into it. It's not so much that she wants him to flirt with her as that she doesn't like being the one standing there like an NPC who gets stuck walking into a wall over and over again while he flirts with everyone else.
A crease appears in the middle of his forehead. "So let me get this straight: you want me to touch you, and you want me to flirt with you."
It sounds so tawdry when he puts it like that. "I'm just saying that…" She wishes, fervently, that she had some sort of guide to navigating all this. She's got a shop full of guides, all those miles away back in King's Landing, but they're--Wait. That's it. Brienne, you're a genius.
"I think we need rules," she declares. As soon as the words are out of her mouth, she immediately feels better. That's clearly been the problem this whole time--they've been trying to play a complicated game without a rule book. What kind of a fool would do that?
Jaime nods, thoughtful. "Okay, I can get behind that. Here." He pulls the chair out from her desk and seats himself in it before leaning down to dig into his messenger bag. He comes up with a piece of paper, then grabs a book off her shelf to use as a writing surface while he scribbles for a few seconds with a pen. When he's done, he hands the book and the paper over to her.
It's a character sheet. A mostly blank one, except for the Character Name section, where he's written Girlfriend Brienne.
"What is this?"
"If we're going to have rules, we should document them." He shrugs. "This was the only paper I had handy, and it seemed appropriate enough."
She'd tease him for carrying character sheets on him like a game might suddenly spring up on a street corner, except that she's been known to do the same thing herself. And besides, this particular approach makes it all feel a little less real, which seems like a benefit in this situation. So she just asks, "Are we making one for you too?"
He tilts his head. "I think we can assume that our characters share skills in this area."
"Okay, so." She scans the familiar categories of the sheet. "I'm guessing we're not putting these things in the Attacks section."
"Only if you want to," he says with an exaggerated eyebrow waggle, and she rolls her eyes. "What? You said you wanted me to flirt with you."
She regrets so many of her choices on this trip. "Let's go with Other Proficiencies."
He sighs. "You got my hopes up and everything."
Ignoring him, she taps the pen against the paper for a minute, and then, under the appropriate section, she writes hand-holding. Which seems ridiculously G-rated when she writes it out. Then again, more adult activities wouldn't be all that useful given that the entire point of this is to perform for their audience, so G-rated activities are really the only option here.
Aiming for professional detachment, she holds it out to him. "Do you approve the addition?"
He inspects it, then nods. "Approved, yes. I propose that we add putting our arms around each other--that seems safe enough."
She hesitates; safe isn't exactly the word she would've chosen. Because while her brain is completely clear on what is and isn't going on here, based on her experience earlier in the fencing ring, she's a little concerned that being pressed up against him is going to confuse her body. Then again, if it sounds safe to him, that just confirms that it's safe for her--he's not going to try to make it into anything it's not, and she just has to keep her brain calling the shots. Girlfriend Brienne, she reminds herself firmly, not Actual Brienne. "Fair enough." She starts writing it on the sheet. "And I assume that hugs are included under that umbrella?"
"I think we can consider those in the same category, yes," Jaime agrees. After a pause, he continues, "What about kissing?"
That stops her pen in its tracks. When she looks at him, it's with narrowed eyes.
He holds up both hands. "Chill, Tank. I promise I'm not trying to take liberties." He says that last in a Fancy Voice that makes her want to snicker. "It's just, you know, I've seen the movies. There's mistletoe around. Tomorrow's the Day of the Maiden. It just seems like something we should be prepared for."
She's seen those movies, too, and he's got a point. "All right," she decides after a minute. "If we can't avoid it, we go for a kiss on the cheek. We can tell everyone I'm too shy for anything else; they'll believe it."
He nods. "Fair enough." Then he gives her a sly grin. "If they don't believe you're shy, maybe you can have a lecture ready on not forcing people to perform their sexuality, in public or otherwise."
She laughs a little, surprised. She vaguely remembers giving a similar lecture to a guy who had come into her store and had been pressuring his girlfriend into some sexy cosplay idea. "So I take it you've heard that one."
"I took copious notes." He's still grinning, but he doesn't say it like he's making fun of her; he says it like he means it.
"Well." She's not entirely prepared to respond to that. "Good." Ducking her head, she scribbles on the sheet. When her stomach does that ridiculous swoop again as she's writing the word kiss, she adds ON THE CHEEK after it in capital letters, and underlines it twice. Once that's done, she angles her head back to take in her accomplishment. "So can you think of anything else?"
He catches his lower lip between his teeth, thoughtful, and then shakes his head. "I feel like that pretty much covers it."
"Yeah." She's almost disappointed; she'd been starting to get into the exercise. She looks at the blank spot on the sheet for Character Appearance, and she can't help considering what Girlfriend Brienne would be like. No waist-length raven hair and violet eyes--she's outgrown that sort of fantasy--but for a brief moment, she imagines herself more like Jaime: able to make conversation with strangers and charm dads, able to flirt with cheerful ease.
She'll never tell him, because he'd be insufferable about it, but in the privacy of her own mind, she can admit that whatever god had rolled up Jaime Lannister had spent lavishly when it came to charisma.
"So," he says, when she doesn't speak for a minute. "Are we good?"
She forces her attention back to the Proficiencies section, evaluating Girlfriend Brienne's readiness for the campaign at hand rather than for some other fantasy. "I think this is good," she decides. "Are you good?"
"Always," he says with a wink, and ugh. The flirting thing was a mistake, she sees that now, but damn if she's going to admit it.
Instead, she sets the paper aside and raises both arms above her head to ease the ache in her back from too many years of hunching over very similar pieces of paper. As she moves, there's a stinging sensation just inside her left shoulder. "Ow." She'd nearly forgotten about that.
Jaime blinks a little, like he's coming out from underwater. "What's wrong?"
"Just scraped up my back a little when I fell today." She wraps her right arm around her neck so that she can reach down and splay her fingers down under her shirt. Sure enough, there's the slightly rough texture of broken skin. She winces at the twinge of pain.
That concerned crease is back in Jaime's forehead. "Shit, I'm sorry. Is it bad? Let me see."
"I'm fine, Jaime." She's a little bemused by his response; it's just a scratch.
"You literally just said that it hurt. Just let me see. Besides, it's good practice for this whole physical proximity thing." He rises from the chair and sits down next to her on the bed, pulling her hand out from under her shirt and nudging her shoulder until she angles her back to him. Then he proceeds to hook his own fingers in her collar, which is fortunately loose enough that he can just slide the fabric to the side to expose a slice of her upper back. Cool air and the warmth of his breath hit her skin at the same time, and she shivers. It's just practice, she reminds herself.
Jaime makes a sympathetic hissing noise. "Yeah, you've got some scrapes there, and maybe a bruise too."
"Good," she says without thinking.
"Good?" He snorts with surprise. "Are you a closet masochist? Not that I'm judging, just--"
"Shut up," she cuts him off, knowing that the back of her neck is probably going red right in front of his face. "All I meant was that if I'm going to have something be painful, I want to have something to show for it. Though," she adds, considering, "I guess it's not in the best location for anyone to see it anyway."
"Well," Jaime says. His voice is so close to her ear, it's disorienting. "I promise to be impressed with your bruise, if it happens."
She huffs out a laugh. "Thank you."
He sits back, his hand dropping back down to his side, and she's annoyed at herself for how disappointed she is at the loss of contact. "Have you got a first aid kit somewhere around here?" he asks.
"That's--I really don't think that's necessary." Since about the time she'd topped six feet tall in her first year of high school, people haven't usually tended to fuss over her, especially when it comes to physical bumps and bruises. The few times it's happened, she's ended up feeling either guilty for making them worry or weak for not being able to handle it herself.
"Hey, you broke my fall, so it's my fault that you got hurt," Jaime says, apparently unaware that she's too big to be hurt. "Just tell me where the first aid kit is; I know you have one somewhere, you're too prepared not to."
As it happens, she has more than one: one one each floor of the house, one in her car, one in her dad's car, one in the garage. "It's in the bathroom, under the sink," she sighs. "But for the record, it's definitely not your fault. We both fell."
"Okay. BRB," is all he says--actually pronounces those letters individually--and Brienne lets her chin sink to her chest. Damn charisma-happy gods.
Before long, he returns with her little homemade first-aid kit, which is a plastic bag filled with supplies. "This is adorable," he pronounces. "Handmade and everything."
"What?" she demands as he resumes his spot next to her. "Did you have one with your name engraved on it in gold or something?"
"Obviously. Custom-measured bandages, too, with the family crest," he says drily. He hooks his pinky around her collar again and pulls it gently aside. While he'd been fetching the first aid kit, she'd spent a little time hoping that she'd developed some immunity from her first exposure, but it feels like exactly the opposite: as soon as his fingertips come in contact with her skin, warmth seems to spread from that spot like a wave over her upper body.
She can't remember the last time that somebody touched her bare back. Probably sometime in the summer; she's got her share of tank tops so sometimes she gets incidental contact through hugs. But it's been months at best, and even then, it hadn't been deliberate like this. She tucks the fingers of one hand underneath her thigh, out of sight, and grips a fistful of the duvet.
True to his word, he works quickly: she can hear a tearing noise, and then there's the wet shock of what she assumes is an antiseptic pad over her scrapes. It hurts a little, too, and between the cold and the pain, she sucks in a breath.
"Sorry," he murmurs. "Here, hold on, it'll dry faster this way." She feels a puff of air and realizes that he's blowing softly on the damp spot where the antiseptic is. Which makes her miss the pain, honestly, because now she's got tingles running up and down her spine, and she's holding on to the duvet like it's the last thing keeping her from tipping off the edge of the world.
Then there's the sound of tearing again, and the sticky sensation of a bandage over the spot, with Jaime pressing all around the square edge of it like he's sealing the restless hunger of her body there against her skin. The bandage itself is overkill, no doubt, and Brienne knows she should protest, should insist that she doesn't need it. But her mouth just won't seem to form the words.
"There." Jaime sounds satisfied, and rubs his finger briefly back and forth just above the line of the bandage. "Healing potion applied; you're back to a hundred percent health."
"Thank the gods," Brienne answers, her mouth curving despite herself.
Jaime pulls her shirt back into place and smoothes it over her upper back, ending with a little pat. Then the bed creaks as he sits back. Brienne takes another deep breath, releases her death-grip on the duvet, and rearranges herself to face him, as well as whatever teasing is coming her way. "Thank you, too. That was…" She swallows. "It wasn't necessary, but I appreciate it."
"I know it wasn't necessary. But maybe it made me feel better, did you ever think about that?" he says, a hint of mischief in his eyes.
It's the last thing she'd expected him to say, and it startles a chuckle out of her that carries most of her tension with it. "Oh, well. In that case, I'm so sorry for having been so selfish in not considering that."
"Really, how dare you," he says haughtily, chin raised, and then his expression relaxes into contrition again. "I am sorry you got hurt, though."
She waves a hand. "Seriously, it's fine. I've had worse playing tag with Sansa's toddler nephews."
His jaw drops. "I think I'm insulted."
She laughs, but she can't quite move on yet; there's something tangling in her chest. Something that seems to rise up and shove her forward until she can plant a kiss on his cheek, so brief that she barely has time to feel his skin under her lips.
When she sits back, he's just blinking at her in surprise. "What was that for?"
"Practice," she tells him, as light as she can make it, and then she pulls the first aid kit out of his hand and escapes to the bathroom to get ready for bed.
* * * * * * *
The Day of the Maiden has always been a complex one for Brienne. When she'd been young and had felt like a lumbering monster compared to the more delicate girls who always seemed to get the boys at school, her father had had to drag her to the festivities. Once there, she'd more or less sat in a corner and glared at anyone who came near, thereby rejecting the world at large before they had a chance to reject her.
As an adult, thankfully, she's moved beyond that, not least because she's made sure that the festival includes activities that don't focus on romantic love as well as those that do. But even so, the day is inevitably full of dramatic declarations and usually at least one proposal, and it's not that she begrudges anyone their happiness so much as that it makes her vaguely anxious, watching all the laughing young couples and thinking of everything they're risking by putting their hearts in each other's hands. Her dad has a framed picture of her mom up on the wall outside his bedroom, and he still touches it every night before he goes to bed. Brienne can't help looking around at all these happy faces and thinking about how many ways they could end up in tears.
Fortunately, Sansa and Margaery--being fairly disgustingly in love themselves--had volunteered suggestions for the games this year, and Margaery had insisted on leaving her booth long enough to emcee this particular event. Brienne has no idea who's working the booth while she's gone, but Margaery is one of those people who seems to acquire minions wherever she goes, so Brienne assumes that whoever it is is happy to perform the duty and will be well-rewarded by Margaery's smiles as well as by her generous nature.
For now, Margaery is armed with a clipboard and is facing down a line of couples who are seated in folding chairs facing each other.
"Welcome to the Day of the Maiden," Margaery declares. "May she bless all of you with her light. In honor of the day, and as a celebration of all of you and your relationships with each other, we've chosen a few activities that will allow you to get to know each other that much better."
"Brienne and Jaime should play!" calls a voice from partway down the line. When Brienne looks more closely, it turns out to be Pia, whom Brienne used to babysit for. She'd been very excited to meet Jaime earlier, and she's currently looking back and forth between him and Brienne like little cartoon hearts are going to start erupting from her eyeballs any second.
"Oh, that's--" Brienne looks toward Margaery for a lifeline, but she's just standing with her clipboard, blinking innocently.
"Please, Brienne?" Pia begs. "Just for a few rounds."
Brienne looks at Jaime, questioning. He gives her one of the Boyfriend Jaime grins he's been deploying all morning and sweeps her hand up in his, bringing it to his lips. "I'd be honored, darling."
A small smattering of applause erupts from the crowd, along with a few cheers; under the cover of it, Brienne mutters to Jaime, "Too much, dial it down."
He just keeps hold of her hand and leads her to the chair that Sansa has very helpfully dragged over for her, then seats himself facing her.
"Today's challenge," Margaery goes on, brandishing the fishbowl she's holding, "is what you might call an emotional intimacy endurance challenge. Each of the pieces of paper in the bowls in front of you holds a question you must answer about your partner--or partners," she adds, for the benefit of the throuple that Brienne had noticed down the line. "For each question answered, you'll receive one point. The partnerships with the most points at the end of an hour will win prizes, and the rest of you will hopefully leave here with a greater understanding of those you love."
Brienne darts a nervous glance at Jaime. She hopes, desperately, that the questions aren't too personal; if they get up to leave now, it will be in full view of half of the most committed gossips on the island, and it might well get back to her dad that she and Jaime have had some falling-out. Jaime just shrugs and winks at her like he doesn't have a care in the world, so at least he doesn't seem freaked out, which is simultaneously comforting and annoying.
"Your questions, my lady," says Margaery, depositing her fishbowl in Brienne's lap.
"Aren't you and Sansa going to play?" Brienne asks. If she's going to make a fool of herself, she might as well have company.
Margaery waves a graceful hand. "Oh, we tested the questions together the other night already. We found it very… inspiring, actually." Sansa is all the way down the line, helping the last players get ready with a cheerful smile on her face, but she looks over at Margaery and, as Brienne watches, she turns rose red and her smile goes utterly besotted.
Margaery smiles back at her with every bit as much blatant affection, then pats Brienne on the shoulder. "See? You'll love it."
Brienne isn't sure she's got what it takes to exact revenge on someone as devious as Margaery, but she's sure as hell going to try at some point.
She looks over at Jaime. He's still got that Boyfriend Jaime smile on his face; at the moment, though, she's more interested in how Actual Jaime feels. She makes a show of inspecting the bottom of the bowl. "I think the bowl is cracked--this could be a safety hazard. Jaime, come over here where the light is better, tell me if I'm seeing things." And she rises from her chair and walks a few feet away, out of hearing range of the rest of the crowd.
Jaime follows her, ignoring Margaery's, "We're starting in two minutes, everyone!"
"What's up?" he asks when he catches up to her.
"I just wanted to check in." She pitches her voice low just in case. "I know Margaery can be pushy, but we don't have to do this, you know. Or we could just ask each other about, like, the weather or something. Just for show." She's at least grateful that the chairs that Sansa had dragged out for them are a bit of distance away from the next closest people in the line, so they'll have that much privacy, but still.
He cocks his head at her. "Are you… worried about me?"
She shrugs. "I just--this kind of thing wasn't on our list, and just because you agreed to this game in front of a bunch of people doesn't mean you actually agreed. I just wanted to give you an out, if you want one."
He's still got that bemused look on his face, though as she watches, suspicion starts to creep in at the edges. "Do you want an out?"
Bravado automatically jumps to her tongue--she hates backing down from a dare--but she's hoping that he'll give her an honest answer, so it's only fair that she give him the same courtesy. She considers it, turns it over in her mind like a puzzle cube. "Even Margaery probably wouldn't put anything too personal in there, not to be asked in the middle of a crowd of people," she muses. "And if we do pull one that we don't want to answer, we can always improvise in the moment."
He nods. "I can do that. I wouldn't want to cheat the Maiden, anyway, who knows how she'd smite us." He glances up at the sky, making an exaggerated face.
"What stories are you reading, where the Maiden is into smiting?" she asks, grinning despite herself.
"The best ones, of course," he answers, like it's glaringly obvious. For some reason the idea of it delights her, and she lets herself keep grinning at him. As much as she's dreading what might be in Margaery's Intimacy Fishbowl, she's relieved, a little, that Jaime hasn't run screaming at the very prospect of all this. It's not like he's ever been shy in King's Landing, but she's often seen him a bit more controlled, a bit more careful, even around Tyrion; the island sense of freedom seems to be working on him, though, and it's a good look for him.
Then, while she's still grinning at him, he leans in to press a quick kiss on her cheek, and she has to consider if it's a bit too good of a look.
"Practice," he explains cheerfully, while she struggles to keep from blowing what cover they have in front of all these people. He tucks her hand into the crook of his arm--she's much too conscious, suddenly, of the warmth of his fingers on hers--and leads her back to their seats. Boyfriend Jaime would be a fearsome force, if he actually meant any of it.
"If you're quite ready, Jaime and Brienne?" That's Sansa, who's now joined Margaery, and is watching them with her chin raised and amusement dancing in her eyes.
Sansa is one of Brienne's favorite people in the entire world, and therefore Brienne feels no compunction whatsoever about telegraphing as clearly as possible, they will never find your body.
"Ready," is all she says aloud.
Margaery raises a gauzy, fluttering scarf. "All right, everyone, your intimacy endurance test starts…" She whips it down to her side. "Now!"
Brienne starts to dig through the paper in the bowl, her heart beating a bit erratically in her chest. When she draws out one of the folded pieces of paper, she can't look at it for a few seconds, afraid it's going to say something like what's your favorite sex position. When she's unfolded it, though, she breathes a sigh of relief.
"What's your favorite meal to share with your partner?" she asks Jaime.
He taps his finger against his mouth, pondering it, and then she sees inspiration dawn on his face. "Cheese puffs and soda," he says triumphantly.
She snickers, thinking of all their Dance of Dragons sessions. "Nothing but the finest for us. Your turn." She hands him the bowl.
He rustles his fingers through it, then comes up with a scrap of his own, which he unfurls with as much dramatic flair as it's possible to apply to a three-inch piece of paper. Then she watches his eyes scan it and his nostrils flare slightly, and she can see the flush creep up from his neck and start to make its way to the apples of his cheeks.
He clears his throat a bit. "What's your favorite color of socks?" he asks.
Oh, gods. Maiden only knows what question he'd actually chosen. "Green," she answers. He tucks the piece of paper in his pocket, and hands the fishbowl to her.
As soon as she reads the next one she pulls, she's tempted to bail on it, but somehow she feels like the Maiden will know if she passes on too many semi-reasonable questions. She sighs, knowing she's opening herself up for mockery. "What smell do you associate most with me?"
Both of Jaime's eyebrows climb up toward his forehead, and Brienne grits her teeth a little. So when he cocks his head and says, thoughtfully, "New books. And peppermint," it surprises her. She does drink peppermint tea sometimes while she's at work, so he's not wrong, it's just… surprising. Then he grins again. "And red licorice."
She laughs at that; during their all-nighter campaign, the one where he'd supposedly asked her out afterward, they'd all nearly made themselves sick on the largest tub of red licorice she'd ever seen in her life. She's still not sure where Ygritte had found it; one of the hells, presumably. "Ugh, don't remind me." She passes the bowl back to him.
This selection seems to meet with his approval, since his grin doesn't falter. "Your favorite memory of me. I mean, of your partner."
She hesitates, and he leans back in his chair a little and folds his arms behind his head, the edges of his smile going smug. "Take your time, I know it might be difficult to sift through them all."
She can't very well flip him off in front of the nearby children, especially not since she's technically here in a leadership capacity, so she offers him her deadliest death glare instead. He's unfazed, as usual.
One of the first things that pops into her mind is the time he'd stopped by on his way to some event and he'd breezed in the door of the shop wearing a suit that was basically a sartorial critical hit. That one, though, she's not going to give him the satisfaction of recalling--she'd stumbled over her tongue badly enough that night as it was, no need to bring it up again. It would also be easy enough to tell him that her favorite memory is of the same night he'd just referenced, of their perfect campaign and their alleged first date. It wouldn't even be untrue, necessarily, aside from the date part. But it feels too easy, the ground too well-covered already, and she's never been one to back down from a challenge. And besides, he'd noticed her peppermint tea, so the least that Girlfriend Brienne can do is let him know that she's noticed things about him, too.
"There are two options," she tells him, and that fazes him a little, she can see it. "The first one is…" She's never mentioned this before; she's not even sure that he knows that she knows about it. "The first one is from an afternoon when Ygritte and I both had to run to the back and a girl came in looking for beginners' stuff. When I came back out to the front, I overheard you asking her what kinds of books she liked, what kind of gaming experience she was looking for. You took her seriously and you didn't condescend to her, and you took the time to find out what she was interested in, instead of just assuming you knew best. And then you found her the perfect thing, and now she comes in every couple of weeks--in fact, she just bought the new Dragon Master's Guide, and is talking about running her own campaign."
His eyes have gone a bit wider, his mouth ever so slightly slack with disbelief. When she stops talking, he blinks like she's just flicked water in his face, and ducks his head to scratch at the back of his neck. "I didn't know you knew about that."
"Well, I did." It's satisfying to have finally caught him off-guard, but as the seconds tick by and he doesn't come up with any further response, she takes pity on him. "For the record, my second favorite memory was last night, when you let my dad teach you a sea shanty."
He laughs at that, a bright burst of sound like the sun reflecting off the river on a clear winter day. A little dazzled, she grins back at him. When he hands her the fishbowl, she barely looks at the text on the paper before she reads it out to him.
"Favorite Sevenmas childhood memory."
She curses herself when the happiness drains from his face. He wrinkles his nose before dropping his chin to his chest again. "Not applicable."
Something twinges in Brienne's own chest, and she sits perfectly still, caught again between reaching out to him and just moving on and pretending it hadn't happened. It's hard enough to know how to act around him in the privacy of her room, but in front of all these people, she doesn't know what he'd want her to do, and somehow, she doesn't think that question is in Margaery's fishbowl.
She's just starting to stretch an arm out toward him when a hand taps her on the shoulder. She startles, and looks up to find "Goody" Goodwin, her father's lifelong best friend, looking down at her with an anxious face.
"Goody!" She stands to hug him, slightly awkwardly while she's still holding the fishbowl. He doesn't seem to mind, patting her on the back as they embrace.
"It's good to see you, girl," he tells her. "Your dad just lights up like a bonfire every time you come home."
Guilt and warmth jockey for space in her stomach. "Thanks. This is--" She turns to Jaime, ready to stall for time if he needs it. He's got his company smile pasted back on, though, and he's standing, too, holding out his hand. "This is my boyfriend, Jaime. Jaime, this is Goody--not only does he own the best restaurant on the island, but he's been my dad's best friend most of their lives."
"Long enough that we've both forgotten how it started," Goody says wryly as he shakes Jaime's hand. "It's good to meet you, Jaime; I've already heard a lot about you. You've made quite the impression on Selwyn."
This time, Jaime's smile is genuinely pleased. "Well, he's certainly made the same on me. It's a pleasure to meet you, sir."
"I wish I was here just to say hi," Goody goes on, turning back to Brienne, "but I'm afraid I have something we need to talk about. Can you walk over here with me a bit?"
Brienne's heart seizes in her chest. Maybe something's wrong with Goody. Maybe something's wrong with her dad. Maybe--
She hurries after him, Jaime right on her heels.
"Just give it to me straight," she says when they're out of range of the giggling game-players. "I can take it. Is it my dad? What?" She can feel Jaime take a step closer, close enough that she has a vague sensation of heat at her back.
"No, no, nothing like that, I'm sorry to scare you," Goody says quickly, closing a bracing hand around her forearm. "Your dad's fine. It's just that, what with the wind-storm we had up north last night, there was a power outage, and my damn cooler went out." His face sinks into deeper lines, worry etched in every one. "I lost all the hens for the feast tomorrow, Brienne. And the custard pies are all spoiled, too. It was cold enough that I could save most of the vegetables, and I've got potatoes in stock, but." He lifts a shoulder. "That might be the best that we can do."
Brienne's brain is already racing, trying to come up with alternative plans. The hens come from a farm in Morne, and are raised specifically for the feast every year; they're a centerpiece, a tradition. "We'll…" She trails off. Nothing springs to mind. She sets a hand on Goody's shoulder. "I think we're out of luck on Mornish game hens for the year, but that's not the only thing in the world to eat. We'll think of something. Just… just give me a little time."
Goody's face is mournful. "I'm sorry to cost you extra trouble, Brienne. I've called all my suppliers that I can think of, but with the holiday…"
She pats him on the arm. "I've got this, don't worry." She's not at all sure that she's got this, but the Feast is too important, so she doesn't have a choice.
She squeezes Goody's arm one more time, then starts striding purposefully back toward the lot where she'd left her car, preoccupied by scrolling through a mental address book for anyone who might be able to help. When Jaime comes up behind her, it surprises her so much that she almost jumps.
"Hey, hold up," he says.
She whirls to face him. "Sorry." And she is, but she doesn't have any time to spare, either. "It's just--I'm sorry to bail on you, but the Day of the Mother Feast is a huge deal. It helps fund after-school programs, shelters, half the resources we have here. This can't wait, I'm sorry." She hands him the fishbowl. "But you can hang out here, go visit the food stalls, have a good time. And apologize to Margaery and Sansa for me, please, I know they'll be disappointed."
"Brienne." It comes out sharp with annoyance. "Let me help."
"Oh." It shocks her so much that she actually takes half a step back from him. "I--oh."
"I know it's hard to believe that I could actually be useful, but occasionally I can manage," he says, his jaw clenching.
Oh. She starts to reach for his arm, then thinks better of it. "I know you're useful," she says. "You've done a fantastic job here already. I just--" It's not easy to admit it. But he looks so hurt and mutinous, and he's been so easygoing and, yes, helpful, so far, that she forces it out. "I've just been on my own for a long time. I'm not used to having the option. Okay?"
As she watches, his hand unclenches from its white-knuckled grip on the stupid fishbowl. "Okay," he says. "I get that. But let someone else take a turn for once, Tank."
She rolls her eyes; he knows she can't push back against the nickname now, not when she's feeling guilty. "Okay, so." She squares her shoulders. "Any thoughts on what we should do? I'd welcome your input."
She says it a little too formally, trying to poke fun at herself for both of their sakes, but he doesn't notice--his eyes have gone distant. She can almost see the gears turning in his brain, all those little cogs and wheels that spit out strategies during their campaigns. "Let me handle the hens."
She restrains herself from wincing. "They're from Morne, though, and the local angle is a big part of the point of all this," she explains. "I don't think--"
He nods. "I know, I heard you." He pulls his phone out of his pocket. "You see what you can do about the pies. I'll call you in an hour and we'll see what still needs to be done."
"Brienne." He huffs out a frustrated breath. "Will you just trust me? Please?"
She looks at him for a few more seconds, then nods. "Okay. Back here in an hour."
"Okay." Immediately, he starts off, and she has to call out after him.
He spins on his heel. "Yeah?"
"Thank you," she tells him, with as much feeling as she can put into the space between them.
He looks surprised at that, then pleased, a soft smile playing at the edges of his mouth. "Thank me in an hour," he calls back, and with a final wave, he heads toward Sansa and Margaery to make their excuses.
* * * * * * *
"I still can't believe you have friends who have planes," Brienne says to Jaime as they're picking through the last of their dinner that night. Given that they'd spent their afternoon and most of their evening wrangling food arrangements for other people, they hadn't had much energy left for making their own, so Brienne had absconded with a couple of quarts of chowder and some leftover rolls that had gone unsold by one of their food vendors. It's taken Jaime, her dad, and her approximately fifteen minutes to devour them.
Jaime shrugs. "What can I say, I have strange friends. Addam's a good guy, though, you'll like him. What I can't believe is that you managed to find a secret stash of Mornish game hens in Riverrun."
Brienne had been pretty thrilled about that; apparently Sansa's chef uncle had ordered a large shipment a month ago for an event that had never happened. Enter Brienne, with an event all ready for him on a silver platter.
"It was your idea to consider people's relatives as potential resources," Breinne returns. By the time their hour had elapsed, she and Jaime had both been frustrated by the fits and starts of their progress; once they'd started brainstorming off each other, though, all their plans had seemed to fall together like the planks of a bridge.
Her dad is beaming at them both. "You've certainly both helped save the day."
Inordinately pleased with himself--with good reason, Brienne has to admit--Jaime reclines back into the narrow pillows of her dad's utilitarian couch, his arm stretching along the back of it. "It's a little bit resource allocation, a little bit strategy," he tells Selwyn. "Brienne sells a bunch of games that have taught us all well."
Brienne looks over her shoulder at him, surprised. He shrugs, as if to say it's true.
The satisfaction on his face, the angle of his arm, and the easy compliment he'd just given her is enough to have her considering how Girlfriend Brienne would respond to this situation. Slowly, so he has time to escape if he wants to, she adjusts herself on the couch until her back is resting against the line of his arm.
His fingers flex and flutter for half a second before settling on her shoulder. She can feel his biceps tighten near her neck as he gently bends his arm, pulling her in until she's pressed along his side. He's warm, and his hoodie is soft, and he somehow smells warm, even though that's not actually a thing. Her pulse is beating hard against the inside of her wrist.
"Addam should be here with the hens by eight in the morning," he tells her. The idle patterns he's drawing on her shoulder with the tips of his fingers are distracting enough, and somehow the fact that he knows the schedule as well as she does sends her mind wandering even further afield, into a brief flight of fantasy of what this could be like if it were all real.
But it's not. She reins her thoughts back in with some effort. "Okay. Dad, that's an okay time for you to take Dacey to meet him at the airfield, right?"
"Sure. I've got the whole week off, so I'm completely at your disposal." If Selwyn had been beaming before, he's practically incandescent now that she and Jaime have both solved their logistical problem and are cuddling on top of it. He looks like the Evenstar their family had once named their title for, and Brienne sighs a little bit. Jaime seems to feel it, judging by how he edges his hand over until he can rub gently at the back of her neck.
Brienne hadn't previously been aware it was possible to feel both relaxed and flustered at the same time.
"Okay," she repeats. She does have a to-do list written on a notebook that's resting on the coffee table, but she finds that she doesn't want to lean away from Jaime's warmth long enough to retrieve it. It hardly matters anyway; she's been over each item a dozen times already. "Dad and Dacey meet Addam to pick up the hens. You and I head over to the bakery to pick up the pies." Thanks to a combination of Jaime's charm and offer to help obtain supplies, and Brienne's promise to distribute business cards for the bakery to all the feast attendees, Sam Tarly and his partner Gilly had agreed to stay up all night baking an assortment of replacement pies for the Feast. "Then we meet at the kitchen at ten, and go from there. This…" She lowers her voice a little. "This might actually work?" She'd never really considered failure while they'd been focused on determining a new plan. Now that they've got one, though, she's finding a sort of retroactive fear of the worst, a little like looking back and seeing a patch of ice that she hadn't hit while driving.
"We got this," Jaime says, cheerfully confident in a way that Brienne thinks is probably tempting the wrath of some god or another. Maybe--she certainly hopes--the gods take the week off from wrath during the holidays.
But come to that, maybe Girlfriend Brienne's luck will be better than Actual Brienne's anyway. Maybe just for tonight, Girlfriend Brienne can let herself lean back into the pressure of Boyfriend Jaime's comforting hand, and bask in the light of her dad's proud smile, and believe.
* * * * * * *
Addam ends up landing an hour late due to unexpected winds, there's some kind of technical problem that results in tickets for the feast needing to be reissued, and three of the scheduled servers end up calling in with food poisoning from a late-night pizza run the night before, meaning that Brienne jumps into the breach and Jaime jumps right after her. But at the end of the day, they manage to pull off the feast with aplomb, elan, style, and a shit-ton of frantic running around behind the scenes.
After brushing her teeth before bed, Brienne stumbles on aching legs back to her room and finds Jaime sprawled out on the floor in their makeshift cocoon, his legs at careless angles and one of his arms flung over his eyes.
She snickers a little. "Jaime? Are you alive down there?"
"Nggh," is his response. She can't really blame him; she's nearly asleep on her feet, herself, and those same feet are protesting so loudly she's a little worried that they're going to end up keeping the neighbors awake. "I don't think I've ever been this tired in my life," Jaime goes on. "Do you know that the Morrigens ordered seven refills of wine in less than an hour? Seven. And I thought my dad's friends could drink."
"More wine means more generous bids at the auction." Brienne lets herself sink down on her bed. It feels softer than usual. Downright beckoning. But she has to say something first. "Did I say thank you yet?"
Underneath the line of Jaime's forearm, she can still see his mouth, and it's curved in a smile. "Yes, Tank. You said it a bunch of times, actually." Then he moves his arm enough that he can meet her eyes. "Always happy to hear it again, though," he adds, that glint of mischief managing to make its way through his exhaustion.
"Thank you," she tells him, and she can't be anything but sincere about it. Despite the fact that filling in on server duty isn't exactly in his wheelhouse, he'd been surprisingly good at it: he'd turned out to have a good memory for what people liked, and a charming self-deprecation that made them instantly forgive any mistakes he made. And she can't fault his work ethic; the only time he'd taken a break all night had been when she'd basically shoved him into a chair with a plate of leftover hors d'oeuvres in his hands and had glared at him every time he'd looked like he was going to get up.
"You're welcome," Jaime answers. "As weird as it sounds, it felt good, actually--it was good to feel like we were making a difference, you know?"
She smiles, pleased down to her bones. "Yeah, I know that feeling exactly."
He shifts enough to let his hand drift down to rest over his chest. "Hey, you didn't tell me that you're like a celebrity here."
"What?" It startles a laugh out of her.
"I mean it," he says with a tired grin. "Half the people I talked to seemed to know you, and know we were dating. And half of those people either told me that they were so happy to see you happy, or threatened me with some sort of harm if I hurt you."
She laughs again, knowing she's blushing. "That's…" She can't quite wrap her head around it. "That has got to be an exaggeration."
He lifts a shoulder. "Believe what you want to believe, Tank, I'm just the messenger."
She ducks her head; right now, when she's so tired, and he's smiling at her like that, it's too much. "So, hey, Addam and Dacey, huh?" she offers, partially to change the subject and partially because she knows he's the only one who can truly share her delight at this turn of events.
Sure enough, his grin goes wider, as well as distinctly more smug. She can hardly blame him, given that she's feeling the same way herself. "Yeah," he says, "when I told Addam I thought he'd have a good time checking out the festival, I have to admit that wasn't exactly what I meant. It might turn out to be a nice bonus, though."
"For Dacey, too, I think." Brienne hadn't had a chance for much more than a few raised eyebrows at the way Addam seemed to constantly put himself in Dacey's orbit, though as she'd hugged Dacey goodbye at the end of the night, she hadn't been able to resist whispering, "Hey, so why aren't you dating him?"
Dacey had flipped her off in response, and then had headed in Addam's direction. As far as responses went, Brienne couldn't ask for much more.
"I'd high-five you for our success at matchmaking--which I think we should definitely take credit for and add to our list of proficiencies--but I don't think I can lift my arm," Jaime says. Under the blanket, she can see his legs move, see his toes come up and his face scrunch into a wince as he stretches his calves.
"Jaime," she says on impulse.
"Yeah?" The word is stretched around a massive yawn.
"Do you want to…" She almost loses her nerve, then goes on, "You worked really hard today, you shouldn't have to sleep on the floor. This bed is plenty big, and we're both adults--I think we can both sleep up here without anything untoward happening."
His eyes are steady on her. "Untoward, huh?" he says, in a slightly lower register that makes her stomach dip accordingly.
Ugh. Stupid Flirt Mode. "Listen," she says, "it's a limited-time offer." It's not, really, because he did work hard and she's not going to be able to sleep knowing he's on the unforgiving floor. But she's got to shift the focus somehow.
Jaime looks at her for another long moment, and she's just starting to feel a pang of that old fear of rejection pricking at her when he nods and throws off the blanket that's covering him. "Okay. Thanks."
Brienne scoots over until she comes in contact with the wall, trying to give Jaime as much space as possible without making it look like she thinks he's got cooties. He clears his throat and lifts the covers--gods, why do his bare feet look so naked--and slides into bed next to her. He tucks the duvet under his arms, careful to press it down along the side of him that's closest to her, and settles into the mattress with a groan.
"Gods. This feels amazing. Thank you."
Brienne winds her fingers into the waistband of her sweatpants, trying to keep from mentally translating those words and that sound into any other situation. Get a grip, this would be normal for Girlfriend Brienne. "No problem." She swallows hard. "Can you get the light, please?"
"Oh. Sure." Jaime reaches for the bedside lamp, then diverts his hand to tilt up the framed photo she's got on the nightstand. "Hey, is this your mom?"
Brienne sits up enough to crane her head over his shoulder to see the photo, even though she's seen it a thousand times. "Yeah, that's her." In the picture, she and her mom are at the seashore. The sky is wide, bright blue, and Brienne is kneeling in the sand, holding up a seashell while her mom looks at her with an expression of such delight and warmth that it still makes Brienne's heart turn over in her chest. When she'd been younger, she'd spent a lot of nights wishing she could find a spell that would let her live in that photo forever.
Jaime whistles low. "Okay, now I see where you get the height."
She smacks him on the shoulder. "Quit perving on my mom." Then it occurs to her that her comment could be interpreted as implying that Jaime's perving on her own height by extension, and she inwardly kicks herself as she braces for his teasing response. But he just laughs and flops back down onto his pillow.
"My mom used to take us to the beach a lot, too." He stares at the ceiling, his eyes going a little distant and his smile going soft-edged. "She even used to be able to convince my dad to go, despite there being no purpose to it." His voice goes clipped and formal on the phrase. "He would've done anything for her. Any of us would have."
He's never told her that much about his mom before, only that she'd died when he and his twin sister were about ten. Brienne wants to reach out to him, but given that they're already sharing a bed, it seems like a dangerous line to walk. So she just curls on her side to face him, cheek pillowed on her fist. "She sounds wonderful."
Jaime's smile widens and he rolls his head to meet her gaze. "She was. You'd have liked her. She'd definitely have liked you. But she was just one of those people that everybody liked. And honestly, the way he loved her is one of the only things I've ever really liked about my dad."
"Yeah?" Brienne says, because he seems to have more to say.
"Yep," Jaime answers, the p popping decisively. He looks back up at the ceiling. "That's been my whole thing with dating, actually--what's the point if it's not like that, you know?"
Brienne blinks; she hadn't seen that one coming. "I guess mine is kind of similar," she confesses in a low voice. She's so used to people not understanding. "My dad was a mess after my mom died, and I… I can't imagine ever having to go through that. So I just… don't."
Jaime snorts. "Here's to healthy coping mechanisms, huh?" he says ruefully.
His matter-of-fact assessment catches her off-guard--when she looks at it that way, she has to chuckle, too. "I guess so."
"I think that's a big part of why I got into gaming, too," Jaime muses. "My mom died and I just wanted to be anywhere and anyone else."
Something glows warm in the center of Brienne's chest. "That was definitely a part of it for me too, actually." That hadn't been all of it--she'd also felt too tall and too wide and too strong and too strange for the real world; fantasy worlds had offered her the promise of fitting in somehow. It had only been when she'd started to find other people who were similarly inclined that she'd begun to feel like she had a place.
Jaime looks sideways at her, catching his bottom lip between his teeth before letting it slide free. "Well, Tank, while I'm sorry for the reason it happened, I gotta say, I'm glad you went the route you did."
"You too," is all Brienne can answer, too distracted by the movement of his mouth to think too much about her own.
Then that same mouth forms an o shape. "Ooh, hang on, I just remembered something."
"What?" she asks, but he's already scrambling out of bed, digging in his messenger bag until he comes up with a half-sized bottle of champagne. Afterward, he hurries back under the covers, groaning as he does.
"Good gods, I hurt in places I didn't even know I had."
She's not going to consider any of his places right now. "Where did you get that?"
"Goody gave a few to me as a thank-you," he explains. "Well, us, really."
"And you were going to tell me this when?" she demands.
His jaw drops. "Are you accusing me of hoarding our hard-earned champagne? How dare you, madam."
"How dare you, sir," she fires back, but she's too giddily tired to keep from dissolving into giggles.
"Anyway," he says breezily, "I'm telling you now." The bottle is, blessedly, a screw-top, so Jaime manages to twist it off without too much trouble. A promising little cloud of carbonation drifts up as he sets the cap aside. Then his expression goes more solemn, though his eyes are still warm and bright. He offers her the bottle. "To our moms, okay?"
As soon as he says it, a lump rises in Brienne's throat. "Yeah, absolutely. To our moms." She sits up a little, enough that she can take a drink without spilling anything. She tries to keep as much of her mouth off the rim of the bottle as possible; Jaime doesn't seem to mind, though, just takes the bottle back when she offers it, wraps his lips around it and takes a long pull.
She guesses that's a normal enough thing for Boyfriend Jaime to do. Girlfriend Brienne would probably like it, too, the idea that the bottle would still hold the echo of the warmth of his mouth.
They don't say anything else for a little while after that, passing the bottle back and forth until it's empty. Between the exhaustion and the quiet and the alcohol, Brienne finds her eyelids starting to droop despite her best attempts to stay awake. Jaime doesn't seem to be faring much better; his golden eyelashes fan out over his cheeks when his eyes drift closed, the bottle tipping in his hand where it's propped up on his chest.
Brienne reaches over to take the bottle and set it on the windowsill above her head. "Hey," she says softly.
Jaime stirs. "Nnn."
Tired as she is, she can't help grinning. He looks like an overgrown cat stretched out in a sunbeam. "The light, Jaime."
She snorts and rolls her eyes a little, then leans over him herself to turn off the light. She has just enough time to see his eyes open again before the dark descends, with only the faint light of the moon filtering through the window.
Brienne settles back onto her pillow. She's warmer already, with him in the bed, so she's likely to end up too hot on his side and too cold on the side that's against the wall. But for now, she's pretty sure she could fall asleep in the middle of an ice floe. And besides, it's strangely comforting having him there, with his steady breathing lulling her like the sound of the sea always had when she'd used to leave her window open in the summer.
She's drifting, hazy and heavy, when she hears him murmur, "'Night, Brienne," so low she can barely hear it.
She smiles a little, in the dark where he can't see her. "'Night, Jaime," she answers, and lets sleep claim her.
Whew! Getting this in just under the wire for the new year. Thank you again to the small village who helped make this possible: slips and her amaaaazing challenge-organizing skills, forbiddenfantasies and virareve and their delightful enthusiasm, and SD Wolfpup, who read this whole long thing twice and provided very helpful suggestions. Nire, I love you so much, and I wish you and Lady Catara the happiest of new years! <333333
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Having seen her share of movies, Brienne half-expects to wake up in some embarrassingly compromising position with Jaime, but it turns out that neither one of them has moved much during the night except that he's ended up on his side facing away from her, one arm flung over the side of the bed. His mouth is slack and he's drooling a little; objectively speaking, it's probably the least attractive she's ever seen him look, yet she's suddenly seized with the impulse to lean over and press a kiss to his temple, like some kind of sleeping maiden fantasy but with more consideration for consent.
None of that is part of their agreement, though, so she contents herself with running the pads of her fingers along the very tips of his hair where it's smashed up against the pillow. Then she wiggles her way out of the bed feet-first in an attempt to keep from disturbing him. It works, almost, until she brushes against him just as she's stretching one leg out toward the floor and he stirs with a muffled groan.
"Whatreydoing," he mumbles, clearly annoyed, his eyes still shut. "Slpng."
"You can sleep," she says, keeping both her voice and her laugh quiet. She'd been afraid it would be awkward between them this morning, but this isn't so bad, the hush of the early hour and his sleep-thick muttering. "I'm going fishing with my dad today, remember? Addam's going to pick you up later so you can both check out the festival." It's part of her agreement that every year, she gets the Day of the Father off to hang out with her dad. This year, he'd seemed particularly insistent on it, and she's been looking forward to some one-on-one time with him anyway, regardless of how easily Jaime had seemed to fit himself into their home. She'd felt a little guilty at the prospect of leaving Jaime to fend for himself, but Addam's arrival had been the perfect thing to assuage any concerns about that.
"Mmm." Jaime's eyelids drift open, and he gives her a sleepy smile. She's seen quite a few of his various smiles over the past few days, but that one is new, unguarded, and it makes something go tight in her chest. "That's right. Have fun with your dad." The words are a little more distinct now, though the ends of them still run into each other.
"Thanks," she says. "Go back to sleep."
"Mmf," he mutters, eyelids sinking shut again.
He looks so cozy and peaceful and rumpled that she has a brief, wild desire to crawl back into bed with him, curl up and let the rest of the world take care of itself. Her dad is waiting, though, so she just smiles fondly at his sleeping face and starts digging in her suitcase for her clothes.
* * * * * * *
The lake is as clear as glass, and the frost on the tall grass at the perimeter sparkles in the early morning sun. Mist hovers over the surface of the water, which is broken only by the occasional ripple as a fish darts up for a snack before retreating. Birds call to each other occasionally, tree to tree.
Brienne sighs happily. Now it feels like Sevenmas for sure.
"I'm so glad we could do this," she tells her dad as she reclines against the back of the boat with her fishing rod braced between her feet. They don't always catch much on these expeditions, but of course that isn't the point.
"Me too," he says. His hair looks whiter than she's used to, though maybe it's just the light, and he's been quieter than usual so far, too, even by his standards, which concerns her a bit. She reassures herself by thinking of how he'd nearly cracked her ribs when he'd hugged her good morning. He's still in good health, and she's still grateful. "Actually," he goes on, as he scrapes the toe of his boot along a patch of mud at the bottom of the boat, "there's something I've been wanting to talk to you about."
I knew it. Adrenaline spears through her early-morning calm. "What? What's wrong?"
"Brienne." He smiles at her, gruff and reassuring and a little bit sad. "Not all news is bad news."
She breathes in through her nose, out through her mouth, trying to slow her racing heart. "Okay, fair point. So what is it?"
"I wanted to tell you that…" He pauses, staring out over the water. "Gods, there's no way to ease you into this." Then he looks back at her and clears his throat in the harrumphing dad sort of way that he always has when he's been about to wade into unfamiliar territory like tampons or school dances. "Brienne, I wanted to tell you that Goody and I have been… well, we've been dating."
"Dating?" The sound her brain starts making at that one word isn't so far off from that of a fishing reel rapidly unspooling. "Dating who?" Had they decided to join some sort of middle-aged hookup service together?
A short laugh slips out of him, though it has a faintly agonized edge. "Dating each other, sweetheart," he says.
Brienne can't help it; her jaw drops. Her dad and Goody? Her dad and Goody. "I.." She's so astonished that for a second, she can't even form words. Then she sees the anxious, unhappy quirk at the edge of her dad's mouth, and hurries to assure him, "I mean, I'm so happy for you, of course. Goody's amazing, and you've been friends for so long." Some of the tension eases out of his shoulders. "I just…" She takes a deep breath. "I'm sorry, this is a lot to take in. When did… when did this start?"
Another scrape of his boot on the bottom of the boat. "Well, that's the thing. We've actually been dating for about six years now--since not long after you left for college."
"Six years?" Brienne nearly screeches. A bird squawks in disapproval and wings up into the air. "You shut up!" she yells at it, then turns back to her dad. "You've been dating your best friend for six years, and you're just telling me this now?"
"I didn't know how to tell you," he says, his eyes dropping back to the fishing rod in his hand. "I know how hard it was on both of us, losing your mom, and the two of us were kind of our own island for quite a while there. I didn't… I didn't know if you'd take it the wrong way. And then the longer I went without telling you, the harder it got." Then he looks up at her, something halfway to a hopeful smile on his lips. "But then you brought Jaime here, and I thought that if you were ready to heal from what happened, then you'd understand how I could be ready, too."
"Dad." She can't believe he'd hide something this momentous from her; the frustration of it burns her throat as the word comes out. "I'm a fully grown adult. Did you think I couldn't handle knowing that you'd found someone? That you were happy?"
"How could I be happy when you were alone?" he asks, and something seems to snap inside her chest.
"I'm fine on my own!" she shouts. She's probably scaring the fish now, but she couldn't care less. "I've always been fine! And it's honestly pretty fucking insulting that you keep suggesting otherwise!"
"Brienne." His mouth is set in a tense line. "I just wanted to know that you were taken care of."
"I can take care of myself," she insists. "You of all people should know that, since you taught me how. Or did you think you were just humoring me, like when you used to let me pretend to mow the lawn when I was a kid?"
"Brienne." He keeps one hand on his fishing rod and leans over to put the other one on her knee. "You know I wasn't doing anything of the sort."
"Do I?" It's on the tip of her tongue to tell him the truth about her and Jaime, let him see what he's driven her to with this patriarchal crap. But he looks so distressed, so uncomfortable that her heart contracts; he's just told her what should have been good news, and he can't even meet her eyes now. He sits back in the boat, squinting up into the morning sky.
Brienne clenches her hand around the end of the fishing rod and sighs. "Look, Dad. I know we're not really good at talking about stuff. But I am an adult now, and I need you to be able to be honest with me about things. Especially big things like you being in love." She tilts her head; she and her dad don't really go into this kind of thing normally, but given that they've already upended the box and dumped all the game pieces on the table, she might as well ask, "You are in love, right?"
He hesitates, and she can see his neck go red; he's got the same fair skin that she does, despite it being more weathered. "I am," he tells her--or rather, tells the sky, since that's still where he's looking.
There's a twinge in Brienne's stomach at that, which surprises her. She is happy for him. She wants him to be happy. And though he's never been the social butterfly type, she's been worried about him sometimes, rattling around that house by himself, saying goodnight to her mom's picture. And despite the fact that she'd been fully unprepared for this revelation, the more she thinks about it, the more sense it makes--Goody and her dad have known each other half their lives, have stood next to each other through death and divorce and every change of every season. She's pretty sure that weeks pass where Goody is the only one her dad talks to.
She blinks away tears, and tells herself they're solely of happiness. "That's good, Dad. That's really, really good." She nudges his toe with hers. "I'm really happy for you."
That gets him to look at her, finally, and the tentative joy on his face makes her heart contract all over again. The idea of her dad looking for her approval is something she's having trouble fully comprehending--which, she guesses, only means that it goes well enough with all the other revelations of the morning. "Thank you, sweetheart," he tells her. After a pause, he adds, "And while I don't want to pry into your personal life, I do want to say that I'm glad that you brought Jaime home with you. I like him. I like the two of you together."
It's Brienne's turn to drop her gaze, as she suddenly becomes intensely preoccupied with making sure her reel is locked properly. "Thanks, Dad. He's been really glad to meet you too." She can be honest about that part, at least, though it just makes her feel worse. She hadn't considered the possibility that her dad and Jaime would hit it off so well, and the thought that the end of her fake relationship is probably going to be the end of that very real one, too, is starting to haunt her every bit as much as lying to her dad in the first place.
Somewhere off to her left, there's the little bloop and splash of a fish catching a part of its breakfast. A part that is not, sadly, her bait, but at least it brings her mind back to the task at hand. She sighs again, crushes her guilt down like she's forcing closed an overfull suitcase, and manages a smile. "Why don't you invite Goody over for dinner tonight? It would be nice to hang out with both of you."
Her dad's eyes widen, then crinkle at the sides as he smiles at her. "I'm sure he'd love that, and so would I." He glances away and angles his head down, swiping one eye quickly across the top of his shoulder. When he speaks again, his voice is rough. "Not much biting yet today."
Despite herself, Brienne smiles--that's a Sevenmas tradition, too. "No," she says, her ritual response, "not yet," and sits back and tries not to think about anything else.
* * * * * * *
As unobtrusively as possible, Brienne shifts from her left hip to her right in the bed, angling her knee up as much as she can without running into Jaime.
Jaime, who had insisted on sharing the bed with her again, even though it had been his turn to have it to himself. "The theory that we can both survive a night in this bed together has been proven, so we might as well do it again," he'd pointed out. She'd looked at the spot on the floor next to the bed, contemplated the effort of piling up all that bedding and then packing it away again in the morning to hide it from her dad, and then had agreed without further protest.
Now, though, she's regretting it, since she can't seem to get comfortable and she can't move freely, either. She rolls slowly to her back and works one hand up underneath her pillow, aiming for a slightly better angle on her neck.
"Brienne," comes Jaime's voice from the other side of the bed. Brienne freezes in mid-adjustment, and winces. Shit. "If I'd known you were going to be doing calisthenics all night, I'd have made you sleep on the floor after all."
"Sorry," she says miserably. "I can't sleep."
"Really? Same, for some reason." He rolls over so that he's facing her; when she turns her head to the side, he looks almost monochrome in the near-dark, the faint glint of moonlight reflecting off his eyes and painting his face in shadows. "So do you want to talk about it, or do you just want to keep up your cardio class over there all night?"
She sighs. "It's ridiculous."
"Hmm. I'll be the judge of that. And don't worry, I was raised in a very judgmental environment, so I'm an expert at it."
Brienne frowns; oddly enough, she's more disturbed by the reminder of Jaime having grown up like that--and by the almost matter-of-fact irony in his voice when he says it--than she is by the prospect of his judgment. It's dark, and something about that and the warmth of him next to her seems to be bypassing her normal defense mechanisms.
She's still wrestling with whether to respond to his initial question or to ask a follow-up one of her own when Jaime prods gently, "This wouldn't have anything to do with your dad suddenly confessing to you that he's been dating someone for six years, would it?"
She snorts; it comes out half-laugh and half frustration. "Ugh. It's predictable, right? I hate being predictable."
"That is not a word I'd use to describe you, Tank," he says. "And I think that, given that you and your dad are pretty close, being weirded out by finding out that he's been hiding something like that from you seems like a pretty normal reaction. Normal," he repeats, before she can interrupt, "which is not the same as predictable."
"The thing is, I don't even think it's just that," she muses. "I mean, I was upset at first, of course, but given that I've been lying to him for the past week, not to mention having dragged you into it, too, I can't exactly take mortal offense at him not being completely honest with me. It's also that… I should be happy for him," she says, fist clenching at her sides, tears pricking at the backs of her eyes again as she stares up at the ceiling. "Like, completely. Why can't I just be happy for him?"
There's a long pause, and then Jaime says, "Look. I could be really off-base here, so feel free to tell me to fuck off, but. You know what I told you last night about my dad, right? About how he felt about my mom?"
Brienne nods, then realizes she's not sure how well he can see her in the dark, and murmurs, "Yeah" instead.
"Okay, well," Jaime goes on, "at this point, any relationship he gets into is more about an advantageous contract than anything else. But if I thought he'd actually fallen in love again, there's a part of me that would feel a little strange about it, I think, even if I was also glad that he'd found someone for real."
The tears are threatening to overflow now; Brienne squeezes her eyes shut against them, though one leaks out anyway, making a warm path down the side of her temple until it ends up trickling into her ear. "I just. I know it's ridiculous. I know he deserves to be happy. It's not like I want him to be alone for the rest of his life, if that isn't what he wants. And he and Goody are amazing together--you saw how good." Now that their secret was out, the frankly teenaged level of shy, goofy grins that the two of them had been aiming at each other all night had been equal parts adorable and embarrassing.
"It was pretty disgustingly cute," Jaime agrees.
"But…" She pauses, hesitant to admit it even under cover of night. "I think that deep down, there was a part of me that kind of wanted my dad to be faithful to my mom forever. He loved her so much. I loved her so much." Another tear sneaks out the side of her eyelid. "Gods, I'm a terrible person, aren't I?"
"Brienne." Jaime shifts next to her, reaching out until he can rest his knuckles against her upper arm. "Demanding that your dad break up with Goody would make you a pretty terrible person. Giving them the silent treatment or having a tantrum about it would make you a terrible person. I'm sorry to burst your little bubble of self-flagellation, here, but having some trouble making adjustments to a pretty big change in your dad's life--and yours--doesn't make you terrible, it just makes you human."
She considers that, and after a moment, she gives a watery laugh. "I thought I was a tank."
"Hey," he says, his voice warm with laughter, "tanks have feelings, too. Don't limit yourself to such narrow-minded definitions of strong female characters."
That gets a real laugh out of her, bubbling out of her chest. "You do take notes, don't you?"
"More often than you think," he says, and it sends a little trickle of heat down her spine.
"How was your day, by the way?" she asks, before something more dangerous comes out of her mouth. "We were kind of too busy dealing with the lovebirds down there to get much into it."
"It was fine," he says, apparently willing to roll with the subject change. "Third-wheeling it with Addam and Dacey wasn't the least awkward thing I've ever done, but watching him trip over his own feet every time he looked at her kind of made up for it."
She chuckles. "I can only imagine. Well, if it's any consolation, I know Dacey well enough to know when she's interested in someone, and she's definitely more than a little interested in Addam. So I feel good about his chances."
"Good," Jaime answers. "Addam's the best, so he might almost deserve her."
Brienne grins. "Good."
There's a long pause, long enough that Brienne would think he'd fallen asleep if it weren't for the steady rhythm of his knuckles moving up and down, up and down along her arm. It's giving her goosebumps. She doesn't ask him to stop. If she doesn't say anything, maybe the gods won't know it's happening.
"I texted my dad today," he says after a while, and that's more than enough to bring her wandering brain back into sharp focus.
"Oh yeah?" Based on the tone of his voice, she's pretty sure she knows the answer, but she asks anyway, "How did it go?"
"He didn't answer," Jaime says quietly. "So. About like I expected."
"Then he's an asshole." It comes out more vehemently than she intends it to. She's not sorry. If she ever meets Jaime's dad, she's going to show him the meaning of the word tank.
Jaime makes an indistinct noise, the shadow of a laugh. "No argument here."
The resignation in it goes right to her heart. It's probably a bad idea, but she squirms a little, moving herself sideways until her shoulder is resting against his forehead. He makes another noise, one she can't interpret this time.
"Are we adding another proficiency, here, Tank?"
"Is that a problem?" she asks, thready with the breath she's holding, waiting for him to tell her thanks, but no thanks and decamp to the floor.
"I'll allow it."
She has exactly half a second to begin spiraling over the lukewarm response before he starts doing some squirming of his own. Before she knows it, he's got his chin hooked over her shoulder, his head tucked into the crook of her neck. Three of his fingers are splayed out along her upper arm, his thumb resting on her tricep. She can feel his breath through the thin material of her t-shirt, and she hopes to all the gods he can't feel her heartbeat, which likely wouldn't be restful to him at all.
She tips her head, feeling his hair soft against her cheek. "Seriously, though," she says, because it's important for him to know, even if she has to say it over the sound of her own blood in her ears. "Your dad's loss is our gain. And I don't know anyone who's met you here who would disagree."
"Well." When he speaks, his mouth is so close to her collarbone that she's not sure if she can feel his lips or if it's just her imagination. "Thanks for letting me crash your festival."
"Are you kidding?" she manages. "Between all the madness with the feast and my dad's little emotional firebomb, I can't imagine having gone through this without you." She says it without thinking, distracted by his nearness. But as soon as the words are out of her mouth, the awareness of them jolts through her, and it's a struggle to keep the tension out of her body.
I can't imagine having gone through this without you. She repeats it in her mind, inspecting each syllable carefully, looking for any cracks in the truth of them.
She doesn't find any. And it terrifies her. It's not so much that she's let herself depend on him so much in such a short time--though that in itself is unsettling--but that when she tries to look out toward the next year's festival, and the next, and the next, she sees Jaime's face there every time.
He re-settles his head, his fingers curling around her arm just above the elbow. "You okay to sleep?" His voice is starting to go slightly slurred.
"Yeah," she answers, trying to force the word out around her heart where it's lodged in her throat. "Yeah, of course I am." This whole time, she's been telling herself that the expiration date will save her. The problem is that apparently, if it's the right person, that expiration date can be nearly as dangerous after a week as after a decade, and that the only difference is the size of the piece it's going to take with her when it passes.
Somehow she's waded too far out into the water, and now the current has her; there's no going back.
Jaime's breathing goes deep and even, his chest rising and falling against her arm. Brienne just stares at the numbers on her clock ticking over, wondering what the hell she's supposed to do now.
* * * * * * *
The whole of the next day, those same words are still lurking at the back of her mind, and end up popping to the forefront at the most inconvenient times. They're there when she sees her dad and Goody at the breakfast table together when she comes downstairs in the morning, their heads bent close, murmuring softly to each other. They're there when she sees Addam's soft eyes and Dacey's atypical blush as they revolve around each other throughout the day's activities. Worst of all, they're there nearly every time she sees Jaime, from the moment she wakes up with his arm tucked over her waist, through all the moments she sees him cheerfully guiding various kids through their projects in the craft tent, right up to the moment when they dismiss the crowd for a couple of hours so that they can all prepare for the evening festivities.
Everywhere she looks, it feels like Jaime's there. And every time he's there, she starts to imagine the space that his absence would leave--will leave--and feels it like a scar from a wound she hasn't received yet.
She keeps herself as busy as she can, which isn't difficult; the centerpiece of the Day of the Crone is an evening ceremony where they light bonfires along the banks of the river, and everyone who wants to--adults and children alike--can bring a paper lantern with them and set it afloat in the water, carrying their wishes for the new year out to the sea. Brienne and Jaime and their volunteers spend the day helping the kids make as many as they can, and the festival's artisans either sell or donate the rest. It's long been one of Brienne's favorite traditions, and despite the general feeling of being knocked off her axis, she's pleased by how delighted Jaime seems by it, too, tromping down to the river next to her with his lantern cradled carefully in his hand.
"So what happens to the lanterns after they're set free?" Addam asks from her other side as they make their way towards the banks. He's been helping with the concessions duty most of the day, so he'd missed the details of the ceremony. Possibly because Brienne had explained them to Jaime during what was supposed to be their collective lunch break, only Dacey and Addam hadn't shown up to meet them at the appointed time. In fact, they'd only appeared near the end of the hour, looking distinctly rumpled.
Brienne is very much looking forward to giving Dacey shit about that as soon as she can get her alone.
"The lanterns go to the Crone, obviously," she tells Addam in the meantime, smiling, like her dad had always used to say to her. He grins back.
"Obviously," he says. "But what happens to their corporeal form?"
"The paper is water-soluble," Jaime volunteers. That had been another thing that had caught his enthusiasm; as soon as she'd relayed it, he'd immediately dunked one of the pieces into a glass of water just to watch it slowly melt until the paper was gone and the water was tinted rose-red. He doesn't seem to be feeling any of Brienne's inner turmoil; on the contrary, he seems to be throwing himself into the day with a kind of determined enthusiasm.
"And the fuel is just little bits of dried-out driftwood, soaked with enough oil to make them catch," Brienne finishes, for Addam's benefit. "Within a few months, there shouldn't be much left of them."
He smiles, inspecting the lantern in his hand. "Cool."
They've reached the riverbank now, and Brienne lets her eyes drift over the slowly-assembling crowd, trying to pick out some of the lanterns she'd helped make. Addam, she sees, is checking out the crowd as well, though Brienne's pretty sure he's not looking for arts and crafts. Sure enough, as soon as Dacey's dark head appears, he clears his throat.
"I'm gonna go check out the, ah, view," he says, edging in that direction.
"Tell the view we said hi," Jaime puts in, deliberately bland, and Addam flips him off before making his way over to Dacey.
Brienne can't help watching them for just a few seconds; they're adorable, for one thing, and she's deriving far too much enjoyment from the way that Addam's face goes bright red every time Dacey smiles at him. As a fellow fair-skinned person, she feels for him, but fortunately, Dacey's eyes go soft every time he does it, so she's pretty sure it's working in his favor.
But part of her also wants to keep an eye on them just to… see how they do it. See how they could meet, and spark, and be together, just like that, without knowing what's going to happen next. She knows, intellectually, that it happens all the time, to other people at least. It's just been a while since she's had a front-row seat to it, and she finds herself wanting to inspect all of its pieces and figure out how they fit together.
"That seems to be progressing," Jaime observes, having drifted closer to her in Addam's absence.
Brienne looks over at him and works up a smile that she hopes looks more natural than it feels. "That's one word for it, I guess. Good for them." She can see Sansa and Margaery, too, further down the bank, their hands entwined as they move together toward the water.
The sun has lowered almost to the horizon. The sky is mostly grey, though the clouds are shot through in a few places with streaks of silvery purple. Around them, the lanterns are starting to glow, one by one, as they're lit by eager hands.
Jaime's lantern is cradled in his palm. "Here," she says, crooking a couple of fingers around his and bringing his hand close enough that she can dip the long-stemmed lighter inside the little paper shell and ignite the driftwood. She does the same with the lantern in her own hand, and watches them both glimmer. Jaime had chosen red, of course, just as she'd chosen blue; she knows from their Dance of Dragons games that they both have a weakness for their family's historical heraldry.
"Now what?" Jaime asks, with the light from his lantern shining in his eyes.
"Now we wish." Brienne drops down to her heels, bracing herself with one hand on the wet ground. The river is rushing by in front of her. Jaime sinks down next to her. He's close enough that if she leaned sideways just a little, she'd be leaning against him. She knows exactly what he'd feel like, solid and warm.
She leans forward and sends her little lantern on its way. Jaime does the same, and they watch them drift along, carried away by the current.
"What did you wish for?" Jaime asks after a long moment. She's afraid to look at him, but when she risks a quick glance sideways, he's only staring after their departed lanterns.
Mom, was what Brienne had thought as she'd set her lantern in the water. Mom, tell me what to do.
There hadn't, of course, been an answer. But for just a moment, here among the twinkling lights and the promise of the new year, Brienne had let herself imagine it anyway: Jaime's laugh winding through the regular game nights she hosts for her friends. The heat of his arm around her shoulders, his thigh beneath her hand while they watch a movie. The taste of his mouth if she turned to him right now and kissed him senseless.
"You can't say your wish out loud," she tells him as their lanterns disappear from view. It comes out hoarse. She wraps her arms around her knees and rests her chin on them, watching other people's hopes float by. "If you do, it won't come true."
* * * * * * *
That night, they share the bed again, though he doesn't make a move to touch her, and she doesn't reach out, either. She tells herself she's glad about that, that waking up with his arm tucked around her again would have been just one more piece of the net that she'd have had to untangle. Any space--physical or otherwise--between them at this point is for the best.
She tells herself that, and she tries with all her might to believe it.
* * * * * * *
"Hey, stranger," says Jaime, appearing out of nowhere at her side as she stands near the wall, watching the Day of the Stranger masquerade swirl by. "Or should I say Stranger?" He traces a capital S in the air with his finger.
Brienne snorts and turns to him, though she knows she's risking ruin by doing so. Even with his face half-covered by a mask, Jaime looks entirely too handsome tonight. Not that he's not equally handsome in hoodies and jeans, but something about his maroon-colored suit and black shirt makes him seem a little bit new and therefore newly tempting, like a ship she could pass in the night instead of a rocky shore she's going to founder on.
She's wearing her best suit, too, the deep blue one she'd saved up for months to buy, the crisp white shirt open at the collar. She's been trying all night to shake the way that Jaime had looked at her when she'd come down the stairs wearing it, that expression like he'd been knocked on his ass and was realizing he liked it.
"Haven't seen much of you today," Jaime goes on. That had been deliberate on Brienne's part, as well; the activity for the day had been mask-making, which had given her ample excuse to keep at least a few tables' worth of eager kids and glitter between them as often as possible. The problem had been that she'd had trouble keeping that distance, finding herself drawn toward him and then having to pull herself away, a tide drawn to the moon and back.
"So many kids," Brienne says, by way of explanation. By way of excuse.
"So many fake rhinestones," Jaime agrees. His own mask has several, and in not-entirely-logical locations, no doubt thanks to the kids' suggestions. Brienne can hardly stand how endearing she finds that.
Jaime tugs at his collar with a rueful grin. "Want to get out of here for a minute? I'm boiling to death in this suit, and I figured you might be too."
He does look like he's got a little sweat gathered at his temples underneath the black elastic of the mask, and she thinks she catches the sheen of it in the hollow of his throat, too, when he re-settles his collar. She is uncomfortably warm, come to think of it.
"Sure," she says. She'll be less exposed out there anyway, in the darkness. There are far too many lights in this room, even if they're mostly dimmed. "I know a place near here."
She leads him to one of her favorite spots: a bluff that overlooks the ocean, with the lighthouse a faithful sentry in the distance. Of course it's too dark to see more than the occasional flash of white foam that catches the moonlight, but Brienne finds the sound of the water soothing anyway. She'd used to come here a lot as a kid, after her mom had died; some irrational part of her wants to share it with Jaime, even if she never tells him why.
"I love the sound of the ocean," Jaime tells her with a contented-sounding sigh, because of course he does.
She sighs a little, herself. "Me too."
When she doesn't say more, Jaime crosses his arms in front of him, staring out in the direction of the waves. "So," he offers. "Back to reality tomorrow."
She swallows past the lump in her throat. "Yep. I guess so."
His smile flares in the near-dark, and he turns to look at her. "I think I figured something out, though."
"Oh yeah?" Her heart starts to thud against the inside of her ribcage.
"Yeah. I think… well." He wrinkles his nose a bit. "Tyrion told you how I quit my dad's company, right?"
Relief and disappointment twine together in her stomach. "Yeah. Yeah, he mentioned that."
"I'm sure he did," Jaime snorts. "Well, I've been sort of drifting ever since. As you might have noticed, since I've been stopping by more often to annoy you."
He says that last with a slightly sheepish grin, one that renders it utterly impossible not to grin back. "I have noticed that, yeah."
"So." He clears his throat. "Working with the kids this week, and watching the way you run the shop when you're there--I've got some money that came to me when I turned twenty-five, and even my dad can't take it back now, no matter how pissed off he is at me for leaving. I thought I might use it toward some sort of after-school program for kids in King's Landing. I mean," and he huffs out a laugh, "not that I have any idea what I'm doing with that, but there must be good programs already, and they're always underfunded, so I figure that if I show up with a big check, they'll have no choice but to let me hang around, right?"
"Jaime." The hell with distance; she turns to him, lays a hand on his arm. She can't read his face with the mask obscuring half of it, but she thinks she'd recognize those eyes anywhere now. "That's incredible."
He ducks his head a little, his smile flaring again like the lighthouse lamp rotating. "I was just thinking--my dad worked so many hours when I was a kid. I would've liked to have had a place like that to go, you know? And that was with a nice house to go back to, even. If I hadn't had that..."
When he trails off, she squeezes his forearm. "If there's anything I can help with--see if I can get some donations from the shop or anything--just let me know."
He nods, considering. "I might take you up on that."
"Good," she says firmly. She realizes she's still holding on to his arm, and lets her hand drop. She turns back out toward the water.
"I also wanted to thank you," Jaime says.
"I should be thanking you," she answers, because it's true, and she owes him that much. "I do thank you. You've…" She can't quite make the jump, not with him so close. "Boyfriend Jaime has gone far above and beyond the call of duty, and I can't tell you how much I appreciate it. Everyone..." She hesitates again, then goes on, "Everyone here is going to miss him."
"Boyfriend Jaime is pretty awesome, isn't he?" he says with exaggerated awe, like he'd surprised even himself.
She can't help it; she laughs.
"But seriously, Brienne," he says, his voice lowering. He takes a step nearer. Something in her wants to step away; something much louder and much, much more persuasive wants her to sway toward him. She doesn't do either, just keeps her gaze straight ahead. "I can't remember a Sevenmas that I've actually enjoyed since my mom died. Definitely not one like this. I know it's cliche, but… if we're supposed to be looking into the unknown, this is the first time in a long time that I've actually been looking forward to that."
She wishes with all her heart that she could say the same. Wishes that she were the kind of person who could turn to him, take him in her arms, relish all that warmth and possibility pressed up against her. She wishes she could do all that without knowing that she'd only be making the inevitable end worse for both of them.
"Brienne." He reaches out to take hold of her elbow, and gently turns her to face him. She can feel her pulse in the side of her throat now, feel heat rising from the pit of her stomach and melting through all her limbs. He slides his hand up her arm until he's cupping her jaw. "I've been wanting to ask you." The sides of his mouth curve. "Kind of desperate to ask you, if you want to know the truth. Can we add a new proficiency?"
Something flips over in her chest. "Wouldn't we just be amending an existing one?" she asks, hardly aware of what she's saying. She knows she should stop this, end this, but she can't seem to make herself pull away. Maybe the masks will protect us, she thinks wildly. Maybe the Stranger won't be able to find us, just for one night.
He leans closer to her. His laugh is low and breathless; she can feel it against her mouth. "Such a stickler for the rules."
It's funnier than he knows, when he's making her want to break every rule she's ever made for herself. "I'm just saying," she starts, and then she loses words entirely, closing the last infinitesimal gap between them and pressing her lips to his.
It's not her first kiss. It's not even her fiftieth. Yet as soon as she touches him, it's like she's unlocked some sort of teleportation spell and found herself in undiscovered country. He's surrounding her on all sides, making her dizzy: the heat of his mouth against hers, the slip of his thumb along her jawline, the sound he makes in his throat when she curls her fingers into the fabric of his coat and pulls him closer. She lets the tip of her tongue slide over the seam of his lips; he lets her in with a moan that sounds like relief. He wraps his arm around her lower back and draws her in until their bodies are aligned from hip to shoulder. More contact should satisfy her, she thinks, but the more she touches him, the more she craves touching him, yearning opening up inside her chest like a jagged canyon. The edge of his mask catches against the edge of hers, and he leans back just long enough to toss it away impatiently, then slip hers off and send it flying into the darkness. Then he's kissing her again, fervent, hopeful, and his cheekbones are sharp and beautiful under her hands, and there's nowhere to hide, nothing to protect her, and the need that rises up inside her is so huge and so vivid that she tears herself away.
"I'm sorry," she says, struggling to breathe through the tightness in her throat. "I'm sorry, I can't. I can't."
There's just enough light that she can see the way his jaw tightens. His mouth opens, then closes, still slightly sheened with their saliva. "Are you--are you sure?" he asks after a few seconds. Her chest aches so much it's like she's bleeding there.
"I'm sorry," she says again, miserably. She'd give anything if they could have their masks back on so she couldn't read the expression on his face, see the way the frustration and hurt slides slowly into resignation.
"Okay." He takes one step backwards away from her, then two. She doesn't want him to go--not like this.
Not at all.
"Jaime, believe me, if it was going to be anyone, it--"
He holds up a hand to stop her. "Hey, look, I get it." Each consonant seems to slice through the air between them like a knife. "I told you not to fall in love with me; you're just holding up your end of the bargain."
Then he tucks his hands in his pockets and walks away.
* * * * * * *
"Where's Jaime?" her dad asks in surprise when she finally makes her way downstairs in the late morning.
Brienne sighs. "He left earlier. Caught a ride back with Addam." She'd come back to the house the night before to find Jaime curled up in the blankets on the floor of her room, as far away from the bed as he could get. She'd eventually fallen into an exhausted sleep, and had woken up just before dawn to find him already dressed and tying his shoes.
"I didn't want to just bail without saying anything, because I thought your dad would get suspicious if I didn't come back last night," he'd told her. His face had been pale and set, as shuttered as she'd ever seen it. She'd never fully realized how expressive it was until now, when there was an utter lack of it. "You can tell him I had to work, or there was a family emergency, whatever."
"We don't need to talk about this," he'd interrupted flatly. "You told me what the deal was from the beginning. I should have listened."
Tears had been burning her eyes, but she'd blinked them relentlessly back; the last thing she'd wanted was for him to feel like he'd hurt her, when she'd been the one to hurt them both. "I'm sorry," she'd said. Uselessly, she knew, no matter how true it was.
"Hey, I'm all good, just like always." He'd given her a twist of a smile, then risen to his feet and caught the handle of his closed-up suitcase in his hand. "Tell your dad I said goodbye, okay? Tell him--" He'd paused, then dropped his chin to his chest with a noise that would have been a laugh if there'd been any amusement in his face. "Tell him if he's ever in the city, the first round at the barcade is on me."
The tears had overflowed then, but Jaime hadn't seen them--he'd already closed the door behind him.
In the kitchen, Brienne pours herself a cup of coffee, carries it over to the table and stares into it while she slumps into a chair.
It's a long moment before her dad speaks. "Brienne." Her dad's voice is so gentle that she thinks she might cry again. "Sweetheart, what happened?"
Fuck, she is going to cry again. "Dad, I have to tell you something." She forces herself to meet his eyes. "Jaime and I--we never were really dating." Her dad's jaw drops, and she rushes on before he can say anything and derail her. "He was a friend, a customer at the game shop, and his brother overheard me saying that I couldn't come home for Sevenmas by myself again, and so he suggested Jaime, and it all just… happened."
His brow has been gaining more furrows with every word. "You're telling me... you lied to me? Both of you?"
"It isn't Jaime's fault, Dad." She can make that clear, at least. "He was just doing what I asked him to do. Please don't be mad at him." She winds her foot around the table leg like she'd used to do as a teenager, just trying to anchor herself in a world that kept changing without her permission. "I just. Every year you seem so disappointed when I don't bring anybody. I was tired of disappointing you."
At that, her dad leans forward and pulls her free hand away from the coffee mug so he can grip it tightly in his. "Brienne Alys Tarth, I have never in my life been disappointed in you. I'm not thrilled with you right now, mind you, but even now, I'm not disappointed. How could you think that?"
"What was I supposed to think?" she exclaims, the tears well and truly running now. "You bring it up every time we talk! You've tried to set me up a million times!"
"Because I wanted you to have a partner," he insists. "I wanted you to have someone who could be to you what your mom was to me, what Goody is to me now. And maybe…" He shakes his head a little. "Maybe I wanted you to find someone so badly so that I could finally tell you about me and Goody and know that you wouldn't feel abandoned."
"Dad," she says, exhausted and exasperated and overflowing with love for him. "I know you'd never abandon me. You're allowed to have your own life, regardless of what mine looks like."
His face settles into the stubborn lines that she inherited directly from him. "I know. But I'm your father, and I get to be irrational about you sometimes. It goes with the territory."
"Dad." Her chest hitching with sobs, she stands up out of her seat and wraps her arms around him, feels his come around her. The angle is awkward and she's pretty sure she has snot on her face and she couldn't care less about any of it.
"Disappointed in you," he scoffs gruffly. "You're the best thing in my life, don't you know that?"
Brienne squeezes her eyes shut and holds him tighter, a watery sort of bark-laugh emerging from her throat. "I don't feel like the best of anything right now."
He strokes the back of her head. "I can see that. It doesn't change a thing, in my opinion. I'm still proud of you, Brienne--the way you've made your own way in the city, the way you've found your own home. I've always been so damn proud of you. I'm sorry if I haven't told you that enough, but it's been true every day of my life."
It's too much, and she can't help it: she buries her head in his shoulder and sobs.
Her dad has never quite known what to do when she's crying, but he's had a little practice over the years, and he does well enough now, patting her softly on the back and murmuring, "It's all right, sweetheart," in her ear. Eventually, when she can't hold off blowing her nose any longer, she releases him, grabbing a napkin from the holder at the center of the table before collapsing back into her chair.
When she's stuffed the crumpled-up napkin into her pocket, she lets herself slide down until her head is resting against the top of the chair back. She feels hollowed-out and drained. All she wants to do is crawl back into bed. All she wants to do is somehow find Jaime there waiting for her.
"So what happened?" her dad asks quietly after a minute. "With Jaime, I mean."
She shrugs, feeling helpless and furious about it. "He wanted to try things for real, and I… couldn't. I freaked out."
His mouth opens, and then closes, and then he takes a breath. "I know I haven't exactly been your best source for romantic advice. But can I ask you something?"
"Sure." Why not? Whatever he has to say can't possibly make her feel any worse than she does now.
"You know how much I loved your mom," he says. "Love her still. Right? And it's the same for you, I know it is."
They've had this conversation a hundred times, but there's still a small, fresh wound in her heart every time. "Yeah, of course."
"And it destroyed us both to lose her," he goes on.
"Why are we talking about this?" she demands as the memories of it scrape over her already-raw nerve endings.
He leans forward, elbows braced on his knees, blue eyes intent on hers. "Because I want to know if you'd trade it," he says. "Even knowing how it would end. Even knowing how much it hurt. Would you wish you'd never had her in your life? Would you wish that I could go back in time and never meet her, just so we would never lose her?"
The shock of it is so sharp that she can't breathe for a second. It's not that she's never asked herself that question before, but hearing it from her dad, who'd been her shining example of both what she wanted and what she feared--it feels like someone presenting her with a magical key to a precious door, but only after that door has been boarded up and sealed. She closes her eyes; tears trickle down her cheeks in what's becoming a frustratingly well-worn path. "It's too late, Dad," she tells him, her voice thick. "I fucked it up."
"Bullshit," her dad says, and her eyes pop open in surprise. "You made a mistake. It might be that he won't forgive you, it might be that he will. Either way, you'll never know unless you try." He clucks his tongue. "I just finished telling you that you should reach for whatever you want. If Jaime is what you want--not need, because I know you don't need anyone, but want--then go get him. Or at least stop making excuses for yourself about why you won't." With that, he stands up out of his chair, and pats her on the top of the head on his way to refill his coffee.
* * * * * * *
Brienne does try to text Jaime: Hey, just wanted to make sure you got home safe. When he doesn't respond to that, she adds, And I wanted to say I'm sorry.
All he sends back is, You said that already. Message received.
Can we meet up somewhere? she replies, her thumbs shaking as they hover over the screen. I know it's a lot to ask. But I screwed up, I realize that, and I was hoping we could talk about where we could go from here.
Just let it go, he says. You were right, I should've just stuck to the plan. And I don't really want to talk to you about anything right now, Brienne.
She's never, in all the time she's known him, wanted to hear the word Tank quite so much.
I understand, she types back, or at least she hopes that's what it says; her eyes are too blurry to know for sure. If you change your mind, I'll be here.
She probably checks that same, sad little set of messages several dozen times over the first couple of weeks of the year, torturing herself by scrolling further up to see where he'd been asking her questions about the setup for the masquerade, and the two photos he'd sent her that same day: one of Sansa and Margaery slow-dancing together in a corner of the kitchen during a quiet moment, and one of a carrot that looked like it had testicles.
That one still makes her laugh, but it also kind of makes her want to cry, which isn't a reaction she'd ever expected to have to a photo of a phallic carrot. Still, as the days pass and she still doesn't hear from him, she starts to resign herself to the situation. She's not going to be one of those people who view relationships as a game where certain actions will entitle them to a certain outcome, who won't respect a no when it's given. She'd had her shot, and if she never sees him again, it will only be her own fault.
Still, she can't help looking up hopefully every time the door of the shop opens. She knows Ygritte sees her doing it and is probably shaking her head internally. But after having pried the story out of her not long after Brienne had come back from her vacation, Ygritte hasn't mentioned the whole debacle once, just invited Brienne to hang out with her after hours and play deck-building games until her brain is so full of mana and arcana that it can hardly hold anything else.
And then one day the shop door opens, and Brienne looks up, and it's Tyrion.
"Miss Tarth," he greets her solemnly. Weirdly enough, she's missed his, well, weirdness.
"Hi," she answers. "I wasn't sure you'd be back."
"Neither was I," he admits. He comes close to the counter, climbs up on the stool she still keeps out, and busies himself inspecting the newest minifigures they've got on display under the glass.
Ygritte is in the back, leaving Brienne alone with her racing thoughts and the brother of the person she most wants to see in the world, and she manages to make it almost a full minute of his silent perusal before she finally cracks and blurts out, "How is he?"
Tyrion looks up at her, large eyes blinking innocently. "Who?"
"Tyrion." Brienne manages to keep the growl out of it with some struggle. It's not Tyrion's fault that she's in this position. "Please. I just…" It's only a few seconds before she decides to throw both caution and pride to the wind. "I really miss him, Tyrion."
"Ah." He steeples his fingers and nods like a sage on a mountaintop. "I was wondering about that. He feels the same, I think, though he won't admit it. Judging by the way he keeps moping around listening to sad bastard music, though, I think it's safe to assume."
Brienne laughs a little, though the image is as guilt-inducing as it is strangely adorable. "I don't know what to do," she says. "He's made it pretty obvious he's not interested in talking to me."
"He'll talk to me, though," Tyrion points out.
"I don't want to put you in the middle of anything," Brienne says uneasily.
He spreads his hands out in front of him. "I've already got a sad bastard sleeping on my couch three nights out of seven, Brienne. I'd say that ship has sailed."
"So what do you think I should do?" She doesn't need psychic powers to see that he very much wants her to ask him. "I'm not going to stalk him or show up anywhere uninvited. I would really like to talk to him, though, if he's willing."
"Well," Tyrion says. "I could carry a message for you. Tell him how depressed and pathetic you looked." She narrows her eyes at him. "What? I already told you what a sad bastard Jaime's being. It's only fair."
"Why am I starting to get the sense that there's something in this for you?" Brienne asks, crossing her arms over her chest.
Tyrion's smile spreads slowly across his face. "Well, there is the remaster of Age of Dragons coming out…"
"Tyrion." Brienne sighs. "I'm not going to bribe you to talk to Jaime for me, that just feels wrong."
"Fine," he pouts. "Let's wager for it, then." He nods toward the containers of dice on the counter. "Same as last time. Ten or less, I talk to Jaime and you give me the early access code. Higher than that, I offer my services free of charge."
She tilts her head at him. "So you'll talk to him either way?" She's a little surprised by that.
"He's on my couch, Brienne," Tyrion tells her, overdramatic hand to his chest. "He's absolutely massacring the vibe."
That makes her snort. "Okay." She reaches for her favorite dice again, the ones that remind her of home. She shakes the D20 into her hand, sends it clattering onto the counter. As it spins, she thinks of how she'd watched it on his same path a few weeks ago, and how she'd had no idea what was waiting for her. She watches it carefully, watches it rattle and tumble and finally come to a stop.
The number 3 is staring up at her.
"Tyrion," she says slowly. It doesn't make any sense, but the suspicion is suddenly too strong for her to overcome. "Did you… did you rig my dice?"
"What?" He blinks at her again, but he can only maintain it for a few seconds before his mouth stretches into a smug grin that reminds her just a little bit of Jaime. "You always use the same ones," he informs her. "I knew you wouldn't trust mine, so I made a little substitution to yours. Ygritte may have helped."
Her jaw drops. "Ygritte is in on this? What the hell? Ygritte!" she yells toward the back room. There's no response, of course, thanks to the general lack of fucks in that vicinity.
Though apparently Ygritte has found a few fucks to spare for conspiring with Tyrion to send Brienne and Jaime off together, which Brienne finds simultaneously highly inappropriate and bizarrely touching.
"Look at it from our perspective," Tyrion urges. "Watching you two dance around each other for months, without even realizing that you were doing it, was exhausting."
Well. That's going to be something to talk to her brand new therapist about. "I--" she starts, and has no idea where to go from there.
Tyrion doesn't seem to mind. "I'll talk to him," he says, hopping down off the stool. "What happens beyond that will be up to him, and you."
She just stares at him, speechless. What the fuck has been going on here all this time?
As he turns to go, he hesitates, then turns back. "He does miss you, Brienne," he says quietly. His expression is as serious as she's ever seen it, all of his usual irony dialed down to just the barest glint in his eye.
She takes a deep breath and answers his honesty with honesty of her own. "I know I fucked up," she says. "I'm just hoping he'll be willing to give me a second chance."
Tyrion nods. "To be honest? So do I." He starts toward the door. "I'll be looking forward to getting that code," he calls over his shoulder.
Brienne barks a laugh and clutches the stupid rigged die in her hand, the corners of it digging into her fingers. After Tyrion disappears down the street, she watches the space where he'd been for a while, watches the pedestrians strolling by like little lanterns, making their own currents. She sighs, and swallows hard, then tucks the die into her pocket and prepares herself for a very pointed conversation with Ygritte.
* * * * * * *
During the next week, her door-watching game reaches all new heights, or rather, lows; she's actually starting to get a sore neck from it, and the looks that Ygritte keeps giving her are growing more and more pitying. Brienne takes it as her penance for hurting Jaime, for lying to her dad, for ever choosing to listen to Tyrion Lannister in the first place.
Ygritte is on her lunch break and Brienne is on a step-ladder, stuffing the topmost shelf with overstock, when she hears the door open behind her.
"Be with you in a second!" she calls out, tipping the last of the game boxes onto the shelf.
"Hey, I thought you were the ladder," comes Jaime's voice from behind her, and she almost falls right off the step.
He looks… he looks exactly as she remembers, which is a ridiculous thing to think given that it's only been a few weeks. She'd thought of him so often, though, and seen him so little, that he'd almost begun to seem like something she'd dreamed up. But there he is: standing with his hands in the pockets of his hoodie and stubble dotting his cheeks, and a wary look in his eyes that makes her want to do anything she can to ease it.
"Jaime." She scrambles down with a lot more haste than grace, wiping her suddenly-sweaty palms on the front of her jeans. "It's... " Gods, she'd had a whole speech ready, and right now there's nothing in her brain but the fact that he's here, right in front of her, finally. "I'm really happy to see you," she says, taking a few steps closer.
"Yeah." He lifts a shoulder a fraction of an inch, his mouth curving vaguely, his eyes skipping to the side. Noncommittal.
She guesses she had that coming. "I have something for you," she tells him. At least she'd been able to anticipate her own tongue-tied state enough to write some things down; points to Past Brienne for that. She goes to where her backpack is braced on the floor behind the front counter and pulls out a piece of paper. When she straightens up, Jaime has more or less followed her. He's still keeping the counter between them, but he's there, waiting for whatever it is she's got to say.
She takes a deep breath. "Here," she says, setting the piece of paper on the counter between them. "I made a few modifications."
She watches his eyes track over it. It's the character sheet they'd put together back in her room, back in her house, before everything had gone sideways. At the top, she's crossed out Girlfriend Brienne, and written Actual Brienne instead. She's also given herself scores for all her attributes--high on strength, constitution, and intelligence, middling on dexterity, lower on charisma, and a giant zero next to wisdom. She's also added an attribute of her own at the bottom: courage. That one gets a zero as well.
Jaime's gaze flickers back up to her. "Brienne." His eyes are the green of the sky just before a hurricane. "What are you trying to say, here?"
"I'm saying I'm sorry." It's such a relief to finally be able to say it to his face that she doesn't even stop to think about what he might say in return; the words just fountain out of her like water through a crack in a dam. "I'm saying that I like you--that I care about you--and it scares me. I'm saying that I'm messed up, and I'm trying to get better. I'm saying that it killed me to push you away that night, and it's been killing me ever since."
His hurricane eyes are wide now, and his jaw is still clenched tightly. She's not sure what that means. She pushes on anyway.
"I'm saying," she continues, her heart pounding so loud that it almost drowns out her words, "that I want to propose an amendment to the rules."
One eyebrow arches up, and he tucks his tongue into his cheek. "What did you have in mind?" There's something flirting with one corner of his mouth that she desperately, recklessly hopes is a smile.
She spins the paper back, grabs a pen from the mug near the register, and scribbles on the blank line underneath his neat writing: Dating. For real this time.
He looks at the character sheet. Looks up at her. Looks back at the sheet. "I have an amendment, myself," he tells her.
Lead seems to settle in her stomach. She thinks of her dad saying he might forgive you, he might not. "What's that?" she asks, because she's not going to back down now.
"I think you went a little low on the charisma," he tells her.
Relief and shock spiral through her veins, leaving her knees weak. "What?"
The storm in his eyes is coalescing now, shading closer to heat. He takes a couple of steps, enough to bring him around the side of the counter. "Charisma means force of personality. Why the hell do you think I call you Tank?" Brienne's fingers knot in front of her; her eyelids want to flutter shut at the nickname, but she doesn't want to miss a second of the expression on his face.
Jaime takes another step. He's fully behind the counter now. "And if it means drawing people to you," he goes on, his voice lowering, "well, I've been failing that saving throw since the day we met." He reaches out and takes her restless hands in his.
"I'm sorry," she says again. "Have I mentioned how sorry I am?"
"You have," he says, smiling softly. "You could mention it again, though."
"I'm sorry," she repeats immediately, "I'm so sorry, I--"
"Tank," he interrupts her, "just kiss me," and so she does, catching his face between her hands, her tongue delving eagerly into his mouth, her body seeking his in a way that's highly inappropriate for the workplace, and she doesn't care. He tastes like possibility, like a risk worth taking. She holds on to him as tightly as she can.
When he finally pulls back from her, it's only to rest his forehead against hers. "I missed you. All of these past few weeks, no one made me sleep on the floor even once."
She laughs, helplessly, and slides her hands down his arms to tangle their fingers together. "My dad's gonna be so relieved when I tell him we're back together."
"Look, I love your dad, but can we not talk about him right now?" Jaime asks plaintively, which sends her off into another bout of snickering.
She leans in to kiss him again, but before she can, he puts a hand to her shoulder. "Hold up."
She can't imagine what could possibly be more important than her kissing him right at that moment, but he reaches behind her to the counter to pick up her character sheet. As she watches, he folds it up and puts it in his back pocket, then tucks the pen behind his ear.
"I just figure we're gonna need some more addendums soon," he explains, his eyes bright with mischief and with promises, and she laughs and kisses him with all the proficiency she's got.
Extra hat tip to the amazing kirazi for the lovely idea of Gay Dads on Tarth! ♥️