Jaime lets his pack slump onto the dirt and slumps right down on top of it, resting his neck against the stinking canvas and propping his feet up on the handle of his pulaski as he closes his eyes. His stomach is queasy and he’s too tired to eat right now anyway; lack of sleep will drive a man on the fire line out of his mind faster than a missed meal. “Rest whenever you get the opportunity, no matter how brief,” Dayne had told him, back when he’d been a fresh and eager recruit. “You never know when you’ll get the next chance.”
There’s nothing fresh or eager about him now: several parts of his body are intent on reminding him that it’s been well over a decade since that day in training, and his throat is still harsh from the smoke and the shouting of the afternoon. They’d set an anchor point at dawn and cleared leagues of fire breaks, hacking a deep groove through the ragged brush with chainsaws and pulaskies and axes, before handing over to another crew and hiking back down to the riverside campsite beyond the dozer line, spent.
It’s his first season back after almost four years away from the firelines, unsure whether or not he wanted to return to what he’d thought would be his vocation forever, or at least until his knees or his back gave out. And by that point, he’d have risen far up the ranks, then—a battalion chief or a senior instructor at the academy, maybe—not to mind. The professional track he’d envisioned back then had never included a detour to the pine-topped hills above the headwaters of the Green Fork. He’s new to this part of Westeros, this crew, and he’s the odd one out. The rest are half from the Riverlands, half Northern—some from so very far North that a few generations back they’d have called themselves Free Folk—and one giant Stormlander, of course. And now Jaime, too, because no crew south of Harrenhall would have him.
There’s a hot dry wind coming down from the hills, harbinger of another grueling shift tomorrow. The forests in the Neck have burned before, he knows, but each year the fire season all along the western coasts of the continent gets worse and worse, and here it’s no exception. Captain Stark says they’re headed for another Long Summer, echoing the recent forecasts that have been coming out of the Citadel. Jaime wonders if this is the year all those long-repeated predictions will flare into being, the year things finally hit the flashover point.
But it’s not the weather that’s keeping him awake, restless and resenting it. He’d locked horns with Tarth again, this afternoon. They’d squabbled over when to start a backburn the other day, and her face had gone so red under the soot that he’d thought she might turn the drip torch on him. “I know what I’m doing,” she’d snapped, turning away from him, and he’d bit back a retort. Technically, she doesn’t outrank him, and she’s at least half a decade younger than he is, maybe more. But this is her crew—she’d trained in the Stormlands, he knows, but it’s her third season up here—and he’s an interloper. One she apparently can’t stand.
Her disdain for him has been evident from the start; he knows she’s heard the rumors about what happened in the Kingsguard Hotshots, how he’d abandoned his captain to die in a blowup and then quit the crew. She can’t be the only one, but the others have been impressed enough by his skill or his stamina or simply his bloody-mindedness that they don’t seem to hold it against him. Not so Brienne Tarth. She’s impossible.
Yesterday, it had been her insistence on following a minor and—to his mind, pointless—item of proper procedure during a hose lay, and he hadn’t been able to resist twitting her out loud: “Gods, you’re an academy manual come to life. So diligent and responsible.” She’d glared at him, hands on hips, wisps of pale hair sticking out from under her helmet and making her look like a furious scarecrow, and it had been all he could do not to laugh.
Normally, he’d suck it up, cope by politely ignoring her and moving on—he knows that expectations of camaraderie notwithstanding, there’s always that one crewmate you can’t stand—but the thing is, he actually can’t ignore her. Maybe the constant, low-level smoke inhalation is poisoning his brain, but what he’s finally realized, after a week of wary distance and two of increasingly close-range bickering, is that he wants her in the worst way.
Maybe it shouldn’t be such a surprise to him. She’s a marvel to see in action. Not that much of her body is visible when they’re geared up in all those layers of fire-retardant canvas, but he can still see the flex of her shoulders as she swings her pulaski, and the grip of those long, oddly delicate-looking fingers on its handle. His eye has always been caught by strength and motion more than any particular type of form or features. And then the other morning he’d been washing out his filthy socks, hems rolled up and his feet chilling in the water, when he’d looked up the riverbank and seen her working out several yards away, oblivious to his presence. The pushups had been bad enough, but when she’d lifted a heavy river stone and started doing squats with it balanced in her hands, he’d been forced to take an impromptu dip in the freezing shallows to cope with the urgent crisis in his trousers.
So yes, he wants her body, thinks about how every long muscled inch of it would feel under his rough palms, what sounds he might possibly tease out of those powerful lungs. But there’s more to it than that: it’s the resolute dedication she brings to every aspect of her duties, her gruff kindness to the rookies on the crew, the little half-smile she lets slip free when she’s amused by a particularly off-color joke. It’s the friction when they argue, the heavy atmosphere of pent-up electricity in the air, lightning waiting to strike. The two of them are flint against steel, the sparks buzzing all around them until everything goes up like tinder and all the air is sucked away. It leaves him gasping, hypoxic.
And this afternoon, no more than ten minutes after another shouting match, he’d stopped to shake the tension out of his shoulders when he’d glanced her way and caught her watching him, those furious blue eyes the only bright thing in her smudged face, and he’d finally realized: Fuck. She feels it, too.