~ * ~
If you suddenly and unexpectedly feel joy
don’t hesitate. Give in to it. There are plenty
of lives and whole towns destroyed or about
to be. We are not wise, and not very often
kind. And much can never be redeemed.
Still, life has some possibility left. Perhaps this
is its way of fighting back, that sometimes
something happens better than all the riches
or power in the world. It could be anything,
but very likely you notice it in the instant
when love begins. Anyway, that’s often the case.
Anyway, whatever it is, don’t be afraid
of its plenty. Joy is not made to be a crumb.
~ Mary Oliver, “Don’t Hesitate”
~ * ~
Jaime’s hand is still trembling on the hilt of Widow’s Wail as she slowly rises from the floor, looking up at him with tears glittering in her eyes.
Ser Brienne of Tarth.
A knight of the Seven Kingdoms.
She has been worthy of the title since the day he met her, but that isn’t what Jaime sees as he looks at her now.
He sees the woman who dragged him around the riverlands at the end of a rope, crossed swords with him in the last truly glorious fight of his life, bade him to live as the hand that had defined him rotted around his neck. The woman who sat across from him in the baths of Harrenhal and pried him open without even trying. The woman whose defensiveness and defiance reminded him so much of his own.
He sees the woman who cared for him, who saved his life, whose life he saved. The woman he gave his sword to, who he knows will always carry it as both his and hers, who still wears the armor he commissioned for her.
The woman who was once his enemy, and then his ally, and then, in a strange, inexplicable way, his friend.
He sees, glinting in the firelight—smiling at him with a softness he has certainly never seen on her face before—Brienne.
Brienne with her infernal honor and her bullheaded determination and her guileless godsdamned eyes that see a spark of goodness in him that he long thought lost. Brienne who has defended him and challenged him and made him want to be the man she believes he is—not just for her, but for himself. Brienne who he trusts.
Brienne who he loves.
The realization hits him so hard it nearly sends him sprawling across the floor.
He loves her. He has loved her, for… gods.
He’s loved her for years.
A burst of applause shocks his awareness back to the onlookers he somehow forgot were there, and Jaime sweeps his gaze over them, looking only long enough to see that everyone is smiling before ducking his head to sheathe his sword.
He takes a measured breath as the blade slides in, and he’s had enough experience over the years to know that a little less emotion shows on his face by the time he looks up again, though he doubts he’s managed to conceal it entirely. How could he, with the heat of it still glowing like an ember in his chest?
It’s ill-timed and inconvenient and seven hells he wants to wish it away.
Except he doesn’t, not at all, not when Tyrion’s surprisingly sincere toast draws to a close and he dares another glance at her, only to find her staring back at him with a tremble in her chin.
She looks so happy, and even though his heart is in his throat, Jaime feels a rush of satisfaction that he has done this for her.
He can’t help but nod at her—a confirmation, an affirmation, an acknowledgement of the gratitude shining so clearly in her eyes—before he strides off, leaving Brienne to her moment of glory and returning to the circle of the fire.
With every step, he tries to focus on the applause that has not yet died away, to remind himself of the battle ahead of them, to shove this feeling back down wherever it has been hiding. But it’s as stubborn as she is and it won’t go, it won’t, and when Jaime turns to look at her again, her smile has grown into a wide, tremulous thing that has him grasping for the back of his chair.
In all the years he’s known her, he has never seen her smile like that. He has barely seen her smile at all.
It’s earnest and raw and beautiful—she is beautiful—and suddenly there is want crackling inside him, too, searing and sharp as a freshly forged blade.
It surprises him less than it should have.
If Jaime is honest with himself—and, he thinks wryly, he so rarely is—it is far from the first time she has stirred him. He felt a prickling of it when she cut down those Stark men like they were nothing, ferocious and unflinching in her sense of what was right, and again when she burst out of the water at Harrenhal looking like the Maiden and the Warrior joined together in one flesh.
His cock twitches at the memory of the steam curling around her, and Jaime shakes his head. He’s been a thrice-damned fool.
Finally, the clapping ceases, and he watches Podrick approach her, grinning as boyishly as the day Jaime made him her squire. He says something low that Jaime can’t quite make out, but the pride in his voice when he raises it to call her “ser” is unmistakable.
Her smile returns, smaller, softer, and Jaime spins to sit before his groin has time to make his feelings glaringly apparent to them all.
“Well done, Kingkiller,” the wildling says to him, and Jaime inclines his head. The lout turns his attention back to Brienne with a coarse grin. “Maybe I should call you Knightmaker now.”
Brienne’s disinterest in the red-bearded buffoon is as obvious as his infatuation with her, but Jaime still doesn’t like the way he’s leering at her. If he hadn’t left his cup on the side table, he might have hurled it at the man’s head.
“Yes,” Tyrion muses, and Jaime doesn’t need to look at him to know that he is smirking. “It has a rather nice ring to it.”
He doesn’t bother to argue that all knights can be knightmakers.
“Nicer than most of the things they call me,” Jaime concedes.
Tyrion’s eyebrows tilt together, his gaze canny and strangely sad, and Jaime barely has time to wonder at it before Brienne steps through the gap at his side and lowers herself into her chair.
She appears more collected, more restrained, but there’s a quiet radiance on her face that has nothing to do with the firelight, and Jaime can’t risk looking at her for too long. So he stares at the flames as the silence settles around them once more, waiting to see if this storm of feeling will abate now that the intimacy of the moment they’ve shared is over.
It does not.
It will not.
Because he loves her.
Before he rode out of King’s Landing, perhaps he might have asked why, but the answer is glaringly apparent to him now. She is honorable, valiant, loyal, good… but it is more than that. Brienne has matched him when no one else dared, understood him when no one else bothered to try. She is rigid, serious, and maddeningly diligent, but Jaime has seen the softness she tries to hide. And he knows that though the armor they wear in the world is different, what it protects inside them both is the same.
She is his equal.
Tonight, all Jaime wonders is how he failed to see it for so long.
How many times has he thought of her, missed her, dreamt of her? How many times has he wanted to follow her rather than watch her leave? How many times has he wished things were different, wished they could be on the same side, without daring to examine why?
The truth of it has always been right there in front of him, even when Brienne was not.
But she is now, and Jaime has no bloody idea what he’s going to do about it.
They have a battle to fight, the most important and impossible any of them has ever faced, and they should be focused on that. He should be focused on that.
It would be wiser to say nothing, to keep his feelings close and his mouth shut, but Jaime has never had much luck with either. And if he knows one thing, it’s that Brienne won’t scorn his affections, even if she doesn’t return them; she’s not capable of that kind of cruelty. Besides, he’s certain she feels something for him. She wouldn’t have placed herself between him and the Dragon Queen if she did not.
He has shied away from that, too, he realizes now—from the way she sometimes looks at him, from what it might mean. He is tired of shying away.
Now is no time for love, especially not this love, which could so easily upend him—which has upended him already, when he didn’t even know it was there. But it is the only time he has.
And if she happens to feel as he does, then he’ll die happier than he deserves.
The possibility has him waiting for an opening—if he’s going to speak with her, it needs to be alone—and when Ser Davos breaks the stillness by getting up for more wine, Jaime doesn’t hesitate.
“We better get some rest,” he says, careful to keep his voice even.
Tyrion, the wretch, gives him a pleading look. “No,” he whines, “let’s stay a bit longer.”
“We’re out of wine,” Davos grumbles, walking back from the table, and Jaime hopes, fleetingly, that will be reason enough to change his brother’s mind.
It is not.
“How about a song?” Tyrion asks after Davos resumes his seat. “One of you must know one. Ser Davos?”
“You’ll pray for a quick death,” the old seaman says gruffly.
Tyrion smiles, then raises his eyebrows hopefully at Brienne. “Ser Brienne?”
A tingle of interest has Jaime turning toward her, too, but she blinks her eyes shut and slowly shakes her head.
He certainly knows better than to ask Jaime, so when the wildling, too, grunts his refusal, Tyrion slumps back in his chair.
And then, into the quiet, Podrick begins to sing.
His voice is so rich and clear it sends a chill down Jaime’s spine, and the song—Jenny of Oldstones—is remarkably suitable for their last night in the world.
Jaime should be annoyed at the delay, but he can’t be, not when the melancholy words pull his gaze back to Brienne and her downcast eyes allow him to study her profile in the orange glow. By the time the last low note fades into the darkness, there’s an ache beneath his ribs, and he quickly averts his eyes before his damned face can betray him again.
Tyrion murmurs his thanks to Podrick, but when Jaime looks over, he finds his brother’s attention fixed on him.
“I think Jaime might be right after all,” Tyrion says. “We should get some rest.”
Podrick sighs and the wildling grumbles, but within a minute, all but Tyrion and Jaime are rising from their chairs, their parting nods heavy with the knowledge that the next time they see each other, it will be on the battlefield.
Brienne gives him a lingering look as Podrick moves to her side, and it takes everything Jaime has not to stand as they wander toward the door with the others. Her chamber is nowhere near his, and it will be easier to follow her when fewer eyes are watching. A minute or two should be enough to clear his path.
So he stays, watching her disappear, watching them all disappear, until he is alone by the fire with his brother once more.
Almost immediately, Tyrion hums into the empty room. “Perhaps I was wrong.”
He huffs a quiet laugh. “You? Wrong?”
“Unthinkable, I know.” Tyrion smirks around his last swallow of wine, but his expression sobers as he lowers his cup. “Don’t you want to know what I was wrong about?”
“Very well, then. What were you wrong about?”
Jaime shrugs; he finds he cannot muster more. “We were all wrong about Cersei.”
“Yes, that’s exactly my point. I was wrong about her, but so were you. And that means you can’t have known her quite as well as I thought you did.” Tyrion taps his index finger on the side of his cup, and the dull, hollow sound reverberates on the stone walls. “Perhaps you loved the version of her that existed in your head. Perhaps you were blind to who she really was.” He glances at Brienne’s vacant chair—the chair Jaime placed next to his own when he encouraged her to stay. “Perhaps you were blind to a lot of things.”
Jaime attempts a wry tilt of his head, but the effect is ruined by the gravel in his voice when he says, “Perhaps.”
Tyrion gives him a sad smile. “What the hell are you still doing here?”
That is a damned good question.
For the second time that evening, Jaime scrambles to his feet. “I suppose I’ll see you—”
Tyrion holds up his hand. “Yes, yes. Just go, you fool.”
He doesn’t need to be told twice.
It takes him longer than he’d like to wind through the warren of Winterfell’s main floor, so when Jaime reaches the stairs, he mounts them two at a time. Miraculously, Brienne is standing alone at the far end of the corridor when he reaches the landing, just putting out her hand to open her chamber door.
“Ser Brienne,” he calls out, striding so quickly down the hall the torches flicker in his wake.
Her head whips toward him, and the confusion that creases her brow doesn’t prevent a small smile from forming on her lips at the same time—though whether it is the title or his presence that inspired it, Jaime cannot say.
“Yes, Ser Jaime?” she asks as he draws level with her.
“I need to speak with you.”
She turns fully, placing her back to her door, and gives him a dry stare that suggests his statement was obvious. He grins a little at the familiarity of it, at the way it makes it fractionally easier for him to begin.
“Despite what my brother says,” he ventures, because he has to start somewhere, “it’s unlikely we’ll live to see the dawn.”
Her forehead furrows. “If you think you’re going to talk me into reconsidering my position—”
“I came to Winterfell because of you,” he blurts, perhaps because he had almost said it once that day already, though he wouldn’t have been able to explain why had she asked.
He can now.
Brienne’s eyebrows jump, forming pale crescents high on her brow. “You came to Winterfell because you made a promise. That had nothing to do with me.”
“Yes, it did.”
She shakes her head. “I am not the keeper of your honor, Ser Jaime.”
“No, though you certainly remind me of it often enough.”
Her lips quirk at that.
“Even if I hadn’t made a promise, I still would have come,” he forges on. “I would have come because…”
He flounders—gods, when was the last time he said such words out loud? has he ever?—but Brienne doesn’t rush him. She just keeps her steady gaze fixed on his face, open and curious, her guard slightly lowered in a way it usually is not.
It’s that fact—that he has earned a sliver of ease from her—that finally loosens the tangled lump of words at the back of his throat.
“I would rather die at your side than survive in a world where you did not.”
It is not what he meant to say, but when he sees the glint of her tears in the torchlight, he knows, at least, that it was not wrong.
“Jaime,” she says, quiet and wavering, and his breath hitches.
Her eyes go wide with surprise, but not regret, when she realizes what she’s said—what she didn’t say—and Jaime can’t resist taking a half-step closer.
“Yes, Brienne?” he asks, sounding terribly fond.
“I…” Her chin quivers. “I believe I understand.”
“What?” he presses, needing to be sure. “What do you understand?”
Uncertainty flickers across her face, chased by an unfamiliar fear, before she murmurs, “Nothing is more hateful than failing to protect the one you love.”
His lungs burn, suddenly unbearably full, and he expels a noisy breath before taking another step. The last step that remained between them.
“I don’t intend to fail, Brienne,” he rasps, and her breath stills—and just like that, he knows. He can read it in her forehead, her chin, her eyes.
So he slants forward, slowly, giving her time to stop him, to back away. When she doesn’t, he leans up on his toes and touches his lips to hers.
Jaime intends it to be soft, but as the firm line of her mouth yields eagerly beneath his own, he finds himself too desperate to be soft, and his hand buries itself in the short waves of her hair.
Everything about it feels warm and new and right, and all he can think—aside from what a fool he was not to kiss her in his tent at Riverrun, or before she rode away from King’s Landing, or after he climbed out of the bear pit at Harrenhal—is more.
So he kisses her, and kisses her, and kisses her, pressing her against the door of her chamber, his battered northern breastplate scraping against her finer one, and Brienne kisses him back, clumsy and fierce and glorious.
When at last they break apart, his chest is heaving and her eyes are dark and their swords have somehow hooked together at their hips.
A hint of a smile tugs at Brienne’s mouth as she reaches down to separate them. Jaime nearly stops her, mad as it would be, but he has no wish to be free of her.
“How long have you known?” he asks when she straightens again.
He angles his head and peers up at her. “Surely you haven’t been blind to this as long as I have.”
Brienne inhales, shaky and deep. “I tried to be. I failed.”
“I wish you’d told me.” He rests his golden hand against her hip. “We might have failed together.”
“We wouldn’t have. You wouldn’t have. There still would have been…”
Cersei, she doesn’t say.
And, much as Jaime hates to admit it, she’s right.
There still is Cersei, but she feels distant in a way that has nothing to do with the miles between them. She had even before he departed for the north. Truthfully, she had ever since Brienne returned him to King’s Landing. In retrospect, he supposes that was not a coincidence.
Jaime will have to reckon with all of that—with Cersei and the things he’s done for her, with his denial, with his guilt—if, by some miracle, they survive the night.
For now, though, he is here. He has chosen to be here, with her, knowing it may be the last choice he’ll ever make.
“You’re probably right.” Jaime brushes his thumb across her cheek. “But I’m glad I see it now.”
Another tremor ripples through her chin. “So am I.”
He leans closer, curving his fingers around the back of her neck and sliding his other arm around her waist, but before he can kiss her again, a horn blast sounds in the distance.
Jaime squeezes his eyes shut, an ache clawing at his chest even as his blood runs cold.
He is afraid, and it has nothing to do with the army marching toward their gates.
Because he wants… hell, he doesn’t have words for all that he wants, can’t even allow himself to imagine it beyond simply her. But he wants the chance to imagine it. He wants the chance to have it.
He wants more time.
Down the corridor, a few doors bang open, and rushed voices meet his ears as men begin to stumble out.
“We should go,” Brienne says softly.
Jaime holds her tighter, despite knowing it won’t matter if she decides to shake herself loose. “Just give me another moment.” He tries to smile. “It may be the last one I ever have.”
Brienne frowns at him, even though she herself spoke of dying with honor not two hours past—even though she knows as well as he that their odds of survival have never been poorer. And if there is a choice to be made between them, she must realize he will gladly sacrifice his life for hers.
Dying for her wouldn’t be the most rash thing he has ever done for love, but it would be the most honest. The most worthy. Of course, he would rather not die at all, not in this frozen fucking wasteland, but if he must, well… He has always hoped he would die in the arms of the woman he loves.
It is his turn to frown, then. Because she knows—she has to know—but still he has not said it. And it matters a great deal to him, suddenly, that he does.
“Brienne,” he begins. “I l—”
“Don’t.” Her voice cracks, and she drops her gaze to his chest. “Please.”
“Brienne,” he murmurs again, thick with the feeling she doesn’t seem to want him to acknowledge, though he cannot fathom why.
He will not die with the words unsaid. Not after all this time. Not when he doesn’t have to.
Brienne swallows hard, raising those luminous eyes to his once more. “Later. Tell me later.”
“I would.” Jaime strokes his thumb along her jaw. “But we might be dead later.”
Her face crumples, only for a moment, then hardens with resolve as she grips his arm.
“Live,” she says, urgent and firm and thrumming with a hope so fragile he thinks it might shatter in the air around them. “Live, and tell me then.”
So he does.