There she was. At the edge of things, of course. Even stood next to a tree starting to sprout leaves again, Brienne stood out. She had eschewed armour for once, which was an improvement, but from the way the firelight lit upon just the hint of her furrow and the jut of her jaw, she was none too pleased about it. He rubbed his hand across his own jaw, catching the whiskers there and as usual, it did nothing to stop the pleasure catching in his cheeks at the sight of her.
She was barely visible for all that. A sturdy mass beside the tree, a slightly darker smudge against the dark of night around them where the bonfire only just kept it at bay. He drew closer, knew the moment she clocked him for her eyes caught the firelight then too.
“Don’t start,” she said, mournful, and he had to laugh.
“What do you think I might start?”
She gestured sharply to where people danced and drank and snogged far more indiscreetly than he suspected they thought, given he spied certain supposedly distinguished individuals with their tongues lost down the throats of lovers. “I’m not made for it, Jaime,” Brienne said, insistent, but he knew well enough now to recognize not stubborn conviction but rather the uncertainty there. Lies which gathered at the edges of her mind. Jaime was stalwart at her back as she did the slow work to obliterate each, one by one.
He had cajoled her more than once now to join the near-nightly festivities in the tromp south. She hadn’t even noticed him leaving her side the last three times, she became so involved in things. It was a pretence, this offensive from Brienne. She had confessed recently, late, late at night when it seemed it was just they two and the scurry of tiny creatures outside the tent canvas, that a significant part of the heartache from the whole wager incident — incident, far too tame a word, but almost each to a man who participated was dead, so Jaime kept his comments to himself — was not that their courting had not been in earnest, as she hadn't trusted their compliments anyway. But the rest of it: she had begun to feel an invited, embraced participant. Brought into the centre, accepted, made to enjoy herself, thinking she had perhaps finally found a cohort. Only that hadn't been true, had it? That had all been a lie: worse, she hadn't really mattered, for all their apparent interest, the time they'd spent with her. They had spoken and joked and shared with her, but she remained to them as good as nothing. She didn't want to think it, but couldn't help but fear that the same would happen again. She'd whispered it all so dispassionately and something in his chest had cracked. When he had pulled her closer, she had wrapped her arm tight across his back and pressed her face into the crook of his neck. She remained that way until her breathing evened out, until she went soft and limp with sleep. Jaime had remained holding her, awake, for some time after.
He would go along with whatever pretence so long as she needed it. In his way.
They weren’t quite alone enough for him to nuzzle into her neck as he wished but he did step to stand beside her, slip his arm across her back and press his wrist into her side. She didn’t hesitate, before leaning into him. Warmth spread swift and consuming, transforming in a breath to a heady heat, and it took more willpower than he expected to keep from pulling her backward into the woods, far enough away that none might hear and —
“Dance with me,” he said instead.
Brienne’s head whipped around. Were he anyone else, he’d be offended by that look on her face. He only raised his eyebrows. She half-growled, half-sighed, “Don’t jest,” but there was no heat to it and she pressed into his side more firmly. Some rebuke he couldn’t read, which was unusual these days.
“Who’s jesting? You wound me.”
He laughed again and watched her mouth twitch, watched her tug her bottom lip with her teeth to keep from smiling. He tilted his head, studied her. She accepted invitations to spar, to eat, to travel south. She let him into her tent and her bed with eager enthusiasm; into her confidences with what had been a slow blooming trust and what was now evergreen. Yet still there were two questions she doubted.
Though to be fair: one of them he’d only asked the once, as yet.
“Come, Lady Brienne,” he said, moving away and quelling the urge to slide back into place when she swayed after him, the flash of disgruntlement that crossed her features. “Dance with me.”
“I don’t know it,” she huffed.
“Neither do I.” Which was true. This was some smallfolk song from the Reach with which he was unfamiliar but the band lead had said his request would come next.
“Then why —”
“Because we both know the next,” he said, reaching for her hand. He thought it was nearly reflexive, how her fingers slipped into his, and the thrill of it was swift. He closed his hand tight on hers, as ever liking the press of her palm, how her calluses caught on his.
Still, he heard her suspicion: “How do you know?”
“I requested it.” He tugged her forward so she was already several strides into the circle of light before he added, “We’re both quite intimately familiar,” and was prepared when she tried to yank her hand back.
“Jaime,” she hissed.
“Is it not Lord Jaime in mixed company?”
“Lord. Jaime.” This, through grit teeth. He obliged, stopping and turning on his heel to face her. Stormy, that brow of hers fierce, the scar on her cheek made prominent as firelight sought out its whorls, her full and so familiar mouth pulled down in a deep bow. What a face! He adored it.
“It’s our song,” he said reasonably. She was right to scoff at this: it was only their song insofar as some time ago, he'd used her disbelief at his ribald deconstruction of it as an excuse to use his mouth between her thighs for the second time that particular night, humming it cheerily as she squirmed and gasped and trembled around him, clutching at his hair. He still did, sometimes. The humming, that was. He put his mouth to her with devoted regularity. With that same reasonable tone, he said, “We must dance to it.”
“It’s —” Brienne pursed her lips. “I’ve never mastered the steps.”
“No one here cares about that.”
“They might realise —”
“Only if the lyrics have somehow changed to, The Bear and the no-longer-Maiden Fair.”
“Jaime,” and she truly did sound pained then.
He begrudged the loss of his hand less and less as time passed, but frustration was rarely more acute than in moments like these, when he wanted to touch her with both. “If I release your hand, will you stand in place?”
She studied his face, and he carefully schooled his expression so that in finding him serious, she nodded. He slipped free his hand from hers and raised it to her mangled cheek, stroking his thumb slowly. Her eyes fluttered for a moment, and she leaned into his touch, and he said quietly, “I’ll not ask you to do something you do not wish —”
Her eyes flew open, flashing disbelief. “You ask me to do things I do not wish constantly.”
“Not when it matters,” he said. She studied him again, and her expression smoothed into confusion, curiosity, over incredulity.
“Why does this matter?” she whispered.
It was suddenly difficult to breathe. He had suspected she had said no to the other question when he'd asked it because he hadn’t said the words she needed. Brienne had certain expectations now, and he knew she wouldn’t do it for less. For another, maybe. But there was a morning, not so long ago, her tongue had been thick in her mouth when she had blushed and whispered it to him, then hidden under a flurry of blankets, and it had been so sweet and so welcome and had opened such an ache of a storm inside him, he thought he might —
Instead, he had drawn breath, then curled around her, and whispered he-could-not-recall what, until she had emerged, rumpled, blue eyes wide as the sky, a crease from the blanket in her ruddied cheek, and what could he do but be filled to brimming? Laugh, and kiss her, tease her until she shoved him and he shoved back, and as they'd done on many mornings, the scant time before dawn was spent wrestling and play fighting, gasping out laughter and playful cursing, until finally Brienne pushed him onto his back and took him for herself. If he need then slip out the back of her tent, what did it matter when he left her flushed, and satiated, and more than a little ragged, with the blankets clutched to her chest as she watched him go, a little wistful perhaps but still smiling, sincere?
It mattered. To them both. Very much.
He knew several men thought him ignorant to his feelings; most may not call him Kingslayer anymore with hatred on their faces, nor did any dare refer to Brienne as the Kingslayer’s Whore any longer, but the moniker Lady’s Idiot was an improvement only insofar as it was said more or less fondly, certainly in reference to Brienne, the lady of the title. He would concede that it took longer than it ought for him to realise it; he couldn’t remember a time when it had meant... light. Perhaps long ago, and at first, giddy with youth and vigour, Lannister children both and thinking the world at their feet. But for many years the shine of those memories turned the cool, watery suffusion of winter at dawn: barely there and lending no heat. He had never known it to be this unshadowed tangle that flirted free in his veins from the beating warmth of it nestled in his rib cage. How it settled over his shoulders, easy, a mantle he would and did willingly choose. And how when he saw her — it was that, really. The day grew brighter, or the night less cold, and he simply wanted always to be near her.
He couldn’t say the words. He had used them once liberally if not freely, and that had been a snarl of cruelties, and had ended in blood and then more blood.
With Brienne he had survived too many things, many of them impossible, and the risk seemed too high. He hadn’t ever considered himself superstitious: what was the point? The gods were fickle if they were there at all, and men proved to be double. But this stuck, a catch in his throat, as though to say anything aloud would turn the tide at last against him; signal it was time to come collect on past debts. To lose Brienne to the whims of fate was as unfathomable a prospect as it was to lose her to his own. And the likelihood of the latter rose with each step they took, taking them nearer the Crossroads, where she could turn to Tarth, and he...
With someone else, she would accept less. But not with him.
He swallowed. Heard the plaintive thread in his voice when he said again, “Dance with me, Brienne.”
Under his touch, he felt her shiver, felt the tremble of her chin against the meat of his thumb, thought she may still pull away, stalk back to her tree. But instead she nodded, once, and he breathed out slowly. Smiled, though it felt a little strained. “Good. Come, I think the other one’s ending.” He offered his arm and after a breath of hesitation, she took it.
He led her onwards to the festivities, not missing how she drew nearer to him the closer they got. His incredibly brave lady, who had stared down direwolves, and Northmen, and a dragon queen enigmatic with judgement. Who fought hours, endless and awful hours, against dead who would not stay at rest. He had seen her stumble and rise, face insult and sit tall in her armour, be frightened, yes, but none would know save him as he watched her fingers tense on the hilt of the blade he had given her, in all other ways unyielding.
Here now her sword hand tensed around his. He smoothed his thumb across her wrist.
The first strains stirred and a chorus of cheers went up just as they made it to the middle. He could hardly have handpicked a better group to join them: men and women Brienne had served with, men she had saved, women she had protected, children whose eyes shone delight and awe of her, seeing her truly as few did. Brienne though, her eyes imploring on him, face so accusing he had to bite his tongue against a laugh. Truly, this woman he longed to call wife: he might understand her troubles, but in those rare times he worried about her comfort amongst Lannisters — even if, as he suspected, they two would end up tucked away on an island and distant from that horde — he remembered these expressions of hers and recognized familiar currents of drama in amongst the calm, deep waters which had drawn him in. Still, he had learned that in these moments Brienne was more sensitive to laughter than almost any other and so he merely gazed at her steadily and nodded as their group took the first step as one.
Already it was a variation, beginning more slowly than the norm. Brienne’s heavy sigh of relief did make him chuckle and when they hooked arms for their loop, she stepped on his foot for it — he laughed loudly at the pleased twinkle in her eyes, held her gaze and raised an eyebrow when her lips twitched with a smile. Brienne looked away, and they were separated. Step, then pass, then step, then pass, and spin, and gone, she was matched with Lord Jon.
The enormous bonfire at the centre of the camp and of the dance was a holdover from the endless dark and cold, one which Jaime did not begrudge, and it altered the dance, too. He couldn’t keep his eyes on her as he liked. For all Brienne’s protests, she always forgot her worries after the first few bars of music and soon lost herself to it. In dance she was as in fighting or in sex or in those private moments when they were alone together: whatever awkwardnesses in company kept her shoulders hunched, kept her hips stiff, fell away to grace writ across every long inch of her and she was revealed to the host as she had been revealed to him for some time. Brienne never saw it but he did: how her happiness was a beacon, infectious and bright, a gift. She stretched to her full and glorious height, her footwork alternately smooth or quick, always precise, and her arms held with perfect poise for whatever the dance called for, her hand a firm grip when they touched. She missed not a step — and if she did, it was his favourite in a way, as she would more than like huff a laugh at herself and continue on.
The tempo had risen by the time they met again, and she was flushed, her lips pressed tight and trembling but he knew this look, this holding back of her mirth. When time came for their loop, he hooked his arm through hers, pulled her tight to his side and wouldn’t let her go, his face turned to her as he murmured nonsense, bawdy gossip. He had been charmed and gleeful to learn Brienne enjoyed such things, a touch guiltily, and only so long as it wasn't mean-spirited. He took to collecting tales to share with her and shared some here, felt her whole body jolt four times before finally her laughter burst from her lips at the same moment she wrenched loose and into a spin away from him as the dance required, a loud peal he felt down to his toes. When he inclined his head to his new partner — a washwoman, he was fairly sure, on her way back to Tumbleton — he was still smiling with the victory of it. She returned his smile, indulgently, knowingly. Jaime didn’t mind.
Again, Brienne was lost to him, but it didn’t stop him trying to crane his neck to find her. He couldn’t remember a time he’d ever stepped on the feet of his dance partners (at least, not in carelessness, and then not since he’d joined the Kingsguard) and yet not once but twice he had to utter apology when someone yelped. It was worth it though, as he caught sight of Brienne three times, her hops lifting her higher than any other of course, stealing his breath and making his heart flip, his palm sweat, his feet itch to be back before her.
They met again, Brienne now coy and cheeky, refusing to meet his eye and light on her feet, barely touching him for their loop and then quick away from him on the next spin. He struggled to resist chasing after her, but the washerwoman once more was before him, an arched brow and a sly smile.
The dance went on. Ever more quickly. Hop and turn and step and spin. Glimpses of Brienne were fewer. And it was getting so he really did need to concentrate — hop and turn and step and spin — else risk tumbling into the fire — hop-and-turn-and-step-and-spin — an ignominious end and what a waste when — hop-and-turn — he heard her, that laugh again — and-step-and — louder, closer? — spin-and-hop-and-turn — it was in his bones — and-stepand — it was the rhythm — spinandhop— the beat — andturn — his heart — andfinalsp—
Brienne swung into him, collided, caught her enormous hands on his shoulders to steady herself as he captured her waist, holding firm. He was breathless with want and she was breathless with laughter, loose and gangling against his chest as she so rarely was. Her eyes twinkled only the best of the light when she lifted her head to look at him.
The firelight loved her. Painted her in reds and oranges and golds. Her face was joy, and it was home, and Brienne had forgotten what reservations she purported to have about their interactions being too intimate in company because the adoration in her expression caught the contours of her laughter and outshone the flames, was near bright as day, he was warm from the dance and now he was warmer still from Brienne, the wonder of her, stealing his breath, the pounding of his heart was already hers and
It was out of his mouth before he realized
“Another turn, love?”
Brienne froze. So did he.
Her expression stilled to shock at the precise moment Jaime’s heart became thunder in his ears. Brienne’s hands clenched, still on his shoulders, and under her hold he felt how tense he had become. It wasn’t — he wasn’t sure he’d ever said anything more true in his life, an inane thing to think, and yet those fears, what if —
Brienne said something. He didn’t hear it.
He managed: “Pardon?”
So quiet that even concentrating he barely heard it over his own heart and the noisy revelry still around them, she whispered, “What did you say?”
Jaime took a breath. Swallowed. He kept his hand tight on her hip, pressed his wrist more firmly to her other. Are you really so craven? she had once asked. And that had only been over his hand. She was his heart. He’d not forget courage again.
“My love,” he said, carefully, holding her eyes but tasting the words on his tongue. He found them sweet, and potent, and addicting. Indomitable. Like Brienne.
He said them again.
Gods, but they tasted exquisite. They flickered over his tongue and filled his mouth to flow down his throat to his heart in a way he hadn’t ever known. They puffed up his chest, made his hand tighten on her, made his feet more solid on the ground than they’d been in years. As a boy, in the moments he’d bothered to think about it, he had thought love ought to make one float, a bird on the wing; with Cersei, love had been treacherous and caging. This love was something else: settled into him, grounded in his bones, he might cross endless leagues and still it would be there, sheltered and sheltering. Freeing.
He’d ask her again, the question he'd only ever asked the once, when the shock was vanished from her face.
In the immediate, he wanted to add her name, so he did: “My love, Brienne.” And then, overloud and overcheered, he said, “I asked if you would join me for another turn.”
He worried for a moment she might cry — and gods, what might he do then? But instead she nodded, and he was gifted her happiness returning, the tide rushing in from the sea, only it spilled free from her barricades to cascade through him. It churned with all he’d already been feeling, and on impulse he ducked forward and up, his lips to her cheek. First one, then the other, both beloved, and Brienne gave a laugh, and another, and then she said something else, and he didn’t need to ask that other question again, the one he'd only asked once, because she'd answered him anew. They were both of a sudden breathless with the answer of it, become delirious fools, barging through the next dance as they refused to release one another. In his ears, what she’d said played again, over and over again, louder than music,
“And Jaime?” Eyes bright, and voice steady:
“Forget the dance,” he said abruptly, partway through. Brienne didn’t protest. They whispered and fumbled and laughed and kissed their way from the revellers, ignoring whistles and shouts, even as Brienne flushed, always shy, he adored her — he loved her — biting her lip then nibbling his, and Jaime mostly concentrated on his soon-to-be wife, how marvellous and stunning she was, and on keeping his heart in his chest as it tried to physically move to its home in her.
She finally returned the words, half undressed and sat a perfect weight on his lap, her legs everywhere, pushing her hair out of her face after he’d plucked out her pins and ruffled it just to see her splutter. Alone, like this, she was insistent, and at ease, and she smiled at him through a darkening of her blush. “Though,” Ever diligent in her honesty nowadays, “I did... say them once before,” she said, a sweep of bashfulness in the downward tilt of her chin, the peeking at him from beneath her eyelashes.
It was on the tip of his tongue to tease her: Did she think she only ever had to say it the once? Did she truly think he'd not expect it as many times as she could rouse herself to say it, and then, a few more?
He looked up at her, and he loved her, and so: “You’ve always been the braver between us,” he said, set his fingers gently to the darkened line about her throat and — all her scars, he committed to himself, by the time the night was done. For now, she rolled her eyes. Jaime tipped his chin up to meet her as she ducked to kiss him, but she veered away, kissing the corner of his nose instead. Before he knew what she was about, and not that he would protest, Brienne had fallen to the side, hauling him along and on top of her. She passed her fingers over his cheek to sink into his hair and Jaime shivered, caught her thumb between his teeth before it passed him by.
Later, Brienne wiggled under his arm and into his side until her head rested over his still-hammering heart and the only sound was their catching their breaths, until she placed her hand on his belly and said very quiet and very earnest, “Thank you. For. Asking me to dance.”
“Imagine where we'd be,” he said, “If you'd remained stubbornly against dancing with me.” Then he let out an oof as she used the hand on his stomach for leverage, sitting up to glare down at him. She was still pink, hair sweaty and flying all over, mouth swollen, a lovebite darkening on her left breast, another at her ribs, more known but hidden to him by the pool of blankets at her hips, and somehow still she was impressive with disapproval.
That was it: Jaime laughed, he couldn't help it, reached for her, couldn't help that either, said “Come back here,” and then “I love you,” more fervent than he’d intended, but true, and she melted back down against him, grumbled, “I love you,” into his shoulder. And then: “You might be nicer with your invitations.”
“How much nicer can I be than, Dance with me, Brienne?”
“Without the laughter.” Then she slid her hand up and cupped his neck. “That isn't true,” softly, so softly, “I like the sound of you laughing.” Gods. He closed his eyes tight and tipped his head back, pressing into the pillow. She would be the death of him. He’d long thought he would catch his death at the end of a blade, or more recently he’d considered that perhaps perhaps, nigh-unimaginably, death would be in his sleep at some ripe old age. Instead death might find him here, at the receiving end of Brienne’s sweet, kind heart, as she laid tucked up and soft in his hold, her strong fingers combing gently through the hair at his nape.
Then she sighed, long-suffering, something she could only have learned from time spent with him and Jaime chuckled. If it sounded a little wet, Brienne made no comment, only said, with a little hurt, “Even if you laugh at my expense.”
“Never at your expense,” he corrected quickly. Jaime craned his neck, kissed the crown of her head. Stroked his wrist along her arm across his chest, spread his hand over her back. “It’s only ever my delight that you exist, and that you are here, and that you allow me to keep you close.”
Her cheeks and neck and chest heated against his skin, and he laughed again, and Brienne made a noise of protest in the back of her throat, but he knew she was smiling, too, burrowing her face into his shoulder, and he indulged himself once more, his mouth to her hair: “I love you.”
The next morning, Jaime said new vows, watched as Brienne said them back, turned soft and strong, her truth, by a golden and rosy dawn.