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Fucking balls o' blood, never in his forsaken life has he ever seen a woman quite like that.

Broad. Strong. She wouldn't bend easy, would give as good as she gets for true.

Tormund drinks from his ale, leans forward over the table. He almost says something, almost -- his watching her makes her stiffen.

Those hips would be good to birth babes. Tall, strong ones with his flaming hair or her pale blonde.

She'd want for nothing, he thinks then, he hasn't got much except his fists to fight with, his teeth, but she, oi, she wouldn't need his help none. They could match each other. Keep warm when winter comes and piss off the top of the wall, slay a wight to save their lives and then sing when spring thaws the ground.

No one's spoken up since the scroll from the Bolton bastard came, but this lass, oh, this lass, she could knock out all his teeth and he'd worship her thighs still. She was the stuff of pagan gods and old lore, by the old gods, if he'd met a woman like this years ago --

"Oi," he says, clearing his throat, swallowing his mutton. She doesn't look at him since he's staring, but pretty Jon Snow, such a coward, his eyes narrow in warning while his pretty sister perks up in interest. "Lass."

"Ser," the Knight -- she must be -- says stiffly. Southern manners no doubt.

He grins at her. "Ya ever hear the story about the bear?"

And that rage in her ice blue eyes, he's frightened for his cock but intrigued nonetheless.

She reaches for her fork but the boy next to her seizes it first.

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"Will you --" She stops to huff, breathless in the cold, but winter's set in like a simmer, a spark ignited on a log, a chill's nipped at her nose but it's not the biting wind tinting her face that shade of red.

Grinning, he wonders just how low he can get the blush to spread, but she's stopped short of her horse and looks at him, really looks at him the longest she has since she rode through Crows' Nest gates.

"Will you desist," she's finally worked up enough to finish. She squares her impossibly broad shoulders, draws up to her full height like she's meaning to look down on him.

But he's looking up. Oi, he's looking up, this wonder of a woman. Her tone is not unlike the authority Jon spoke with when he called himself the King Lord Commander Crow, and that stern, pinched look on her face -- she's used to being listened to.

He's just already following after her like a dog, a free man but he'll follow her, he's one more supper away from sitting near next to her and eating out of the pretty, shockingly delicate palm of her hand. How she holds up that shining sword, he doesn't know, his would much suit her fingers better, but.

"Ya want t'be shown around?" he offers, as nice as he can. His smile's not a pretty thing, his grin's too toothy and to say she's likely considering it is too generous.

"From the sounds of it, I won't be staying here long," she tells him finally. She glances around like she's exasperated, like this small talk is so hard, he's starting towards offended until he's blessed with common sense.

"You leave here with the sister, I follow Jon. We'll fight together," he nods. He's nearly at her eye-level here, and they're.. so blue, the sky on the last good days before the gray clouds and the snows came. Again, fuck, he's never seen a woman like this. He allows himself an instant of envisioning her in a battle, sheer grace and force and no sweeter death, he's sure of it, he's gonna see it. Burn his body now. "Maybe we can ride together, too."

"That would put too much strain on the horses," she huffs, starting an anxious step towards her beast of burden behind her. The horse exhales through its nose when she touches its bridle through her gauntlets, and oi, no luckier horse has lived.

He oughta been the husband to horses instead of bears.

"Well," he says decidedly, looking her up and down. "We don't need the horse, do we?"

"Oh," she fucking chokes, "oh, my," and then she's gone.

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The next he sees her -- and for as cramped and constricted as these Crows live in their nest with only a limit of places to hide, it's taken him since before breakfast to find her and the sun is high in the blue of this giant now -- she's standing atop the great big wall.

And the world does glisten up here.

Up in the clouds, everything shines like melting snow, like fire in a cave, beautiful like the Makers have more than just good humor cursing them all here. White sunlight stretches as far as she can see, and he wishes that were the extent of it. Just a pretty wasteland her Southern folk didn't want.

"Is this your first time up 'ere?" he calls out to her. Gently since he don't want to startle her, not again. She's a runner, she is, but if not from the dead, then he has to ask from what. As fair as she is, it must've come at a cost; it looks like she's seen the worst of the world down here.

She doesn't startle save for the quick rise of her shoulders (and he'll think on that later), but it's more like she's taking the first breath she has in years. Like her lungs have never been that full of air. The world stretches on and isn't as small as she thought, like reaches as far north as the North goes, and welling in her chest right now, touched in her face -- he finds he's inhaling a deep breath, too. 'Cause that look she's got, it almost sets in him like hope.

"Yes," she breathes, wind biting her face pink, chapping her parted lips. "Yes, it's.. I never knew. I didn't -- it's magnificent," she gasps. It's a precipice. It's like the edge of the world but the start of it, too.

He watches her tug those black furs closer around herself, and she hasn't said her vows yet, he's sure of it. She reaches out to nothing, though, everything offered in the expanse in front of her, and the Night's Watch doesn't take women. He remembers. 'Course, they said they didn't take the free folk neither, but here they are. He hopes she won't.

To bind herself here, to give up that freedom and that wonder plain on her face here like this is all her life's led toward, her blue eyes so bright, so wide, piercing him like the chill of wind when she glances back --

"Is this how you felt?" she asks him suddenly, breathlessly, "when you saw this for the first time?"

To stand on the edge of the world and have it be so much more, oi, it.. fuck.

"Yes," he admits stiffly, a step forward closer to her, but then he feels like he can breathe, too. "I felt like that look on your face."

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Pretty Jon Snow pulled him aside to ask him just what in the seven hells he thinks he's doing.

And he doesn't really? Know? He doesn't have much reason to plan beyond the next step he takes, all he's thinking is to do it, find her, see what shade of blue do the clouds make her eyes today or which stance is she teaching that boy that smiles at her a little too long in the training yard.

Maybe she'll be talking all hushed like to Jon's lady sister while the lass sews or pens the scrolls that are to reach out to other noble houses in this forsaken country.

Or -- not forsaken, not anymore, he doesn't know what it is about this lass and her form, her blushing face and her pale hair. Edd had the fucking stupidity to ask him why he wasn't staring at Sansa, curiosity he wondered, but the fuck? Prim little lady good for sitting still and not much else?

Except that's not true, these noble ladies of the South are more impressive than he'd have thought if he ever dwelled on it, what with their tact in managing armies and planning a siege. Mayhaps it's not so different south of the wall for them, after all -- but lots of things are to come for after.

This Lady Brienne the Beauty they call her, and it makes her pretty frown simper but she is the prettiest, beautifulest woman he's seen, good for so much more than a fuck if that's what that Crow's thinkin', she's something, she could tell him anything and he'd be. He'd be done in. He is already.

He hadn't thought past what to say after hello.

Flittingly, she holds his gaze for an anxious second -- and these dark clouds make her eyes a touch of blue darker than bright skies -- before she tersely says it, "Good morning."

Would she read to him if he asked, so he could hear more of her voice? So commanding and delicate. More character in it than any Wildling woman he's had the displeasure of knowing since it took his time away from knowing her.

"..You slept well?" he asks after a pause. Feet around them slosh around this courtyard, and he narrows his eyes. He oughta asked to carry those logs of wood she's got for her, but then he grins just as quick, 'cause that weight she's carrying without a slouch to her beautiful shoulders. She's something. "I didn't see you at the mornin' meal."

"No," she states clearly. She avoids his meaningful eye contact.

"Sleep bad?"

"No," she huffs, riled up already, starting to her left, but he takes a step right, and that look on her face, she could talk down to him all day. "I slept fine."

He gets the sense she says fine often; it pinches her brows together. It seems she's had loads to complain about as well, but he doesn't think she does.

He'd listen. If she wanted to. Or kill whoever she had to say bad things about.

"I'm trying to get back," she tells him, not annoyed he doesn't think, just tired. Cold. She raises her arms and the firewood she's got for the emphasis evident in her tone, but staring at her fixated, he realizes too late she's asking him to move.

"Can I carry that?"

Then she freezes, almost like she doesn't understand he's offering his help. To carry firewood for her for the rest of her life, his torch is burning so bright for her already. "I can manage," she mumbles, direct but soft, vitriol and contrite.

It's rubbing him raw like cold on his face the dark ages he had no beard. "I can help," he decides. An octave lower, his voice more gruff, he reaches to take the pile from her arms.

She knocks back instantly defensive, and her face is fire. "No!" she tells him, sucking in a deep breath. Sternly, it's like she's willing herself to composure and a side-step around the North itself. "No." More clearly, her smile is like a grimace. "That won't be necessary, but thank you for the.. generosity."

"It wouldn't be a lick of trouble."

"I said I could manage!" she hisses, trying to walk around him. "It -- let go, please -- you can't go where this is going --"

"-- If you'd let me help ya, I'm trying to --"

"Ser," she interrupts him impassively, her jaw setting. "Tormund."

"Brienne," he tries, grinning broguishly at her. He's never spoken her name outloud.

"This is going to warm a bath," she explains painfully through gritted teeth, stomping through the slosh back to her quarters.

He reckons she thinks that's the end of that, that he'll spend another cycle of the sun trying to find her once more. But he only nods with the weight she thinks taking baths must have, the solemn affairs they must be in the South. Hah. He'd laugh if he wasn't too intent on not losing her amidst all the Crows.

"Do ya need a helping hand?!" he calls to her seriously, frowning confusedly when she glowers back at him, shocked. "I can wash your back if you can't reach!" He hesitates. "Or your feet!"

"It's --" she actually sputters. And even though she turns, she doesn't meet his eyes. She's too flustered. "It's not my bath!" she shouts at him indignantly. "Just.. desist!"

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It's too quiet. That's the first he thinks. Quiet like death.

It's restless and it's eerie, thoughts plaguing him to Hardhome and how the world stood still, but he tries to remember that day and the sick terror as often as he vows to always remember his brothers and sisters and the children that could have been his own. Even the fucking Thenns. He has to remember the cause he's taking up and what keeps him bound to this Crows' Nest like he's promised his life.

But maybe the fighter in him is getting tired.

He sees naught but a horse around the Keep, hears nothing at first but the wind, the rustle of somethin' or another. If they've killed Jon Snow again, he'll tear out their mutineers' throats, and if it's his sister they've (finally) gone after ('cause he's not just blind, she's just not that tree he wants to climb -- he's far too much a practical man for that), he'll.. he doesn't know what he'd do.

Sansa Stark is a sweet lass. She smiles at him more and more like she's less afraid, and she's kind, and she's haunted, and just 'cause a bit of skirt's untouchable don't mean these Crows have to rape her. It's their fault for being too prudish for sheep, not some blame or fault to Snow's sister 'cause she got a nice enough face.

So's fucking Jon King Snow, but has he suffered these problems? Not south of the wall at least.

He'll cut off the rapists' cocks and feed them to the direwolf, tie their nooses himself.

Maybe they're all just having a meeting all private like, another counsel about what to do. All their smallclothes are still in a twist, the only thing to do about Winterfell is kill them so these Northern armies gonna fight for Jon fight the dead he's still half paranoid are wondering around Castle Black just now.

But it's not the rising dead men.

Just three men that are going to be dead.

"Stupid, ugly bitch," he hears. The voice is ragged -- bleeding.

"Too good for us, she thinks," a Crow says. Indignant and scowling and oh, fuck, how fast dread freezes his ribs in his chest, splinters into his lungs.

That grunt he hears, that grimace behind it he recognizes from where he stands outcast in the hall, it's Brienne.

Brienne with a fire-poker in her hands when he opens the door to see, bleeding from her nose. Her breaths are hard like she's been fighting like this all her life, fighting against men like this all her life, and that's when he only partially understands she must have been. He doesn't get why, but she must have been, and there's one sorry man a mess heaped on the floor for it. One of them standing is limping, and the other's face so screwed up is like he'd rather kill her than have a turn doing else.

That man lunges, but he's seen the way this plays out before. She's quicker than anyone would think, graceful, and she jibes at the cursing fool's throat in a cut so quick, he's collapsed quicker and lays there mewling like a babe.

The last Crow looks to the door for an escape and sees him standing there with something like hope, but no, no, the free folk fight their own battles.

"You help me finish her off, you get a turn, eh?" the man offers.

He's the man that calls him wilding shit, though.

"No," is all Tormund says, hard, simple.

Brienne's eyes flicker to his in something he doesn't like seeing reflected back at him. But another lunge, an exposed throat taken advantage of, she stands alone.

Almost. "You're bleeding," he appraises gruffly, finally, getting her to look at him 'cause she's not. She still doesn't, just stares at the three men on the floor.

When she does speak, however, it cuts him down. And he's not for taking women into his arms like songs, but this. This isn't right. "I didn't think this would happen here. Men of the Night's Watch are supposed to be honorable."

"And brave," he agrees snidely, laughing. It jars her, even more when he steps heavily across the room to her side. He starts to gently pry her fingers from around the fire-poker, and after little more than her first surprised breath, she lets him. Even though his hands are cold and rough and hers are callused but must feel like silk. "Heroic, too. Those Crows were shit."

The poker clanks to the floorboards, and she draws her hand up to her chest protectively. "You didn't intervene," she says coldly, determinedly looking at him then like it's against all better judgment and reflexes. "You watched."

And he.. might have misjudged her, if she was looking for some dashing rescue. "We don't up North," he frowns. His ears feel hot. "I would have killed them if they were goin' to kill you, of that you can be sure."

"No," she says strangely, backing up damn near into the fireplace. "No, thank you for not." She flushers, tips her head back slightly but her nose is done bleeding.

And she doesn't sound thankful at all. "Woman," he starts.

"No," she cuts him off again. She swallows thickly. Her pretty blue eyes close for an instant. "If you had.. assisted me, it would have taken longer to earn their respect."

"Well," and he shrugs, 'cause she's making this seem larger than life, more important than anything. And it is -- if to her, so he shakes his head and.. decides. "You don't need to earn it. You've gained mine."

"Ser --" Again, she can't meet his eyes until she does, just an instant -- but that's that.

"I'm goin' to clean your face."

"That's not necessary," she gapes furtively, trying to recover herself and her dignity, oh, (even Jaime hadn't looked at her quite like that. He was always trying to see something it seemed, but this man, it's like he's already seen it since he looked). "It really isn't."

"Mm," he grunts. He hovers at the open door, waiting for her when she's ready.

And waits. It could be all his life, but.

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"That's worse than killing her," Edd says, contrite like he means it, like it's a kindness compared to ruin.

"All you've seen, and you don't think coming back after is the worst?" Tormund laughs, but it isn't really a laugh. 'Cause Jon came back after. And that's an ache in his forehead to rationalize another day. "You have to talk to your men."

"They aren't my men," Jon protests, looking pointedly to Edd. "I've had no say in what they do or don't. Not since they put their blades in me."

"Did -- did you see her?" Tormund asks then, suddenly remembering. "When you left." Died. A throb in his heart, it's like the memory of summer, and he reckons Jon understands without him having to say. "Did you see Ygritte?"

Three arrows or one making its mark; love does them all in.

The room's fallen quiet. Ghost shifts from his place in front of the fire, shakes and trembles the floor briefly.

"No." I wanted to, he doesn't say. Because Robb, his father, his mother, a figure with silver hair, Pyp, Grenn, Mormont, the traitor beheaded years ago when he was full of more than stones that weighed down hope -- what if he'd seen faces he didn't want to? Arya? Greyjoy? Mance? What would he have done?

"So this life's all that matters," he states, clasping his hands on his knees. "And you're still goin' to leave this place."

"You know armies could fight the dead if --"

"I don't mean after," Tormund interrupts. "You're running from the chance you got here. You killed the ones that killed you."

Jon sighs, the winning and the losing battle in him making this only tired repetition. "And you'll kill the ones that try to off me again," he almost smiles.

Tormund doesn't. "You know I will."

"I do think you are shirking your responsibilities here."

"Edd," Jon warns.

"You swore vows."

"Until my death --"

"For all nights to come!" Slamming his mug of mead onto the table, these gathered fall silent, and he's never seen guilt like that on Snow's face. Nor anger like that on the Crow. "What would Sam tell you? You tried to leave once, and we brought you back."

"Honor," Jon states, remembering his Lord Commander. "Honor brought me back."

"The fuck's not making you stay this time, then?" Edd demands, his voice hard.

If this was back in Mance's camp, one of them would be dead.

"If one of you," he starts, raising his voice to be heard over all this tension, "doesn't talk to your men about protecting those taking refuge here. I will."

"You say Lady Brienne managed herself just fine."

"Yes." He rolls his eyes. "She's always managing. She's always fine," he glowers, frowning hard at the table instead of Ed's questioning look. Only he's really not angry at all, the second he is and it softens and thaws to pride in his eyes. "Three all by herself. Didn't even tire." And could even any man do that?

"That is a man, isn't it," whispers some young Crow he doesn't know the name of. Good thing too, he'll probably get to survive the night for that because he's forgettable and full of cowardice and probably has a small peck, but.

"Right," he nods, standing up stiffly. Four pair of eyes watch him expectantly, then they watch him leave.

And the second he steps out with a firm shut of the door, he hears an instant stop of heavy, deliberate footsteps followed by swift hustling.

"Oi!" he calls, feeling himself grin so big at once, it's just her back he sees walking away from him, but no prettier sight.

"No, thank you," Brienne replies tersely back, not slowing her long strides as she pursues on.

"I didn't offer anything."

"I won't be accepting anything," she assures him, so self-righteous, so contrite, Castle Black is too bloody small for this, if she's looking for an exit to outside, she's heading to a dead-end hall.

"That --" he swallows his reluctance. After this turn, he'll be cornering, and he can't do that. "That's the wrong way out." He jerks his thumb back and left in a quick gesture, averting his eyes when she looks. He could steal her (if she let him), they could be considered wed in.. well, a minute and a half, less since she does things to him, oh, gods, but there's a choice, too.

And looking at him, she doesn't look like a wounded bear or a skittish horse. Her defenses are high, they should be -- shouldn't with him -- but if that soft crease smiling around her eyes is as close as he gets to seeing her grin for true, he'll still burn it to his eyes like a brand. Hers.

"Thank you," she allows him quietly.

"I did offer to show you around the Castle," he reminds her.

That makes her bristle. "I told you to desist."

"Yes," he says snidely, "desist, what exactly are ya trying to get me to do?"

"To stop!" she half-shouts in candor, offense striking her cheeks a fair red not as pretty as the well-earned and fought against bruise mottling just under her eye.

"But I haven't done anything, lass."

"No," she negates, tipping her chin down. "You're -- you're laughing at me."

"No," he repeats. His eyes gone wide, she thinks she realizes what she's assuming, but no. "I've never been more serious about anything," he tells her, meeting her gaze and holding. "I've never known a woman quite like you."

"Well," she frowns. A bit of spirit leaves her, he thinks, and he's happy he's not yet told her he spoke to Jon about her safety here. She could handle herself, but she shouldn't. And they're both getting it all wrong, but soon enough, each other. "Not all ladies can be good at embroidering. Styling hair, arranging.. flower arrangements."

Self-consciousness sags down her shoulders just briefly before she presses on. Shouldering past him the way she'd fled, he really has no choice but to follow after today and all the days to come. "Those really are fucking useless skills to have."

Not that he can see, but she smiles. She goes right instead of left, to this door that must be hers. "I think I'll retire early," she informs him.

And everything she says sounds so necessary, so formal and dutiful and rather.. life-threatening. She makes lots of things a battle. A waging war. She doesn't sound to be fighting him tonight, though.

"Would you like me to stoke your fire?" he offers like a true gentlemen, thinking it'll warm her a bit. But then he grins, making eyes at her 'cause that could be a double meaning if he's tactless enough.

"No, that won't be necessary," she doesn't fail to decline. Necessities aren't just being cared for, yet.

"I could watch you stoke your fire, then," he suggests, playing like ice, shrugging.

Before he can apologize for the confused look on her face, however, she slips in her quarters, closes the door hard. But he doesn't hear her walking away. So he lingers just a breath, two. Then he hears her sigh.

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Time stretches and slows and waxes and wanes, strands of honey pulled from a jar, the heavy, aching slowness the world turns with when the sky is about to open.

It's sweet, and it's passing, and here some place between sleep and awake, the sun so bright it's burning his closed eyelids red, it's all he sees, all he feels. Warm and burning, blazing like the red comet, dragons and the blood of a new king, the future that's here for all of them and settling into his lungs. Nestling into his bones, and she's smoothing her hand over his spine, she's picking his ribs clean, she's pulling at his heartstrings and playing him like an instrument, and he is breathing.

Somehow, she's the last time he ever felt sorry about changing his mind, she's the winning and losing battle in him, getting up to start the day or staying here, here between restless and peaceful. The sun is rising and mountains are moving in his chest and her fingerprints are moving all over it.

He sees it so clear, a good, strong life where her healthy build of survival is built to last the ages with him, and if he wanted it. They could be wed now, but he wants to say all those things and can't find the words, there is something.

He watches her meagerly sip from her mead, slow if not savoring, wary of how imbibement could inhibit her. That boy, Pod, does as she does, has started to go where she goes when he isn't tailing after Sansa Stark. Occasionally, Podrick still takes her cutlery when the fighter in her could stab some fool in the neck for a threatening demeanor to her Lady, but more often, he stares at him when he's gazing too long.

So he looks away. He's cowed by this woman sitting across from him. How intentional it's got to be for her to meet everyone's gaze but his, he wonders, he drinks his mead. He thinks of her kiss finally on his mouth. He wonders what her grunts taste like.

After, he doesn't say a word to her, he can't -- and she looks sorry for it. Whatever it must be that quickens her breath like she's been running, chasing after him for once, she's so breathy when she calls, "Wait," and he has been.

He has been.

"If you wish," she adds. As if he wants anything less. Unnecessarily, she gestures widely and vaguely, grand and sweeping, but after this pause maybe she hasn't thought past her sentence either.

"I do wish," he answers. He can't help it, he smiles, he wishes her eyes weren't so startled. He wishes he could hear her laugh. When a moment passes, a doubtful moment he can see start to flicker across her face, he just. He helps. "Did you need anything?" he asks her gently, quiet, and tender is something he hasn't felt in a long while.

"Not really," she admits. She's sheepish and staring down to her feet briefly, searching for the words and the answers, and he doesn't quite have any to offer her. Or anything else.

He thinks others would kill for her north of this wall. The Others, too. Everything in her boasts of strength and survival and a fighting chance at existing long enough with the kindness he's sure can't have been easy to keep, even if she still fights for it and others mistake her curtness for rudeness. She's so desirable, and more than that, he's dwelling on each smile she gives him with her eyes.

Like she thaws, and her eyes are so blue, and it's starting to haunt him. One wrong move out here, and her eyes will bluer, and he can't ever live to see that. She's too good for it.

"We can just stand here," he suggests nonchalantly. Just.. a lord and a lady in a dancing room, or two free folk 'round a fire. "This is alright."

Hesitant, then negating, she starts to second-guess. "No, I'm sorry --"

"No," he cuts her off gruffly. "This is alright. Nice, even."

"Not much of anything."

"Not yet."

"I beg your pardon?" she startles. Sometime when she can meet his eyes without blushing ripe, he'll ask her if reaching for the golden hilt of her sword is more of a comfort than a defensive instinct.

"I said that not yet," he tells her. Somewhere a sun is rising, and it's more opportunity for the both of them. "Soon. Or not. That would be fine, too."

He doesn't miss the way she opens at that, like it's making her consider. She might have been a second choice, but never really has she been an option. If that -- if that is what he means because the way he watches her sometimes, she can feel. And maybe she's misinterpreted or misunderstood, but still. "You know," she speaks up. So quiet, she could almost be tomorrow. "You're the kindest person here to me."

And almost, she smiles like she did at Renly, like she did to Pod when she spoke of him.

Not much of anything.

But he wants his mouth set to her mouth. He wonders still if she'd see that as kindness.

It's really not much of anything when he takes a bit to quit seeing stars in her eyes and nothing else. They're just standing. And if he called her a beauty, she wouldn't believe him. If he said he'd follow her forever, she wouldn't believe him.

"We should spar," he decides then. It's such a grand idea that he nods definitively.

And bless her, here is where she is grace and confidence and sureness; she only looks concerned for him, not flustered. "It might be in your best interest to not," she modestly suggests. She looks just a touch impressed, though, like he could.. like she could be valued. She's already respected.

"I swear to ya," he grins, so big he could bow and he wouldn't feel like a fool, "if that's true, at least you'll be who I last see." He feels his grin soften to something that smiles in his eyes, reflects back at him in her and blazes. "Would you burn my body after?"

"Wh-- what?" she chokes, gaping at him open-mouthed. "Personally? Myself?"

Chapter Text

It's not coincidence that has his horse directly next to hers.

But well, because it's not coincidence, it can't be happenstance or fate or predestination or chance either. Not some pretty design that speaks of how this was predetermined by deities, the Makers, the old gods, the new. He could wax and wane poetic like a gibbous moon, the fair color of her skin, but --

"I told you we'd be riding together," he smiles, grins, trying to catch her eye in this pace they're riding at.

It's almost leisure, but something has changed with every stomp of their party's hooves down snow going green and greener.

He's not sure, but Snow and Stark alike, they're lighter here, like fucking air, and if it's just because they're heading home, well. Jon's more free now than he was as a Free Folk.

"Yes," Brienne replies awkwardly. So terse because they're all so close, near everyone can hear, so he won't embarrass her too much. He'll get her pink instead of red. "I wonder as to why I ever doubted you. Pardon my lack of regret," she says, so put upon, oh, help.

"Brienne," Sansa chides, grinning just as big as he's sure he is. "You're being rude."

"Milady," Pod agrees, surprised. He doesn't smile at him, but he's riding behind them is all.

"He's just being friendly," the Lady supposes from next to his lady, something real soft taking over her face. She only says so because it took her a day to realize he wasn't wild and angry either, that most of his men weren't neither, but her tone, too, Sansa spins the words like she's forgotten anyone can be nice.

And Tormund. He thinks they're all going to get very well-acquainted this ride.

"Well," he starts, and Brienne, he sees her outright stiffen. She's familiar with this tone and manner he's speaking with already. "It wouldn't be the first she's spurned me," he quips.

He swears he hears that bastard laugh, but his sister, oh, she goes positively alight. "You didn't tell me that," she says accusingly, looking to Brienne.

"You've been speaking of me?"

"I have not," Brienne stops. Her ice eyes are like fire staring at him, but whatever she sees in his face, it embarrasses her. She stares straight ahead. "I haven't."

"Not to me," speaks up Podrick.


"Apologies, Milady."

"Brienne," Sansa persists. She's so expectant. And it's more than her missing a female she can confide in and befriend; she's missed that, yes, but she respects her counsel, too. How they already need each other. And still, each track south, farther south than he's ever been, it is liberating to her.

And to him. This is farther south than he's ever been, this is exhilarating and traitorsome and wondrous and scary. Just not when he sees Brienne, the firm set to her face, the way just barely, she sees him, is so acutely aware of him here.

"Lady Sansa," she says, refocusing, spurning him yet again, but he can't be too upset. "Keep talking against the wind, and you'll dry your throat and be mute." She's very no-nonsense the way she talks to the girl, but for as much as Sansa reminds her of Lady Catelyn --

Lady Brienne reminds Sansa of her lady mother in times like these, and it wells in her heart too fully to be cross she's being chided like a child again. So she quiets, but not after decidedly saying that Brienne will tell her later.

"'Fraid not," he says bluntly, shaking his head once. Even Jon turns around to give him a look, but Brienne looks curious and questioning. He earnestly means to offer her solace in this. "When we stop for the night, she can't talk to you if she's talking to me."

Brienne sputters at once, and someone, someone laughs, but all he's seeing his her. "Ser --" she starts, flustering, embarrassed, going to throttle him she swears, "will you --"

"Desist," he finishes for her. The rest of the evening they're horseback, he's grinning, is next to her.

Chapter Text

The grass isn't green. No, it's dry, and it'd likely catch on fire, and it's yellowish brown and hideous, but it's grass.

And the sunset doesn't glisten on snow like crystals; when it gets slightly warm enough for what's left of this scarce snow to melt or cold enough the rest of the grass is buried, maybe he'll see something he recognizes, but here. The sky stretches on and on and doesn't stop at a wall.

The colors are bleeding into each other. They're bright and they're purples and yellows and pinks and the blue of midnight tinting lighter, spreading over all of them in wonder, and he's never felt so much of it. It's like seeing a giant, but like that's a novelty, these southern folk must be used to the way the sky changes and colors and just goes.

"It is pretty."

Pretty. Or so she says, their definitions surely differ 'cause the sky's got nothing on her looking so perfectly capable a few paces away from where he's standing. If his arms were twice as long, he could touch her and that crease her bedroll imprinted into her cheek.

I felt like that look on your face.

"You want to be alone," she interprets stiffly. Unsure of herself, and she really shouldn't be.


"..Is something the matter, then?" And fuck, she earnestly sounds softer than curious. Worried since never once has he shut his face around her. "Are the other men causing you any trouble?" Her face pinches in concern; she's always trying to defend.

"Not since Jon was brought back to the living," he says idly. Not since the men started to act cruel towards you instead, he doesn't.

"Oh," she frowns. He can see it in the dim light of the morning. "I don't see why they would be. If you're all working against what you say lays north of the wall."

"What is," he corrects. Like a small smile, she can take it, he doesn't have to pull his punches for her. "You know they're coming."

"It's why we need these armies," she repeats back to him. She's been listening, though it's been a fact he's adamant about. One Lord Crow is, too, 'cause sometimes he looks so faraway, so dead, he might not have meant it when he said he didn't see anything at all.

"I hoped to see you in a battle," he says. And outwardly this might be the most they've spoken to each other, too short too soon, but she doesn't tense up.

She just seems tired. "You have."

"Against a worthy opponent."

Almost, almost, their life together might be a story in almosts, she smiles. "I've dealt with worse. And better." How the cheers and gasps when she knocked Loras Tyrell into the dirt like the silly flower he is.

"As have I," he outright grins.

"If you're.. Ser, if you're trying to --"

"Stop calling me that."

"How else am I supposed to address you?" she asks him, squinting against the sun, so close to vitriol.

"My name," he grimaces. Then he laughs, taking her by surprise. "You can simply just call me a man if you want. Or Bear."

"Oh," she sputters, something indescribable about her tone, "oh, goodness."

"You won't call me that?" he quips.

"I doubt I'll call on you at all."

"Since you're going way south?"

She watches him wince. This light makes her eyes so blue. "Way south," she repeats. "Riverrun isn't that far." Not really -- she makes a face thoughtfully. She'd come from farther, so that's that, she -- she doesn't know why that became so reassuring.

"People there like the ones here?"

A narrow set of his eyes, and she understands what he means. She thinks. "People like the few here are everywhere," she tells him impassively.

It's a pretense, but maybe she's stopped feeling a damn thing.

"You going today?"

"I really don't want to leave Lady Sansa."

He just stares at her. That isn't really an answer, but he's not just taking what he gets. She's got him, though, and he. Just. Shit. "Mmm." She's picking apart his fucking ribs.

"I don't blame her for not wanting to leave Jon, however," she decides, choosing to say the words like she's convincing herself. "All things considered."

They'd draw out their farewells, too, took so long that it resulted in them not having to part.

He feels his heart start to quicken, imperceptible since mountains are moving somewhere, stars are falling for kings, and the rest of their party is starting to stir. He can smell something cooking. "Brienne," he says.

It makes her look breathless. "Lady," she tacks on unnecessarily.

And she doesn't quite know why, she's denied it vehemently to graves, but it.. she's not but she is. And she thinks she wants him to know it, perhaps maybe he forgets; she's..

"I know," he says awkwardly. "I've seen you."

"M'lady!" that boy calls, heavy with sleep and shaken awake. He can see him snappishly glancing around like he's worried they've been murdered in their bedrolls.

"..Not as much of you as I'd like," he adds, 'cause why not, he's eating his heart raw, subtlety was never his domain.

She doesn't gasp out air in a panicked exhale. She doesn't look like she's considering it either, but. Maybe he does take what he gets.

"We ride soon," is all she says. She doesn't look tried or resigned either, and almost.

"Before you get to River-what's-it, you'll tell me I'll see you again, yes?" he asks her. The longest conversation they've had, maybe, the longest eye contact, too. It feels like a start.

"Perhaps," she wonders. She sounds strangely far away, light and something. Like summer.

Chapter Text

In just the course of a few hours, Sansa talks herself in and out of leaving for Riverrun with Brienne.

If she'd ask him -- and she hasn't -- but if she did, he'd suggest they both stay. All three including the boy.

Since they're still just riding south, it's all south until Jon starts somewhere west where there's more grass than the snow covering it, there doesn't have to be a decision made just yet. They just ride, and this Southron lady with fire for hair, she learns how to choose and how to decide, the cost of things. In hushed tones at the back of their riding party where he's coincidentally next to (and ignored by) his lady fair, Sansa wonders if Brienne knows why perhaps some prick named.. Littlefinger? Doubtedly, his peck can't be smaller than Jon pretty-boy Snow's, but they're not asking him -- Sansa asks her why that man only mentioned her uncle's army. Not her cousin's.

Now the Blackfish, that's a name he can praise.

This boy Robin, not so much.

"If he wanted for us to marry, and the Vale's army is so great," the Lady supposes, sounding a kid playing at war. He's reminded of one of his daughter's.

"They haven't backed anyone in ages," says Brienne. She's thinking of the King's Hand before Lord Eddard Stark, a squire to Jon Arryn. Of Ser Arthur Dayne and a different time where banners burned bright. And she thinks of Jaime. "I'm not sure," she begins, confident even in doubt, needing to be, "that I could convince your lord uncle without you there, Milady. I mean no offense."

"And you don't want me here," Sansa sulks. Petulant, still a woman's wrath, a child's rage. Somewhere her little girl heart is still breaking, though she might have the woman's courage her mother had, she shouldn't face a battlefield all the same.

Brienne glances just barely to Tormund. "I want neither of us here," she says to Sansa, but in a conspiratorial way to make the girl smile.

"What if we went to the Eyrie?"

Brienne's eyes narrow ahead just envisioning the smug vitriol of Baelish's. "I don't trust that man."

"Any man," he quips.

"Jon," says Sansa. (There's something there about loyalty, but then again, a different world, and she's still Alayne, she's saying cinnamon and smiling coyly, she's thriving and not a winter blue rose withering.

And Brienne's not without a scar marking her face, as pale as a sheet staring at her rescuer, her hero, her King because she's looking at that boy like shadows are following the blue in her eyes, like ghosts are rising like the dead like Renly's name sounding more apology than question, this blacksmith's gruff no, Gendry, and give it just a little time, ghosts truly rising like the dead, and Lady Catelyn -- no -- Stoneheart with her necklace of scar tissue, rage in her eyes.

Offering an ultimatum, a choice, Podrick or Jaime until she could bring her daughter back. All these Starks want is a family, their country is turning into a graveyard, even farther north and --

Maybe Tormund would be calling himself King, could have stuck a knife in Jon, could have missed a boat in Hardhome, could have stepped with the wrong foot, slid down the Wall, maybe died the winter he was born into instead of becoming it.

Another world, a crueler world, and maybe Sansa and Brienne's eyes both would be so blue in death.

Maybe he'd have met Brienne anyways.)

"Jon's an idiot," he says fondly, declaring his love and trust and admiration.

"People can surprise you," Brienne mutters, a lesson that's just a memory. Renly's kindness and the trick that twisted Stannis's sense of duty. Pod's care and proven value, something that shouldn't have to be earned since she used to be him. Jaime.

Sansa hasn't asked again after the sword though Jon did, but she didn't know how to tell him what Jaime hadn't been sure of, if the sword should be called Ice. She rather hopes when she finds Arya, she'll take Oathkeeper as hers, the proof that family is just really want the Starks want.

"I'm not sure we can trust my cousin, Lord Arryn," Sansa must decide since she speaks it with diction. Learns how to choose.

"Littlefinger told you to try for Riverrun, Milady. And the --" She won't mention the Freys.

Because it's grounding, she glances to Tormund and his open face, and she doesn't know what she sees. "Still leaving today?" he wages, squinting at the sun, dim as it is hidden by few clouds.

Brienne looks to Sansa, but all he sees is her, her delicate bone structure, her pale hair. He thinks child-carrying would look good on her.

Sansa frowns. "Someone is."

Choosing is so easy, all the world in one hand, Brienne so close to his other. "I'll go with you," he says clearly, voice just a bit jaunty.

"Oh," Sansa whispers, seeing Jonquil, but Brienne with her defenses so high, she scowls.

"You can't."

"Like hells I can't. You can't tell me what I'll do or don't," he snaps. He surprises himself -- his patience wearing so thin like a thread starting to fray.

"You're not accompanying Podrick and myself to Riverrun."

"Did you not hear me?" he wonders. It makes her sigh testily. While she's not used to his charm yet, everyone's used to their bickering by now so no one even glances up or pays them any mind.

"You're sworn to go with Jon Snow," she reminds him, like she's.. like she'd rather anything else, really.

"I am not."

She purses her lips.

"I could go home if I wanted," he continues. The thought of it makes him grin, catching the amorous look on her face and Sansa's smile. "We could go home together."

"No," Brienne grimaces. It's her desist tone.

"Where?" the Lady Sansa asks, and he nearly rolls her eyes until excitement bubbles her into a stupor. "To Tarth?"

"To Tarth?"

"Her home," she explains graciously, giving Brienne a preening look.

If the woman could be anywhere else.

"Do you want to go back?" Honesty cracks his voice just a pinch, because he's about to offer to take her, to ask Jon for a map, but she looks at him. With her perfect blue eyes.

And he think he recognizes that glance, or something of. Not that he's aware, but she wouldn't want to go back to humid halls, to the salty smell of water in the air. Cruel voices and leering looks, mocking whispers.

"I could take you to my home," he offers after a beat, almost unsure. All she does is frown, and he's not sure what that means. "You'd like it."

"Don't tell me that," she insists with her eyes resolutely forward.

Disbelieving and hurt, he just wants to give her the sky, c'mon, let him, he makes a face at her. "Don't tell me farewell then."

She glances skyward, her shoulders looking so heavy. "Don't you ever quit?"

"You haven't asked," he points out, it'd hurt but he might if she did over Sansa's tittering, but he'd steel himself and leave her to her own liberation. "And I want to follow you."

"To Riverrun?" Exasperation wracks her, but she's looking at him.

"I'm not goin' to complain about the destination. Pick a place, and I'd carry you."

"Do you really mean that?" she says, exhaling through her nose. "I'm not sure what you're playing at by your remarks."

"I'm not." He huffs, she's truly going to be the death of him; she doesn't -- he can't. "I think you're wondrous," he tells her. Looking in his eyes, and she better believe it. "Brienne."

"Don't say my name like that," she murmurs. Trembling, but that could be the cold, this is -- oh --

"Don't say farewell," he repeats. "That's it."

Chapter Text

"When we say we're gonna do something, we're gonna do it."

There's nothing in him that can offer her much. She doesn't need his protection 'cause she's fierce, his advice 'cause she shines. His warmth 'cause her fury keeps her heated through the night, his company 'cause she seems so keen on silence: she needs none of these things. She needs him none.

Time becomes seconds instead of the years they should have, but it becomes more than her just being a kind of woman he's ne'er seen before. It's not that she could protect him or skin bears with her teeth likely, nor that her eyes could be bluer than the sky when the snow reflects in it right, it's --

He sees how she worries after that boy and the girl. As much as she acts as if she's no time, she savors each bite she eats. She scrunches up her nose when she looks up like she's condemning the gods. Even as she's exhausted, she doesn't hang her shoulders or curve her spine, but as heavy as the world has to be, she looks like she still sees some fucking good in it.

Maybe he'd bring her flowers someday, in the past if the world had been kinder.

"Brienne," he says. Air is rushing out of his lungs.

She looks at him, and he crumbles.

"Do you want me to go?" he asks her hollowly, at a loss of just what to do with his hands. Reach for her, definitely not, so he feels his face like he's making sure his beard's still there.

"Go," she repeats quizzically. Mercifully, she doesn't sound exhausted at him. "Go.. with me?"

"Away from you," he corrects. He doesn't say it, but it's the tone she uses to say desist.

She doesn't speak right away, she just -- just. "I never thought you'd ask."

"You want me to," he interprets, frowning.

When she says it, she looks like it costs her the world, a crown of blue roses, three dragon eggs, a throne crafted from iron. "Not as much as I used to."

His head starts to reel. If he were a giant, his head wouldn't feel this heavy. "I'll bring you flowers," he promises. "Easier to gift than swords."

"I'm leaving," she says, like this changes things. Like he hadn't seen her mount's saddle draped over her arms.

"We'll meet again," he's sure of it. He can't help his smile.

"Perhaps," she grants him.

He doesn't say he's half in love nor ask if he can kiss her beautiful face. He lingers, though, and when he helps her strap the bridle onto her horse, their wrists brush.

Through gloves and gauntlets and gloves, it still feels like a strip of warm skin, like the heavens revealed through the tender touch, and just this instant, they're so close. They could breathe together. He could count each speck of blue-gray in her eyes.

Then she hooks her foot in the stir-up, and he doesn't pretend she needs his assistance. But she's still half-holding onto his hand.

"Tormund," she says, so quiet, so quiet, she's almost tomorrow. She's almost wistful.

A precipice, and he's falling, she's lost her surefootedness and so begins the sinking.

"Hurry back," he implores her, not knowing when or just how far, but he's lost too much already. He can barely breathe.

And then it's over.

Chapter Text

"He isn't the man he once was," she had said, or something close to it. Her voice was plaintive, and if it were months ago, he -- well.

"Kiss me or curse me," he had said, or something close to it.

He hadn't meant it; he almost never meant the things he's said, but days after that was when she had shaken him awake, alert and frightful and strong.

He didn't want to think about the nights he felt almost feverish, pained, feeling five fingers and a palm where there was only nothing, where he could sometimes feel the reigns that should be in his hand or the dirty hem of his frayed sleeve snagging the coarse hair at his arm, and he could almost feel it, so much that it was excruciating and burning and being fucking chopped again, almost --

"Was it another dream?" She didn't call them nightmares. He had never thanked her. It wasn't on his mind just then. She was.


It isn't that she expects to be proven wrong. It seems like it'd be a more common motif, something factual and pre-contrived, a god's humor because she hopes, seven hells, no one has ever expected as much of human kind as she has.

No one's likely had their heart broken as often as hers has been battle-worn, broken in like new boots and taken to like a firm stance. Her expectations might be high, but as much as it costs to believe, to genuinely see the good that might remain in a dimming world, she hadn't expected to be proven wrong.

She might have guessed they'd have fought on separate sides of a frontier; they've always been on different sides of the spectrum with him laughing with sinners, her weeping with saints except when they weren't and they were just two people. When he was covered in mud and she had her honor, when Bolton's men bound them face to face and jeered at them the lovers, when his sister dared assume he begat her heart. When she was a fool, she really was, for expecting more from him and infinite hope that cut like a double-edged sword.

Not in any inclination towards her, no, but she'd guessed Jaime had seen in her what he once aspired to be as a knight, what he could be if only he'd turn around, give up, turn around, you swore to Lady Catelyn, you're better than this, why won't the Blackfish --

They were the Knights of Summer.

The instant she'd waved back, she regretted it. Being unaware of her and Pod's escape didn't equate releasing her with honor like he'd freed Lord Edmure, no, no, the prejudice in the South declared the wolves' bites vicious, but it was Riverrun that was becoming Castamere under his order.

She shouldn't have looked back. This wasn't a good-bye if now they don't know each other. They may as well never have met.

"We'll follow the river," she tells Pod quietly, rowing. And rowing and monotony, they've still work to do, she still has her vows to fulfill to Lady Sansa. "If we can, we'll trade the boat for horses."

"Or we'll borrow some," Pod says, cheerful 'till the last. It hadn't taken Bronn mentioning those looks to have him realize that farewell in King's Landing seemed like he was an intrusion. But at the least, he'd lost friends, too.

At the least, they'd return to Sansa sooner. He wonders if she remembers him bringing her lemoncakes sometime once upon years ago when believe it, things were worse.

At the least, the good-bye from the Wildling won't end as this one has.

Chapter Text

He sees her again riding across a blanket of snow so fine to him it may as well be grass. She's carried by the gray skies stretching on and on, a -- different horse, he realizes, but she looks something magnificent, like he imagines a queen would, but he doesn't fall to his knees in enraptured worship to kiss her feet, to kiss up her thighs, to bask in her glory.

He nearly collapses in relief, though, she hadn't needed his worry or his thoughts about her but she had them, she has him, and "Oh," he exhales. Wind's rushing all around him, it's filling his lungs, this is his first real breath in days.

"You alright?" Old Man Davos asks him. He's come to steady him with his good hand supporting his arm. His wrinkled concern, he's got it for everyone especially the little girl, the little lady who he looks at sometimes like she's someone else. A daughter he'd lost, perhaps.

"I never expected to see her again," he admits. He feels something in his chest start to quicken as if his splintered ribs are mending themselves around his broken heart, so suddenly, he grins and he feels free as a crow; this doesn't have to be a war. "She came back to me."

"Well, to Lady Sansa," the old man quips, slapping him on the shoulder.

"I half thought she was running away from you," Jon jokes as he brushes last him in search of his sister.

Death made him fucking hilarious.

He'll have to pardon him for not laughing, he's regaining the use of his heart after all. This figurative death made him -- fucking. Gods, he's happier than the first time he was lucky enough to lay eyes on her, and then all his dreams were true, his dreams were set.

Briskly, he starts to where her horse has stopped with some of the armies' and the boy's, and she doesn't look forlorn exactly. Not really at all, she looks like winter winds can heal and they're gonna live to see another day.

Before he can help it, he's shouting her name as he stomps through the snow, he's shoving some fool aside in his pursuit, he calls for her again, "Brienne," oh -- he could fly. He's standing in front of her as she dismounts her horse. Like the rest of his life, she looks to him and he's undone, so tenderly, so gentle, he takes her face in his hands and this is it, her cheeks are wet under his palms. Her eyes are so blue gazing at him and his heart just bursts. It's hers, it's all hers, "Brienne," he says, "we'll never part again, I searched for you in the skyline daily, my chest feels like it's broken, I missed you, not even in my thoughts can I kiss you 'cause your eyes are scorching my soul, I --"

He sees the familiar tense of her shoulders up on that steed even with the armor, the way forced and nonchalant she gazes to everything but him so far away it seems until she's no choice, until he's right at her side where he belongs and the world feels a bit more right.

They didn't leave as lovers, they don't embrace as lovers do, like resignation, she's too nice to guide her horse away, to leave him again.

"Ser," she calls him, her face red. She looks resolute, though, like if he'd mention it, she'd say it was because of the harsh winds that can't be confounded if they brought her back.

"Brienne," he says again, it's so dulcet, he wants to speak her name forever with all things he's going to say. Without considering why, he stretches his arms up to her expectantly. "Come down from there."

"I don't -- I don't think I will just yet," she frowns. To her Southron manners, he figures she thinks she's perfectly amicable. "Have you.. been well?"

And he won't tell her each detail of every day. He considers it, but it's more important she come down so he can take her in his arms and wrap her up. A sun's setting somewhere, snow could be falling. "I've missed you," he admits honestly, blunt. That's the extent of his days without more Southron lands and the stink of more armies. "Let me help you down."

"I can manage."

"You don't have to alone," he frowns, waving his arms in the air for her a bit. Then more, a wide arc of a gesture that makes her face simper unimpressed.

And too late, he realizes she could dismount from the other side just as well 'cause her leg as she swings it to the other side. Oh. It's glorious, and she doesn't kick him in the face. And she pauses, too, when her boots crunch in the snow.

She doesn't hurry away from him there, she doesn't move at all as she watches him like prey or predator as if she's missed him half as much. Needlessly, doubtful since thoughts are so loud, she squares her shoulders just so. "I couldn't keep my word to Lady Sansa," she tells him oh-so cordially.

Perhaps she hasn't thought about their marriage together as much as he has. "It doesn't matter," he says indifferently, making his eyebrows furrow. Other things mean more like how he feared he'd never again see her face the second the distance was too great and she'd disappeared into the skyline going on and on to that Riverrun far off.

You don't understand she won't say as some of the men had, like it were possible he had no idea what they were fighting against or why without the knowledge of tactics and military strategies. Like she's far away, she smiles more than she has all the times he's almost made her grin. It's just a pinch sad, though. She doubts the Kingslayer would have kept his word had the Blackfish agreed. "It can't matter anymore, can it?"

"It was never promised, as much as I understand it."

"No, it wasn't."

Idly, because he isn't touching her face, he doubts all he knows and feels so futile here. He's been brave and he's run, but to.. to just stand here.


"Can I put my arms around you?" he asks her boldly, making eyes at her.

It's her now that half falls over, looking so startled she trips on her feet like he trips over his tongue. "You most certainly can not," she admonishes in a huff, reaching for her horse's saddle to steady herself.

But a beam of light, a candle in a window, he takes the chance and he covers her gauntleted hand with his bare palm. She doesn't flinch away, just stares at him with her eyes so blue it's like lightning, like standing atop the wall, her gauntlet's so cold it's ice and familiar but her hand must be so warm underneath, so callused and perfect and strong, he's -- he's redder than she is.

He's holding her hand. This is more than an almost.

"I'm glad." His voice is so rough, gods, his jaw barely works. "That you're here," he tells her.

Her shoulders tense, but she doesn't look away though it's flight or fight, like all the world changes in this, "I'm --"

"With me," he interrupts bluntly, inhaling. "I'm glad you're here with me. Brienne."

"Not.. just you," she just has to clarify, petrified. "There's an army."

"No." He looks around and there's no one, tents and hundreds of people and horses but no one, the sun is rising somewhere, it could snow. "It's just us," he says, looking to her and the warmth in her gaze, the hesitation that isn't denial. "It can be."

Chapter Text

"Looks like I won't be seeing you on the battlefield after all," he'd said, and there shouldn't be relief where there could have been remorse.

"I'd fight for her and for Winterfell," for Lady Catelyn, for Robb because they were the knights of summer and winter has come, "but Lady Sansa might need my protection, should it come to the worst."

Yes, but this is a winning and a losing battle, she doesn't know it, but he was preparing himself to never see her again. He knew to be sure in a fight but never confident -- confident killed better men than him, yet this could be the last he ever saw of her visage 'cause he knew they didn't have the men. They just had the anger.


Fists cracked into his face again, again. After he sees red and he tastes the blood in his mouth like he can smell it in the water, he sees white, he sees nothing at all but consciousness escaping his grip. He sees nothing but their forces not being enough, these bodies being trapped here, corralled like beasts, dying, he saw Brienne again that first night over chicken.

He sees her eyes so honest and beholden, so blue. He saw them bluer if they lost this battle, if they lost the fight against the dead and they claimed her life, so he hits back.


He spits out the bloody flesh in his mouth and he reminds himself he's done worse to men. He tries to recall a time he'd fought for as much as a woman's face, but then the horn, three for white walkers --


He doesn't know the man astride a horse next to the lady's. He just sees that Jon's face matches the scorning look Brienne has as best he can see from far away. He sees the relief in her eyes that's remorse, too, 'cause signing away a soul for a fight they could have forfeited, how close they all were to dying, that -- that little boy.

He hadn't even grown into a man. He never will now.

Death takes too much and really never asks anything back. Maybe if it did, things would be better.


"But what did it cost you?" Brienne is demanding of Sansa, urgent but probing and concern.

"Nothing!" the girl defends. "Absolutely nothing, he owed a debt, he still does," like the iron price, she actually tries to breeze through the words like they aren't a lie. Her face is a blotched red.


Every man he sees is covered in blood. Some look as though they lost the fight.


Well, all except one man.

"I don't know you," he tells the smirking man with the smug look. Like a bunch of bad eggs. It's recompense to see his look of disgust, making that fact alone he hasn't washed himself clean of this blood worth it.

"Such a shame," the man replies. He makes a show of looking anywhere else, but his eyes stray back to Sansa again and again.

Tormund's cut cocks off for less. She's a little girl.

"I don't like your whiskers," he says menacingly. He gestures up to his own beard in comparison to the man's pointed mustache; it's all the threat he can convey as exhausted as he is.

All Littlefinger does is smirk.


Standing here, so far south, it could be the edge of the world if he didn't know better. Indescribably, he tries to imagine sand, how that must feel under his feet.

They fought for Jon's home and now they have to fight for the rest of it -- they have to take arms up for another winning and losing battle, one that's coming all too soon and will leave more dead in its wake.


"Oh," she starts, "you're alive," not unlike she's surprised by the amount of blood on his face, but this isn't a woman's weeping glory either. "I was looking," she admits, making a wide gesture. It's like she thinks working around her busy thoughts will protect her somehow, but oh, just now she smiles a slight regarded little thing, and this is why the fight was a victory. "I wanted to help," he's so glad she didn't, "but it doesn't look as if you needed it," she confides.

"No," he says simply.

He watches her inhale deeply. He watches her hands fret like she doesn't know what to do with them. "You fought.. gallantly," she finally chooses to say, looking worse for it, but it's every lesson from her youth, it's what the maidens say to the knights, she -- she wants to try. She's handing him a bow and telling him not to shoot, she's standing ontop of that wall, she's so acutely reminded now that this is where the knights give the lady a rose.

"Brienne," he says. He's a drowning man; he almost was in that swarm of bodies. "I want --" he starts, but no, that's not right. This eye contact, it's boundless. So he doesn't say anything.

He drops to his knees.

Chapter Text

Apparently, apparently, being the half-sister of Jon Snow, Lord Snow, King Crow, King in the North (and Brienne won't dwell on how young King Robb was, how he was just a child and they mock him the King who lost the North as opposed to his half-brother who won it, no, she won't dwell on that, she just takes it in stride with Oathkeeper in her hands) doesn't keep Sansa immune from attempted marriage propositions.

No proposals from young Lord Dayne or even Lord Tarly come to claim their hold in the North and cherish its Lady's heart. It's a Free Folk barely older than Brienne herself that tries to woo Sansa with his crooked (in a charming way) teeth, his penchant to laugh easy, and his wild, dark hair.

He tries to make Lady Sansa laugh, dear gods, the boy really does try so hard, but she's stalwart and she's steel. She cries to herself at night and sometimes doesn't even find solace when Brienne is there to guard the night terrors away.

Sansa fears Lord Petyr Baelish sometimes more than the shadows of Ramsay Bolton Snow that linger in the corners of this castle that the battle didn't purge; Littlefinger slinks in the shadows, too, hides in wait like a snake, but he hasn't been wandering outside the Princess's quarters in the night past propriety any longer. Not since Brienne started guarding her chambers.

But this young Wildling, he somehow scales the high walls. He finds a way to open Sansa's window. He starts to sing.

And Brienne's sword is drawn and she's so ready to maim him (a little too ready), but Sansa, she's so confused, bless her, though for once her panic isn't fear, it's the shadow of a laugh as this Wildling stomps his feet and sings something entirely too loud and raucous and indecorous about a.. a fertile tree? A tree of fertility? She can barely understand.

But in the lapse of a breath Sansa's attempted suitor bellows, she hears the husk of familiar laughter so faint from the open window. Already, she's so accustomed to hearing it, seeing how his eyes scrunch up with it like every part of his body feels the joy, and she --

This is entirely too inappropriate.

"You're going to," she starts, but this boy doesn't even look at her or acknowledge she's speaking. More loudly, she speaks up again and readjusts her hold on the scabbard. "You're going to awaken the entire keep!"

"They can all be witness to our union," the boy interjects, "let them hear," he sings, this is why we shall marry when the dawn shows a thistle by a tree, oh~

"Gods," Sansa curses, "please --"

"Refrain," she interrupts. Desist. "I'm going to have to ask you to leave before I command it," Brienne warns authoritatively.

"No man has ever sang to me," her Lady muses all of a sudden, thoughtful, not entirely unhappy but not truly happy either, because sing for me, little bird, no true knight but the best one she had known, Jonquil --

"Yes," is all Brienne can say stiffly. The Wildling looks a bit too smug in these shadows to be genuine. "I'm sorrowful this had to be the first experience you've witnessed."

"Are ya beddin'!?" she hears Tormund shout from below, his voice full and rich like he's laughing a bellowing winter fire, the brightest point in all the North, the likes of which the North has mever seen.

At least, he's laughing until Brienne appears in the window and he's sparing a second to thinking this bastard lied when he said he wanted the princess since if this is his lady love's room, what the fuck, he was going to sing and jape at her next, this is the most aching betrayal, he isn't -- he isn't laughing anymore.

He rather sort of glowers, Brienne supposes in the dark, but it might be a trick of the knight.

"I'm ensuring you safely return to that heathen," she informs the young man, taking care to sheath her blade in such a way the steel sounds threatening. And calling Tormund a heathen, that's a cruel barb that twists at the sides of her mouth.

"That heathen is gon' kill him for trying to steal you!" Tormund shouts up, bloody loud enough to wake the whole castle. "I told him you was taken!"

"You haven't feckin' taken her yet!" the raunchy young man shouts back. "Stop acting like you married her!"

"Married?" Sansa gapes, paler than light. "That isn't usually allowed, I thought."

"We'll be soon enough," Tormund grumbles. Quieter now, but his voice carries straight to Dorne, oh,

"We will not!"

"Brienne!" Sansa admonishes the same way Catelyn used to gasp her oldest child's name in warning, in affability, gods be gracious, how --

Where did Sansa get that knife she's holding? Why is Brienne only just aware? Why does this make her miss the humidity and the leering, mean states of her home? Oh, her honor and sense of duty --

"No," Brienne states quite contrarily.

"Did she say to go?!" Tormund bellows. She can just see his eyebrows dance.

"No!" his friend assures him.

"I'm climbing up!"

"You are not! Tormund! Sansa," Brienne frets, "the impropriety of this, your brother will have their heads but I can strike them down now --"

"Which head?"

"What?" Sansa asks in all her innocent, flowering confusion.

But Brienne, she spent months with armies and was subject to all verbal indiscretions of indecency, she is burning, this has gone on long enough.

"I'll dismember you both if you're within earshot of here by the next time I blink," she warns. Hands have been cut off for less.

And the young man, he's out the window in an instant -- Sansa looks shell-shocked but these men her brother trust, they aren't Littlefinger, they don't sulk outside her room in conniving secrecy.

"Do you want me to give them another warning?" she asks Sansa stiffly. She's rigid and embarrassed for them both.

And angry. And just.. a bit intrigued. And worried.

Chapter Text

"What will you do?" he asks her solemnly, his voice cutting into the empty, frigid air like the wick of a candle gone out.

She mustn't be too surprised, since she doesn't startle at him. She doesn't turn around and see just how mighty and fine he's looking just now neither, but she's not jumping out of her bones in shock.

'Course, she's not jumping his bone either, but coupling needs to be willing, anyways.

He clears his throat. He makes sure his beard is still attached to his jaw. He suddenly can't look up at her when all that intensity in her frost blue eyes are watchin' him. "Where will ya go?" he wonders, more quiet.

To tell the truth, he doesn't know just how large the South is, and that might scare him. Does the warm land extend for many more suns? Is this Dorne really the end of it? He's heard some of the heat from men here who miss the wine and the women and the weather. Tormund doesn't want for any when his Lady Fair is so near. Having toasty toes is strange, like walking on a sun, like fire embers. He was forced to once.

"I don't know," she says, too earnest to be anything but the truth. He doesn't look to see if she smiles, 'cause he can hope she is and remember that she might be when he thinks back on this. "I don't know if I should abandon Lady Sansa."

"But you'd be comin' back at some point?"

"I didn't want to leave her mother," she explains, patient this time, not annoyed and slight through her teeth, she -- is just a bit shadowed by guilt. "I knew I shouldn't have abandoned Lady Catelyn when I did." She thinks she could have killed all the men in that dining hall. Frey, too. But what would they have done to Brienne the Beauty?

He scratches his neck again. He sighs real heavy as he sits, hands on his jarred knees like he's got it. The solution to this burden. "Don't go, then, woman."

And she laughs, and he knows at once she lied right to his feckin' face about being asleep when he was out her window all past week singing.

"I don't," she tries, embarrassedly still chortling, all red and teeth and bright and trying to cover her mouth.

"No," he says, quirking a sad grin himself 'cause her laughs are so rare yet she's been taught to hide them. He'll kick another Watcher's teeth out for leering at her. "Ya don't gotta cover up your teeth. They aren't going t'fall out."

"You don't need to make light of this," she accuses peevishly, but oh, he likes it when she directly speaks to him.

"Stay," he says, 'cause just. Feck it all. Come down, gods, and give him your best.

"I might," she relinquishes quietly. "If Lord Baelish --"


"Means to stay here. Some of your.. Free Folk aren't terrible."

He nods with her as she says it. No offense taken from him; he gets what he gets. "Thank you. I'm really not terrible."

"..Of course. But I couldn't leave her with any imminent threat."

"She has Jon."

"King Snow," she corrects righteously, and he just smiles close-mouthed. Let her think he gives Jon that much self-important respect. The boy's always going to be Jon. He's always gonna be pretty and witty and not blessed under the belt.

"Jon will take care of her," he shrugs.

Inexplicably, her fire's all but gone. "He can't always."

"You're.. you're gonna go do what she commands, aren't ya?"

"Arya Stark is out there somewhere," she says, with just so much conviction that she could pull the girl out of thin air. "Sansa needs her."

"To knit more garments?" he oh-mercies, slouching.

"To fight for her, or keep her counsel, or other -- actually," she catches herself, on like a snake and scowling at him. "That's quite enough from you."

"I didn't say anything! She has been doing a lot of sewin' lately."

"In her chambers." She's accusing again, all narrowed brows and beautiful soft features. "How do you know what she's doing in there?"

Casually, cat-in-cream, he decides to maybe.. play it up just a tad. "Jon asked me to keep watch over her sometimes, make sure she's left alone by -- how'd you put it? Imminent threat." Which isn't really a lie. He did ask.

But Brienne is so lost. "I haven't seen you near her at all."

"'Cause I'm stealthy," he says, low and rumbly. "Smooth."

"..Right," she mumbles uncomfortably.

"Like a direwolf. A snark." He cocks one brow at her and grins, holding meaningful eye contact. "Like a bear."

"What is your infatuation --" she storms, on to off so quick, stomping about and pink-cheeked because he's incorrigible according to her angry mutters.

"I don't know that one!" he calls after her, but she's already gone a little too much like the sun. The moon must chase it for some reason.

"Brienne!" he shouts, since he might as well give her something to really be up in (his) arms about, "wait!" And he runs.

Chapter Text

"We should kiss," he decides.

He's trying to make her laugh, and that pitch in her breath like she's gasping -- he thinks he's succeeded, so yeah, he lifts his head and gazes up at her really quite pleased, grins with so much teeth and so much victory and such iron will to, like -- he'll feckin' stretch if he had to 'forehand, "alright," he continues, bleeding gods in the sky. She's the prettiest blushing maiden he ever did see.

"Ser," she hisses, so faintly, so deadly quiet that he can hear the annoyance he mistook for humor. Ah.

"Lady Fair," he acknowledges, making a face.

"Are you quite finished with making me a joke."

"Am I --" hold on, give him a second to assure her right, her eyes are jus' -- just so blue, "am I laughing at you?" he asks her honestly.

That makes her bristle. It makes him want to pet her spine, smooth all her rigid into laxed curves. "Not verbally."

"How else?"

"Your spirit," she seethes, self-conscious burning her pink cheeks to red. "You are hacking on me, aren't you?"

"My spirit?"

Gods of new, Giants of lore, he actually swears, tosses his head back with this laugh now that is everything bitter, everything self-deprecating because her. Her who sees accusations in the place of sincerity. Who to the death will bear arms instead of holding his hand, alright.

"My spirit beckons your spirit," he tells her, jus' so bleeding tired. "My spirit is pressin' against yours, offering to go stand on a crate or a rock so you don't have to strain your pretty neck, and you --"

"Me what," she interrupts, a biting snap.

"Why don't you wed me?"

"Reasons," she huffs, gaping all Southern maiden aghast. Except, that wasn't a no; that wasn't a please, Ser, I beg your uncultured pardon! and the like.

So he. He kinda just -- holds out his hand. Wiggles his fingers like he's got them all frozen, for hers. "We wed," he says, really rather tactfully.

Awkwardly, dubiously? She eyes his hand, him. She doesn't step backwards, and he could beg thanks. "We won't marry."

"Not with that attitude," he quips, grinning again. "We should wed. Quick. Simple. Effective."

"For what?" she clamors, voice all raised in hysterical feint. "You don't know anything of --"

"We've got time," he presses, shrugging. "You've got the rest of your lifetime to learn me and me you."

"Except," she states, raising her eyebrows. She actually prods his hand away from her. "The war might kill us both."

"We don't have to make a child, but one as strong as you, the last I'd do is complain, woman."

"That isn't what I meant," she flusters, starting to draw back, he can tell.

"And I meant, I will live as long as I can so you won't live to be a widow," he says, looking at her like -- like that look on her face: fear and hope and trepidation. His life has been running like hers has been the effects of something she has to prove -- a comet red in the sky telling her to stay with the girl, with him, honor going against the whole of the universe when she's got him in one of her hands. The whole feckin' world in the other.

He suddenly can't.. can't make her choose, can't have her forfeit or betray or turn against the end she's seen her life in, in glory and valor as true as a clear heart, when there's just him waiting in the bitter aftermath.

Ashes and cinders and ice. Death won't be a song, she'll learn that, but living. He clears his throat. He finally drops his hand and then can't meet her eyes. "Forget I asked," he says. His jaw really isn't working right -- his skin is starting to prickle.

"I might," she lets him know, the words so slow.

"Yes," he gripes, 'cause he suddenly -- he still can't bring himself to look at her; it's like he knows how this ends.

"Tormund," she murmurs.

"Don't go cryin' for us, woman," he tells her, grimacing, needing to go away and walk.

So he does, on the earth cracked like ice, his shoulders so set. He thinks he hears her call him a fool.

Chapter Text

As nonchalantly as he can muster, soft as the fine, powdery snow outside of these fine, stone halls.

As crisp as the ice snapping like a fine crackle beneath her boots, as genuine as he can sound to say it like I love you, I want you, I would kill for you and almost did; I swear to every fucking god I didn't live at all until I saw your face like the promise of summer come again, like every chorus to every fucking song sung of a woman's thighs or a heart walking flesh: her. He means it like her; everything with his nothing to offer.

Because he's starting to actually worry this could be putting her off when he wants her put on like a fly to shit or a moth to flame or something else more bleeding poetic, what the hell.

"I can be a generous lover," he tells her.

Podrick Payne falls down.

Bless him, Jon actually laughs like he hasn't in hours because he remembers, he does, the taste of something kissed by fire and just what tenderness might mean when a soul is willing and two hearts might be so inclined to make something out of mortar and stone and guts. The painful way she flinches and turns as red as sin isn't -- he could make something of her freckles, he thinks.

Of constellations and promises of fate, maybe, if he was supposed to be in vast, frozen North forever, and she was to remain in her stuffy and humid (whatever that means) halls of Tarth forever, farther south than he's ever heard, then this has to be something like destiny. This can't be the gods making him a joke or a comedy, not when he's waited all his life for a woman he could climb like a tree who has more beauty in every inch of skin and muscle than anything he's ever seen -- even the view from the top of the Wall, oh, say it just one more time.

I felt like the look on your face, he needs her, and if they hadn't ended yet.

"I can be," he repeats, rolling his shoulders so it at least looks like he's breathing. She's stolen his head.

Once and then twice, she opens, closes her mouth.

"If you're doubting, I could demonstrate," he continues idly. He's always learned best by doing with the physical.

And in truth, he doesn't mean to be crass even as she inhales resolutely, pinches the bridge of her bent nose with her fingers. She starts, "Ser," but he ends that right there.

"I'd want you to call me my name."

"I'm not sure I want to call you anything."

It's grace alone that has Pod deciding best not interfere; after all, his lady can defend herself. He rushes away a little too quickly, yet as Brienne turn to stare wistfully after his retreating figure -- she'll only stay another moment out of courtesy and nothing more -- Tormund strides up next to her.

He moves his hand just so, so just barely, just a breath, if either of them were to move and to chance their fates. Their palms might be touching like a kiss, like with just the faintest rasp of the heel of his hand against hers, that's as brave as she might ever get.

"I wouldn't just. Mount you all rough," he says. "Spear you like a pig and then flip you like a hot cake, get you all greasy and then be done when I've --"

"Alright," she interrupts warningly. He can hear her swallow.

"I know to be slow and gentle," he says, not quite sure she understands him. "It's the finest dance there is."

"I'm sure."

"So sated you might weep," he adds quietly, 'cause he isn't sure this maiden's ever cried for anything, and that makes him sad.

Just, if it's any more possible, she burns even redder, brighter than the comet for dragons or for blood: his, pouring all out over these stones. "You must understand this is highly inappropriate," she snivels.

"Why's that? I'm being honest."

"You're being crude." Her nose scrunches, so bless him -- it's enough to stop winter, he's sure.

"There's no shame in making love and admiring beautiful bodies," he tells her. "Especially one like yours. If we were to have a son or daughter who took after you, why, she or he could defeat the entire army of dead. It'd be a gift."

"It would be -- irregular," she flusters, raising her chin like it doesn't just shine light on her pretty face. "Improper."

"There's no improper way to.. y'know." To emphasize, he does this thing with his brows. Makes this vague yet intricate gesture with his other hand that just. Oh.

"I most certainly do not know," she stammers like she's angry, a defense, he realizes. One of so many, and there's gonna be mortar and stone under his not-so pristine fingernails.

It's as tenderly as he can ask it that he says, "Do you want to know?"

But whatever she sees on his face must turn her away, for she's practically sighing, giving whatever she feels away to wrong timing. She's all severity in her jawline and tension in her shoulders. She says, "All men seem to be the same, in the end," since she still must not wholly understand -- they keep rubbing each other wrong when the friction could be this marvelous thing, the power dynamic of him and her even greater, for he meant --

Under this great, open sky, he meant that she's refused his gentle words and gallant actions so he might entice her with something a little more lewd.

He meant, he'll try again tomorrow instead of see you, then, but when she begins to storm off in not quite anger, moreso overreacting since she isn't sure what yet to feel, if she was gonna stammer something about needing a bath since this indecent talk made her feel all impure and unclean in the light of the Seven, why.

He'd still be more than willing to wash her back if she can't reach it. He'll hold it forever.

Chapter Text

He saunters more than he does walk is what she thinks, strides into this mess hall with his ridiculously too-long legs and his ego to match; he's so conceited.

Taking up the whole of the room like it's his, biting into that chunk of bread far too lasciviously for him to be sane. Looking straight at her most days without ever daring to look down. (Down at her, down on the other people born where she was born, down on the people who still don't trust his kind like his own don't fully trust hers, down at her like she's anything less than a sword or a soldier or a good person on account of her sex or her size.)

Like she's pretending to be a shadow of her old self, Sansa boldly ventures, "I'm sure someone could write a song about it. A highborn lady stolen by a Wildling King under the cover of darkness. Instead of only stealing her virtue, though, he claims her heart, as well."

"As well?" she frowns, since dear Seven above, it doesn't sound like the lilt of a song. It sounds like the vague mention of a book in the making, a tale of romance that's genuinely more of an instructional guide: how to -- how to not act so callously, for starters. An exercise in desirability or restraint or sensibility.

But Tormund strides into this mess hall. Looks and seeks and gazes all around at every soul present except for hers.

Pod's even an empty space available next to him, next to her who's gotten used to his well-intentioned leering and might have even wished him a good morning had he looked her way like he always does when he's pretending not to see what he's been indirectly staring at directly for hours: her, he's meant every second since he first saw her, her.

"Hello," greets Pod cheerily, tearing into a chunk of his bread like he's forgotten the manners brought of quite literally being raised inside a castle, Seven Heavens.

"Morning," Tormund answers him, sitting so loftily the bench stutters and the man who sits opposite them has to steady his mug from toppling over. "Is there any meat?"

"Yes," Brienne states clearly. And just as soon grimaces at herself for it, but it's no matter.

Tormund appears to not have heard.

"Is there, Squire?"

"Yes," Podrick repeats of her, ever blissful since it's what King's Landing required of him, subtle tact. "You want some mead?"

"I don't drink that piss," Tormund answers. And he speaks very clearly to Podrick, nevermind she and him are practically elbow against elbow and this is the longest she's ever not been addressed from him. "You ever tried goat's milk?"

"Can't say I have, no."

"That'll put the hair on your sack, for true. Next time I get any, I'll let you have a taste so you can see what Free Men drink. Aye?"

"Aye," Pod mimics with less Northern charm. "Perhaps my Lady would enjoy some, too. Put some hair on her.. wherever," he coughs.

As careless as he can seem, Tormund keeps her from stabbing her right hand with her fork in surprise. Then he's back to elusive and nonchalant. "I gave some to King Snow up there, and I swear on your life, he cried like a new babe taken from his mother's breast."

"I'm sure my Lady could handle it," Pod continues, finally glancing from Tormund's emotionless face to her own. "She's faced tougher than any man I've ever seen."

"I've never tasted bread like this bread either," Tormund says next.

So maybe when Brienne considers it, here's where it tinges painfully in her chest, where being ignored so wholeheartedly begins to convey every gnarl of anger in her young, summer bones.

This man can't so much as stand to look at her after weeks of professing her the most awe-inspiring vision he's seen, so where's the dramatic irony? All hurt starts to feel the same as all wars become the same, so if Tormund Giantsbane can change his mind so quickly, ignore her like she's the burden of every man she sees again, thinks less of her than the bread he's wolfing down for his morning meal.

"Excuse me," she dismisses herself, because at least she's been honest in dissuading him from his own feelings. She's never ignored his words for all they're worth -- she --

She had actually felt pleased enough to smile for good this morning when he'd walked in. Now, it's rather ruined like heartstrings sheared by a rusty blade, doubt she didn't want to consider like regret already as Podrick stands before she does.

Bows his head and smiles like he's sorry, like he knows the conversation this breakfast has been amiss, "M'Lady."

"Good day," she reasons, voice raising an octave. It won't be all too surprising to know he doesn't even glance up at her retreating figure as she goes, as he tries to convince himself that this is for the best, that above all, isn't it best to give her space and time? To not force his smothering adoration on her too oppressingly, to just.. make something more of trying than an inarticulate man with a feeling like love and a woman who might never be ready for that last fall to love.

He'll do what's best for both of them.