A/N: A follow-up to episode 8.03. After enduring probably the most intense 90 minutes in television history, it took me another 24 hours to fully process what had happened and I still hadn't dealt with all my feels. The majority of this came to me fully formed in the hours immediately after the episode, and I then spent a few days trying to hone it into something sensible.
This is technically a sequel / continuation of my previous story, "Wish Fulfilment", but it can probably be read as a standalone also. The title is paraphrased from "Now the Guns Have Stopped" by Guy Wilson, used in "The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace" by Karl Jenkins (honestly, I highly recommend listening to the entirety of the piece if you're still in the process of recovering from the episode and enjoy torturing yourself – it's a gut punch!)
This story is significantly less rushed than my last one and hopefully the better for it, though I have possibly forgone accuracy for atmosphere. It's Braime-centric, with a pinch of Sanrion and maybe a teense of Jonerys if you squint.
Warnings for semi-graphic description of injuries; rated T for language.
Originally posted to AO3 with chapters before episode 8.04 aired in the US; posted here as one whole story after the event because I'm terrible at doing two things at once. I've included the original chapter summaries from there above each section because I like them.
It takes her some time to fully realise that it's over.
The endless army of the dead has toppled like so many toy soldiers; the roar of the ice dragon has ceased; the clash of swords and raised voices have finally silenced. Her body will not respond to the message her brain is sending, and for a long moment she is frozen in battle stance, her muscles strained and unmovable.
Jaime is to her left, silent and absolutely still. His mouth is slack, his breath billowing into the frosty air in short, slow bursts – the only evidence that he is breathing at all. His eyes are blank and empty, unseeing.
She searches desperately for Podrick and finds him at Jaime's side, sword still in hand, his eyes skittering wildly across the morbid landscape in front of him; she recognises that look on his face, sheer terror fuelled by adrenaline, waiting for another surge of wights. Surely it cannot be over. He must sense Brienne staring at him because he suddenly turns his head, snapping his gaze to hers with a look of panic. With a great effort, she forces herself to nod in reassurance. Podrick's arm relaxes, his sword lowering; a shaky breath leaves his lungs and he collapses against the wall.
Brienne's limbs finally unlock, her arms drooping as Oathkeeper succumbs to gravity. She ignores the burn of pain for long enough to sheath the sword, then allows her head to lean against the rough-hewn bricks at her back, grounding herself in this new reality.
They stand, all three, knee-deep in a pile of corpses which only minutes ago had been the stone floor of the courtyard. A few more minutes and they would have been overwhelmed. She cannot recall how they ended up here, only that at some point the battlements lost structural integrity from the ice dragon's lethal rampage; it was Podrick who saw the opening, Jaime who shouted for her to follow, mere seconds before the entire floor beneath their feet disappeared. At ground level there was no reprieve; after hacking a path through the wights they found themselves at a dead end and had no choice but to defend it.
They will not stop coming. For every wight they take down, two more replace it. Snarling faces with bright blue eyes; bodies in various states of decrepitude and decay; the godsawful noise and the stench of death. Relentless, unseeing, unstoppable, moving as an ocean. The scorch of dragon fire vying against the deadly bite of frost; Winterfell crumbling to dust; every fallen man another of the Night King's minions. She has never been more certain and more unprepared for death.
Brienne is brought sharply back to the present by the sound of the horn, signalling once and for all that the fighting has ceased, and she snaps to alertness as though being woken from a nightmare.
Jaime has still not moved; all around them shouts and cheers are erupting, but the noise is not enough to break him out of his stupor. Her energy is quickly draining, but she summons enough to push herself away from the wall and wade forwards, corpses rolling from the pile in her wake, to stand in front of him.
"Jaime. It's over." Her voice is hoarse, raw from screaming.
He does not hear her, looks straight through her, seeing only some indescribable horror. She considers shaking him, or slapping him, or kissing him – anything to cause a reaction – but instead she places a gentle hand against his arm and squeezes. Finally, he looks at her, and it takes a few seconds for the cloudiness to leave his expression, but once it does he comes back to her with a physical jolt and a sharp intake of breath. She grips his other arm to steady him, his face reflecting every confused emotion as he slowly processes the sudden lack of urgency around him.
"Jaime," she says again, and he looks and he sees, green eyes softening at the very sight of her, and she will never believe, not ever, that such a look on his face could be reserved for her.
She shakes her head. "I don't know."
"Yes. And so are you."
The fingers of his left hand unfurl, his relentless grip on the hilt of Widow's Wail yielding just enough for the sword to drop. It travels in a downward trajectory and embeds itself, with a sickening squelch, into the decaying head of a long-dead, freshly-killed corpse. In the next second, Jaime's legs buckle and he keels forwards; Brienne grips tighter to his biceps to keep him upright, but her strength is fading fast and he is a dead weight in her arms.
Her squire's eyes snap open at the urgency of her voice, and he quickly assesses the situation, stepping over the bodies to get to Jaime, lifting one of his arms to shoulder some of his weight.
"Jaime, you must walk," she instructs, and something about the firmness of her tone must get through to him because he rallies and manages to drag his feet from the pile of putrid bones and flesh. As they finally reach solid ground he wavers again, and Brienne inserts herself beneath his other arm. She reaches behind for his abandoned sword and uses it to support her own weight, so that she can carry half of Jaime's.
Podrick's lesser height makes the journey all the more difficult as they stagger across the courtyard to find somewhere, anywhere, to regroup with the others. Jaime is rapidly losing consciousness but manages a few steps, drawing energy from whatever reserves he has left, but the effort finally takes its toll. His head slumps against his chest and Brienne panics, her heartbeat thudding against her ribs for a few horrific seconds until she realises – thank the gods – that he is still breathing.
Every one of her limbs is screaming in agony, begging for rest, but she grits her teeth and presses on; Podrick heaves a breath and matches her step for step, as they half-drag, half-carry their Lannister-shaped burden to the nearest safe haven they can find.
In which the Starks reunite.
Some time later, bathed and changed into the most comfortable clothing she could find, Brienne sits in the Great Hall and stares into a bowl of weak stew, both the most unappetising and most welcome meal she has ever eaten.
Winterfell's fortified heart is still standing, and now serves to provide the survivors with rest and sustenance. A half-dozen makeshift infirmaries are scattered around the rest of the castle in whatever spaces could be utilised. Every Northerner with even the slightest healing knowledge has been set to work, stitching wounds, bandaging injuries and mixing tinctures to assist the Maesters. Those unhurt and of sufficient strength are clearing the bodies and making the walkways and corridors safe. The women and children are doing whatever they can to ensure comfort, ferrying food and fresh water from the kitchens to those that need it.
The room is as well-lit with candles as it is possible to achieve, a hearty fire blazing in the grate. Long tables and benches are set up along one wall; everywhere else, exhausted soldiers slump with their families and loved ones. Brienne is glad to have Podrick by her side, slowly chewing a hunk of bread, though they have not spoken since entering the hall.
At the high table sit Jon Snow and the Dragon Queen. They are both battle-worn and silent, Daenerys staring blankly ahead at nothing in particular. Her face is haunted, tear-tracks dried upon her cheeks. Jon sits close but cannot seem to decide what to do for the best. His hand hovers over hers, but at the slightest touch she jerks away, her hands wringing tightly together as she forces back another wave of tears. Jon retreats, deflated.
To his left is Sansa, shaken but recovered; it is she who has started the kitchens and encouraged the women and children into tending to the wounded, bringing them food, water, bandages or whatever else can be summoned from Winterfell's resources. Now she sits quietly, waiting for news from the battlefield as it arrives.
Tyrion has found some wine – of course – and although he has filled his cup to the brim, it remains mostly untouched. The events in the crypt are common knowledge by now. It is nothing short of a miracle that they survived. Tyrion stares at the wood-grain of the table for a long time, until some intrusive noise from within the room shocks him back to reality; he starts violently and that in turn causes the same reaction in Sansa, sitting opposite. Once they have both caught their breath, they share a look and a weak laugh.
Suddenly, the main door bursts open, a gust of cold air in its wake, and every face in the room turns to look. Brandan Stark emerges, and then his sister – covered in as much blood and viscera as every other fighter. Arya is unsurprised and unperturbed by the hubbub in the Great Hall, pushing Bran to within a few feet of the high table.
Jon rises from his chair in surprise, but it is Sansa who edges around the table and meets her siblings halfway. She collapses at Bran's feet and reaches for him in relief, her arms wrapping around him, and although he does not reciprocate there is a warmth to his usually impassive expression. Sansa rises again and hesitates for only a second in front of Arya, before crushing her in a hug. Before she can protest, Jon has made his way over and does not hesitate to wrap both girls in his arms. Only then does Arya allow herself to smile.
As the Starks – in heart if not entirely in name – untangle themselves from each other, Jon adopts a more business-like expression.
"Where have you been, Arya?"
"The Godswood," she says, as if Bran's presence is not already proof of that. "I killed the Night King."
Jon – and Brienne, overhearing from her position some distance away – can only stare at her in surprise. "You… what? How?"
Arya catches her sister's eye and grins. "I stuck him with the pointy end."
"Arya," says Jon wearily, and then gives up on asking any more questions.
"What about Theon?" asks Sansa, and her sister's face turns grim.
Bran speaks: "He's coming."
The sound of heavy footfall alerts everyone's attention back towards the main door. Sandor Clegane trudges into the room, and in his arms is a lifeless body, its head lolled towards his shoulder. A man of few words, as ever, the Hound approaches and hesitates only a moment before carefully laying his burden on the ground; the head rolls forwards and Sansa staggers backwards with her hand to her mouth, as the empty eyes of Theon Greyjoy stare unblinkingly back.
"Went to find her," says the Hound, gesturing towards Arya. "Found him instead."
"What happened?" asks Jon.
"He kept Bran safe, like he promised," explains Arya. "I saw him. He charged at the Night King with a spear, but he didn't stand a chance. I wasn't fast enough to—" Sansa chokes back a sob and Arya can only bow her head. "I'm sorry."
"You saved us all, Arya." Jon rests a reassuring hand against her shoulder. "There's nothing to be sorry about."
With that, he orders her to clean up and rest, and she nods and heads off.
Clegane scoops up Theon once again and takes him outside, with the others. Sansa is frozen in shock, dropping to her knees on the stone floor. It is only then that Tyrion, having silently watched the unfortunate reunion, hops down from his chair and walks up to her. He reaches for her hand and the dam breaks, Sansa collapsing against his chest with a keening, heart-rending wail. As his arms wrap tentatively around her shoulders, she clings to him as if he is a rock in stormy water.
"I'm here," he tells her, tenderly stroking her hair where it cascades beneath his palm. "I'm here."
In which Jaime finds himself alive.
Jaime is drowning; dragon fire above and deep water below, armour weighing him down; the water turns to rotting flesh and clawing hands, the fire to frozen blue flames. Eyes the colour of sapphires stare down at him from somewhere just out of reach; a hand is stretching desperately to his but he cannot quite span the distance. The wight-water closes in over his head, suffocating him in darkness and he wakes, thrashing and shouting; hands grip his arms, holding him down to prevent him from falling, pressing harder when he struggles, until he finally calms.
The surroundings are unfamiliar, though he recognises the dark stone of Winterfell's walls; there is a smell of herbs and milk of the poppy and he surmises it must be an infirmary. He is drenched in sweat and encrusted with dried blood that is mostly not his own. He has no recollection of arriving; his last cogent memory is of fighting. A Northerner he does not know is looming over him, but the man leans back and releases Jaime's arms once he is fully alert.
"Where am I?" he asks. "What happened?"
"The war's over, Ser," says the Northerner in a broad accent. "Your friends brought you here."
Brienne, he remembers. Loyal Podrick. They must have survived. He needs to find them.
"Am I injured?"
The man shakes his head. "Just out cold. From the shock, the Maester reckons."
"My friends… where are they?"
"Everyone's in the Great Hall. But I'll need to check with the Maester before you can go."
Jaime is too tired to argue, so he merely nods and watches as the Northerner scurries off. He swings his legs off the side of the pallet to sit upright, and grimaces in pain. From his own limited assessment, he does not have any broken bones or life-threatening wounds, but his head is pounding and his limbs are aching. Instinctively raising his right hand to his forehead before performing a slow mental switch to the left, he realises they have not even bothered to remove his golden hand, though his borrowed armour is nowhere to be found, and neither is his sword.
The Maester approaches shortly after, and after a brief damage appraisal he announces that Jaime is well enough to leave. He is provided with clean clothing and ushered to a space where he can change into it; he struggles with only one hand, and is in desperate need of a bath, but the fresh linen is infinitely preferable to the numerous protective layers of blood- and sweat-soaked leather and wool. There is a bowl of clean water in the corner of the room, and a washcloth, so he makes do with scrubbing the grime from his face, for now.
Then he begins the unenviable task of navigating what remains of the castle.
In which Jaime is stubborn, but Brienne is stubborner.
Brienne has lost track of time. Her stew is cold, unfinished – not from any distaste for it but because she cannot summon the energy to eat.
On her arrival at the Great Hall, she was instructed by Lady Sansa to take up the kind offer of a bath being drawn for her. She was reluctant to be separated from Pod, at first, their small party already dwindling after leaving Jaime at the infirmary, but he promised to save her a bowl of stew and a place at the table, and as the other survivors began to file into the room, Brienne finally allowed herself to recognise that the danger was over. After a brief reassurance to Tyrion that his brother had survived, she excused herself to her chambers.
Now, clean of the night's detritus, her minor injuries attended to, finally safe and warm, she can feel the exhaustion encroaching. Podrick has already succumbed and is snoring quietly, his head cushioned in her lap. She does not have the heart to try and move him; her fingers ruffle gently through his still-filthy hair. He is no longer her young squire but a man grown; she is not his mother but feels an affection for him which she can name in no other way. She is surprised, every few seconds, to remember that they are both alive, when only hours before they were on the very verge of death.
The third corpse to jump on her back is bigger and stronger than the previous two, and she is unable to shake it off like she has the others; with Oathkeeper flailing wildly, she manages to decapitate two more wights as they come rushing towards her, but the monster on her shoulders has somehow dodged her blade, and its decaying fingers are clawing at her throat, her face, her eyes. She tries to prise them away but they grip tighter, digging sharp nails into her flesh.
There is a glint in her periphery – Widow's Wail, the golden hand, perhaps both – and the creature finally relinquishes its hold, falling to the ground beside her where she immediately pierces it through the chest. Then Jaime shoulders her indelicately against the wall, his entire body weight slamming into hers and his voice urgent – "Keep back!" – before he pushes away from her and returns to the fray.
Winded, catching her breath, her arms still swinging the sword of their own volition, she curses herself for her stupid mistake, and takes some ironic reprieve in the fact that she now only has one direction to be concerned about.
A body drops itself heavily onto the bench opposite, startling her back to the present, but when she realises who it is she feels the final weight of anxiety ease itself from her shoulders. Jaime is grubby, wearied, but alive and unharmed from her quick visual appraisal. He takes in the scene, a smile easing onto his face which immediately makes her self-conscious. She ceases her gentle ministrations on Pod and brings her hands to the table top, clasping them together.
"He fought well," comments Jaime. "Poor lad. Hardly surprising he's exhausted."
"Yes," she agrees. "I'm very proud of him." The words leave her mouth before she can really think about them, and an embarrassed flush colours her cheeks.
"Quite right," agrees Jaime. "You should be proud of yourself, too – you taught him well."
"Funnily enough, your brother said the same thing."
At the mention of his brother, Jaime's face changes, becomes more serious. "Tyrion… he survived?"
She nods in reassurance. "They say the dead came alive in the crypts, but only a few were lost. Lord Tyrion and Lady Sansa made it out. Gilly and little Sam… the Dragon Queen's advisor…" She trails off as she realises Jaime's eyes are scanning the room for his brother. "He's resting," she says. "As Lady Sansa should be also, especially after the shock she's had."
Jaime focuses on her again. "Shock?"
"Theon. He was killed protecting Bran."
When he seeks out Sansa from across the room, he can see the grief writ large on her face, but she remains a stoic and formidable figure, as poised as ever. The Starks are made of strong stuff; they would have to be, to survive the harshness of the North.
"Do we know what happened yet? How it ended?"
Brienne carefully shifts Pod's head from her lap (he snorts in protest and continues sleeping) and shuffles across the bench, bringing herself more directly opposite Jaime. She leans closer, conspiratorially.
"Arya," she says. "I overheard her speaking with King Jon. She was the one who killed the Night King. But it hasn't been announced yet. I don't imagine there will be any celebrations until the dead have been catalogued."
The dead. It sounds so casual to refer to them as such, as though the many lives lost count for nothing. Already a pyre is being constructed, because they must be burned, just to be certain; their families will have barely any time to grieve. And then it will be on to the next battle, the long march south. Brienne is not yet ready to think about going south; about Jaime going south; about what that could mean.
If he has any further questions, he does not verbalise them. She can forgive him for his stunned silence; she could barely believe it herself, when Arya spoke of her courageous deed. She knows Arya better than Jaime does, is more than aware of her skill with a sword and a stealthy blade, and yet she does not really know her at all.
They lapse into silence. Some of Jaime's missing memories are coming back to him: the deafening noise and sudden hush, Brienne commanding him to walk, Widow's Wail slipping from his hand. The rest is still a blur until waking in the infirmary.
As if she can read his thoughts, Brienne gives him a carefully appraising look, and then asks: "Are you… well, Ser Jaime?" The honorific slips out accidentally, but she is too tired to take it back. "You're not injured?"
"A few cuts and bruises, I think," he says. "The Maester released me without incident, so I assume others fared far worse than I." He does not need to ask the same of her; his first instinct upon finding her was to assess for himself the damage. There are scratches to her face and neck, but none of them deep; if there are others, he cannot see them. "Where is my armour?" he asks. "My sword?"
"We had to remove the armour," she explains. "After you passed out, Pod and I managed to drag you indoors, but you were too heavy. We abandoned it along the way. I imagine it's back in the armoury now, to be reshaped." She suppresses a shudder as she remembers the hefty dent she discovered in his breastplate, directly above his heart. "Your sword…" She hesitates, hoping he does not think ill of her. "Your sword is with mine. In my chambers. I couldn't think of anywhere else to put it."
He nods in relief. He cares less for the borrowed Northern armour than for the sword; to know it is safe with hers is more than he could have hoped for.
"And your armour?"
"Also in my chambers," she says. "In need of a good clean, but barely even scratched. It… it saved my life, I think." She casts her eyes down. "As did you."
He has no desire to be reminded of that terrible instant, watching helplessly as Brienne was overcome by wights, hacking desperately through to get to her, clearing enough of a path for her to burst forth again with a furious cry. To have almost lost her, so early into the fight… when she re-emerged, angry and filthy and triumphant, he felt his heart swell with relief and pride and too many other emotions to identify, in the moment. Of course, she had returned the favour, not just once, but twice; and after the second time he swore not to lose sight of her for even a second. Despite the horror and the exhaustion and the never-ending tide of wights, to fight by her side was exhilarating: a perfectly choreographed dance they had never needed to practice.
"You saved me, too, Brienne," he reminds her. "Perhaps in more ways than you know."
She raises her head again, her blue eyes meeting his, sapphire bright in the torchlight of the Great Hall. Gods, if she had been turned... if those blue eyes had glowed with the same eerie light as the others… he would have doomed himself through his inability to kill her.
The rumbling of his stomach distracts him and his attention is drawn instead to Brienne's half-finished stew.
"Are you going to finish that?" he asks, already reaching for it.
"It's cold," she says. "I'm sure someone can bring you a fresh bowl."
"It'll be fine," he responds, not wishing to impose any further on the Starks' strained hospitality. Yes, he has fought for their castle, fought the good fight, but they still have no reason to trust him. Especially not now, when the next fight will be with his sister.
Brienne realises she will not sway him and slumps back a little on the bench in defeat. Better for it to be eaten than go to waste.
It becomes apparent that he is struggling to lift the bowl, his arm shaking almost to the point that he drops it. Alarmed, Brienne reaches out to steady him, removing the dish with one hand whilst the other closes around his wrist. It is then that she notices the many blisters on his palm, the flesh rubbed raw from gripping Widow's Wail; the gauntlet has probably done more harm than good. No amount of training could account for him losing his sword hand, the protective calluses built since childhood. (She marvels anew that he is still with her now; that he has fought so valiantly and so well whilst compensating against years of instinctive movement.)
Until now, he has kept both of his arms hidden from her view. Her grip tightens in concern.
"You told me you were uninjured," she says with an accusatory tone.
"If you think that's an injury, I have some awful things to tell you about war."
Her firm tone cuts through his sarcasm and he relents, allowing her to unfurl his fingers and properly assess the damage. He hisses in a sharp breath as the skin stretches, as she experimentally prods at one of the blisters. She shoots him an apologetic glance and her eyes scan the room for assistance. A girl, probably no older than nine or ten years of age, passes through with empty trenchers and bowls, and Brienne waves her over.
"We need warm water. Some kind of salve. Bandages. Can you fetch them?"
The girl nods, abandoning her burden further down the table and rushing off to find the items requested. She reappears a few minutes later, struggling a little with the weight of a wooden bowl three-quarters filled with steaming water, her small hands wrapped around it. She places it in front of Brienne and reaches into the pocket of her dress, extracting a bundle of clean linen scraps and a small ceramic jar of sweet-smelling liniment. Then she returns to her original purpose, collecting up the pile of used equipment again and heading towards the kitchens.
With infinite gentleness, Brienne attends to Jaime. Despite the fact his face and hand are cleaner than the rest of him, there is still dirt and blood ingrained into the creases of his fingers, and her first task is to soak one of the scraps, wring it out and diligently wipe away the muck. Then, she reaches for the salve, rubbing it carefully into his palm. The one time she glances up at him, his mouth is in a firm line, gritting his teeth against the sting, but he does not make any indication for her to stop. She wraps his hand, tight enough for the salve to work but not so tight that he cannot use it.
Once she is finished, he flexes his thumb experimentally. The ointment is already soothing some of the pain. He may not be able to wield a sword for a few days, but at least he has not lost another hand.
"The… the other," she suggests, awkwardly. "May I see?"
He keeps his useless right limb by his side where she cannot see it. "It doesn't need attention," he tells her, but she sees through the lie immediately and leans across the table, pulling on the loose sleeve of his shirt until he gives in. His arm drops heavily onto the wooden surface, the prosthesis landing with a dull thud. Brienne ignores his continued protests and pushes up his sleeve. She retreats in shock at the sight which greets her.
The straps securing the hand to his arm have dug into his flesh, red welts rising up around the leather. A telltale crusting of blood at his wrist, above the lip of the golden hand, suggests that the damage beneath is significant. She does not hesitate in loosening the straps and pulling the metal appendage off. The soft leather lining is stained dark red. She reaches to peel it away, but is prevented from doing so by his left hand dropping over both of hers.
"Brienne, please don't."
His voice is very small, and when she looks up she is shocked by the open vulnerability on his face. He does not want to expose her to the bloodied mess he has made of his ineffective, foreshortened limb, but she cannot allow him to leave it untreated.
"It can't be any worse than it was at Harrenhall."
She had not wanted to remind him of their past adventure, but he conjures up the memory of that encounter almost as quickly as she does – though she suspects Jaime's recollection must be somewhat fuzzier than her own, as delirious as he was from fever. She pretends not to notice when his eyes darken; as she pretended not to notice then.
His thumb brushes gently against her knuckles for a few agonising, silent seconds, before he removes his hand from hers and nods. She puffs out a relieved breath and sets back to work.
The protective leather lining does not come away easily; in the intervening hours some of the blood has begun to dry, adhering the hide to his skin. She removes it as carefully as she can, but cannot prevent it from tugging uncomfortably. The stump itself is a mess of dark bruises and viscous blood which clings to the leather in sticky tendrils. All of a sudden, the thought that he has actually used the golden hand as a makeshift weapon does not seem so amusing.
It is, to her relief, definitely not as bad as it was at Harrenhall. The scar has not reopened; the injury is from impact and friction, and she suspects it looks – and feels – worse than it really is.
She cleans it up as best she can, until the water is red-tinged and entirely useless, and then repeats the process of rubbing liniment into the worst of the bruises, the angry outline of the leather straps and the puckered scar where his hand used to be. There are just enough of the bandages left to wrap his stump and lower arm.
She wants to take the golden hand and throw it into the fire, for all the use it has been. Some day, hopefully soon, she will convince him to replace it with something better.
Her hands are clasped gently over his forearm where it rests against the table, and his left hand once again descends over hers.
"Thank you. For looking after me."
"Somebody has to, if you won't look after yourself."
He almost laughs at that, but does not quite have the energy for it.
His gaze is drawn to the old scars on Brienne's neck, parallel pale stripes that sweep down to her collarbone; a bear's attempt on her life. Her linen shirt hangs loose on her frame, slipping very slightly off her left shoulder to reveal the blurred, yellowing edge of a bruise. Before he is fully aware of his actions he draws it further off her shoulder, exposing the rest of the contusion: a dark blue mass that extends from her clavicle to her upper arm. His fingertips barely brush it and Brienne flinches back with a hiss of pain.
"Forgive me," he mutters, withdrawing, as she readjusts the shirt to conceal the bruise again. "How… what caused it?"
"You did," she says, but there is nothing accusatory to her tone. "When you pushed me back, against the wall."
When the bruise starts to fade, it will resemble the outline of her pauldron and breastplate. Brienne highly suspects her collarbone may be broken, but she does not tell him that. If it worsens, she will inform a Maester, but for now the needs of others, more injured than herself, outweigh her own. She is well accustomed to living with pain.
Jaime can barely remember his actions now, though has some vague recollection of striking a wight from her back. "I… I didn't mean to hurt you."
She shakes her head in exasperation. "You kept me alive."
"No," he says, "we kept each other alive."
Before the Long Night, she had commanded him to live; but there was no point in living to see the dawn if Brienne could not see it also. For one to live and not the other was out of the question. In the final moments of the battle, fighting at Brienne's side, the fight became nothing about winning the war and everything about survival. She became his right hand, and he her left: they might as well have linked arms and become one ferocious double-handed warrior.
And now, they are together in the aftermath: bruised and bloodied and battered, doomed to relive the horrors no man should ever endure for so many months to come, and another pointless war still to fight, but they are alive.
And they are also, Jaime realises as the comprehension of that fact finally settles into his brain, utterly exhausted.
"Have you slept yet?" he asks her, and she has to think about it, then shakes her head. "Then we should both get some rest. I am in dire need of a bath, but I suspect I shall have to make do with a cold one."
Brienne cannot allow that. "Let me speak with Lady Sansa. She had a bath drawn for me earlier. I see no reason why—"
"You don't have to do that. The Starks owe me nothing."
"Perhaps not, but I owe you my life. I know the Queen distrusts you, but Lady Sansa trusts me, and she can be more than reasonable. Please, at least allow me to ask."
Jaime realises he cannot persuade her otherwise, and he concedes with a weary nod. When Brienne defended him in this very hall only a few days prior, it was Sansa Stark who overruled the Dragon Queen. Winterfell is her family's home and he has done his part to defend it. Perhaps she will indeed be reasonable.
Brienne rises from the hard wooden bench, her muscles aching with the effort. She has no idea how long she has been sitting there, how many hours have passed since the horn sounded to indicate the end of the fighting. There is another painful bruise to the back of her calf, sustained when she was overcome and dragged to the ground, and a deep cut to her thigh where the knife of a wight found a gap in her armour, and she is well aware of Jaime's eyes upon her as she limps to the high table. She does not want him fretting over her.
She bows her head as she approaches. "My lady."
"Lady Brienne!" Despite her grief over Theon, Sansa's face lights up to see her sworn sword, a knowing smile edging onto her face. "Or should that be Ser, now? Tyrion informs me you were knighted."
"Yes. By Ser Jaime." She makes certain to add that caveat.
"I'm glad. I can think of nobody more deserving of the honour." Sansa regards her with a calm expression, and Brienne realises this is probably the first time Sansa has seen her without her armour or sword, looking quite the opposite of a knight.
"My lady, I have a favour to ask of you." Sansa nods. "I wondered if you might permit another bath to be drawn in my chambers. For Ser Jaime." The Lady of Winterfell looks suspicious, and so Brienne continues: "I know you do not trust him, but he has fought hard for Winterfell. For the north. For all of us. And he saved my life tonight, more times than I could count. Without him I would not be standing here now to even make such a request. All I ask is that he is afforded some comfort."
Sansa considers the request for some time.
"Ser Jaime was not… unkind to me, in Kings Landing," she responds. "In truth, I barely spoke with him at all. But his sister…" Sansa cannot continue through her gritted teeth.
"He left her to travel here, to keep the promise she had broken," says Brienne, more harshly than she had intended. "Forgive me, my lady, I did not intend to raise my voice. I only wish to try and impart that Ser Jaime is not the man he once was."
"The Queen does not trust him."
"But you do." Brienne can only nod. "And you love him, is that not so?"
"I… I do."
Sansa considers that there must be some good in him, for Brienne to have fallen for him. The truest knight in Westeros would not have allied herself with the Kingslayer unless she could see something in him that others could not.
"In that case, I think he can be allowed a bath."
Brienne feels the tension leech from her body in relief. "Thank you."
"I'll send someone up immediately." Brienne nods her thanks, and turns to leave. "Oh, and Ser Brienne?"
"Yes, my lady?"
"Get some rest. That's an order."
In which daylight brings reprieve.
The route they have to take to her chambers is long and meandering, so much of the castle destroyed that they must keep diverting to avoid collapsed walls, missing floors and crumbling towers. Jaime loses his bearings within moments, trailing behind Brienne like a faithful dog. He envies her ability to navigate Winterfell so effortlessly.
He had not quite believed her, when she informed him of Lady Stark's agreement, and he was almost ready to refuse the offer until Brienne warned him that such a luxury should not be taken for granted, particularly after she had fought so hard to get it for him. The more they wander the castle, the more appealing the idea begins to sound.
He could not face replacing the golden hand, and he was tempted to leave it behind altogether, but he will need something to conceal the stump until Brienne can act on her promise and commission something better at the forge. For now, it hangs ineffectually from Brienne's sword-belt, which she still wears despite the fact that Oathkeeper is elsewhere. He cannot even carry it with his hand bandaged.
They emerge into another corridor where one wall is half-missing, a hole the approximate size of a dragon's fist allowing daylight to enter. Neither of them have any idea what time it is, only that the dawn broke as the fighting stopped. Brienne continues past the destruction, but Jaime hesitates, his gaze drawn to the view below.
The snow-covered landscape is stained with blood and corpses as far as the eye can see, not just the wights but the fallen fighters: Dothraki and Unsullied and Stark bannermen, laid out in rows for identification. The storm which made visibility so difficult during the night has ceased, and the frosty air is calm. A vast white sky hangs over the land, bright with winter sunlight. From below, the sound of weapons being repaired in the forge, the shouting of instructions as the castle is re-fortified, the crackle of the first pyre. The Queen's largest dragon is circling and shrieking, the flap of its enormous wings clearly audible overhead.
Brienne eventually realises that Jaime is no longer following, and retraces the few steps she has taken to join him at the makeshift window.
"I didn't think I would live to see daylight again," he says.
It seems a lifetime ago that they stood on Winterfell's battlements, Jaime confessing his greatest wish after he had granted hers. Their conversation returns to Brienne as if from a dream, and she is not entirely certain it was real. The intervening battle has changed them both irredeemably. She did not expect them to survive; did not plan for what might happen if they did.
"We're almost there," she tells him. "Come on."
She turns to walk away and Jaime follows, but once they are clear of the gaping hole in the wall he extends his hand and reaches for hers, pulling her towards him and backing her against the stones. He is gentle in his movements, cautious of the fact that they are both a little fragile, but the action surprises her nonetheless. He stares at her for a long, confusing, silent moment.
Before she can ask the question, his mouth is on hers, his hand sinking into her short hair to keep her exactly where he wants her. It takes a couple of seconds for her to respond, her brain temporarily freezing out of sheer surprise, but as soon as she does he presses in closer, his bandaged stump finding the dip in the small of her back and resting there. Her hands are on his face again, and when he tentatively deepens the kiss she follows his lead, using instincts she was unaware of possessing until now.
The last time they kissed they were awkwardly separated by their armour; this time they are both clad in linen and leather, and she can feel the warmth of him everywhere they are pressed together, the steady beat of his heart against his chest, beneath her palms where they have slowly drifted, even the pulse in his wrist against her back. To her surprise, Brienne finds that somehow more intimate than the languid stroke of his tongue against hers; the fact that his missing hand is no barrier to him holding her as near to him as possible.
He breaks apart from her, his hand moving from the back of her head to gently cup her face; the bandages are coarse against her skin but his thumb is soft as it caresses her cheek. He pulls back just enough to lock his eyes to hers, and she wonders if she will ever truly believe that what she sees in their depths is reserved for her.
"Gods, I came so close to losing you tonight," he says, barely above a whisper. "Too close."
"But you didn't," she reminds him, wishing she could say something more encouraging but teetering dangerously on the edge of incoherence.
"No." His eyes close, his forehead touching hers. She takes advantage of their proximity and presses her lips to his once more, a brief and reassuring pressure, before he pulls away again. He regards her for a moment, then quietly shakes his head. "This situation is not ideal. I'm hopelessly in love with you, Brienne, and we're in the middle of a war."
A maelstrom of emotions overwhelms her – relief being the most prominent – and she buries her face against his shoulder as the tears well up beyond her control. Jaime's hand returns to her hair, stroking gently until she calms.
"Are you going to cry every time I tell you that?" he asks.
She shakes her head and manages to laugh, lifting her head again and wiping irritably at her face. "I honestly thought I had dreamt it, the first time. In fact, I'm not entirely certain I'm not dreaming now."
"I can assure you, this is all very real."
He reaches for one of her hands and presses a kiss to her palm; her fingertips scrape instinctively at his beard and it causes him to surge forwards to claim her mouth once more. His right arm slides from her back to her hip as he pushes closer, crowding her into the wall. He kisses her possessively, no longer quite as wary of frightening her away, and her hands move up to his face and he makes that noise again, that terrifying and thrilling and ridiculous noise which turns her stomach to butterflies, and one of his knees nudges insistently between both of hers so that he can somehow get even closer, and it's at that point that something else becomes exceedingly apparent.
Jaime must realise at the same instant as her, because he reluctantly breaks the kiss and takes a step back out of her personal space. She is uncomfortably aware of the sudden pinkness of her face and neck, from embarrassment and… some other source she is not quite able to admit just yet. She expects him to laugh, but he seems almost as embarrassed as her.
"I'm sorry. It… it just happens. It doesn't mean anything."
A wave of devastating, painful realisation washes over her which is clearly reflected on her face, not because she wants him to see but because she cannot control it, and he immediately senses her desire to run away because he places his left hand flat against the wall and his right arm upon her shoulder, effectively trapping her.
"No, that… that isn't what I meant. Please do not misunderstand me, Brienne. I was only trying not to scare you."
For several seconds, she does not trust herself to speak; she needs time to lock her heart away inside its protective shell so it does not get broken. "You don't have to pretend," she says. "I know very well that I'm not—"
"You're magnificent," he announces. His tone is commanding, urging her to understand. "Didn't I say as much last night? That you are strong, and true, and good? Far too good for the likes of me, but I've known that for years. Believe me, if I was not half-dead from exhaustion and covered in Seven Hells' worth of shit, we would not even have stopped for breath."
He can pinpoint the precise moment she understands his intention, her eyes widening in surprise before softening again as she searches his face.
There are too many emotions reeling through her head, many of which she has spent years suppressing for fear of humiliation, particularly where Jaime is concerned. She has doubted his honesty on many occasions, often without cause; whenever they are together, he inadvertently bares his soul. She has spent too many years wanting to be beautiful and graceful and not as gods-damned tall, until Jaime laid his sword across her shoulders to charge her with more practical qualities and looked at her as though she was the first dawn of Spring. Magnificent. She will take magnificent.
Realising that she does not seem to want to escape any more, Jaime releases her from the cage of his arms and takes another step back. With the loss of each other's warmth, the chill of the exposed corridor is bracing, cooling the fire between them almost as quickly as it started.
It feels safer, now, for her to expose her heart again.
"I love you, Jaime."
"You must do," he says, "to kiss me when I smell like a funeral pyre."
The smell of smoke and rot is everywhere, and she honestly had not noticed. She decides not to remind him that the early days of their relationship were spent with her dragging him around in filthy rags; that the stench of his infected wrist had forever returned to her memory at the mention of 'Kingslayer'.
Brienne moves past him, continuing down the hallway, her hand gently reaching for his, their fingers interlocking. She hesitates for only a moment to tell him: "Your bath will be getting cold," before leading him the rest of the way to her chambers.
In which our heroes finally rest.
As Jaime bathes behind a screen, Brienne sets to work cleaning both of their swords, wiping them clear of the blood and gristle which coats the blades. She starts with Widow's Wail before moving on to Oathkeeper. Her armour can wait until later; she cannot face sorting through the pile of metal plates just yet.
On arrival at her chambers, she was pleased to see that Lady Sansa had thoughtfully asked for a fire to be built in the hearth, affording the room with more warmth than she had been expecting and allowing the bath to retain some of its heat. Jaime had smiled to see their two swords crossed upon the table, and then to realise that clean clothing had been left for him also. The warmth of the chamber seemed to sap all of his remaining energy, and he did not argue any further with her about the bath.
She can barely hear him and wonders if he might have fallen asleep; he does have a habit of trying to drown himself. With both his hand and stump still bandaged, he cannot do much except wait for the warm water to dissolve the dried blood and filth from his skin. He had settled into the tub with an audible groan and that was the last she heard from him.
Brienne had wept, during her own bath: for the men she had failed and all the lives they had lost; for relief that it was over; for the injustice that she had survived when so many had not; for the fact that Jaime had made it out alive and then seen fit to terrify her again; for Catelyn Stark and Lord Renly and all the others she had been unable to save, old grief pouring out of her along with the new. She had hugged her knees to her chest and let the pain flow out of her whilst she still had the opportunity to do so. She had scrubbed herself clean until every last speck of undead blood was gone, dealt with whatever was left of her own, and then dressed herself in anything but armour for the rest of the day.
With both swords now spotless again, blades shining as new in the firelight, she places them side by side at the end of the table. It is the first time she notices that they are twins of each other; different perhaps in terms of size, the pommels unmatching, but similar in other ways she had not noticed before. These weapons have seen herself and Jaime through the horrors of the Long Night, the Valyrian steel singing even as it sliced at rotting flesh.
She is restless now that her hands are empty, but the armour still feels like too large a chore, particularly now that her shoulder is aching. She paces the room, hoping that Jaime cannot hear her; the limp is less prominent now after the long journey through Winterfell, though the bruise on her calf is sore and the cut to her thigh still stings. It had already started to scab over by the time she discovered it; the wight's blade had sliced deep but not enough that it needed to be stitched. She is very aware of how lucky she is to have come through the night relatively unscathed.
"Stop fretting, Brienne." His voice emanates from behind the screen. "I'm not going to pass out and drown."
"I'm not fretting," she calls back. "I'm just… restless."
"I could do with some help, if you're in need of a distraction."
She tries to work out if there is any underlying suggestion to his words, but without being able to see his face it is difficult to tell. She approaches the screen and pokes her head around it and he stares back with an entirely normal expression, softly questioning.
"What… what sort of help?"
He gestures towards his hair. Both of his arms have been hanging over the rim of the bathtub in an effort to keep the bandages dry.
"If you don't mind," he adds. "I can live without, if it's too much trouble."
"No, it's… it's fine."
She steps around the screen, averting her gaze as much as possible before realising that the water is so filthy that she cannot see anything anyway. She pulls up a stool behind him, sits, and reaches for some soap and a pitcher of clean water. Creating a lather, she sets to work massaging it into his scalp; he hums in satisfaction and his head lolls further back. That does not make her task any easier, and she pushes it up again with an impatient click of her tongue. He chuckles and sits more upright.
As her hands work their way down to his neck, she realises that his back and shoulders are still caked in grime, and she hesitates, not wishing to assume anything. After she has paused for some considerable time, he speaks up again:
"If there's anything else that needs attention, feel free to continue. I am at your mercy, Ser Brienne."
The way he says her new title sends an inexplicable shudder down her spine; she wants to respond in a similar, lightly flirtatious tone, but cannot find the words and does not know where to start. She nods, though he is unable to see it, and reaches for the soap again. It takes a while to shift the layers of dirt and blood and whatever else (she has tried very hard not to think about whatever the else is) and her hands work diligently, almost methodically. There is a line of mottled bruising across his shoulder-blades, and she tries to remember when he could have sustained it, but much of the previous night's battle is starting to blur in her head and she's tired of remembering it.
She's done all she can, for now, and reaches for the pitcher.
"This is going to be cold," she warns him, and then pours the water over his head in a gentle stream to rinse the soap away. The temperature is significantly lower than the bath water, and he judders from the shock of it, but allows her to continue.
"Seven Hells," he curses, after she's done, and she bites back a laugh.
"I did warn you."
"Yes, I know you did." – he shivers over-dramatically – "Gods save me from the fucking North."
She rises from the stool and puts it back in its rightful place, along with the pitcher. "You knew what you were walking into well before you left," she reminds him.
"I knew about the war," he says. "I'd forgotten about the cold and the way it gets into your bones."
Brienne has acclimatised, somewhat, after so many months, but she has to agree with his assessment. The North was cold when she arrived, and has only grown colder since.
"Is there anything else you need?" she asks, intending to leave him in privacy again.
"No," he says, and she moves back towards the screen. As she passes, he reaches out to clasp her hand. "Yes."
"What is it?"
He tugs gently on her arm until she approaches, then again until she crouches beside the bath.
"I just wanted you to know… as much as this climate does not agree with me, I am glad to be here. To have done the right thing, for once. To have fought the good fight. More than any of that, I am glad to be here with you." His hand releases hers and then raises to caress her face. "Wherever you had been, I would have followed. But it stands to reason that you'd be here, because that's the honourable thing to do, and you, Brienne of Tarth, are the most honourable person I've ever met."
He rises up, leans forward, draws her face towards his and presses his lips to hers. They are becoming quite practiced at this, but she is still mildly surprised. His right arm snakes up around her back to pull her in closer, and she has to brace herself against his shoulder before she topples into the bath with him – which, she thinks absently, would be absolutely fine if not for the unappealing colour of the water. They break apart on a laugh and Brienne regains her balance. They stare at each other for a long moment, the silence extending comfortably for the first time either of them can remember.
"I… I'll leave you to finish up," she says eventually, standing up and heading back around the screen. She keeps her back turned, just in case, and from behind she can hear the gentle lap of water as he gets out, the rustle of cloth and clothing as he dries and dresses, then footsteps as he finally emerges.
"Are you decent, Ser?" she asks, hoping it comes across as lightly as intended.
"That's a matter of opinion," he says, approaching from behind her. "I believe the general consensus is that I'm a disgraced one-handed man with shit for honour."
She turns to him, frustrated that he feels the need to spin everything around into self-deprecation. "You know that isn't true."
"No. You're a good man, Jaime. You've proven that to me on many occasions. You've proven it to everyone, out there in the battle last night."
"Well, when the dust settles, hopefully the Dragon Queen will reconsider her great need to separate my head from my body." He huffs out a breath, giving up. "I'm too tired to argue with you, Brienne."
"Was that an argument?" she asks.
"A debate, then," he suggests impatiently. "A difference of perspective. It doesn't— Gods, you're infuriating. I'm trying to call a truce so we can both rest."
She bites her tongue against saying anything further, and nods. Now that he has suggested it, she realises just how exhausted she is. She has been yearning for sleep for hours and the world is starting to become slightly fuzzy around the edges.
"I will bid you goodnight, then," he says. "Hopefully I can find somewhere to sleep which still has walls and a ceiling."
"What do you mean, 'find somewhere'?" she asks. "Were you not allocated quarters?"
"I daresay I'm lucky not to be sleeping in the dungeons."
"Any place I can find where I won't get kicked, spat on or stabbed in the back," he tells her. "With the horses, mostly – and even that does not reduce the risk of being kicked. I'm sure they can tell I'm a Lannister."
She bristles with barely suppressed anger. "That's unacceptable, Jaime. I will speak with Lady Sansa tomorrow."
He knows better than to dissuade her. Once Brienne is on a mission to right an injustice, there is no way of swaying her, so he silently concedes.
"You can… stay here, for tonight," she suggests, so quietly that he almost does not hear her.
"Is that really wise?" he asks. "You're very well respected, and I would not want your reputation being tarnished. If people find out you spent the night with the Kingslayer…"
"I don't care," she says adamantly. "I will not have you sleeping in the stables, Jaime." She resists pointing out that it's not the night, since it's the middle of the afternoon, or possibly the early evening, because in all likelihood she will sleep straight through until the next morning regardless. "And besides, I…"
There is a sudden fear to her tone, and it makes him take a step towards her in alarm. "What?"
She does not answer straight away; does not want him to see her as weak. His face is open, questioning, and she gives up the struggle.
"I don't think I can be alone. Whenever I close my eyes for more than a second, it's all I can see, all I can hear. The fighting. The screaming. The… the wights."
In two strides Jaime has closed the space between them, wrapping her in his arms. She resists for the briefest of moments, clinging to the final shred of her pride, before melting into him. If she was shorter, he would tuck her head beneath his chin; he makes do with nuzzling his nose against her cheek. She has spent most of the day taking care of him, and it's about time for him to return the favour.
Brienne is so proficient with a sword, he had forgotten that this was her first real battle; that no amount of physical training could prepare her for the emotional aftermath. And this was no ordinary fight, no ordinary enemy. Cutting down mortal soldiers would be nothing compared to that relentless tide of walking death.
"Does it ever stop?" she asks him, open and vulnerable.
"Yes," he says. "I promise you, Brienne, one day it will stop."
"Please stay. Stay with me."
He pulls back just enough that she can see him nod his agreement. He presses a tender kiss to her brow, to the scratches peppering her face, and then to her mouth – soft and undemanding. She reaches for his hand as she breaks away, leading him the short distance to the bed.
It's barely big enough for the two of them, but that doesn't seem to matter as she pulls him down beside her and rearranges the layers of furs to cover them. His right arm slides beneath the pillow, his left around her waist, pulling her tight against him. Their legs entangle as they lie together, face to face; she can feel his heartbeat again, running in tandem with hers. Her arms are awkwardly pressed between them, but she reaches up to touch his face, fingers threading into his still-damp hair.
The night is dark, and full of terrors. Those words have never felt more accurate. The fear grips her like a fist around her heart.
"Sleep, love," he says, the endearment rolling off his tongue. "You're safe. We're still alive, and we're together."
It takes some time, but eventually she closes her eyes. Her hand clenches in the fabric of his shirt for a moment, then relents; he holds her tighter; her breathing slows. He watches as the worry lines disappear from her face, sleep finally claiming her, before he succumbs to the need to follow.
For the first time since arriving North, he is warm.
- end -
A/N: Hope you enjoyed and please let me know what you thought.