A/N: Right, so, I intended "Dead of Night" to be a one-shot, and then four days later a sequel flung itself fully formed into my head. I anticipated that it would be short, then churned 5000 words out. I am chronically incapable of brevity.
I guess this is technically a post-"Long Night" story, set in the same universe as "Dead of Night" – the other side of the battle. It starts out angsty (because apparently I love eking angst out of Long Night aftermaths!) but there's fluff at the end to make up for it, and it's soft enough to use as a pillow. (Full disclosure: I was having a bit of an existential crisis before writing this and it served as a catharsis. You can blame that for the angst, I guess.)
This will not make sense unless you've read the previous story; to that end I have linked this as part of my 'first kiss' series even though technically it should be part of my season 8 series. (If I could link to both, I would!)
Hope you enjoy. =)
"You should eat something, Ser."
Podrick's voice is oddly distant, like Brienne is underwater or he is trying to converse with her through a solid brick wall.
He speaks again, the words unclear but his tone concerned. Brienne is very aware of his presence in the chair directly opposite, at the table in her chambers, but his outline is blurred by the flickering orange of her still-blazing hearth, the crackle of the flames slowly taking over her consciousness as she stares dead ahead. She is trying her best to think of nothing at all, because the alternative is too horrifying.
A bowl scrapes across the table towards her, jolting her back to the present, her gaze refocusing on the worried face of her loyal squire. There is an angry-looking scab over his left eye, a myriad other cuts and bruises peppering his face and neck, but his only concern is for Brienne. One of his hands rests against the bowl he has pushed towards her, the other twitching restlessly as though he wants to reach out and touch her in reassurance. He does not quite manage it, his fingers flexing involuntarily and drumming nervously upon the wooden surface.
She blinks, trying to stay alert and prevent her mind from wandering too far when she is not paying attention.
"I'm sorry, Pod. Did you say something?"
He gives her a sympathetic smile.
"The stew, Milady. You should eat it. Build your strength back up."
She acknowledges him with an absent nod and reaches for the spoon protruding from the bowl, swirling it half-heartedly into the concoction before her. The stew is weak – a meagre portion of meat and vegetables in a watery broth, the best the kitchen can offer for the many exhausted mouths still to feed. The accompanying bread is a day old, stale and chewy. Brienne stirs the bowl's contents, but the smell of it turns her stomach, mingling with the stench of death and acrid smoke that still lingers everywhere.
She has cleaned up as best as possible – her wounds attended to, her armour and sword abandoned somewhere in the room, fresh clothing upon her battered body which she has scrubbed free of every last remnant of the Long Night – and yet she cannot shake the cloying stink of blood and viscera. The fire is blazing but she is cold to her bones. Her heart beats and her lungs take in air, but she does not feel alive.
Brienne has refused to allow Podrick out of her sight since the fighting stopped, ensuring that his injuries (blessedly few) were tended before even taking stock of her own; she is bruised all over, cuts to her face, blisters and skin rubbed raw from her chafing armour. Trudging back from the battlefield, she felt numb to all of it, until someone had braced against her shoulder to pop it back into place and she had almost passed out from a wave of white-hot pain.
After that, she and Podrick had blindly followed each other to seek some sustenance to appease their growling stomachs, joining a queue of similarly exhausted warriors shuffling towards a great cauldron on a bench. A girl barely approaching her twentieth year – someone's daughter, sister, wife – had ladled their ration into wooden bowls, her face haunted and her eyes unseeing. Then, they had slowly traipsed back to Brienne's quarters, to the quiet and the warmth.
She has not seen Jaime for almost as long as Podrick has been by her side.
There is silence, in the aftermath: the cacophony of battle suddenly distilling for a second, perhaps two, of quiet disbelief. The lack of noise is eerie and unworldly after so many hours of deafening sound. Then it breaks with the groan of a horn and an uproarious cheer, the clang of weapons being dropped, laughter turning to hysteria.
Brienne and her companions are some of the only people not joining in with the raucous celebration, all three of them dumb and frozen in shock. They stand unmoving for a long time, until the flurry of activity grows nearer, corpses being removed, families reuniting in tearful embraces, the survivors from the crypts emerging above ground, blinking and clinging to each other as they take stock of their harrowing experience and the sight that greets them in the open air.
Podrick is the first of them to speak, breathing out a sigh of relief before his face arranges itself into a grin of triumph.
"We made it, Sers! I… I think we won!"
It's only then that Jaime finally reacts, his golden hand stretching out blindly towards Brienne, the only part of him near enough to reach her. She clings to the cold metal, squeezing the lifeless digits as hard as she can, pressing her own relief and disbelief into him and hoping he can sense it, and in response he tugs her towards him, yanking her into his arms. It's awkward, their armour clattering and their swords clanging against the plates at each other's backs, and Podrick can only laugh with tears streaming down his face to join the blood trickling steadily from the gash on his brow.
I told you there'd be an after. Brienne cannot form the words aloud, but they align themselves in her mind like a promise.
After a second of calm, where the only sound is Podrick's slowly dwindling laughter and their breath billowing into the frosty air, she becomes aware that Jaime is slumping further against her, his weight bearing down on her. The sword drops from his grip and his now-free hand clings desperately to her back.
Oathkeeper joins its twin on the corpse-scattered ground as she tries to keep Jaime upright, one hand pushing at his right shoulder and the other at his left-hand side. A chill of dread overtakes her as something oozes between her fingers, warm and slick; she pulls her hand away from his waist with a startled jerk and panic rises in her chest when it comes away glistening with blood. She presses her hand back against him urgently and he hisses through clenched teeth, the pain suddenly overwhelming him and dropping him like a stone.
Brienne catches him before he can hit the ground, but is unable to support his full weight; all she can do is follow him down, crashing to her knees as Jaime tumbles backwards, Brienne's hands still wrapped around his shoulder and side. She exerts more pressure, trying to stem the bleeding, even as he grasps futilely at her fingers and tries to wrench them away. The blood flows like a river over their hands and she can feel him weakening, his desperate grip on her wrist becoming slack. He grimaces, breathing fast; his gaze locks to hers with a look of resigned finality, and she feels her own breath halt in her lungs.
She is dimly aware that Podrick is shouting for help, dashing from side to side whenever someone comes near, waving his sword in the air like a beacon, but never straying far away from her.
She tries to swallow the lump in her throat, uncomfortably aware that her voice is trembling when she tries to speak, hoarse from screaming and shaky with emotion.
"Jaime, stay with me. Focus. You're going to be fine, do you hear me?"
He lifts his hand away from hers and raises it to her face, both of them heedless of the blood now smeared across her cheek, mingling with the grime and the fresh tears she has been unable to quell.
"Is this what you meant by 'after'?" he asks, still somehow capable of sarcasm; a familiar urge to either kiss him or punch him overcomes her, and her heart almost snaps in two from the agony of it.
"No," she responds, trying to maintain some tenuous control. "No, there's… there's still time. Please, just… just hold on."
"I always hoped I'd die like this," he tells her, and her face crumples with abject grief. She removes her hand from his shoulder, raising it instead to press over his where it rests against her face. There are too many things she wants to say, but she is unable to speak, wracked with guilt and regret, mute with shock.
"I'm sorry," he says. "I'm sorry that I couldn't get here sooner. I wasted so much time." He forces out a gruff, ironic laugh. "I never did get to hold you, did I? I never did manage to tell you…"
He is unable to finish, his eyes closing in defeat and his hand slipping away from her face.
She reaches out to shake him, seeking desperately for a pulse, but her hands are too slippery with blood and she can barely see for the tears in her eyes. She grips his shoulders and shakes him harder, achieving little except his head lolling sideways, utterly unresponsive.
She shouts for help until her lungs are burning and her throat is raw, until a pair of Northerners finally discover them and lift Jaime from the ground and carry him away from her. She tries to follow but cannot force her legs to function, her arms reaching out desperately towards Jaime's slowly retreating body until Podrick's hands drop gently to her shoulders, stilling her, and she finally succumbs to the desperate sob that has been trying to tear itself from her chest, shaking so hard that her bones rattle, still kneeling on the cold ground surrounded by a gruesome carpet of lifeless undead and a slowly-spreading pool of Jaime Lannister's blood.
Brienne pushes the bowl away with a grimace, some of its contents sloshing over the edge, and rests her elbows on to the table so she can hang her head in her hands. A maudlin sigh escapes her lungs, the inhale catching slightly, and she wills herself not to cry. She is exhausted, her entire being yearning for rest, but she cannot close her eyes for more than a second without seeing an ocean of gnashing teeth and decaying flesh, or the sight of Jaime's blood glistening black against the frozen ground. She has no idea where he was taken, whether it was to heal him or line him up with the other fallen soldiers. Until she knows for certain, there is no use in exercising hope, no point wallowing in grief.
Podrick chews thoughtfully on a mouthful of bread as he watches her, swallowing it before speaking again.
"Have faith, Milady. Ser Jaime will be fine. He's… he's a good swordsman, and strong."
"Pod…" she begins wearily, trying to stop him from talking, but she has no energy to continue.
"Besides, I'm sure someone would have told us by now if he…" Podrick stops himself before he can make the situation any worse. "I mean, Lord Tyrion would know. He'd tell you if Ser Jaime was—" He stops short again. "I'm sure of it."
Brienne slowly emerges from her hands, and offers him the barest of smiles in gratitude. She has no idea when her formerly green squire became so insightful, but she is certain it cannot be her doing.
"You're a good lad, Pod."
He beams with pride, blushing at the praise, and takes another hearty bite out of his bread.
Brienne contemplates her stew again and takes a tentative sip of the broth, finding it pleasantly warming and strong in flavour despite its weak appearance. She is aware of Podrick's level gaze upon her as she slowly forces down the rest of the bowl, her progress hindered by arms that feel like lead after countless hours of swinging a sword.
Despite the hive of activity in Winterfell – makeshift infirmaries to see to the wounded, those who did not fight working tirelessly to clear the bodies and build pyres for the morning, Lady Sansa overseeing everything despite the horrors she had experienced in the crypts and the devastating loss of Theon Greyjoy – it is deathly quiet in the corridor beyond Brienne's quarters. The neighbouring rooms are either newly vacant or providing well-needed respite to exhausted troops.
The last thing she expects in the new-found silence is for it to be disturbed by a knock at her chamber door, so light that she barely hears it. The second time, her visitor raps against the wood with more persistence, and she feels her heart sink to her stomach in anxious anticipation. All she can do is stare at the door, unable to make her limbs function enough to cross the room and open it.
Podrick must sense her unease, because he gives her a reassuring smile and then rises himself to greet their unexpected caller. He opens the door a crack, enough to see who is on the other side, then suddenly swings it fully open, catching Brienne's eye with a genuinely pleased smile upon his face.
Brienne stares at the open doorway, temporarily frozen into immobility as her mind tries to make sense of what her eyes are showing her. The figure leaning against the jamb slowly raises his head and straightens, taking a careful and measured step inside the room, dropping a hand heavily to Podrick's shoulder as he moves. He is steady on his feet but clearly in pain, every movement costing him energy and stealing more breath than it should.
Brienne's eyes are pooling with tears, her bottom lip quivering despite her best efforts. She is barely aware of her actions as she rises from the chair, its legs scraping across the stones; in a few short strides she has crossed the room and collided with Jaime, her arms travelling up and over his shoulders to wrap around his neck. He staggers a little under her momentum, releasing Pod's shoulder to rest a comforting hand against her back. She melts even further into him at the contact, and he brings his foreshortened arm around her waist, enfolding her into his embrace.
Podrick is staring at them with a faraway expression and knowing smile, but with a subtle gesture of Jaime's head, he nods in understanding and silently slips through the still-open door, closing it behind him, leaving them alone.
They remain, completely still, as the echo of Pod's footsteps disappear completely and the room is silent once more. Jaime's hand moves gently, warm against Brienne's back, and she shudders on a choked sob – just once, releasing some of the pent-up anxiety of the past few hours. Jaime's right arm tightens, pressing her closer against him. They have never held each other like this before, but it feels as natural as breathing.
Brienne takes in a deep and calming lungful of air before she finally pulls away, extricating herself from Jaime's arms, but she does not go far: her hand finds his, their fingers interlocking, whilst she uses the other to roughly scrub the tears from her face as she regains control over her breathing. She takes a moment to try and account for Jaime's injuries; his face and neck are peppered with cuts and bruises, much the same as her own, and from the way he holds himself she can tell that the wound in his side is still painful, even though it has likely been tended to by now.
"Can I assume from your reaction that you're pleased to see me, wench?" he asks, a hint of irony colouring his words and his smile, and if not for the fact that they are both so fragile, she would punch him in the shoulder. The frustration she feels at his constant ability to make light of situations is achingly familiar, nonetheless, and she is temporarily overwhelmed by a wave of sheer relief at the fact he is standing before her.
"Gods, Jaime, I didn't know if you were dead or alive," she responds. "They just carried you off somewhere and I… nobody could tell me where you were. There was so much blood. I thought—"
He quietens her by leaning forward to rest his forehead against hers, and they both release a sigh. His hand squeezes hers tighter as they separate again, before letting go, freeing up his hand so he can lift the hem of his shirt to reveal the bandages tightly wrapped around most of his torso. They are evidently fresh, but a few tell-tale spots of blood suggest the full extent of the damage: the cut extends over most of his ribcage and down to his hip.
Brienne draws in a breath in shock, her hand extending as if to touch him, before she draws back again, not wishing to cause any further harm. He does not seek to dispel the horrified look on her face; he knows how significant the injury is.
"I'll tell you all I can," he says. "Help me to the chair."
She allows him to lean against her as he makes his way slowly towards the fire. He drops into the wooden seat with a pained groan, but seems more comfortable sitting down. Before taking her own place opposite, Brienne clears away the empty bowls so she can rest her arms on the table, hands clasped to prevent herself from fidgeting.
"I don't remember much," he admits. "I can recall most of the battle, and the moment everything stopped. I remember… falling, and bleeding, and you telling me to hold on, but I can't tell you when I was wounded. By the time it was over, I couldn't tell which parts of me were injured and which weren't. The pain had become so familiar it was almost a numbness." Brienne nods, at that, recognising the feeling, and allows him to continue. "I woke up in some horrid, windowless room that smelled like death, and I was convinced I'd died and been sent to some Hell or another. Until I realised someone was stitching up my side, and I blacked out again from the pain. When I came to, they'd finished patching me up and I realised I was in some kind of infirmary, probably deep underground somewhere in the castle. Someone gave me some milk of the poppy to help with the pain, and sent me away again."
"And you… came straight here?"
"If I'd been fully in charge of my senses, that would have been my first instinct, yes," he explains. "In truth, I was wandering around in a daze for a while. Someone handed me a bowl of stew at some point, but I'm not sure if I ate it. It… took me some time to make sense of the images in my head; it felt like a living nightmare until I finally pieced everything together. The last thing I could remember was lying on the ground, and you trying to convince me to hold on, and that's when I realised I had to find you." He pauses for a moment, smiling. "I found my brother first, though."
"Oh, thank the Gods," she responds in relief, and at his confused expression, she explains: "Podrick and I regrouped with Lord Tyrion and Lady Sansa on our way back to the castle. I don't know what happened to them, down in the crypts, but it's the first time I've known your brother to be so quiet. He asked about you and… I didn't know what to tell him. I… I've never seen a man look so broken."
"He was with Ser Davos when I ran into him," Jaime adds. "Near-hysterical with relief by the time I left again. In truth, I almost didn't want to leave him, but he was insistent I should find you. With any luck, Ser Davos has either distracted him with wine or convinced him to rest by now."
Brienne allows herself a wry smile at that, knowing as well as Jaime that Tyrion will have chosen the former option.
"I'm glad your brother knows you're safe," she says. "I felt so awful that I couldn't reassure him."
Jaime reaches across the table to lay his hand across both of hers where they are clasped together.
"I'm sorry I worried you."
She almost laughs at that, her tone incredulous.
"Worried me? I've never been so terrified in my whole life! I thought you were going to bleed to death right in front of me." She shakes her head to dispel the image of his cold and unresponsive body. "You… you said something about always wanting to die like that," she reminds him. "What did you mean?"
Jaime blinks as the memory returns; he had barely been aware of what he was saying at the time.
"Everyone has… a version of their future that they can picture in their mind," he explains. "For those of us on the battle lines, the future is a little more… immediate. Most men want to go out fighting. A blaze of glory, a noble death, epic heroes until the end. I've always wanted something rather less dramatic."
He sighs, staring at the table's surface, gathering his thoughts before continuing.
"I wasn't lying when I told you that I came here to die; that I wanted to be with you when it happened." He lifts his eyes to hers, raising his hand to cup her face. His palm is warm, his touch tender: so different to the last time, cold and desperate.
"It's not so much to ask, is it?" he asks rhetorically. "To be able to die in the arms of the woman I love?"
Brienne has no immediate response to his words; her first instinct is to thoroughly disbelieve him, despite the hopeful flutter in her chest. She thinks back over their limited interactions since Jaime's arrival at Winterfell: their challenging and confusing conversation in the training yard, his unexpected sincerity before the battle, the lingering glances she has not allowed herself to fully indulge in. A part of her has secretly wondered for some time what all of it had meant, but the idea of him harbouring such feelings for her seems as impossible as… well, she has seen so many impossible things in the last few hours that she has nothing to compare it to. It is an utterly incomparable impossibility that Jaime Lannister might somehow feel the same for her as she does for him.
She is completely unaware of the tears now streaking down her face until Jaime's thumb gently wipes them from her cheek. From his concerned expression, he was evidently expecting a slightly different reaction, but he allows her the time she needs to recover herself.
The same doubt pops into her mind as she had expressed after their first kiss: mere hours ago, though it feels like a lifetime.
"Gods, Jaime… don't say that unless you mean it."
His brow furrows slightly.
"Why would I not mean it?"
"Experience has taught me to be cautious," she explains. "With you, all the more so."
He acknowledges that with a guilty nod, his hand dropping away from her face.
"That's fair, I suppose. I admit, our history has been problematic. But I promise you, Brienne… everything I have told you since my arrival has been true. I came to Winterfell to be with you. I kissed you last night because I was too craven to say what was in my heart. If you had not asked me to wait, I would have told you before we joined the fray."
"Would that have made me any more inclined to believe you?" she asks him a little incredulously. "Telling me if you only planned on dying anyway? What would you have had me do with that information, Jaime? Spend the rest of my days never knowing for certain?"
He reaches for one of her hands, disentangling it from the other so he can grasp it and raise it to his lips, pressing a kiss to her knuckles.
"I plan on living," he assures her. "I'll spend the rest of my days convincing you that my feelings are true."
Their joined hands rest once more against the table-top, his thumb gently caressing her skin. Brienne can only stare at him in thoughtful silence, still unsure as to whether she should believe him. Jaime shakes his head in frustration and sighs.
"Stubborn wench. You are absolutely infuriating, Brienne, do you know that?"
Her mouth upturns in a slight smile.
"That's Ser Brienne, I think you'll find," she reminds him playfully, "and yes, you may have informed me of that fact on a few occasions."
"Utterly maddening," he adds, indulging in the game for a moment longer. Then, his eyes soften in a way that is both new and familiar, his tone becoming sincere once more. "I… I've never fallen in love before. This is just as new to me as it is to you. But Gods, Brienne, I cannot see any version of my future where you are absent. I would love you forever, if you'd only let me."
The doubt in her heart is slowly crumbling away, but she remains cautious. There is time for her to learn how to trust. She gives him a small, slightly tremulous smile, her eyes sparkling, and if not for their mutually aching bodies she would lean across the table to kiss him. Instead, they merely gaze at each other across the sparse distance, communicating as effectively without words, perhaps more so, than they ever have with them. Brienne's other hand clasps tightly over his.
Suddenly, her eye is drawn to the window on the other side of the room, and she rises from the chair with a reverent "Oh…" and makes her way towards the glass. Jaime turns in his seat, wincing slightly, to see what has attracted her attention.
"What is it?"
She clears the condensation from the panes with her sleeve.
"The sun is rising. It's morning."
With a great effort, Jaime forces himself out of the chair. He clutches his side for a moment, catching his breath, and steadies himself with the chair-back until the wave of pain subsides enough for him to straighten fully. Slowly, he makes his way across the room, coming up behind Brienne at the window.
The sky is still dark, but the blizzard has finally cleared; at the horizon, a telltale stripe of pale yellow light is slowly encroaching.
"I never thought I'd live to see the dawn," he says absently.
"I wasn't sure I would, either," admits Brienne.
They watch the sun rise in silence, as the sky paints itself in muted pinks and pale blues through a canopy of clouds still heavy with snow. The sun is an indistinct glow at the centre, gradually chasing away the darkness. They have both seen more beautiful and impressive sunrises, but they could not compare to a first light that almost never arrived.
Brienne traces a finger down the glass, pursuing a droplet of water in its path down the window. Lost in thought, she does not expect Jaime to move closer, his arms encircling her waist and his chest against her back. He rests his chin against her shoulder without having to stoop, their similar heights proving advantageous. For a second, Brienne freezes in surprise, but Jaime remains still, anticipating her reaction. The warmth of him is unexpectedly comforting, her nerves abating as she starts to relax, and she rests her arms against his where they sit across her stomach. As her right hand wraps around his empty wrist, she realises for the first time that the golden hand is missing.
Jaime shrugs, the movement jostling her. "I don't know, and I'm not interested in finding out. The damned thing just throws me off-balance, and I'm unsteady enough as it is."
"Good," she says. "You're better without it."
His arms tighten around her waist in gratitude and she hopes he understands the greater meaning of her words.
He plants a kiss to her shoulder, and although she cannot feel it, his breath is warm through the fabric of her tunic. After a second's deliberation, he presses his lips to the sensitive skin behind her ear, causing her to squirm; she feels his light chuckle more than she hears it, resonating down her spine. He nuzzles into her hair – still damp from her rudimentary wash with cold water and lye soap, but clean – and breathes her in.
She can feel his heart beating strong against her back, quickening with every kiss he peppers onto her skin, her complexion flushing in response. She is warm and content in his arms, almost forgetting the horrors of only a few short hours ago. There is no armour between them now, save the protective shell around her heart, and even that is slowly disintegrating as Jaime brands his affection into every bit of exposed skin he can reach.
His chin returns to her shoulder to watch the sunrise again, sighing contentedly. She is still wary, terrified of allowing herself to believe this is real. A part of her is half-convinced that she is dying on the battlefield, hallucinating as she bleeds out in Jaime's arms, the cold seeping into her bones, Podrick desperately fighting off an endless wave of wights to give her this one last moment of reprieve—
"I love you."
The words are a low whisper at her ear, a sharp reminder of Jaime's solid and very real presence behind her, and they find the ever-increasing cracks in the shield within her chest until she finally allows herself to believe them. The sensation is overwhelming, this sudden knowledge that she is loved, that she is his, and she utters something in response, barely conscious of the words, and Jaime tenses in surprise.
"What did you say?" he asks, a hopeful edge to his tone.
She tries to remember, realising that she had heard herself speak without fully acknowledging what she was saying, and has to pause for a moment to catch her breath. Her heart had spoken for her, more sensibly and courageously than she would ever have managed on her own.
"I said I…"
She needs to see him; needs to see his face. Turning in the circle of his arms, she presses her palms to his chest, feeling the erratic rhythm beneath his skin as her gaze locks to his. She should feel afraid, words catching in her throat and evaporating with a breath, but it seems like the simplest thing in the world now, to give this feeling life.
"I love you, too, Jaime. For as long as I can remember, there's been nobody but you."
He stares at her in astonishment for several long seconds, searching her face, and then finally he is kissing her: not the chaste first press of his mouth to hers in a draughty corridor in Winterfell, nor the desperate clash of her lips to his before the battle, but something tender and slow. His heartbeat kicks up a notch beneath her hands, running almost in sync with hers; her fingers clench in the fabric of his shirt to tug him closer and his arms tighten around her.
He lets her up for air, a little reluctantly, giving her only a moment's reprieve before leaning in again. She evades him, clinging to a final, desperate shred of clarity, as she reaches up to frame his face with her hands.
"I told you there'd be an after."
A/N: I did warn you about the softness. ;)
Hopefully now that this is out of my brain I can get back to finishing TTWD but, eh, we all know how well that'll go.