At the Close of a Winter Day

"Autumn arrives in early morning, but spring at the close of a winter day." – Elizabeth Bowen

Four times Brienne didn't kiss Jaime and one time he kissed her.

One

Brienne prefers in when they are tied back to back because she can feel the warmth of his fever-ridden body without having to see the pain and misery in his eyes. She has never been so frightened for so long as she has been since she and the Kingslayer had been captured by the Bloody Mummers. She had though that, somehow, it would work out until she saw Jaime's hand disappearing behind Zollo's sword. Even after Renly's murder, it has not seemed possible that something as awful as this could truly happen to her.

She wonders if the Kingslayer feels the same way. She imagines that he must. It seems impossible that the man she is bound to is the same one who called her "wench" and threw back his head in careless laughter. She wonders if that man is gone forever and is surprised that, at least half the time, she hopes not. That man was an arrogant, oathbreaking, sister-defiling, would-be child murderer, but she cannot help but feel that he would have been able to save them. Even she cannot deny that the Kingslayer is as brave as any hero from a song and has earned his reputation as a soldier.

She can feel the strength that was once in his body and the well-developed muscle as he moves with the rocking of the horse's gait; it makes a strange contrast to the slump of his back and the lolling of his head. Sometimes, when they are tied back to back, she feels the ropes tighten against her as he lurches forward and she is afraid that he has died. Died before they can fulfill their promises to Lady Catelyn; died before he can take revenge; died and left her completely alone.

She does not know if it is at all likely that he will recover; she has never been around such suffering. If only he hadn't been so stubborn about the sword, she thinks. It is odd to think that she may be the last person ever to battle the Kingslayer; odder still to think that she hopes it is not so.

She does not like the man, handsome and skilled with a blade though he had been, but she does not want him dead. Not like this. Men like the Kingslayer should die in battle, cut down by the righteous. He should not die bound, delirious, and frightened. Surely the Seven will not allow it.

Sometimes, when he is on the cusp of fainting, something in his face reminds Brienne of a child's – open and defenseless, with green eyes wide and panicky. At first, she wonders if he is afraid of not waking up again when he feels unconsciousness coming upon him. Later, she wonders if it is the waking that he fears.

Early one morning, they tie them face to face, laughing, and call them "the lovers." She looks at his face, trying to drown out the noise of the Bloody Mummers. I will survive this, she thinks, and one day they'll be sorry. Jaime's eyes flick open as the horse begins to move and, for a minute, he seems alert enough to understand her.

"I swore to get you to King's Landing," she whispers. "I still mean to keep my word."

"There's a relief, wench," he says, his voice filled with too much pain to tell if he is sincere or not. Brienne doubts that he is and, for once, she cannot blame him.

His eyes close again and he slumps against her, his chest pressing into her breasts and his hips rocking against hers with the movement of the horse. It is the closest she has ever been to a man. Close enough to kiss, she thinks absurdly before turning her head to try to avoid the stench of his rotting hand.

Two

If there is one thing about which Brienne of Tarth is certain, it is that she is not the sort of woman that men dream about. She does not know what Ser Jaime could have meant by claiming to have returned for her because he had dreamed of her. She has spent enough time with the man to know when his tone is mocking and he had sounded as sincere as she had ever heard him. He hadn't even laughed.

She wishes that he had claimed to be repaying a debt, as he had when she had thanked him for stopping the Bloody Mummers from raping her. That she could have understood; she knows that the Lannisters are famous for their dislike of owing anyone anything. It is a feeling that she understands; she is uncomfortable feeling that she owes the Kingslayer.

As a child, one of her favorite songs had been about a brave knight who fought a dragon and a wicked king to save a beautiful maiden. When both beast and king were finally slain, the maid had thanked the knight and asked how she might ever repay him for rescuing her. The knight had taken her hand and told her that if she would but kiss him, it was he who would be in her debt. Of course, in the song, she kissed him right there, while they were still standing over the body of the evil king.

She wonders what it would be like to kiss Jaime Lannister and she feels a strange pull low in her stomach before she pushes the thought away. The ending had always been her least favorite part of the song. She had liked the parts about fighting the dragon best – she used to act out the battle alone with a stick for a blade and a haystack for the dragon. She had never once pretended to be the maiden rescued. Just as well, she thinks, because she cannot imagine that there is a debt in the world that would be repaid by a kiss from her.

Ser Jaime himself wanders over to where she is sitting, apart from the men, and distracts her from her thoughts. He is holding something bunched up in his left hand and she notices that the cut above his eye finally seems to be healing. Brienne stands up, still favoring one of her legs, and stares down at his boots.

"I can't tell which is uglier, you or that dress," he says.

She looks up at him then, but she doesn't say anything. He sighs.

"Here," he says, tossing her something.

She raises up a hand to catch it automatically and realizes that it is a pair of breeches. "These were found nearby," he says. "Maybe if you promise not to be so sullen you can convince one of these charming Northmen to lend you a shirt."

"I doubt it," Brienne says gloomily; she does not know what else to say.

"I do too," Ser Jaime says cheerfully. "Perhaps we'll be lucky enough to come across a giant's corpse and you can have his clothes." She still doesn't respond and he sighs again. "I will ask them to keep an eye out for more men's clothing so that we can all be spared the vision of you in lace."

"Thank you," she says sourly. "I hate pink."

He raises his eyebrows and smirks at her and, just for a moment, she wishes that her kisses were worth something.

Three

"Why did you hit him?" she asks again, scowling. If she had ever thought about it, Brienne would have guessed that Hyle Hunt and Jaime Lannister would get along well enough as traveling companions. However, Jaime seemed to have decided to dislike Hyle as quickly as Pod had decided to count the Kingslayer among his heroes. Hyle, for his part, seemed to resent the way Jaime assumed that the other man would follow his lead and resentful of Jaime's role in Lady Stoneheart's attempts to hang them. Still, both men are fond of passing time through conversation and she had thought that they had reached an accord of some kind in the weeks since they had escaped.

"What do you care if I hit him? Sometimes men hit people," he says with a shrug. Madness, she thinks. They are only four moving through the wild and there is no time for or sense in disagreements.

"Only fools attack their traveling companions," She says,

"Is that so," he drawls.

"Jaime," she says, voice harsh.

He shrugs again. "He talks too much."

"You talk too much," Brienne points out.

He flashes a grin at her. "Such a sweet lady," he says mockingly before going to check on his horse. Brienne knows that he only smiles that way when he wishes to avoid a conversation; she wonders idly when she became so well acquainted with his expressions.

She watches, mildly annoyed, as Jaime bends to whisper something to Pod, who had been standing transfixed with a hand on Brienne's mount's neck. The boy's eyes widen slightly and he nods before dashing off into the trees.

"Firewood," Jaime says innocently in response to Brienne's glare. "It's getting cold in these woods."

She stands still for a minute before deciding to follow after the squire. She finds Pod trying to balance an awkwardly large bundle of sticks. Wordlessly, she takes some of the wood from him and bundles it under her own larger arm.

"Thank you," he says. His voice is still raspy and the bruising on his neck is not healing as quickly as Brienne would have hoped. She nods at him. They have fallen into a routine of making camp, she, Jaime, Hyle and Pod. They work well enough together, most of the time, and usually Brienne is too tired to think how strange it to be traveling with both Jaime and Hyle again. Fortunately, she is also usually too tired to think of the enormity of the task ahead of them, or of the broken vows and strong enemies behind them.

She had been scouting the surrounding area while Jaime and Hyle made camp and she had returned to the small clearing just in time to see Hyle stand up, spit blood onto Jaime's tunic, and storm off into the trees.

"Did you see what took place between Ser Jaime and Ser Hyle, Pod?" She asks.

"Yes, my lady," he says.

"I hope that you understand that, whatever was said, Ser Jaime's reaction was inappropriate under these circumstances." She may as well try to teach the boy something while she gathers information; unchecked, he is like to think anything Jaime does is worth emulating.

"My lady," Pod says.

Brienne frowns. Usually Pod is quick to agree with her judgments.

"What happened? Are they arguing over the Brotherhood again? Do they still disagree about the Vale?" She needs to know if there is to be any trouble.

"No, my lady," Pod says quickly.

"They were talking happily enough when I left," Brienne says. They had both been reminiscing about some tavern or other and Brienne had found the conversation irritating and had left to avoid their attempts to involve her in the discussion.

"Yes, my lady," Pod says.

"What was said after I left, Pod?" Brienne ask firmly, tired of his attempts at evasion.

Pod blushes. "Ser Hyle said that, despite her size, he heard that Fay Jeyne, the tavern keeper's daughter, was as good a-"

"What specifically led Ser Jaime to strike Ser Hyle?" Brienne interrupts quickly. She has no desire to learn more about Fat Jeyne's reported charms.

Pod looks down, shuffling his feet. "Ser Jaime asked Ser Hyle how he first met you."

Brienne feels a wave of mortification. "And?" she prompts, her voice still calm.

"And Ser Hyle told him. About….about….the game they played."

"Pod," Brienne says, humiliation intensifying her irritation with boy. "I asked you to tell me what led Ser Jaime to hit Ser Hyle. I do not care for their conversations about tavern whores or ale or bets. Do you understand?"

"Yes, my lady," Pod says. She stares at him expectantly and he nervously begins again. "Ser Hyle told Ser Jaime about the bet and-"

"Pod!" Brienne barks. Why can't the boy just tell the relevant part of the story without recounting the whole conversation? She hates the idea of the two men laughing about her together and she does not want to hear any more about it.

"And then Ser Jaime hit him," Pod interjects quickly.

"What?" She asks, confused.

"I don't think Ser Hyle meant to be disrespectful," Pod says, still talking quickly. "He said he met you because of the bet and then Ser Jaime just hit him. Right across the face and he fell down, just like that! And then Ser Jaime said…" the boy trails off.

"He said?" Brienne prompts. The story makes no sense to her and she is determined to have the truth from the boy.

"Well, Ser Jaime doesn't like people talking about you like that," Pod says, as if this is common knowledge. "Even if Ser Hyle didn't mean no disres-"

"Disrespect," Brienne finishes for him. "Thank you, Pod. I'll bring this wood back to the clearing. Go and see if there is any chance of catching fish in that stream over there."

"Yes, my lady," he says, looking relieved and passing his pile of wood to her. She thinks that there must be a part of the story that the squire had missed. She believes that Hyle meant no disrespect, but she seriously doubts whether Jaime would have cared enough either way to hit him. She turns and walks back to the clearing to find Jaime at already circling rocks into a makeshift fire pit. There is still no sign of Hyle.

"Pod is under the impression that you and Hyle had a disagreement about me," she says. She wishes she could just ignore the whole mess, but they are too small a group to have anger and uncertainty overshadowing their efforts. She must find out what the real reason for the argument between the two men. She imagines Jaime will mock her for presuming even for a second that he and Hyle would bother to fight about her, but she is tired and she imagines she will have the truth faster if she provokes him.

"We did," Jaime says simply. "What of it?"

"We should not fight amongst ourselves," Brienne says, her eyes going wide in shock.

"He should not have treated you so," Jaime replies. This time, his expression is not one she recognizes.

For an instant, she wants nothing so much as to kiss him. For an instant, she is almost sure that he would not push her away in disgust if she did. She takes a step forward, but then Pod returns to the clearing. He has a fish in his hand, and announces that Hyle is on his way with another. She shakes her head and looks away from Jaime.

When Hyle appears, he hands the fish that he holds wordlessly to Pod and goes to stand directly in front of Jaime. Brienne tenses, afraid that she will need to break up a fight. She cannot imagine that Hyle will let such a blow go unanswered.

The two men stare at each other for several long minutes before Hyle finally speaks. "Forgive me, ser. It is not the first time that I have misunderstood a situation and acted wrongly."

Jaime nods. "As long as you understand now," he says and Hyle nods. Jaime grins. "My tunic is so dirty already a little more blood makes no difference," he says gesturing down where Hyle had spat at him, his voice friendly again.

To Brienne's astonishment, Hyle returns the smile. "You have a fearful left-hand blow," he says.

Jaime laughs. "I do well enough for a cripple," he says. Then they are both laughing as Pod moves forward to start a fire, beaming. Brienne thinks that, no matter how much time she spends among them, there are some things about men that she will never understand.

Four

Sometimes, the nights are so cold that Brienne is afraid. The darkness seems endless and the hours of sunlight short and not enough to truly warm her. She had said as much to Jaime one morning, when her fingers ached from the difficulty of bending them, and he had nodded.

"It's not even full winter yet," he had said. "My brother once told me that he read that, in the worst winters, there used to be days when the sun never rose at all."

"Stories are often wrong," Brienne had said, not wanting to think about a world where it was never day.

Jaime had laughed. "For once, I would be glad of it," he had replied.

They have found an inn tonight, and, though there had been no room inside, she and Jaime had managed to convince the innkeeper to let them sleep in the loft above the barn. The inn, The Dancing Bear, had been a good one at one time and the loft turns out to be much more like a room than Brienne had expected. She had been pathetically grateful to see that there was a crude stone hearth for a fire and a hole in the roof to let the smoke out. The fire is small and the whole place reeks of horses and pigs, but there are two straw pallets and a few scattered furs to add to the ones that they own.

They are journeying though the Riverlands again, trying to fall back in line with Jaime's army. As she lies in the darkness, she prays that Pod and Hyle and the Stark girl are warm and safe. She is not sure that she still believes in the Gods any more than Jaime, but she prays all the same.

She does not know how long she has been lying half-asleep when the fire dies. She glances across to where Jaime is lying, but he doesn't seem to be moving. Only she is foolish enough to waste what little time they have to rest on prayers and fears, it seems. She bundles her furs around her and shuffles toward the hearth. It takes her several tries to start the flames again, but finally she is sure that she has managed to set a fire strong enough to burn for a few more hours at least. She shivers, hunching down farther into her furs.

When she turns around, she sees that Jaime is awake, his legs drawn up against his body and his shoulders shaking as much as hers. He does not say anything, but, as she watches, he deliberately straightens his body and holds up the furs that he has tucked around him. His eyes do not leave hers, and, for once, she understands exactly what he means.

She kneels down beside him and then carefully eases her body into his, pulling her furs around them. She can feel his warmth against her back and she tenses as he presses against her, trying to share as much of her body heat as possible. He shifts so that his left arm is draping over her – he has nowhere else to put it, she supposes – and she turns slightly. She does not know why, but somehow it seemed important to see his face again. She does not think she can relax otherwise. His eyes are half-lidded and he looks more than half-asleep despite the temperature.

"Jaime?" She whispers.

"Cold," he mutters. "Too cold to worry about your maidenly fears. You're safe. Should have done this before. Warmer."

His eyes close again. She is not worried – she knows she is safe sleeping beside him. She has done it often enough. She studies his face in the dim glow of the fire and, for the first time, allows herself to wish that she was not safe around him. She can feel his heart beating though the layers of clothing and she wonders what it would feel like without the furs and linen separating them. I could kiss him, she thinks. Maybe he would kiss me back. Maybe then I wouldn't be so afraid of the cold and the dark.

But he is asleep again and she does not have the nerve. She turns away, curling so that she can fit her larger body against his. She relaxes against him and closes her eyes. It's not enough, she thinks, but, for a little while, she is as warm as she has ever been.

Five

Brienne stays sitting beside the body even though she can hear the sounds of the fighting raging on outside of the cave. She knows she should get up to help - she has made her choice and there is nothing to be gained by weeping like a child beside the dead woman. In the end, it had not even been difficult. Her sword had cut through Lady Catelyn's flesh just as easily as it had cut through the flesh of her sworn enemies. In the end, her honor had been no harder to slice through than anyone else's.

She is jarred from her reverie by the clatter of a horse's hooves on the stone floor of the cave. She automatically stands at the noise, lifting Oathkeeper from her lap in one fluid motion as she rises. She lowers the blade when she sees that it is only Jaime and steps in front of the body on the floor, unsure what to say. She notes that he has lost his helm in the fighting and is covered in blood. Not his, she thinks as he dismounts with ease and begins to walk slowly toward her.

She notices that his eyes move up and down her body, checking for injury, and then fix on the crumpled form on the cave floor behind her. She squares her shoulders and raises her chin. I had to, she thinks. You know me. You know I wouldn't have done this if I didn't have to.

Neither of them speaks as he walks to stand directly in front of her. Brienne is overcome with an urge to grab his arm and tell him that she is still the same woman that she was before. She still believes in honor and oaths and in doing what is right. She wants to tell him that Lady Stoneheart wasn't really Lady Catelyn and that she hadn't truly broken a vow. However, she knows that words would be pointless; she may say whatever she likes, but all that anyone else will ever say is that Lady Stark was finally killed by her sworn sword, Brienne the Beauty. She keeps her arms close to her sides, the fingers of her right hand clenching and unclenching on Oathkeeper's hilt.

"You killed Catelyn Stark," he finally states. "Lady Stoneheart."

"Yes," she agrees, her voice strong and her gaze steady.

"Good," he says slowly. "Someone had to."

"I know," she says.

He reaches out to grab her shoulder and she wills him not to say anything in praise of her actions. She couldn't bear it. But he doesn't – he just stares at her, green eyes unfathomable.

On any other day, she would have dropped her gaze. But today is different. She is different. She remembers that day at Harrenhal, after he had told her about Aerys, when he had yelled at her to kiss him or curse him or do something. Though she is not brave enough to throw his words back him, however much she wants to, she will not flinch away from his gaze and she will not say anything to seek his approval for her actions. She thinks of how warm the water had been that day in Harrenhal, when he had told her the truth and the steam had curled up around his shoulders…

She registers the change in his face before he moves – his eyes seem to darken and his mouth parts slightly, the way it does when he is about to fight. She is just wondering what he had seen in her face to cause such a change when his hand moves from her shoulder to the back of her head and he pulls her against him with nearly enough strength to cause them both to overbalance.

Then his mouth is on hers, hot and insistent. She has little experience with kissing, but it is not the sort of kiss that requires practice. It is desperate and celebratory at the same time and nothing like any kiss Brienne has ever heard about in a song. As his beard scratches her chin her and her large hands roam his body, she thinks that it is better than a kiss in song because it is happening to her.

He finally pulls his mouth away and Brienne tenses, thinking that he will let her go. He doesn't. His stump rests in small of her back and his hand stays tangled in her hair. She cannot feel the warmth of his body through their armor, but sweat makes his forehead seem slippery against hers.

"Jaime…." Brienne says breathlessly. "We should tell them that their leader is slain." She relieved that she is still able to talk sense. "All those who throw down their arms should be spared." She expects him to chide her for not leaving the cave to share this news sooner or to mock her for becoming an oathbreaker.

"Yes," he says. "Brienne…We don't have to…If you don't wish it to be known that it was you…"

"It was me," she says. "I will own my deeds, ser."

He seems unfazed by the sudden brusqueness and moves his hand to cup her cheek. "All of them, my lady?" he asks.

She can't meet his eyes any longer and her gaze drops to his mouth. "All of them," she says softly.

"I am glad of it," he says, slowly letting her go and bending down over the body. "It should be you that tells them, then. Shows them," he says, his voice matter of fact.

She nods and stoops to pick up the head with the same hand in which she holds Oathkeeper. Her fingers coil in the once auburn hair and she wishes for a brief instant that she could let Jaime take the blame and the praise for Lady Stoneheart's final death. Killed with Ned Stark's own steel, she thinks. She sheathes the sword; she knows it is dangerous, but it does not feel right to carry it in this moment.

Jaime stands up beside her, and she is surprised when he takes her hand in his and even more surprised when she finds herself squeezing his gauntleted fingers in thanks. Wordlessly, they walk to the mouth of the cave. It is twilight and Jaime's men look tired, but the fighting is clearly going in their direction and the remaining members of the Brotherhood Without Banners are fighting desperately.

Holding the head high, Brienne takes a deep breath and yells in her best battle voice, "Lady Stoneheart, she who once was Catelyn Stark, is slain! Lady Stark is dead! Lay down your arms! Stop fighting and you shall not be harmed!"

Her voice carries, stronger than she ever thought possible, and she is amazed to see that many of the men seem to be doing as she says.

"Tarth!" yells one of the Lannister men in triumph.

"Lady Brienne!" screams another.

"Wolfhunter!" still another calls.

Brienne concentrates on keeping her face still as others pick up the cry of "Brienne the Wolfhunter." She had never thought it would be possible for her to miss being called "Brienne the Beauty." She lets Lady Catelyn's head fall the ground, her ruined face staring unseeing up at the falling snow. We will have to burn the body just to be sure, she thinks.

She looks back into the darkness of the cave as Jaime's men continue cheer the victory. Winter is coming, she thinks sadly. But perhaps it will not fall as hard on me as it did on you, my lady. She feels a pang of guilt at the thought, but it is too late to go back; she is not the girl who swore loyalty to Catelyn Stark and longed with her whole heart for chivalry and honor. Now she is a woman who does what is necessary and fights with everything in her for what she loves. She turns resolutely away from the cave and smiles uneasily at Jaime. He grins back at her and it is only then that she realizes that his fingers are still curled around hers.