Author's Note: Written for the LiveJournal community GameOfShips Stark Naked challenge.
Jaime watches Sansa sitting on a large rock, absorbed as always in her needlework, a childhood activity which she claims to have resumed in earnest only since their betrothal. She must focus, must never lift her face to look at her new husband in the eyes when to do so would result in bloody needle pricks. Sansa's concentration is astounding. Her eyes have been downcast since their marriage ceremony a week ago, and she has no wounds on her fingertips. Jaime has never felt so alone.
"Will you not taste this fine venison stew?" says Jaime from his perch on a fallen tree. He waves the spoon enticingly before he pops the bite into his mouth. He did not spill any at all this time; perhaps his dexterity is improving. The stew is not, in fact, fine, cobbled together as it was by the servants who travel with them, but Sansa has not eaten since she broke her fast this morning.
Sansa's fingers pause and she speaks down to them. "Thank you, but I am not hungry, my lord." She resumes her stitching.
Jaime watches her for a moment longer, then stares off at the rolling foothills lumbering in the southwest. From his vantage point above the wooded valley, he inhales the brisk air that whispers through the pines surrounding the softly sloping hillock where they camp. Silvery clouds waft across a purple-red horizon. It will be dark soon. Time again to try and get his wife with child.
"She is likely frigid, perhaps barren," goaded Cersei on the morning of Jaime's wedding when she came to give him a cool kiss on the cheek, brazenly pressing her breasts into his doublet. "At least, I'm certain Tyrion never bedded her." Jaime waited until Cersei had swept, laughing, from the chamber to wipe his cheek with the back of his hand, realizing – and vowing – that she would never kiss him again, in earnest or in mockery.
When the Queen Regent wishes never to look upon someone's face, a trumped-up charge and a death sentence often can be the easiest way to dispose of the offending visage. But when the face belongs to the queen's twin brother and former lover, marriage will also suffice quite nicely. People may smirk behind their wine goblets, but Cersei's perverse command is how Jaime Lannister and Sansa Stark came to be married and journeying together in their small caravan along the Gold Road to Casterly Rock. "You rescued her. She's your puppy now," said Cersei, and Jaime had to agree that his sister had effectively killed two cubs with one arrow by wedding them. And so far Jaime's marriage, such as it was, was proving easier to manage than enduring Cersei's cold gaze every day, since everything unraveled with her. He cannot argue with rewriting history when it's something that never should have happened.
The marriage was easy enough to arrange. Cersei stripped Jaime of his knighthood, annulled Sansa's first marriage, and declared Tyrion dead – a detail which Jaime did not think was strictly necessary as no one knows for certain whether the dwarf lives or not. Cold fingers clutch his heart every time he imagines a world without his brother in it, so he tries not to. But of course whenever he tells himself not to think of Tyrion, he compulsively revisits his decision to tell him the truth about Tysha and curses himself for it. The horrified, helpless, enraged look on his brother's face still haunts his dreams. Even if Tyrion were still alive, things between them can never be mended. How does every honorable thing Jaime attempts so swiftly turn to shit?
Jaime finishes his stew and regards his wife. Sansa's nimble fingers thrust the needle through the fabric, down, up, down, up, over, down, up, down, up, over. He understands her need to escape. It must be easier for her to be somewhere else, even if it's only in the pastoral scene she stitches on her own lap. From time to time, like now, she stops, the needle resting between her first two fingers and thumb like a tiny sword pointed at herself, and she looks up – not at him, or at anything, but just … away. Her blue eyes are blank. Jaime wonders what happened to the girl who used to live behind those beautiful eyes.
Jaime groans as he spills his seed into Sansa, his face buried in her neck, her arms around his shoulders and knees hugging his ribs. He kisses her cheek as he slips out of her, but she turns away and tugs the furs over herself, pretending to want to sleep. He knows from her breathing that she doesn't sleep much. Lying on his back and trying to steady his own breath, he stares at the sloping roof of their pavilion as the wind whips it rhythmically. He idly strokes her creamy shoulder with backs of his fingers. She no longer pulls away from that small act of affection, which he sees as a good sign. But the ease with which she allowed him to bed her on their wedding night he took as a bad one. She will not speak of Petyr Baelish, but Jaime has his suspicions about Littlefinger's attentions to Sansa. He is not sorry he killed the man.
Though he dozes, the wind whipping their tent will make it a hard night for sleeping, Jaime can tell. He tries to let his mind relax and carry him into lucid dreams, something he used to do as a younger man when he was away from Cersei. Back then, his imagination always brought him to his sister's side, and he reveled in scenes of past and future lovemaking, the vows they'd made and would make to each other, every simple moment between them – as if anything was ever simple with Cersei. Now, likely as not, his mind tortures him with regrets of things he's done or, worse, left undone. But still, he goes there, because it's better than listening to Sansa pretending to sleep.
He closes his eyes and tells his mind to carry him away, away, and this time it is to somewhere new …
His hand, his real right hand, as in all his dreams, is still part of him. It's got a sword in it, and he slices a flat semicircle through the air toward Cersei's neck. But then the sword is gone, replaced by his hand striking Sansa across the face, and she falls to the ground, hands splayed, elbows akimbo, spine heaving. Horrified by what he's done, he kneels, reaching for her shoulder, but it's armor he touches and Brienne who raises her blue eyes to his. She grasps his hand and presses her warm, full lips to it, and he feels a strange relief, like absolution. He turns away and knows at once that it's Mother pulling against his hand, trying to keep him from running too closely along the edge of the cliffs jutting over the Sunset Sea. He turns and throws both arms around her, just catching a glimpse of her face before he buries his in her neck. But then it's Sansa again and she pushes him away as she takes his hand in hers and looks down at his palm. Something shiny glints in her fingers; and as she begins to stitch into the flesh at his wrist – right along the line where a man's hand might be severed from his arm, should he ever suffer that misfortune – she cries, and her tears tickle his hand where they drip onto it.
Jaime is awake. His missing hand is prickling, and Sansa is crying and whimpering next to him in her sleep. A wolf howls somewhere in the woods, not too far off. Jaime sits up on his elbow, wanting to comfort Sansa but not wishing to wake her, now that she finally sleeps. There is another howl. He'd better go and make certain the man on watch is awake. Leaving his golden hand where it lies next to his pillow, he wriggles into his breeches, a shirt, and boots before wrapping his heavy woolen traveling cloak around himself.
The watchman has a crossbow half-raised; he's heard the howling, too. When he sees Jaime he lowers the crossbow, quickly bows, and says, "My lord," before glancing down at Jaime's stump.
Jaime nods and walks past him across the dead grass, deliberately not tucking his mutilated arm away. They are his servants; they must get used to him as he is. All around him, domestics and guards slumber under furs, in wagons or on the ground as close to their small cookfires as they can. The wind is cold, and he pulls the hood of his cloak up. The forest below the small hill on which he stands looms darkly; only the wind makes any noise as it rustles the needles of the soldier pines. Stars make pinpricks of light in the velvety black sky, and a full moon throws Jaime's narrow shadow across the pale ground in front of him.
For some reason it seems right to kneel. Jaime sits back on his heels and watches the long, thin trees, their trunks made silver by the moonlight, swaying stiffly in the wind. He imagines the pines are an advancing army, just so he won't feel quite so lonely or useless. While he's at it, he imagines he has his hand again. And that his wife loves him.
Movement catches his eye. A fat, white creature waddles through the low bushes and scrub just at the edge of the woods. Jaime slowly and silently lowers himself to his elbows, lying flat on his stomach. Squinting, he sees it's an opossum, foraging; perhaps it's found some food scraps tossed down there by someone in their caravan. The animal's eyes gleam weirdly in the moonlight as it turns its pointed face toward him and sniffs the air, but he is downwind.
Jaime's heart lurches as suddenly a large grey shape streaks from the blackness of the forest, snatches up the opossum and shakes it, snapping its neck. The opossum dangles from the jaws of a wolf. No, not a wolf. Yes, a wolf, only … huge. Could it … can it be …?
"A direwolf," Jaime breathes, amazed. He flattens himself to the ground to watch it feed. The animal's foreleg muscles tense as it presses its paws down onto the opossum's head to stabilize it while it eviscerates the belly. Over the wind, Jaime just catches the sounds of the direwolf's jaws ripping apart the flesh and champing the bloody meat. The beast lowers itself to the ground, nosing into the carcass, tearing off great hunks of muscle and bone as it feeds. It is grisly work, and Jaime cannot help but imagine the scene at the Red Wedding; it is said that men chopped Robb Stark's head off his body and sewed his direwolf's head on in its place, nailing on the lad's crown in scorn. Everyone knew the Stark direwolves never left their masters; the mutilation was a gruesome parody of that unbreakable bond.
"What are you doing here?" he whispers. Direwolves live in the North. They never wander this far south, unless …
Arya Stark. Sansa's sister had a direwolf, hadn't she? Everyone knew she'd driven the she-wolf away to protect her from Cersei's justice after Joffrey was bitten. Jaime had no doubt that the animal was only protecting the Stark girl, but Joffrey himself was like a dog with a bone and would not rest until someone paid. It was Sansa's own direwolf that had paid the price, but where had Arya's gone? Could this be the very one?
Jaime slowly turns his head to look for the man on guard, but he is facing in the opposite direction, his crossbow still half-raised, searching in vain for the wolf whose howl they both heard. Oddly relieved that his discovery is his own, and that this magnificent creature is safe for now, Jaime turns back to watch, fascinated, until the she-wolf is sated and has begun to wander back into the forest, her lanky haunches undulating with each heavy step. Then he stands, shivering and with heart pounding, and goes back to the small pavilion he shares with his bride.
Thankfully, it's warmer inside out of the wind, and he shrugs off his cloak after shutting the canvas flap behind him. It takes a few moments for his eyes to adjust to the darkness as he feels his way to their makeshift bed and furs. Sansa sleeps quietly, facing him. Her skin is pale as alabaster in the dimness. As he settles in beside her, he sees that during her sleep she has clutched something to her breast, her fingers wrapped gently around it.
His golden hand.
"Wake up, Sansa."
The sun is not up yet, but it will be soon, along with everyone else in their caravan.
Sansa sits bolt upright, as if expecting some horror, though her voice is measured as always. "My lord."
"Get dressed. There's something I want to show you." If it's still there.
He turns his back to her to give her privacy as she shrugs dutifully into a traveling frock and cloak. Their servants still sleep, which is exactly what he wants; hopefully no one but the guard on duty is awake. He retrieves his golden hand and tucks it under his arm.
Sansa bends to pick up her needlework, but Jaime takes her elbow before she reaches it. "Come."
They exit the darkness of the tent into the grey stillness of pre-dawn. The wind is calm for the moment. Dew glistens on the dry grass beneath their feet, and the mountains in the distance are wreathed in mist, which softens their jagged peaks. Jaime greets the man taking the final night's shift on watch, a new one who looks like he could be the first one's cousin; this one keeps his sword sheathed at his side. Jaime steers Sansa through the cold campfires, and she must trot to keep up with him. She does not ask him where they go, or why. He wishes she would.
When they near the edge of the hill where he saw the direwolf, he beckons her to move slowly and quietly. They sit together, knees almost touching, Sansa on Jaime's left. It is cold, but the thrill of anticipation makes Jaime feel almost warm. The chances of seeing the she-wolf again are slim, Jaime knows, but he cannot help hoping.
He positions his golden hand over his stump and begins to tighten the straps. It is awkward, though he has improved and can do it alone, given time. The muscles of his right forearm have atrophied, now that he has no fingers to flex and can no longer grip the heavy weight of his sword. His forearm looks as it did when he was a boy, skinny and innocent.
Sansa watches his efforts, her expression revealing nothing. But soon she leans forward and places a hesitant hand on the strap he's tightening. "May I, my lord?"
He rests his good hand on his knee and looks into her face, wanting to give her a smile of thanks, but she will not return his gaze. She immediately begins working on the straps, fitting them snugly around his forearm as if she's done this before. An image explodes into his mind from his dream last night – Sansa crying while she stitched his hand to his wrist – and his face flushes like a schoolboy's. "Thank you," he says, more curtly than he intended. He wants her to stop calling him "my lord" and to call him Jaime, but he cannot bring himself to ask it of her. Instead he says, as gently as he can, "Tell me about your sister."
Sansa inhales sharply and looks directly at him, and he is shocked by the intensity of her gaze. But she quickly looks down again to finish the final strap, and she speaks in a low, cool voice. "Why do you ask, my lord?"
Why indeed? "I am … curious." When she does not reply, he asks, "Have I upset you?"
Sansa lifts her chin and looks into the forest. "Not at all, my lord."
She sighs and blinks several times. "It's only … I dreamed of Arya last night." Was that why she was crying in her sleep? Jaime places his good hand over the golden one on his lap and waits. With nowhere to look but into the forest or at him, Sansa practically squirms. Possibly to fill the silence, she continues. "I heard her calling me, but I couldn't reach her. I couldn't even see her. She was alone. I had … I had her sword. I was supposed to protect her." She frowns down at the hands in her lap, and rubs her thumbs across her fingers as if feeling something invisible there. A wrinkle forms between her eyebrows.
This is the most Sansa has said to Jaime during the entire seven days of their marriage. He wants her to keep talking. "You care for her."
She nods, pressing her lips together but still not meeting his eyes. The sun is not up yet, but the promise of light is slowly bringing color into the world again. A gust of wind blows Sansa's unbraided hair behind her like a banner of fire.
Jaime waits, but she does not go on. "I was supposed to protect my brother, too," he says, and he cannot quite believe those words have just come out of his mouth, but it's too late to take them back. He might as well admit it to someone. "I don't think I did a very good job of it."
Sansa is looking into the woods again, but she lowers her gaze slightly in his direction, and Jaime feels that she is somehow more with him than she's ever been. He keeps talking. "We're very different, Tyrion and I." Sansa's cheeks redden, and he reminds himself that she was Tyrion's wife, too. They have never spoken of him, but Jaime thinks now that they should. "He was kind to you?"
Sansa's flush deepens and she darts her eyes briefly to the front of Jaime's cloak. "Most kind."
I can be kind, too. "I am glad of it."
Jaime believes that Tyrion didn't force himself on Sansa. And if Littlefinger hadn't ruined her, perhaps Jaime wouldn't have expected to bed her, either. Not at first, anyhow. She is still so very young; and though she is courageous, it is the defensive strength of one who has been wounded too many times. But at their wedding they'd both had too much wine, and Cersei had raised a glass and toasted them with barbed words more times than Jaime cared to count. So, when the wedding revelers had shoved them naked into their bedchamber and slammed the door behind them, they'd reached for each other as if there was some sort of salvation to be found in each other's arms.
"Arya and I are very different, too," says Sansa, and for once the deliberate quality in her voice is replaced by something else – sadness, possibly, perhaps even regret. Jaime cannot fully qualify it yet, but he makes note of it all the same. "She would have preferred to be a knight, I think."
Jaime thinks of Brienne, and a pang of emotion tightens his chest. "Knighthood isn't everything they tell you it is."
Her gaze flickers to his for a split second and she stammers, "I – I am sorry, my lord. I didn't intend to mention – "
She thinks I speak of myself, of the loss of my white cloak. "It's all right. Go on."
They sit in silence until the redness leaves Sansa's cheeks. "I always wanted to be a lady. Even a queen." Her gaze drops to her hands again, her expression darkening, and her tone is bitter. "Someone beautiful and good and important."
Jaime does not know what to say about Joffrey. It must be true, what he'd heard about how the boy had abused Sansa. He shoves aside thoughts of his son and swiftly regroups. "I have learned over the years that beauty and goodness and importance are relative. And only sometimes are they perceived properly by the eye of the beholder."
Sansa opens her mouth to speak, but closes it again. They are quiet for a time. Finally she asks, "Do you think your brother is alive?"
Jaime looks hard into Sansa's placid face as she gazes into the forest. "I truly hope he is." He swallows. "He must be." He has to be. "With his wit, I think he is too cantankerous to die. I like to imagine that only a wordsmith greater than Tyrion himself could do him in. Mortally wounded by sharp, pointed words."
Sansa smiles at that, but then the smile falters as she juts her head forward and narrows her eyes. Jaime follows her gaze and sees a flank of grey through the trees. Unable to believe their luck, he touches Sansa's arm and gestures her to follow as he flattens himself to the ground. She mimics his position, her hands fisting the dry grass just beneath her shoulders.
And then the direwolf appears. She saunters just past the edge of the treeline and sits, licking her chops and sniffing the air. Jaime's heart begins to pound, just as it did last night.
Sansa whispers, "Nymeria. " Then she leaps to her feet with a tremulous voice. "Nymeria!"
Jaime stands with her, his heart swelling with gratification that the creature returned. He hadn't known how much he'd needed the direwolf to show herself to Sansa until it happened. Sansa's face seems about to split from the huge grin on it, and she reaches out with her right hand until she finds Jaime's left shoulder. She grips it hard. Jaime places his hand on top of hers and squeezes. Aside from their wedding night, it's the first time she has touched him without thinking about it first, and he finds himself grinning, too.
The direwolf has not bounded away yet; she seems to be waiting for something. She reaches out with her forepaws and yawns and stretches, haunches in the air. Then she stands on all four feet and yips several times in Sansa's direction before turning and disappearing back into the trees.
Sansa looks at Jaime and smiles, her blue eyes alive for the first time; and it seems that, at that very moment, the sun rises over the horizon and bathes both of them in golden light. He smiles back and grasps her hand, squeezes it, and takes a step toward the forest, never taking his eyes off her. Her smile broadens and she nods.
Hand in hand, they run together after the direwolf.
Under the dim canopy of the trees, they follow the beast as she leaps over fallen trees and protruding roots, rustling through the pine needles and startling squirrels and birds from their foraging. The forest is alive with movement and sound, and the crisp morning air sears their lungs as they race after the direwolf. Jaime has a moment of panic as he remembers his sword is still in their tent; the she-wolf could turn and attack at any second and they would be defenseless. But what sort of protection could he offer Sansa anyhow with his left arm? His fear subsides, however, as he realizes the wolf only wants to escape, and they have already lost sight of her.
They slow to a walk, their heavy breathing making puffs of vapor in the sharp morning air. Sansa is still gripping his hand. "She lives." Sansa laughs, a burst of happy surprise and certainty. "She lives!" Her laughter rings through the forest as she sinks to her knees on a bed of needles and pine cones; Jaime kneels with her, still holding her hand. "Arya lives, she lives, she lives, she lives!" Now her breath is hitching as tears begin to run down her face, and all at once she is sobbing. "She lives!" Jaime gathers Sansa into his arms and pulls her roughly to his chest. "She lives! My sister – my sister – "
Jaime strokes his bride's hair and rocks her in his lap for a long while until her tears cease. He is surprised by how deeply her tears move him, and by how grateful he is to feel useful to her – and needed by her – at last. Somehow he doesn't doubt that Sansa is right, that Nymeria's existence means that Arya must be alive, somewhere. He feels a jolt of sorrow that Sansa's own direwolf was killed, and by his own blood. He squeezes her more tightly; Sansa may have lost her direwolf, but now she has a lion.
Birds chirp all around them, and soon the fresh scent of tree resin is joined by the savory smell of cookfires roasting rabbit and fowl and squirrel. When their servants go to their pavilion, they will be missed. Jaime does not want to let go, but he disengages an inch from their embrace and, with a finger, tilts Sansa's face up to his. He wipes the tears from her cheeks and smiles, then places a tender kiss on her lips. He is about to rise and pull her up with him, but she wraps her arms around his neck and kisses him soundly. After a moment his arms snake around her waist and he surrenders to her gratitude, her passion. Intertwined like this, he feels happier than he has felt in months, and he does not want this kiss to end.
But soon they hear the shouts of servants searching for their lord and lady. Reluctantly, Jaime gives Sansa one last kiss and stands, offering his hand for her to rise.
She takes his hand and looks over his shoulder to the campsite. "I suppose we must return, my lord."
Is that disappointment in her voice? "Will you not call me Jaime?"
She flushes but nods, her eyes still shining and meeting his with confidence. "Jaime."
With that single word, something he hadn't even known was torn inside his heart mends. He smiles. "Shall we, Sansa?"
She takes his offered arm and they walk slowly back to the camp, their eyes on each other the entire journey.