2: The Black Mountains
Post-Apocalyptic Modern AU. Chapter 1 is here.
The last thing his right eye ever saw was Brienne.
In that eye she is shouting. Of course he couldn’t hear her at the time over the jeers of the Bloody Mummers tying him to the table. Their laughter had been right up against his ears and the sound of it drowned out everything else in that abandoned mall. The image is soundless: her mouth is just open, her throat pushing out a word that looks like No. Her blue eyes are also open wide, both frightened and angry, a righteous fury that came to him as a surprise, at the time.
She is a still image that resides in the abandoned nerves to that empty eye socket. If he cares to, he can still see her there, superimposed over everything.
She hovers over The Spider’s right shoulder just now. Still saying No.
He tries to focus on the Spider’s face instead. Varys raises one perfectly sculpted eyebrow on his immaculate bald head.
“You can’t shoot anymore. Not like before, not with one eye. You know this.”
“I don’t mean to shoot.” Jaime shows his palms. “I have two hands still. I need a weapon I won’t have to aim.”
Varys measures this statement. He is a man who deals in knowledge more than goods, but he has an armed guard, and a collection of interesting weapons. Both for his own protection, and for use in acquiring the most valuable intel.
“In that case,” the Spider presses a button on the trailer wall. To one of the bikers, a large man with a burnt face who looks in the door in response to his call, he instructs, “bring me the Widow’s Wail.”
The same scarred man reappears with a comically oversized weapon in his hands. Turns out Widow’s Wail is an axe. It is a huge, two-handed, double-bladed axe and when the burnt biker hands it to Jaime his hands dip with the weight.
Axes, Brienne used to tell him, are the best weapon for killing Others. You don’t need to reload an axe. It can’t jam, doesn’t recoil. Simple and effective.
Messy though, he had said back. He had always preferred his rifle -- clean and fast, one shot and done, and hopefully at a distance. The Others would fall down like carnival targets, one after another, and his favorite jacket would remain spotless. But after they took his eye, he had needed a new weapon, and his jacket was long-ruined by then.
This is messy work, she had replied.
Now, he lifts the weapon, turns it one way and another. Both edges gleam in the fluorescent light. This axe has been sharpened recently. It is spotless. This weapon has never seen battle.
“It’s new,” Varys fills in immediately, “but it was designed to kill Others. Old valyrian steel, made the old way. We haven’t yet had opportunity to test it, but it will strike true.”
Jaime doesn’t ask how Varys would be able to make a valyrian steel weapon. Knowing how is what he does.
The Spider watches him curiously. “Are we square then, Slayer?”
“Almost.” He sits again, crosses the long weapon over his lap with both fists grasping it tightly. “Where did it happen?”
“In the North. What exactly happened is unclear even to me, but we know for certain she had traveled north with a small gang. There are reports of her at Winterfell, and then she went with Snow and a small band of Starks beyond the Black Mountains. They returned without her.”
Jaime nods shortly. “Winterfell, then the wilds.”
The Spider frowns. He is perhaps a little perplexed by this conversation, or by Jaime himself. He likes to think he knows people, knows how they will react. But recent years have made a different man of Jaime Lannister. The fall of King’s Landing, his father’s death, the business with Cersei -- after all that, the arrogant and impetuous adventurer of his younger days is long gone. He is a ghost of himself, and the Spider doesn’t know what this ghost will do. He doesn’t like that.
He sits up a little bit straighter on his couch. “Then it isn’t our local outbreak you intend to fight? I expected you would be nearby. Kill some Others, burn off some steam, and incidentally clear out some of the infestation in the Riverlands, which would be convenient for me. But you aren’t doing that, are you? You mean to follow her? To what purpose?”
Jaime’s eye flickers briefly right. “Hunting.”
“It will be pointless to mount a rescue mission, I assure you.”
“That isn’t the point.”
Their eyes meet for a moment. Jaime isn’t about to elaborate on his intentions, and Varys is visibly frustrated. His silky tones shorten, revealing something sharp beneath.
“I ought to stop you. You have brought order to the Westerlands, and you’re starting to bring it here too. Alliances, patrols for the roads. Your brother, clever as he is, did not do that. If you abandon these lands, it may all fall apart.”
Jaime feels a flicker of guilt for that, but it is quickly doused by everything else happening inside him. No, this is important. Maybe the most important thing he has ever done.
He shrugs stiffly. “If it falls apart without me, it was too fragile to last.”
“You’ll need more than an axe and your motorbike to make that journey. You have favors to trade, certainly,” Varys cuts him off before he can argue, “but not that many. The scouting party went beyond the Black Mountains, across them, into the far North. There are few enough waystations on the way to Winterfell, and everything North of Winterfell belongs to the Others. There will be no shelters for you along the way, no refuges, no refueling.”
Jaime is unconcerned. “If she made it there, then I can too.”
“The Blue Angel had a party of supporters, specialists. She would have been outfitted with the best supplies and equipment. She was welcomed everywhere she went, and at the peak of her powers. No offense, Slayer, but you are past your prime, and your powers lately end at the borders of Lannister territory.”
He smiles thinly as he stands. “I didn’t know you cared, Spider. Thanks for the weapon. We’re square.”
Jaime takes the axe outside, and stands staring up at the moon, while the bikers retrieve his motorbike.
Anytime he looks at the moon, anytime there is a moon, he thinks of her. Remembers how they had looked on it together, during those long nights on the road, even though they had parted years ago now. Her on to glory, him back to the arms of his family. They delivered the girls to Winterfell, and he left her to the Kingsroad. It was her territory after that, what once had been his. She had earned it in sweat and tears and blood. She tended it well without him. He had gloried in tales of her exploits.
Whenever he looks at the moon, he has always wondered if she is looking too. Wherever she is.
He thinks he will not be able to look at the moon anymore.
When he turns his head, Varys stands on the steps of his trailer, his bald head gleaming against the fluorescent light. Jaime has never seen him outside his trailer. It’s confusing, a little like seeing a penguin in the jungle.
“The Others of the Black Mountains are different,” The Spider warns him. “Worse.”
When his bike comes rolling back with two of the Spider’s bikers, it comes with a few more gifts. Two metal spheres, one the size of a softball and the other the size of a chestnut.
Grenades, obviously Old World. Gods know where Varys got them from, certainly they aren’t made this way anymore. What they’re calling grenades now will mostly just make noise. But these two could probably blow a hole in a tank. He packs them onto his bike carefully.
Any old-world weapon would be priceless now, Jaime knows. Varys would not overpay a debt.
He squints up at the Spider, who makes a silky shadow in the doorway against his light. “And the cost?”
The Spider smiles -- he can’t see it, on a shadow, but he can hear it in his voice. “If you come back, tell me what you saw. I hear very little of the Black Mountains and none of it first-hand.”
Jaime can promise that easily enough. He knows he won’t be coming back.
He walks his bike in silence about a mile up the road before waking the engines and roaring away.
He rides the motorbike until the last of his carefully hoarded gasoline is run out, rides right through the next day and into the night. Gets more miles out of it than he would have gotten with his creaky armored car, and certainly faster.
Along the way he sees no other travelers. Five years ago there would have been at least a few others, some other vehicles, perhaps spaced out and alone, perhaps all in a big caravan for safety. But there is not much fuel left anymore. And North is not a direction people go in now.
It was how he had met her, actually. On a road much like this one. He had been on a different motorbike and she had been driving a sedan. Obviously following him, less obvious why. He made it a chase - weaving between the stopped traffic, blasting around the walkers and cyclists and parades of cars going nowhere. She had somehow kept up with him, pushing her poor little car to its limits. Eventually he decided whoever it was had earned his attention for at least a few minutes, and he pulled over on the road to watch the tallest, ugliest woman he had ever seen unfold herself out of her car.
She kept his attention considerably longer than a few minutes. .
Of course, he could enjoy a chase back then - you could still count on petrol, could siphon it out of most any vehicle you encountered along the way. The cars along the road here are bone dry by now, haven’t moved in years, and the electronics, trunk supplies, and even promising upholstery have been stripped out of them long ago. The cars pass by now in muted streaks of blue and red, dulled by layers of paint-stripping weather damage and snow.
When his bike sputters to a stop, he leaves it right out on the highway. Packs his equipment onto his back. Then he begins to walk.
Without the headlights of his bike, it’s quite dark. No streetlights, of course. He has a torch in his bag, but he’s saving that battery as long as he can. Anyway, the moon is out, and once his eyes are adjusted he sees well enough. The trees encroaching on the interstate have not quite overtaken the shoulder, and the glow of moon and stars light up the cracked concrete in front of him, and glitter in the frost.
His boots echo his footfalls up and down the highway. First the gritty sound of gravel, and then the crunch of ice, and then the quieter scrunch of snow.
There are no other sounds to hear out here -- no bird cries, no insects. They aren’t sure if the animals are dead, hiding, or run away, but no one sees them anymore. Means he doesn’t have to worry about being eaten by bears, at least.
The last bear he has seen was that time with Brienne, actually. It might have been the last bear, period. He hasn’t heard of any other ones since. That would be a shame, if that had been the last bear, and they’d killed it. He hadn’t wanted to. He can’t take it personally, the bear trying to eat them. He was only hungry, and they were all very hungry that winter.
He didn’t know he would be fleeing the last bear in Westeros with her, when he met Brienne on the road. He only knew she was capable, and she was following him, and anyone out in the wilds could be dangerous. Out here other people were either foolishly overconfident, robbers, or competition.
Brienne proved to be the last type, possibly also the first. She was after the Stark bounty, same as him. She had a personal stake. He could keep the money, she said. He had a lot more experience and knew where he was going, but she could be an ally. She could help.
He had laughed in her face, more or less. Said she was free to make the bounty herself, but he traveled alone. Newbies tended to die almost immediately, and he hadn’t stayed alive this long by babysitting foolish college students. He would locate the missing Stark girls and deliver them home. But if she wanted to return them herself she’d have to beat him there.
A few weeks later they had wound up with one Stark girl apiece -- him with Sansa and her best girlfriend Jayne, her with Arya and her mate Gendry -- and again she had proposed an alliance for the trip up to Winterfell. No one had made it to Winterfell since the disaster, but their chances were better together, she said.
His better idea was that he could take the two valuable girls to Winterfell and she could take the two spares and go back to King’s Landing where it was safe, or jump in a lake for all he cared. But that conversation had been interrupted by the Bloody Mummers, and after that… things were very different after that.
Jaime slows to a stop with this remembrance, digs in his bag for his water bottle and takes a long pull. He’s tiring faster than he expected. He has tried to keep himself in fighting shape the last few years, but he hasn’t made a journey like this in a long time.
You’ve grown soft, he thinks, but inside his head it sounds like Brienne’s gentle ribbing. The tone she had taken after she stopped insulting him for real.
I’m refined, he answers back, slinging his pack over his shoulder and walking again. Answers between breaths, like he’s actually speaking. I’m a diplomat these days, remember?
Will you try to negotiate with the Others then? She laughs in his ear. What will you trade them, wine? Broken electronics? The only economy they know is violence, and we trade them blows.
He smiles to himself, despite everything. Young lady, it’s a good thing you didn’t come back to King’s Landing with me. You would have knocked out the Small Council within a day, and we’d both have been out on our asses.
And King’s Landing would have better off with us in the street than you in that office. We might have saved it. Old man, whatever have you done without me?
Jaime stops a moment, breathing hard, looking up at the moon.
I don’t know. I don’t know what I’ve been doing, where the time went. It all blurred together without you.
He has been having these conversations for years now. It isn’t exactly imagination. More prediction. He knows exactly what she would say in every instance. What she would think of the people he meets, the places he goes. He hears her critiques of his private practice sessions, when he tries to stay in shape for the inevitable invasion. Her quiet, private commentary. Her icy rejoinders to his jokes. They come to him like a reply. Like she has heard him gods-know-how-many miles away, and answered him back.
It’s painful now, hearing her voice. He doesn’t know why it would be different - alive or dead, he is only talking to himself after all. Perhaps it is only more obviously futile this way, knowing she is gone.
He was never going to see her again, he knows that. The things she does, they were always eventually going to get her killed. Hells, he told her that himself more than once.
Even now it still isn’t entirely real to him. It doesn’t seem possible. But the Spider knows things, and if he knows them they aren’t just rumors. It’s true. It’s sinking in. Brienne is gone.
She doesn’t walk the same world as him anymore. He will hear no more tales of her adventures, and smile privately at the things nobody else knows of her. He will not wonder if it snows where she is, or if the sun shines. Whether she ever thinks of him, the way he does of her. They traveled together only a year, but she carved a place for herself in him, in the slow and brutal way water carves a cliffside. He has kept her there all this time. Now in that space there is emptiness, a brutal, sucking vacuum that might just pull him apart if he stops moving long enough.
So he starts walking again. Keeps walking, on and on, without rest, for as long as he can stand it.
Here and there one of the Others comes onto the road ahead of him. They wander on and off aimlessly, looking lost. At a distance they look nearly alive, so long as they aren’t missing any limbs, and only the directionless of their movements give them away. As you get closer you can see their clothing is wrong -- it’s not enough clothes for the weather, or their clothes are torn, bits are missing. Maybe the clothes are rotting right off their bodies, if they’re been out long enough. Closer still and you can see the blueish tinge to the skin that the Others are famous for, the thin layer of frost that covers them head to toe. At ten feet or so you can make out the ice blue eyes that glow like cat’s eyes in the light. But by then they’ve seen you, and they move much faster than you think they can. Best not to get that close. Best to stay well away, and let them turn and wander in another direction out of sight.
As always, one wonders what they’re looking for. Where they’re going.
Some of them will wander away before he catches up, and he pays them no mind. If he is quiet, and they didn’t take notice of him, it is easier to let them pass by. Fighting can be loud, and that sort of noise could bring more of them running.
But eventually one is too slow. They can be damaged, and those stumbling steps can be frustratingly deliberate at times. This one is fairly tall, and drags its foot in the snow. On the highway, it reminds him of an elderly driver occupying the fast lane at a crawl. Even as he slows his pace, he gets closer and closer, and the dead thing shows no signs of changing direction.
Eventually he can wait no longer. He will have to overtake the creature. At least he hasn’t seen any other Others nearby. This Other shows no sign of noticing him. Jaime slowly draws the axe off his back, and makes six rapid, long strides in the thing’s direction, winding up for a massive crossways swing.
Varys didn’t lie; the axe cuts true. One good blow across the back is enough to bring it down, and he remembers where to strike. Sever the spinal cord, destroy the brain, or burn them, that destroys them. The axe is so sharp it cuts the thing nearly in half. There is a quick, sharp sound of impact and the thud of a body hitting the ground, and then silence.
They don’t scream, the others. They don’t make noises of any kind. Maybe because they don’t breathe anymore; who knows. He pulls the axe out of the thing’s bulk and wipes it in the snow.
The first Other to fall to him in five years that he didn’t hit with his car. It feels good. It doesn’t relieve the great sucking void he has inside him but it does feel good.
He shoulders the axe and keeps walking. After that, he strikes down one of them every few hours, until the sun comes up, and then he huddles on the embankment, dozing, for most of the morning. It’s not so cold he’ll freeze - not yet, anyway - and there aren’t so many Others around that he can’t risk it.
He’s lucky, for the most part. There aren’t any big clusters of Others out here. Those tend to form up around settlements and cities, or lingering around empty houses. Not out here in the open space, where there aren’t travelers anymore.
He passes the next night in a car, after crawling in a broken window. It’s not especially safer, but it is more comfortable than the ground. He sprawls across the backseat and thinks about the red wood-paneled station wagon he had found buried in a parking lot and managed to start. He and Brienne drove that car all the way to Harrenhall, the now five children sleeping in the back. The seat was so wide even Brienne could lay down in it, and she was inches taller than him.
This car is blue, and he has to bend his knees and curl up to fit on the seat.
Keep watch for me, Angel, he tells her, before he drifts off.
Days of steady walking pass this way, with fitful bursts of sleep.
The Black Mountains are looming in the far distance when he nears Winterfell. So tall he can see them all these miles away, staining the low edge of the horizon like a shadow.
Jaime keeps his eyes on the ground mostly. He’s only been here once, and it wasn’t an enjoyable visit. It was a destination, and it meant the end of a long journey. He’s never much liked those. Endings. He tries to get those over with. If he can help it, he’d rather turn around and begin again right away, try to get back to the middle.
Wintertown is relatively intact, patrolled by fur-clad soldiers with shotguns. The town has grown since he was here last. The streets have people on them now, much more than in Lannisport or anywhere in the Riverlands. No cars, but regular people, old folks and even children, strolling about. He has to stop and stare at that for awhile. Pedestrians. It’s been a long time.
Perhaps things are better in the North? Maybe they are safer than they were. But Wintertown is small, and easily guarded, and in the shadow of the old Winterfell fortress these people know they can flee within its walls and be safe, should the Others attack again. That’s more reassurance than most places have.
For a little while he walks up and down those streets, just another window-shopper. The buildings are mostly refitted as residences, but on the sidewalks people sell goods out of carts, or spread out on the sidewalk. Wanderers come through and trade the trinkets they’ve found. There aren’t prices. Most likely they will take food, and medicine, and more practical items, in trade. He didn’t bring anything like that, unfortunately. But there isn’t anything he needs here.
At the end of a long boulevard Jaime finds himself before the gates of Winterfell, and he pauses.
This was where he had parted from her. Right here.
He grimaces past that memory. He was an ass about it, of course. Tried to sneak away. She caught him. There was a confrontation. Things were said.
Things? Brienne-in-his-mind prods him indignantly. Have you forgotten already?
I remember every word. He sighs. Unfortunately.
The gates to Winterfell stand open for now. Probably so that Wintertown can run inside, if someone rings the alarm. Jaime passes through and takes the gravel path to the old castle. It’s a sturdy thing, for being several hundred years old. Solid and undecayed. Sure, they have to replace the wood every few decades, but the stone is thick and unbroken. There are walls behind walls, like any medieval keep, and courtyards and gates separating them. Guards stand atop the fortifications with guns, and they watch him approaching. Wary, but welcoming. Anyone not undead is allowed to pass through, at least to the midden.
The kids are here at Winterfell, probably. Somewhere. Many of them stayed, he has heard. The Starks for sure, and maybe some of the other strays he and Brienne had picked up along the way. Any of the running kids in Wintertown could have been Apple, that baby that Willow and Sansa had fawned over. He would be five, six years old now. That is, if he were alive.
He doesn’t want to see any of them if he can help it. Best not to go inside the Great Keep then. He goes to the Great Hall instead. The velvet ropes are all taken down. It was a tourist trap for a lot of years, before its fortifications became unexpectedly useful again. Used to be you could get a feast inside, with cosplayers and a jester and a bard, and then you could get back in your car and drive away home.
Bit different now. The fires are still roaring, but put to more practical use. Broken furniture surrounds the great fireplaces where they have been stripping the upholstery and feeding the fire. Laundry is strung up before them, and boils in great kettles. Nearer to mealtime the laundry will be replaced with soup and stew. The fireplaces in the living quarters had been stripped out long ago, replaced with appliances that no longer work. They have to do nearly everything in the great hall now, and gather in smaller rooms.
The head washerwoman takes his message back to the living quarters and Jaime sits down to wait. There is an armchair that is strikingly comfortable for as old as it looks, upholstered in a velvety material. It might be some kind of antique, something with a PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH sign on it back when this was a museum. There isn’t much use for antiques anymore. He sits in the chair.
He sits back and stares at nothing for a time. He might have fallen asleep, because the girls appear as if by magic, just as he remembers them but taller and leaner, their chubby faces hollowed by early adulthood.
Sansa is quite tall, for a Stark anyway. She looks like her mother otherwise; red-haired, high-cheekboned, very pretty. Her sister looks like their father, sturdy and strong-jawed, Northern. They stare at him owlishly, and he wonders what he looks like to them. He is not nearly so changed -- grew a beard, added some lines around his eyes -- but they were children when they saw him last, and they are not children now. He has to look up to see them.
“You came for Brienne,” Arya says abruptly -- as usual she realizes the obvious first and doesn’t hesitate to speak it aloud.
Jaime nods. There isn’t much more to say than that.
“We had a memorial,” Sansa hovers over him awkwardly, looking unsure. “All of Winterfell came, much of Wintertown as well. We would have waited if we had known you would come.”
“You thought I wouldn’t?” He says it more sharply than he intends.
Arya snaps back. “You’ve been gone a long time, and not a single letter. What else could we think?”
Sansa stops her with a hand to her shoulder. She was always an empathetic child. “You’re welcome here now. Can I get you anything?”
“Your brother. If he’s here.” His eyes drift to Widow’s Wail, where it sits on the floor beside him. “I’ve heard he was there when it happened. I need to hear it from him.”
Sansa leans forward and touches his hands, briefly. “We can take you to him.”
He can only nod.
He follows the girls through the old fortress into a more modern living area. Home, most like. The Starks have all congregated here, the ones left.
Jon Snow he has never met before. The girls’ half-brother. Lord Snow of Winterfell, now. He stands straight and stiff, trying to look older than he is. He has a warm parka on over his polar fleece, something puffy and filled with down. It’s hard to be serious in a puffy coat without coming off at least faintly ridiculous, but the young man manages it somehow.
“She was a great help to my family,” Jon says, and shakes his hand vigorously. “A great fighter, the bravest of all of us, and the kindest too. Every one of us here at Winterfell thought very highly of her.”
“And your mission?” Jaime shuts down the reminiscence quickly. He does not want to remember Brienne here. Certainly not with the Starks.
Jon hangs his head. “It wasn’t a complete waste. But it wasn’t quite what we wanted, either.”
He gestures to a sofa. Jaime sits on the edge of it, unwilling to relax. This is rather too much civilization for him right now. Jon sits down expansively on an easy chair, and runs a hand through wild black hair.
“We were hoping to find something that would explain where the Others come from. We thought the Black Mountains might have the answer, the mountains and the land beyond. It’s hard to find much on the Mountains though -- only one road is passable, everywhere else is ice and deep snow. Beyond the Mountains there is a place they’re calling Craster’s Keep. We knew something was very wrong there. We should have stayed away.” Jon shakes his head, so serious.
“We suspected they were colluding with the Others somehow. The ones on the Mountain. The old man… it was terrible. What he was doing. We had to put a stop to it. Brienne followed one of the men to their meeting place, where the Others come down the Mountain. She never came back.”
That is rather less definitive than Jaime wants to hear.
“That’s all? Did you search?” he asks sharply.
Jon looks defensive at first, but softens quickly. “I assure you, if there was anything to find, we would have found it. We were very fond of her. There were signs of a battle, and several Others fallen there. But of her there was no sign. There was no body.” Jon looks reluctant to continue. “We did find this.”
Hesitantly, he holds out the wrapped bundle to Jaime. He knows it immediately. Takes it like he took the grenades, carefully and reluctantly.
His hands unwrap the thing before he can think twice, to show himself what he already knows. It’s Brienne’s titanium bat. Bloodstained, dirty, with a single chip in it near the tip.
They had nicknamed it Oathkeeper, way back then. It was more like a mythical sword than a bat. Titanium bats weren’t even allowed in baseball, in any league. They hit the ball so hard it was dangerous to the other players. They probably shouldn’t have been made in the first place, and they stopped making them decades before the Others came and their true usefulness became apparent.
Jaime holds the bat. Brienne had carried this thing for so long. He puts his fingers where she would have put hers, the way a player held it to hit a ball. He can see the mark of her fingers there, slowly rubbed into the metal across the years.
Jon is still talking. “These Others are different. Our Others will kill and turn. But these... We suspect that they consume the bodies instead of raising them. I think there was nothing remaining to find.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” Jaime stands.
“If you will insist…” Jon rises as well, solemn. “My friend Sam stayed behind there. If you reach Craster’s Keep, ask for Sam. He’ll tell you what you need to know.”
He passes a night there, lying awake in a bed.
They gave him her room. A quiet, out-of-the-way guest bedroom with little in the way of modern amenities. It has a homey feeling, just the same. It feels like her.
She left some things there; little knick-knacks. She liked to pick up small things, put them in her pockets. Her coat had loads of pockets hidden everywhere. By the end of the day she would have lots of little treasures. You could turn her upside down and shake her and all sorts of shiny treats would come rolling out. Figurines, stones, tiny toys. They’re arranged all around the room, on the windowsill, on the dresser. Probably if he went through her clothes he would find more things still hidden away in her pockets. The coat, though, that wouldn’t be there in the closet, he knows without looking. She would have it with her, wherever she has gone.
Jaime leaves her things alone. It’s enough to know they’re there, waiting for her.
Brienne slept in this bed. This is the only home she had, so far as he knows. She stayed here after he left, here at Winterfell. She would have rested here -- she was still a little sick. It had been a few weeks, at least, before she went back to the Kingsroad. After that she came back here between adventures, making the long, dangerous journey there and back again. In the dead of winter she would rest here at least a month, from what he could tell, every year.
He should have stayed with her.
She never asked him. Not out loud. But he knows, deep down, he would have been welcome. He knew it then, too. But he had left her at Winterfell and gone back. Back to the arms of his family who needed him more than she ever would. Back to his father and his expectations, to his siblings who needed his protection. The job was over, and he went back to where he belonged.
Not a day has gone by that he doesn’t regret it.
In the morning he is lacing his new boots in the great hall, a gift from Jon. They are a little large, but warm, and useful for maneuvering on ice. He suspects they had once belonged to Ned Stark; certainly none of the Stark boys have feet this big.
Jon has also given him a down parka like his own. Such a thing would fetch a lot in trade these days, but he insists Jaime take it. “This is the least I can do, for bringing my brother and sisters home.”
Jaime promises to return it, though he can see that Jon does not expect to see him at Winterfell again. Neither of them do.
His pack has been refilled with food, bandages, antiseptic, and an icepick. Arya had thrust the bag at him wordlessly and turned on her heel and left and he does not see her again. How much and how little people change from when they are small; he can still see the dark-eyed child in the woman she is becoming. It makes him feel positively ancient.
Sansa accompanies him to the gates of Winterfell, gliding elegantly over the snow in her warm winter coat. She chatters as much as she always did, though it was never to him before. She used to keep her distance from him, as she had from most men. She misses Brienne, he realizes, looking at her. She must have been like an older sister, or an aunt, or...
He never did lay eyes on Rickon, did he? He is probably running wild somewhere, running with the wolves. He doesn’t ask, though he suspects Sansa would like him to. Nor does he ask about Willow, or Gendry, or any of the others. He has too much to carry already.
“You’re different,” Sansa tells him, nearing the gates.
“You’re older,” he says. “You see me better.”
“Maybe.” The auburn beauty frowns. “Do you think she’s still alive out there?”
He doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want to see the concern on her face, not if it’s for him.
“Do you think Brienne would want you to do this? Go after her like this?”
No. “That won’t stop me.”
“She would want you to go on with your life.”
“I don’t care.” He can’t quite look at Sansa. He couldn’t look at Arya either. They remind him of too much.
“Why did you never come back? She waited for you. She was still waiting.”
He shuts his eyes against her. “Don’t tell me that. Don’t. Not now.”
Sansa sniffles, and her voice trembles. “I’m so sorry. You were both so good to us. I’m so sorry,” she repeats, and tries to put her arms around him, but he’s already walking away.
He’s going through the gates of Winterfell, straight down the boulevard of Wintertown.
He doesn’t stop. He turns to the Black Mountains, and keeps walking.
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