a slow evolution

"Oathkeeper," she says, and maybe it sounds like 'I love you.'

"Goodbye, Brienne," he says, and maybe it sounds like 'I love you, too.'

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a slow evolution

“What are you talking about? Love isn't hard. It's- it's simple. Easy. A happy thing, really.”

Jaime raises an eyebrow in defiance. “You'd call what you felt for Renly easy? You're always miserable when it's brought up; you can hardly call it a happy thing, really,” his voice is mocking and he raises the pitch at the end in a terrible mimicry of her own voice. He expects her to bristle and close up, as she always has done when Renly and her failed, pathetic love for him is mentioned. She surprises him by smiling instead, albeit sadly. She turns away from the flames and looks at him, the firelight in her eyes dancing and changing them from sapphire to aquamarine. He finds himself captivated, and nearly misses her next words.

“But that's the thing, isn't it? I didn't really love him.”

His jaw drops and he freezes, eyes wide and caught in her gaze like a deer when it knows it's being hunted. Which doesn't make much sense, because she is the one opening herself up, she is the one letting herself be fragile and trapped by truths that have never come out into the open. And yet he is feeling torn open like a body on the battlefield, awaiting the vultures and the thieves ready to take him away piece by piece. He's not sure what his face looks like right now, but it must show at least some of his inner turmoil because the next thing he knows she is reaching for him with an expression he's never seen her wear before.

“Jaime, I didn't-,”

He doesn't let her finish, doesn't let the words he knows will tear him open just that little bit more pass her lips. He leans back and tries to turn his face into the same mocking mask he used to wear so well before he'd met her, before all that's happened to them came to pass. “So, finally ready to admit to yourself that Renly wasn't ever interested in you? That he always preferred masculinity, and while I assure you that you have an abundance of that, I'm afraid you're missing something rather important.” He spreads his legs and gestures down at his lap, his lips twisting in a failed attempt at his old smirk.

It's vulgar and rude, bordering on cruel, but Brienne's expression doesn't change, nor does she move her hands from where they rest between them.

“I didn't love him, because I didn't know him. I loved an idea, an image, a dream. But not him, never him.” Her face wears the most open, inviting expression he's ever seen and still he feels as though he is the one made of glass, all his thoughts and fears visible through his skin. The words she says echo inside of him like he's a hollow empty thing, and the tears behind his eyes spill over without permission. He's trying to stop them, to freeze the sob he can feel moving up his throat before it can be released, but all it takes is her eyes, wide open and full of acceptance, and he's in her arms letting himself cry for the first time since this all began.

She doesn't make a sound, doesn't say a word; just pulls him to her and holds him against her body like a child, her huge hands on the bottom of his spine and cupping the back of his head. He thinks that he should be feeling ashamed for being so weak, that she should be disgusted with him for this like his sister would be were she here with him instead.

But Brienne isn't Cersei, has never been anything like his sister, and instead of feeling shame all he can feel is relief as she rocks him back and forth gently, her heart beat a slow, steady thing against his own.

***

Jaime is surprised when he wakes up without remembering ever falling asleep in the first place. He finds himself wrapped in a blanket and tucked up against Brienne, her body curling around his like his used to with Cersei in those rare moments after sex when she'd let him stay a moment before having to leave her lest they be discovered. He thinks it's a strange comparison to make, and wonders if it should be awkward laying with Brienne like this, especially after crying in her arms like a girl. But it doesn't feel awkward at all, her pressed against his back and his cheeks sticky with dried tears. It feels secure and safe, like her body is a shield protecting him from... from what? The night, maybe, the dark and the cold. But more than that, from anyone who would laugh at him for crying, anyone who would call him weak. From anyone who would call him useless because he has no hand to swing a sword.

Because he may not have a hand but he still managed to save Brienne from a bear, still managed to make himself live. Words she'd spoken to him all those months ago come back unbidden, like a prayer; live, and fight, and take revenge. It's because of her he lived, he knows, because of her he still lives. She saved him, not from any bear or beast; from himself. Somewhere along the way he's grown to care for her, this woman who's saved him, this woman he's saved. Brienne is something different from what he'd known before; she is more true, more real than anything to be found in Kings Landing. With her he knows there is no deception, no lies, no masking of the truth behind smiles and pretty words. With her there is trust, real trust, the first pure and strong and unbroken thing for him in a long while.

She is the only person outside of Cersei he's told the truth about the Mad King to – and she had believed him. She is the first person to hear about his fears, his doubts, his relationship with his sister – and she didn't judge him for it. She knows every bit of self-loathing he has, has heard each nightmare that haunts him, has seen all his scars both external and internal – and she never for a moment left, or indeed considered leaving.

Live, and fight, and take revenge. He knows those words are seared into the very core of him now, into his soul. Just as he knows that every time he thinks about giving up he will see blue eyes lit by a fire and filled with more emotion than he knew eyes could hold, reaching for him, reaching into him to pull out every piece of hurt he has.

Cersei would look at him in disgust if he ever intimated that love was a simple, easy thing between two people, a thing of light. He can hear her mocking laugh already just at the thought, the laugh he's been hearing since childhood that up until now has always filled him with a desire that was powerful enough he didn't think he'd ever be able to sate it – and yet.

And yet.

He imagines that laugh and all he can hear is how cruel, how dark it is. Nothing like his own sometimes bitter laugh, nothing like their brother's pleasant, amused one. Nothing like Brienne's, full of joy and surprise. No, Cersei's laugh hasn't been a sign of her happiness for a long time; now it's a weapon more than anything else, a way to show those around her that she is laughing at them, not with them. A show of power, a way to cut people without a blade where it hurts the most.

It's not a simple love although he imagines no love is truly simple. Still, it's not a simple love, not an easy love, what they have. It's nothing like the love any song or story or silly little maiden has ever described, and for a single moment he is filled with an inexplicable fear at the thought that maybe it's not love at all, not anymore.

Maybe it never was.

He throws that thought away, pushing it into the darkest recesses of his mind; if he hides it well enough then he can pretend it never happened.

***

Jaime thinks he should feel lost, now, sitting as he is in the Red Keep with his little brother, a woman other than his twin on his mind. He knows that Cersei would want that, expect it from him as her due; that he should rather die than betray her like this. But he doesn't feel lost, or empty, or any of the other things he's always imagined feeling if something like this ever miraculously occurred. No, instead he feels oddly full, almost as if he'd been empty and this new thing had finally filled him up. He doesn't know what to call it, this feeling he has, doesn't know what name to give it because he's never felt anything like it before. It makes his heart feel too big instead of too small, makes him hurt in ways he didn't know were possible. It makes crying like a child in the arms of a woman a relief instead of the embarrassment it should be.

“What you're describing, big brother, is something we like to call love. I know it's probably a novel experience for you, love, considering our dear sister has been making a mockery of it all these years,” Tyrion says, before pausing to take a drink from his cup. He continues in a quieter, more subdued tone. “But I assure you, Jaime, that is what you're feeling.” His mismatched eyes are full of pity and triumph, but Jaime doesn't notice.

He wants to protest, because he knows what he feels for Cersei is love, that it's powerful and huge and defining; it has filled his entire life up until this point, made him defy their father and kill a king and push a child from a window. How can it not be love?

But he also knows that anger made him defy their father, and horror made him kill a king. He has no excuse for the boy except his own cowardice; none of it was due to love, yet Cersei was at the center of it all.

How can it not be love?

***

It takes until Joffrey's wedding to Margaery Tyrell before he realizes what Tyrion means, and that they are both right in their own way. There are so many types of love, but he'd not known that until now because he'd just assumed there was only the one: the love he felt for his twin, his other half. But now, looking at Cersei and looking at Brienne he realizes that there has to be more than one because what he feels for them is so completely different.

He looks at Cersei and sees all his memories from childhood, sees his mother and the sea and the apple tree he used to love to climb. He sees a golden lioness to match his golden lion, a perfect reflection of himself, all red clothes and gold hair and green eyes. Their love burns like dragon fire, hot and fast and destructive but so beautiful, so powerful. She knows his past because it's her own, and he loves her for it. He also sees control and possession, and a selfish desire to take and keep on taking.

But when Jaime looks at Brienne, he sees all the parts of himself he'd thought were lost; his dreams of being a knight, his goodness, his honor. He sees nights and days on the run with nothing but their clothes between them, sees the flicker of firelight and a sky of stars above them as they sleep. He sees strength different from his own, a life of promises kept and oaths unbroken. They are equals in everything they do, in everything they say; she will never let him be more or less. He sees sword fights and blue eyes like the ocean and sky, and he sees the relief of finally letting himself be vulnerable. This love is nothing like dragon fire, nor any other fire. If it burns at all it's the slow gentle warmth of sunlight on skin. It's the steady flow of a river against the rocks, constant and peaceful. Simple. Easy.

A happy thing.

Suddenly they are both looking at him across the room, narrow emeralds and wide sapphires, and it takes all of his strength to meet Cersei's eyes before Brienne's. It shouldn't take any strength at all, though; he's loved her longer, it should be her he's most drawn toward no matter what. The jealousy he can see in her eyes should please him, should fill him with desire and lust. Should make him want to bend her over the table in front of his father and fuck her until she was screaming his name. It should consume him until there was nothing left for Brienne at all. And yet-

Brienne's eyes are somehow more astonishing than normal, matched as they are with her clothing. They are wide and happy and full of something that might be the opposite of jealousy, if he even knew what that was. They are so different from his sisters, and it's now that they are standing beside one another that he can really see just how different. The two of them are practically opposites, and he wonders for a moment if the Gods are laughing at him; he has the most beautiful woman in the seven kingdoms and yet he's fallen in love with a woman who people call the ugliest.

He's sure none of what he's thinking or feeling passes over his face, but when he turns his gaze back to Cersei, she is glaring at Brienne with barely concealed hatred, a smile as false as his golden hand on her lips as she speaks, and it only takes a few words before he sees Brienne's back tense, her hands which are clasped behind her clenching tightly. He nearly takes a step towards them, his left hand curling into a fist although he cannot fathom why, before thinking better of it and turning away instead.

***

I loved an idea, an image, a dream.

Brienne's words always seem to get stuck inside his head, coming back to him no matter what he's doing, whether it's sparring or eating or sleeping. But it's these words which make him want to break things, make him wish the Mad King was alive again so he could stab him and stab him and stab him until there was nothing recognizable left.

She stands there, this shadow of a woman he once loved, and he nearly screams when all he feels is disgust. He doesn't know who it's directed at, her or himself; in the end it doesn't matter. Joffrey is dead and Tyrion is locked inside the Black Cells and there's nothing he can do but play those fucking words on repeat inside his head.

I loved an idea, an image, a dream.

The words are a death march inside his skull, and he is driven mad trying to prove them wrong. His feet take him forward toward Cersei, and for the first time in a very long time he initiates their coupling, using everything he has within him to drown Brienne's words out. He hardly recognizes his sister speaking, never mind the words she says and it isn't until it's all over before he understands just what he's done. Cersei lays there panting beside the body of their dead son, and he can't help the disgust and self-loathing that rises with the bile in the back of his throat.

I don't know what I'm doing anymore, he thinks as he tries not to gag. I loved an idea, an image, a dream. A nightmare.

The moment he gets outside he vomits onto the ground.

***

The guilt he feels is worse than he thinks he deserves because it's as though he's betrayed Brienne in some way, even though he's never made her any promises. She isn't even aware of his feelings, and he's sure she would be indifferent if she knew because she doesn't feel the same way. And yet it still feels as though he's giving her these gifts to assuage this guilt he shouldn't be feeling in the first place. But he's not, he knows he's not because he would always have given this sword to her, she who has given him so much. He had already had the armor commissioned before any of this happened, and still, he feels like he has something he needs to confess to her, standing as they are alone in the room. As if he was once again a little boy who stole the last piece of cake and she was his Septa, sent by mother to scold him.

Then she has to go and say it, those words he knows will never leave him just as everything else she says is written directly onto his soul: for Lady Catelyn, and for you.

And for you.

He can feel it then, the words he wants to say, needs to say, trying to force their way out into the space between them, a confession of another kind. It's all he can do to keep it inside and direct her attention back to the armor, to the book, to anything. But then instead of her words it's her eyes, those astonishing sapphires wide and surprised, like she never expected to get anything so wonderful from anyone, let alone him. And that makes him both pleased and ashamed; pleased that she is pleased, and ashamed that she would be shocked by him giving her a gift.

And for you.

He silently vows to get her gifts more often, so she can forget the world which doesn't favor female warriors. So she can always be pleased but never surprised. When she turns those eyes onto him he has to once again push down a confession, although which one he doesn't know. Maybe both, maybe neither, it hardly matters either way. He says nothing, only smiles and tells her he has one last gift.

He expects her to be more hesitant about Podrick, and for once he is right. She doesn't tell him her real reasons for refusing, not really, but he knows why he would refuse, and thinks that maybe her reasons are the same. It's a safe assumption on his part; after so long together he knows her better than probably anyone. The same goes for her, he knows, and refuses to think about the fact that the woman who knows him better than even his twin is leaving.

The best swords have names, he tells her, stalling as long as he can, knowing that saying goodbye will be harder than anything he's ever done, but also knowing that he must. Any ideas?

Her eyes, open and unguarded as always, seem to fill with something he's been seeing since that fateful night at the fire, where he cried in her arms.

Oathkeeper, she says, and maybe it sounds like I love you.

Goodbye, Brienne, he says, and maybe it sounds like I love you, too.

He doesn't move from his spot until both her and Podrick are long gone.

***

This is the last place he ever expected to see her, but that doesn't stop his heart from trying to beat its way out of his chest when she enters his tent. Nor does it stop the smile that just the sight of her evokes from stretching his lips. "I never thought you'd find her. I just assumed Sansa was dead."

Despite the darkness inside the tent pressing all around them he can see her face losing some of its natural rigidity. "Why would you assume that?"

The words which come out of his mouth are not the words playing themselves like a song in his head. "In my experience, girls like her don't live very long." I love you. I've missed you. I need you. He isn't sure whether she can see his eyes properly with all the shadow between them. But he knows that they are saying what his mouth isn't.

"I don't think you know many girls like her." Her eyes are somehow entirely visible, almost as if they shine with their own internal light. They make him think of the stars and the waves and the winter roses he knows cover bushes in the far North.

He isn't sure what they might be saying back.

The silence that stretches out between them should be awkward but instead it's comforting and familiar. He has been separated from her for so long that he's nearly forgotten what it was like to sit in silence with somebody and not have them try to fill it. "Well," he says quietly, "I'm proud of you, I am. You've fulfilled your oath to Catelyn Stark against all odds." It's so much less than what he wants to say and somehow still more than he thinks he should be saying. Perhaps that's why the next things he says is, "Of course, my sister wants Sansa dead. The girl's still as suspect in Joffrey's murder, so there is that...complication." All it takes is the mention of Cersei for him to want to hit something, break something, kill something. He sees the blue in Brienne's eyes change, and he knows that the moment, if there ever was one, is gone. His heart squeezes painfully in his chest and if he didn't know that it was because of love, then he'd suspect he was dying. His next words are harsher than he means them to be, and yet he wouldn't take them back if she let him because the anger he forces out with them allows him to breathe once again. "What the hell are you doing here?"

I love you. I missed you. I need you. Every word that passes his lips is nothing more than a way for him to stall, keep her with him, make her stay. It's also becoming increasingly difficult to not say the words he most wants to say. I love you. I missed you. I need you.

Nothing they say matters until she is standing there with Oathkeeper, holding it out to him, expecting him to take it. "You gave it to me for a purpose. I've achieved that purpose." Her words make his chest tight and his heart hurt until he's sure it will break into a thousand pieces. He wants to close his eyes and cry because when he gave her that sword he gave her so much more; he gave her his heart. And now she's trying to give it back.

"It's yours. It will always be yours." I love you. I missed you. I need you. The words he speaks and the look in his eyes say what he wants to say but can't, what he hopes she already knows, what he wishes she would say to him. And still, the words are not enough; the one thing he has never dared to say with either lips nor eyes, the one thing he knows he will never ask of her because she would never give it.

I love you. I missed you. I need you.

Stay.

He watches her leave with Podrick in the boat, watches from above on the castle walls as she turns to look at him and the words are on the tip of his tongue. But he loves her too much to say them now, so all he does is raise his hand in farewell, all the while blinking back tears and choking on words. I love you. I missed you. I need you. Stay. He thinks that he'd rather run himself through with his own sword than fight against her on the battlefield.

***

Fuck loyalty!

He hadn't known how to respond to that, hadn't known what to do with Brienne speaking those words to him. Hadn't imagined her ever saying anything like that, truth be told, and somehow those words coming from those lips had filled him with a sense of dread not even the undead thing had been able to evoke. He suspects it's because the white-walker could be defeated, like any enemy; Brienne's words, on the other hand, are a foe that will not die no matter how hard he tries to kill them.

Every moment since then Jaime's brain has been replaying those words in his head, and he can't help but feel that they prove to him the danger they are in more so than any white-walker or dragon queen and her dragons ever could.

Talk to the queen.

Her eyes had looked at him with all the emotion her face hadn't been willing to show, and it's because of this that he listens to her words. Those eyes, so different from any he's ever seen before, are incapable of telling a lie. Like sapphires, like the summer sky, like the sea at dawn; they're never the same blue but somehow he knows he'd recognize them anywhere.

It startles him, this revelation. He has only ever known one pair of eyes that well and that is because he sees them in the mirror, in the reflective surface of his armor or the blade of his weapon. His own eyes are gems too, green like emeralds, but he doesn't think they change like hers. There is one other person besides himself who has eyes like his, and he remembers when they were little and looking at Cersei had been like looking in a mirror, right down to the last golden hair on her head. Then he thinks back to his return to Kings Landing, the look in her eyes the first time she'd seen his stump and every time after she'd caught a glimpse of his golden hand. He thinks about the dark gleam whenever Tyrion or the Tyrell's or Sansa Stark had spoken in her presence and the heavy sorrow at the deaths of her children, at the death of their father.

Looking at her standing on her map of the world as if she has already won, he realizes something that he should have realized a long time ago; her eyes, like the rest of her, are no longer the same. They have changed and changed and changed again over the years, always green but not always emeralds, and it makes Jaime want to cry. He knows somehow, knows with everything he is that he no longer recognizes them like he does his own, like he does Brienne's. It's taken decades, but he knows that Cersei is not his mirror anymore, for all that she is his twin and always will be.

And he thinks that maybe his reluctance to leave, despite how much he's wanted to, despite how hard it's become to stay, is because he was afraid that if he looked away for even just a moment that he'd not know how to find her again when he looked back.

He explained this to Tyrion once and his brother's reply of “then don't look back,” had seemed like drunken cruelty at the time. Now, he wonders if his little brother had known what was to come even then, and had wanted to warn him, to spare him. He wishes now he'd taken that advice, but wishes won't get him away from Kings Landing, won't get him away from Cersei and her need for power, her need to possess those around her until there is nothing left of them and they are twisted copies of herself.

He's still afraid, he knows; of losing sight of her, of never looking back. But now the fear sits beside the knowledge that he isn't nothing without her. He's spent most of his life believing they would always be two halves of a whole; it's taken losing a hand but gaining back his honor, losing his father but gaining a friend - to show him how wrong he was. They are twins, yes, and they came into the world together, sure. But that doesn't make him any less his own whole, with his own thoughts and feelings, wants and needs.

So he takes his horse, his sword, his honor, and leaves Kings Landing. He can see the Red Keep in the distance and imagines Cersei still standing atop her map-world, Qyburn's creature beside her, her eyes filled with tears and rage and denial. Suddenly he knows he was wrong, that he could go back and still recognize her even though she is no longer his reflection, and his fear fades away. It's like he can breathe for the first time; she would take him back if he went to her and asked prettily enough. She would let him be hers again, after all this time, if only so she could control him and make him her most prized possession. He almost wants to smile at how easy it is to turn away from the city and the woman within its walls who has held him prisoner for far longer than Robb Stark ever had. He will never have to fight against Brienne, only with her. He can finally say the words he's been wanting to say all these years. He can do the one thing neither of them have ever been able to ask the other; he can and he will stay.

He doesn't look back.

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