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there's a ghost in my lungs; it sighs in my sleep

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Jaime looked down at Tyrion’s crumpled, crying figure. When they’d been little and Cersei or Father had been cruel to Tyrion, there was no pride preventing Jaime from scooping his little brother up, cradling him to his chest. A little later, Tyrion learned to hide his tears with wit, and he no longer accepted Jaime’s offers for embrace.

And now, Jaime had no body with which he could hold Tyrion. In fact, that was precisely the problem here: Jaime was dead, and Tyrion was mourning his body.

“You know, I’m right here,” Jaime said, but of course Tyrion couldn’t hear him.

Jaime drifted away, leaving Tyrion to his mourning. Jaime had spent enough time staring down at the bodies and Cersei’s flat stomach, wishing her to linger as he did so he could get answers to questions he hadn’t thought of asking.

 


 

Jaime went to the sept, or what was left of it. Before, it had been a gaping pile of rubble that not even the people of Flea Bottom dared approach. Now, it was near-unrecognisable from the rest of the city, though the bloodied, soot-covered poor still avoided it. Still, Jaime climbed the stairs and entered the threshold, and in the middle of the cracked seven-pointed star that marked the centre of the sept was Tywin Lannister. He sat on a pile of broken marble as though it was a throne.

“I was wondering how long it would take you to come here,” Tywin said, but it was mild, with no reproach or impatience.

Jaime frowned. “Tywin Lannister never once spoke to me without some sort of disappointment. You’re not him, are you?”

Not-Tywin smiled, and his skin grew sallow and maggots crawled out of his mouth. “No.”

“Why do you wear his face?”

“You know who I am.”

Jaime didn’t, but he was no lackwit, either. “You’re the Stranger,” he guessed.

“Then you know why I wear his face. Though,”—here the face shifted, first to the Mad King Aerys, then to Cersei’s cold sneer—“I have many. Your own, too, if you wished it, but your sister’s is close enough, no? ‘Like looking into a reflection,’ you two used to say.”

Jaime looked down to his empty stump. There was no hand there, gilded or otherwise. “Not anymore.”

The Stranger’s face shifted again, now to Myrcella’s, with blood dripping from her nose and mouth. Not the face of someone who dealt death, this time, but someone on the receiving end. “No. Not for a long time.”

“Why am I here and she isn’t?”

“Because when you lost your hand, you gained something else,” said the Stranger in the long-suffering tone of a daughter speaking to her senile father. “And you left her behind.”

  


 

 

Jaime could barely listen to the council in the dragon pit as they prattled on about what to do next with the kingdom. He looked at Brienne, in the armour he commissioned for her. Brienne, solemn and stone-faced. Brienne, her hair slicked back unlike how it had been after their first time. Her astonishing blue eyes saw beyond him, but he hovered in front of her, so close, committing every line on her face to memory. She would return to her island, after this, and he would never see her again. Would that he could follow her, but he had tried going through the crumbling city walls, when the Stranger told him the reason he stayed behind. He could go no farther than the gates, as though an anchored chain had been holding him back. A pity. So close to her, he felt—not whole, no, he would perhaps never be whole again, but closer to, and she would soon leave him empty as he had been since he’d ridden south.

There was a dent on her pauldron. He reached forward and ran his fingertips through the metal.

He might have imagined it, but the slightest tremble shook Brienne’s lip as she leaned forward and away from his touch.

 


 

The boy king summoned Brienne to his solar. Jaime felt anger for the first time since his death. Did Bran Stark not realize that she had her own island, her own duties as the last Tarth, a whole life ahead of her that should not be bound by broken oaths?

Calmly, unaware of Jaime’s glare, the boy said, “You are to be the Lady Commander of my Kingsguard.” He said it with the certainty of someone who saw the future as well as he saw the past.

“Say no,” Jaime said. “Tell him you have—”

“I have duties to Tarth, Your Grace.”

“Good,” Jaime said through gritted teeth.

“But,” Brienne continued, “I have long accepted that I could never fulfil these duties as I am, and Tarth is now little more than a port for pirates. I am honoured,”

“No,” Jaime snarled—

“to stand as your guard.”

“Very well,” Bran said. As ever, there was neither pleasure nor pride in his face. He merely accepted Brienne’s answer as something he’d already known. “Gather your men and women, Ser Brienne.”

Brienne turned, and just before Jaime could follow her, Bran caught his gaze. When the door closed with a heavy thud, Bran said, “The day before you left, she sought Sansa’s leave to return to Tarth with you, when the war is over.”

“She can go now,” Jaime said. “The war’s over, isn’t it? She could go now, get rid of the pirates and rebuild her island. She could get married and continue her family line.” He didn’t say the rest: Instead, she’s here, alone, because you demanded her service.

A cold smirk curved Bran’s lips. “She’d see your ghost in every suitor.”

“Can’t you tell her…” Jaime faltered. What indeed should Brienne hear from him?

Bran leaned back in his chair. “No. You’ll tell her yourself.”

 


 

Tyrion took Brienne to the Lord Commander’s chambers. She still wore her blue armour, as the official one was not yet ready, though a white cloak already fell from her shoulders. It became her, Jaime realized. He could see Widow’s Wail half-concealed by the lopsided edge of the cloak, her hand resting on its pommel. No one had contested her claim to the blade, and so now she carried it with Oathkeeper on her other hip.

She looked around the pristine room, the White Book on the desk, the wide bed with four gilded posts and white linens.

Gingerly, she sat on its edge. Her fingers smoothed out an invisible wrinkle, and without looking at Tyrion, she asked, “Did he ever take her here?”

Jaime sank to his knees so he could look up to Brienne’s downturned face, but instead of tears or a frown, he saw the blank mask she wore around him before he’d told her about Aerys. This was the face that barely faltered in the face of his taunts and the Bloody Mummers’ cruelty, and she wore it again, now, even though not even Tyrion could see it.

He wished he could draw her into his embrace and lied. No, he’d say, I never took Cersei here. She was paranoid and I always had to come to her, and not—

“Never,” Tyrion said, filling Jaime with gratitude. It was a lie, of course. Tyrion couldn’t know for certain, but he said the word carelessly enough to pass as the truth. “It was easier to contrive a reason for a guard to be in the Queen’s chambers, and not the other way around.”

Brienne scoffed. “Had he ever done anything the easy way?”

Tyrion said nothing at that. He merely took the jug of wine on the desk and poured two goblets, handing one to Brienne. “To Jaime,” he said, lifting a goblet. “May the Seven keep him.”

Brienne raised hers but didn’t drink.

She was still terrible at this game, Jaime thought.

 


 

Brienne wept in her sleep. Jaime made himself stay and watch.

 


 

The new Kingsguard armour had a three-eyed raven emblazoned at the breastplate. Brienne wore it proudly. She oiled the joints and checked the cloak to ensure it was pristine. Before she left to the Small Council meeting, she sat at the desk and opened the White Book.

Jaime sat on the edge of the desk, watching her neat, even penmanship fill the page. She made no mention of him knighting her, or him serving under her command, or him sharing her bed. Instead, she wrote died protecting his queen, as though the queen had lived through his sacrifice.

She ran her fingers over the drying ink.

He said, “You know, a lie by omission is still a lie.”

Looking up, she blinked back tears.

“And the book is supposed to record my finest deeds. I like to think they’re all the things I did for you.”

She sighed and closed the book.

“Or you know, the things I did to you.”

Brienne pushed back her chair, stood up, and left for the Small Council. Jaime sighed and followed her.

 


 

Brienne never said his name, not even in passing. Sometimes she would spend time with Tyrion or Podrick, and they would tell her stories, and she sometimes told her own in return, but from her lips Jaime was always he. He was known and remembered but never named.

Jaime had resigned himself to an eternity of watching her, always, waiting for her to mention him by name. He knew it might never happen. He’d been Kingslayer to her, then Ser Jaime, and it had taken him half a flagon of wine and his head between her legs until she called him by his name and only his name. He might not be the brightest Lannister, but he could see anger in the woman he loved. It was writ in the crease between her brows and the set of her jaw and the pulse on her neck. It was hidden in layers of grief, but the fury was there, simmering, stopping her from calling him by his name.

Until tonight.

It was a hot summer night. Brienne had the windows thrown open and the coverlet kicked off the bed, and on her own body was a thin shift that hid nothing. She was sleeping on her side—she once said that she trained herself to sleep so, for then the soft flesh of her belly would be protected and it would be easy to roll and get on her feet—and her legs twitched a little before she called out,

“Jaime.”

Jaime had taken to lie on the other side of the bed, watching her even in her sleep. There was nothing else for him to do, after all, and being away from her had left him adrift. He had once hated the invisible chains that tethered him to the city. Now, he clung to the one that linked him to her. When she called out his name, he leaned forward, eager to glean more.

Brienne moaned, high-pitched and breathless, then she said again, “Jaime,” and after a gasp, “please.”

Jaime saw it then: the hard peaks of her breasts against the thin shift, the flush to her face, her thighs rubbing together. He felt an echo of arousal in him. Just how this form could not hunger but would never be full, it could not truly lust, but there was still some remnant of longing. He remembered Brienne’s powerful limbs entwined with his. He remembered the way they sparred empty-handed in her room in Winterfell, which started off serious but ended with her pinning him to the floor, riding him.

He remembered holding her, after, always, even the night he left her.

Brienne’s hand had moved from under the pillow to between her legs, and her other hand on her breast, plucking, pinching. She seemed to be asleep, or at least partly so, since her eyes remained shut and his name continued unabated in a litany as she touched herself.

The window slammed shut.

In the distance, a raven cawed.

Brienne’s eyes flew open. She stared straight ahead—almost as if she could see Jaime—as her heavy breaths filled the empty room. She closed her eyes again, then, a trickle of tear rolling over her cheek, and with a final sob, she heaved herself up to sit on the bed. The fingers that had been between her legs were hastily wiped against the linens, and the hand that was teasing her breast now wiped the tears away.

“Brienne,” Jaime called out, though he knew she couldn’t hear him.

She pulled on a pair of breeches and a doublet. Her boots were laced hastily. She grabbed Oathkeeper. Her hand made a move to take Widow’s Wail, but she hesitated, and with a caress over the scabbard, she left it behind.

“I’m sorry,” Jaime said, again to her unhearing ears. “Wench, please, you need to calm down,” he said, as he followed her brisk pace down the stairs and to the training yard.

He kept his eyes on her and she kept her eyes on the ground and neither of them was aware of the assassin dropping down from the rafters.

 


 

The Maester, like most of the Small Council, had no business doing what he was doing. Samwell Tarly had only been in the Citadel for a year before he fled it. Still, Bran Stark knew the exact poison lacing the assassin’s blade, and Samwell administered the antidote to it, though neither promised anything.

Arya Stark melted out of the shadows to inform them that she’d taken care of all the Faceless Men in the keep. “I reckon they’re trying to take Brienne’s face before they move at you,” Arya said to Bran.

“I know,” Bran said. “Why did you think I woke her up?”

Jaime listened from his place by Brienne’s sickbed. Bran had not acknowledged his presence since there were others in the room, but his eyes drifted to lock with Jaime’s for a split-second as he admitted this. If Bran expected Jaime to thank him, he was mistaken. Brienne shouldn’t even be in King’s Landing at all.

“Your Master of Coins has to pay the Iron Bank back,” Arya said. “They’d just keep sending Faceless Men until then, or until one of them wore your face and pay the debt in your stead.” From the displeased curl of her mouth, Jaime could tell that Arya was none too happy at her brother, right now.

“Your Grace, Lady Arya,” Samwell said, wringing his wrists. “We should leave Lady Brienne to rest. The wound’s not likely to kill her, but the poison… she should rest.”

They all left, and Podrick stood guard outside the door. Jaime did not move from his spot on the floor next to the bed.

For days, he sat still, not even to look out, not even to turn his head to watch her. He kept his gaze to the floor, and he listened to her breathing. Samwell would come in every day to force-feed her broth, but she was never awake for this, and she only swallowed because the Maester pinched her nose. Jaime also did not look up for any of the feeding. He only knew because he listened. He didn’t think he could bear to look at her again, but he couldn’t move away, couldn’t leave her side. The chain had shortened so that he was bound to be within an arm’s length from her. He thought he might have turned into a statue, and the thought of moving again slowly became absurd.

Jaime had lost count of the days when he felt a hand brush his shoulder. He leaned into the touch. He had forgotten what if felt like, to be touched.

No one was supposed to be able to touch him.

“Jaime?” her voice—harsh with disuse, but hers—asked.

Jaime turned her head and saw Brienne’s ashen face and blue eyes that nearly glowed. “Brienne,” he breathed out.

“Jaime, why are you here?” Brienne asked. There was a frown between her brows, but not one of anger or grief. “I thought you’d gone south.”

Jaime was stunned. Brienne saw him. Brienne saw him. Not a memory of him she flinched away from, in the hallways of the castle, but the real him, the one that nearly turned to stone next to her bed. “I shouldn’t have,” he said when he finally found his voice. “I should have stayed with you. I went to save her baby, but there was no baby. I don’t know if there ever was.”

“You didn’t ask her?”

“We didn’t have time.”

Brienne smiled, then, close-lipped and a little sad. He had not seen her smile for so long, and he drank in the sight, bitter though it was. She said, “Neither did we.”

“We could have. I should’ve asked for your hand. We would be in Tarth now. I would be your Lord Husband.” He reached out to cup her chin, and she closed her eyes, humming at the touch.

“I would have liked that. I asked Lady Sansa if she would release me of my service, the day before you left.”

“I know. Bran told me. You can still go,” Jaime said. “Please. When you’re all better, leave the Kingsguard and go back to your island. Continue your bloodline.”

Her eyes opened at that, hard and unyielding as ice. “With a suitor who would never knight me.”

Jaime laughed. “To hell with that. You’re already a knight. Get a husband who will not leave you. Who has both of his hands. Who never fucked his sister. Whom you actually like.”

Brienne frowned, opening her mouth, and before she said anything Jaime knew she would say some sort of objection. “I like you,” she said.

There, he thought with satisfaction, and he would laugh were he not so frustrated with her mulishness. Instead, he asked, “Do you? Even after I left you?”

She blinked rapidly and he knew then that she was holding back her tears. “I love you, still.”

“That isn’t the same. And not nearly as good.”

Brienne reached out and cupped his face, her fingers in his hair, her palm against his beard. His hand immediately held her wrist in place. “How many times do I need to tell you that you’re enough?” she sobbed. “You’re a good man. You’re good enough. Please, Jaime, stay.”

“It’s too late for that,” Jaime said. He moved her hand from his jaw so he could kiss her palm. “It’s too late for me.”

She sobbed even louder, then, and called him like she had done that night he’d left her and wailed until her face was all crumpled and red and blotchy, and he could only murmur comforts to the palm of her hand, begging her to please, don’t cry for me, I am not worth your tears, but that seemed to only upset her further.

At one point, her crying must have been loud enough to travel outside the room, and Pod burst in, expecting trouble with a hand on his sword, his face falling when he saw his Ser weeping.

“Ser Lady,” Pod said, touching her shoulder. “Ser, you’re dreaming.”

Brienne looked at Pod with reproach. “No, Pod, see,” she said. “Jaime is right there.”

“Ser Jaime is gone. You’re dreaming,” Pod said, but Brienne insisted, gesturing at Jaime, calling him to talk to Pod himself.

Lady Catelyn, ash-grey with drying blood across her throat, sat down on the floor next to Jaime, gracefully, her leg folded under her. “She’s close.”

“What do you mean?” Jaime asked, prying his gaze away from Brienne and Pod to look at the Stranger.

“Why can she see you, when you don’t reside in the realm of the living?”

Jaime faltered. “I thought,” he began, paused, then continued, “I thought that was the poison.”

“Yes,” said the Stranger, face shifting to Daenerys Targaryen. “The poison is killing her.”

Jaime shook his head. “No. I won’t allow it.”

“My child, it was never about what you would allow. But,”—the Stranger raised a finger—“there is a way.”

“Tell me.”

“A part of you lives, still, in this form. A part of her has died, and the rest of her will, soon, if you do nothing.” Ned Stark’s solemn face carry no judgement, only a knowing that the living Ned Stark never had. The choice was easy; the Stranger knew that, nodding his approval.

Jaime stood, unfolding his hollow form to stand over Brienne. Her gaze was fixed to him, to his face.

“Jaime,” she breathed, and in that moment, there was only him in the room with her. He would never tire of her saying his name.

“Ser, I’m fetching the Grand Maester. You are not well,” Pod said, then ducked out the door.

“Brienne,” Jaime said. “Wench.

She snorted, but a small smile bloomed on her face, nonetheless. “Why do you always call me that?”

“Indulge me,” he said. “It’s the last time.”

“Are you leaving again?” Brienne asked, though this time there was a resignation to it that Jaime did not like.

“No, my love,” Jaime said. “I will always be with you.”

He bent down to kiss her. Her cold lips warmed under his, and then—

—he was gone.