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The Stranger was nothing like Jaime had expected him to be. The skull clutched tightly in his hands seemed to mock Jaime’s predicament, teeth luridly on display, grotesquely grinning as its empty eye sockets loomed before him. The Stranger’s pale green mantle fluttered in a breeze that seemed to only affect him, the mere suggestion of features behind it already terrifying, and Jaime swallowed hard, his mouth dry, his throat drier. He scrambled to his feet, dust raining off the folds in his clothes onto whatever floor he seemed to be standing on. 

As he thought about it, the floor went transparent, and he stumbled, eyes wide. He seemed to be standing in the sky, or what he thought was the sky, planets and stars freewheeling around him wildly, and the Stranger chuckled at the shock written clearly on Jaime’s features, a grating sound not unlike the sound of swords clashing.  Jaime’s brow furrowed, teeth grit tight. For a knight, he’d never liked the sound of metal on metal, the loud thunderclap of it echoing around his skull. 

“Jaime Lannister.” The Stranger said, in his scraping, keening voice. “Are you ready to die?”

“Yes and no.” Jamie shot back, never able to control his mouth, even at the worst of times. He really was the stupidest Lannister. 

Cersei had been right about him, right until the very end, until their last breaths, which they’d taken together, as one, the same way they’d come into the world. Jaime’s hand had closed around her throat, this time, instead of her ankle. 

He’d pretended it was an accident.

“Yes and no.” He could almost see a hint of a smile on the Stranger’s otherworldly face. “A curious answer from a curious man.”

“I am ready to die.” If he weren’t honest with one of the Seven, who could he be honest with? “But I wish it had happened differently.”

“Later?” The Stranger asked, his interest piqued.

“No. Better.” Jaime said. “Time is just there to fill. It’s-- It’s quality that’s the issue.” He licked his dry, cracking lips. He could still feel the dust in his throat, choking him from the inside. “I wish I could have done better.” 

The image of Brienne in his doorway at Winterfell came to him unbidden, Brienne in his arms, Brienne in his bed, Brienne, Brienne, Brienne. She had deserved better than him from the beginning, better than an old, broken man with nothing to give, empty arms and an emptier heart. And yet, she had wanted him, loved him as he hadn’t deserved, loved him in a way he’d hardly believed could be real. In the end, he’d allowed Cersei to pull him back into their old cat and mouse games again, allowed himself to be hunted and killed in the way she’d likely dreamed of since they were children.

Brienne had deserved better from him, and she wasn’t the only one who Jaime had wronged, who Jaime had failed. Tommen had deserved better from him. Myrcella had deserved better from him. Joffrey had deserved better from him. Tyrion had deserved better from him. The list of names held in Jaime’s heart grew longer and longer by the day, and now, at the end of the road, seconds from forgetting them all, he held them even more dearly, tears squeezing out of the corners of his eyes to drip down his cheeks. All of those people, fallen at his hand, by his hand, because of his mistakes.

It would have been easy, to do the right thing. It would have been easy for him to stay at Winterfell and let Cersei fight her own wars instead of running to her side like a loyal lapdog. It would have been easy for him to speak to Tommen in his moment of need, to spare him from his sorrows and show him that there was life worth living ahead. It would have been easy to say no to Death, when Myrcella had desperately needed him to intervene on her behalf, to stay with her, to be a father she could love. It would have been easy for him to counsel Joffrey as he should’ve, if not as his father, then as his uncle, to corral his most terrible impulses the same way he’d corralled Cersei’s (or thought he had). 

And yet, he’d failed them, again and again, until the moment of his own death.

If he was to share some life beyond this, with all of them, wouldn’t shame swallow him whole? Wouldn’t he suffer, knowing they were all there because of him? His hands had guided them to their deaths, his words, his follies.

“You could still do better.” The Stranger said. He sounded moved, as much as The Stranger could, and Jaime was reminded why not many people knelt at his altar. It was hard to pray to someone whose every word sounded like a condemnation. “You have potential.”

“But I am dead.” Jaime reminded the Stranger, a hapless smile on his lined face as he shrugged. “There is no coming back from Death, as far as I know.”

“Not in your world.” The Stranger said, looking oddly pensive. “But there are many others.”

“What does that mean?” Jaime asked. “Many other-- where?”

The Stranger snapped his long fingers, the sharp click of bone against bone ricocheting around Jaime’s head.

This time, the floor really did disappear from beneath Jaime’s feet.

Jaime woke in his bed in Winterfell, the long line of Brienne’s body pressed up against his, her back to his chest, his arm over her waist. Each breath he took ruffled her hair softly, caressing the curve of her ear softly before melting away into the air. It was almost unbelievable, having her so close to him, having her peaceful in his arms. The last person he’d had in his arms was Cersei, cold and unyielding, like a granite statue, and he’d clung to the memory of Brienne’s warmth, of the way she sneezed and snuffled in her sleep, of her smile. And here he was, perfectly poised to see her smile again, back from the dead to give her life.

He had hardly felt like a person around Cersei, awful, angry butterflies swarming in his stomach whenever she had raked a hand through his hair. She had always been overly fond of reminding him that they were mirrors of each other, from the beginning of their days, his hand around her ankle, ready to go where she decided he would follow, to the end. 

Brienne brought out the best of him, had helped him piece together an identity he could be proud of, an identity Cersei had denied him, had stomped into the ground every time it sprouted anew from the soil of his heart. She’d reminded him he was still capable of living with honor, that he could still atone for the mistakes he had made, that he was still worthy of love. She’d reminded him that he could be worthy of her love, no matter how much of Cersei’s disgust he’d bottled and stored within himself.

But the Cersei Jaime had known (the Cersei Jaime had loved) was gone, somewhere he couldn’t (wouldn’t) follow, even if she was still alive in this world. And she would stay gone, so long as he could keep her out of his life. 

He’d killed her once, his hands heavy around her neck as the rocks fell around them, the Red Keep transmuted into an avalanche of misery by dragonfire. He had done his share. She was someone else’s problem now.

He rolled to his side, nothing but Brienne in his field of vision, and smiled. He wanted Brienne to look upon him with love, and the path to it was so easy. All he had to do was stay. All he had to do was lie in this bed and smile the rest of the day away.

Maybe he had finally gotten his priorities straight.

Brienne murmured softly in her sleep, turning toward Jaime, and he barely got out of the way before she landed half on top of him, blinking away the remnants of her dream. “Ser Jaime.” She said softly, as if she couldn’t believe he was still here. Her eyes were bluer than the sky at midafternoon, brighter than the sun, and when they focused on his unworthy face, they were full of love.

“Jaime.” He corrected, cupping her scarred cheek gently. He leaned in, resting their foreheads against each other, their lips just centimeters apart. This was how close he wanted to be to her. This close, forever. “Just Jaime. Your Jaime.”

“Mine.” She said, hardly above a whisper. “It is hard to believe.”

“Then I will make you.” Jaime kissed the doubt from her lips, eyes closed against the threat of a future that might dare to take any of their happiness. “I will make you believe it. I will make you believe me.” He rested his hand on the back of her neck, the skin soft to his touch. “We’ll go back to Tarth, you and I, when this is all over.” 

She laughed.

“What?” Jaime frowned, rather cross with her. He’d just said something nice, or at least he’d thought it was. “You want to go home, don’t you?”

“I do, but why do you want to go home with me?”

“Tarth is your home.” Jaime shrugged. “It seems quite simple to me.”

“No eloquent promises, Lord Lannister?” Brienne teased. “No sonnets about seeing the place that made me?” Her fingers ran the length of his arm, loosely circling his wrist, like a crown, not a shackle. A mere suggestion of what lay ahead, an unbreakable bond. 

The Stranger would shake in his boots when he came for Jaime next, with Brienne to protect him forever.

“Not a one.” Jaime winked. “Or maybe one. I am not in the habit of making impossible promises.”

“You can have one.” Brienne’s eyes were soft with laughter, the light of joy dancing in her eyes. He could remember a time when she would’ve taken this as a slight, far too recently for his liking. She would never see a single word of his for less than what it was, if he had any say: a declaration of love, a proof of loyalty, his fealty sworn to her happiness, wherever that took them. 

“I am no poet.” Jaime pulled her fully onto him, content to be pinned beneath her in a way he was in few other places, few other situations. She seemed almost surprised, eyes wide for a second before she paused her panicking to assess the situation, and the careful, calculating look that came over her transformed her face in a way that made Jaime’s heart beat like a rabbit’s, flighty and far too fast. She always knew what he needed. “It may take me years.” 

“I can wait.” Brienne said softly, shifting slightly so she could lay her head on Jaime’s shoulder, and he kissed the top of her head, the gentlest brush of lips against her sleep mussed hair. “However long you want.”

“I don’t want to wait.” He admitted. “I am-- I am tired of having to wait, for things I want. For people I want. For-- for love I want.”

“Then we won’t.” She kissed him gently, with care. He had never known anything like this before, this soft, slow redemption of their angry, wrathful bodies, all their flaws melding together into something beautiful. Brienne, as always, brought the best out of him. She had an impressive knack for that. “What do you want, Jaime?”

It still floored him, whenever she asked what he wanted. He didn’t think Cersei had ever even thought the words, had ever wondered for a second if Jaime’s hopes, Jaime’s wishes, Jaime’s desires might be distinct, let alone different, from her own. She had behaved as if they had been one unit, piloted by her, their thoughts spoken through her mouth, articulated in words chosen by her. Brienne had encouraged him to find his own voice, to walk his own path, and it had led him here, to this moment, to this choice. 

He had chosen wrong once before.

He would not choose wrong again.

“I want you.” He said, voice shivering and shaking through the words. He caught sight of the tail end of a cloak in a mirror across the room, the same otherworldly shade of pale green that the Stranger wore. Maybe he’d just seen something out of the corner of his eye, an oddly colored shadow. Yes, that was what that was. “I want to do something good.”

“We will. You will.” She smiled against his lips. “You are a better man than you think, Jaime Lannister.”

He thought of how this had ended before, of calling himself hateful and leaving her in his dust, and smiled. He knew better now. He knew what he needed. He’d died for the opportunity to deny himself once -- he wasn’t going to do it again.

“I am a better man when I am with you.” He said, like a promise, like a prayer. “I will only leave when I am dead.”

“You look happy.” Tyrion looked rather impressed, lounging in his chair. He raised a grape to his mouth, then thought better of doing something so civilized, instead tossing it up and snapping his jaws at empty air, the grape bouncing off his nose and onto the floor. “Oh well. One man’s loss is another man’s gain.”

Jaime picked up the grape, turning it this way and that to consider how much dust it might have gathered, rolling about on the floor, and popped it into his mouth without fanfare. As dirty as it might have been, it was still a grape. And grapes were good for eating.

“Good to see you haven’t changed in the ways that matter, brother.” Tyrion guffawed, throwing his head back. 

Something warm and delicate cracked like an egg against Jaime’s ribs and spilled fondness throughout his body, the slow, steady faucet drip of tenderness. He’d left Tyrion for Cersei. How deeply had she sunk her claws into him that he’d forgotten Tyrion, his sweet, idiot brother (Tyrion, who clearly loved him more than Cersei ever would or could), in his rush to be by her side, in life or death?

“I wasn’t going to let food go to waste.” Jaime protested, choosing a chair of his own and dragging it close to Tyrion’s so he could rest his feet on Tyrion’s armrest. Tyrion hissed under his breath and Jaime smiled, resting one foot delicately on top of the other. “Are you well, Tyrion? Or should I call you Lord Hand now?” He stuck his tongue out and Tyrion rolled his eyes. “What? I’m only respecting my brother’s fancy station, now that we’ve survived a war together.”

“I’m not Eddard Stark, Jaime.” Tyrion harrumphed, eyeing the full wineglass in his hand greedily. “Tyrion will do.”

“My brother in arms.” Jaime said dramatically. “Keeper of my soul.”

“I certainly haven’t kept it very well, if Bronn made it all the way here without me noticing.” Tyrion sighed, swirling the wine in his glass about like he was daring himself to see how little he could spill. “Although that is our dear sister’s doing more than mine.”“Cersei is up to her old tricks again.” Jaime’s smile turned grim and worn, his age finally showing in the lines of his face and the gray peeking through in his beard and hair. He’d looked younger, felt younger, felt carefree at the very least until then, japing with Tyrion as if they were boys again, Tywin and Cersei busy with bigger things while they cavorted about like fools, getting into everything and charming their way out of it just as quickly. “Did she ever stop?”

“Cersei?” Tyrion snorted. “She’s been playing games with the minds of others since the day she was born. I even doubt you held her ankle of your own volition.”

“Very funny.” Jaime clutched the arm of his chair as tightly as he could with his real hand. His golden hand was no good for emotional theatrics -- it just sat on the end of his hand and looked shiny, though Jaime had no shortage of affection for shiny things. “Let’s be realistic.”

“Jaime Lannister telling me to be realistic. I never thought I’d see the day.” Tyrion laughed. “Has Brienne changed you so much?”

“She has.” Jaime said, almost eager to prove it, to give voice to the words he’d carried within him like a secret for so long. “For the better.”

“Clearly.” Tyrion smiled. “Otherwise you’d be halfway to King’s Landing by now.” 

The thought of Cersei made his heart shiver in his chest, leaping up into his throat. Had he really seemed so desperate to his own brother, the only other man to know what Cersei was truly like, at the heart of her? Had he really been so desperate that it was believable that he might run away?

He stopped himself right in his tracks -- him running away to Cersei wasn’t a hypothetical, nor had it ever been. He had run away, in his own world, had died at her side like her bodyguard, her lapdog, her prisoner. He had run away and left Brienne and Tyrion to suffer in his wake. He could prevent that here. Tyrion doubted him, and he was right to do so. Everyone that doubted him had reasons to do so. 

Lashing out was useless when Tyrion had only spoken the truth they both knew aloud, but it was what Lannisters did in times of trouble, an old friend to lean on when all else was lost. 

“Cersei has made her own bed.” Jaime spat. “She can lie in it alone. I’ve done enough in her name. I won’t lie down and die when she asks me to.”

“Well done, brother.” Tyrion looked rather impressed. “I never thought you had the spine to say such a thing.”

“I’ve grown one recently.” Jaime smiled. “Brienne helped.”

“I’m not sure that’s what she grew in you.” Tyrion chuckled. “But it’s a positive change, nonetheless. I am sick and tired of seeing you broken, Jaime. It’s high time that you found something better for you.”

The “and kept it” that Tyrion might have tacked on, were he not aware of the fragile bubble burst of happiness in Jaime’s heart, went unsaid, but was well understood.

“I won’t leave her.” Jaime said. “And certainly not for Cersei.”

“Good.” Tyrion drained his glass and then threw it at Jaime’s head. Jaime didn’t have to dodge -- Tyrion had always had terrible aim. “Lady Stark will have your other hand for it, if you do.”

“I always wanted to be there when they executed your sister.” Sansa said. “Seems like I won’t get the chance.”

Clad in black and fur as her father had once been, she looked every inch the Queen in the North, the Queen of Winter, as the Starks had been in ages gone by. She is regal in a way Cersei never quite managed, having grasped at power with both hands instead of letting it come to her, letting others drape the mantle of respect upon her shoulders. Sansa is queenly in a way Cersei fears, in a natural, effortless way, and Jaime, by extension, fears it just as much. 

“Neither will I.” Jaime said softly, a display of submission. He wondered if he should bare his neck, if the wolf owning part of her would laugh. For a queen, she looked far too serious, a child hardened into an adult far before her time. He had played a part in that, through Cersei. They all had. “More’s the shame for it.”

A flicker of surprise crossed Sansa’s face, a spark of confusion chasing it.

“She is a hateful woman. She-- she has done horrible things to everyone she comes across, you most of all.” Sansa startled, as if she hadn’t expected Jaime to hold his sister accountable at all. “She hurt a lot of people. I hurt a lot of people in her name.” He looked down at his boots, worn and scuffed, too sick to his stomach to even consider looking Sansa in the eye, Sansa Stark, whose brother he maimed, whose father died at the hands of his sister’s thirst for vengeance. Her family forever changed because of the Lannisters, in a way he could never fix. “I don’t want to hurt any more.” He thought of Brienne, steeled himself for whatever Sansa may give him. 

He would suffer her condescension gladly if it protected Brienne’s joy. 

“Brienne said you’d changed.” Sansa began carefully, the ghost of a smirk dancing at her lips. “I wasn’t going to believe her. But here you are. The Kingslayer himself, tired of hurting others. Curious.”

“Tyrion said the same.”

At that, finally the smirk blooms into fruition.  Jaime hadn’t known where things stood, between Sansa and his brother, but now things seemed murkier than ever to him. Exactly how Tyrion liked it. The closer a secret was to the surface, the more Tyrion despised its existence. He guarded his feelings like the Iron Banks of Braavos guarded their gold -- dearly and prone to retribution.

“I am proud of who I am. Who Brienne has taught me to be.” Jaime said with confidence, and Sansa looked at ease, for the first time since she’d approached him. “And I know who Cersei is. Who she was, who she’ll become. There isn’t-- she isn’t worth my life, if it comes to that. I felt that way once. I don’t anymore.”

“There is bravery in freeing yourself. From something so harmful to you.” He remembered, Sansa’s words ringing in his ears, that she was once married to Ramsay Bolton. She didn’t look like someone who could have been hurt (like Jaime himself, broken, like Tyrion called him). She looked like someone who had risen above. Someone who Jaime could learn from. “Ser Brienne has chosen well.”

“You asked me why I wanted to go to Tarth.” Jaime whispered into the shell of Brienne’s ear, after the rest of Winterfell had gone to bed. 

Brienne hummed sleepily, eyes still closed as she hooked her foot behind Jaime’s knee. It didn’t seem comfortable, but Brienne had never been about comfort. Ever since they’d kissed, she’d sought as much contact as her skin could drink in, a foreign concept to him but one he welcomed with open arms. She had been happy to let Jaime make her forget the aches and pains it came with last night, anyhow.

“People didn’t treat you with as much kindness as they could’ve but… you still have fondness for it. I want to know what such a place looks like.” Jaime admitted, his face burning. 

“You have no such fondness for Casterly Rock?” She asked, peeking open one eye, fixing him with a searching look that set his insides to churning. 

She had always been curious about his childhood, had eaten up every small detail that Jaime had seen fit to reveal. Jaime had pried his own fingers off of every secret with such pain and intention that he’d felt like he was leaving layers of skin behind on each admission of what his life before her had been like.

“Not at all.” His voice was rough with sorrow, little pitfalls and traps carved into each hesitant word. “Never have, never will.”

“Never.” Brienne turned toward him, a frown creasing her broad, high forehead. “That is a strong word.”

“No word strong enough exists.” Jaime smiled half-heartedly. “No good has come of a Lannister in this world after my mother passed. We have all done our part to that end.”

“You have done plenty of good.” Brienne pulled him into her, with all the fond exasperation of a mother reprimanding a particularly petulant toddler. “I don’t know when you will see it for yourself.”

“Or you will have to show it to me, forever.” Jaime said hopefully, resting his head against her chest. He could feel her heartbeat against his jaw, a restless thudding that vibrated through his skull. “That would not be so bad.”

She wove her fingers through his. “I would like it very much.”

“Jaime Lannister of Tarth, husband to the Evenstar.” Jaime mused aloud, feeling very much like a teenager writing love letters. “Yes, I should like that very much.”

“My father is the Evenstar.” Brienne let out an undignified snort, pressing her knuckles into his cheek. “Is that what this has been about? Charming your way into my father’s good graces?”

“You will be the Evenstar someday.” Jaime said softly. “Sooner than I will be Lord of the Rock, anyhow.” She blushed, her face a violent shade of crimson. Lannister colors. “And I will stand beside you then, just as I have before. Just as I do now.”

“I believe the Faith Militant will have something to say about that.” Brienne joked and Jaime shook his head wearily, remembering the storming of the Sept of Baelor. That had been among his stupidest decisions, and he’d made many. Cersei had always called him the stupidest Lannister and she’d been right. 

“Then we won’t give them time to say it.” Jaime said, painting kisses along the long line of her neck. She shoved his head back gently, wanting to meet his eyes. “When this is over, when we can leave? We should.”

“I swore an oath to Lady Sansa, to her mother--”

“I wouldn’t ask you to break your oath. Not for me. Maybe long ago, but not now.” He smirked. “When you feel things can go on without you. I will speak to your father, and we will go to Tarth to meet him.” He pressed a kiss into the end of her collarbone. “And he will say ‘of course, I love that the Kingslayer himself is asking for my daughter’s hand in marriage, what a wonderful day!’” She laughed as he sucked hard on the skin of her shoulder. “And he will take me for his son-in-law, and then will commence my great plan to get in the Evenstar’s smallclothes, as you detailed earlier.”

“Jaime, stop!” Brienne guffawed and Jaime’s heart was full to bursting with love. “The only Evenstar whose smallclothes you should have on your mind is me.” 

Her eyes burned with the thrill of possession, dampened by a love borne of companionship, of trust and the soft, sweet joy of fighting for each other’s lives more often than either of them had fought for their own. He could have never had this with anyone else, could never have felt such emotion for anyone else. If she asked him to promise himself to her forever, he would do it now, drunk off the liquor of her presence, heady and disorienting.

“If-- if you don’t want to wait”, Jaime said. “We could do something small. Just-- Just you and me, together. Just saying the words, for us. The Sept, the ceremony, that can all come later, but… I’d like to. I’m tired of waiting.”

“So you said.” She carded her hand through his hair, gently navigating her way through the maze of snags and tangles. “I am as well.” 

She tapped his shoulder and he scrambled up the bed enough that they were staring into each other’s eyes, identical self-conscious smiles on their face. They waited like that, each hoping the other would make the first move, before moving in unison, their noses bumping awkwardly as each tried to be the first to claim the kiss as their own idea. Competition was a fierce drug, one that set both of their nerves alight and their hearts racing, and they laughed into each other’s mouths as their hands roamed each other’s backs.

“I will find a smith with enough scrap for rings, then.” Jaime promised. “Robert’s boy will do.”

“I suppose it’ll be my responsibility to ask a favor of Arya, then.” Brienne laughed.

“What for?” Jaime frowned for a second, clearly playing the fool.

“Oh, hush, you know more than you claim to.” 

He thought of the Stranger, of the way he’d begged to do better by her one time, of the way he’d fought tooth and nail since coming back to Winterfell to do right by her. To give her the life he should have, the first time around, instead of running back to Cersei, back to the pain and suffering he thought he deserved, like the coward he had been.

“I do.” He said. “But it is your hand that guides me, even then.”

“Oh, stop.” Brienne tried to look annoyed, but failed miserably. “I would have never taken you into my bed if I’d known this was how you’d behave.”

“And now you’ve promised to marry me.” Jaime beamed. “Imagine that.”

Jaime felt the blood gushing from the wounds to his chest and abdomen, holding his hand over them as if that would force the blood back into his body, stumbling toward Brienne’s door. The blade had been two things -- poisoned and Cersei’s -- that may as well have been one and the same. 

The men had come in the night, dressed in black and armed to the teeth, and Jaime had been whistling as he walked back from Tyrion’s room to Brienne’s, almost comical in his belief that the world had left him behind to be happy for once. He had relished the fact that the world had ignored the terrible way the balance seemed to always fall against him and given him this one good thing without conditions. He’d known they were Cersei’s before they fell upon him, and as good as Jaime was with his sword, even without his sword hand to guide him, he was no match for several men with Cersei’s might behind them.

He had to get to Brienne’s door before the Stranger took him back, had to tell her he loved her. He had to make this life worth it, to make this second chance worth the trouble. Hadn’t he said he wanted to do better by Brienne? That he could have done more for her, had he had the chance? He hadn’t factored Cersei’s jealousy into that when he’d told her he’d marry her, but he could give Brienne that now. He could promise himself to her, could achieve the one thing he’d been unable to stop thinking about since she’d brought it up.

His vision swam, in no small part due to the tears coursing down his cheeks as he screamed for her, staggering down the hall toward her door. 

It swung open and she screamed at the sight of him, bloodied and pale and seconds from collapse, before yelling for a Maester, for anyone trained in medicine, but Jaime knew it was too late.

When he crumpled to the stone floor, Brienne was beside him, gathering him up into her arms as he struggled to draw breath. She felt warmer than anything else in the world, like the sunshine that would beat down onto the rooftops of Casterly Rock in the summer. Jaime used to lay himself out on the warm rock and sunbathe like a kitten until the nursemaids rushed him back inside, warning him of the dangers of heatstroke and burning. He’d never learned how to curb his instinct to seek out pain, seek out danger, but now he knew someone who would. Now he loved someone who would.

Now he knew what warmth (whose warmth) he’d been searching for all his life.

“Let it be known…” Jaime coughed, pain gnawing at his torso. “Let it be known that Jaime Lannister and Brienne of Tarth are… one heart, one flesh… one soul.” He clung tightly to her. “Cursed-- cursed be he who--”

“Who tears them asunder.” Brienne’s hand gripped his shoulder so tightly Jaime thought it might shatter beneath her hand. “Jaime-- Jaime--” She pulled at one of the laces from her boot until it broke free and bound the wrist of Jaime’s good hand to her own, earning a weak, watery smile from him as her chest heaved, pupils shrinking down to pinpoints. All he could see was blue. Sapphire blue. He was never going to see Tarth, was he? “Keep going, keep going--” She looked down the empty hall, the black wasteland, devoid of human presence save for them. “Someone help!”

“Father, Smith, Warrior--” He retched blood onto his chest, eyes unfocused for a second before snapping back to her, a new determination springing eternal. “Mother, Maiden, Cr--Crone, Stranger. I am hers and she is mine.” He drew a deep and rattling breath. “From this day until the--the end of my days.” He could hardly see her through the fog, but he smiled at where he thought she might be, a corner of her tunic bunched in his hand. 

Bound together for eternity, but just a little too late.

“Father, Smith, Warrior, Mother, Maiden, Crone, Stranger. I am his and he is mine.” Brienne said softly, each word torn to shreds and dripping blood. “From this day until the end of my days. Jaime, don’t-- don’t--”

“With this kiss, I--” He coughed again. “I pledge my love. Come, Brienne, please just--” He pulled her face to his with his golden hand, the metal cold against her cheek as their lips, slick with blood and tears, met in their final embrace. “I love you. I love you. I--”

He awoke on his back in a grassy knoll, blinking up at the sky, his nose blocked and his mouth full of grass. He coughed and turned his head to the side, spitting the grass clippings out onto the ground, to the sound of childrens’ laughter.

“We got you.” Tommen declared, chubby cheeks gleaming rose pink in the sunlight. “Ser Grass Mouth.” He couldn’t be older than eleven, judging by the fact that Joffrey, snoring in the sunlight nearby, had no crown upon his head. Tommen’s hands were on his hips and he grinned at Jaime toothily, not an ounce of Cersei’s killer instinct in his soul.

Jaime adored him. 

“Are you okay, Uncle Jaime?” Tommen asked, as Jaime sat up slowly, mindful of the pounding ache in his head. “Did I hurt you? Did you eat some of the grass?”

“Grass is green. So are vegetables.” Myrcella could hardly keep from giggling, but did her best. “It’ll be good for Uncle Jaime’s health.” 

She winked at him, as if they were sharing in a secret, and Jaime wondered how anyone could think she was Robert’s -- everything about her reminded him of himself as a teenager, self-assured and ready to claim the world at her feet, but tempered with Tyrion’s secret kindnesses made manifest in the world through her smile. Robert was brash and loud and bold where Myrcella was shy and sweet, rays of sunshine in the dead of winter. He was too deep in his cup to be an influence on any of his children, let alone a good one. 

The children had had to make do with Cersei playing both mother and father -- that had worked out badly, as expected, for Joffrey, and then the younger two had been happily left to the care of the Septas.

If Tommen was eleven, she would be fifteen, the same age Jaime had been when he’d joined the Kingsguard, signing his life away to Cersei’s machinations. And sooner than later, Myrcella would be asked to make the same choice -- and like her father, she’d fall victim to Cersei’s honeyed words and not notice the knife sliding into her back.

“I’m fine, Tommen.” He said, slowly rising to his feet. Tommen was tall for his age, just as Jaime had been at eleven, but even then he didn’t quite reach Jaime’s shoulder. Tommen’s watchful eye remained on him, a soft caress instead of the daggers Cersei’s glares threw, as he took a few experimental steps around, trying to find his balance. “Must have hit my head while training.”

“Should we call one of the Maesters?” Myrcella asked, catapulting into action at the first suggestion of a crisis. In any other world, she would have made an excellent Queen, but here, sandwiched between her brothers, her best bet at ruling would be at her husband’s side.

And Jaime knew she would never be allowed such peace.

“No.” Jaime smiled. “I’m well enough. Let’s play a game, that’ll take my mind off it.” He easily knocked Tommen’s legs out from under him, just softly enough that Tommen fell onto the grass giggling. “Oops. Sorry Tommen.”

“Let me try!” Myrcella, who had always loved a good game, crowed. She looked over her shoulder, as if expecting her mother to be looming behind her, and then raced forward to knock Tommen to the ground again, the both of them nearly crying with glee. “I did it!” She shrieked as Tommen rose from the ground, growling like a baby bear, to jump at her. She threw him aside easily, but Tommen, filled with the determination of all youngest siblings, threw himself at her time and time again until he succeeded, screaming at the sky in pride.

A little lion, three little lions, in a court of stags. They had all made their way in the world once -- they could easily do it again. Jaime sent a cheeky grin Myrcella’s way and she returned it, face streaked with dirt and hair all a mess. She looked more carefree than he’d ever felt in his life, ruddy cheeked and ripping up handfuls of grass to throw at Tommen, who squealed and wailed as if each was an arrow aimed for his heart as he tried to dodge them.

“Myrcella!” cried one of the Septas in the endless parade charged with preventing the children from having any fun at all, and Myrcella rolled her eyes so hard Jaime could’ve sworn that they were seconds from falling right out of her skull. There was Cersei’s influence. “You’re covered in dirt! And hours before you’re to leave for Winterfell! And Tommen, you could even be heard in your mother’s room! Have a care for your guests!”

Tommen shrunk from the criticism like spinach wilting in a pan, eyes shimmering with tears as he looked to Jaime, but Myrcella was a lioness through and through -- she bared her teeth when the time was right.  

“We were having fun, Septa Eglantine.” Myrcella said. “It isn’t a crime.”

“I provoked the children, Septa.” Jaime said, placing a hand on Myrcella’s shoulder. She peered up at him, curious, and he patted her head. “Go on, get changed. If your Septa plans to speak to your mother, I will take care of it.” He rubbed her back, keenly aware of how little he’d been allowed to share in this joy when the children were young enough to be thrown up into the air, their faces just big enough to be covered in kisses in one breath. “Take your brothers along -- Joff’s slept enough and Tommen needs a fresh set of clothes as well.” He winked at Tommen, who giggled. “Go on. I’ll meet you before we leave.”

Jaime’s heart fluttered as he watched his children leave, like a butterfly trapped in his cavern of a chest. The Septa’s muttered complaints faded into the background, her murmurings mere suggestions of sound. If she went to Cersei, he could handle Cersei. He wasn’t scared of her. What he was scared of was his children -- what was ahead for them, and how his actions might damn them forever.

If the Sept of Baelor had felt anything, in the moments before Cersei had blown it to pieces, Jaime was feeling it now, tenfold.

Jaime had forgotten how furious Cersei had often gotten when the children were young, before she had well and truly gone mad with power, until he spotted her glaring at him as he stood in her bedroom doorway, her arms crossed over her chest. She looked as if she would gladly tear him limb from limb, as if she was barely holding herself in check by a single thread of sanity, the barest remains of control. He wondered how he had loved her, when they had lived this moment for the first time, how he had glossed over this anger, this resentment with his rose colored glasses. 

 “How dare you?” She said, each word clipped and choppy, like the sea near Casterly Rock during a storm. “How dare you make my children look like common rats? They’re to be kings and queens, Jaime. They shouldn’t be running about the castle covered in mud, like those dreadful Stark children.” 

Jaime bounced around in the wake of her words, the cymbal clash of her accusatory tone, vainly fighting for control, like a boat on those waters, seconds from being dashed against rocks. It was strange, this feeling of powerlessness that always came over him around Cersei. She had him pinned, like a butterfly in a display case, and she knew it. 

She smiled, a predatory, daring smile that set Jaime on edge.

She was expecting him to capitulate, to kneel and offer his head as payment for the simple sin of allowing children to be children. He didn’t know how he hadn’t seen her, truly seen her, earlier.

“I told you to stay away from them. They aren’t yours, Jaime.” She spat, knowing it would hurt him, knowing it would set those delicate parts of him that longed for fatherhood, that longed for happiness, afire with envy. And it had, when she had done this before -- Jaime had been consumed by his envy, lashed out just as she wanted, and then she’d held it like a card to be played, the next time he’d even seemed to want something from her. “And you shouldn’t treat them like they are. The poor dears, you’re such a terrible influence on them.” 

He was smarter now. He’d died for her games once, and died because of her games again. He had no reason to stoop to her level.

“They’re children.” Jaime said, voice steady and even, not betraying a speck of emotion. “Forgive me for thinking they deserve more care than whatever scraps their mother allows them.”

“More-- How dare you, Jaime, they’re my--”

“Your children, of course. Name one thing they like. One thing they need.” Jaime glared at her. She was despicable to the bone. Others had warned him, even Robert himself had warned him. “Name the last time you made even one of them smile.” 

She fixed him with a calculating look, obviously planning her next move, waiting for him to trap himself in trying to use her silence against her, but he shook his head and left the room instead.

He’d wanted to see her. To see for himself that she was capable of change. And again, as always, she’d disappointed him. 

“Brother.” Tyrion looked thrilled to see him. “Bored of Cersei already?”

“Already?” Jaime stuck his tongue out. “News travels fast, I see.”

“On the wings of angels.” Tyrion snickered, mirth painting his face like a mummer’s. “Well done, Jaime. I thought you lacked all bones but the one our sister concerns herself with -- you’ve grown a spine since I saw you last.”

“A lucky accident.” Jaime took a bow, each movement exaggerated, and Tyrion laughed again, kicking his feet with glee like a child might have. “You seem thrilled.”

“Our sister is a menace upon the earth. Someone has to hold her in check, and Robert certainly doesn’t seem interested.” Tyrion raised his glass mockingly, as if offering a toast to Cersei’s continued health. If he were to make one, Jaime didn’t doubt he’d be wishing for something entirely different. “And while you have interceded like the saint you are on my behalf, you haven’t yet done so for yourself, to my knowledge. Congratulations, Jaime. It only took you, what, seventy years?”

“I’m not quite that old.” Jaime complained. “Cersei would know the number, but--”

“Until Cersei admits the number, you will be seventy to me.” Tyrion’s eyes almost sparkled. “A lovely compromise.”

“Compromise?” Jaime spluttered. “You got everything you wanted and I’m being insulted!”

“See? Even.” Tyrion’s smile was a dagger poised to strike. “We are all jokes in our own way, Jaime. The sooner we make peace with it, the sooner we can live without regrets.”

“This family was a mistake.” Jaime sat heavily on the wet ground, grimacing. He could feel the moisture seeping into his clothes. Riding would be beyond uncomfortable. “Not one of us has a sense of humor.”

“Speak for yourself.” Tyrion snorted. “I have nothing but compliments on mine. Cersei took the brains and the humor in the womb, I suppose, but she’s done far too much with the former and nothing with the latter.”

“And what do you suppose she left me with?” Jaime grumbled.

“Your cock, brother, and nothing else. And that too, she wants back.” Tyrion nearly choked on his wine laughing. 

“You’re a terrible person.” Jaime grimaced. “Father would be ashamed.”

“Who isn’t he ashamed of?” Tyrion rolled his eyes. “Cersei? Just her, I’d suppose. Married the King, birthed him a bunch of squalling, spoiled brats. You he doesn’t like because you left the Rock to me. We are all creatures of shame, brother. Best to enjoy the ride to hell than let Tywin Lannister drag us there.”

The forests of the Neck bloomed on either side of the Kingsroad, their forbidding arches of trees containing Jaime and Tyrion’s good spirits so their laughter could wash over them again and again. In every world, in every time, at every sordid, terrible point in his life, Tyrion had been there to make him smile. To remind him that there was value in Jaime Lannister, even before Brienne had.

How had he ever thought Cersei was his favorite, of the two?

“Should I be so lucky as to have a son, you can name him.” Jaime said, and Tyrion raised an eyebrow, seconds from striking like a snake with the reminder that Jaime had two, were it not for their proximity to the camp.

“An honor I don’t deserve, having just told you your skeleton is sorely lacking.” Tyrion tried to sound casual, like Jaime’s promises were handed out like candy to children, and not immensely valuable and certain to be kept. “Are you thinking of leaving the Kingsguard?” He asked in a hushed voice, eyes bright with curiosity. Tyrion had always loved to be the first to know a secret. “Is there a woman that’s caught my dear brother’s eye?”

Jaime thought of Brienne, of how she’d stolen his breath away in every moment they’d shared. 

“There might be.” He admitted. “I do not know what she thinks of taking a Kingslayer for a husband. I will ask of that first, then take more serious decisions next.” 

He didn’t know why he was talking of loving Brienne as if it was current, as if, in this world, he stood a chance of earning her favor. The Lion of Lannister, the Kingslayer, Oathbreaker -- all men she hated, even more sorely so when contained in one body, his body. She would abhor him and he would have to earn her trust all over again, build the foundation of the love that had kept them warm in Winterfell from the ground up. 

Did he really believe that, in every world, he would find his way to her? Did he really believe that they were meant for each other on so essential a level? Did he really believe it was possible for her to love him here, as she had before he’d run away to King’s Landing?

Jaime was beginning to find that he did.

“There may still be hope for you, Jaime.” Tyrion declared. “And if you don’t trust Father to make enough fanfare out of it, I will.”

“Are you my father now?” Jaime scoffed.

“I might as well be, seeing as I’m the only one who’s taught you to be a man.” Tyrion cackled. “I cannot believe you told Cersei how to raise her children. Would that I had balls so large. Your courage astounds me.”

“I’m the stupidest Lannister.” Jaime sighed, rubbing his eyes. “My mouth goes before my mind more often than not.”

“And it goes for the good of us all.” Tyrion said. “Someone needs to challenge her. Someone needs to show her she’s not so perfect as she thinks she is. And you’ve made yourself the perfect man for the job.”

The memory of his hands gripping Cersei’s neck as the stones of the Red Keep rained down upon them came upon him like a hit to the back of the head, and he jolted forward, out of breath and sweating. Tyrion was staring at him in confusion, stunned into silence, before sliding down off the rock he’d seated himself upon and wobbling over to Jaime, concern written clear on his face. 

“Are you alright?”

“She has taken more of my life than I realized.” Jaime admitted, wrapping his arms tight around himself. “It bothers me, sometimes.”

The feeling of his right hand so real and solid, at the end of his right arm where it belonged, was foreign to him still. It was unsettling, unnerving, distanced Jaime further from himself, the person he remembered himself being, who’d put effort and blood into becoming a better man. He had his own soul, but the body not reflecting the parts of himself he’d grown used to, scars and aches not yet earned or incurred leaving empty spaces waiting to be filled. Cersei hadn’t looked at him with disgust because of the simple fact of his right hand’s existence -- she wouldn’t have looked so surprised if he had yelled at her so with his hand gone, the stump wrapped in rough cloth and shoved into his heavy, unwieldy golden hand, like he had in later years. 

“I should not have made light of it.” Tyrion sat down beside him. “You have suffered just as much as I at her hands.”

“Do you think Mother ever thought it would end like this?” Jaime asked. “The both of us friends and Cersei on the outside?”

“I wouldn’t know.” Tyrion wisecracked. “I never met her.” He looked rather hurt about it, so Jaime slung an arm, his right arm, around Tyrion’s shoulders, which melted his pain into surprise. 

“I suppose Lannisters are all skilled at hurting each other, in our own way.” Jaime’s voice was rough with emotion. “The Seven had to give Cersei and I something, to make up for our lack of humor.”

“I suppose they did.” Tyrion sighed, placing a hand over Jaime’s own, the simple shift of his hand so infused with tenderness that it brought tears to Jaime’s eyes. “We are lucky to have each other, at the end of the day, our sister be damned.”

“What are you doing?” They let go of each other like magnets repelling, each turning toward the snotty, aggrieved voice behind them from a different direction. 

Joffrey Baratheon, their golden haired prince, scowled at them. He was obviously up later than his mother would have allowed and of a bad temper as a result, and the deep bootprints Jaime saw leading toward the main camp spoke of Joffrey throwing yet another tantrum and stomping off into the woods threatening that something (or someone) would hurt him, and then everyone would be sorry. 

Just another night on the road.

“We’re talking.” Jaime said, trying to suppress the instinct to be rude. Joffrey was, without question, one of the most awful children in the world, though he had only met maybe five in total. “Adult business.”

“I am an adult.” Joffrey said, with the unearned confidence and unmerited pride of a teenager inserting themselves into issues above their station. “I can listen.”

“And I can go to bed.” Tyrion yawned. “Lovely to see you both.” He waved lazily before picking up his cup and making his way back to the main camp as quickly as he could. 

Joffrey laughed.

“The world isn’t made for people like him.” Jaime said sharply, trying to keep a rein on his temper. Cersei had seen no problem with laughing at Tyrion so cruelly when they were children, and now she’d raised her oldest son in that tradition. How despicable. “The least you could do for your uncle is not laugh at him. There are enough people in the world standing by to do so.”

Joffrey, to his credit, looked shocked, pupils blown wide. 

“Go to bed. It’s far too late for you to be awake.” Jaime said, a lion’s roar weaving its way into his words, and Joffrey scampered away, tail between his legs, to tell on Jaime to his mother.

He could do his worst.

Jaime wasn’t standing down anymore.

Winterfell was nearly a decade younger than he remembered it, full of action to make the king’s stay as comfortable as possible, but there was one thing missing as he wandered the cold stone halls -- Brienne. 

Brienne’s barking laugh, the cautious smiles she would allow him if he said something funny enough that it could not be ignored, the way she leaned into the wind, as if the smell of it would tell her from where it had come. It seemed as if every nook and cranny of Winterfell, of which there were far too many for his liking, carried some memory of Brienne within it, a maze littered with treasures, each priceless, and the more Jaime roamed, the more he would find. Here was the wall against which they had kissed, there the stall in which they’d tied up her horse. They’d fought the dead in front of that tower, and laughed at Podrick in front of the other. 

It was overwhelming in the best way, to imagine his Brienne here, alongside him, her loping stride hard to keep up with without jogging. He’d managed to perfect the art of not looking as if he was trying too hard to keep up somewhere along the line, and she’d never said it, but he knew she’d appreciated it. He knew she would have said it eventually, in between kisses, and embraces, and more, partway through some secret of a moment stolen away from a war that didn’t concern either of them beyond those they had sworn themselves to. There were a lot of things he knew she would have said -- all of which he was left to wonder about, now.

He had thought the Stranger’s second chance was a gift, but the third was proving to be a trial. He hadn’t expected to come back at all, and the fact that he’d come back here, so far away, through time and space, from Brienne, festered within him like an old, untreated wound. She was on Tarth, now, if he’d remembered her history properly -- still stuck halfway between child and knight -- with far too many decisions to make and far too many dreams shackled to her ankles. She’d worried, at that age, that she would be crushed by them, that she would never be the sort of hero people sang ballads about. He should’ve made good on the sonnet, before dying in her arms -- at least she would have had that, to remember him by.

But this Brienne wouldn’t know him by anything other than reputation, even if he left Winterfell for her this time, rode down to King’s Landing, and booked passage to Tarth. This world’s Brienne knew the Kingslayer, or thought she did, a man without honor, a man whose crimes could never be equaled by his acts of valor. She would not take kindly to him turning up on her doorstep, especially if he made the mistake of telling her he was in love with her. He knew what had been done to her, what wounds men had caused and forgotten about, what insecurities still tugged at her heart every now and then. 

He would not be one of them, would not join the army of men that had sought to win her, to lay claim to her. If she came to him, before he died in this world, he would be immeasurably happy. If she came to him and he was good enough for her, he would show her everything he hadn’t had the chance to, in their own world. In the world he’d left behind, convinced that Cersei didn’t deserve to die alone, that he owed his sister one last kindness in the world. He shook his head. Even the thought of it made his stomach pitch and roll now.

Leaving Brienne had ended his life as he’d known it. He wouldn’t make the mistake again, no matter how many times he had to die. She would find him and he would stand by her side for as long as he drew breath. Until then, he would strive to be the man she had believed him capable of becoming, the good man she had seen hiding within the lion faced facade he and Cersei had built as children. 

A man who deserved to be regarded as highly as she had regarded him, a man who deserved to be looked upon with love.

His steps led him unconsciously to the godswood, a place that held no promise for him. He’d been raised in the Faith of the Seven, hadn’t seen nor heard of a godswood anywhere in the vicinity of Casterly Rock, but Ned Stark had mentioned that things seemed to work out for him, when he prayed to the Old Gods. That things came true here, that things made sense here. And Jaime, still sick with the unnerving anxiety of being in Cersei’s thrall again, desperately needed things to make sense.

He could only slip away into his memories of Brienne so many times before she demanded to know what he was thinking about. She’d always spoken so highly of knowing his thoughts better than himself, and every time she’d looked at him, he’d spooked like a horse, if Tyrion was to be believed, so much so that Tyrion had asked him if she hadn’t hurt him. 

Jaime wanted to say yes, that she had hurt him. Not now, not here, but long ago, at Casterly Rock, when she’d fed her dreams to him and he’d swallowed them, grateful to be given anything at all, and made them his own. She’d asked him to join the Kingsguard, and he’d obeyed. That was his first mistake, his worst mistake, beyond all the other unspeakable things he’d done in her name. If only he’d listened to his father, remained content with the Rock and married some nameless woman, and made a life for himself. He wouldn’t be here. He would be warm, at least.

He knelt in the godswood, sheathing his sword in the ground, his knees digging into the soft earth. 

“I wasn’t aware that anyone kept to the old ways in the South.”

Jaime chuckled. Only the Warden of the North could call Casterly Rock the south. Of course, everything was south from Winterfell but the Wall.

“We don’t.” Jaime said, as Ned Stark took a seat on a stump nearby, a laugh brewing in his eyes. “I was searching for some peace.” 

He had no other way to articulate the yearning within him for safety, for a rock to hold onto in the hurricane of Cersei’s moods. She was expecting a Jaime that was no longer there, a Jaime that bent to her will without question, and every time he’d fought with her, she’d grown more and more desperate to maintain the upper hand. It had always been about control, and if he hadn’t known it to be true already, he would have known it now, from the way she looked at him, like he’d stolen something precious to her simply by questioning her intentions.

“You look like a man in need of it.” Ned Stark nodded slowly. Jaime could understand, in that moment, why Robert treasured his advice so dearly. 

“My sister is a demanding woman.” He decided to be honest, because what did he have to lose? If Ned Stark told Robert what he’d said, so long as Jaime kept his words innocuous, it would be nothing Robert didn’t already know. Cersei’s implacability was legendary throughout the Seven Kingdoms, its reputation just shy of that of her rage. “She asks much of me which I refuse to give.”

“Your sister is courageous, to ask for what she desires.” Ned’s eyes danced with laughter, just as Sansa’s did when Brienne spoke to her. Would they meet here? Would they provide each other the solace that they had sought so desperately in his world? “In a man’s world such as this, it is no small act.”

“Is it really a man’s world?” Jaime raised an eyebrow. “Or have we told ourselves it is?” He thought of all the women he had known, good and bad -- his mother, Cersei, Brienne, Sansa, Arya, Myrcella, and countless others besides. All had one thing in common -- the fortitude to see any task through to their desired conclusion. “We spend the coin and fight the wars, but a different hand holds the reins.”

“Quite so.” Ned smiled. “I tell my daughters they should be just as feared as any man. Sansa shows no interest, but Arya is everything I dreamed of and more.” His fondness for Arya was impossible to miss, written all over Ned’s face -- in the laughter lines around his eyes, in the contented set of his mouth. “Sansa will learn with time. She is her mother’s daughter. Ever the diplomat.”

“She will do well at court, should you choose to present her there.” Jaime said. “I will ensure she keeps her distance from my sister.” He grinned, the same lazy, entitled smile that won everyone over eventually. It made a dent in Ned’s armor, because the tension that had crept into his frame at the thought of Sansa at court eased. “Sansa may need tutelage in being feared, but there are other places to receive it than from Cersei.”

“Kindness from the Lion of Lannister.” Ned cast a glance at one of the weirwood trees, which seemed to have a wizened face carved into it. “A blessing I hadn’t expected.”

“I heard strange things come true here.” Jaime smiled, this time genuinely. “I had to find out for myself.”

“I suppose you have.” Ned laughed.

Jaime nodded eagerly. He pushed off the ground with his left hand as he rose to his feet, his right arm hanging limply at his side. “I’ve found out plenty.”

“I thought you were right handed.” Ned inquired, frowning slightly.

“I’m rather friendly with both.” Jaime slid his sword back into its sheath before waving goodbye with both hands to demonstrate. He’d almost forgotten he still had his right hand, in this world. What a mystery. “Thank you, Lord Stark. For the introduction to these lovely trees.”

“It is no small pleasure of mine.” Ned said, and turned to the wood, his face solemn and pensive. 

Jaime turned toward the castle, his heart a lighter burden to bear. Defying Cersei would be difficult, but it had to be done.

For the sake of Ned’s children as well as his own.

“You’re forgetting your place, Jaime.” Cersei hissed, irate. She paced around the room, eyes sweeping the furniture and small, understated adornments as if searching for something appropriately sized to throw at Jaime’s head. Jaime, to his own credit, didn’t shrink or flinch from her anger, and instead stood tall, holding his ground like Brienne would have. “First you tell me how to raise my children, then you tell my son, your future king, how to behave? You shame him, in public, for Tyrion’s sake? In Tyrion’s defense? What has come over you?”

“Not enough people defend Tyrion.” Jaime said. “Knights are meant to protect the oppressed, not bend to their sisters’ every whim.” He clenched his hands into fists, relishing the feeling of the nails of his right hand digging into his palm, sharp sparks of pain filtering through his hand and up his arm. “And you, despite what you choose to believe, certainly aren’t a victim of anything.”

“A self-made victim. Is that what you choose to believe of me?” Cersei’s face contorted into something animal, something ferocious. 

Years among the Baratheons hadn’t dulled the knife edge of her hatred, the ferocity with which she would hold and defend a grudge. She had always thought Jaime a betrayer, for being able to join the Kingsguard, for being able to travel, to live his own life, while she remained chained to Robert, to sink or float at his command for the rest of her days. 

“I don’t choose to believe it. It is fairly obvious.” Jaime said. “You want to believe that I abandoned you. That I am the reason your life is the way it is. You played us all and now you want to cry about consequences? This is beyond anything I thought you capable of, Cersei. This is pathetic.”

“Pathetic? You are intimately familiar with it, from what I’ve heard.” Cersei spat. “Horsing around with children where others can see you. Have some self-respect. The Lord Commander of the Kingsguard tumbling in the grass with highborn children, it’s disgusting.”

“They were children. Someone had to play with them.” Jaime argued. “It is not as if Robert cares for the children. It is not as if you care about either Tommen or Myrcella, so long as you have Joffrey to dote upon. They need to know that they’re loved, that someone cares about them, that--”

“You are not their father, Jaime.” There it was, the knife to his chest, sliding deeper and deeper with each word Cersei spoke. “You do not get to act as if you know better than me. What child have you borne? What child have you raised? What child have you been responsible for?” The ground seemed to shake with the force of her anger, with the hammering thud of each word against his ears. “I raised these children. I made the who they are, and now you’re saying I haven’t done enough? You were perfectly at ease not lifting a hand to help before, but now--”

“Perfectly at ease?” Jaime glowered at her. “You thought me at ease? You thought I was happy being shut out of their lives? Because of your paranoia, your suspicion, I hardly got to see them as children. I-- I missed out on so many things, between the Kingsguard and you. I could have been in their lives, I could have helped where you needed me to, I could have--”

“I didn’t want you to help.” Cersei admitted. “I didn’t want anything more of you to taint them. The broken, pathetic thing that you are, always craving my approval. I would have tired of you long ago if you hadn’t kept coming crawling back, begging for me to see you, begging for me to treat you as if you were anything but a mistake.”

“You haven’t seen me for what I am, then, if you think I still yearn for your approval.” Jaime smirked. “I need nothing from you. I am content to live our lives separately. Whatever we felt for each other, as twins, as siblings, I do not need it to be happy. I am happier without it. It clouds my judgment and yours and there’s no need for either of us to be any more embroiled in each other’s conflicts than we already are.” He stepped back toward the doorway. “I will gladly wash my hands of you. My life will be better for it.”

“I cannot believe you, you liar--”

“You have done nothing but hurt me.” Jaime’s voice shattered around the word, as if voicing it aloud broke him. “For my whole life, you have done nothing but hurt me and hurt Tyrion because you were hurting too. You felt the same pain we did, the same loss, the same loneliness. But you decided to hurt others instead of understand it. And if we are calling anything pathetic, let us call that pathetic, because it truly is.”

He heard a rustling at the window and spotted a little head, half covered in a mop of brown hair, two bright eyes peeking out from beneath a thick fringe. His cheeks and the tip of his nose were flushed pink from exertion, his hands gripping the ledge of the window tightly between his hands. This was Brandon Stark, before he had become whatever he had been when Jaime had left him behind, some otherworldly being trapped inside the body of a teenage boy. 

“Hello there, little Stark.” Jaime said softly. He had almost forgotten Bran Stark had been this small, when he had damned himself by pushing the child out the window. “Do you need a hand to come inside?”

“No!” Bran said obstinately, his little nose crinkling in annoyance. “I can climb down myself!”

“Then carry on, good sir.” Jaime took a sweeping bow and Bran giggled before disappearing out of sight. He leaned out the window to see the boy scrambling down the tower with ease, more monkey than boy, laughing to himself all the while. “A good lad, isn’t he? Curious interests, but compared to us at that age--”

“Who knows what he heard?” Cersei’s face was bone white, as if all the blood had drained out of her. “Jaime, what did he hear?”

“Nothing worth hearing, beyond me trouncing you in an argument and telling you to kindly fuck off.” Jaime shrugged. “Nothing the child hasn’t heard already. He’s, what, seven? Eight? Doubtless he’s heard an argument before.”

“Yes, but--” Cersei stared out the window as if an enemy would come rushing through it. She was obviously distracted, eyes flitting back and forth as if she were expecting an attack from any side. As if she were vulnerable. The thought was laughable. “Jaime, I need you to make sure he doesn’t tell anyone what he heard.”

“Done.” Jaime shrugged lazily. “May I take my leave, Lady Baratheon?”

“Queen Cersei.” She looked at him with disgust, the disgust he’d been expecting since he’d woken up in King’s Landing. It felt familiar in a way he had despised, when he’d been gifted it for the first time. “If I am not your sister, I am still your Queen.”

“Queen Cersei, then.” Jaime said. “I’ll talk to the boy.”

“Talk to him? Talk to him? He will tell everyone what you said, and that will make its way back to Robert, who will tell everyone who hadn’t heard already!” Cersei looked panicked, trapped in a corner like a rabid animal. “No, I need his silence. I need you to silence him.” She hissed the word out between gritted teeth. “One last favor for me, Jaime. Then you can-- you can go, you can have whatever you want.”

Silence-- you want me to kill a child?” Jaime laughed. 

She had asked the same of him, many years ago, and he had happily pushed Bran out of the window in the hopes of being able to bask in the sunlight of her approval (never her love) for a little longer, to scrape by with a little bit of certainty. It had never been about love for Cersei, only ownership, only possession, only a favor to hold over his head. It was about him remaining in her debt forever, enthralled by the little gifts of things that smelled and tasted like love and trust enough that he would remain complaint.

She had never loved him.

And maybe he had made the mistake of loving her once, but he never would again.

“I won’t do it. If he heard anything, he should tell the world.” Jaime said. “The whole world deserves to know that Jaime Lannister is tired of his sister’s antics and wants out of her life. If he won’t tell anyone, I’ll tell them myself.” He spat at her feet before storming out the door and down the hall, breaking into a jog to put as much distance between them as possible.

Brienne would have been proud of him. That was all he needed to carry himself forward.

“Brandon!” Jaime called out, spotting Bran skipping down the hallway ahead of him. He’d been searching for the boy since he left Cersei’s room, but the boy hadn’t wanted to be found, and had made himself scarce quite easily. It was a small task, in a castle as large, old, and sprawling as Winterfell, with rooms that even the Starks hadn’t found yet. “Brandon, wait!”

“No one calls me Brandon.” Bran stopped in his tracks before turning around with a flourish, his little teeth visible in a grin. He reminded Jaime of Tommen at the same age, all smiles and theatrical enthusiasm. “Call me Bran.” He seemed to realize who he was talking to, then blushed. “Uh, Lord Lannister.”

“If I can call you Bran, you can call me Jaime.” Jaime winked at him. “It can be our secret.”

“Okay.” Bran looked skeptical.

“Go on, say it.” Jaime said. “Come on, Bran.”

“J--Jaime.” Bran said, frowning. 

“There we go. Well done.” He ruffled Bran’s hair and Bran shook it back into place like a dog, or perhaps a little wolf. “I wanted to talk to you about something that happened when you were climbing. When you saw my sister and I in her room.”

“You seemed angry.” Bran said. “Were you angry?”

“Very.” Jaime nodded. “Are your sisters ever mean to you?”

“All the time.” Bran said solemnly, with the air of a much older man. “Sansa is always telling me not to run in the hallways, and Arya won’t let me play swords with her now that she’s so grown up.” He huffed angrily. “I want to play swords and I want to run in the hallway and they won’t let me do either thing.”

“Well, my sister is mean to me too.” Jaime nudged Bran softly, earning a shy smile. “We’re grown up, sure, but she says mean words because she wants me to listen to her. And if they’re about good things, like with your sister, then listen. Your sisters are trying to keep you safe. Running in the hall could lead to you or someone else getting hurt. You shouldn’t play swords with someone so much older than you, because they’re taller and more skilled -- you might get hurt.”

“Did your sister want you to keep from getting hurt?” Bran asked, cocking his head to the side.

“No, she just wanted me to listen to her.” Jaime grimaced. “And I said no, because sometimes it’s worth saying.”

“It’s worth saying all the time.” Bran said knowingly, and Jaime laughed. “I heard her call you a liar. That’s mean.”

“Of course a Stark would think that was the meanest thing in the world.” Jaime shook his head, smiling. “You’re right. That is very mean, and I’ve told her I won’t stand for it. All I want to know is if you can keep that secret. I don’t want people to know she’s angry with me.”

“Arya called me a cockroach once.” Bran said, in the simple way of children -- a secret for a secret, one promise traded for another. “And Sansa said not to tell Mother, because she was busy with Rickon. Was it like that?”

“Very much so. Tyrion is our Rickon.” Bran giggled. “I like him very much, but Cersei’s mean to him more often than she is to me. We all keep secrets for each other. You’ll do the same for your siblings, when you grow up.” Jaime sighed. “You’ll see, in some time.” He patted Bran on the back. “You’re a good kid, Bran. Thank you for the talk.”

Bran’s smile was all Ned, eager and excited, a burst of childlike wonder at being inducted into the business of adults leaving his feet barely brushing the ground. Bran must feel as if he was walking on air -- Jaime had felt the same way, at that age, when anyone had dared speak to him directly, as if his opinion might be important. 

It had taken quite some time to find out which of the bedrooms around Winterfell belonged to Bran, but eventually, Jaime happened upon the right one (only because Bran had shown it to him). Sansa Stark had eyed him with suspicion as Bran dragged him inside to look at his impressive collection of wooden toys, and Jaime had shot her a weak, harried smile in the hopes that that would help. He didn’t think it did -- she had probably gone straight to Catelyn Stark, who likely didn’t have a good opinion about her young son making nice with the Kingslayer.

But Bran’s trust had been essential to unlocking the Stark family’s goodwill. 

After seeing that Bran seemed perfectly at ease around him, Arya had approached him while he was training in a corner of the yard and asked him what exercises he did to keep his wrists loose. He’d shown her happily, though his right hand was quite a bit slower than his left. She’d noticed it immediately and he’d commended her on her sharp eyes, told her he’d injured his wrist some weeks ago. She’d grimaced and said she could ask the Maester if he knew anything about healing wrists. 

Robb was next, the little Lordling, flush with anger at Joffrey’s attempts to needle him into a fight, and Jaime had whispered to him, just barely loudly enough to be audible, that only those who knew they were going to lose sought fights in the way Joffrey did. From then on, even if Robb didn’t treat him with overt kindness, he was hospitable beyond a fault, and often smiled at Jaime when their eyes met across the hall during mealtimes.

Bran roped Rickon into their secret afternoon games soon enough, the littlest Stark wide eyed and amazed at the sight of a real sword, at Jaime’s armor and itchy formal clothing alike, and quickly decided Jaime’s lap was a perfect chair for him, much to Jaime’s ire. And once her brothers had declared him safe, Sansa had come along to see for herself what the Kingslayer was made of and had found him shrieking as Bran tackled him to the floor, Rickon sitting on Jaime’s back with his arms up in the air like he’d defeated him all by himself.

And all of that had lead to this moment, Jaime spending a night “walking the halls of Winterfell” to guard against threats on the King’s life, even though the King was several halls away and the greatest danger to him was Cersei, who slept in his bed, too close to be defended against. The rest of the Kingsguard was scattered around the castle, but Jaime had requested this corridor -- and when the Lord Commander asked, everyone would always answer in the affirmative. It helped that Cersei wanted him nowhere near her.

No one was like to come here, save for Catelyn and Eddard Stark, and he would greet them if they did. Tonight would be a quiet night, as every other night had been, but Jaime would remain awake regardless. He’d grown used to sleepless knights, since he’d been taken into the Kingsguard. Kings were quite fond of planning their most dangerous escapades at night, and never seemed to spare a thought for their knights, who had to keep track of their antics no matter what the hour.

He caught the movement on his right side just a second too late, drew his sword just a hair too slowly. The clashing of swords woke the children and the guests alike, lingering in the doorways watching the spectacle of a fight with glassy eyes. Jaime required so much more focus than he ever had while still in possession of both hands to swing his sword the way he wanted. It felt like he was trying to cut through stone, like every movement took twelve times more effort than it had before, his right hand nothing like it had been in its first shake at life. Maybe the hand hadn’t really come back -- just the rest of Jaime’s soul. Maybe he was so used to fighting with his left hand now that his right was unwieldy. 

He switched his grip in a split second and then it was certainly easier, but still not the same -- something settled, deep in his chest, something sticky and toxic and poisonous. He was supposed to lose this fight. He was going to die here, as he did in Winterfell before, and this time there would be no Brienne to catch him as he fell, no Brienne to bind them together for eternity. He would die here, alone. 

He found the gap in the assassin’s armor just as a dagger found its mark in his chest, driving his sword in as deep as he could while he watched them collapse in stages, each joint giving way as if in slow motion. He took several deep, shuddering breaths, the image of bony hands reaching out toward him seared into his eyes, before falling to his knees and then listing to one side, his head hitting the stone floor with a crack. 

“Lord Jaime, get out of the sun!” A servant yelled, and Jaime startled, his eyes flying open. Here he was, asleep on a balcony at Casterly Rock, having fallen asleep on the stone again. His back felt just as warm as his front, the skin of his bare chest already red enough to cause worry, and he cursed under his breath as he ran back into the safety of the keep, each footfall a lesson in agony. He caught his breath as he closed the door to the balcony behind him, shrouding himself in the dim light of the hallway. 

He recognized where he was immediately, reorienting himself as easily as stepping out of his bed onto the floor in the mornings, and ran around the hallways like a wildling, searching for the tunic he’d obviously left somewhere. He found his room sooner than his clothes, a great shame and surprise all wrapped up in one, and opened the door to find Tyrion sitting on his bed, round faced and far younger than Jaime had seen him in decades.

Tyrion was reading a book larger than his own head, naught but his blond curls visible when he turned a page. He looked up only when Jaime cleared his throat, and only then to laugh hysterically, dropping his book and falling back against Jaime’s mattress, howling at the ceiling. 

“You look awful!” Tyrion said, in a little boy’s voice, reedy and thin. “Jaime, you’re all red!”

“I fell asleep outside.” Jaime mumbled, and oh, he sounded different than he was used to as well. How old was he? He was missing scars on his chest that he would’ve expected to see -- now, safely inside and away from the heat, he was starting to realize that things weren’t as he’d assumed they would be. He threw open his armoire and tugged on a shirt, not wanting to have anything to do with Tyrion’s derision, and made a beeline for the closest mirror.

He was stunned by what he saw.

There he was, the last vestiges of childhood clinging to the soft curve of his jawline, his sunbleached blond hair sticking up at all angles from rolling about in his sleep. The dark circles beneath his eyes that he’d grown used to had been wiped away by the hand of time, the woodsman’s beard that Brienne had teased and blushed at in turns gone. He stared at his reflection for a few seconds, raising his right hand to trace the curve of his own cheek in shock, only causing Tyrion to laugh harder and harder. 

He was a child. 

“What, are you surprised?” Tyrion asked, looking at Jaime curiously. “You woke up with this face, you’ll go to bed with this face.”

“Don’t be so sure.” Jaime pointed at him, right between Tyrion’s eyes. “I can change your face easily.” 

“Try me.” Tyrion blew a raspberry. He looked so innocent, face unmarred by war and what felt like a thousand kidnappings, mischievous now that he could be at peace, without the weight of advising kings and queens upon him. “I have a beautiful face, and if you hurt it, you’ll have to keep me forever.”

“It wouldn’t be so bad.” Jaime said fondly. “Why are you in my room?”

“Cersei said not to darken her doorstep.” Tyrion said, the only hint of gloom Jaime had seen in the boy so far appearing at the mention of her name. “I only wanted to show her something I’d read.” He shrugged, his expression defeated. “I know you don’t read, so it’s okay, I won’t tell you.”

“Why? Did she say why?” Jaime found himself livid on Tyrion’s behalf, though Tyrion seemed content to lay on his bed and make sad declarations at the ceiling. But Tyrion’s attempts to defend himself had always been called childish, brushed away easily by Cersei and their father in the name of ignoring the child they hardly acknowledged existing beyond cursing his name. “That’s-- I’m going to go talk to her.”

“Why?” Tyrion blinked in surprise, tilting his head to the side. He looked at Jaime like a particularly observant owl might. “There’s no use talking to her.”

“Someone has to tell her she’s wrong. I might as well.” 

He wanted something deeper -- to make Tyrion happy. He was such a little boy. He always had been. Four years younger than Jaime and Cersei, he had been just young enough for them not to bother with him and just old enough to want nothing more than to be part of their games. The servants feared him -- something about the look of him, coupled with the fact that his mother had died birthing him, meant that no one had ever bothered to care for Tyrion as much as Jaime had, and even Jaime had never quite succeeded in making Tyrion truly happy, only getting him in trouble. Tysha had been a wash, but that hadn’t yet happened here -- Tyrion was at most eleven years old, the same age as Sansa Stark had been at Winterfell.

And he deserved to be protected, just as Jaime had tried to protect Bran Stark, just as Jaime had tried to protect Brienne, just as Jaime had tried to protect Cersei. Everything he did seemed to circle back around to family -- at least this time, he could make sure he was standing in favor of the right family member. Tyrion needed him. Tyrion loved him. He always had. 

Jaime would make this right for him.

He marched down the hall to her room, only more emboldened by every step he took toward it. When he stood outside her door, he took a deep breath, and knocked it five times in quick succession. 

Cersei opened the door, still doll like and graceful in a way she’d shed quickly as an adult in favor of the cold statuesque beauty that kept others at arm’s length, just the way she liked it. If she was living at Casterly Rock still, they were younger than nineteen. If he was living at Casterly Rock still, they were younger still. But it didn’t matter -- most children knew not to hurt others, to dig at soft spots, and laugh at weaknesses, and if Cersei didn’t, he needed to hold her accountable. As her brother, as her twin, he owed it to her to help her become a better person.

And if she felt he’d asked too much from her, that was her problem, not his. All he could do was tell her gently that she was hurting them. It was her choice what to do with that knowledge. Saving her wasn’t his job. It never had been. The realization had him almost in tears. He shouldn’t have gone to King’s Landing, he shouldn’t have gone with her to Winterfell.

This was the moment it had all gone wrong.

Or maybe it had already gone wrong, and this was his last chance to do better. To be the example Cersei seemed to need. To lead his sister out of the darkness without watching for whether she followed or not. 

“I don’t like how you’re treating Tyrion.” He said, with the gravity of all the years he’d lived, with and without her, beyond her, in worlds she would never see the way he did. “I don’t like how you’ve treated me. And I think you’re getting away with more than we think, and I don’t like it.”

“You don’t like it?” Her haughty smirk made him sick. “Neither of you know what’s good for you. I’m only making sure my brothers are taken care of. You in the Kingsguard, Tyrion with whatever woman will have him. I only want the best for you.” 

He shuddered. He had never felt so cold in his life, not even in the depths of Winterfell, where winter raged on and on forever.

“No. You don’t.” He said. “You want the Kingsguard. You want the Rock. None of this was ever about us.” He took a deep breath. “You want us in your debt, in your favor, so deep we can’t get out. You want us to destroy ourselves for you.”

Cersei at least had the decency to look affronted.

“I want to be better, Cersei.” Tears pricked at Jaime’s eyes. “I want you to be better. Just because-- just because we’ve lost more than we ever should have, that doesn’t mean we have to hurt each other. That doesn’t mean we have to hurt Tyrion. The three of us are-- we’re all we have in the world, Cersei. Father won’t be around forever and we’ll only have each other. We can’t waste time hurting and being hurt.”

“I have never hurt Tyrion.” She said coldly. “If he says I have hurt him, he is weaker than I thought.”

“He is stronger than you thought, for saying it.” Jaime replied, each word dripping acid. “And you, thinking yourself beyond reproach for all you’ve done, I don’t-- I don’t understand how you--”

“Fine! Maybe I do want you in the Kingsguard for myself!” Cersei roared. “What harm is there in that?”

“I don’t want to be there.” Jaime said, shaken by the words once he’d said them. “I don’t want to be a knight. I’ve learned-- I’ve learned what I needed to learn.” His right hand hung limply at his side, the fingers twitching of their own volition like the hands of a clock. “I don’t want that life, Cersei, and I won’t take it on account of your dream. I won’t live my life for you when I can live it for me.” He swallowed hard, a lump rising in his throat. “I can’t be what you want me to be. Who you want me to be. I know-- I know you’re scared, about what the future holds for you, but--” The tears spilled over. “I can’t always be there to save you. I can’t-- I can’t just leave myself behind to be there for you, all the time. I need to-- I need to take care of myself too.”

“So you won’t join the Kingsguard. You won’t be with me. What will you do?” Cersei scoffed. “Is there anyone in the world that will have you?” She sounded so genuinely affronted by the fact that Jaime might think anyone at all would care about Jaime deeply enough to bother with marrying him that Jaime hiccuped, a fresh round of tears spilling over.

He had hated being a teenager the first time and hated it still, though he didn’t doubt he would have cried so much in his own body, in his own time, having this same conversation.

“I will live my own life. Whatever-- whatever that looks like.” Jaime said. “I’ll be Lord of the Rock. I’ll-- I’ll take a wife, I’ll father some children, I’ll-- I’ll be happy. I’ll take care of Tyrion, and-- and his wife, and his children, and you can come visit whenever you want. I’ll make us a family.” 

He could almost see it unfolding in front of him, this brave new world where he and Cersei could stand each other, could still smile at each other in public without the weight of their sins dragging them down into the earth. He could almost see Brienne at his side, Lady Lannister in name for the first time, whispering jokes into his ear at feasts, Tyrion laughing at Brienne’s jokes while he needled everyone for information in his sweet but infuriating way. 

It all felt so real that he couldn’t be imagining it. 

But he was, and he knew it.

There was no world in which Cersei did not lust for power, for enough blood to spill to place control squarely in her hands. There was no world in which they could be anything resembling friends, let alone the two halves of a whole they’d once called themselves, tucked away in secret corners of Casterly Rock. Cersei was the moon, waxing and waning on her own schedule, pulling Jaime around in her tidal waves, and Jaime was sick and tired of seeing hope that wasn’t there.

“You hate me.” Cersei said, near tears herself. “You’re only saying all of this because you hate me.” Her voice wavered, but he knew it to be false. She had played this same trick on him a thousand times before, and a thousand times, he’d fallen for it. Not this time. Not again. “You only want happiness for yourself. You don’t care that that means taking it from me. You’re selfish, you’re awful. You’re a horrible, hateful person, Jaime Lannister.”

The words didn’t hurt nearly as much as he’d expected, coming from her. A dull ache in the pit of his stomach, perhaps, but not unbearable.

It could also be indigestion. 

“I’m saying this because I love you.” Jaime said softly. “If I hated you, I wouldn’t bother saying it. If I hated you, I wouldn’t care enough to want better for you.” He took a step back and Cersei reached out for him, her lower lip wobbling. “I can’t do this anymore. For me, for you. For both of us. I can’t be this person anymore.” He wiped his face on his sleeve, laughing. “I want you to be a better person, Cersei. I want you to be happy too. And-- And the longer we just rip each other to pieces like this, the more it feels like-- it feels like we’re going to hate each other.” 

He knew they’d hated each other, when he’d come to die by her side. Neither of them had felt love at the end, just relief, and that had been the worst of it. Knowing he was leaving real, true love behind for someone who considered him a constant in the worst way, an eventuality that didn’t even need to be earned. But this Cersei had a chance still, to become someone better than the Cersei he’d known. This Cersei could change. And if she didn’t, it wouldn’t be his fault. It couldn’t be said that he hadn’t tried.

“I’m going to go now.” He said. “Tyrion’s in my room. I need to make sure he hasn’t moved anything.” He shot her a wry smile, the comedy of it undercut by his red, watery eyes. “I hope you’re happy someday, Cersei. But it can’t be my job. You’re-- you’re the only sister I’ve got. I want you to have a good life. But it can’t be with me.” 

In this world, there would be no children. There would be no love between them, no obligation, no duty. And they would all be better for it. He turned away from her, so he wouldn’t have to watch her sob into her hands in an effort to play him for a fool, and began taking slow, measured steps down the hallway, each one harder than the last, each one taking him farther away from her.

It was for the best, for both of them, that he cut it off before they went too far, before they made mistakes they could never take back. Before she could grow more dependent on him, before he grew too used to bending the knee to her. Before they became the ghosts of each other that had died in King’s Landing, buried beneath an avalanche of rubble. Before they crossed the line a brother and sister should never cross.

Besides, there was someone else waiting for him. Someone who he owed a life to. Someone who he could treat right from the start. Someone who brought out the best of him and loved him through the worst.