"So you're leaving?" The physicality of her response was not new to him. Hunched shoulders and neck, as if deflated, as if defeated. He had seen her crumble into dust once before. Yes, she didn't take deceptions well, specially her own, and the tremors of her hands and body showed the shock and nervousness she felt. "You are leaving without a word Brienne, in the middle of the night", he continued while circling her and her mount to be able to face her pale face and downcast look. His hand instinctively reached the saddle and pulled the stirrup down, as hard as he could, as if this was his horse, and his saddle, and his hour to ride away into the night instead of hers. He felt his heart break.
Brienne looked up, tears in her eyes, hair short once again and washed back. He had told her on that ship, while tending her wounds, that he liked her long tresses, that she should keep them, and she had braided them and kept them in place as best as she could just to make a silly old man happy. It seemed to him that they had managed to give each other love, even when they hadn't said a word about it.
"I will come back" she promised him with a whisper and he hated her for it. How many vows was she willing to take? How many times was she willing to risk her life for his sake and others? He wanted to roar, laugh, cry and pull her to him to show her that he understood why she had to go, but that he would never ask her to come back.
"No more promises Brienne!" now, he was chastising this absurd child, who believed in honour beyond all, who was willing to forsake her life and the love of a worthless fugitive all because of a promise made to a woman who had been dead for years. "Go and find Arya, and sail to Tarth. Stay there and never look back" his voice had broken somewhere between his command and his request- his left hand reached for hers on top of the saddle. She was still trembling, and her sobs where as quiet as a maid's.
'She is still a maid', he remembered. She was so young and life was waiting for her. He had robbed so much of her youth already... With a heart throbbing in pain and all the possible dreams he had ever allowed himself to dream fading away in that very second, he comprehended that he owed her at least one last thing: to set her free.
He walked back to where she was standing and for the first time in all of the years they've been companions and friends, he reached out for her and pulled her to him. How comfortably odd it felt to hold this child, this woman, his hero and love, for the first time.
She folded into him like she belonged there. The grip of both their arms unrelenting and almost uncomfortable. He kissed her hair, and ears, and eyes, over and over again, as she let the weight of her body take them to the ground.
"I need to come back..." She said as he pressed his forehead against hers. Her cheeks were flushed and her tears dry on her chapped lips. He had to kiss her on her ruined cheek -'I love you'-, he had to taste her lips once before he lost her to her quest -'I've loved you for a long long time, Brienne'-. So he did. He kissed her with all the tenderness he possessed and with every brush of her lips, he died a little more.
Just then, the realization hit him hard: he had wasted so much time, so many opportunities that the Gods had given him... him! the most undeserving of their children. He felt centuries old, with a new-found will to live yet with only a few seconds to spare before the eternal night closed on him. He had never felt so close to dying.
Brienne had hugged him again and the numbness he felt at that moment was oddly familiar, it felt like a king had just been slain by his hand, all over again.
"Rise, my lady" he whispered to her after a little while, as he stood up. He also thought, 'rise, my love', but he never voiced those words. With her right hand tangled around his left arm, she helped herself up. "You will find the Stark pup, and you will take her to her sister..."
He knew her quest did not end there, he had seen her internal demons rise and roar until the deafening sound of "duty", of "Tarth", had make her reach for Oathkeeper once again, and roll in the sands of the Gods-forsaken island they had escaped to, in a semblance of sparring. He knew that her fighting had nothing to do with them going soft and everything to do with her need to fulfill her oath and then go home, to claim what has hers.
"Jaime" she inquired, as afraid to break the spell, but then she fell silent, chocking on what she could not say, on what he dreamed she would say
"Shhhh wench" he pulled her back for one last embrace, "stay alive, stay safe- it's all that matters to me. Go home and claim it back, if you must, but remember that there is nothing waiting for you there but a sure death..." 'I, on the other hand, will be here, waiting for you' he wanted to shout, but he suspected she knew that already. 'Come back to me when you're done being the hero you are... We could have everything in this forgotten place...' His thoughts made him hold her tighter, and he wondered how a child of their own would look like against the rays of the sun, holding a wooden sword.
"Go now, ride hard and don't look back. When you reach port, look for Nihila and give her these..." the last of his Lannister coins for the last of the Maid of Tarth's quest, "she will take you to Braavos... Arya was said to be there, last we heard..." 'And last we heard was years ago, wench', the imminence of her departure to follow on nothing but rumors, dangers and uncertainties weighed heavily on his chest... 'Last time I sent her off, she came to me broken and almost dead...'
Brienne caressed his hand one last time and took the horse by the bridle. He understood she could not leave, so he kissed her one last time and turned around to find his way back into the cottage. Every step into the darkness was blurred by the moisture in his eyes, yet he did not turn around. He kept going until he was inside the little house they had shared for the past few months. He went to the window, and saw her riding hard and not looking back.
'Goodbye, my love' he whispered to himself a thousand times wishing he could run to her and make love to her and marry her and die with her... But instead he stayed. And so, his wait began.