A/N: This is a long chapter, and the last. Thanks for reading.
Brienne was not sentimental, exactly, upon the eve of their arrival at King's Landing, their last night on the road together, yet it did provoke in her a certain amount of reflection.
"Why are you letting me do this?" she asked, watching his face in the firelight, remembering how he had seemed the very devil himself, the first time they'd sat around a fire together. He didn't look any different; it was her eyes that had changed.
"You swore an oath," Jaime said, reaching between his knees to gather a handful of dry evergreen needles, then tossing them onto the flames. "That should mean something to you, even if it doesn't to me."
"And don't you know that bringing back the Kingslayer going to yield a certain amount of respect from people who otherwise might not have given you any?"
"Only what? Gods, wench, say what you're thinking."
She wouldn't let herself get distracted into irritation. "It still seems like a big thing for you to do for me. I don't see how you benefit."
She was truly curious, but she regretted the words almost as soon as she'd said them because his lip curled cynically.
Can we start over? She closed her eyes for a moment, seeing afterimages of the fire playing behind her lids.
"I fought you," he said. "You're good. You think I have so much pride? That I can't let a woman walk me through the streets? I can't stand in front of my family at the end of her sword?"
She didn't know how to react to this, because she felt her own confused pride now mingling with a piercing self-consciousness and a little shame.
Simple, no condescension. She could hardly bear it. It made her feel ludicrously happy.
"But Sansa Stark—from their point of view, if you didn't have to lose her—"
Jaime made an irritated gesture. "I don't care about Sansa Stark, I leave that sort of pawn-playing to my siblings. The south is no place for wolves."
Brienne supposed he was right about that.
"Let's get some sleep," he said then, brusquely, sliding down to settle near the base of the fire.
The next morning, coming into the city felt more awkward with a cooperative Jaime than a difficult one. Earlier they had stopped along the road and she had asked to see his hands. He had held them out obligingly. She had tied them together, trying to be careful, but he had said, "Bind them tighter; no one's going to be fooled by that." I don't want to hurt you, she'd thought, but could not say; at that moment she would almost rather their positions were reversed. He had not reacted when she'd tied them as tightly as she could manage, and they had ridden on.
It was with a sense of relief that she finally marched him into the throne room where Cersei Lannister and the guards waited. Soon this charade would be over, she would take charge of Sansa and they would be on their way to Winterfell, thus fulfilling her promise.
She would be saying goodbye to Jaime, too, though for some reason she was keeping that in the back of her mind to deal with later.
"So this is Catelyn Stark's sworn sword," Cersei remarked, almost pleasantly, though there was no warmth in her eyes, or even, Brienne thought, much humanity. "You are quite an imposing creature, my dear. Did my brother give you those scars on your face?"
"One of them," Jaime said. "It's a long story."
His twin's eyebrows arched. "I should very much like to hear it."
Brienne hoped Jaime would have the sense not to divulge the details of their convoluted trip south. Maybe he didn't. Maybe he and Cersei would, in private, share a laugh over it all. With the image of them in her mind drinking wine and laughing together, she gave Jaime a not-especially-gentle shove forward. He turned and looked over his shoulder at her. Calculated insolence for the benefit of anyone watching, but behind it the question: what's the matter with you?
"Stories can wait," Brienne said. "I need to see and be certain that Lady Stark's daughter is well before I can turn the Kingslayer over to you. I will wish to guard her tonight and I trust we will be assured safe passage out of the city in the morning."
"Of course," Cersei said, sighing with a dismissive gesture, as if the banality of discussing the actual details of a prisoner exchange was too tiresome to be borne. "The little dove is somewhere about. I will send for her. I don't think she has been very happy with us, though we have all made every effort to secure her good opinion. Perhaps she will be better off with her family after all. There is nothing, is there, quite like the love of one's own family?"
One of the guards had a sneezing fit. Brienne felt a little sorry for him because Cersei didn't seem pleased and she could well imagine what this glacially-eyed woman had done to people with whom she wasn't pleased.
"What did they say your name was—Brienne of Tarth?—they certainly breed them differently on your little island, don't they? If you would be so good as to free my brother now..."
Brienne put a hand on Jaime's shoulder and pulled him back towards her. She'd tied his hands in front so he could ride better. Now she turned him around in order to free them. He tipped his head back, shaking lengthening hair out of his face, while she used a dagger to saw through the bindings.
"Don't do anything stupid," she said to him, meaning it, hoping he read the message in her eyes as well as heard the spoken one. Please don't do anything stupid. Don't talk to her about us. If you warn me away from her, you should stay away from her yourself.
But she was his sister, his twin. His mirror image. And their relationship was complicated, entangled, far more than most.
Though the hall was not especially well-lit, she could still see the marks on his wrists when the ropes came away. Out of instinct she nearly reached for them, to rub the blood back into them but he pulled away just a warning fraction before anyone could notice, and drew his brows together at her.
She wasn't entirely sure whose voice that was.
Sansa was being escorted in, she realized, after Jaime moved out of her reach. Catelyn's eldest daughter was composed, but pale as milk and with eyes that told of tears and sleepless nights. The two men paused by Brienne at a signal from Cersei.
"I am your sworn protector, my lady," Brienne said quietly. "Your mother charged me with your keeping; I will see you safely to Winterfell or die in the attempt."
Sansa nodded vaguely, her gaze uncertain; Brienne could see at once that the girl had been moved about so much that she didn't know who or what to believe. It might not be easy, conducting this second half of her assignment.
Cersei was giving instructions to the guards; she seemed to want Jaime to herself. Someone was preparing to show Brienne where Sansa's rooms were, and if she wished she could wait outside, though they would be guarded in any case, and when morning came they might be on their way. Brienne was only half-following the information as she went from the throne room with Sansa and the others. She turned and looked back to see Jaime for what she had to assume would be the last time, but he was already going to take his sister's hands in his own and that, she supposed with a feeling of nausea settling in her stomach, was as it should be. Or, at least, how it was with them, whether she liked it or not.
Brienne focused on their destination, on the walls around her and the various sets of stairs, committing to memory the details so that she could find her own way; she didn't trust the queen's assurances for a moment. The guards waited at the end of a long hallway while she and Sansa entered her rooms.
"Can you be ready by the morning?" Brienne asked, looking around.
"Of course," the girl said. "There is little of my own here, and nothing I care about." She went to stand by a table, looking away, distantly.
"I will be just outside the door this night. Call me if you need anything."
There was no acknowledgment, but after a moment Brienne inclined her head anyway and left.
Sitting watch in the hallway would be a hard way to pass the night, but it was her role, and doing what she was meant to do made her content. Or as content as it was possible to be considering she was in the city of vipers. Right at the heart of their nest.
It was oddly quiet. She could hear the guards behind the door at the end of the passage, shuffling and mumbling to each other now and then. Behind her in Sansa's room, nothing at all. She hoped the girl had retired immediately and was getting some rest for what was sure to be a grueling day tomorrow; Brienne intended to put as much distance between themselves and the city as was possible. If that meant she had to tie the girl to the saddle and drag her horse along behind, so be it. Their own comfort would have to take second place to the need to get to a location of relative safety.
Before long she saw the door to the passageway open and Cersei was admitted, gesturing to the men to stay beyond. Brienne had been sitting, but she rose up on her feet, trying to keep her hand from her sword. If the queen meant no harm she didn't want to appear obviously threatening, but there was something about Cersei Lannister that warned danger even if she hadn't already heard Jaime's cautions to stay away from his family.
Cersei approached, her hands invisible in the folds of her sleeves, a tiny smile on her face. She reminded Brienne of a beautiful snake she'd once come across at home, slender and smooth-skinned and wrapped in distracting bands of attractive color, yet her eyes were so glacial.
"Surely you need not stay out here? It does not get that cold, but it can hardly be comfortable."
"I do not care overmuch for comfort," Brienne said, not wanting to sound stony, but it came out that way.
"No," Cersei said, amused, "I don't believe you do. Nor for...appearance either, it would seem? Of course the world would be a tiresome place if we all looked the same, would it not?" She tilted her head to the side, giving the effect of an innocent child.
"Is there something you require, my lady?" Brienne met her gaze without bristling.
Cersei evaluated her for a few moments in silence. "I only wished to make certain you don't lack for anything," she said, unashamed by her obvious and actual absence of interest in Brienne's needs. "And I do confess to being curious at how you managed to keep my brother under such constant watch and captive for so long, when many have found it more difficult."
"He was by no means an easy prisoner," Brienne said. "I was never sure we would make it here."
Cersei made an enigmatic sound. "You answer so simply."
"Sometimes the truth is simple."
"Indeed," Cersei said, though Brienne suspected that like Jaime, Cersei's definition of truth was rather complicated, often shifting with the winds. "Still, your success is mystifying to me."
"Because I am a woman? Can we not serve as well as a man?"
"Women are called to serve differently," Cersei answered. "As we generally have—different—attributes. Though in your case...I can see why you might have chosen to...Regardless." She made a moue. "You have my admiration. I will leave you to your attendance."
Brienne didn't think admiration was the feeling Cersei held for her at all; gentle scorn was more of the impression she was getting. But she dipped her head while Cersei turned and walked back down the passageway, robes swishing.
Once the door was closed again she sat back down, leaning against the outer wall and bringing her knees up, balancing her sword across them, preparing for the long night ahead.
Bathed now and in casual white linens, Jaime rejoined Cersei in her rooms, easing himself into one of the cushioned chairs out on the balcony where, if the night breeze was blowing the right way, the city didn't smell so terribly. Frowning, his sister poured him a drink and re-filled her already nearly empty one from the pitcher, then followed him out. She took a chair and pulled it close to his, settling gracefully into it at his side. She leaned over and touched the side of his head and he jerked away.
Her expression said he'd reacted too strongly. Perhaps he had. For a second he couldn't think how to explain the reaction and then he said, more calmly, "I was injured, it's still healing."
"Let me look at it." Her voice was soft, like honey, used as he was to Brienne's rough, deeper tones. Why he was comparing her to Brienne right now he couldn't imagine; surely two more disparate women had never existed.
"No. It's all right." He kept an eye on her, not quite trusting her not to touch him again, and for some reason he didn't want her that close, not just yet, when so much time had passed.
She sipped at her glass of wine, one dark eyebrow arched. "There's food," she said eventually, "if you're hungry."
He was tired more than hungry, the truth was. It was early for the city, but late when you had been going to sleep with the sun as they had for the past few weeks. He would have to stay up a little longer. She would think it odd if he suddenly claimed fatigue, though that was what he wanted to do: fall into a soft bed and pull a feather pillow over his head and not be woken by birdsong in the morning or Brienne's ungentle elbow in his ribs telling him he'd accidentally flung his arm over her in the middle of the night, heaven forfend.
"What's funny?" Cersei was smiling too, eager to be let in. And he looked at her, and he couldn't do it. He couldn't even make something up.
Her expression altered, just a touch, and she said smoothly, "That beast of a woman who brought you in was amusing, I thought. What a face! And yet she held you prisoner unassisted? Truly impressive."
"Maybe I'm not as good as I was," he said.
"Self-deprecation does not become you," Cersei remarked. "I can't believe it's that." She rose, putting down her wine, and came to stand behind him, putting gentle hands on his shoulders. He submitted to the contact now not because he really wanted to but because it felt good. But when she leaned in, her silky sweet hair brushing his face and her teeth nipping at his ear, he stiffened again, bringing his shoulder up.
She circled round his chair like a golden-maned wary lioness, crouching, resting her hands on the arms of the chair as if to trap him there. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing." He wouldn't shift or push her away, it was too obvious a rejection. "I don't like to be touched."
She laughed, lightly. "This is a new development." But her eyes were still keen, searching his face, the face she knew as well as her own.
"I'm tired," he said, expelling air through his teeth.
"Of course." Cersei rose in one fluid movement. "Will you talk to me tomorrow?"
"If you mean will I fuck you tomorrow, no," he said.
She slapped him.
"That didn't hurt," he said.
She went to do it harder but he caught her arm first and twisted it, stopping when she winced. He'd forgotten how fragile she felt; her bones were like reeds under his fingers. He let her go. Her husband was enough of a brute.
"Leave me," she said.
Jaime thought about saying he was sorry, but he wasn't.
He went to the doors.
She was watching him, vexation and confusion on her features.
He gave her a tiny shrug as if to communicate there was no explanation, at least not right now, and left.
On his way to his own chambers he found himself wondering what Brienne was doing. Resting, if she had any sense, but more than likely she was sitting sword-straight outside the door of Sansa Stark's quarters, staring down anyone hapless enough to come near.
The thought of the two of them attempting a journey nearly the entire length of Westeros with only Brienne's blind optimism to keep them going made him irritated. He told himself it didn't matter any more, he'd done his part, she was free to fulfill her vows and return the girl and then go back to Tarth or further roam the country or whatever it was she wanted to do. He didn't care. And if they were overtaken along the way and captured and summarily raped or held for ransom or both, that should be nothing at all to him.
A hundred curses upon blindly optimistic, stubborn, homely women with perfect blue eyes.
Jaime was still frowning over it when he entered his rooms.
Sansa Stark was already well asleep, her bright hair coming out of its braid and spilling over of her cloak, by the time Brienne got their supper prepared. On their third night from King's Landing she'd finally decided they were far enough from the road to risk a fire. As yet Sansa had taken little in the way of sustenance and Brienne had caught a rabbit earlier that afternoon on one of their rests, hoping to encourage the girl to eat something that might put color back in her skin. If she couldn't do anything about her charge's emotional state, at least she could try to nourish the physical. Now the rabbit was roasting nicely, but the girl was not likely to stir again before tomorrow.
Brienne ate her own portion. Being still so close to the city made her feel relatively ill-at-ease. She would be happier when they were farther north.
A branch cracked nearby, so obviously loudly that she thought it must be a clumsy animal. Still, she grabbed her sword, leveling it in the direction of the trees, holding her other hand to block the firelight so she could see better.
"I didn't want you to run me through." His familiar voice came from out of the darkness.
A jolt of confusion made her arm unsteady for a moment, but she held her guard until she could see him approaching unaccompanied. "Ser Jaime. What are you doing here?"
"I smelled dinner." With an innocent swagger he came into the circle of light thrown by the fire. "Are you going to share?"
"I suppose so." Brienne stood, awkwardly, for a space before moving back to the fire. Jaime settled down, carelessly graceful, into her spot, which she'd chosen especially since it was flat and free of rocks.
Watching him with cautious suspicion, she freed the rabbit carcass from the makeshift spit, separated Sansa's portion and brought the rest to him. While he ate, she was busy trying to think how to rephrase the inquiry so he wouldn't answer sarcastically or not answer at all. At last she decided to be straightforward. "Please tell me why you came."
Jaime ate around a bone and tossed it into the fire. "I thought you might need me."
She felt her face heat in a way that had nothing to do with her proximity to the flames. "I am sorry if it causes disappointment, but I neither need you nor want you."
"Very well," he said. "I'll go. Thanks for the food." He rose so abruptly she was startled. All that she had meant was for him not to be under the illusion that she was unable to carry on alone; the statement hadn't been meant as a rejection of him personally though he seemed to have taken it that way. Trust men to be so sensitive.
"Wait." Brienne stood up too.
He was already halfway back to the trees. When he turned his expression clearly read he thought she owed him an apology. Perhaps she did, when for whatever reason, after just finishing a long journey, he'd ridden three more days to find them.
She chewed nervously on the inside of her cheek. She wasn't going to beg. "I did not mean it like that. I don't have the way with words you do. I meant that I didn't wish you to take undue trouble over us."
"Trouble," he scoffed. "All I know, wench, is that I couldn't sleep for thinking of the trouble you were likely getting into. But if you're so opposed to my presence—"
"I...I'm not opposed."
Tentatively she gestured towards the fire, hoping the motion communicated just the right amount of welcome.
After a few heartbeats' worth of time he returned. She expected the silence to be uncomfortable after that, but it wasn't. There was a familiar spirit restored to the air; the firelight seemed warmer, the forest sounds more tranquil. Silly, perhaps, for his presence alone to induce such perceptions, but she could not deny that it did.
"The girl looks like a ghost," Jaime commented as they sat by the fire the following night.
Brienne threw him a critical glance. "She has been through a great deal recently."
"How would you know what she's been through?"
"I can see it in her eyes. Can't you?"
He shrugged. "She doesn't much look at me. I don't even think she remembers who I am."
"The outrage," Brienne said dryly. "Not to recognize the mighty Jaime Lannister."
Jaime elevated a shoulder. "I don't actually care if she does or not. In fact I sometimes think I could grow to like not being recognized."
"For a day or two perhaps," Brienne said. "But then your natural narcissism would assert itself again and you'd be offended."
"Maybe you're right," he said, agreeably.
"Regardless," she said, "you leave Sansa Stark to me. She is in a fragile state of mind and you are far too inclined to play games with people."
"I get bored easily," he said.
"I know that. If you must play with someone, play with me." She said it with dignity even though she was fairly sure he was going to laugh.
He frowned, however. "You're not much fun to play with since you stopped being serious every moment of the day."
"Do you prefer me to be serious?" she said, gravely.
"I prefer you to be yourself, lovely Brienne. Tall, dry, honest Brienne."
She wasn't sure what kind of comment that was. Typical Jaime. She decided to ignore it.
"Let's have a bet," he said.
"Are you bored already? This is only the second night you have been with us. I told you I do not like to make bets."
"Because you're afraid to lose."
"No," she said, sighing at the speed at which he made assumptions, "because—"
"I am attempting to collect my thoughts, if I may be allowed a moment to do so."
"If you need time to think about it," Jaime said, "you're probably not sure yourself."
"What I was going to say is that I do not like to take chances. I prefer certainties."
"But there are no certainties in life."
"There are constancies."
"Here we go. Truth and honor, honor and truth. Am I right?"
"You always scoff," she said, "but I have seen both those qualities in you, though you cloak them so very well most of the time that they are almost impossible for anyone to discover."
Jaime threw a twig onto the fire, temporarily out of a smart answer, it seemed. Then he said, "I haven't yet truly shocked you."
"I don't believe that you could do anything to shock me."
"I am quite confident I could."
"Please do not try."
"You're boring me."
"Go to sleep then."
"Remember," he said, changing course again, "when you told me you would rather die any number of nasty deaths than get to know me?"
"I meant it at the time. Now, I would rather die any number of nasty deaths than continue this conversation," she sighed.
"Good night, Brienne." There was a smile in his voice as he settled on the ground.
"Good night, Jaime."
"Wake me when it's my turn."
"I will," she said.