Bran came awake one morning and said, "Huh."
It had been a long time since he had had a proper greendream, separate from what visions the crow permitted him– certainly not in the two years since he had assumed the throne of the six kingdoms. He sat there and thought hard about it, waving off the servant come to help him wash and dress, until there was a knock at the door.
Bran knew who it would be. "Enter, Lord Commander."
Jaime Lannister entered, his face still handsome despite how it seemed to grow ever more careworn with each day that passed.
"Laurent says you sent him away, Your Grace," said Jaime. "Are you unwell? I have sent for Maester Samwell to attend you."
Unnecessary, but it would make the Lord Commander feel better. Jaime fussed over Bran more like a parent than an elite warrior, ironic given the reason Bran's health was compromised in the first place. Many changes had occurred in the intervening years.
All of which were beside the point, in any case.
"Do you ever wonder," he said, hearkening back to his dream, "if there is a world just like this one, except there, Ser Brienne is still alive?"
Jaime jerked in shock, as if physically struck. He stared at his king in silence for a long moment before saying, in a broken voice, "I hope so."
"Even if it means you are dead?"
Jaime stared at him some more. Then, "What have you seen?"
Bran gazed past him, out the window at the sky as the pale blue of early morning deepened with the passing of the minutes.
"In that world, most of the same things happened," he said eventually. "The Night King was defeated, Daenerys went mad, I became king, with Tyrion as my Hand. But there… there, Ser Brienne survived the Long Night. You became lovers."
He watched as Jaime twitched once more, then continued. "You left her to save your sister, but you died in the attempt. Ser Brienne became the Lord Commander, instead."
He trailed off, thinking back upon the words he'd watched her write on Jaime's page in the White Book.
"She loved you," Bran said at last. "She'd have wed you, borne your children—"
"Stop," Jaime interrupted, a harsh whisper as tears pooled in his eyes. "Do not torment me with what is impossible."
"Hm," said Bran. "I wonder…"
He fell silent for a long moment, quite forgetting himself until Jaime prompted, "Wonder what?"
But Samwell knocked at the door, then, and Bran did not answer.
Bran drifted off during a council meeting, as was his wont, and the rest of those assembled carried on without him, as was their wont.
"Your Grace?" said Tyrion when the meeting concluded and the king still had not roused.
The white rolled down from Bran's eyes, leaving normal brown irises and black pupils, and he gazed blearily at his Hand before looking past him, glancing but briefly at his master of coin and Grand Maester before coming to rest upon his Lord Commander.
"Ser Brienne?" he asked dreamily.
She straightened her already-ramrod-stiff carriage. "Yes, Your Grace?"
"I don't think you're supposed to be here," he replied, eyes flitting from her to focus on a tapestry on the wall behind her. "Or maybe… maybe he's not supposed to be there."
"Your Grace?" Brienne stepped closer. No sign of her confusion showed on her stern visage. "Where should I be? Who is supposed to be here?"
His gaze returned to her, sudden and sharp. "Jaime Lannister." He watched, impassive, as she blanched. Beside his chair, Tyrion sucked in a sharp breath. "In another world… he's there."
"Your Grace," said Tyrion, very quietly, as if a loud voice might break whatever spellwork, whatever magic, might make it possible for him to have his brother back. "Are you saying that Jaime is alive, somehow?"
"Oh, no," Bran replied easily. "In our world, here, he's quite dead." He either didn't notice, or didn't care, how his cavalier attitude made both Tyrion and Brienne flinch. "But on the other side of the sky… you died, Ser Brienne. Jaime took over your vow to protect the Starks, just as you took over his vow to find and return my sisters to our mother. And he has mourned you with the grief of a husband for a wife."
Brienne gave no reaction for a long moment, unmoving, seeming not even to breathe, her face very white.
"Why?" she burst out at last. "Why are you telling me this? Why do you taunt me with what I cannot have?"
The faintest of smiles curved the king's lips. "What makes you think you cannot have it?"
"This is madness," Tyrion informed his brother, working hard to match Jaime's longer stride as he made his way from the shattered Red Keep to the courtyard. "You shouldn't be encouraging him. You know it's impossible."
"Like it's impossible for him to have witnessed things that happened centuries before he was born?" Jaime snapped as they stepped out into watery autumn sunlight. In the middle of the courtyard stood Addam Marbrand. The City Watch commander turned to observe them as they argued, and even from that distance, Jaime could see his friend's russet-red eyebrow lift in query and amusement. "Like it's impossible for him to change skins with animals? Like it was impossible for the dead to rise?"
Jaime would entertain no pessimistic notions; ever since the king had informed him that, somewhere else, Brienne still lived, he had been near-sick with relief, the kind of bone-deep relief that he hadn't felt in decades… and a desperate, almost frenzied hope. If it were at all feasible for him to be with Brienne again, or even just to see her— tell her, at least, how he loved her, as he ought to have but had never scraped up the courage to do— he would assist with whatever mad fancies Bran took.
"This is more insane than any of those other things!" Tyrion insisted. "People cannot travel through trees !"
Jaime rolled his eyes. "You'll believe in the return of dragons, but not this?"
"I might, if I were permitted to see it," Tyrion groused, and Jaime grinned. There, there was the basis for his brother's fervent protests: he was disgruntled that King Bran had ordered him to remain in King's Landing while their entourage crept its way over the continent to God's Eye and, within its waters, the Isle of Faces. "Your Grace, are you entirely certain this is wise?"
The king, already ensconced in his carriage— the top folded back so he might view the countryside as he passed through it— turned a blank face to his Hand.
"What can it hurt?" he asked.
Jaime turned back to his brother, triumphant. "What can it hurt?" he repeated in a victorious tone that had Tyrion narrowing his eyes in vexation. "Tyrion, the entire Kingsguard is coming with us. Sam and Bronn, as well. And a full regiment of a thousand men. The king won't be alone for a single moment. I'll hold his cock while he pisses, myself, if it makes you feel better."
"That won't be necessary, Lord Commander, but your dedication is appreciated," said Bran with a very Starkish smirk that Jaime could recall seeing on Arya's face many a time. "Tyrion, I'll be fine. Go inside and rule the kingdom, now."
With a last glower, Tyrion stomped back into the Keep.
"Try to keep him from taking over," Jaime told Addam.
"You never know, I might just help him," Addam shot back before placing a hand on Jaime's shoulder. "Make sure you bring her back here. I can't wait to meet her."
"I might go there," Jaime said. "To be with her." Addam opened his mouth to reply, but Jaime forged ahead. "If it's the only way I can be with her… I have to."
Addam sighed but nodded. "I'll explain it to him."
"He knows." Jaime looked toward where Tyrion had disappeared into the castle. "He knows."
Brienne watched as Tyrion stalked back into the Red Keep. She didn't blame him for being irritated, perhaps even hurt; they were on a mad goose chase to see if they truly could make contact with another world where she was dead but Jaime lived.
Not only lived but… that Jaime had never left her, Bran had disclosed. They'd not been lovers, but he hadn't ever departed Winterfell in a futile attempt to rescue his mad sister. He'd adopted Brienne's vow of service as his own and become Sansa's sworn shield, then Bran's Lord Commander upon request. This Jaime was wholly hers in a way the other had not been, despite their lack of intimacy, and she was near to consumed by wondering why .
What had been different? What could have occurred to change him so drastically? Surely it could not merely have been her death. Regardless of which world they were in, Jaime was Jaime. However he might have cared for her, it hadn't been enough to keep him with her in her world.
As they drew closer and closer to their destination, she found herself ever more nervous, and couldn't think of why. It wasn't as if Jaime had never seen her. And this Jaime had never been her lover, so he had no knowledge of how she was in bed, how needy her cries as she begged him, how greedy her hands as she touched him..
She knew about his needy cries and greedy hands, though… the memories flooded back in a rush, and Brienne permitted herself to ponder them freely instead of suppressing them ruthlessly as she had been doing, desperate to escape the pain and longing and grief they caused her.
Upon arrival at God's Eye, a crew of builders— brought along for the purpose— constructed a hasty but stout raft to ferry their party to the island.
"Well, then," said Bronn, sounding quite cheerful, upon reaching the far shore. He'd never admit it, but he missed his friend, no matter that he'd threatened to kill him at Cersei's behest. He was eager to speak with Jaime again, too. "Where's this hollow tree? Let's get to it."
"It's not hollow," Bran replied absently, but when pressed for more, kept his counsel, staring into the far distance.
He was assisted into his special saddle atop his horse— he'd named it Summer, in a moment of rare nostalgia— and led the way to where, presumably, the tree was to be found.
"A lake within a lake?" He peered across it to the shore he perceived through the mist rising from the water. "Another island?"
"Get the builders to make another raft," was all Bran said. With a sigh, Jaime did just that, and within hours, they were once more afloat.
The island-within-an-island was devoid of any vegetation but weirwoods, and the grass was as red as the leaves on the ancient trees. Even the sky seemed to have a wine-shaded tint to it. It all contributed to an immensely disturbing atmosphere. The builders flatly refused to leave the shore, and the rest of their group bore faintly mutinous expressions, as if all that kept them from joining the builders in their obstinacy was the fear of being thought cowards. Their relief, when Bran told them he needed only Jaime and Samwell, was palpable.
Three abreast, the men ventured forth into the weirwood forest. After an hour, incredibly, they came to another lake, with a third island squatting in the middle of its shining expanse.
"I could go back and bring the builders?" Sam offered, but Bran shook his head.
"It's not deep," he told them, nudging his horse forward into it. They exchanged a wary but resigned look; they knew enough to believe their king, though there was no indication they weren't stepping into a deep and vast pool. Jaime had never been one for blind faith, but… if he drowned in following his king, it wouldn't be the worst death he could imagine.
But, as usual, Bran was correct: the pool barely came to the knees of the horses, and they splashed easily through it to the island in its center. Island was, perhaps, too generous a term. It was scarcely more than a sandbar, though there was a thick tuft of the plum-colored grass at its summit, and from the grass grew a massive and peculiar weirwood. Pure white was its bark, and thick were its leaves, but instead of a carved face, its trunk had a jagged, oblong fissure running down the length of it, large enough for a man— even a large man— to fit through.
They dismounted, Jaime and Sam working together to set up the collapsible wheeled chair Tyrion had designed for Bran, then helping him into it. The thing rolled poorly over the sand and the men had to hoist it between them and tote their king bodily to the grass, where they deposited him with huffing breaths of exertion.
"Now what?" panted Samwell, swiping his sleeve over his dripping brow. Dusk had fallen while they labored. Jaime was glad they'd brought provisions, in the form of a tent and bedrolls and rations. Living rough for a single night wouldn't bother any of them, accustomed as they'd all become to it over the years prior to the great war.
"Now," said Bran, "we wait for the sunrise."
"Now," said Bran, "we wait for the sunset."
It was long past midday, by that point, so it shouldn't have taken long, but the minutes crept by, and the sun wheeled with excruciating slowness across the sky. The light finally took on that golden aura peculiar to late afternoon, and the excitement roiling in Brienne's belly approached unbearable.
The sun dipped low enough to shine directly through the gap in the weirwood's trunk, shining so fiercely she could see nothing but a blind whiteness, even when shading her eyes with her hand and squinting. She heard a harshly indrawn breath and thought it came from Bronn or Sam. She was near to exclaiming at the pain lancing her head from the sunlight, herself, clenching her eyes shut and flinching from the red haze that penetrated her eyelids.
"Brienne," said Jaime, his voice soft and hoarse, desperate, disbelieving.
Her eyes flew open. He stood on the far side of the tree, blocking the sun. All she could see was the shape of him, a dark silhouette against the brilliance behind him, but she knew his stance, the square set of his shoulders. Would have recognized it anywhere, even after years.
"Jaime," she answered, voice breaking in the middle. His face, she had to see his face… stepping forward, peering through the tree, she perceived how the space in the empty center seemed to ripple, to shimmer, like the air over a fire, but there was no heat at all. A wild recklessness seized her, and she thrust her hand through the gap. If she couldn't see him, she'd at least touch him.
Jaime had meant to rise first, to wake the others in time for sunrise, but found waking unnecessary, since he never slept in the first place. It was hard to relax in such a place. The grass rustled oddly there, sounding like a thousand voices whispering tales he was not meant to hear, and the leaves were leathery to his touch, as if they'd been made of skin and dyed with blood, and every time one fell, there was a sound like a faint cry of pain.
Several times, he walked to the weirwood and studied it, by daylight and by torch, seeing nothing unusual about it besides the aperture piercing the thick bole of the tree. The wood was not raw, it had not been cut or forced open. It seemed to simply have grown that way, smooth undisturbed bark over every inch of it. He did not enjoy touching it, because it seemed to throb with its own heartbeat, made his own pulse rush and pound loud enough to resound in his head like a drum.
"It's time," Bran said when the sky finally began to lighten, from ink-dark to a sapphire almost as pure as Brienne's eyes.
The yearning was like a punch to Jaime's gut. There was a part of him that didn't believe it was possible, that Bran was talking nonsense, that there was no way for Brienne to be alive in another place, another world. But the rest of him, the despondent and lonely part, was willing to try anything, anything, to see her again, if only just once. Just long enough for him to acknowledge what she'd told him, and to respond in kind.
"Jaime," she'd said, sounding very surprised as she gasped through the pain, her hand on his as he tried to staunch the blood coursing from her chest around the crossbow bolt that had felled her.
He had kissed her, ignoring the trickle of blood from the corner of her mouth. The shouts of those around them faded, the world faded. All that existed were them, him and her, her face oddly slack. Wouldn't she be tense, shocked, angry to have been shot? To be dying? But no. Brienne simply lay there, in Jaime's arms, looking at ease, as if she were about to fall into well-deserved sleep.
"You're a good man." She coughed, and more blood bubbled between her lips. "Do you believe me?"
He had to laugh, even in that dire moment. "Of course I do," he said. He kissed her again and again, the taste of metal filling his mouth, thick on his tongue. "You wouldn't lie to me about that."
"About anything," she rasped. "I've never lied to you." She tried to rearrange herself more comfortably and winced. An odd whistling sound teased the edge of Jaime's awareness, and dimly he recognized the sound of a punctured lung. "I need you to continue being good. To keep your word again, and for the rest of your life."
"How?" he demanded. He shifted to put himself between her and the floor, to cushion her with his own body. She settled into him with a sigh, face tucking against his shoulder.
"I need you to remain with the Starks," she whispered. Her strength was fleeing her. Jaime had to lean closer to hear her. "I need you to fulfill my oath to them, as I fulfilled yours to Lady Catelyn to find them. Will you do that?"
"Yes," he said right away, not having to consider it at all. He didn't want to do it, he hated the North, hated the damned self-righteous Starks, but for Brienne… yes. Whatever she asked. "I swear it."
She slumped, the anxiety leaving her at the knowledge that her charges would not be left vulnerable.
"Don't leave me," he had said. Begged. "Please, Brienne, don't leave me."
"I have loved you for some time," she breathed. "It has been an honor to love you."
"I love you, too," he rushed to say, but she was gone, just like that, between one gasp and the next. Gone. The truest knight he'd ever known, the truest love, and she was— gone.
He forced himself under control, swallowing hard against the painful stone in his throat, and when he was composed once more, he woke Sam and the three of them readied for the day. By the time they'd broken their fast, the sun was verging over the horizon, tinting the sky gold and peach and violet, the air trembling in anticipation of the day, just as Jaime was.
A brilliant shaft of light pierced the gap in the tree, blinding him. He shifted, tilting his head against the glare, and there she was. Just a dark shape, an outline against the fragile blue rising at her back, but he'd know her anywhere, that tall body with its long limbs, crowned with pale gold hair. Strong, she was, and whole, undamaged, unhurt. Alive, still alive, and not only in his heart and mind, but in reality.
"Brienne," he said, and "Jaime," she replied, and she was reaching through the tree for him, and he didn't care, he didn't care
if it took his other hand, if it killed him, he had to touch her again, if only the once.
A thrill went through Brienne, from fingertips to shoulder, at the first contact of her flesh to Jaime's. His hand was the same, strong and calloused and so, so warm. The knowledge of how that hand had touched her, held her, caressed and aroused and comforted her, had loved her, made her stretch her other hand toward him, clasping his in both of hers so tightly she thought they might meld together for all time, and that was good enough for her.
This close to the tree, its trunk blocked the sun's glare, and she could finally see him: older, more tired, grief having etched the lines in his face deeper, but he was still so beautiful, still so dear to her, and how he looked at her, in disbelieving shock and relief and—
"I love you," he said. "I never got to tell you. If all I ever get to do, now, is say this… I need you to know." He swallowed convulsively. "Do you believe me?"
She reached through the gap in the tree and took his face in her hands, just as she had to the other Jaime in pleading for him to remain with her in Winterfell instead of leaving to be killed with his sister. He shut his eyes at her touch, utter relief overtaking him, and tears spilled from under his closed eyelids to wet her fingers.
"Of course I do," she told him. "You wouldn't lie to me about that."
His eyes opened, green green green, so beloved. He looked surprised. She supposed he was, yet again, incredulous at how she could trust him. He always had been. She hadn't had enough time to convince him. But maybe, this time…
"Are you coming here?" he asked. There was a wild note to his voice, something almost panicked. "Or can I come to you?"
"Is it possible?" She craned her head around to look at Bran, behind her in his chair, but he was insensible, eyes rolled up and white.
"Can't know until you try," Bronn quipped, stepping up to the tree and popping his head in front of the gap in the trunk.
Jaime bared his teeth, suddenly enraged, and jerked free of Brienne to go for his sword. "Get away from me." Bronn stumbled back in astonishment, his hand on Brienne's arm to steady himself, and Jaime snarled. "Don't touch her, you treacherous bastard, vicious greedy cunt , you filthy whoreson—"
"Jaime!" Brienne exclaimed in shock. He was wild-eyed, enraged, in a way she'd never seen before.
"I killed you," Jaime ranted at Bronn. "I slit you from balls to throat and it was still too kind."
The brilliance of the light was fading, and the shimmering of the air in the weirwood's gap was moving in a jerky fashion. A sensation of unease, of wrongness, came over Brienne and she stepped back from the tree.
"Sunset," said the Bran on Jaime's side, abruptly. "Come back at sunset. The door will open again."
"But it is sunset," said the Sam on Brienne's side.
"It's sunrise here," said the Sam on Jaime's side, as helpful there as he was here, as he poked his head into view, looking thoughtful. "I think I understand— it has to do with the horizon, the angles, how the light hits the tree—"
That light, whether it be sunrise or sunset, finally shifted beyond the tree and in the blink of an eye, Jaime and his Sam and Bran were gone, and the gap in the tree was just a peculiar opening instead of a portal to another world.
"Didn't see that coming," Bronn said, tugging on his doublet to straighten it, the small gesture speaking louder than words how discomfited he was by Jaime's baffling hostility.
Brienne gazed through the gap, knowing it was futile but unable to stop. He'd been there; she'd touched him. His tears were still wet on her skin. And she would see him again. She just had to wait another twelve hours.
When the window between the two worlds opened once more, each party stood impatiently on their respective sides, waiting for the second the glare would dim and they could see each other once more.
As soon as the brilliant golden light faded, and he could see Brienne through the tree, Jaime grasped for her. His need to be with her again had not lessened at all; rather, it had sharpened until he was near frantic.
"Brienne," he rasped, unable to say more than her name. It hadn't been a dream, had not been a hallucination brought on by loneliness and anguish and guilt and despair. She was there, she was solid and real, her hands stretching through the tree for him with just as much fervor.
"I should come to you there," she told him as she curled her hands around his neck, fingertips oddly practiced as they slid behind his ears and under the fall of his hair in just the way that made goosebumps race over his skin. How did she know… ah, but Bran had said they had been lovers, hadn't he? Of course she'd know how to touch him. The idea of it, of her knowing his body, of him knowing hers, had his breath stuttering in his chest.
He'd wanted her, had wanted her desperately, but there'd been no time. She'd gone up to her room after Tyrion's stupid game had frightened her off, and Jaime had had trouble finding the wine he'd wanted to bring to her, taking far too long to locate a full carafe and two clean goblets. By the time he'd made it to her chambers, her killer had been and gone, leaving nothing but a crossbow bolt in Brienne's chest and her slumped on the floor in a spreading pool of blood.
"Absolutely not," Jaime answered immediately. He'd done nothing but think about the matter since sunrise, talking about it with Sam and Bran, both of whom were useless in their lack of knowledge about what could happen. He didn't know how it could affect the traveler, but he knew he couldn't risk Brienne in the doing of it. "We don't know if it's dangerous. It could hurt you, or make you sick. I'll come there."
Her pale brows rose in skepticism, in that way he'd always enjoyed causing. "As if I am somehow more valuable and in need of protection?"
"Yes," he said. "You are." His hand was hard on her wrist, holding her tightly as she clasped his face. "I can't bear to see you die again." He fought his tears, at first, and then gave up the battle; what did he care if she saw him weep?
"It's just that—" She hesitated before forging ahead. "I doubt your sudden reappearance here would be very welcome. And…" Brienne looked to the side, then back at Jaime. "Bronn is here. Judging by how you behaved last time, I doubt you'll be able to call a truce for whatever sin he must have committed, there—"
"He killed you," Jaime interrupted, fury shoving aside his longing for a few seconds. "He waited until you were alone, without your sword and armor, and shot you with a fucking crossbow, the worthless greedy bastard."
Two hastily indrawn breaths sounded from through the tree: Brienne's and, Jaime presumed, Bronn's. Then Bronn stuck his weatherbeaten, despised face in front of Brienne's.
"That wasn't me," he said. "That was… that other Bronn. I didn't do that, here."
"Only because Cersei hired you to kill Tyrion and me, over there." Bran had filled Jaime in on what changes had occurred on the other side of the sky, chief among them a bargain for their lives in exchange for Highgarden, of all places to come under the rule of a fatherless sellsword. "Are you saying you wouldn't have killed Brienne, if that had been Cersei's command instead?"
Bronn's silence was reply enough.
"I should come to you so I can kill him there, too," Jaime continued. The phantom of his missing hand made itself known, flexing and clenching, aching for the pommel of a sword he could wield to open Bronn's throat like he'd already done in his own world.
"Jaime…" Brienne had only enough time to sigh his name in that fond-but-exasperated way she had for him, only for him, before light flashed once more, the sun shifted, and she and Bronn were gone.
Bronn had the good grace to look sheepish for a split second before his usual cocky expression reasserted itself.
"I don't know what to tell you, love," he said with a shrug. "I am who I am."
"Indeed." Brienne's misgivings about having the mercenary in such positions of power, with such proximity to the king, flared again, only having faded over the years, never dying completely. She would have to discuss it with Bran and Sam. Her intention to go to Jaime had seemed so clear-cut and obvious, before, but now… how could she leave the king unprotected when it was apparent that Bronn truly had no loyalties and would act upon the directive of the highest bidder?
"Ser Brienne," Bran said suddenly, "you have nothing to fear."
She broke her tense eye contact with Bronn and turned to the king. "Your Grace?"
Bran's head rolled listlessly on his neck as he looked to the sellsword.
"Ser Bronn and I have an agreement," he said.
From around them came the flutter of a thousand leaves… no, a thousand wings. Brienne looked up to find the trees on the tiny island were filled to overflowing with birds. Not only ravens and crows, as she'd become used to seeing doing the king's bidding, but every kind of bird imaginable. As she watched, a starling perched next to an owl, and a vulture alit on a branch below a sparrow, and a parrot— where had that come from?— squawked as a peregrine crowded him.
Every one of those beady black eyes was trained on Bronn.
"The little ones watch him," said Bran, "and the large ones…"
His face remained as vacant as ever, but Brienne had the skin-crawling impression that, somewhere inside his head, he was smiling. Bronn gave a hard swallow. Overhead, an eagle let out an echoing shriek. With a beat of powerful wings, it swooped down, close enough to Bronn that its passage made his hair blow back from his face, to land on the back of the king's wheeled chair.
It shrieked again, directly at Bronn, before it flew away, and all the other birds with it, a dark cloud of feathers swirling, the air alive with avian screeching, and then— in the space of a heartbeat— silence. The birds were gone. The only sound was the gentle gurgle of the lake around them, lapping at the shore.
Beside her, Bronn had gone ashen, for once his seen-it-all attitude lacking.
"So you see, I have nothing to fear." Bran gazed calmly at his master of coin, dark eyes limpid and blank, like those of a shark. "Do I, Lord Bronn?"
If Bronn were a lesser man, Brienne thought he might actually have pissed himself. She was half surprised not to see a wet stain spreading across the front of his trousers.
"No, Your Grace," said the mercenary. "Nothing at all."
"Your reasoning is sound," continued the king in his toneless voice. "Ser Jaime's reappearance here would not be taken well. His death was considered a good riddance by most, whereas yours in that world was mourned by many."
It seemed the matter was settled; Bran was all but commanding Brienne to go.
"Your sisters," she said hesitantly. "Will you tell them…?"
"They know of your devotion and affection," Bran said. "They know also of your unhappiness since Ser Jaime's death. They would not want you to remain, miserable, because of your oath to our mother to protect them. It would make them feel like burdens."
Brienne sucked in a breath, surprised. She had not considered that they might feel guilty to monopolize her service.
"I will write them a letter," she announced, turning to Sam. "Sam, will you…?"
He nodded, his cherubic face eager as always. "I'll see they get it."
Brienne nodded back. "My thanks." She squared her shoulders, her decision made. Jaime would just have to accept that she would be the one traveling to him. "It seems I have preparations to make."
Jaime found no ease while they waited for sunrise. He'd slept poorly, too preoccupied with possibilities and the knowledge that Bronn had unrestricted access to Brienne, to Bran, to Tyrion, and would not hesitate to kill them if the right price were offered.
He fussed with their little camp, with the horses, with their supplies, until even mild-mannered Sam had an edge to his voice when he suggested, strongly, that Jaime sit down and rest a bit until the next door opened.
Jaime duly sat, staring at the little fire burning between the three of them, and abruptly fatigue crashed over him in a wave. He had scarcely laid back on his bedroll before he was asleep. At some point, he was vaguely aware of a blanket being drawn up over him, but otherwise he was insensible until Sam was shaking him awake.
The sky was pure indigo velvet, studded with stars, and the knowledge that things would change that day, one way or another, had him leaping up to wash and dress afresh, loath to present himself to Brienne stinking of nervous sweat. He shivered in the chill morning air, scrubbing briskly to stir his blood to warmth, and dragged on clean garments with gratitude.
He and Sam assisted Bran to ready himself, and then they had breakfast, though Jaime could not rouse the appetite to eat more than a spoon or two of the porridge Sam cooked. The sky steadily lightened, and once it faded from lilac to coral to ale-gold, he approached the tree.
He tried his best to keep from closing his eyes when the sunlight flared through the weirwood's trunk, but it was too strong and his eyes filled with tears, hastily blinked away. When he could see once more, she was there. She had a rucksack slung over her shoulder and a familiar look of determination on her face.
"I still say I should go there," he told her, unable to hold back a smile when her expression went from determined to mulish.
"No," was all she said.
Jaime knew better than to try to dissuade her. Sam had assailed him with the reasoning for an hour over dinner the previous night, and… he had to admit, the logic was impeccable. If he was hated on Brienne's side of the sky for returning to Cersei, his life would be hellish, and by connection so too would Brienne's.
And if there were one thing he cared about more than anything, it was her happiness. He didn't want her miserable, insulted and degraded, because she had terrible taste in men and a fatal flaw in who she loved. The fact that he was a changed man, that he loved her beyond all reason and would never do anything to bring her shame or dishonor, would be irrelevant to those who despised him.
He stepped back, giving her plenty of space to step through, and spread open his arms to welcome her. "Then come to me, wench."
She looked back over her shoulder, presumably at Bran.
"Thank you, Your Grace," she told her king. "You don't know what it means to me that I am able to do this."
"Yes, I do," Jaime heard. On his side of the door, his Bran gave a faint quirk of the lips, seemingly amused to hear himself speak.
Brienne gave a short nod at someone else, her eyes hard.
"If anything should happen to the king, I'll come back," she said. "Don't think I won't."
"I wouldn't dare," came Bronn's voice, insolent as ever. She shot him a look of pure dislike before facing forward once again.
There was a flicker of apprehension over her features. "You're sure?"
The light was starting to shift, its brilliance fading. The door would not last but moments more. Jaime reached through, grabbed Brienne's wrist, and yanked.
With a yelp, she hurtled through the bole of the tree, right into Jaime's arms, where she belonged.
Brienne felt a bit insulted at how little impact her leaving that world would have, if Bran were correct— apparently her absence would be scarcely noticed, and would mostly go unremarked upon. His sisters would be distressed to lose her, of course, as would her father. She felt a terrible pang of guilt for being such a failure of a daughter to him, for shirking her duty to be a proper heir to him, for not providing an heir for herself.
But she knew she could not marry, not after Jaime. Her father wasn't losing an heir of her body, because she'd have never given him one had she stayed, and now she would not give him one since she was going.
She had written a very long, very apologetic letter to him. Sam promised he'd have it couriered to Tarth, that it would be placed directly into her father's own hands. And there were two other letters he'd send, one each for the Stark girls. They'd think she was utterly mad for giving up her life in their world to join Jaime in his. They'd loathed him for leaving her, swearing bloody vengeance that, ultimately, had not been needed. She hoped they'd find a way past their confusion and anger to being glad she was finally going to be happy, even if it were with a man they didn't understand and could not like.
Brienne had packed and brought with her, on their journey, all her needed belongings from King's Landing. She had been surprised to see how little there was of it all, how small her life was. Guarding the king, and… that was it.
But now she had an opportunity for more, to expand her life, to create something more substantial than the meager few things filling her rucksack. A wild hope for a family, always before tamped ruthlessly down lest it flare up and burn her to cinders with its ferocity, burst free in her chest, causing her heart to beat frantically, like it was trying to fight its way out from the cage of her ribs.
Sunset came; light flashed; Jaime was there, and as impatient as ever. His hand on her wrist, dragging her through, tilting her off balance, should have angered her. But his arms were around her, his lips on her hair, her forehead, strewing kisses over all her face, and all she could do was cling to him, glad glad glad . The worst moment of her life had been after he and Cersei had been dug free of the rubble that had crashed down and killed them.
She had stared down at the marble slab upon which his body, washed and dressed by the Silent Sisters, had been laid. Pale and ashen, with various wounds visible on his face and neck, his unnatural stillness had broken her heart over and over with every one of her own shallow, rapid breaths. It had seemed an abomination to take air when his chest would never rise again.
But he was there, with her, he was alive , alive and breathing and kissing her and whispering, "Brienne, I love you, don't leave me, please never leave me again."
"I won't," she said, or tried to, but he was pressing his lips to hers with desperation, his arms hard around her. A dam of restraint, borne of suffering and misery, crumbled within her and she clutched him back, returning his kiss eagerly, dazed with relief and disbelief that it was possible, he was alive, they were together, he wanted her, he was not that dead cold thing laid out on marble, he was alive .
She sobbed it, to her shame, unable to stop. "You're alive, you're alive, you're alive."
They clutched at each other a long while, until they were exhausted and leaning against each other for support, lest they sink to the ground.
To the side, Sam coughed delicately, drawing their attention.
"Welcome, Ser Brienne," he said kindly. "I know the Northern Queen and Lady Arya will be very happy to have you back. They were most distressed when you passed."
And how peculiar was that, to hear reference to her death, when she was standing right there, as hale and hearty as ever? Brienne supposed she would have to become used to it, because it was unlikely to stop any time soon.
"So… what happens now?" she ventured.
Sam gave her a helpless smile and a shrug; clearly, he was not privy to whatever plans Jaime might have made for her, for them. She turned next to the king, identical to the one she had just left behind, but his eyes were rolled up white. He would be no help at all. She turned at last, again, to Jaime, and found him watching her with the same adoring tenderness the other Jaime had gazed at her with.
Fear lanced through her, then; if the other Jaime could look at her thus and still leave her, preferring to die with his monstrous sister than live with Brienne, why would this Jaime not similarly find her lacking in some way? Doubt rose to join the fear, and a terrible certainty that she'd made a grievous error. Jaime's face, shining with joy, fell as he observed in her own visage the darkening of her mood.
"What's wrong?" he demanded, reaching out for her once more, trying to pull her close, as if terrified she'd disappear if not in close contact.
She swallowed down the lump in her throat. "Your Grace?" she asked the king, her voice hoarse.
Bran's eyes rolled down to fix upon her. "Yes?"
"The tree… if I had to, could I… could I go back?"
Beside her, Jaime jerked, making a punched-out sound of shock.
"You can't go back," he rasped. "If you go, I'll go, too. I'll follow you, I'll—"
His lone hand was reaching for her, scrabbling against her armor for a grasp, clutching her against him. His face was anguished, pleading, and she saw in that moment that he was different . He was Jaime, and yet he was not; not her Jaime, not the Jaime who had made a woman of her, who had shown her ecstasy and then left her so cruelly. This man had not taken her love and tossed it into the icy mud at their feet before riding away.
No, this man had mourned her, had missed and longed for her, had never put a finger on her in passion, was still a stranger to what it was like to lay with her. It couldn't be possible, and yet it was: he was everything good about the Jaime of her world, and nothing of that last fatal weakness that had proved his downfall.
And just like that, the fear was gone.
It was replaced by a calm, sure certainty that she had done the right thing, had made the best choice. Brienne dropped her rucksack on the ground, heedless of the dew-wet dirt churned up by their feet, and lifted her hands to frame his face, as she'd done the last time she'd seen the other Jaime, when she'd put her entire soul into convincing him to stay with her, and failed.
This time, however, when he gazed up at her, it wasn't with a face blank with numb misery, eyes glassy and unfocused. No, he looked at her like she, not the sun, illuminated the world. His hand came to encircle her wrist, thumb stroking, the same way the other Jaime had, unable to resist the affectionate caress even when emotionally ravaged.
"I'm not leaving you behind," she told him. "If I go somewhere, I'll take you with me, always."
The terror melted from his face, and a smile trembled on his lips, gaining in strength as she didn't move, just stood and promised herself to him, until he was beaming at her, shining gold and silver like a star.
He had said, once, that you didn't choose who you loved, but… she was choosing. It didn't matter if she could return to her world or not. She had made her decision, to love Jaime, and would not be revoking that vow.
Brienne never did go back through the tree, to Jaime's relief, though with Bran's help, they journeyed to it many times over the course of their lives to communicate with those she had left behind.
When their first son was born, they went to show him to his uncle. Tyrion had openly wept to see Jaime alive and well, and wept more to learn the boy had his name. They returned each time they had another child, so Tyrion could know them, as well.
A few times, in the early years, Selwyn Tarth would make the long journey so he could meet his grandchildren, and died knowing that, though his bloodline had ended in his world, elsewhere it lived on.
The other Sansa went many times over the years. She had rejoiced to find that Sandor Clegane had not died in Jaime's world, and for a moment had looked as if she'd have liked to climb through the tree, herself. But unlike Brienne, she had far more pressing obligations and was needed in her own world.
Brienne gave Jaime a half-dozen children. To be able to claim his children, to have them navigate through the world with the knowledge of their parentage openly known, was a joy nearly indescribable in its scope.
What was even better was how he had redeemed himself, his reputation, to where bearing his name was no longer the shameful liability it might otherwise have been. His sons and daughters were welcomed and sought as friends and, later, as spouses because of him, not in spite of him.
Brienne, of course, had known it all along; the dear, mad woman had never doubted him, the trueness of his heart, after that one frightened moment upon her arrival through the tree.
Jaime did not know what insanity must have stricken his counterpart, to have made the other Jaime leave her to die with Cersei, but he was certain the other Jaime deserved that crushing death, and worse besides. The foolishness, the weakness… even though that had not been him, still he was shamed to think any versions of him could be so pathetic.
Jaime and Brienne retired to Tarth to laze about in the sun and enjoy their latter years, leaving the governance of the island to their eldest son Tyrion, who chose to rule Tarth rather than Casterly Rock. The Lannister lands fell instead to their daughter Sansa. It pleased the original Sansa greatly when her second son married Sansa Lannister and became lord of the Rock.
Years passed. The realm recovered. Bran died, but the three-eyed raven did not manifest in another, and with him vanished the last vestige of magic of the world. The portal through the tree stopped functioning, and it became just another weirwood in the strangest of places.
Jaime and Brienne never spent a day apart the rest of their lives. They never took anything for granted. They loved their family, and protected the realm, and died heroes remembered long thereafter.
At least on that side of the sky…