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A Winter's Tale

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With a sigh, Jaime Lannister scrubbed his hand through his already tousled blonde locks. Damp and chilly nights such as these made him restless, and his hand, the one the Bloody Mummers had cut off, ached abominably. Once upon a time he had regarded tales of phantom limbs as the sort of foolishness that only grizzled old veterans well into their cups talked about.

Now he knew better.

He climbed out of his bed and poured himself a cup of wine, hoping it would soothe his restlessness. It was a fine vintage, the last of the Arbor's summer grapes, but it could've been something poured in the slops of Flea Bottom for all that he tasted it. Pouring another, and another, and still one more, he gazed at the flickering coals in the grate. The ache in his missing hand quieted to a dull throb and he tried desperately not to think of the mess he had made of his life, or of Cersei, through those two things were inextricably intertwined. His thoughts took a morbid turn at that.

He supposed he should have wept, or felt a father's grief at the sight of Joffrey's body laid out on the bier. Not only could he not weep, lest that give further credence to the rumors about the late king's true parentage, but truthfully, he had not liked his and Cersei's firstborn. It was an awful thing to think, he realized, but it felt invigoratingly good to acknowledge the truth (at least to himself) after year upon year of secrets and lies and the ever increasing burdens those lies brought.

Reaching out, he upended the bottle. A weak trickle ran out, a spoonful at best. Damn.

Fumbling drunkenly, relying on his remaining, off, hand the captain of the Kingsguard some how managed the act of drawing on some trousers, a loose tunic, and a robe; he staggered from his chambers in search of some more wine.

~oo(0)oo~

Invited — ordered really — into his captain's chambers just as the stars faded in the east, Loras Tyrell took a deep breath and wondered just how much more bitter his life could become. Crossing paths with his captain just as he got off watch, tired and longing for the comfort of his bed, was just the latest in a long line of bad luck that had plagued him since.... Loras took a deep breath and forced himself to dwell on the matter at hand.

Jaime Lannister was well into his cups. He wanted a drinking companion. What was it the Septas told the little girls? 'Courtesy is a Lady's armor.' Well, at times, it was all a gentleman had too. "Ser?" Loras asked, his voice civil, but cool. His commander wanted him to have a glass of wine. Well enough. He would drink wine, feign interest, answer politely, go to bed, and try not to dream.

Irritably Ser Jaime waived him to a chair in front of the fire and poured him a glass. Red. Not Arbor, but something from Loras's native Highgarden. He swallowed. He waited.

"You remind me of me at your age. Young, good looking, tourney championships, the world at your feet." Ser Jaime finished with a sad half laugh.

Loras set his face in a mask of bland politeness and hoped he did not look too bored, or too hostile.

"Ah, but I see this makes no impression on you, young Ser."

Loras arched an eyebrow.

Ser Jaime laughed again, his bright green eyes glassy from too much wine. "You're a quick study, Ser Loras. A moon ago you would've glared and maybe even huffed out of here, despite the fact that I'm your commander and you're in my chambers, drinking my wine.

"So, it's a cool face and an elegant eyebrow these days. Tell me, did you practice that look in the mirror?"

Keeping his voice level and calm, Loras replied, "I think you're in your cups, Ser Jaime, that's what I think."

His commander continued as if he had not spoken. "I used to come upon Cersei practicing faces in her mirror when I was a little boy ... and they still worked on me, even when I wondered if they were real or if they were feigned." Ser Jaime gestured expansively with his remaining hand.

Loras felt his hand clench on the goblet. He had never liked Queen Cersei, and the more he got to know of her, and the Lannisters, the more he grew to loathe them. He despised Ser Jaime only a little less than the Dowager Queen, Cersei.

"I have so many things I want to tell you, you silly, pretty little rose," Ser Jaime sighed, cradling his head in his hand. "I hardly know where to begin."

Enough. Time to drag Ser Jaime into his bed, find his own, and then the two of them could pretend this chat had never happened. Setting his goblet on the mantle, Loras stood and said, "Now, Ser Jaime -- "

"Smart move of yours, joining the Kingsguard. No more pressures to marry. I remember my father's rage and the beating he gave me. Heh." The look in the green eyes grew flinty. "Although, I'll wager your reasons for joining the Kingsguard were a lot different than mine."

Clenching his jaw, Loras decided not to take the bait. Drawing in a deep breath and speaking with a calm he did not quite possess, he replied, "Yes. My reasons for joining the Kingsguard are entirely different than yours, Ser Sisterfucker."

Ser Jaime started, choked on his wine, and gave a guffaw of laughter, "By the Seven, I told you you remind me of me! Every bit as brash and arrogant. You'd charge Hell with a bucket of water if you thought it would bring you glory enough."

Loras felt a smile snake its way across his face. Danger. As great a danger as he had ever faced down in his life, and oddly enough he felt no fear. He felt his anger leaking away, and in its place dark mirth blossomed. "Guilty as charged, Ser. And I think it's time you went to bed."

Ser Jaime made no objections as Loras helped him with his robe and boots, and turned back the rumpled covers.

"Not going to take off the rest?" Ser Jamie gestured at his tunic and trousers. The glint in those green eyes was mocking, but not cruel. Then the gaze softened and grew sad. "I love her as much as I hate her, you know."

Shock clenched around his throat like a fist, but somehow Loras managed to choke out, "Ser, are you really sure you should say such things?"

"Of course I am." Jaime Lannister's voice took on a steely luster as he lolled drunkenly against the pillows. "Your little secret is just as damning as mine, Ser Loras." He pulled up the covers. "We'll talk more tomorrow."

Woodenly Loras nodded and slipped from the room, knees sagging as he made his way down the corridor to his own chamber.

This was not good.

He wanted nothing from the Lannisters, least of all Jaime's secrets.

~oo(0)oo~

Jaime watched as Loras squirmed slightly in his seat. He waived the servants away; he would not speak until they had left the room. Doubtless Varys had his ear pressed somewhere to the walls, but Jamie would not be saying anything that mincing spider did not already know.

He had grown up with his father pounding into his head the necessity and power of keeping secrets. Sound advice, that. Following it had kept him alive, though not happy. Perhaps that had something to do with this moonstruck urge to share his secrets with the young knight across from him.

Share.

Ha!

More like hand over part of the burden and make Loras carry it.

He studied Loras again. The young man had turned out in his formal whites. Ironically, young Tyrell looked more striking in such austere garb than he had ever looked in the elaborate silks and brocades he had favored in his days as a courtier and darling of the tournaments. Beneath a riot of brown curls, those striking brown-gold eyes fixed him in a direct gaze. The man may have once dressed like a peacock and acted the part, but it was not a fop across the table from him now.

In that instant Jaime realized that he liked this proud young buck more than he had ever liked Joffrey, his own son. For all his showiness and artfully cultivated casual grace, Ser Loras had the true steel. Jamie gestured to the carving knife and fork, indicating that Loras should carve the lamb. After a moment he said, "Do you know why we're not having roast pork? Actually, it's the same reason I never eat pork unless I have to."

"No, my lord."

"Because it smells too much like Rickard Stark did, roasting away in his armor, while Brandon Stark strangled himself on a leather thong, desperate to save his father. I tried to tell him with my eyes not to move, you know, to let his father die and save his own life, but foolish, mule stubborn Stark to the end, he did not listen. That's the Starks for you. All grand notions and no sense." Jamie noted with some satisfaction that Loras turned pale at that but kept carving. As the first slices of meat were laid on his plate Jamie drained his goblet and continued, "The coals were so hot that Rickard Stark's breastplate actually melted in places. And ... " he paused, tangled in memories, "and I did nothing. Just stood next to Aerys Targaryen, a loyal member of the Kingsguard, while the courtyard filled with a smell like a Midsummer's Eve pit roast." He stopped to let that sink in. "I haven't liked the smell of pork since."

He had talked about that day before, but he had never told anybody the bit about the pork. When Cersei had the boar that had mortally wounded Robert roasted with apples and mushrooms he had almost gagged at the sight and smell of it. Ah, thank the Seven for the wine that day! But Jamie had also endured it in part because at that time he had stupidly dreamed that Robert's death would make his life simpler and easier. After all, the biggest impediment to his relationship with Cersei — her husband — had just died. How wrong he was about that; how gravely he had misjudged Cersei's hunger for power.

A discrete clearing of the throat brought him back to the present. He noticed that Loras had thoughtfully sliced his meat into bite sized portions without being asked. Pleased, Jamie nodded, indicating that Loras should pour another glass.

After several bites had been taken in silence, Jamie asked, "What's it like to be a third son?"

Loras started a bit at the question.

"Not what you thought I was going to say?"

A hint of a smile. "No."

"Well, then, perhaps I should ask what it's like to grow up in a happy family."

Those strange honey-brown eyes clouded a bit. "It doesn't guarantee that you'll find happiness," Loras replied hesitantly. "In some ways it makes certain ... things ... worse."

"How so?"

Loras took a long swallow of wine and carefully placed the goblet on the table before speaking. "Love. Regard." He pushed his peas around on the plate with his fork. "Once you have known these things, you do not want to risk the loss. It is a kind of death to have your father or your mother turn reproachful eyes upon you when their opinion of you, their regard for you, actually matters. It is no common scorn. It is a risk you do not willingly take."

Something Jamie had not considered. He knew scorn well enough. But love for his father? Bah. Men feared the late Tywin Lannister, but no one loved him. After his mother died birthing Tyrion, Jaime could not recall seeing his father smile, much less have a kind word. And Cersei ... her affections for him had always been mixed with a bit of scorn; resentment that she was the woman, not he. Love? He had once thought his all consuming need for Cersei love, but now? He had changed. Cersei had not. Therein lay the source of the strain. "And being a third son?" he asked before the silence had grown too long.

Loras sighed and leaned back in his chair. "I don't know," he said after a moment. "I was always my father's favorite son. Willas he had duties towards. Willas is his heir, though my father is always a bit sad about him. Even though he's a good man, brave in his own way, Willas will never ride into battle or even onto a tourney field. But still, father knows the value of having a steady man who is good with books and the law as his heir, and he knows his duty." His eyes flicked up in thought. "Yet, even before Willas became a cripple, I think Father liked me best.

"Garlan he also had duties toward. Garlan must become Highgarden's next general and make an advantageous marriage since Willas cannot ride in battle and fathers aren't exactly lining their daughters up for him. So father trained him thus. Battle strategy, the big picture, how to give counsel to Willas, how to command the lords under him, how to choose the right sort of wife.

"But what duties does a man have toward his third son?" Loras smiled and swept his arms open. "None. He may neglect or cultivate him as he wishes. I will admit that I was a bright little boy, eager and quick to learn anything my father would teach me. He didn't have to teach me accounts or diplomacy or try to arrange an advantageous marriage for me. Me he could teach what ever he liked, and Mace Tyrell always did like fighting in a melee best. The fact that I took naturally to lance and horse, sword and bow, was only an added joy to him."

"And the clothes, the courtly airs? Chivalry in all its flower?" Jamie smirked.

"I have a mother and sisters." Loras's eyes narrowed a bit.

Amongst your other teachers, Jaime thought dryly. Renly Baratheon had always liked the pageantry and showiness of court life. "And it never bothered you that crippled, bookish Willas gets the lion's share of the estate?"

"No. Let him have the headaches that come with it. I have always had to earn my way in the world. Father never let me forget that. I had my sword and my wits. And, frankly, given my ... personality ... it is best I am not expected to marry and produce an heir. So, unlike you, my father had no cause to beat me for joining the Kingsguard. Nothing of great importance has ever been expected of me."

"Except making the name Tyrell look good," Jaime smiled. "How different your childhood was from mine, Ser Loras. How ironic that we should end up so alike." He enjoyed the way the proud young man stiffened at that. Good. Loras mustn't forget that he was equally mired in the shit. Less blood (and less guilt) on his hands didn't absolve him.

Having taken his pleasure for the day in jabbing at the young knight, Jaime decided he should shift the topic of conversation to the more mundane one of day to day operation of the Kingsguard.

~oo(0)oo~

Even as a little boy Loras had liked long, formal feasts. Oddly enough, he liked them even more these days, despite the fact that all he got to do was smell the dishes being served to the Royal Family. He relished the orchestration and progression of feasts. The singers, the tumblers, the mummers, the grand presentation of the courses, and best of all, Loras liked the game of watching who spoke to whom, which dishes they favored, and who had the most refined table manners. He had always had a knack for reading the clothes, the gestures, the expressions on faces. Feasts were where people often unwittingly revealed what they least wanted others to know, if you knew what to look for.

It was easier to watch it all this way. Fewer admiring eyes on him, compliments on the cut of his clothes, talk of his tournament victories. Gone were the flirtations of the young (and not so young) women, several of whom still cast wistful glances his way, doubtless dreaming of a tryst in some garden nook or alcove. He need no longer worry about keeping them entertained with witty chatter while at the same time avoiding ending up with an unwanted attachment.

It was better this way. He would never have a wife to disappoint.

And ....

Loras sucked in a deep breath and made sure his implacable calm mask did not slip.

And, he no longer had to pretend to be nothing more than a squire, or a friend, or a fellow knight. He no longer had to school himself to not to meet Renly's eyes, not to touch him, not to speak to him too long or too intensely. He no longer had little stabs of envy when dear Margaery laid her fingers on the arm Loras longed to touch, or when Renly treated her in courtly ways. He no longer needed to wear courtesy and gallantry as his armor, or rather, he wore them as armor against different things these days.

By chance his eyes met Jaime Lannister's, and Loras nodded in acknowledgement of the knowing bitterness he saw flicker there for an instant. Loath as he was to admit it, Loras knew exactly how Ser Jaime felt as his charade continued much as it had for these past 20 years. Twenty years. Loras wondered how the man found the will and discipline to maintain appearances.

Then again, had life played out differently, he would have had to bear up the same and likely just as long, too.

Self preservation. If Renly's devotion to Margaery had appeared to be anything but total, the whole house of cards would have come crashing down. There would have been nothing left for either of them, except exile and penury in the Free Cities — if they were lucky.

Loras forced himself to focus on the tumblers before he became too distracted. He must be ready to spring into action at a moment's notice should they or anybody not seated at the high table or permitted to serve there come a bit too near the Royal Family. Ironic and silly really, since those who sat at the high table with King Tommen were every bit as dangerous to him as the scum of Flea Bottom.

~oo(0)oo~

With a groan, Jaime settled himself into a chair and examined the paperwork before him. Bloody hell, he was not cut out for this. He had never liked this sort of thing and he liked it even less now that his handwriting looked little better than a child's scrawl.

Cersei seemed to think, now that their father was dead, that he could be both Hand to the King and fulfill his duties as commander of the Kingsguard. Mace Tyrell and Paxter Redwyne were not only able generals and excellent choices for Hand, and she needed their not only their support, but frankly, she needed the dowry that had come with Margaery Tyrell's marriage to Joffrey; money that would stay in the treasury only if Margarey's betrothal to Tommen did not fall apart. For a woman who coveted power, Cersei seemed utterly clueless at times about the sacrifices she would need to make to maintain it. Humoring Mace Tyrell was a small price to pay to keep Tommen's ass planted in the throne and her head upon her shoulders.

And ... and she no longer loved him as she once did. Or maybe — as Jamie had begun to let himself think in the dark hours when sleep eluded him — maybe his sister, the only woman he had ever known, had deceived him. Perhaps she was not the other half of his soul. Perhaps he had never been anything more than her most useful tool, and thus, an even bigger cully than Robert.

He quashed that train of thought. She had wanted him to join the Kingsguard because she could not bear the thought of being parted from him; she loved him, needed him that much. It had to be true. He needed it to be true. Jamie had sacrificed all for her, and if that wasn't love, then what was? Oh, she still fired his blood as ever, beautiful and golden as the dawn, but lately, Jamie found he desired her company less and less. She seemed to want nothing more than him between her thighs, making her cry out in pleasure, and as soon as she had her pleasure, she apparently thought nothing of treating him as a servant or lesser lord to whom she could dictate her will.

He missed her. Missed the Cersei he had loved all his life.

But ... had that Cersei ever existed, really?

A wave of regrets crashed over him. Children he could never call his own, or love as anything more than an uncle. Oh, if he could have had a hand in guiding Joffrey more directly, things could have been so different.

Maybe.

They had often used the fact that the Targaryens had married brother to sister as a justification for their love, and if people had tolerated it in them, why not the Lannisters? However, now that Jamie thought of that, he realized he, not Cersei, had always justified their union thusly. Perhaps it was only fitting that a monster as great and twisted as the last of the Targaryens had sprung from his union with Cersei. And what a mercy it was that some assassin had poisoned Joffrey before he reached his majority, before he could inflict real harm on the realm.

And, given that Cersei loved power and that Joffrey had not proven that easy to manipulate, Jaime wondered if she would have done the deed herself, given time.

He needed to have another talk with Loras. After watching the young knight these past weeks, Jamie had decided to groom him to one day lead the Kingsguard; the man might as well know his secrets.

~oo(0)oo~

Loras scooped a handful of sooty snow from the windowsill into his kerchief and held it to the aching knot on his head. Seven hells, at least winter with its weak sunlight and damnible chill had some use. He closed and latched the shutters. The old timers scoffed that this wasn't really winter — just the end of autumn. He hated to think of it growing any colder in Kings Landing. He had heard stories ... but as a child of the long summer he had had no real notion of the realities.

The same way he had had no real notion of the realities of joining the Kingsguard. The Rainbow Guard had been a way to be close to Renly. The Kingsguard he had joined out of grief, political expediency, the need to keep his sister safe, and the protection afforded him by the oath of celibacy. Over the past two moons it had become painfully clear to him that Ser Jaime had started mentoring him, training him to some day lead the Kingsguard. Something that Loras had never planned on. Some of his brother guards were less than pleased with this turn of events, which meant they took it out on him during practice.

They did not know what they were dealing with.

His entire life had taught Loras how to suck up and move on. If they did not let up in a week or two, then he would stop pulling his blows. Loras looked forward a bit to seeing the fear dawn in their eyes when they discovered exactly how hard he could hit and how fiercely he would fight back.

Ser Jaime, on the other hand ....

Loras cursed softly under his breath. When his commander kept the topic of conversation to battle tactics, or to the mundane responsibilities of running a unit such as the Kingsguard, or even when Loras had to read and then answer obscure questions about the lives of the knights chronicled in The Book of Brothers, he enjoyed it. These things Loras felt prepared to take on.

However, Loras did not want his mentor's secrets. It was everything in him sometimes not to let a word slip. Neither did he trust Ser Jaime with his secret. The man was a Lannister, after all. Lions loved to stalk and ambush unsuspecting prey. And if this Lion pounced, it must find nothing but a Rose briar.

Without warning the door to his chamber burst open. Loras lept up, dagger in hand.

"Not supposed to draw a weapon on your commander." Ser Jaime spoke in the manner of a drunken man who did not want to slur his speech.

Loras crossed to the door and angrily slammed it shut. No need for the casual passer by to hear or see more than was necessary. "You're drunk, Ser," he hissed.

"That I am." He noticed that Ser Jaime weaved ever so slightly as he stood.

Oh, by the Seven! Not now. His head ached; the day was cold and grey. He did not want to speak or listen to Jaime Lannister. Crossing his arms, Loras leaned against the door and studied his mentor.

Disheveled hair, red-rimmed green eyes in a face that normally looked handsome, but these days just looked mostly haggard. A red mark just at the edge of his collar hinted at a love bite. Loras sniffed the air. He would need to get in closer to make certain, but ... ah yes, neroli, fig, and a hint of jasmine. Expensive. Dornish. A gift to her mother from Princess Myrcella, no doubt.

He decided to twist the knife. "Things not go well with your sister?"

To his amazement, Ser Jaime laughed. "At last Renly's Little Rose shows his thorns."

"All Roses have thorns, Ser, and you and yours are hemmed in on all sides by Roses. Pray never forget that."

"And Lions have claws, sharp teeth, too."

"Roses are harder to kill than Lions. Prune the bush and next season it grows back, ever more vigorous. It's not the same with Lions. Kill enough cubs and the pride is gone."

Anger flared up in those emerald eyes, "Keep this up, boy and I'll —"

"What? Stick your sword 'in places even Renly never found'?" Loras almost laughed at the shocked look on Ser Jaime's face. Recklessly he pressed the advantage. "Answer me this, my lord, why does everybody who guesses my secret think that I played the ewe to Renly's ram?"

"You, you're --" came the sputtering reply.

"Oh, yes, silly of me," Loras sneered. "It's the slight frame, my face -- as pretty as a girl's -- my clothes. 'What a refined young knight.' 'Why, he is Florian the Fair come to life. What lucky lass will he pick for a Jonquil?' Do you think I won my spurs at 16 because they liked my pretty face? Or do you think maybe it was the roses my mother and sister so painstakingly embroidered on my surcoat?" Loras paused for a moment to let that sink in, then continued, "I may have not won my spurs facing down the Kingswood Brotherhood, but I earned them all the same. I was the best fucking man on the field that day. I've scrapped and fought all my life, and I know how make men rue that they thought me nothing more than a little boy with a pretty face and nice clothes."

"You mean that --" Ser Jamie's mouth gaped.

"As often as not, Ser." He liked the way that Ser Jaime almost flinched under his gaze.

"And now that you've found out something that you didn't expect, and probably don't want to know, I suggest you get out. I'm tired. My head hurts. And I have the dawn watch."

~oo(0)oo~

Jaime glanced out of his study into the garden below. Margaery Tyrell and her ladies, making the most of the weak winter sun and the sheltering walls of castle, taking tea amongst the mums. Ser Loras was with them, dressed in his whites, but not on duty. He played the lute, and though only the barest echoes of his voice reached Jaime's ears he could tell that the young man sang in a pleasant tenor.

He meant to turn back to his work but something about the way that Loras sang, and the way that Margaery laughed with him, and their easy way toward each other held Jaime's attention.

They loved each other.

Not the covetous, poisonous love that had shackled he and Cersei all these years. This was something altogether different, lighter, warmer -- a love that did not consume. Jamie caught sight of the smile Loras bestowed on her. It looked like all of summer's warmth and radiance in a moment's expression. And Margarey mirrored it back at him.

Unconditional love.

The Seven have mercy on the man who took the smile away from Margaery's pretty pink lips, or rashly stole the light from her big brown eyes, Jamie thought darkly as he reached for a fresh quill.

Joffrey would not have lasted two years as her husband.

~oo(0)oo~

A knock on the door summoned Loras to a meeting with his captain. He found Ser Jaime standing on a balcony looking over the lights of the harbor as the last rays of the setting sun danced upon the waters. The wind blew chill but Ser Jaime did not seem to feel it.

"Ser?" he asked, lingering in the doorway.

Ser Jaime beckoned, indicating Loras should join him. He said without preamble, "You love your sister, Margaery, do you not?"

"With all my heart, Ser."

"And when Joffrey beat her -- and he would have once the shine of a new marriage had worn off -- what would you have done? Your King, whom you have sworn to protect, beating the younger sister you adore. Would you have stood by — no, I see by the look in your eye that the question I should be asking is 'how long would you have stood by before you acted'?"

A bitter laugh clawed its way out of Loras's throat. "Well played, Ser, well played." He glanced meaningfully at the yard below, met those green, green eyes, hefted his chin defiantly and said, "Your gutterborn spawn would have died the day he raised a hand to Margaery."

"Cersei would have screamed for the axe. My father, too."

"Really?" Loras made his tone as frosty as the cobbles below. "And risk losing Highgarden? Your father knew exactly how much he needed the Lords of the Reach, Kingslayer. Without us, who stands for Kings Landing?"

Ser Jaime did not bristle at the insult the way Loras expected. Instead, his smile grew sad and knowing. "More than ever, I know that I made the right choice, Little Rose." He cupped Loras's cheek with his hand, and kissed him solemnly on the temple. "Dismissed."

Numb, Loras found himself before his chamber door. He had no memory of how he got there. Once inside, heart hammering, he leaned against the solid oak of the door before his knees slowly buckled. More secrets and truths, more of the seemingly endless secrets and truths better left undiscovered.

Shaking, he crawled into his cold bed and sobbed silently, missing summer's warmth, aching for the days when life was simple and beautiful, and nobody expected anything from him other than tournament glories, exquisite clothes, and flowery shows of courtly manner.

But most of all, he missed his fellow third son. He missed Renly.

~oo(0)oo~

Loras had changed after that night on the balcony, Jaime mused as he dipped his razor in the steaming water and then awkwardly scraped the last of the lather off his jaw. He seemed a sadder, wiser man these days. The Lannister touch, he mocked himself, once again turning everything into shit. Jaime had meant to reach out to the young prodigy, keep Loras from making some of the same mistakes, spare him some of life's grief. He had given Loras nothing but secrets to hide. Heh. When he was 19 he carried only one secret, his relationship with Cersei. Oh how many more he had forced Loras to carry.

"You wished to speak with me, Ser?"

Jaime looked at the window and gestured towards the city. "He was going to burn it, you know."

"What? Who?"

"Aerys. Robert's armies stood outside the gates. And Aerys strolled through the palace and blithely announced his intention to burn the city. He and the pyromancers had cached wildfire all throughout the city. He would burn the city and rise out of the ashes as a dragon triumphant and slay those who rebelled against him." Jamie stood, put his arm around Loras's shoulder, pleased that the young knight did not flinch, and together they walked towards the window. Forcing himself not to gesture with his stump, Jamie continued, "And all I could think about is what Rickard Stark had smelled like as he cooked over the coals. How I had stood by and done nothing. Dreamed. Pretended I wasn't there.

"But I couldn't pretend any more, Ser Loras. I took off my white armor, and put on my old armor, Lannister gold. I wanted everybody to understand, but I left the white cape on -- that damned white cape -- and that's all anybody ever noticed. Nobody remembers that I had taken off my white armor and donned the gold." His voice crackled with emotion.

"And that's when you killed him," Loras said in a voice as grey and flat as the slates below.

"Yes. He actually shat himself when he realized I had come to kill him." Jamie sucked in a deep breath and tried not to laugh at the absurdity of what he would say next, "I actually thought that people would thank me for what I had done, for delivering thousands from that madman. But they only saw the white cloak. Oathbreaker, Kingslayer, they call me."

The silence stretched for several seconds.

"Ser Jaime, promise me something." Loras's whisper was dry and papery.

"What, Ser Loras?"

"That when this elaborate trap that you've woven for what end I know not closes in on me, at least give me the option of choosing the Black."

"Option? Lad, I've half a mind to join you. Don't even think of riding off to join the Night's Watch without me." He clapped Loras on the back and chortled.

~oo(0)oo~

There were two Jaime Lannisters, and both of them frightened and awed Loras Tyrell.

The first Jaime Lannister he saw only during duty hours. Loras had to admit that he had never served under a shrewder, more astute officer. This captain knew how to train, knew how to make men obey, knew how to handle the rote daily work, and knew how to put up a good public front.

The other Jaime Lannister came to him at odd hours, a troubled, often drunken man, tormented by secrets.

Both Jaimes were lonely men.

Both of them filled his head with knowledge Loras did not want, and both had snared several of his own secrets. Loras cursed his temper and his pride for goading him into speaking when a better, wiser man would have had the sense to hold his tongue. Ser Jaime had everything he'd ever need to ruin him — the Seven only knew what Varys's minions had heard — and Loras had the sinking feeling that despite his captain's promise, that his days would end with his head on a pike.

A knock at the door interrupted his sleepless brooding. Only one person called at this hour. Loras lit the rack of candles on the table and unbolted the door for his commander. "Ser Jaime ... a late night, and you're not visibly drunk, and you have brought no wine. Is something amiss?" he asked flippantly. He took in Ser Jaime's half dressed state and wondered what had rousted his commander from his chambers at this hour. He had not come from a visit with Cersei, not dressed like that.

"What's it like with a man?"

A myriad of conflicting emotions and impulses crashed through Loras: shock, fear, anger, mirth and ... even a spark of desire. Despite the ordeals of the past few years and his present cares, Jaime Lannister still had dashing good looks, but Loras had never entertained that thought -- that way lay suicide. After a moment he fixed the older man with a dark stare and said, "Why don't you go to the Street of Flowers and find out?"

"Touché. But having never had the need or the desire to visit that street, I wouldn't know where to begin to ask."

Loras bit back a stinging retort, deciding instead on a different tack. With a smile that he did not quite feel he said, "Answer me this -- what's so damn great about women? Not that you've sampled a great variety."

Jaime Lannister's face whitened with rage. A sick thrill raced through Loras. "My apologies, Ser," said Loras, casually pacing along the borders of the rug as he spoke. "You walked in here attempting to hurt and shame me and I have most discourteously turned the tables." Without warning he spun and launched himself at the other man, slamming Ser Jaime to the floor.

Jaime Lannister had strength, and his greater height gave him leverage, but Loras had fought taller, stronger men all his life. And, Loras still had both hands. After a few moments of furious struggle, he pinned Jaime beneath him, face down, arm wrenched painfully back. Leaning down, Loras hissed into Jaime's ear, "It's the knowledge that your bedmate has the strength to do this to you, and that you can return the favor. It's the feeling of the body beneath you, hard, lean, sleek as your own, and you don't have to hold back. You can be as fierce as you please, or as gentle as you like and he'll match you in kind. His body feels like yours, looks like yours, and smells like yours. Satisfied?"

Jaime nodded as best he could with his face pressed against the nap of the carpet. Loras's gaze bored into his visible eye, struggling to decipher what he read in those murky depths. After several moments of contemplation he sat back and asked, "My lord, did you come here looking to have an itch scratched?"

To his surprise, Jaime Lannister gave a hesitant nod.

"Oh." Loras didn't quite know what to say or do. He'd never begun to imagine .... Heart hammering in his throat, he released the arm he clenched and stood. By the Mother, he needed a drink. Loras sagged into a chair and for the life of him could not think of a clever, courtly, or even cruel thing to say.

Climbing somewhat unsteadily to his feet, Ser Jaime murmured, "I've made a complete cockup of that, and won't Varys be having a laugh. I'll be taking my leave now."

"No, stay, Ser Jaime."

"Just Jaime. No need to be so formal now."

It wasn't so much that Loras wanted Jaime Lannister. Yes, the man was handsome. Yes, he came from quality. But despite meeting Loras's usual prerequisites, he could think of many reasons why he should not do this.

But.

He hated being lonely, and, by the Seven, he yearned to feel another body straining against his own.

"Are you sure, Ser Jamie?"

His deep voice wavering, Jaime replied, "No, I'm not. It's just that —" He shrugged, at a loss for words.

Loras felt something in his heart soften a bit. A few months ago he had despised Jaime Lannister and everything the Lannisters stood for, but now? He felt a certain kinship and empathy. It wasn't love, but perhaps it was a start that could grow into something genuine. Something less cold and adversarial. After a moment he said, "We're both damned, Ser Jaime, but let's make hell a less lonely place."

Quietly, Loras blew out the candles, and with only the glow of the fire for light, took his captain's hand and led him to the bed. "You can leave any time you like, Lannister, and I will understand, but if you ever use this, or threaten to use this against me, I will not forgive."

"I understand, Tyrell."

And as he ran his hands through his mentor's hair, Loras mused for a moment on the irony of yet another secret tying him to Jamie Lannister, but, as he claimed those lips and felt the hesitant yet earnest reply, at least the secret would be theirs to make ... and to share.