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Cloudbusting

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Prologue

 

Brienne is exactly 13 years old when she discovers the joys of vaginal thrush. Her dad has had a special ‘swimming pool’ birthday cake made for her, but, driving it home, he had to brake sharply for a cat, and the cake had slid from seat to footwell, with the result that the pool was now rather grimy and the icing version of Brienne (who had been swimming across the pool) now lay on the tiles at the side, half of her sugary face mangled. In years to come, Brienne will look back on this as a kind of forewarning, but now she only smiles, waits for her dad and grandparents to finish singing for her, and blows out the candles. She shuts her eyes, and wishes for a friend. Just one friend. Someone to immediately link arms with when the teacher tells them to get into pairs. Someone to invite round for her birthday. Someone to have sleepovers with. Someone to go to the cinema with, or shopping. To share secrets with. To chase away the loneliness.

 

Instead she gets vaginal thrush.

 

Three weeks before her birthday, she had an ear infection. When it didn’t go away on its own, she went to the GP, who did not bother to ask her if she was a swimmer, instead prescribing her a 5-day course of oral antibiotics. When they didn’t work, she returned and was given a week’s worth of stronger oral antibiotics. These, similarly, did not touch the ear infection but they did finish off the job that the first course of antibiotics started, and wiped out a hell of a lot of Brienne’s friendly gut and vaginal bacteria. The GP finally took a swab test and diagnosed Swimmer’s Ear, a condition which required specialised eardrops. By this time, Brienne had an upset stomach, as well as the painful ear which stopped her from sleeping, and she is most annoyed, when, a few hours after making her birthday wish, her foof starts to itch like crazy too.

 

Because all this isn’t quite bad enough, the god of misery and discomfort – who plays a large and active role in Brienne’s life – decides that she will also get her first period this week. This means that if she does cave and put a finger or two down there to scratch (in the privacy of her bedroom, naturally), they emerge streaked with blood, as though her vagina has committed some dreadful murder and her hand has stumbled on the crime scene.

 

Blushing and ashamed, she purchases a pessary and cream from the village pharmacy. The instructions for the pessary reassuringly inform her that “white chalky discharge is normal as the tablet breaks down inside you.” (Inside you. What a curious expression. Inside Brienne used to mean in her stomach. “Get some food inside you.” Or her inner goodness when compared to her looks – “It’s what’s inside you that’s important!” Then puberty hit and the vagina became the default inside. Tampons. Boys. Pessaries. When Trent Reznor sang “I wanna feel you from the inside” you can bet he wasn’t imagining being served up as dinner, or performing gastric surgery, or revelling in his lady’s moral virtues.)

 

What the pessary directions fail to mention is the unappealing nature of the chalky discharge mingled with blood and those jellyish clots that Brienne’s uterus seems intent on forming. For thirteen years, it has lain dormant, ignored, plotting against her. Now, unleashed, it creates as much mess as possible. The instructions for the thrush treatment also fail to discuss the horror of rubbing cream onto something that just keeps bleeding. Brienne is furious. She had no mother to prepare her for any of this. Just a dad who had one day left a packet of pads and a book called ‘Periods: have you started yet?’ in her room when she was twelve (a year after they’d had the talk at school). At least, she assumes it was her dad who put them there. Perhaps it was some kind of period fairy, a downgrade on a fairy godmother or tooth fairy, but certainly better than the god of misery and discomfort. Brienne had been furious about periods in general – had decided ‘No, I’m not having that’ on the day that their teacher took the girls aside to tell them of the weeks of bloodletting, but this – thrush – just takes the fucking biscuit.

 

All of this means that Brienne is late for try-outs for the water polo team. (The boys’ water polo team, naturally. The girls have synchronised swimming.) Her ear has had to be kept dry and the chlorine can upset the pH balance of the vagina, so Brienne waits until she is fully recovered. The squad is already formed, already bonded, already averse to interlopers, by the time she turns up in the fifth week of the school year, huge and slick in her costume and cap. It is here that Brienne gets a new name, and meets Jaime Lannister.

 

*

 

Whale Girl. She has used waterproof mascara, and has applied a gradual tanning moisturiser so that the contrast between her freckles and pale skin is not quite so stark. She has practised a confident smile in the mirror, keeping her lips together to hide her teeth. She has shaved her legs, armpits and trimmed her pubic hair. If only there were a razor or scissors that could cut away flesh and bone, or just abnormality, as easily and painlessly as hair. But there isn’t, and she is Whale Girl.

 

Brienne is used to being bullied (or as used to it as any sensitive teenaged girl can be), and she long ago saw the myth that “boys aren’t as catty as girls” for the horseshit that it is, but she is still hurt by the vitriol that these boys throw at her. Perhaps it hurts because she had actually made an effort. Perhaps because this is the one place her body should be an asset, and if it is still mocked here, what hope is there anywhere else? Perhaps it is because she already feels vulnerable, her costume disguising nothing. Or perhaps it is because when her eyes first meet Jaime Lannister’s, her heart does a strange little beat that she can’t quite ignore. Is it just because he is beautiful and looking at her? Is she that shallow? She gazes back, unable to look away, and like Icarus flying close to the sun, she plummets. Jaime’s eyes drift away from her eyes to take in her nose, her big lips, heavy jaw and then her huge shoulders. He doesn’t smirk or roll his eyes. He looks sorry for her, but also slightly repulsed. He steps back, and Brienne, in one of those awkward adolescent attempts at humour, mumbles, “Don’t worry. Looking like this isn’t contagious.” The attempt at dry self-deprecation instead becomes cringing self-abasement, and Jonothor Darry and Gerold Hightower hoot with laughter in the background.

 

“You gonna make friends with the whale, Jaime?” says Gerold.

 

“Maybe you can set her free from the theme park,” says Jonothor.

 

“Or maybe she’ll bite your leg off and you’ll end up dying in your quest for revenge,” laughs Jon Connington, apparently more literary than Jonothor.

 

“Yeah. No, thanks,” mutters Jaime, and he walks away, leaving Brienne pink and cowering. If she were small and pretty, at least one of the boys would have stepped in to protect her, but Brienne is too big and ugly to arouse this instinct in any of them. She makes the team because she is too good not to, and they make her life a misery because they are too cruel not to.

 

She regularly begins practise sessions by being shoved into the pool, always under the nose of the eagle-eyed Mr Tarly who becomes mysteriously short-sighted when it comes to the bullying of Brienne. The straps of her costume are ironically pinged by Owen Inchfield. For the first few weeks, unless specifically directed, the boys do not pass to her. One dreadful day, the god of misery and discomfort colludes with Brienne’s uterus, presumably after watching Carrie together. Darry starts to do the Jaws theme, and Brienne – assuming this is simply another joke referencing a large, water-dwelling beast – tries to ignore it. It is only when Mr Tarly orders her to “get out of the pool now and sort yourself out” that she realises. There isn’t much blood, but when the boys refuse to carry on practise – “I’m not swimming in that. Looks like a fucking shark attack.” – Tarly makes no attempt at reprimanding them.

 

“All right, Humpback/Spermy/Old Blue?”

 

“Have you still got Jonah in there?” with a nod at her abdomen.

 

When Brienne sneezes, rather than being told “bless you,” she is congratulated on clearing her blowhole.

 

Lannister, the new captain this year, could probably stop it, but he never makes the attempt. Only Addam Marbrand comes anywhere near kindness, going so far as to give her covert smiles now and then.

 

She starts to gets crippling stomach aches on practise days and has to go to the doctor who recommends Mebeverine. Then there are the fainting spells, occurring during school time, a few hours before training. The doctor, after checking she is not pregnant, suggests that she has been unknowingly hyperventilating and recommends breathing exercises. Brienne does them and the fainting ceases. Her troubled sleeping continues, as does the desire to starve herself – to at least make herself thinner as she cannot make herself shorter. She is close to dropping out of the team when, going through a drawer one day as she tidies her room, she comes across a letter her mother wrote her shortly before she died. Brienne has read it before, but its message – her mother’s love for her, her confidence that Brienne will grow into a good, brave woman – has never seemed so important as it does right now. She tucks it into the side pocket of her bag, wanting the words close when she is at her lowest ebb.

 

And so she stays on the team, but the problem with playing on a team of little shits is that when you win, the little shits win too. After a few months, Brienne has permanently ousted Owen Inchfield from the first team – a feat that does little to improve her popularity. After six months, she is second only to Lannister with regards to goals scored, has more assists, and is just as fast a swimmer. Late in the school year, they play the very prestigious all-boys’ school team who won the cup last year. It is Brienne’s goal, coming in the final minute, which takes her team through to the final of the Westeros Schools Championship for the first time in fourteen years. Brienne watches as her teammates celebrate her winner several metres away from her. The boys on the opposite team – the team that Brienne just knocked out – watch her slightly pityingly. In the cleaning cupboard which doubles as her private changing room at this all boys’ school, she steels herself enough to survive the coach trip home, earphones in to keep out the sexist songs about which lucky girls they would like to fellate them, and the snide comments about her. Brienne half wonders why some schools bother with cheerleading squads when it seems the easier way to raise testosterone levels and encourage team spirit is simply to place one very ugly girl on the team. The amount of male bonding that goes on through the abuse of her is sensational.

 

When it comes to the final, Brienne plays without heart and without enthusiasm, and they are hammered. She feels ambivalent: sadness combined with savage satisfaction in seeing her teammates manfully holding back tears. The satisfaction does not last long however.

 

“You lost it for us on purpose,” Jaime mutters, standing over her as she hoists herself out of the pool. The water is particularly cold today, and she is shivering as soon as she is out, longing to get back to the girl’s changing room and be alone. She tries to go around him but he sidesteps quickly, blocking her. “Admit it.”

 

Brienne is about to deny it, about to declare that while she knows she did not play well today, she certainly didn’t intentionally sabotage the game – but she can’t.

 

“Why?” he demands. “Why didn’t you play today the way you played last game?”

 

She can’t manage to raise her eyes to meet his, but she does manage to say in a choked, too high voice, “You didn’t even say well done last game. You’re the captain – if you’d done it, they would have too.”

 

“You blew our biggest game in years because we didn’t gather round and hug you and tell you how wonderful you were last match? Shall I bring you a sticker and lollypop next time? You pathetic, spiteful little...” He trails off.

 

Her eyes are brimming with tears by this point, and he finally lets her sidestep him. She moves quickly to the boys on the other team, holding out her hand to shake in congratulations, wanting it done so she can get to the shower and be alone.

 

Before she has shaken hands with more than three, though, a pleasant voice calls out to her. “Hey, Tarth, want your towel? You look cold.”

 

She turns to see Jonothor Darry holding out not just her towel but her bag, which seems to have been quickly stuffed with the uniform which she had earlier left hanging up in the changing room; evidently Jonothor had slipped in there to get her stuff. Instinctively, Brienne reaches out to grab the bag and towel, but just as her fingers are about to close around them, he jerks them sideways, and drops them into the pool.

 

It takes Brienne a few seconds to remember that her mother’s final letter is in that bag, already sinking slowly to the bottom of the pool. She cries out – a wounded animal noise – and dives in. She drives herself to the bottom, retrieves the bag, brings it to the surface, and deposits it with shaking hands on the side of the pool. There is almost complete silence as she pulls herself out, only the deferential apologies of Jonothor reaching her ears. “Didn’t mean to…” “I thought you’d got hold of it…” There are a few parents watching in the gallery which is why he is bothering to pretend.

 

Brienne ignores them all. Her hands fumble to get to the side pocket, and she is pleading under her breath for the letter to be okay. It isn’t okay. The water has got in and the words are smudged beyond all recognition.

 

Later that night, with red eyes and her father hovering awkwardly nearby, she will largely be able to rewrite the letter, for she had known it almost by heart. Right now though, all she sees is that her mother’s final words have been taken from her. That her hopes and her love for her young daughter are gone. With a quivering lip, Brienne stands up and punches Jonothor Darry so hard that he is knocked backwards into the pool. This time it is his blood darkening the swimming pool, his nose stunningly broken.

Chapter Text

Eleven years later

 

It is his second session but Jaime already dislikes this chair intensely. The armrest on the right side is torn and fraying, and you can see the spongy stuffing inside. It is difficult, in moments like these, when everything goes quiet, not to pick away at that stuffing, and throw bits of it on the floor. Jaime sees this chair as the throne of madness, the place where people come to sit in all their ceremonial, lunatic garb. All the disorders, the idiosyncrasies, the compulsions that are hidden in everyday life are paraded about and inspected and revered in this chair, the way a bride’s princess-dress/veil/tiara are paraded about and inspected and revered at a wedding when they would cause great hilarity if worn in day to day life, in the high street, at work, or in a café. The stench of batshittery is all around the chair, and Jaime swears that when he leaves this room, he will reek of other people’s malfunction as well as his own.

 

After ten seconds more of silence, Samwell Tarly says, “Jaime, when you were undergoing physiotherapy for your hand, I’m sure there were some exercises which were tiring, painful, and for a long time seemed fruitless. This is no different. I can’t help you if you don’t trust me, if there are embargoes on what we can talk about.”

 

“My childhood is off limits because it’s irrelevant,” says Jaime. “I wasn’t in a war zone as a child. I wasn’t captured or tortured or subject to mock executions as a child. It’s the Essos stuff I need to deal with.”

 

That’s another thing he can’t stand. The power imbalance. Jaime is meant to spill every dark, dirty secret he has while Samwell is allowed to keep all his.

 

“Your formative years – ”

 

“Are none of your damn business,” says Jaime. “Why don’t you tell me something? To establish trust. Tell me about your worst day ever. Or the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you.”

 

“We’re here to – ”

 

“I bet it was to do with a girl. A girl, your secret chocolate stash and a bra that wouldn’t unhook.”

 

It is a low blow, but Jaime is rarely kind when feeling this vulnerable. Samwell watches him with steely eyes. They are the only parts of him that are steely. Everything else is soft and pale, as though his parents made him from shortbread dough, and then sent him, uncooked, into the world. Jaime wonders how Sam would have fared in the army. There’s something infuriatingly comfortable and quaint about the man, with his creased shirt stained with whatever he had for lunch, and his octogenarian receptionist who sits knitting jerseys with arthritic fingers while listening to repeats of The Archers. Sam is the type of innocent, wholesome gnome who you can imagine living in a thatched cottage with hollyhocks in the garden, or an old watermill, or some cosy treehouse with a magic rope-swing that transports you to fairyland.

 

“You could tell me about your other patients then,” Jaime suggests. “Who’s the maddest? Who’s the most tedious? Do you have any that fantasise about cannibalism or skinning women? Or blowing up entire cities?”

 

“There are clearly issues with your childhood, and if you aren’t willing to talk about them then I’m sorry but I don’t think I can help you,” say Sam.

 

“Are you throwing me out?” Jaime is incredulous.

 

Samwell begins to tap away at his computer, and a printer splutters into action. “I gave you exercises to do before sleep last time. These are some breathing exercises. And these are some sports clubs nearby. I’m sure you know the link – physical activity and good mental health.”

 

“Your solution is for me to walk more?”

 

“My solution is for you to talk more, but if you’re not ready for that yet, I have a long waiting list of people who are. Look, Jaime,” he relents, “take a few days to think about whether you want me to treat you. If you do, we’ll keep the appointments scheduled. If not, I’ll offer them to the next person.”

 

Perhaps he has guessed that aloof indifference is something Jaime is at home with, or perhaps he really is indifferent, so swamped with loonies bearing down on him, clamouring for his help, that he has no need to put up with insults from men like Jaime. Either way, Jaime rings back after two days and confirms grudgingly that he wants to continue. He does not look at the printouts Sam gave him, but, when Addam Marbrand, home on leave from Yunkai for the next six weeks, texts him to say, “Want to learn to sail with me?” Jaime remembers what Sam said. He agrees, signing up for a six-day crash course at Torrhen’s Mere Sailing Club.

 

Torrhen’s Mere is a 200-hectare lake only a twelve-minute drive from the shithole flat Jaime is currently renting. It is surrounded by fells and wooded slopes, and is known locally as ‘the ren’. It is especially picturesque now, in Spring, when the trees are in bloom and the bluebells are out. Jaime and Addam are placed in a group with ten other beginners. People who probably haven’t ever seen a heap of severed heads in the street, or how a body looks when it's been dropped from a hundred and fifty feet, Jaime thinks. Their first session is on a Friday evening and they spend it practising knots that he and Addam already learnt in the army, and being taught points of sail by a man called Davos and a yeti called Tormund. Finally, Davos takes them out to the water’s edge and shows them how to rig one of the Xenons, which they will apparently be going out in the next day.

 

When Jaime gets back to his flat, Cersei rings him. She withholds her number and doesn’t say a thing, but he knows the silence of his twin just as well as her noise, and he sits listening wordlessly until she ends the call a minute later. He puts the telly on, drinks a bottle of wine, and sleeps on his couch, wearing his clothes. The old ritual preparations for sleep – clearing away plates, brushing and flossing his teeth, washing his face, pulling on clean pyjama bottoms, climbing into bed – are all too date-like, as though he is preparing for a night of intimacy and love with the nightmares that come and screw him every night. Sleeping on the couch, with rank breath, in the dirty clothes that he has worn all day, with his half-eaten dinner nearby, is his act of defiance against them.

 

The next morning, clad a in wetsuit, neoprene boots and gloves, a rash vest and a windproof cagoule, and with a bottle of ibuprofen in his bag, Jaime enters the main room of the clubhouse with Addam. Davos is already there, splitting their class into pairs and assigning instructors. He greets Jaime and Addam affably, but Jaime sees him taking in his unwashed hair, bloodshot eyes and the grey bags below them.

 

“You look like shit, lad. Are you sure you’re all right to sail?”

 

Jaime is so surprised by the lack of judgement, by the kindness in the man’s tone, that he just nods.

 

“Fair enough,” says Davos brusquely, before turning. “Brienne, this is Addam and Jaime. Are you all right to go with them?”

 

A tall, straight-backed young woman turns to face them. She is wearing a red and black drysuit and her fair hair is pulled into a high ponytail. Jaime feels a wave of shock at the sight of her. He recognises her almost instantly, recognises her face and height, despite the fact that the last time he saw her, she was a hunched, blushing child. Despite the fact that she could barely meet his eye back then. Despite the fact that the right side of her face did not used to have the pale, flat look of grafted skin.

 

“I was going to take you,” Davos is explaining to Addam, “but my back’s bad, and Brienne, who was going to drive the RIB, kindly said she’d swap with me.”

 

Beside him, Jaime can see from Addam’s rigid posture that he has recognised her too, but if Brienne remembers them in any way, she gives no indication of it. They receive a polite smile before she turns back to Davos. “Do you want me to take them in a Xenon or an Argo?”

 

Outside, she has them towing the Xenon on its launch trolley down to the water’s edge. Then they borrow buoyancy aids, and lug out sails and the mast head float from one of the sheds.

 

She has, Jaime soon realises, endless patience when it comes to their incompetence regarding the rigging of the boat, and while she will explain and demonstrate again and again what knots they should be tying, which halyards they should be pulling on, and how to attach the rudder, she will not do any of it for them. Jaime, with his well-honed sense of pride, likes her for it, and feels himself at an advantage to the other beginners whose instructors, when asked for help, take the softer option of simply doing it themselves.

 

“Always point your boat into the wind when you’re rigging it,” she says. “Otherwise, as soon as you unfurl your sails, it will blow over.”

 

At one point, the whole situation of their having known Brienne and Brienne having known them, and no one saying a damn thing to acknowledge it, becomes too much for Addam. Unlike Jaime, he grew up in a rather well-adjusted household, and he does not have the Lannister talent for sweeping large, awkward things under the carpet. A look of resolution forms on his face, and he says in a quiet voice:

 

“You went to Alderly School in Storm’s End, didn’t you?”

 

Brienne doesn’t even blink. “You need to concentrate on the mainsheet,” she says, running her hand along it. “Look, it needs to go through the ratchet block here. Like this. Jaime, that’s the daggerboard you’re playing with. Once we’re on the water, you’ll need to lower it to give us some stability, but it has to stay up for now or it will scrape on the ground.”

 

Jaime gives Addam a smirk. He does not mean it nastily – is simply amused by the decisive way that this former-mouse has shut down his friend’s attempt to get everything into the open – but Brienne sees it, and her expression closes like a slammed door.

 

Once they are out on the water, Jaime lowers the daggerboard, Brienne takes the tiller and the main sheet, and Addam takes charge of the jib – the smaller front sail. The wind is cold and the sun tepid.

 

Jaime, left with the choice of figuring out the workings of the boat or the woman, chooses the latter, and asks her, “So how long have you been doing this, Brienne Tarth?”

 

Her blue eyes don’t faulter at his use of her full name, unmentioned by Davos. “About eleven years. In a moment, we’re going to put in a tack to change direction. That means I’m going to push the tiller away from me, the boom will move across –keep your heads down – and I’ll step across the boat to keep it balanced. Addam, you’ll need to pull on that side of the jib sheet to move it across as well. Ready to tack?”

 

“Ready,” says Addam.

 

After they have turned, and Brienne is sitting up on his side of the boat, Jaime has the chance to study the scar on her right cheek more closely. It is maybe an inch and a half long and one inch wide. It looks to Jaime, who is somewhat of an expert by this point, as though it were performed by a fairly skilled surgeon in the last year or two. He wonders which part of her body they took the skin from, and notes that the patch is distinctly less freckled than the rest of her face. How did the injury happen? A sailing accident? An abusive boyfriend? A terrorist attack? A rabid dog bite? It suddenly feels very important that he know.

 

She catches him staring, and he says brazenly, “You started just after you were thrown off the water polo team then, did you?”

 

Addam gives him a wide-eyed look but Brienne simply says, “You’re getting bored. I think it’s time for you to be helm. Swap places with me.”

 

After that, Jaime does not have time to reminisce or question. He doesn’t even have time to feel cold. Brienne makes him tack several times and what had seemed such a smooth and easy manoeuvre when done by her body becomes a nightmarish, precarious lurch when performed by his: the length of the main sheet tangles around his feet, the tiller extension means he has to fold his arm uncomfortably behind his back as he turns, he inevitably moves too late or too early in relation to the shifting of the boom across the boat, he keeps dropping the main sheet, and he never straightens up the tiller in time. The boat lurches wildly, and Brienne says, with only a hint of enjoyment, “Just wait until you learn to gybe. That boom will swing across ten times faster with the wind behind you…”

 

The wind increases, the water becomes choppy, and Brienne has them frequently jamming their feet under the toe straps in order to hike out. Jaime wishes he could be hiking the way the people on the nearby hills are hiking – on dry land, in normal clothes, doing a steady 3 miles an hour. In sailing, hiking becomes about leaning backwards as far out of the boat as possible to keep it balanced when the wind is doing its utmost to unbalance or capsize you. Brienne’s blue eyes are bright and her face pink and wet from the spray of the water. The scar on her cheek stands out against the flush.

 

“If we do go in,” she calls cheerfully, “there’s a chance you’ll get cold water shock. Have you heard of it?”

 

“Of course I’ve heard of it,” says Jaime, as Addam gives a quick nod. Seven years in the army and she is talking to them as though they are small boys.

 

“Then you’ll know your breathing and heartbeat can go haywire,” she says. “If it does happen, rely on your buoyancy aid. Relax backwards to keep your head above water and just focus on breathing.”

 

By the end of the day, Jaime is starting to enjoy himself. He likes the volatility of the wind – the way it shifts direction, the way it comes in gusts; a force that will topple you or carry you depending on how well you read it. He likes that his mind is utterly occupied by the task leaving no space to dwell on… more unpleasant experiences. He likes the curve the sail makes as the wind moves across it. The way the tell tales stream out when you get the direction just right. He likes the adrenaline rush when it seems as though the boat is about to capsize, but is just saved by all three of them hiking and Brienne letting out the main sail.

 

That evening, he can feel the bobbing, rocking motion of the boat as he curls into the foetal position on top of his bed. He dreams of lying back in a boat out at sea, far from everyone and everything, watching clouds scuttering across the sky. If he dreams of anything worse, he does not remember it by morning.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Extract from JL Session 3 Transcript

 

ST: And when did the relationship with your sister become sexual?

 

JL: In our teens.

 

(long silence)

 

ST: And that went on for… how long?

 

JL: Until we were 22. She met someone else and got engaged to him.

 

ST: And you were upset about that?

 

JL: You’re very astute, Dr. Yes. Yes, I was upset about that.

 

ST: Did anyone except the two of you know about the relationship?

 

JL: Our father was away a lot; he didn’t. Our brother knew, and some kids at school caught us a couple of times, in empty classrooms. We always had excuses – I was getting an eyelash out of her eye or something. I don’t know if they suspected – I made sure I was popular enough for them never to want to question it. If people like you, if you just go with the flow, you can fly under the radar. Look, is this really relevant?

 

ST: I think it is, and there’s no judgement here, Jaime.

 

JT: No, of course not! And I’m sure you don’t judge the men who tell you they have a predilection for children either. You’re so tolerant. Well done.

 

ST: It’s my job to understand, not condemn.

 

JL: And my job was to follow orders, but I still managed to have opinions while I was about it. Do you have a sister? Tell me it doesn’t turn your stomach to imagine shagging her.

 

ST: Do you look at gay men and feel repulsed because you wouldn’t want to have sex with another man?

 

JL: No.

 

ST: There you go then.

 

JL: You’re joking, right? No sane person cares if someone is gay, but I don’t know one person who isn’t revolted by the idea of – incest. I can never be open about that. If I did meet… someone… how could I tell her that I used to –?

 

ST: You think she’d reject you?

 

JL: Would you want to be involved with someone who’d had sex with a member of their immediate family?

 

(long silence)

 

ST: My… A lot of people have complicated family situations.

 

JL: I’ve spent half my life lying. At school, I had to say I was seeing girls from other schools because people wondered why I never got off with anyone. In the army, I had to invent a string of girlfriends and exes. Same with my family. I’ve always had to watch what I say in case something slips out that would make people realise.

 

ST: So you can never be completely relaxed with other people?

 

JL: No. It’s always going to be my big, dirty secret.

 

ST: And you still think that isn’t relevant to how isolated you feel now?

 

*

 

In the six sessions it takes for Jaime to complete the beginners’ course at Torrhen’s Mere, he somehow acquires a stalker. Lysa Arryn is about ten years older than him. She has an old, decrepit husband, a bad case of Munchausen’s by proxy, and the kind of mad, long hair that looks like it might come to life and strangle you in your sleep should you be unwise enough to bed down with its owner. Lysa takes a shine to Jaime the first time she sees him, on his second day, wandering out of the men’s changing room with the zip down the back of his wetsuit only half undone and obstinately stuck.

 

“Want some help undoing that?” she asks normally enough, and Jaime, like a lamb to the slaughter, smiles and admits that is exactly what he wants.

 

Lysa grapples with the zip, tugs it free and pulls it down to the stopper – all regular enough. Less regular is the way she then runs her cold, clammy fingers down the length of Jaime’s back, before pushing her hand downwards under the skin of his suit and giving his left arse cheek a gleeful squeeze. It is like being groped by a squid. She giggles at his look of shock, and says, “Whenever you want help with your zips, you know where to come.” She puts crude emphasise on the come, and Jaime has a sudden realisation that this is probably what it is like to be a woman, only without the perils of being several inches shorter and several stone lighter than your predator. Jaime can, at least, be fairly confident he won’t ever be physically overpowered by Lysa. Unless her boa constructor-hair gets involved. He can just imagine the trial. The lawyer for the defence: “So you’re claiming, Mr Lannister, that not only did the defendant order her hair to bind you up so you couldn’t fight back, but that you actually asked her to help unzip you? And you think she was wrong to see that as an invitation?? What on earth did you expect when you asked for help, Mr Lannister? I assert that this is a straightforward case of Mr Lannister having consensual sexual activity with Mrs Arryn, and then regretting it afterwards. He’d approached her not even wearing any underwear, for goodness’ sake. Of course he wanted it!”

 

This moment, this groping of Jaime’s buttock, marks some kind of pivotal, fairy tale moment for Lysa. She is the prince, stooping to kiss the unconscious princess or the dead princess; she is the beast or the frog, determined to obtain, through whatever means necessary, the love or kiss that will transform her. There is a shift, and she is in love. From this moment onwards, she will make sure that she sits on Jaime’s table at lunch. She will find innuendos in anything and everything, and if someone mentions ‘raising the mast,’ ‘doing it,’ ‘going faster’ or having got ‘wet,’ she will smirk at Jaime and twist her hair round her finger in a faintly threatening way. It will get to the point where Addam will deliberately use language that can be interpreted as sexual just to witness Jaime’s discomfort and Lysa’s pleasure. She will bring in phallic food – mozzarella sticks, Twixes and sausages – which she will lick and suck on whilst looking deeply into Jaime’s eyes in a way that will render him half-amused and half-convinced that there isn’t enough bleach in Westeros that could make him feel clean again. She will leave notes under the windscreen wipers of his car: “Guess who?” and “You are tastier than a knickerbocker glory” and once – conjuring an image that Jaime really doesn’t need – “I think of you when I finger myself.”

 

The fact that men’s wetsuits come with a kind of ‘penis zip’ – so that wearers can take a piss without pulling the whole suit down as the women have to – will also excite her. Whenever she manages to trap him alone, she will eye his groin and ask him in a husky voice if he needs any help with “any other zips.” Jaime will endure all this without fuss because the woman is so pathetically sad and lonely. Lysa, taking a leaf from the book of every creepy man who ever lived, will interpret his passivity and disinclination to make a fuss as proof that he enjoys her attentions, and will continue with gusto.

 

For now, though, Jaime is saved by the commodore, Davos Seaworth. He arrives just at the end of the interaction and forcefully steers Jaime back into the men’s changing room, saying grimly, “You don’t wanna go there, son. Mad as a box of frogs, that one.”

 

“Does she sail?” Jaime asks. He can’t imagine that woman sailing. She’s more the type to sit bare-breasted on the rocks, singing to those who do sail and then drowning them when they approach.

 

“Her son, Robin, does,” says Davos, even more grimly. “You’ll know when he’s on the water because you’ll hear hysterical shrieks from the shore every time he capsizes – which is at least three times a race – or whenever another kid has the audacity to overtake him. If it were up to his mother, all the other kids would have to race with one arm tied behind their backs and their families living as hostages in Lysa’s cellar. The safety boat would follow him exclusively round the route, supplying him with heated towels, rousing songs and cups of hot cocoa made from his mother’s breastmilk.”

 

Jaime laughs.

 

“I’m not really joking,” says Davos. “Her nephew, Robb, once told me that until two years ago, she had a whole fridge stocked with breastmilk semolina, breast milk rice puddings and breastmilk pancake batter. She must have been pumping not-stop. He’s nine now, for gods’ sake.”

 

Davos pulls down the top of his wetsuit to towel his arms and chest dry, and Jaime catches a glimpse of a tattoo. Most men who get inked have their ex’s name, or their kid’s date of birth, or their football team’s logo or a dragon. Davos – like Jaime, like Addam – has the I’m likely to get blown up or shot tattoo. He has his blood type across his heart. He also has the words PENICILLIN ALLERGY.

 

“Where did you serve?” Jaime asks.

 

“Royal Navy. Mainly playing whack-a-mole with the pirates in the Summer Sea, but towards the end, trying to stop people-smugglers cramming thirty people into boats that look like the inflatable my granddaughter plays with in the three-foot deep stream in their garden. Fishing dead children out of the not Narrow enough Sea… sending crying mothers back to rat-infested refugee camps… wasn’t really my bread and butter. Finished eight years ago. What about you?”

 

“Army,” Jaime says. “1st Battalion The Rifles. Tolos and Yunkai. Honourable medical discharge a few months ago.”

 

“Ah. I thought you had the look of someone who’s spent several years in khaki, banging their head on a brick wall. I suppose you saw that whole mess play out with the Harpy captives and General Targaryen then?”

 

“Not really,” says Jaime.

 

*

 

In the army, Jaime had a compass. When he was taken hostage, everything was taken from him, so when he escaped, and found himself in an abandoned, desert town, wearing a green jumpsuit, and with just a bottle of water, a rifle, and a grim desire not to become part of the 27 club, he had used the sun and stars to find his bearings. To get himself back to base. As a result, he now has a scarily vigilant sense of direction. He always knows which way is north. Out on the water though, north, east, south and west don’t mean much. Everything is in relation to the direction of the wind, so rather than being told to sail due west or north-northeast, he is told to sail on “a beam reach” or “close hauled” or “running.” With no roads or markings, right of way is again determined by the wind – your distance from it, whether you are on a portside or starboard tack. It sounds asinine to say that he hadn’t realised how central the wind was to sailing, but it is true.

 

Not since before Cersei married another man have his decisions and actions been dictated by such a volatile entity. It shifts directions. It drops to nothing or comes in gusts and squalls. If you are foolish enough to face it head on, in the no-go zone, it traps you, and requires all manner of contortions with the sails and rudder before it will release you. That first day on the lake, Brienne had directed their attention to the surface of the water. “Can you see there, that darkening and rippling, coming towards us? That’s a gust coming. If you’re racing, you want to be watching for those all the time, trying to get on the end of them.”

 

Jaime and Addam are not put with Brienne again after that first day, and Jaime half-wonders if she requested this, awkward about their shared past. He has a vague recollection of his teammates giving her a bit of a hard time all those years ago, of her just taking it, never standing up for herself. He also dimly recalls that he had had words with her after the final about her attitude, and that Tarly had thrown her off the team after Goldtower had goaded her into punching him. Or was it Darry? It was a Pyrrhic victory anyway. She’d easily been the best player on the team – apart from Jaime, of course – and they hadn’t even got to the quarter-finals without her the following year.

 

While she isn’t assigned to them again, Jaime still sees her about, and he finds that he likes looking at her. She is associated with a time when he was all right. Largely unruined by life. Of course, he’d known Addam back then too, but Addam served with him in Yunkai and is therefore tainted with blood and sand and severed heads. Brienne has no trace of that upon her. She is pure nostalgia.

 

At lunchtimes, she always sits with three other instructors, two women called Osha and Talisa, and Talisa’s husband, Robb – the nephew of Lysa. Sometimes others join them. Unlike most of the others, Brienne does not buy the greasy, fry up food from the kitchen, but brings her own, carefully wrapped in foil and packed like Tetris bricks into tupperware. It is fuel rather than food. Skinned chicken. Grass-coloured smoothies. Carrot sticks. Quinoa. The kind of thing that staves off cancer, heart disease, cavities and fun. She eats with small, self-conscious bites, and on the few occasions that she catches Jaime watching her, she looks away quickly.

 

On their third day, it is Brienne who demonstrates to the group how to do a dry capsize. They all stand on the wooden jetty to watch as she sails her Lazer on a starboard tack into the deeper water and then leans back on the sail side to topple the boat. Before the sail and mast can hit the water, however, she is up and over the side, standing on the daggerboard that protrudes from the underside of the boat. Instantly her weight propels the boat back into its upright position, and before she can splash down into the water, she is swinging herself back over the side and into the boat. Jaime’s group, an easily impressed lot, clap her and go “wow.”

 

At the end of the fifth day, Jaime has just got into his car to drive home when he sees her striding across the car park. She is in leathers and as he watches, she pulls on a black helmet and approaches a Chevallier F12X, a 500bhp bike whose power and gorgeousness had held him spellbound for some seconds as he had attempted to walk past it that morning. Sleek and black, like a dragon waiting to unfurl itself. Brienne slings a long leg across the seat and Jaime feels a frisson of something that feels an awful lot like lust. He doesn’t know how to account for it. She isn’t pretty. She’s much too tall, her breasts much too small, her teeth far too big, her lack of interest in him far too evident. The only way he can account for it is by supposing that three lunchtimes spent with smirking, lick-lipping Lysa Arryn mean he is now incapable of seeing something innocent without making it dirty. Thus, ‘Brienne, the girl his teammates long ago dubbed Whalegirl, climbing onto her bike’ is reinterpreted as ‘a young woman mounting and straddling a great being that will throb and vibrate between her thighs, and probably make her come three times before she gets home.’ It’s either that, or he has simply been without sex for too long. It has been months. Or just that being near Brienne takes him back to that time of being a horny teenager. Or perhaps he is simply having his Wild One moment, as Cersei did at fifteen, watching Marlon Brando roaring into town as Johnny Strabler. Whatever. It doesn’t mean anything. He quite often feels the wrong emotions at the wrong times these days. Panic standing in the cereal aisle at the supermarket. Fury standing in the shower. Hilarity at TV moments that are meant to be very sad.

 

The North is still quite a wilderness compared to the rest of Westeros, and it is possible to drive for hours without seeing another vehicle in some parts. Many of the roads have no speed limit. This is the kind of place where a bike that can do 240 miles an hour is actually useful rather than expensive showboating, and Brienne’s fires up as though it is desperate for her to ride it, bursting with impatience to show her what it can do. On the carpark, she is slow, cautious, but once on the main road she crouches low over her handlebars and is off like a bat out of hell. Though why a bat should go faster than any other animal when escaping the fires of hell, Jaime doesn’t know. No animal likes being roasted, he should know. The speed and the sound remind Jaime of the fighter jets that would pelt over his base sometimes, and he half expects the bike to take off and go rocketing into the air. He didn’t expect that a girl who eats like Brienne does – all ‘I intend to live until I’m 153’ roughage and vitamins – would ride a bike that way.

 

On the final day of the six-day course, he and the other beginners are handed their RYA Level 1 and 2 dinghy sailing certificates. This means they can now hire boats and sail alone, something Jaime is not so much looking forward to as outright depending on. Being out on the water, focussed utterly on wind, trim, and balance is like being reborn. The Essos stuff becomes something that happened in a former life.

 

Having changed out of his wetsuit and into a T shirt, cargo pants and trainers, Jaime goes through to the kitchenette off the main room. There is a coffee machine in there, one of the many appliances that Jaime’s flat lacks, and he wants real coffee right now. Brienne is already there, also changed and wearing a black trenchcoat, a grey blouse, black pencil trousers, and black boots. A far cry from the trackies and hoodie or leathers combo he has so far seen her in. She is just adding coffee to the filter, and at his request adds another half scoop and more water for him. The machine begins to hiss and she stares out of the window at the lake.

 

“You look smart,” Jaime says. He feels strangely nervous at speaking to her, and wills his voice to sound more assured. “Are you off somewhere?”

 

“I have to be at work in-” she checks her watch, “thirty-five minutes.”

 

“Those aren’t good hours,” he says, looking towards the sun which is already grazing the tops of the trees on the horizon.

 

“No,” she agrees.

 

“Are you a waitress?” He doubts it. Her stony face would be enough to put even the hungriest diner off their food.

 

“No.” When he gives her a pointed look, she says shortly, “Police. I’m on nights this week.”

 

“What rank?”

 

“Detective inspector.”

 

His surprise makes him laugh though he isn’t actually amused, and her lips tighten. “But you’re – you can’t be more than… twenty-five?”

 

“I was fast-tracked.”

 

“I’d assumed your job was instructing here.”

 

She looks hard at the coffee machine which is still gurgling. “I don’t get paid for that. We just volunteer.” Her eyes cast about, and seem to catch on Jaime’s bare left arm where three round patches of skin are still not quite healed. She looks away but not before Jaime has noticed.

 

He nods towards her marred cheek. “Go on. You tell me yours, and I’ll tell you mine.”

 

“I don’t think so,” she says quietly. The coffee machine has finally stopped, and she reaches forward to get the jug at the exact same time as Jaime does the same. Their fingers brush and Brienne withdraws her hand sharply. Jaime, feeling unaccountably rejected, pours her coffee for her in silence, and she at once leaves the room clutching the cup. Apparently, she drinks it black – like her outfit, like her mood – and unsweetened – like her charming disposition.

 

That night he has another dream, and awakes trembling. All his mistakes, all the things he should have done better are tumbling about in his head. Shame. Failure. Shame. Horror. Shame. It is still mud-black outside, and he picks up his laptop, intending to do an hour or so of work. Instead he finds himself typing her name into the search engine, his mind somehow stuck on her patched up cheek that she would not tell him about. He clicks on the first result, a link to the North Guardian. It is from over two years ago, when Jaime was still over in Essos.

 

Bravery Award For Sergeant Who Saved Trafficked Women:

 

The annual Westeros Police Awards were held on Saturday night, and Sergeant Brienne Tarth was one of the four police officers who received the prestigious OPB award.

Her trafficking case hit headlines earlier this year due to the way it was initially handled by members of Northern police, with male officers allegedly dismissing women who came forward to report their friends and family members missing. The sex trafficked women were largely reported to be refugees fleeing war-torn Essos, brought to Westeros by the promise of a safer, better life. One woman claimed that when she attended the police station to voice concerns that officers were not doing enough to locate her sister, she was threatened with a fine for wasting police time and told that her sister had “probably just f***** off back to where she came from.”

Sergeant Tarth received the award for her quick actions on discovering the location of several of the women. After receiving information, she tracked one person of interest to a deserted mill north of Greywater Watch. Having established that a number of women and members of the gang were within, Sergeant Tarth rang for armed backup, but entered the building alone after hearing screams and gunshots. Inside, she disarmed and incapacitated a gunman using only her truncheon, and administered emergency first aid to a woman with a gunshot wound. She then progressed to the first floor where she administered a shot of naloxone to an unconscious woman. Paramedics, who arrived later, claimed that both these acts almost certainly saved the two women’ lives.

Tarth was savagely beaten by at least four members of the gang, suffering several broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a broken arm, and a severe bite to the face. Despite her injuries, she managed to pursue the men as they attempted to escape, smashing the windscreens of their Dalaraxes D20 and Caina Visuppa to ensure that they could not make a quick getaway. All five men were quickly rounded up and are now awaiting trial.

Inspector Tully paid tribute to Sergeant Tarth, citing her courage, compassion, determination and quick-thinking. Northern Police has since reported itself to the Independent Police Watchdog for its alleged failure to investigate when friends and family of the women first came forward.

 

*

 

Addam’s ex-girlfriend gets a new job which pays time and a half if she does overtime on a Saturday. This means that for the final four Saturdays of his leave, Addam now looks after their four-year-old daughter. He still sails with Jaime on Wednesday evenings, but Jaime needs more time than that on the water or his head starts to come apart again. He takes out several single-handers – a Topper, a Tera, a Lazer – and does not get on well with any of them. He is a big man, and they are small boats with low booms that crack him across the head when he doesn’t duck low enough during a tack or gybe. His knees and back ache so much after a couple of hours crouching in the Topper that he resolves to ask Davos if he can recommend a single-hander with a deeper cockpit or higher boom. A single-hander with the comfort and space of a double-hander.

 

Davos, drawing up a rota for the racing the following Sunday, rubs absently at his beard, as all old sailors who have beards should do. “Tormund has his Phantom moored here. I bet he’d let you try that out if you asked him. Or you could try out my Miracle. If neither of those suit, I’d buy a RS300. That’s a lovely boat if money’s no object. Buy one, try it out for a few weeks, and if you don’t like it, sell it on.”

 

At that moment, Brienne enters the room. She is wearing a wetsuit and her hair is plaited. Her legs are very long. Ridiculously long, Jaime decides. She gives Davos a quick smile and nod, ignores Jaime, and turns to scrutinise the noticeboard. Jaime wishes that she would look at him. He doesn’t like the way she treats him as though he’s about as significant as cold mashed potato.

 

“You not found anyone to replace Talisa yet?” Davos asks her.

 

Brienne shakes her head. “People either already have partners, they want to race alone, or they don’t want to race full stop. She says she’ll come back as soon as the baby’s born, but that’s six months off. I can’t not race for six months.”

 

Davos laughs. “She’s got a rude awakening if she thinks she’ll be bounding about in a wetsuit as soon as the bairn’s out. My wife said it was like having her insides put in a vice clamp for two days, and then being split up the middle with an axe. And then when that was over, someone screamed at her every time she tried to sleep for the next nine months. Not that different to torture really.”

 

Jaime flinches. Since he read the article about Brienne, it is her that he thinks of when he wakes at night, panicking, believing he is still standing in his underground cell. Four men. Broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, a broken arm and a severe bite to the face. People aren’t the same after something like that. She must have dreams. She must have moments where a sound or a smell or a word plunges her straight back into that primal time of terror and pain. She must understand it.

 

“I’m sure you were a great help,” Brienne is saying drily to Davos, as she comes over to take a glance at his rota. “Or did you just run off to play the hero at sea?”

 

“You’re a great one to talk about playing heroes. But back to your problem,” says Davos, with the air of a man who has indeed been more involved with pirates than Pampers over his lifetime. “I might have found you someone.”

 

Brienne visibly perks up. “Who?”

 

Davos puts a hand on Jaime’s arm. “What about this one? He’s just been telling me how much he prefers the double-handers, and he’s losing his sailing partner too.”

 

Jaime is just as stunned as Brienne is by this suggestion, although apparently far less appalled. She looks frenetically from Davos to Jaime and back again, wide-eyed and cornered. Jaime had wanted her to look at him, but he hadn’t wanted her to look at him like that. As though he is some vicious animal about to lunge and hurt her.

 

“I don’t think so,” she says at last, visibly struggling to arrange her expression into something polite and impersonal.

 

“Why not?” Jaime finds himself saying. The gods know why. He hadn’t even mentioned wanting to race. He’d just wanted to sail.

 

“You’ve only been sailing a few weeks,” says Brienne, looking at the table. “Have you ever raced?”

 

“Never,” Jaime declares spiritedly.

 

“People have always never done something until they have,” says Davos profoundly.

 

“I just don’t think –” Brienne begins.

 

“You can handle him, Brienne,” says Davos. “Just order him about like you do anyone else who has the misfortune of sharing a boat with you.”

 

“How hard can it be?” says Jaime. “Put me in as crew. I can dick about with a jib and balance a boat easily enough.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sure you can dick about,” snaps Brienne. She immediately turns pink and begins to tug unhappily at her plait.

 

Jaime watches her, lips parted triumphantly at having finally got a response from her that wasn’t polite indifference. Davos is also watching her, evidently unnerved by her rudeness to a new member whom she barely knows. Jaime had suspected that she had told Davos about their being at school together in order to not be placed with him again after that first day, but he realises now that she hadn’t. She clearly hasn’t said a word about it.

 

“Brienne, are you all right?” says Davos.

 

“Yes,” she says. She pauses, then more levelly says, “I’m fine.” She brushes some imaginary fluff from her sleeve, and adds, “I’ll give it some thought, and let you know,” which Jaime immediately understands is a hell no.

Chapter Text

 

Being happy isn’t something that comes effortlessly to Brienne. She has to work at it, to keep to a routine, but she has found that so long as she does this, the god of misery and discomfort can be banished for weeks at a time, even months. Possibly because her predictable, controlled life makes her too boring for him to bother with. She runs two or three times a week. She sails three or four times a week, including racing on Sundays. She eats seven portions of fruit or veg a day. She puts at least twenty percent of her pay into a savings account every month. She cleans her home weekly, dusting shelves, hanging out quilts and blankets to air, hoovering, mopping, and opening up windows. She has Ovaltine before bed, and tries to read three new books a month. At nights, if she can’t sleep after forty minutes, she gets up and does something. Sometimes she dons her leathers and takes the Chevallier out onto the moors near her house. There is a twenty-mile stretch of perfectly straight, empty road, and Brienne and her bike devour it at breakneck speed. Or sometimes, if the moon is huge and white and the wind is up, she sails. Rides down to the club, scans her member card to open the gate, and takes out Robb’s RS Aero. She cannot afford her own single-hander at the moment, but Robb is happy enough for her to use his. On those nights, the entire lake is hers. Or, on other nights, she sits on the swing-seat in her garden, below the stars, and counts her blessings: her father; sailing; the weeping willow in her garden; Talisa; Pod; the cascading waterfall a mile from her house; her bike; the moon and stars; not being a teenager anymore; her cottage; Genna. Genna…

Brienne had bought and moved into the two-bedroomed cottage, Evenfall, after a few years of renting with Talisa and Pod. The house was thatched and whitewashed and sat in a huge tangle of garden. It was very old, and therefore should have been haunted or had some awful secret in its past, but the only real malingering presence was the fug of cigarette smoke from its previous occupant. The interior had been hideous. Stained floral carpets, migraine-inducing wallpaper, sticky lino, an avocado bathroom suite. Since all of this was the reason Brienne could afford it – in a beautiful, remote location yet near enough to town for work – she determined not to mind too much. Her nearest neighbours were over a minute’s walk away and on her second day, Brienne had thrown open all the doors and windows and was blasting out music as she undertook the task of painting her lounge walls white.

“That’ll need a few coats, pet,” a woman’s voice had said from right behind her, almost causing Brienne to fall from her stepladder in shock.

The woman was Genna Frey and she was Brienne’s nearest neighbour, a resident of the huge house just up the lane. She was in her early fifties, and was as buxom as Brienne was flat-chested, as squat as Brienne was gangly, as uninhibited as Brienne was reserved. She had four sons, six grandchildren, a horse, two Dachshunds, a cat, a house rabbit, a team of staff, and a husband. On this particular occasion, she was accompanied by three of the grandchildren, both of the Dachshunds, a small potted orange tree and a tin of fairy cakes, which had, she informed Brienne, been baked and iced that very morning by the grandchildren. She was golden-haired, red-faced, and from this moment onwards, she would erupt enthusiastically into Brienne’s home whenever the mood took her, usually accompanied by at least three small half-feral creatures (dogs, children, or the rabbit hopping along on a hot pink lead), and with never a doubt of anything but a positive reception.

Since Brienne had no furniture yet, the fairy cakes were placed on the top step of the ladder and the little orange tree was set on the windowsill. The music was turned down, and the grandchildren were dispatched to rummage through Brienne’s possessions which were still in boxes on the floor. The boy, Willem, donned Brienne’s old police hat, and ran out into the garden to arrest a sheep which he had spied pushing through the gap in the hedge. The girls, Joanna and Jeyne, applied Brienne’s lip balm liberally to their entire faces, and then began the kind of dance that would have made a paedophile weep with joy, all naïve pelvic thrusting, self-fondling and pouting. Brienne decided then and there that if she ever had children, she would not allow them to watch MTV until they were at least 20. The Dachshunds began to beg brazenly for the fairy cakes, and Genna settled her ample behind on the edge of a windowsill, and began to grill Brienne.

Despite her four sons – or perhaps because of them – Genna Frey did not have a high opinion of the fragile Y chromosome, and MEN. (And they were always capitalised when she thought of them at all.) She favoured her daughters-in-law and granddaughters shamelessly over her sons and grandsons, and was always pressing little extras – money, sweets, jewellery and expensive items of clothing that she had seen and thought would suit them, caresses, rides on the horse – onto them in full view, respectively, of their husbands and brothers. She was fond of sitting with her newspaper in Brienne’s lounge, jabbing her bejewelled finger at the majority of articles –men raping and murdering, men warmongering, men generally being incompetent and making a big mess of the world – and saying, “There! See? MEN!” Having established that Brienne was motherless and that she had obtained her facial injury in saving women from MEN, the only practical thing for Genna to do was to unofficially adopt Brienne. This she did with all her usual gusto.

Genna had a houseful of staff who saw to the efficient running of her own home, and therefore had an abundance of time and energy to devote to the renovation and maintenance of Brienne’s. She loved ‘sorting things out’ and her eyes would dart about whenever she entered Evenfall, looking for anything that might need ‘sorting out.’ “I’ll sort it out,” she would say, as she began hammering nails into skirting boards or sanding down doors. Brienne would frequently return from work or a run or sailing to find Genna painting her front door, or cleaning her windows or planting flowers. If Brienne’s garden needed weeding, or the hedges pruning, or the lawn mowing, Genna would do it, marching up the lane with her mower or a barrow of trowels, spades and shears to pummel Brienne’s plot into submission. If she considered that Brienne’s duvet or woollen blankets needed washing, she would seize them and bear them away to her industrial-sized, dry cleaning washing machine. Her youngest son had rebelled against his upper class roots by becoming a plumber, and if Brienne’s pipes clanked or the lights on her boiler began to blink, Genna would bring Red Walder over after work, driving him ahead of her like a carthorse, and watching him with narrowed eyes as he tried wearily to get to the bottom of the problem. Her other son Lyonel, the owner and CEO of Kitchens4U, was similarly hauled along to provide a quote for a new kitchen at the kind of discount that made Brienne protest in embarrassment – to no avail; the matriarch’s mind was made up and Brienne’s gleaming new kitchen was installed within the month for a price that barely covered materials.

Brienne is regularly summoned to River Lodge for meals and always leaves with parcels of the grandchildren’s homemade concoctions – cornflake cakes, flapjacks, shortbread, rocky road. It has to be said, Brienne would probably enjoy this confectionery more if she had never borne witness to the creative process – the massaging of the cat or the rabbit’s whiskers before little hands begin to knead the dough, the wiping of Willem’s permanently runny nose on the back of his hand shortly before he sticks his fingers in to taste the mixture, the licking of sugary palms by the dogs, the uncovered coughs and sneezes over the mixing bowl.

Today Brienne is sitting in Genna’s kitchen, eating her second panini and being told about Genna’s husband’s friend who once decided to walk up Tor Asta in a snowstorm at night in his trainers, and how Mountain Rescue had to go out and look for him, and a collie had eventually found him half-dead in a snowdrift, and aren’t MEN unpleasant? Brienne has to agree with this; men can be very unpleasant. It is seven weeks since Addam Marbrand and Jaime Lannister turned up at her sailing club to take up her sport. The sport she only began after being forced out of their all-boys’-club. Her coping mechanism has long been not to dwell on past painful events. Her mother’s death, the bullying, being beaten half to death at the mill: don’t think about it, don’t, push it away, think of something good. But now the past is here and walking about on Brienne’s turf wearing neoprene and a big white-teethed grin. Sailing was her meditation, her good place after a hard day at work. Not anymore.

Since Davos and Jaime’s ambush three and a half weeks ago, she has so far managed the business of avoiding Jaime quite well. She does not want the open hostility of saying, “No, I’ve thought about it, and I don’t want to race with you.” What she wants is for the whole encounter never to have happened in the first place; the nearest she can get to this is by not thinking about it herself and by staying away from Jaime Lannister long enough that he forgets and doesn’t think about it either. She knows that he sails on Wednesday evenings with Addam, so Brienne stops sailing then. She discovered from Robb that he often sails on Monday and Friday evenings, so she no longer goes then either. At weekends, she still goes out with Talisa – who is at present happy to sail but not race – but Brienne finds herself scanning the water the way a swimmer in shark-infested seas might. Once, she had glimpsed him, in Davos’s Miracle no less, and he had seen her: he had set his course towards them, and Brienne had instantly gybed and called to Talisa to hoist the spinnaker. They had moved off downwind at a tremendous speed, the daggerboard up and the third sail ballooning.

“What caused that?!” asked Talisa, unnerved by the sudden urgency to get away.

“No one,” Brienne had said, before correcting herself. “Nothing.”

It isn’t simply a matter of disliking the man, of bearing a grudge. In Brienne’s line of work, you get used to spending time with people you do not like: thieves, frauds, killers, sex offenders, wife-beaters, all-round psychos. Even some of her colleagues are pricks, in the job purely to throw their weight about. But this is not the same. When she sees Jaime Lannister, she is 13 years-old again. The new life she has so carefully constructed for herself disintegrates. Her professional status, the respect she has earned, the cases she has solved, the good friends she has made, the confidence she has gathered, the home she has built, her beautiful bike: it is all just a sham. Underneath, she is the same pathetic object of ridicule that she always was. Freakishly tall. Repulsive to look at. Awkward. A figure of fun, even if most people are too polite to show it in the blunt way teenagers do. She resents him for reminding her of it all. She resents him for driving her out of a place where she had managed to establish a bolder, cooler persona. She resents him for not apologising for letting it happen, as Addam had quietly done on the second day.

Genna is just putting the kettle on when they hear a car engine in the drive. Dora and Daisy start to yap, which pisses off the cat who arches her back and spits, which in turn upsets the rabbit, who begins to run laps around Brienne’s chair. “Oh no, not Emmon back already,” Genna says with irritation, and moves to the window to look. Her whole face brightens as she looks on. “It’s my nephew. I’ve been telling him to come for a while. He just moved up here.”

The arrival of male relatives does not usually result in such pleasure for Genna, so Brienne has to assume that this nephew is cut from a different cloth to the other Frey men. A less dingy, less frayed cloth. “I should be going anyway,” says Brienne, rising and gathering up the plates to put in the dishwasher.

“Nonsense,” says Genna in a tone that brooks no argument. “We haven’t finished lunch yet.” She takes three mugs from the cupboard as a step towards ensuring Brienne’s continued presence.

Brienne tries to protest, but the doorbell goes. “Make up three cups, will you?” says Genna, happily convinced in that way that extroverts always are that they are conferring a real treat by encouraging mingling, and that the only thing making Brienne reluctant is a little shyness which she will soon overcome.

Brienne grimaces and makes up the tea, desperately trying to think up some task urgent enough to oblige her to return home at once, but not so urgent that Genna will insist on escorting her, nephew in tow, to assist. If she says that she has left the oven on, she will no doubt be ordered to return as soon as she has switched it off. If she says she has to wash and iron her work clothes for tomorrow, Genna will probably offer to do it for her. If she says she has paperwork to go over –

In the hall, she can hear her neighbour exclaiming over how tanned the nephew is, and the low tones as the nephew replies. The Dachshunds’ collars jingle as they always do when the dogs are jumping up to greet someone. The door opens, and Genna comes in, closely followed by –

“Oh,” says Brienne softly.

She feels as though she is suffering from cold water shock. Her heart, her breathing. All wrong.

If Jaime Lannister had not halted in the doorframe looking just as stunned at the sight of her as she is by him, she might have thought this was some sort of trick. Two spots of colour rise into his cheeks.

“This is my brother’s son, Jaime,” says Genna. “He’s just come out of the army. Jaime: Brienne, my nearest and dearest neighbour. She’s a detective with Northern Police.”

“We already know each other,” says Jaime falteringly. “Brienne taught me to sail recently.” He approaches, narrowly missing stepping on Arnold the rabbit, and holding out his right hand. Brienne takes it because Genna is watching, and because to refuse would be rude. His warm fingers close around hers.

She is too taken aback even to form the words to remind Genna that she has to leave. Too unnerved by the shift in her surroundings. Genna’s kitchen, always so comfortable and welcoming, has now – like the sailing club – become Jaime Lannister’s territory. Genna herself has become Jaime Lannister’s territory. She is his aunt. She probably held him when he was born, sent him teddies and rattles, changed the odd nappy for him. Brienne withdraws her hand from his, picks up her tote bag, and eyes the door.

“Are you feeling better?” Genna is saying, as she pushes her nephew into a chair and set one of the mugs before him. “Are you still seeing that shrink?”

Jaime blanches and shoots Brienne a covert look, as though wondering if she heard this. “I’m fine,” he mutters.

“He’s got PTSD,” Genna says, with glorious indelicacy. “Brienne, sit down, hen. Have your cup of tea at least, then you can run off.”

Brienne gives the door one last longing look, but she does not want to upset Genna. She slouches into her chair, and begins to blow on her tea before adding lots of cold milk to bring the temperature down some more.

“That’s very milky,” says Jaime.

“Well, I like milk.”

“I can tell. Do you prefer milk or cream? My brother always puts rum in his. Have you tried that?” His eyes gleam with what Brienne assumes is mockery.

She shrugs sulkily and, to avoid answering, to avoid giving him anything else to mock, she takes a huge gulp of tea. It burns her mouth and her eyes fill with tears.

Perhaps Genna thinks these tears a sign of sympathy for Jaime’s plight, because she says, as though to downplay Jaime’s condition, “PTSD is very common in the armed forces. It’s up there with your job, Brienne - and firefighters, and paramedics and war correspondents. No other job comes close to those rates apparently.”

“Sex workers have it much higher,” murmurs Brienne. She herself had embraced the hero narrative of PTSD – that it was the affliction of the emergency service saviours – until she’d been in her job a few months and realised that actually it was the women fleeing domestic violence and the women forced to trade their bodies for cash who got it in higher rates. People didn’t like that narrative half as much because it became about abuse rather than muscular men in uniform being heroic. “68% of them have it.”

“Is that true?” Jaime asks, eyebrows high.

“You look surprised.”

“I am a bit. I assumed they en…” He trails off.

“I’ve worked with quite a lot of sex workers,” says Brienne curtly. She wonders if he is one of the men who has paid for consent over the years. Has honed in on the class of women who he can pay to do things that he wouldn’t dare to ask of a ‘nice’ woman. Over in Essos probably, where war has destroyed all safety nets. “The vast majority of them have been sexually abused as children, their boundaries and self-worth eroded. They have drug addictions and are pimped out by abusive men. They are far, far more likely to be raped, beaten and murdered doing their jobs than either you or I. They’re forced by economic circumstances to exchange money for sex – hardly enthusiastic consent, is it? You really think they enjoy it?”

“I hadn’t really thought about it at all,” he says rather coldly.

At this, Genna says carefully, “Jaime’s brother has spent the odd night in the cells for kerb-crawling. I’d imagine Jaime has got most of his ideas on ladies of the night from listening to his brother rather than from first-hand experience.”

“Oh.” Brienne can feel Jaime’s eyes hard upon her, but she doesn’t deign to meet them. She can vaguely remember Tyrion Lannister, looking pompous in the library, or hiding in the toilets to avoid P.E.. “I suppose as long as men get their appetites met, it doesn’t matter how many women are collateral damage.”

“Speaking of MEN and their appetites –” Genna gets to her feet and goes to the door. “I’ll be back in a moment. Don’t you dare go anywhere, Brienne.”

Brienne drinks more tea and pulls a newspaper towards her. Jaime extends his arm and lays his hand on the newspaper. “Have you had any thoughts about racing with me?”

“Not really, I’ve been very busy with work the last few weeks.” Brienne is proud of how offhand she sounds. As though none of this is affecting her at all. She keeps reading the column, ignoring his hand, and when she has finished it, she looks up. He is watching her with an expression on his face that makes her stomach squirm. No man has ever looked at her like that before. She feels vulnerable and excited and hot all at the same time. He does not look away, and for several seconds, she cannot. It is the cold water shock again. Then she remembers herself. She looks down, horrified and confused by the intimacy conjured in that moment.

“Have you ever thought about leaving your job? It must be... challenging at times,” he says.

Brienne is confounded. Whatever she’d expected him to say, that wasn’t it. She means to say no, but what comes out is, “Yes. Once.”

“Why?”

You don’t have to tell him. Your life is none of his business. “I’d - There was a girl, washed up near Barrowton. She’d been in the water for weeks. There was no DNA evidence. No circumstantial. No leads at all. Her teeth had been removed and we couldn’t find her in the missing person database. We couldn’t establish who she was, let alone who murdered her. Officially, the case is still open, but – it won’t go anywhere.”

“You must have had other cases where the bad guy got away with it,” he says. “Why did that one get to you?”

The girl had washed up against the riverbank several months after Brienne had taken the beating at the mill. Her body was tangled in weeds and branches, like Ophelia, but there was nothing beautiful or romantic about it. Physically, Brienne had been recovered, her bones healed, her skin grafted. Mentally, not so much. He doesn’t need to know about any of that. “I was… I’d… I was disillusioned. It’s a job where every day you see the worst things humans can do to each other. When you’re making a difference, it’s bearable. When you feel useless–”

“You stayed though.”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Why? Because I believe in justice and protecting those who need it. When people are hurt or wronged, I would rather be doing something about it. You might smirk about that, but-”

“I wasn’t smirking about it. I was smiling at you.”

“Right, sure.” Brienne purses her lips and looks down at the paper again. She already knows that he does not share the instinct to step in when people need someone to stand up for them. The door opens and Genna enters, holding a tablet and looking ebullient.

“Men’s appetites!” she announces, dropping into her chair. “This is Emmon’s old tablet, shoved away at the back of his drawer. I charged it up yesterday because mine had broken, not realising it’s still linked to his phone number. Look! Look at the messages the bastard’s been sending to his PA!”

Brienne hangs back, reluctant to read someone else’s private messages without a crime and a warrant card to justify it. Jaime has no such reservations. When Brienne does not take the tablet, he does, and begins to read aloud Emmon’s inept attempts to flirt with a woman apparently half his age. He puts great expression into the voices and his amusement is strangely contagious. Every time Brienne hears him struggling to get the words out because he is laughing too hard, she has to fight the urge to smile with him. She resents him for this too.

“Friday! I suppose you’re out with your boyfriend tonight?”

“We split up last wkend so nope. Quiet night in for me.”

“Oh, that’s a shame. Still, doesn’t sound like he was mature enough for you.”

“Aint that the truth!”

“I got you a little gift btw. For helping so much with getting the contract done. I’ll give it to you on Monday.”

“Oh nice! Thanks. Just doing my job.”

“I thought it’d go with the pretty top you wore yesterday. If not, you can have the receipt and get something more to your taste.”

“Intrigued!”

The messages progress like this for a few weeks, cumulating in last night’s exchange.

“You seemed quiet today. Was everything okay?”

“Yeah. Tom came round last night wanting to get back together. Just a bit fed up.”

“Hope you told him where to go.”

“Said I’d think about it. Don’t really know what to do.”

“Yes, you do. Send him away with a flea in his ear. Or send him to me and I’ll deal with him!! You’re gorgeous. You deserve better than him.”

“Lol thanks”

“I mean it. You’re a beauty. You’re a butterfly.”

Brienne watches as Jaime and Genna double up laughing over the messages. While Jaime’s reading of them had made her smile, she now feels a strange emptiness. She sits, wondering if there is something wrong with her for feeling so melancholic.

“Brienne, you don’t look at all amused,” says Genna.

“He’s your husband, and he’s trying to cheat on you. Aren’t you upset?”

“Oh, if it stops him pawing at me, I’m all for it. I’ve had enough of my own extramarital fun over the years.”

“Oh.” Brienne suddenly feels very provincial, and that her ideas of marriage and monogamy and fidelity must be very old-fashioned. She had known that when Genna talked about Emmon at all, it was with a roll of the eyes, but she had assumed that below the mockery and the boredom, there was a foundation of loyalty and fondness.

Genna continues, “He’s just having his midlife crisis – characteristically, ten years late. The Freys never could get things quite right.”

Brienne can sense Jaime watching her, but she determines not to allow herself to be intimidated into not speaking. He has already driven her from too much. “I’m not trying to be judgemental,” she says tentatively to Genna, “but it seems sad to me that two people who loved one another so much that they made sacred vows to one another, and had four children together, should get to the point of such indifference and faithlessness.”

“Brienne, sweetheart,” says Genna, “you’re a romantic. I’m a pragmatist. Emmon and I married because I was pregnant and that’s what you did in those days. We’re probably still together out of habit.”

Brienne considers this. “Do you think all marriages have deceit in them?”

“Yes. It might be omissions or flattery rather than outright lies, but yes.”

“I don’t think I’ll ever marry then.”

“You’re very innocent, my love,” is all Genna says.

Brienne finishes her cup of tea, rubs Arnold’s ears, and stands. “I need to get home.”

“All right, love. Don’t forget your power washer. It’s in the porch. Can you carry it home without help?”

“Of course,” Brienne says. “Thank you for lunch.”

Jaime rises too, and Brienne watches bemusedly as he goes to a hook on the wall, and takes three leads off it. “I’ll carry it home for you,” he tells Brienne, as he bends to clip the leads onto the collars of Dora, Daisy and Arnold.

“Wh – There’s no need,” says Brienne, not quite able to hide her horror at the idea of trekking up the lane with Jaime Lannister, the power washer, two Dachshunds, and a house rabbit who is uncooperative at the best of times. (“It’s because he’s male,” Genna has been known to say, still furious with the breeder who had assured her that Arnold, nee Angelina, was a girl.)

“No bother. Besides, these lot are expecting an outing now,” Jaime says, and indeed there is great excitement around his ankles at the prospect of a walk to Brienne’s. Only the cat looks nonchalant, possessing the sophisticated air of an animal that has never been confined by leash or fence, and can therefore go to Brienne’s whenever it damn well pleases.

Jaime sets off through the hall and into the porch with the three small animals rushing beside him. Brienne and Genna exchange glances and follow him. Jaime thrusts the three leads into Brienne’s hand before picking up the large box containing the power washer. As chivalrous gestures go, it is definitely on the worse end of the spectrum, probably somewhere between being helped awkwardly on with a coat or having a door held for you when you are several metres away and feel obliged to run. All three acts require the recipient of the ‘chivalry’ to make slightly more effort than they would if left unaided, and Brienne would far rather have carried the box back herself than have to contend with Arnold, Dora and Daisy on their leads. She has certainly got the worse end of this deal. What is it with this family and their insistence on helping?

“Lead on, Macduff,” Jaime says.

“That’s actually a misquotation,” snaps Brienne. She snaps because his smile, like his laugh, is contagious. She is furious with her lips for trying to smile back at him. Somehow, despite everything, he is charming her. Of course he is. Jaime Lannister was popular at school. He has the gift of making people like him, and Brienne, a potential race-partner, is now useful to him and therefore worth winning over. Shame he hadn’t realised how useful she was 11 years ago, when his pals were knocking her in the pool and mocking her bestial body.

She sets off, upset and suddenly desperate to get away from him, to be safe in her own home – her territory. To stop her feelings from lurching about as they have since he entered his aunt’s kitchen. Arnold, perhaps sensing that she is in no mood to be trifled with, hops along without having to sniff every blade of grass. Jaime also keeps pace with her. Brienne can see in her peripheral that his head is constantly turned to watch her. Probably looking at her damaged cheek again. They are silent all the way up the lane, and if Brienne didn’t know better, she would say he is nervous. He keeps inhaling as though to speak, but then not saying anything. Brienne meanwhile, is doing her best not to cry. She has had a sudden memory. Connington sitting on the coach behind her, detailing interesting facts about whales very loudly for Brienne’s benefit. The Blue Whale, for example, has a tongue that weighs as much as an elephant. Its heart is as heavy as a car. ‘Who would you rather fuck?’ Connington had asked whichever turd was sitting next to him. ‘Whalegirl or Tarly?’ and they’d both snorted with laughter.

It was years ago, so why is she so pathetic that she can feel the tears pricking even now? There is a strong breeze, and she hopes that will account for why her eyes are watery.

“Are you all right?” Jaime asks quietly.

“Yes, I’m fine.”

When they reach the house, he places the power washer in the shed in Brienne’s front garden before joining her at the front door, and taking the leads from her. He looks at her, rubs at his chin, licks his lips, and finally says:

“Look, you shouldn’t have been booted off the team. Goldtower deserved punching. And none of them were anywhere near as good as you. We didn’t get far without you the year after – my final year.”

It wasn’t Goldtower. It was Darry. Darry dropped my bag in the pool. Darry got his nose broken. And that wasn’t an apology. You were the captain and you could have stopped it and you didn’t.

“I don’t care,” she says. “Do you think I still care about what silverware the school polo team won now?”

“Well, I thought it’d be a bit of schadenfreude for you.”

At that moment, the wind picks up, and the door of Brienne’s shed, which had been open, slams shut. Jaime’s entire body jolts, and he jerks around. As soon as he realises what the sound was, he makes an effort to untense, tries to look nonchalant. Pity rises up in Brienne, and perhaps he sees it. Her instinct to help those who are vulnerable will always win out.

“Let’s race together,” he says quickly, and in his face, Brienne can see traces of Genna. The same eager expression. “Just once, this Sunday. Go on, you must miss it.”

She hesitates, not knowing what she wants, let alone what to say to him.

“Just once,” he tries again. “Go on, I’ll do whatever you tell me …”

He grins, and Brienne is grateful that she largely grew out of blushing a few years ago. “All right,” she says unhappily. She has missed racing, she tells herself, and that is the only reason she is agreeing to this. Whatever charm he thinks he is working on her, he is wrong; she is doing this for herself.

“Good.” He continues watching her, and Brienne finds herself fidgeting and looking down. The submissiveness of her posture appals her, but the intimacy of staring back is not an option. She busies herself by rooting about in her bag, pretending not to be able to find her key. She doesn’t want this. Whatever this is, she doesn’t want it. Please go, she thinks.

 

“See you Sunday then.” His voice is cocky, and she instantly regrets agreeing to the race. He sets off with the dogs and rabbit, the walking proof that, with enough confidence, even the ridiculous can look cool. Brienne, meanwhile, lets herself into her house, locks the door and collapses onto the settee. She means to have a good cry, but now that she is free to let go, no tears will come.

Chapter Text

Jaime Lannister’s car is large, grey and filthy – as though he makes a habit of driving at speed through big, muddy puddles. The left wingmirror is cracked, as though he has at some point clipped a gatepost, and there is a rather vicious scratch on the left flank – as though he has pissed off someone in a carpark, who has then keyed it. It is also, Brienne is unhappy to see, sitting in Genna’s drive for the fourth day in a row since the afternoon he insisted on escorting her home with the power washer. Brienne can see it from the window of her spare bedroom, and just the knowledge that its owner is so close, and might at any time wander past with the dogs and rabbit, or be sent round by Genna with biscuits or cake or soup, makes her jittery as hell. 


She works late, and eats in her office so that when Genna texts or rings to insist that she comes for tea, she can honestly say that she is going to grab something at work. She has no wish to once again sit across a table from Jaime Lannister, trying to make chitchat while he watches her in that unnerving way of his. She only hopes that Genna does not tell him of their normal routine – Brienne going round there every other day; she does not want him to have the satisfaction of knowing he has driven her out.


When Brienne does get home, she finds herself walking continually in and out of the spare room to check Genna’s drive. While his car remains there, she has to keep busy. She cleans out cupboards, plants grass seed in the neglected back garden, rereads the file on the girl in the river trying to find some missed clue, re-varnishes the downstairs windowsills. Only when the grey car is gone can she manage to relax, dropping onto the settee to watch TV or heading into the twilight to the swing seat with a mug of Ovaltine, a blanket and a book. It was bad enough his being at the sailing club, but this is her home. Everywhere safe is being taken from her. “You pathetic, spiteful little…” What on earth had she ever done to warrant being spoken to like that? 


By Saturday evening – the night before the race, and with Lannister’s car in Genna’s drive again – Brienne is strung as tight as a bow and needs to cut loose. Talisa, pregnant and of the opinion that there is nothing more annoying than being surrounded by drunks when you are sober (an opinion in no way lessened by working nights in the Accident and Emergency department), is not interested in going into town, but Pod and Osha are. Brienne puts on a sleeveless silk blouse, ripped jeans, and white Converse. She wreaths her eyes with power plant levels of smokiness, rubs cream blush into her cheeks, and does her lips in vampire-red. She backcombs her hair until it stops being apologetic pale keratin that hangs drably from her scalp, and instead becomes a rough, self-willed creature that lies about her neck like a cat or a python, or some other sassy critter. She slips both her real lipstick and her taser-disguised-as-a-lipstick into her back pocket – not strictly legal, but better to be judged by twelve than carried by six. Then she rings for a taxi. She believes that she intends to have a couple of quiet drinks with Pod and Osha and return home at a decent hour – but somehow that isn’t what happens. Perhaps the fervour that she had put into dressing that night should have been a sign this was never her real intention.


She meets Osha and Pod at The Cellar, and they have a couple of beers. Outside Revolution, they run into Arya, Sansa, Gendry, Theon and Jon. The eight of them troop inside and spend the next hour taking advantage of the triples for doubles offer, and yelling inaudibly at one another over the music. Then onto Snug, from which they are promptly ejected when Theon gets into a fight with a guy who is coming on to Sansa. Then Walkabout where they are soon showing off their moves on the dancefloor, green-tongued from all the apple sour shots. Sansa quickly decides that this dancefloor is too small, too modest for her moves, and the group relocates to Oceana to dance properly. It is nice, Brienne thinks, to embrace her youth for once; to get wankered instead of being sensible and grown up. Usually she is so busy trying to escape from her childhood, from the pain of it, that she cannot allow the young version of herself out. She knows she has grown up prematurely.


By half past two, Pod is paralytic and in no fit state to remember his own name, let alone wave down a taxi, give his address, sit rationally in the back for ten minutes, count out the right change, and then insert the correct key into the correct lock. Brienne has dreadful visions of him accidentally opening the car door and rolling out of the moving vehicle, or being prevailed upon by an unscrupulous driver to stop at a cash machine and hand over his life savings, or getting his front door confused with that of his elderly neighbour, forcing entry and giving her a heart attack. 


Since no one lives near enough to accompany him, Brienne grandly decides that she will take him back to hers, and Osha agrees to help. Osha has drunk more than any of them and yet seems entirely in control. The first taxi they hail refuses to allow them access because Pod is heaving up audible rivulets of vomit as it pulls over, but, by good fortune, the second one arrives after he has hurled for the third (and last, prays Brienne, please let it be the last…) time, and is enjoying a period of calm. Brienne bundles him into the back, and Osha climbs into the front, and they are off. Osha, to prevent the driver from noticing Pod’s clammy, white face and ominous gulps, keeps the man busy with a stream of questions on the many issues close to her heart. Does he think that binge culture is the natural result of a species secretly desperate to get back to its animalistic roots? Does he believe that drag is cultural appropriation/the sexist equivalent of blackface – the dominant male class mocking the oppressed female one, using misogynistic words like ‘fishy’ to rank the success of their caricaturing? Does he think meat-eating is linked to toxic masculinity? Does he believe in the right to die, and why are MPs so out of touch with public sentiment on this matter? Would he bring back capital punishment, and if so, would he harvest organs from the murderers? How many drunk people have been sick in his cab in, say, the last year?
Brienne is particularly annoyed at this last question, asked in a tone of such innocence as Pod moans gently and covers his mouth with his hand. 


“Relax, Bri, it was a double bluff,” says Osha, when they are out of the cab and hauling Pod up the path. “What kind of idiot would talk about people being sick in his cab when there’s actually someone about to be sick in his cab?”


“Genius,” says Brienne darkly. 


They wad the settee with towels, and deposit Pod on it with a glass of water and a bowl nearby. Osha borrows a T shirt and the spare room, and Brienne heads to her own room. She just about gets her trainers and jeans off before falling face-first onto the bed and dropping into sleep.


She awakes what seems like five minutes later, and yet she must have been out for hours because the sun is high and pouring its light into her room. Mascara and lipstick are smeared across her pillow, her head is banging, she feels disgustingly sick, and she needs water. Her clock informs her it is 9.45. She stands gingerly, swaying, trembling, gripping the furniture for support as she moves to the door. Onto the landing. Downstairs she can hear Pod’s voice, jarringly upbeat, which isn’t that surprising as he got a substantial head start on his hangover and is probably over it by now. Brienne hears the words, “…bit rough but if she’s said she’ll do it, she does it.”

Presumably he is talking to Osha, who never gets hangovers at all. Brienne suspects that where other humans are water and carbon-based life forms, Osha is a booze and carbon-based one, and thus a twelve-hour bender will only act to strengthen her.

Clinging to the bannister, Brienne begins her lurching progress down the stairs.


 Once in the hall, it takes her several seconds to register that Pod is standing at the open front door, still wearing last night’s clothes, and that the person he is speaking to is not Osha, not even Genna, but Jaime Lannister.

As Brienne stares blearily and uncomprehendingly, he grins delightedly and says, “Looks like someone had a good night.” His eyes move to her bare legs, and Brienne, remembering that she is standing there in last night’s top and knickers and nothing else, darts into the kitchen. The race. That fucking fuckity race.

A quick glance in the reflection of the microwave confirms the worst. Her eye makeup, so sultry last night, has migrated to form a crusty mess below each eye; her nose is shiny enough to attract magpies; her vampire-red lipstick has smeared so considerably around her mouth and down her chin that she truly does look as though she has spent the night guzzling blood from the necks of virgins and young deer. She does have some memory of enthusiastically reapplying it last night without the aid of a mirror. And her hair – oh, her hair –how the mighty hath fallen. Somehow frazzled and lank at the same time. All the last few weeks of Jaime-Lannister-encounters glow in golden hues compared to this one. Yes, she had been her normal ugly and awkward self, but she had not been hungover, half-clothed, on the verge of puking, and wearing a face that looked as though one of Genna’s younger grandchildren had been at her with the face paints. She had not had her days-of-the-week knickers on display.


She goes to the sink and begins to sluice her face with water. When she turns round, the situation has deteriorated further; Jaime is now in her kitchen. Apparently Pod thought it was a good idea to let in some strange man, and send him to where she is standing with her knickers fully visible. Brienne feels a desperate kind of calm. A sense that things are now as grim as they can be, and that the only way on from here is up. The god of misery and discomfort, however, drawn by the hedonism of last night, has other ideas and chooses this moment to announce his presence. Brienne just makes it to the bin in time. She crouches, retches and throws up twice. If she were Arya’s size, she would probably just give up – climb into the bin, slam the lid down over herself, and nestle in among the teabags, wet kitchen roll and plastic packaging, waiting for him to leave – but at Brienne’s height, that isn’t really an option. She stares grimly at the wall. If honey is the nectar of the gods, then alcohol is the nectar of the devil, and she intends never to touch it again.


“That looked cathartic,” Jaime says with unconcealed amusement. “Feeling better?”


Still crouching and without looking up at him, she gives him a thumbs up.


“I take it we won’t be racing today?” he says.


“Yes, we will. I’m all right.” She is not all right. She feels as though hundreds of mean Lilliputians are doing a war dance in her head, and a clan of borrowers are taking part in a sports day in her gut. “Why are you here? We never agreed that you would pick me up.”


“I got your number off my aunt. Tried to ring you last night, and couldn’t get through so thought I’d see if you wanted a lift.” He walks around the table, takes a glass from the draining board, fills it, and hands it to her. She takes a gulp.


 “You go,” she says. “I need to shower. I’ll meet you at the club in forty minutes. Race only starts at 11.”


“I’ll wait if it’s all the same to you,” he says. “I’m not convinced you’d pass a breathalyser at the moment, DI Tarth, and I’d hate to think of you crashing that beautiful bike.”


Brienne hesitates.


“Where does the law stand on sailing under the influence anyway?” He smiles at her. “Perhaps I’d better be helm after all.”


“Well, help yourself to tea or coffee,” she says. “I’m going to have a shower.”


“Oh, okay.” His eyes shift downwards. “Are you going to put your ‘Sunday’ knickers on afterwards?”


Brienne feels a lurch in her stomach, another hangover symptom surely. She leaves the room, and drags herself back up the stairs. Her phone confirms Jaime’s story – there are three missed calls from an unknown number, the first one probably made around the time that Brienne was taking part in a galloping race with Arya and Sansa somewhere near Revolution, the last one occurring around the time they were being thrown out of Snug. There is a text too. Brienne swallows two paracetamol, brushes her teeth, and showers. 


Thirty-five minutes later, and they are pulling into the club car park. They had taken a quick detour to drop Osha and Pod at Osha’s house, and then continued on to the lake. Jaime had attempted a few conversations, but Brienne had shut them down with two or three-word answers. Perhaps unfairly, she feels this whole situation is his fault. If he had not nagged her into racing with him and then spent the rest of the week hanging around at Genna’s house, she would not have felt the need to let go quite so wholeheartedly last night. And then for him to turn up this morning and witness her at her lowest ebb… It feels as though history is repeating itself, Jaime and her humiliation following her, hand in hand. Sitting beside him as he drives, she wonders if he has any memory of the coach rides to and from the various other schools. A lot of the boys had specialised in a Brienne-centred “Would you rather…?” game that involved choosing between doing something intimate or sexual with Whale Girl or some other horrible alternative. They would discuss the scenarios in amused, low voices, and Brienne was never exactly sure whether she was meant to be able to hear or not. Considering how long she has forbidden herself from thinking of any of this, the clarity with which she can still recall it all stuns her. Jaime backs into a space, and she is out of the car before he has even got his handbrake on.

She goes straight to the women’s changing room which is empty. Here, at least, is somewhere he cannot follow her.


She changes into her wetsuit and rash vest, and smothers her face with sun cream and her lips with Vaseline. She learnt the hard way almost a decade ago what a couple of hours in the wind and with the sun’s rays reflecting off the water can do to skin as fair as hers. When she goes to tie her hair back though, she realises that she has no band.

She leaves the changing room and does a quick lap of the main room to see if any of the few women present have one that they can lend her. The majority are short-haired and have no need of them. Lysa, meanwhile, has so much hair you could stuff a pillow with it. She has arranged it in eleven or twelve drooping ponytails, and has woven freshly-picked daisies and buttercups through it. It puts Brienne in mind of the weeping willow in her garden, and if the hairstyle had been on anyone else, she would have warmed to the eccentric dottiness of it, but she knows Lysa too well to be taken in by the Earth Mother look.


Against her better judgement, she asks Lysa if she can borrow one of the tie-dyed bands that secure Lysa’s ‘branches’, and receives a peevish retort about having enough on her plate with her “very sick, very fragile child” without having to remember to bring scrunchies for Brienne.


“I suppose you’d like me to start bringing you a packed lunch too,” she says sarcastically. “Some of my own homemade bread and hummus. Maybe you’d like me to take your wetsuit home for you and return it washed?”


“I only asked if you happened to have a spare hair band, Lysa,” says Brienne through gritted teeth. She wonders what has got into the woman; this is venomous even for her.


“Well, I don’t,” says Lysa. “I don’t go in for this sharing of intimate products. Women in the toilets asking me if I’ve got a spare tampon.” She whispers the word. “I suppose you’d draw the line at asking to share my toothbrush or my knit comb, wouldn’t you? I presume you wouldn’t want to borrow my douche?” 


For a second, Brienne assumes Lysa means Robin, who Davos often covertly refers to as ‘the little douchebag.’ No, she certainly wouldn’t want to borrow Robin. She pauses in her confusion, and another voice speaks up.


“I can tie long hair up without using a hairband,” Jaime announces, having clearly listened to quite a bit of this bad-tempered conversation. 


“Oh,” says Brienne, not straight away realising what he is saying. 


“Turn around then,” he says impatiently.


Brienne freezes. Surely he isn’t going to try and do her hair. Surely he can just tell her how?


“Oh, do mine,” says Lysa excitedly. “Here, Brienne can have all of my hair bands if you do mine.”


“I would love to see to see Brienne with her hair done in the exquisite way you’ve done yours,” says Jaime, “but you seem to have some very sound reasons for keeping your hairbands out of her clutches. If you’d seen her this morning in her kitchen, you definitely wouldn’t want her handling them.”


Brienne is torn between amusement and reproach. She wants to laugh, but she is also aware that many of the jokes made at her expense eleven years ago were probably comical in their own way. They were still, however, cruel and directed at someone without the ability to fight back, just as Lysa cannot now fight back; for she has no idea she is being mocked.


Jaime is already moving behind Brienne, who is still paralysed. His fingers rest on the back of her neck to gather up her hair, and Brienne has the strongest urge to squirm away and flee. His hands trace her scalp as he splits the hair into sections. His lips are very near her ear now. One of his arms rests against the upper part of her back and she feels the soft pull as he begins to plait. This is unbearable. Her hair falls to just below her breasts. Over the last few months, she has kept meaning to get it cut, but somehow has never got round to it. She regrets that hugely now, as Jaime’s fingers brush her neck, and his breath falls on her skin, and the moment drags on and on. 


Lysa’s mouth, pursed at the start of this impromptu hairdressing, has shrunk down to an angry little knot resembling an anal sphincter. Brienne can only attribute the thudding of her own heart to having been so unaccustomed to romantic male attention all her life. She has been groped the odd time when queueing for drinks at a bar, but no man has ever taken her hand, or stroked her face, or kissed her neck. And now this unpleasant man is touching her neck and hair. That this can make her feel so shaky is a sign of how barren her life has been in this respect. In 25 years, this is probably the most tender thing a man has done to her. How pathetic. And what would her younger self think of this? If the 14-year-old Brienne could see present-day Brienne allowing this, how would she feel? Aghast? Betrayed? Contemptuous?


 “He was the team captain. He stood back and let them bully and humiliate me over and over again. He never said a word to stop it, but you race with him, and go weak-legged over him plaiting your hair? Really, Brienne? Are you that fucking desperate?”


 She feels him tying the end of the braid, presumably doing something intricate with a strand of hair that he has kept spare. He secures it, and then one finger very deliberately strokes down the back of her neck. Brienne shivers compulsively. She cannot help it. Behind her, she hears the soft sound of his smile, and then he is gone, moving off towards the door, and leaving Brienne to weather Lysa’s glare. When Brienne pulls her braid forward, she finds it is tied with a red elastic band. Lysa looks murderous. 


*


Outside, Brienne and Jaime rig the Xenon. Brienne has forced all self-loathing and fraught excitement down, deep down to the root of her soul. She is entirely focussed on wind and sails and the competition. Nothing else is important to her. 


“Can we use a spinnaker in this?” Jaime asks her.


Brienne shakes her head. “No, not unless you want us capsizing for sure. It’s around 23 knots. That’s a strong wind.”  She points to the sailors nearby, several of whom are busy wrapping sails around the mast to make them smaller. “Most of them are reefing. They reduce the sail area. It’s safer, the boat heels less, but you lose some speed. I don’t want to reef, I’d rather take the risk.”


Jaime’s eyes gleam. “Good.” 


Given he has only been sailing a few weeks, he is far too self-assured for Brienne’s liking. “So long as you hike hard when I tell you to,” she says harshly. “And follow all my other instructions.”


“You certainly sound like you’re feeling better anyway,” he says. “I’m less worried than I was an hour ago that we’ll be ploughing into the other boats and doing penalty turns for the whole race.”


Brienne scowls.


“Or that you’ll be sick on me,” Jaime adds. “Did you like the way I did your hair?”


Brienne ignores this, and begins to wade out into the water towing the trolley behind her. They get the boat afloat, and she holds it while Jaime drags the trolley back to shore. Then they climb in and set sail towards the east side of the lake where the starting line between the committee boat and the outer distance mark lies. 


Brienne intensely dislikes the five minutes before a race. The sport is like no other that she can think of because you cannot simply brace yourself as you wait for a race to start. You cannot drop anchor or apply the brakes or turn the wind off once you have found your position. You cannot, in short, stop moving. The entire five minutes is spent jostling and weaving for pole position with twenty or thirty other boats, all inches apart, all determined not to commit the cardinal sin of crossing the starting line before the horn blasts. She hates the lack of personal space and she can see Jaime’s lips quirking at their apparent near misses with the other boats and the belligerent yells of, “Starboard, keep clear!” between the more territorial men.

Once the starting blast sounds and the final flag comes down though, the fun begins. They start out in the middle, but Brienne steers them higher than the general fleet in order to avoid the dirty air that comes from being in a crowd of other boats all disturbing the wind flow with their own sails. She is very grateful for the elastic band that secures her plait; the wind is a beast today. 


While there are several moments when their boat feels alarmingly close to capsizing, their full sails give them the advantage over the boats that have reefed, and Jaime never needs to be told to hike when the boat heels. He is instantly leaning out beside her, his face lit up by a pure, childlike joy as they power through the water. He never oversheets the jib or allows it to flap, he is prompt with the daggerboard when it comes to gybing and running, and he has a good feel for the boat trim, sitting forward when they are on a beat, and moving back to sit close to Brienne when they are going downwind, always keeping the boat beautifully flat. His competence leaves Brienne free to scan around them for their competitors and the rippling on the water that signifies a coming gust. She tacks onto them again and again, and their boat rides the wind like a bird. She keeps them in the way of any who might overtake. For three laps, they fly across the water, sweeping past fellow competitors. Five boats capsize that day, but Talisa and Brienne’s Xenon is not one of them. She and Jaime keep their concentration to the last and they finish fifth once the handicaps have been applied.


All the way back to shore, Jaime cannot stop grinning at her, and Brienne finds herself smiling back, high on the breeze, the speed and adrenaline.


“We were good, weren’t we?” he says as they put the boat away. 


“We were decent,” she admits, smiling into the sail that she is rolling up.


“We were better than decent,” he says, “for our first time together.”


Against her will, Brienne’s eyes dart to his. For an instant she thinks she sees a knowing, watchful look there, but a second later it is gone, leaving her to assume that she imagined it.


She continues to roll the sail, and he says, “You look better. Could you eat now?”


“I think so.”


“We could stop somewhere,” he says, “when I drop you off. A café – or – a restaurant – or – what do you think?”


Brienne thinks that she hadn’t even considered getting home. She’d been too consumed by feeling like shit and by the awkwardness of the situation at the time to focus on anything else. “You don’t have to drop me off,” she says, embarrassed. “I can easily –”


“My aunt would rip my balls off if I didn’t,” he says. “And don’t say she wouldn’t know – she knows everything. Especially where you’re concerned.”


Brienne doesn’t quite like the sound of that, but she still sees it as largely Jaime’s doing that she got so blotto as to make riding her bike here unwise. “Thank you then.” She starts to remove the rudder. “Do you want to leave now, or is there time for me to grab a quick lunch from the café?” She gestures vaguely to the club house.


“Oh.” He seems to hesitate for a second, then says, “Yeah, there’s plenty of time.”


*


Brienne changes quickly, buys a plate heaped with greasy, fried food from the kitchen and sits with Talisa who arrived just in time to see the end of the race. Ever since getting pregnant, Talisa has craved spicy food. The food served at most establishments is not generally of the type to make one feel as though their mouth is aflame, and so Talisa has taken to carrying her own seasonings around with her in her handbag. Chili powder, diced jalapeno, paprika, cayenne and chili pepper. She has set them out on the table and is currently supping on the café’s leek and potato soup which she has flavoured generously with the type of pepper that Brienne would have reserved for spraying into sex attackers’ eyes.


“And you were complaining about not being able to find anyone to race with,” Talisa is saying. “My replacement’s very… Are you sure you’re going to want me back once I’ve dropped the sprog?”


“Yes, I am,” says Brienne fervently, watching as Jaime, with just his smile, causes the woman on the counter to blush, then twist and pull on her lanyard almost to the point of throttling herself. “You’re far less pleased with yourself.”


“He always looks sullen and unhappy when I see him about. Still handsome though.”


“There’s something dishonest about looking like that,” says Brienne, in a burst of hot frustration. “Even if people don’t like your personality, they’re in thrall to you if you look that way. It’s like Sansa. Men who find her irritating are still daft about her.”


She does not add that she believes her own looks are just as “dishonest” as Jaime’s, causing men who might like her personality to shun her. If she could choose her appearance, she would look like Arya. Neither gorgeous nor ugly.  A blank canvas. Any man who liked Arya’s fiery nature would never be repelled by her appearance, just as no man who preferred a meeker woman would ever be ensnared by it. They’d paint their own love or disregard onto her face, and make her beautiful or nondescript in their minds.


“Theon said he got you all thrown out of Snug protecting her last night,” says Talisa, adding more pepper to her soup. “He came round late this morning to play Task Force 101 or something equally cerebral with Robb.”


Jaime, carrying a sandwich and bottle of milk, drops into the seat beside her, and Brienne sees him favour her friend with his lopsided smile. He is still high on the race. Endorphins, Brienne thinks. This is a man very affected by endorphins. Physical activity thrills him.


“He wasn’t protecting her,” she scoffs to Talisa. “He was playing Billy Big Bollocks; he’d been spoiling for a fight all night. I knew he’d brag about getting us all chucked out because he decided to spray his testosterone everywhere.”


“Are you going to introduce me to my replacement?” 


Sure. Talisa, this is Jaime. He was captain of the team that bullied me mercilessly for a year because I was ugly, shy and couldn’t piss standing up. I can’t tell how much of that person he is anymore, but I do know that if I had stood back and allowed people I had authority over to behave in such a way, I would have apologised by now


 “Talisa, Jaime,” Brienne murmurs. 


Talisa already knew his name, but the two exchange platitudes and then Lysa arrives, seating herself beside Brienne and across from Jaime.


Both Brienne and Talisa have heard all about Lysa’s crush on Jaime from Davos, and they both now watch intently to see what arts she will employ in her attempt to seduce him. Lysa, however, disappointingly, seems to be playing it cool. She pointedly ignores Jaime, but addresses Talisa in her best mother hen voice.


“How’s that baby brewing, Talisa? Have you still got morning sickness?” 


“No, it seems to have passed. Haven’t had to vomit into an obliging receptacle for well over a week now.”


Jaime catches Brienne’s eye, and grins at her. She looks down into her fried potatoes and eggs, but cannot hide the embarrassed smile spreading across her own features. 


“I suppose you’re nervous about the birth. I had a water-birth with Robin,” says Lysa, who has told everyone at the club this fact at least six times. “I think that’s why he came out loving water so much.”


“Talisa won’t do that,” says Brienne, smiling at her friend. “Her scariest film moment is when Wormtail drops baby Voldemort into the magic cauldron bath in The Goblet of Fire, and he’s reborn.”


“You’re not serious,” says Lysa, who, for a madwoman, has remarkably low tolerance for other people’s neuroses.


“I hadn’t even linked the two, but now-” Talisa looks aghast. “That’s the water birth option out.”


“What’s your scariest film, Brienne?” enquires Jaime. “No, let me guess. Zombie apocalypse – nah, you’d survive one of those, no problem. Creepy kids – you spend time with Genna’s grandkids so high tolerance there. Monsters or aliens – corporeal, you can fight them, so no. I’m going to go with ghosts or demons. You have an old house, and I bet it creaks a lot when you’re lying alone in your bed at night.”


Talisa sends Brienne a curious look, clearly wondering how the replacement knows about Brienne’s house and Genna’s grandkids.


“No, not ghosts or demons,” Brienne says, though she does feel like she has her own metaphorical ghost right now. Unless she is at work, the possibility of Jaime haunts her everywhere. The chance of him popping out at her to a screeching soundtrack. It upsets her rather than frightens her however.


“What then?”


“The non-supernatural ones. The ones with scary, flesh-and-blood people.”


“It’s that ‘It Follows’ film that frightens me,” says Lysa. “There’s a curse that passes from partner to partner through sex. Unless you pass it on to someone else by having sex with them, a shape-shifting ghoul stalks and murders you! You’re lucky,” she adds, with a laugh, “to still be a virgin, Brienne. You’ll never have nightmares about catching it, like I do.” 


There is a prolonged and awful silence after this. It hangs heavy over the table, and testifies to the awful shame of not having lost your virginity by your mid-twenties. To have missed this rite of passage. She is the freak again, sitting with three people who all know what it is like to rut and groan and grip wildly at another person’s buttocks. Her undesirability is on display for all to see. Talisa had already known, of course, but Brienne’s tremulous silence now confirms the truth of the barb to both Lysa and Jaime. It is too much.


“I’m afraid I’m too candid at times,” Lysa says, with a self-deprecating smile. “I’ve told you before I read auras and have  psychic insights, haven’t I? I forget it sometimes makes people uncomfortable. Virginity brings a rather lovely greenness to an aura.”


Brienne knows exactly why Lysa has done this. Because of Jaime. Because Brienne arrived with him. Because he plaited her hair. Because he raced with her. Because he has barely taken his eyes off her since he sat down. 


She also now knows why Jaime has fixed her with such a steadfast gaze all day. To make Lysa admit defeat. To persuade her that he is interested in another woman so that she will stop leaving post-its on his car and eyeballing his crotch. To ensure that if she does vent her anger at being rejected, she will direct it at the ‘chosen woman' and not him.


“Auras?” snaps Jaime, and there is a tic around his jaw. “Psychic insights? Do you really expect people to believe that crock of shit?”


Lysa blinks. “I’m sure that if I’d read Brienne wrong, she would have said so.”


“I’m sure she’s too sweet to try and expose you as a fraud.”


Lysa smiles. “Well, let’s ask her, shall we?”


“Actually, I need to get going,” says Brienne. She stands, pats Talisa on the shoulder, and sets off with her empty plate. Jaime follows.


In the car, they are both quiet for several minutes. Jaime’s hands-free phone rings incessantly from an unknown number, and he keeps rejecting it.


“That’s not Lysa, is it?” Brienne asks at last.


“No, why would it be bloody Lysa?” he says sharply.


Brienne doesn’t respond, and at last he says more calmly, “Shall we race together again next week?”


Brienne almost laughs. She is so sick of it. The scene in the kitchen this morning. Lysa. The humiliations just keep coming, and he is always there, eliciting it without even meaning to. And worse than the humiliations are her own feelings, fluctuating wildly from upset to pleasure to shame to shivery excitement. All the order and control of her life dissolves when he is about. 


On the other hand, he is Genna’s nephew. He has PTSD and he has apparently found his salvation in sailing. Brienne remembers doing the same, after what happened at the mill.


“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind,” she says.


“What?” He is incredulous. “But we did well. I thought you’d enjoyed it.”


“I did. I just – I don’t want to race for a bit. Look, I know you prefer the double-handers to the single. I can get Talisa to introduce you to her husband, Robb, and you can take the Xenon out with him. His brother is in the army, you know, so I’m sure he understands about... things,” she finishes, rather lamely.


“I see. You’ve got it all sorted, haven’t you?”


“Robb’s decent. You’ll like one another,” says Brienne, praying this is true.


“Is this about Lysa?” he demands. 


“No. Why would it be about Lysa?” It is Brienne’s turn to fume now.


“Because you seemed happy until she announced that you were a virgin.”


Brienne cringes.


“You shouldn’t let her upset you,” he says.


“Really? What is allowed to upset me?”


He appears to consider. “The people you care for. You don’t like Lysa. Why would you care what she says or thinks of you?”


This, of course, is easy for someone like Jaime to say, because people have always stood in awe of him. “How would you know what it’s like?” she demands. “You’ve never been –”


“Never been what?”


“Look, I just don’t want to race,” she says. She means it to come out firm, but instead it comes out choky and high, as though she is about to cry. “I don’t owe you a race or an explanation. I don’t owe you anything.”


He is silent after that, until he finally stops his car outside her house with a vicious press on the brakes. 
When Brienne thanks him and says goodbye, he does not even look at her. She receives only a curt nod

Chapter Text

Genna and Emmon’s contrasting approaches to consumerism and frugality are epitomised by their luggage standing in the hall. Genna has a veritable fleet of matching white RIMOWA cases on wheels, packed full of gifts, jewels and garments of silk, satin and cashmere. The cases gleam with futuristic intent and look to Jaime like oxygen tanks – as though Genna is about to embark on a year-long expedition into space with a team of astrophysicists rather than four days in King’s Landing with her family. Emmon, meanwhile, has one small suitcase that predates his eldest son by about a decade, and is the mottled beige and brown colour of old teeth. One of its buckles has fallen off while the other is unreliable, so Emmon has secured it with a fraying, grey rope. He also apparently spent much of last night trying to pacify his wife by sluicing it with a vinegar and lemon juice solution intended to remove the musty smell it had acquired from sitting in the loft so long. The result is a smelly case that looks as though it should be held by an orphan who is about to escape the smoky city and embark on an idyllic life on a farm. It continually attracts the disgusted eye of Genna. She is used to her husband’s stinginess around the house – his insistence on keeping used teabags in an empty tin in order to reuse them six or seven times; his constant turning off of lights, and his whining over the heating bill or the fact that she has ordered lobster or a jar of black winter truffles to cook with – but she resents it far more in public where people can see.

 

“The pantry has plenty of little treats in it for you,” she tells Jaime, stroking his face. “Now, be sensible while we’re gone please.”

 

Jaime snorts. “I’m almost 29 and spent several years in the army. I think I can look after a few small animals without catastrophe.”

 

“I’m not talking about the pets,” says Genna. “I know why you’ve been hanging around here so much, Jaime – I wasn’t born yesterday. You behave like a gentleman if you have intentions in that quarter.”

 

Emmon clears his throat. “Are you still seeing that doctor, for your…?” He taps his head.

 

“For the bat in my belfry? Yes, Uncle.” Jaime is glad to avoid Genna’s stare.

 

“I see, I see.” He considers Jaime with the nervous, watery eyes of a creature that is used to subterranean dwelling. A mole perhaps. Emmon has viewed his wife’s nephew as unhinged ever since he found out about the PTSD, but clearly the idea of leaving his house and worldly possessions in Jaime’s deranged charge is upping the stakes to a level he is uncomfortable with. He is probably expecting to return to find the house burnt down to the foundations, the dogs hanging from trees, or REDRUM daubed in blood and shit on the walls.

 

“If I find myself repeatedly typing All work and no play makes Jaime a dull boy,” says Jaime, “I’ll see if my nut doctor can squeeze me in for an extra appointment.”

 

Emmon laughs uneasily, and a horn honking outside indicates the arrival of the taxi, and betokens no cordial greeting for the driver. Genna throws open the front door and marches down the steps.

 

“Are you a goose?” Jaime hears her demand of the driver, a portly man with greasy hair. The driver presumably confirms that he is not, because Genna says, “Then kindly do not honk at me.” She returns to the front door, and brings the lion knocker down with a crash. “That’s the conventional, boring way of getting our attention. Those are rarely good traits, but in a driver, they trump flamboyant and excitable every time. Would you fetch my luggage and load it into your boot please?”

 

She then stands over the man as he puffs and pants, wheeling the oxygen tanks to his car. Genna is excellent at standing over men while they perform tasks. She is like a sort of angry, good luck mascot, scaring men so much that they can’t not succeed. Her husband excepting. Jaime takes pity on the bloke, and helps him. Genna and Emmon climb into the car and depart, leaving Jaime in parentis locus with the pets.

 

They mill around his feet and eye him up as though he is Fraulein Maria and they are the Von Trapp children, deciding which prank they should pull first. Like the kids in the film, they opt initially for the surprise amphibian. Jaime fetches his laptop and has not been at work ten minutes before the cat, moving through the microchip cat-flap, lays a lively frog at his feet. The cat pats the frog and the frog screams. Properly screams. Jaime spends five minutes trying to catch the thing as it hops first under the sofa, then under the floating island and finally launches itself into the dogs’ drinking bowl, screaming the whole time. If Emmon, in his paranoia, has placed spycams (cheap ones, naturally) in this room, his worst fears regarding Jaime’s sanity will certainly be confirmed by watching this spectacle play out, where the low resolution will probably render the frog invisible.

 

Daisy and Dora, meanwhile, seem to have cultivated the same passive-aggressive streak that Emmon has long displayed; they alternate between pointedly licking their food bowls and ripping stuffing out of a teddy bear. Arnold wiles away the afternoon nibbling at Jaime’s laptop cable, and, once Jaime has realised and put the wire out of reach, mouthing at his shoelaces.

 

Jaime churns out questions for key stage 1 and 2 maths teaching resources. Tyrion, who likes to lewdly boast that he has a finger in every pie, took over a company that produced teaching resources and revision guides a couple of years back. He handed Jaime the job after his discharge. It is boring, but allows him to work without leaving the house and to set his own hours. Jaime devises wholesome scenario after wholesome scenario of children sharing their biscuits equally, saving up their pocket money, catching trains that depart late, and returning x amount of change to an elderly neighbour after purchasing her shopping. He resists bringing some urban blight to the scenarios – to have the kids purchasing crack, or shoplifting their magazines and chocolate bars. Cersei rings from the unknown number, and he ignores it.

 

His eyes go with increasing frequency to the window, through which he can just make out the small cottage up the lane. He hasn’t seen her in weeks, since the day they raced together. She has absented herself from his life with the same irritating proficiency with which she seems to tackle every other task. She must indeed have spoken to Robb Stark because the guy approached him one evening at the club, and they have sailed together a few times since. Jaime likes him. He knows where he is with him.

 

He does not know where he is with Brienne. Being around her is like trekking in some strange land comprised of glaciers, volcanoes, quicksand and sudden sea mists; without a map; without a compass; without a distress flare, or a sky full of stars. It is like laying a trail of breadcrumbs and then having the birds devour them out of pure spite. It is like turning your sat nav on and being told to drive in big circles. She is so changeable, so inscrutable. Beaming one moment, hostile the next. Tyrion would attribute it to her “needing a good seeing to.” Jaime does not believe it is this simple, but if it were, he would willingly provide the service.

 

If Jaime does not understand her feelings, his own are not much clearer. He is not at all sure how to feel about the hold this large, plain woman has gained over him in such a short time. It had, he suspects, kicked in properly sometime after reading the article about her heroics at the mill; he had felt white hot fury at the men who had hurt her. He had gone so far as to look up the parole dates. Then, weeks later, he had walked into his aunt’s kitchen, and she had been there, and it had all only got worse. By the time she had risen to leave, he had felt completely bewildered by his own reactions to her. He had spent the rest of the week working at Genna’s in the hope of seeing her and – he told himself – getting it out of his system. But she had not come by. Instead he had had to listen to Genna’s rapturous stories in which Brienne roved about, half cookie-selling Girl Guide, half the tougher sister of Bear Grylls.

 

From these stories, Jaime has gleaned that Brienne has a prodigious weakness for animals and children. She had spent long hours teaching Cleos’s little daughters to swim in Genna’s pool, despite apparently having a loathing for the bleach smell. Throughout the winter, she had daily put out huge lumps of seedcake and cheese for the birds, and more than once, Genna had found injured fledglings and emaciated voles recuperating in shoeboxes around her cottage. She is apparently steely too. Genna has watched her snapping the neck of a wild mixy rabbit to save it from a lingering death. And there was the time Genna had been woken by a crash, and Brienne had rushed round with her truncheon to check the house, eventually discovering the cause – one of Emmon’s DIY shelves falling off the wall.

Jaime’s favourite story, though, is The Near-Drowning of Daisy. The snowy day several months back when Genna and Brienne had been out with the dogs, and Daisy had ignored their calls and scampered out onto the deep, frozen pond. There had been one ominous creak, and then the ice had cracked; Genna had stood in mute, open-mouthed shock as the dog scrabbled desperately before vanishing with a yelp below the ice. Brienne had reacted instantly, throwing off coat and wellies and entering the water. She had had to start swimming almost instantly, battling pondweed and cracking the ice as she went, retching and shuddering from the cold. Then there had been the dreadful moment when she had reached the ice that was too thick to break. Genna had watched as she took a huge rasping breath. She had screamed out, but too late: Brienne had already dived and vanished below the ice. At this point, Genna’s legs had given way entirely and she had dropped down into the snow, her hand across her mouth, because everyone knew how this tale ended. Dead dog and dead ‘rescuer’. She was still paralysed with horror when Brienne emerged perhaps a minute later, her hair plastered across her face, her lips blue, and the body of the dog pressed between her left hand and her shoulder. She had managed an armless backstroke to the bank. She had been shivering too violently to give the dog the kiss of life herself but had stammered instructions to Genna, and somehow Daisy had come back to them, her love of water in no way abated.

 

These stories had done little to quell Jaime’s feelings. Nor, strangely, had the sight of Brienne in her ‘Saturday’ knickers, puking into a bin. Nor had her obliviousness to his impromptu attempt at asking her out, or the possibility, voiced by Lysa, that she is still a virgin. He is captivated by her, and yet, at the same time, he does not trust his feelings. He has been captivated by plenty of women before. He is a great admirer of the female form in general, and his hunger for sex is as fierce now as it was at 17. Lannisters have terrible appetites. They want and want. Power. Alcohol. In Jaime’s case, sex. The feel of an erect nipple between his lips, the animal moans, the salty taste between a woman’s thighs, the sight of legs spreading for him. He cannot help his genes. He cannot help being this way. Since Cersei threw him away, he has made a lot of headboards rattle; all of the women have been extremely pretty, and Jaime’s feelings for them extremely short-lived. After all the shit he has been through, why should he not find enjoyment where he can?

His instincts regarding Brienne, however, all shout caution at him – and not just because Genna will rip him to pieces with her bare hands if he puts a foot wrong there. He does not doubt the girl’s attraction to him. Her pupils dilate when she looks at him. She had trembled when he touched her neck after plaiting her hair. Her fingers fidgeting in her lap as he drove her to the club on the day they raced. The smiles she had given him after the race, too high on adrenaline to be guarded. He knows she likes him, but he also knows that she does not want to like him. Jaime suspects that this is less from disapproval of him and more from a sense of imbalance between them. He has little memory of her at school, but he does remember that she was Whale Girl, that she had been treated as a joke by the lads on the team who had known she was better than them, and that she had spent a lot of time staring at her feet and hunching her shoulders. Jaime, meanwhile, knows that he set butterflies fluttering in the tummies of a lot of girls. Most of Cersei’s friends had tried to snog him at some point or other; he’d found his name carved in hearts on the tops of numerous school desks; in lessons, girls were told off for staring at him instead of focussing on their work.

 

Jaime feels he has not done a good job of concealing his own feelings, but he can also see how a woman once dubbed Whale Girl might doubt that someone who looks like Jaime could want her. He has resolved to go cautiously because she is evidently so ill at ease with the whole thing; he knows that if he comes on too strong, she will panic and flee. Hell, she has already panicked and fled. She has swapped pasta, pies and potatoes at Genna’s for croissants, cornflakes and coffee – presumably because breakfast is the time Jaime is not yet there – and she has refused to race with him, instead setting him up with a sacrificial lamb, Robb Stark.

 

The other reason he has decided for caution is his own stupid lust. It is quite possible – likely even – that Brienne is no different from any other woman he has nursed an infatuation for. That as soon as he has her, he will not want her anymore –will resent her staying for breakfast, will grimace when she texts him. From the things Genna has said, he suspects Brienne is not casual about the people in her life. That shrugging her off will not be a trivial thing. He will feel guilty, and Jaime has always resented being made to feel guilty. The sensible thing is not to go there.

 

A thick fog creeps in from the moors that night, after sunset. It is a swirling, ghostly entity that transforms the regular daytime trees, hedgerows and outbuildings into menacing shadows. At just gone nine, Jaime takes a torch, and puts Daisy and Dora on their leads for their final walk. Stepping out of the front door, it is as though he has entered a spirit world, a cloud kingdom. Like The Further in Insidious. Perhaps he is asleep. Or dead. He half expects his fallen comrades to emerge in blood-soaked, khaki from the mist, and salute him.

 

Dogs are meant to have sixth sense for the paranormal, which must be why Daisy and Dora are behaving like such dickheads tonight, hauling on their leads and yapping at the fingers of cloud. Jaime knows if he does not tire them out, they will be raiding their toy box all night. He walks them to the field next to Brienne’s where there is a footpath, and, disobeying the list of commandments pinned on Genna’s fridge, he lets them off. He has watched Genna let them off numerous times, and they always come back. What could go wrong?

 

The dogs run faster than Jaime would believe possible on those little legs. They are out of his sight in a second, lost in the cloud. Instantly Jaime is after them, calling and whistling, but after a few minutes of stumbling across uneven ground in the dark and fog, he begins to panic. He cannot ring Genna and admit that he has lost her dogs. He might not particularly value his life, but he imagines that if anyone could wrangle a deal with the gods to give him immortality, it would be Genna. From there it would be a short step to eternal torture – tying him to a rock and having an eagle peck out his regenerating liver every day, or compelling him to bear the weight of the heavens on his shoulders. Jaime does not know the dogs’ walking routine enough to guess where they can have set off to with such purpose. He sprints back across the field.

 

At Brienne’s cottage, as he knocks on the door, his pride rises up. He does not want to be in the same category as the trafficked women and the drowning dog and the emaciated voles and birds with broken wings. He does not want to be another feeble creature she has to save. He wants her to see him as a man, a man who can – for fuck’s sake, why isn’t she opening the door? He rings and knocks again, and at last, she answers, and the reason for the delay becomes evident. Her hair is lathered on her head, her face is pink and dewy, and droplets run down her bare legs. In her right hand, she is wielding, bizarrely, a lipstick. Rather than a dressing gown, she is wearing a blue and red hooded boxing robe that ends several inches above her knees. The distinction is everything in the world for Jaime, who associates dressing gowns with death and illness – his mother alternated between peach brushed cotton and a mint green towelling one during her final weeks. Jaime cannot see mint ice cream or peach-flavoured alcopops without feeling eleven years old again. The boxing robe has a very different vibe. Like she might shrug it off, knock him to the ground, and then –

 

Brienne misinterprets the strained look on his face, and says in some panic, “What’s the matter? Is it Genna?”

 

“N-no,” he manages. “Well, it might be – when she finds out what I’ve done.”

 

“What have you done?”

 

“In that field. I… accidentally released her hounds back into the wild. They’re probably hunting down elks in the mountains by now.”

 

Brienne looks aghast. “Didn’t she tell you not to let them off?”

 

“Possibly. Sometime between instructing me on how to clean out their ears without being bitten, and how long they like their salmon poached for. Do you know where they would have gone?”

 

*

 

Brienne leads him back the way he came. She does not take the time to rinse her hair, and under her boxing robe, she is now wearing damp running shorts and a vest which she had grabbed from the radiator where they were drying. On her feet are a pair of red trainers. Jaime is gratified to find he can easily keep pace as they jog across the field, through a gate, past a wood of fir trees, and then into a rocky ravine where a river gushes and froths down a steep incline. They can no longer jog here; the path beside the river is boulder-strewn and precipitous, and the mist still hangs heavy.

 

As they climb, Jaime forgets the dogs and Genna, and finds himself entirely absorbed in the view of Brienne’s thick, long legs. They are like bookends: if he could just have access to what lies between them, he could enter a new world for a while, bury himself in another’s experience. He is so preoccupied in watching the legs that he does not notice the thundering noise growing louder and louder as they climb, and when Brienne at last leads him around a corner, it takes him some seconds to register the waterfall, cascading from twenty feet above into a round pool, which then flows on to become the river that they have just clambered up beside. Brienne is already crouching on the bank and calling to the dogs who are swimming energetically, tongues out. She pulls Dora out, but the dog splashes back in again at once.

 

The dell is almost too beautiful to be real. By the light of his torch, Jaime can make out silver birches and gnarled oaks; the bluebells, moss and violets that carpet the ground; huge ferns erupting from the rocks; the water frothing, foaming and glinting.

 

“This isn’t where Daisy nearly drowned,” he says. “There’s no way Genna ever made this climb.”

 

Brienne shoots him a curious look, but replies, “No. That was down in the hamlet.”

 

The water looks so pure, so crystalline, that Jaime cannot help bending and touching it. “It’s warm…”

 

“Hot springs,” Brienne says slowly. “You can see the waterfall – that’s cold – but it’s fed by hot underground springs too. Even in Winter, it’s fine for swimming.”

 

Jaime immediately begins to undress, casting off his jacket, T shirt, boots and socks. It could be that the sight of those long legs has made him more eager to undress than he would otherwise have been.

 

“You’re going to swim now?”

 

“Yes.” He turns to face her as he unbuttons and lowers his jeans. He steps out of them, hands Brienne his torch, and slides into the water, almost groaning at the pleasure of it. He strikes out to the rocks where the cold water beats down, and positions himself under it. It leaves him tingling. Then he dives down into the blackness, his hands and feet tracing the shelves of rock, figuring out where the depths are, which parts are shallow enough for him to stand in, and trying unsuccessfully to find the openings to the underground springs. When he surfaces, Brienne has removed her trainers and is sitting on the bank, legs dangling into the water. She hasn’t gone then. She could do – the dogs are found – but she hasn’t. On one side of her is the torch, its beam directed onto the water. On the other is – Jaime moves closer – the lipstick she held earlier when answering the door.

 

Jaime swims to her, and before she can react, he seizes the lipstick and slips quickly backwards, dodging her outstretched hand.

 

“I wondered about this earlier,” he says. “I know there are some women who won’t leave the house without their lipstick, but I imagine if I were to draw a Venn diagram depicting those women and the women who leave the house with shampoo still in their hair, wearing a boxing robe, half-dried running gear, trainers, and – from the looks of things – no underwear, the overlap would be pretty small. It would make more sense if this weren’t a lipstick.” He studies it, then hands it back to her. “A taser, right?”

 

She had drawn the boxing robe across her chest at his mention of her lack of underwear. “Yes.”

 

“To be used against me?”

 

“Against anyone who would hurt me.” The dogs splash out of the pool and settle beside her.

 

“Do you think I would hurt you?”

 

A hesitation. “No. But I imagine the women who decided to go to the assistance of handsome, polite Ted Bundy didn’t foresee him hurting them either. I’m not arrogant enough to assume I have some sort of insight that they didn’t.”

 

“So I’m Ted Bundy now.”

 

“Don’t make it about your offense. I don’t know you well, and my job makes me vigilant. That’s all.”

 

“We knew each other at school.”

 

“No, we didn’t. And even if we had, people can change a lot in eleven years.”

 

“That’s true,” says Jaime, suddenly recalling. “That scar on your face – I read about what happened to you. I’m sorry.”

 

Brienne lowers her head so he cannot see her expression for some time. When she looks up, she says, “What about you? Genna said something bad happened out in Essos. She usually gossips but she didn’t on this so I knew it must be serious.”

 

Jaime hesitates. The curious thing is that if it had all happened a month or so earlier, she would know anyway. Everyone would. There would have been images of his brothers in their jumpsuits on the frontpage of every tabloid. The surreal quality of the night – the mist and the ghostly beauty of this place – loosens his lips. And here is someone who understands what it is like to almost meet a violent end.

 

“It was last year. I was posted near Yunkai, and six of us were sent out on patrol in an unarmoured jeep. We were ambushed. Dayne was driving. He was the lucky one, gone in a second. The rest of us were surrounded by about twenty Harpy fighters. We were blindfolded and driven into the dessert. Pushed into the underground tunnels and cells they have out there. They started releasing their snuff videos of us pretty quickly. One of us a week. What they didn’t count on was the IPSO guidelines on terrorism being published just before it. You know, no more blanket coverage, don’t give them the oxygen of publicity. Our press wouldn’t touch the videos or images from them. Wouldn’t say any more than, ‘One of the Westerosi soldiers taken prisoner a week ago has been killed. His family have been informed. Armed forces are working hard to determine the location of the other men.’ Unless you frequent some very dark corners of the internet, you’ll never see those final moment, thank the gods. I was the last one. The daughter of one of the captors used to visit me. We couldn’t understand a word the other said, but we would still talk. One day she pushed a bottle of water and a knife through my bars. Most of the bones in my right hand had been broken – they’d tortured us too – but when one of the men came to my cell to bring food, I could use my left well enough to shove that knife into his neck. I took his keys and his rifle and found my way out. Trekked across the desert.”

 

Brienne’s big blue eyes are full of horror.

 

“The strange thing was,” Jaime continues, “that I’d overheard them mention our general’s name several times. It’s not a common name. At first I’d thought they were worried he’d send in special forces to get us out but… When I limped into camp, he wasn’t glad. He tried to seem it but he was wary. I was hospitalised. I was in a bad way – sunburn, heat stroke, dehydration and… quite a lot of injuries. When I got out, I insisted on coming back. I had an instinct. I’d only been back two days when I saw him drive out of the camp late one night. I went to his cabin. The lunatic had kept a diary if you can believe it. He sympathised with the Harpies, with their ‘traditional’ views. He’d begun accepting bribes to assist their cause. We were sent out in an unarmoured vehicle that day so that they could take us hostage. When the videos failed to get worldwide attention, they went for a different tack. The press can’t show images of men in jumpsuits about to die, but an entire camp of ‘our heroes’ blown up? The whole of Yunkai, currently held by ally troops, burnt off the map? That couldn’t be covered in three sentences. The bombs in the camp, he’d placed himself. The ones below Yunkai –he’d smuggled in Harpy fighters to do that. They’d promised him wealth, status and protection. Perhaps they would have given it to him. Anyway, apparently that night was to be the night. I woke Marbrand – you remember him – told him the camp was compromised and they needed to evacuate. I knew where he was meeting a Harpy general, so I got a jeep and went like the clappers. Shot his tyres, then shot him though the head before he could use his phone to detonate.”

 

Brienne appears too stunned to speak. After a minute or so, she says, “Then what?”

 

“It was hushed up. The big cheeses didn’t want it known what had nearly happened on their watch. The bombs were quietly disposed of. The diagnosed me with PTSD, shoved a few medals at me, and gave me honourable discharge. And here I am.” He gives a sarcastic laugh.

 

Brienne’s face is full of a kind of desperate pity, and Jaime doesn’t think he can stand it. None of his training has prepared him for that expression. His brother and sister – he had been their protector. The army, his father – neither of those two great institutions had encouraged him to carry a box of Kleenex and weep over his misfortunes, binge on chocolate, or take ‘mental health days’.

 

“You’re shivering,” he says. “Come in the water and warm up. Come on. It’s not quite a Jacuzzi but-”

 

“I don’t like Jacuzzis anyway,” she murmurs. “It’s too much like being a vegetable boiling away in soup.”

 

“Are you coming in? At least put my jacket round yourself if not.”

 

She gives a short nod and pushes off the robe to reveal white arms, shoulders and thighs. She slides into the pool. Leans her head back, and slowly begins to wash out the suds from her hair. She is biting her lip. Jaime has the strongest urge to kiss her. It is a gnawing, desperate want, which he suspects would in no way be assuaged by actually kissing her. It wouldn’t be enough. He is a Lannister after all. Hear Me Roar. I Want More.

 

He is staring at her, deciding whether to kiss her, when there is an awful, awful sound. A bloodcurdling scream. It sets Jaime’s teeth chattering and his heart hammering. It comes again. And again.

 

“It’s just a fox, Jaime,” says Brienne gently. She briefly touches his shoulder. “There are a lot of them round here.”

 

Jaime nods dumbly. He submerges himself head to toe, then bobs up again. “Fighting or killing each other, right?” he says, scraping his hair back out of his eyes. “There’s no escaping from it, is there? Even here.”

 

“There isn’t,” she agrees, “but I’m pretty sure that’s a vixen, doing the opposite of fighting.”

 

“The opposite of…? Ah, fucking.” He thinks of Cersei then. Of how often their sex had begun with her hitting or pushing him away, and ended with nail gouges on his back. He thinks of Essos, the towns where the men were murdered and the women kept alive to be raped. “Fighting and fucking aren’t opposites. They’re not mutually exclusive.”

 

“You’re right,” she says evenly. “Spiders eat their mates afterwards. Praying mantises bite the heads off theirs. Octopuses sometimes strangle their partners. Snails basically stab each other to reproduce.”

 

The shriek comes again. There was no mention of this racket in Fantastic Mr Fox, was there? Tails being shot off, check. Little fox cubs almost starving to death, check. An alcoholic farmer who never washes, check. No mentions of the Psycho-shower-scene soundtrack that apparently accompanies the vulpine rutting though.

 

“I didn’t just mean in the animal kingdom,” Jaime says, studying her serious face. He should, he supposes, count himself lucky that Cersei hadn’t gobbled him up afterwards. Though, metaphorically, of course, she had. His sense of self, his principles, ambitions, all gone for the ongoing experience of being balls-deep in her.

 

“And male cats, all the way up to lions, have barbed penises, specifically to scratch the female’s insides and to stop her escaping,” Brienne says.

 

“If he’s doing it right,” says Jaime, “she shouldn’t want to escape.” He looks at her, and she meets his gaze, wide-eyed; he can see her lips opening, then closing, then opening again, trying to find words to chase away the silence that has grown between them. She had brought the taser along with her tonight, but this isn’t the kind of danger that a taser can ward off.

 

“Male honeybees rupture their abdomens in the act and die,” she manages, her voice suddenly much less steady.

 

“And yet they still think it's worth it,” says Jaime. “You're blushing, Brienne. Did you know?” Even in the scant torchlight, he can see the flush on her cheeks.

 

“I’m not,” she says. “I – I don’t anym – I haven’t in years.”

 

“Apparently you do,” says Jaime, moving closer. “In certain circumstances.”

 

“I – I grew out of it,” she says.

 

“Did you?”

 

She doesn’t get the chance to reply because Jaime kisses her. The sound of the waterfall and the vixen’s sporadic cries disappear for him. Everything except her disappears for him.

 

A few seconds later though and she is pushing him away. “No.”

 

“No?” Jaime murmurs. He kisses her again, more gently this time. Takes her face in his hands. Cersei had always expected him to battle for the privilege of having her.

 

Brienne twists away from him. “No. No, I said no.”

 

“But –”

 

She is climbing out of the pool, water sluicing off her. Jaime follows her, bewildered. “But -

 

She is shivering with cold, pulling the boxing robe around herself, shoving the taser into her pocket, pulling up her hood.

 

Jaime’s mind is going a mile a minute. She had kissed him back. For a few feverish seconds, she had kissed him back. “Is this because of what I told you about Essos?” he says.

 

“No. Of course not.”

 

“Has my aunt warned you off me?”

 

“What? No.”

 

“Then what's wrong?” he demands. “I’m too old to play games.”

 

“I don’t see you in that way.” She says it into the ground as she ties the laces on her trainers.

 

Jaime laughs. “Right. That’s why you look at me in that way. That’s why you just kissed me back.”

 

She stiffens. “You’re right. I kissed you back. You’re one of the most attractive men I’ve ever seen. But I’m not lying when I say I don’t see you in that way.”

 

“You admit you find me attractive, but you don’t see me in that way?” Jaime is incredulous.

 

“It’s skin-deep. Less than what those rutting foxes feel,” she says. “There’s nothing else. I don’t like you. I don’t admire you. I don’t want to spend any time with you.”

 

Jaime reels. If she had tasered him, she could not have hurt or stunned him more.

 

“Right.” He swallows. “Message received.”

 

She seems about to go, but then turns back with a look in her eyes that chills him. Like the pool, clear but black, hot but cold. “You brought up Addam Marbrand earlier. Did you know he had the decency to apologise?”

 

Apologise?”

 

“Yes, apologise. Is that such an alien concept to you?”

 

“I already told you I’m too old for games,” says Jaime, angry himself now. “Apologised for what?”

 

“Apologised for what?” Brienne echoes. “For the way you all treated me perhaps. I appreciate that it was over a decade ago, I appreciate that you’ve been through hell since, but I was 13. I had no self-confidence anyway, but you lot – you put me on the floor. I used to have anxiety attacks before practise. Stomach migraines. I had to do breathing exercises because I kept hyperventilating and fainting. It took me years to put myself back together, to believe I was worth something. To not expect ridicule wherever I went.”

 

She is perfectly still, and seems to be waiting for Jaime to say something. For once, though, he is speechless. His wits scattered. He cannot take it in, cannot conjure up either questions or denials. The silence drags on. Say something. Say anything.

 

“Nothing,” says Brienne. “Right. You should put the dogs back on the lead when you’re done here.” She turns and is gone, disappearing into the mist, leaving Jaime standing beside his pile of clothes, with the two dogs and his torch.

Chapter Text

“Memory is imagination, and imagination is memory. I don’t think we remember the past, we imagine it. We take a few props with us into the future, and out of those props we make a model, some stage set, and that’s our version of the past. Of course models decay, and they change. And so we’re constantly reshaping the past. Because the past is us. The past is our foundation.”

John Banville

 

Addam Marbrand, like many men in the armed forces, is “a man’s man.” He is the type of bloke you call when you need help building a shed, when you’ve just run out of petrol in the middle of nowhere, or when you want someone to go for a 50-mile bike ride with. His pockets are always stuffed with practical, manly items – a roll of bandage, a multi-faceted pen knife, puncture repair patches. He does not own a ‘man bag’ or wear moisturiser or use hair gel; he doesn’t approve of meals that contain kale or quinoa. His male friends admire his decency: his instinct to get the first round in at the pub, and to take responsibility for the bureaucracy of keeping in touch and arranging trips. He has a great appreciation for pretty girls, but has never been unfaithful to a girlfriend. Women are initially attracted to him because he is the kind of man who would take a bullet for his woman. They go off him for the same reason – namely that there aren’t many bullets flying about in Westeros these days, and therefore a man who will, without being nagged, load the dishwasher, remove rotten fruit from the fruit bowl, and not leave a trail of sticky crumbs across the kitchen surfaces is, in the long term, a more attractive prospect than the man who will simply die to protect you. Dust and dirty plates are a certainty; attempted shootings or some other calamity – less so.

 

There is no cruelty in Addam, but from a combination of his gruff, ‘men should be men’ attitude and from Jaime’s incest-derived caginess, they have never really talked women in any meaningful way. Jaime’s nerves, already shot, take another hit as he types out the words, “Can you give me a quick call when you’ve time?” He presses send and puts the telly on. One of the grandkid’s DVDs automatically starts up and Jaime leaves it on for background noise. He does not have long to wait. Addam calls less than an hour later.

 

“Wasn’t sure you’d pick up, mate,” he says. “Your sleep still wrecked? Must be – what? 2am there?”

 

“Yeah,” says Jaime, stroking Dora who has fallen asleep on his lap. It will be around 8 in the morning in Yunkai. Addam always checks his emails and heads to the gym before breakfast. “Everything all right there?”

 

“Oh, you know,” says Addam.

 

“I do.”

 

There is a long silence. Addam clears his throat. “Spit it out, mate. Nothing wrong, is there?”

 

“No, no. I just – I had a conversation with – you know, that girl from our school, the water polo team. That tall one we sailed with the first day.”

 

“Oh. Brienne?”

 

“Yeah.” Jaime fidgets with Dora’s ears, and tries to think what to say next. “One juicy orange,” says Paddington, from the TV. “Two juicy oranges.”

 

“Are you watching Paddington?” says Addam.

 

“Paddington 2. Half watching it. She said – she told me you apologised to her?”

 

“Oh, right. Yeah, I did. I’d felt a bit shitty about her on and off over the years. Maybe it was selfish – she didn’t seem to want it bringing up – but I had to get it off my chest.”

 

“Was – would you say she was bullied then? By the team?” asks Jaime.

 

Another long pause. “Jaime, are you kidding me? Of course she was. Of course she was”

 

“Right… I don’t remember. I know she was unpopular but apart from Goldtower dropping her bag in the water after that god-awful game, I don’t remember anything that bad. What happened?”

 

“That was Darry, wasn’t it?”

 

“Oh.”

 

“I can’t really remember specifics,” says Addam. “I think they used to shove her in the pool. Lots of whale jokes.”

 

“They?” Jaime says, with some desperation. “Not us then? We didn’t do anything?”

 

Addam gives a dry laugh. “Precisely. We didn’t do anything. You were captain, I was vice. If anyone treated my daughter the way she was treated, I’d rip them six new arseholes.”

 

“Did I definitely know it was going on?” says Jaime.

 

“Yeah, you knew. I think,” he hesitates, “you were more concerned with things closer to home.”

 

Neither of them speaks for a moment after this. Jaime is too stunned. He tries to find another interpretation of what Addam has just said, but cannot. On the telly, Knuckles is crushing oranges to jaunty music. Addam knew. He knew.

 

“To be fair, Tarly saw it all too,” says Addam, as calmly as though he hasn’t just lobbed a to-scale, Cersei-shaped grenade at his friend. “And he never told them to knock it off. Mob mentality, I s’pose. Why did she tell you I’d apologised? Are you pals now?”

 

“No,” says Jaime, forcing a laugh. “No, I’m pretty sure she doesn’t want to be pals with me.”

 

“Right, well. Apologise and back off then, I suppose.”

 

“I don’t want – It’s driving me mad that I can’t remember.”

 

“Well, most of life’s tedious. Annoys me that I walk into a room and forget why I went in there. Look, I need to go, mate. Gotta get breakfast.”

 

They say goodbye, and Jaime stays sitting very still. “It’s time for the sugar,” says Paddington. “That’s what turns the juice into marmalade.” Ten minutes later Jaime’s phone pings with an email from Addam. There is a clickable link, and the words: ‘Just remembered this. Dont know if it still works and cant remember my password or email from back then.’

 

Luckily Jaime can remember his password. iEsReC. Even before they slept together, variations of his sister’s name had provided the access to all his accounts. He gets out his laptop and logs into the old video-sharing site that most of the sports teams at their school had used. Each year, someone from the team had set up a new page, with only the members of that team having access. It was to let them share camcorder footage of the games, usually recorded by one of the subs, an overinvested parent, or simply with the camcorder placed on a camera pole and left to run. That way they could analyse strengths and weaknesses afterwards. It was an unofficial venture, run by overcompetitive adolescents and with no teacher supervision.

 

Jaime begins to scroll through footage that he imagines none of the boys – no, men now – have looked at in at least a decade. He watches the first game. Before Brienne had tried out. How young they all look. When the boys are the near enough, he can see the jut of ribs and clavicles. The angry red acne on Goldtower’s face. Connington’s misguided attempt at facial hair.

 

He exits that video, opens the one of the third game, and flicks through until he finds her, coming on as a sub for the second half. 14 years old and already bigger than most of the boys. Jaime can see a few of them exchanging smirks as she enters the pool. Within seven minutes, she has scored. A blinder of a goal. Her face lights up, and she turns, probably believing that someone will come and slap her on the back or high five her now she has proven her worth. No one does. Several gather around Addam who had been the one to pass the ball to her. Then they head back to the centre without looking at her. Jaime sees the lack of comprehension on the girl’s face. He sees her swim back to her position and attempt a half-smile at Owen Inchfield. The boy instantly turns away.

 

Jaime, feeling deeply unhappy, turns the video off. He scrolls through to the last video, the final. He puts it on. Brienne’s performance in this game is noticeably lacklustre compared to the game he just watched. Not bad enough to be subbed for Inchfield, but slower, less creative. This time when she scores, her face stays eerily blank, and Jaime is upset to realise that he knows this expression very well from the last few weeks. The footage cuts dead at the final whistle so there is no opportunity for him to see again the incident with the bag. Evidently, that moment has gone the same way as many other moments. Existing only as some warped recollection in a few witnesses’ brains. Jaime’s own mother has been consigned to the same misty space. He, Tyrion and Cersei would occasionally try to conjure her up again. “Remember that time when she…” They had never exactly agreed on the recollections. “Remember when her hair caught fire off my ninth birthday cake candles?” Cersei once said, and Tyrion had declared, “No, she had short hair then. It was her friend Beverley whose hair caught fire. Mum put it out.” Jaime had said, “I thought it was mum, but her scarf caught fire, not her hair? And Beverley put it out.” Then they were all left with a mother who might have been aflame on Jaime and Cersei’s ninth birthday, or who might not have been, and there didn’t seem much point in asking their father because he would either scowl at them, or frigidly relate some drabber version of the story.

 

But as Jaime stares unfocusedly at the screen, another word suddenly stands out. Miscellaneous. The tab beside the Games heading. Jaime’s finger hovers for some seconds. Then quickly, he guides the cursor up and clicks. He is fairly sure he only ever looked at this once or twice; it had been mindless crap – Jackass-style stunts and Rear Window-esque clips of the hot girl who lived next door to Connington sunbathing. As with the matches, these videos are arranged in order of date uploaded, and Jaime scrolls to the bottom. There, sandwiched between what look from the thumbnails to be clips of some porn and of a very obese woman loading up her plate at an all-you-can-eat carvery, is a video uploaded by Inchfield and titled “A Whale for the Killing.”

 

Jaime grits his teeth and presses play. The video is clearly the continuation of the final, the clip that would have followed it had it not been cropped. The whole scenario plays out just yards from the camera, which remains motionless throughout. Jaime is not visible for the first 12 seconds, but his furious voice is just about audible. “Why? Why didn’t you play today the way you played last game?”

 

Brienne’s reply is drowned out by whooping from one of the victors, although Jaime does pick out, after several rewinds, “… you’re the captain. If you’d…”

 

More whooping, and then Jaime again. “… we didn’t gather round and hug you and tell you how wonderful you…” Cheering and splashing. “… bring you a sticker and lollypop next time? You pathetic, spiteful little…” The present-day Jaime flinches at his own viciousness.

 

Brienne appears close in shot now. Her face is very pink and she has tears in her eyes, and he did that. He caused that.

 

She moves away and begins to shake hands with members of the other team, and Jonothor Darry steps into the frame, his back to the camera, the bag and towel just visible as he extends his arm. “Hey, Tarth, want your towel? You look cold.”

 

The boy she is shaking hands with stiffens, unnerved by the tone of Darry’s voice. Brienne herself turns confusedly and reaches out to take the bag. Just give it to her, just hand it over, thinks Jaime, staring at the screen. Of course, that isn’t what happens; the bag goes into the pool, and Brienne dives in after it. When she emerges, she is quite obviously distraught. She tugs at a side pocket on the bag and draws out a bit of paper, which she unfolds clumsily. At this point, her entire face collapses. Jaime’s younger counterpart is oblivious. He is in the frame, his back to the camera and his head angled up to where the gallery must have been. Had Cersei or Tyrion come along that day? It had been the final. The young Jaime is shaking his head as if to say, ‘See, look at the idiots I have to put up with.’ Brienne rises, the paper still in her left hand. Her right fist is a blur as it meets Darry’s nose.

 

Jaime turns off the video and scrolls up. Another clip from weeks earlier, this one titled Buck’s Fizz Skirt. Mobile phone footage this time, only 7 seconds long. The camera lingers behind Brienne as she climbs up the three steps onto the bus. She wears school uniform, and her skirt is too long and too big for her, as though purchased by a father used to his daughter outgrowing her clothes far too quickly. There is a snigger from behind the camera, and a hiss of “Go on, see if …” and then a hand shoots out, grasps the bottom of Brienne’s skirt, and pulls hard. It comes down instantly, revealing yellow, flowery knickers and the tops of pale thighs. Brienne’s head snaps back, her eyes wide and wild. She wrenches the skirt back up and continues quickly up the aisle of the bus without saying a word. The back of her neck is blotchy and red, and the same boy's voice says, “I didn’t think it actually would!” The video cuts off.

 

Jaime sits, appalled, ashamed. There are three other videos of her in this section, and though he has no appetite for them, he forces himself to watch them. He feels sick and disorientated by the end of it. Aware that he has seen only about three minutes of what actually had happened over and over again for a year. He loathes himself for his inability to intervene, to push his way through the screen and place himself between her and them. And it is not lost on him that if these actions had destroyed Brienne’s self-confidence at the time, they are having a similar effect on his self-image eleven years later. He had thought himself some uncredited hero; the man who saved a city, who had seen what others had missed, who had saved thousands of lives. And then there was this. Such a lapse in responsibility, such tolerance of casual cruelty. It wasn’t severed heads or nooses, but it still hurt to watch.

 

His misery is compounded by the fact that she has just become completely unreachable. No, that isn’t true. She was already unreachable; he just hadn’t known it. He is hopelessly entrenched in the enemy camp, standing beside Busby and Inchfield and Goldtower and fucking Darry. He has not seen or spoken to them in years, but in her eyes, that is where he planted himself when he didn’t bother to act all that time ago. There is no hope of bridging the gap now.

 

Why did you stand back? Why didn’t you stop them?

 

He can only guess. It was at 16 that he and Cersei had begun… There had been whispers that they were too close, but they had both been popular, and the rumours had never gained traction. He had been uneasy though. He had intervened for Tyrion, of course, when his classmates had targeted him. But that was Tyrion. Perhaps the simple truth was that Brienne had not seemed worth it. That it was easier to ignore it than risk losing his own standing.

 

He feels utterly helpless. To have just watched these events play out and to be unable to change anything. He wants to act now. Wants to go to her home, knock on her door and tell her he is sorry. But it is 3 in the morning. He considers texting– he has her number, after all – but she will be asleep, and Jaime wants relief now. In the end, he gets in his car and drives into town. It is the early hours of Saturday, and the place has the feel of a very large creche which has been left without adults for much too long, descending into a kind of Lord of the Flies situation. Everyone is drunk, which means they have regressed to the toddler developmental stage. They totter and stagger about like people who have only just learnt to walk, who are not yet comfortable with the mechanisms of legs and feet. There seems to be precious little awareness of the Green Cross Code; there is certainly not much stopping, looking or listening going on as the overgrown toddlers sally forth into the roads, their concept of mortality non-existent even as the taxi brakes screech. Everywhere, there is raucous laughter that promises to spill over into weeping or tantrums imminently. Two men are squaring up to one another with inept pugilistic swipes. They apparently want the same toy – sorry, girl.

 

Jaime stops at a hole in the wall and uses his gold card to draw out Ԋ 1500, the maximum that can be withdrawn in a day. Then he searches on his phone for the red-light district and drives to it. He finds three young women who look exactly as fed up as you would expect of people who have to deal with male members of the public on such an intimate footing. Jaime was sacked for rudeness after just three days in his only public-facing job. He’d been 19 and was required to do little more than pull pints and collect glasses. He can’t imagine how much more disgruntled he would have been if he’d been expected to let a line of seedy men penetrate his orifices for the entire shift. If what Brienne said is true, two of these three women is likely to have or have had PTSD. Jaime pulls over, puts down his window, and hands the cash over.

 

They are baffled. “What are you wanting for this?” the black-haired one asks. “A blowie’s only twenty. It’s thirty for –”

 

“I don’t want anything,” says Jaime, squeamish at being taken for a punter even for a second. How can Tyrion do this?

 

“I don’t get it,” says the ginger one, as well she might. How can Jaime explain that she just happens to be the beneficiary of a shitload of shame which he doesn’t know what to do with?

 

When he gets home, he gets out his phone and texts Brienne. “I’m sorry. I’m genuinely so sorry. It’s no excuse but I didn’t remember it in the same way you did.” Ten minutes later, he sends another. “I am sorry. Can we talk about it?”

 

*

 

Two nights later, he has just finished frying up vegetables and chicken in Genna’s kitchen when the sound of the lion knocker comes. His stomach gives an unpleasant lurch, but he leaves the pans on the stove and goes to the front door. She stands there, smartly dressed as though she has just got back from work. She is holding his aunt’s cat against what Tyrion would describe as her modest breasts. Jaime has long disliked that term. It conjures for him the idea of breasts with small mouths, saying things like, ‘Oh, don’t mind me,’ and ‘Oh, this old bra? I’ve had it years,” and “I’m sure I just failed that mammogram!” Since when did modest come to mean small? Tyrion is small, but there is nothing modest about him. He is in permanent, loquacious awe over his own cleverness.

 

“Hi,” she says.

 

“Hello.” He had forgotten how her nearness affected him.

 

She shifts the cat slightly higher. “I brought her back. She’s been basking in my garden since I got home and I thought you might be worried about her.”

 

This is such a terrible excuse that Jaime almost smiles. The average domestic cat has approximately the same attendance rate as some brutish husband who turns off his phone and disappears for hours or days at a time, finally rolling in at 4am, steaming drunk, smelling of another woman’s perfume and with his wedding ring and a half-eaten kebab in his back pocket. The cat might lack the phone and the ability to remove its ‘I am pledged to another’ symbol in the form of its collar, but it will still vanish for vast periods of time to hunt down birds, play chicken with the traffic, and faithlessly accept milk and sardines at other thresholds. Its family might feel resentful but they know that it will slink home in its own good time, a half-dead mouse clamped between its jaws. Yet here is Brienne, carrying this cat as though roaming is not the norm, as though Jaime might expect its presence in the house.

 

“Thank you,” he says. He remembers her words from the other night. ‘I don’t like you, I don’t admire you, I don’t like spending time around you.’

 

“Look, I –” she begins, at the same time as he tries to say, “Did you get-?”

 

They both stop, grimace, and look anywhere but at each other. Gods, this is awful. This is excruciating. And why do her eyes have to be so –

 

“I was too harsh,” she says.

 

“What? No,” he replies, genuinely surprised.

 

“I was. You’d divulged sensitive information, you must have felt very raw, and I was unkind.”

 

Ah, now he gets it. She has been in police mode all day, perhaps taking the odd statement from some traumatised victim, or forced to be conciliatory as she interviewed some scum of the earth criminal. And because she hadn’t held herself to the same bizarrely high standards in her personal life the other night, here she is, not far off apologising. Well, he doesn’t want her professional front. He latches onto this twinge of frustration because it is better than the guilt and misery that has clung to him for the past two days.

 

“I’m making tea,” he says, rather unnecessarily as the stench of burnt carrot and broccoli reaches their nostrils. “Will you come in and have some?”

 

“I’ve, er, eaten.” She casts a doubtful look past Jaime towards the kitchen.

 “Don’t try and tell me your mouth isn’t watering.”

 “My eyes are. It smells like you’re cremating something in there.”

“That’s just the scent of passion. I was playing at being the hot-tempered, award-winning chef. Throwing pans at the wall. Swearing at the dogs. Threatening Arnold with the carving knife.”

“Well, everyone loves a troubled genius,” Brienne says. “And mostly they’re not that particular about the genius part. That’s a bonfire of oysters, caviar and foie gras I can smell then, is it?”

 “That’s more Genna’s fare,” he says. “A truly great chef can make a lump of turnip seem like an orgasm on the tongue.”

“Hmm.”

“Will you come in? The dogs are fed up of seeing my face.”

 

She puts the cat down, and comes in, wandering through the hall and sitting on the floor to allow Daisy, Dora and Arnold to climb onto her lap. Jaime ostensibly focusses on scraping the burnt vegetables into the bin, but really he is studying her, trying to figure out what she is doing here. I don’t like you, I don’t admire you, I don’t want to spend time with you.

 

“The chicken at least isn’t burnt,” he says. “Do you want some?”

 

“I’m vegetarian.”

 

He frowns at that. “But I’ve seen you eat chicken. You brought it for lunch, when we were sailing.”

 

She gives him a wary look. “I haven’t eaten meat since I was twelve. I read about cows in an abattoir who were so terrified they were trying to climb the walls to escape. You might have seen me eat tofu.”

 

Jaime sits down in a chair near her. He feels unhappy that he did not know this, that keen observation could take him only so far, that he can now get no further because of what he did what he didn’t do all those years ago. “You really are too good to be true, aren’t you?” he says. “I bet your cupboards are stuffed with fair trade food, and you only buy clothes from charity shops, and you never order from Amazon because they don’t pay tax and their warehouses are exploitative. You probably operate a damn soup kitchen out of your garden too, don’t you?”

 

Brienne goes very still. She looks down at Arnold, a slight line between her eyebrows. She doesn’t say anything, and Jaime badly wants to kiss her again, but even he isn’t that reckless.

 

“I am sorry,” he says quietly. “Did you get my texts?”

 

“I did.”

 

“You didn’t reply.”

 

“I didn’t know what to say.”

 

“Why?”

 

“Because I don’t think it’s enough just to say you’re sorry now. I need to understand why you stayed so aloof from it all. You never joined in but you never attempted to stop it. Why?”

 

Jaime winces at her tone. This situation would be so much simpler if he could only touch her. If he could put his arms around her, and press his cheek to hers. Just platonically. Words can be so… inadequate. They are just noises in the air, or squiggles on paper. And it is so easy to pick the wrong ones. “I rang Addam,” he tells her.

 

“Why?” she says sharply.

 

“Because I didn’t remember it, and you’d said he did.”

 

“Did you call around the rest of them while you were at it?” she says. “Have a nice little reminiscing session?”

 

“I haven’t spoken to them in years. I couldn’t care less about any of them.”

 

“What did Addam say?”

 

Jaime has no intention of mentioning the videos. “He suggested – I mean, it makes sense – that the reason I didn’t –”

 

“What?”

 

“When you joined the team, I was seeing – seeing someone who – I shouldn’t have been seeing. The fallout if we’d been found out would have been… monumental.” He trails off.

 

“A teacher?” says Brienne uneasily.

 

“Ah.” Cersei, a teacher… She would stick pins in her eyes before playing Dead Poets Society with a bunch of stroppy adolescents, and losing her wine and yoga evenings to marking. Though she had taught Jaime a variety of difficult lessons, he supposes. “Something like that,” he mutters. “I was paranoid about it being discovered. I worried that people suspected. Addam suggested that made me more – passive.”

 

She watches him, her eyes so blue and formidable that there is no way they don’t have magical powers. The old paranoia flares up, and he is convinced that she can see everything he and his sister did together, every kiss, every fuck. He looks hurriedly away and says, just for something to say, “Did you ask Addam to explain why he did nothing too?”

 

“I don’t think I did.”

 

“Why? Why me but not him?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“Oh. Well, anyway,” he says. “You stopped it in the end. I still remember that right hook you gave Darry.”

 

“That right hook got me thrown off the team,” says Brienne shortly. “That’s the only reason it stopped.”

 

“I don’t agree,” says Jaime. “If Tarly hadn’t seen, and you’d stayed, they would have left you alone after that punch.” He means it as a compliment, but Brienne is looking anything but flattered.

 

“Stupid me. I should have committed assault sooner and more surreptitiously.”

 

Jaime exhales. “Yeah, in an ideal world, no one would punch anyone. But in the real world, people are nasty shits, and they’ll do whatever they can get away with. You have to let them know you won’t put up with any crap.”

 

“You’re speaking as though you think that never occurred to me,” she says softly. “Do you really believe I never felt ashamed that I couldn’t stand up for myself? I was humiliated that they treated me that way, and more humiliated that I let them. But being humiliated doesn’t gives you strength to fight back. I suppose you think it’s okay to shout ‘fattie’ at people in the street too, because if they know what’s good for them, they’ll be spurred into dieting rather than feeling worse and raiding the chocolate drawer?”

 

Jaime bites his lip. This is why it would be better if she would just let him curl his body round hers instead of making him speak.

 

She continues, her tone still mild. “It wasn’t that I suddenly found some hidden reserve of self-respect the day I hit Jonothor Darry. He dropped my bag in the water; the last letter my mother ever wrote to me was in that bag. I was furious for her. That she had died, and that the one small way in which she’d hoped to stay with me had been wiped out – by him.”

 

Jaime feels his throat constrict. The piece of paper she had pulled from the bag. The way her face had crumpled. He sees himself once more, looking up to the gallery, his head shaking disdainfully at his siblings. All while Brienne had been – Fuck. Fuck. Fuck. He sits now in an agony of shame, tenderness, and sympathetic grief. She isn’t crying. Her lips aren’t trembling. Her voice hasn’t choked up. She just looks bone-deep sad. This time Jaime gives into his impulse; he reaches forward and takes her hand in his. She allows it for a few polite seconds before extracting herself.

 

“My mother died when I was eleven,” he tells her, after a while.

 

“Your aunt told me. I wish that hadn’t happened to you.” She stands and touches his shoulder very briefly.

 

Jaime considers her phrasing. He had got so sick of hearing the words, “Oh, I’m sorry,” when people heard about his mother. From boredom and a loathing of their pity, he had quickly begun responding, “It’s hardly your fault,” or, “Why? You’re not cancer, are you?” He had liked that apologies and commiserations were both expressed in that word – sorry – so he could always resort to wordplay, and pretend the latter were the former. But Brienne hadn’t said sorry. Perhaps she had tired of hearing it too.

 

She seems on the verge of leaving him, and Jaime suspects that now she has her explanation, she will have no need to see him again anytime soon.

 

“Are you going?”

 

She nods.

 

“Right. Well. The dogs will miss you,” he says bitterly.

 

“They’re fast asleep,” she says. “There’s no other reason for me to stay, is there?”

 

“Well, you have your explanation of why I was such a shit.”

 

“I do.”

 

“And you can’t stand being around me, so-” He gives her a thin smile.

 

“I said I’d been too harsh,” she says gently.

 

“Too harsh means you meant it but wish you hadn’t said it. Doesn’t it?”

 

“I don’t know. I’m sure I meant it when I said it, but – it isn’t quite that simple.”

 

“How is it not simple?” he demands.

 

“I don’t know. I’m…”

 

“You’re what?”

 

“Oh, for gods’ sake,” she says. “How about you say how you feel about all this?”

 

“I think you’re wonderful,” he tells her. “If I could cast a spell on you to make you forget that old version of me so we could start fresh, I would do it right now.”

 

“That seems rather immoral,” she says, but she looks amused. Then her face suddenly flushes. Grown out of blushing: like hell she had. “The other night,” she says, not looking at him.

 

Jaime watches the pink suffuse her face. “Yes?”

 

“You - you kissed me…”

 

Oh shit. That. “Yeah. Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” he murmurs. She looks so anxious. And he is still such a mess. “Shall we call it a misguided pass at someone I felt very close to in that moment?”

 

She gives him a half-smile. “Yes.”

 

Jaime should be relieved she has allowed it to be buried this easily. He doesn’t feel relieved though. He wants to grab the metaphorical spade and dig the kiss back up, as though it is some poor, disregarded murder victim. To say, ‘Look at it! You’re a detective! Investigate it properly. Find out what really happened here, Brienne!’

 

“We can pretend you cast that spell,” she says.

 

Jaime fights back his grin. “Will you stay then? Watch a film or something?”

 

They watch Gladiator, because it is one of Brienne’s favourites. Sitting beside her on the couch, Jaime feels as though he is where he is meant to be. Not fate or destiny. Just a sense of rightness. She is fire. Warm. Bright. Untouchable. And if he feels a surge of hot jealousy every time her face softens over Maximus doing or saying something particularly noble, well, he is sure that will settle down in time. Just friends. And if he feels unease at the sight of Commodus slipping his fingers into his sister Lucilla’s mouth, and the look of distaste on Brienne’s face, well, that is all right too. She has given him permission to banish the past. To bewitch it right away from them.

Chapter Text

Brienne’s first drive with Jaime must have lulled her into a false sense of security. It had been on the morning when he had caught her in her underwear, vomiting into the kitchen bin, and he – no doubt eager to avoid her spilling her remaining stomach contents across his leather upholstery and shiny dashboard – had driven them with apprehensive care down to the lake, with no sudden braking or lurches around corners. Today is a different matter though. Jaime, like a lot of men, drives with a confidence that is in no way warranted. He indicates only sporadically and does not check his blind spot when pulling out. He has a can of coke in his cupholder, and it seems to Brienne that he only ever wants a drink when they are approaching some perilously sharp turn in the road, resulting in a race against the clock for him to drink his fill and return the can to its holder before the manoeuvre. On the couple of occasions he does not manage it in time, he kicks on the clutch, barks at Brienne to change gear for him, and then does a furious one-handed scramble on the steering wheel, like Captain Hook sailing through rocks in the middle of a tempest. He runs amber lights, and is quite aggressive, throwing his hands in the air and muttering curses at the drivers he is forced to share a road with. People who want to go slower than him are ‘snails;’ people who want to overtake are, with a crook of his little finger, ‘compensating for something.’ The conclusion to be drawn from this is that anyone who is not Jaime is simply wrong.

 

Brienne, in charge of music, has also learnt in the last half hour that Jaime’s accelerator foot appears to be directly linked to sonic output. Certain songs (Blur’s Song 2, The Longcut’s A Quiet Life, and Placebo’s Bruise Pristine) cause him to floor the car no matter how unsuitable the road. Cattle grids, hairpin turns, single lane roads, potholes: none of them mean a thing if Brienne makes the mistake of putting on a song that acts as a stimulant. Gentler songs, meanwhile, make him maudlin, and Pompeii by Bear’s Den makes his eyes shiny with tears.

 

They stop after forty minutes at a big farm shop, where Jaime fills a basket with rosemary baguettes, grapes, a wheel of brie, several paper bags of biscuits and pastries, a ramekin of artichoke and olive pâté, stuffed vine leaves, and two bottles of chilled elderflower tonic. He flirts brazenly with the cashier in his clipped, aristocratic accent which sounds offensively elite among the dropped ‘h’s, flat vowels and glottal stops of the northerners around them. Brienne had moved north at 18, and her own southern accent has softened so that she too now leaves the ‘t’ out of city and pronounces glass to rhyme with lass, unlike Jaime who rhymes it with arse. Jaime’s accent, his choice of fancy foods, the haughty incline of his head, and the gold card he draws from his wallet all mark him out as someone born with the silver spoon in his mouth. Jammed down his little throat really. Brienne can see the looks of hostility from two men queueing behind them. They can picture the manor house and the crystal champagne flutes. They can’t see the weeks spent in a cell below the desert, his skin branded with hot iron, his bones broken, his brothers in arms slaughtered one by one.

 

“Oh, la di da,” mutters one of the men, as she and Jaime turn to leave.

 

“What was that?” Jaime demands. “I didn’t quite catch it.”

 

“Oh, fuck off, you posh twat,” says the other bloke. “Go ‘ome.”

 

Jaime actually has the presence of mind to shove the bags into Brienne’s hands before grabbing the man by the collar. Gods, Brienne has seen situations escalate fast but this –

 

“Jaime,” she says, and perhaps her shocked tone cuts through. “Get off him.” Through gritted teeth, “I’ll arrest you – don’t think I won’t.”

 

He scowls but releases the man, and they leave the shop and return to the car.

 

“Would you really have arrested me?”

 

“Yes. Do you always punch people who annoy you?”

 

“I probably wouldn’t have punched him. He was rude though, wasn’t he?”

 

“Perhaps I should drive.”

 

“No. I hate being driven.” His voice is tight.

 

“All right, but we’re having the radio on,” says Brienne, as they climb into the car. “A talk show. Music makes you drive like a drunk.”

 

She disconnects her phone and begins to scan through the various stations to find Woman’s Hour, finally alighting on it with a satisfied, “There we go. Perhaps this will be more calming.”

 

“… but a new survey claims that despite all those benefits, one in five women have never masturbated, and that a lot more are uncomfortable talking about it,” says the presenter, in her grave voice. “Today we’re going to look at why female masturbation is still so taboo.”

 

“Yeah, this will calm me down,” says Jaime, starting up the engine.

 

He casts a grin at her, and Brienne knows that to turn the radio to another station now will make her look silly. Childish and puritanical. She is reminded of being a teenager again, sitting awkwardly through films that contained sex or nudity with her father. To leave the room to get a drink or to start messing with her phone would have been to acknowledge the embarrassment, so she had always forced herself to keep watching in a scholarly, nothing-mortifying-about-this-at-all kind of way. After all, her very existence was proof of sex having occurred. It shouldn’t be embarrassing. But it was. She feels similarly trapped now, and yet if it were anyone but Jaime, she does not think she would feel uncomfortable.

 

“We can put the music back if you’d prefer,” she says, laying the burden of the decision at his feet.

 

“No, no,” he says affably. “You’re the boss; you wanted this. I don’t want to risk you handcuffing and throwing me in the boot for insubordination.”

 

Brienne grimaces, and they edge out of the car park and back onto the road.

 

“… about the clitoris being a trickier customer than the penis,” one woman is saying, “and about sex ed classes focussing too much on the pitfalls of sex rather than the pleasures, but what it really comes down to is the stigmatisation of female desire. Men feel threatened by women’s lust, and masturbation is the ultimate act of a woman asserting independence over her appet…”

 

“What?” demands Jaime. “The majority of men dream about watching a woman touch herself. I don’t know one straight man who’d think, ‘Oh, that’s threatening,’ rather than, ‘Sweet, holy fuck, that’s nice.’”

 

“… reason we have pejorative words for women who enjoy sex,” the woman continues. “You know: slut, slag, whore, tramp, tart. To make us ashamed of our urges. You never hear those terms thrown at a highly-sexed man. It’s the reason for FGM – certain cultures still slicing off a girl’s clitoris and labia to make sex painful so that she won’t be unfaithful. Male insecurity is still…”

 

“Fair point,” Jaime concedes.

 

“I’m sure she’d be so relieved that you agree,” says Brienne.

 

“… the Madonna-Whore Dichotomy,” another woman says. “In some religious communities, female virginity is so…”

 

“Do you think the Silent Sisters do it?” Jaime asks.

 

“No. They take vows of chastity.”

 

“Yes, but at night, once they’ve removed the grey habits and it’s dark, you don’t think a bit of self-worship goes on…?”

 

Brienne considers. She has herself had the odd dream of escaping the world and its corruption for the cloisters. Of being safe among other women. “Perhaps the ones who’ve gone there to escape the mess of their lives rather than because they actually felt it a calling.”

 

“Who do they imagine though?” says Jaime. “They’re cloistered away, praying, gardening, reading scripture. Probably the only men they see are geriatric septons. Who do they think of?”

 

“The Stranger? They’re his wives.”

 

Jaime laughs. “Like vampire groupies? I admire their sharing nature though. Even if I married a goddess, I’d be too jealous to share her with hundreds of other men. I’d demand she choose just me. And she’d have to be sweeter than some grizzly incarnation of death in a cloak.”

 

“You say that,” says Brienne, “but you seem to have been determined to persuade the Stranger to take you for this entire drive. I’ve never feared for my life so often as I have in the last hour.”

 

“I think you’d rather the warrior took you. I bet you imagine him as Russell Crowe in full gladiator kit.” He smiles. “Yep, you’re going that interesting pink colour you always go when you don’t blush.”

 

“Don’t be stupid.” It sometimes feels as though he can read her mind. That he has seen her fantasies of her and Maximus fighting together in the Colosseum before falling into a passionate clinch as they bathe the blood away later.

 

“He’s a dick in real life, you know,” Jaime says mildly. “Russell Crowe. Throws telephones at people’s heads.”

 

“He lashes out when he’s angry?” says Brienne. “There was me thinking you approved of that trait in a man.”

 

He gives her a thin smile. “Not for your man. You deserve better than that.”

 

Neither of them speaks for a few minutes after that. The women on the radio continues to talk about hysteria, pathology, Valium, and the invention of the vibrator, and Brienne looks out at the hills around them.

 

“You’re not scared of heights, are you?” Jaime says suddenly.

 

“Depends on context. If I’m in a plane, and I’ve just been told the engine’s failed, then yes, I’m scared of heights. Or if I’m at the top of a burning tower –”

 

“You’re very gloomy today. In the context of, say, a parachute jump or a rollercoaster?”

 

“Is this to do with your surprise?” she says. She is aware of the two long packages secured to Jaime’s roof rack. She had assumed, when he arrived on her doorstep that morning claiming that he was taking her on an adventure, that they were going wind-surfing or something else water-related.

 

Jaime simply repeats, “Are you scared of heights?”

 

“I don’t tend to let fear stop me doing things,” is her answer.

 

Which is lucky, because when they arrive at the destination – the top of a sun-dappled hill from which they can see for miles all around – and when Jaime has unloaded and pieced together the equipment taken down from the roof, the hang glider looks decidedly flimsy. Just a great wing of material and a slim metal frame.

 

Brienne’s stomach is a knotted mess of terror and excitement. As usual, her response to her own fear is to hide it at all costs, and so when Jaime looks eagerly up at her, it is her blank expression he sees. He makes an irritated sound and hands her a helmet and a wedge of folded, black rustling material.

 

“Put these on.”

 

Brienne unfolds the flying suit and mechanically climbs into it, zips it up. Her teeth are starting to chatter, and it isn’t from cold. She pictures the harness detaching from the glider, and herself screaming as she plummets to the ground. Her poor father identifying her shattered corpse. The news reports: “A young woman has died after a hang gliding accident in the Barrowlands.” The story being ignored on social media once people have realised she isn’t pretty. Talisa feeling she has to call her baby Brienne or Bryan. Her cottage on the market after all the work she had put into it. The barely-concealed glee of the men at work who resent taking instruction from someone who is younger than them and doesn’t have a cock. Her gravestone, in a decade, being scrutinised by those people who enjoy wandering round graveyards – ‘Oh, look, Nigel, this girl wasn’t even 25. I wonder what happened to her. It’s a very long grave, isn’t it?’

 

“Hey.” Jaime lays a hand on her arm. “You’re not going to die – I know what I’m doing.”

 

Given she has just seen his driving, Brienne doesn’t quite trust this, but still she allows him to strap her into her harness, a task that involves his hands fiddling around her nether regions a little more than either of them are quite comfortable with. After triple-checking her harness, he secures his own, positioned barely in front of her, and they do a few practice runs before launching for real, off a steep part of hillside. Brienne’s running feet are suddenly kicking at nothing, the ground dropping away from her, and they are in the air. She hangs just behind Jaime, to his left, and finds herself clinging tightly to his shoulders rather than the slim metal frame. They are, she has the wits to notice, extremely nice shoulders. Her mouth feels welded open in a kind of petrified joy. The fields and trees sprawl far below them, and it is the maddest thing to be soaring like this. The fear is soon gone, lost in a rush of endorphins.

 

“It’s like sailing in the air.”

 

“It’s called a sail,” he shouts back, releasing the control bar for a second to gesture up to the huge wing of material. Hands back on the bar, he turns the glider to the left, and they move out far above a silver river that threads through a fir wood.

 

“When did you learn this?”

 

“My uncle taught me when I was 18.”

 

Brienne feels like a dragon-rider. She can see how the Targaryens went nuts doing this, untethered, looking down on the world. She feels high, and she isn’t even being borne along by a fire-breathing magical beast, just Jaime.

 

Brienne can admit now that she had not really known what she was getting into when she agreed to be friends with him. In fact, their friendship can be summed up by this day alone: her agreeing on pure trust to go with him, his repaying this trust by making her run off a cliff, strapped to him. He is not clingy so much as omnipresent, like a god. On Saturday mornings, he generally turns up on her doorstep with the dogs and a bag of croissants or chocolate brioche; they breakfast together before walking to the waterfall and swimming. He walks her home after dinners at Genna’s, invites himself in, and settles on her couch to watch a film or read a book. They race together on Sundays.

 

Jaime defies all the typical categorisations and stereotypes. He is a veteran but doesn’t give a shit about ‘the flag’ and feels no pride in being a Westerosi – “I was born here, I didn’t earn it.” He is obscenely wealthy but has neither embraced the silver spoon, nor rejected it to squat in a crack-den and plot to take down capitalism. He likes animals but is not vegetarian. He is cynical, even nihilistic, but deeply generous. He is apolitical, having decided that: right-wingers are selfish, spoilt, and have an imbecilic faith in meritocracy; lefties are hypocritical, self-righteous and obsessed with branding anyone they disagree with as ‘problematic’; liberals have no idea on class analysis and are unduly optimistic about the human condition. Jaime’s manners are a mixture of old-fashioned chivalry and blunt rudeness. Brienne feels very comfortable with this. When social niceties are simply discarded, she feels much less fretful that she will embarrass herself, and is therefore free to talk and laugh. Unlike with other people, she never feels the need to masochistically relive the conversations she has with Jaime, to cringe over what she said, to fret about what she ought to have said. He is so uncivil himself. She also finds that no one can make her laugh as much as he can.

 

The attempt to kiss her – the misguided pass – has not been repeated, although there have been a couple of other distinctly un-platonic moments. He texts her daily, and on one unnerving night, Brienne had allowed herself to be lulled into a marathon exchange of intimate confessions and childhood anecdotes. Close to midnight, she had sent him a ‘Going to bed now, goodnight’ message. Her phone had lit up, and she had checked it drowsily, expecting a reciprocal goodnight. What she had got was, ‘What are you wearing? xx’

 

Brienne might have had the green-tinged aura of a virgin, but she had known trouble when she’d seen it. She had frozen rather than replying, and three minutes later, another message had come through: Jaime cursing his idiot brother who had intercepted his phone. Given Tyrion had actually been staying in Jaime’s flat that night, Brienne would readily have believed him had it not been for the way he had behaved the next time he saw her – like a man wearing clothes three sizes too small. So stiff and uncomfortable that perhaps – well. Brienne had deleted both messages, because when she read over the conversation again, as she did from time to time, she would dither over which brother had sent the first one, and she was annoyed that she didn’t know which she wanted it to be.

 

The other occasion had been when they had been drawn into one of the grandchildren’s interminable games. Brienne had always cast herself in a supervisory role when it came to the children’s activities. She put down newspaper and doled out old shirts if paint, glue or glitter were involved. She enforced hourly trips to the toilet for the little ones who tended, when there was fun going on, to forget their protesting bladders until they were sitting in piss-soaked trousers. She ensured turns were taken. Jaime’s involvement was more as an honorary child, and he would crawl about as Mufasa, flee as a robber, or play Mr Wolf with aplomb.

 

This day, the game was Hide and Seek, and as Willem and Jon began to count, and the other kids had run to conceal themselves in the hayloft or the dumbwaiter shaft, Jaime had grabbed Brienne’s arm and led her to the dining room. She had protested that she usually oversaw rather than participated, but had stopped short as Jaime had done something to one of the oak panels, and a small door-sized section of the interior wall had swung open. Behind it was a small recess. A Septon hole. A place where a fugitive man of the Faith could hide in a sympathetic household when followers of the Lord of Light, backed by king and state, had come hunting a few hundred years ago. Brienne had known Genna’s house was old, packed with history, but she had not known of this. Thrilled, she had stepped inside; Jaime had joined her, and pulled the door shut with a light click.

 

Standing so close to him in the dark, Brienne’s delight had soon become something more febrile. She had thought of the last time he was this near – in the pool, in the dark, when he had kissed her. She wondered if he might do it again now, found herself impulsively wishing that he would. The notion that she could kiss him first did not occur to her. She would not kiss a man first in the same way that she would not stand on a bar and do karaoke. Or go skinny-dipping at a party.

 

At one point, she had shifted her thigh forward, so that it brushed against his thighs. It was the boldest gesture she dared make, but he had pitched back and said tersely, “Can’t you keep still?” and Brienne had curled in on herself. She had suddenly detested her body with a ferocity it was hard to contain. No – she had hated herself, because her body was her. There was no pretty waif trapped inside this flesh, she was the flesh. And Jaime – who had admitted to her about all the women he had slept with after being discharged – was not tempted by this situation. Put any other young woman in here with him, and Brienne had no doubt he’d be testing the ground – letting his hand brush hers to see if she would recoil, angling himself towards her. But even in the dark when he did not have to see her face, he was not tempted by Brienne. He stood absolutely still, his hands not touching her. She did not blame him for this; there was not one thing she liked about her own appearance either.

 

“I’m hungry,” she had muttered, “I want a drink, I’m cramped, and I don’t mind not winning a kids’ game.”

 

“You’re very moany, aren’t you?”

 

“I am not moany. I just want to get out.” Indignant, she had reached for the panelled door, and instead, misjudging his position, had caught the soft material of his jogging bottoms and – his cock. The unmistakeable spongy tissue of his cock.

 

About three years ago, Brienne had seen Osha fall over on a busy street, slipping on some ice and landing on her arse. The whole thing had been a revelation, because Osha had not seemed embarrassed as Brienne would have been. She had not rushed to get up. She had not looked around, red-faced, to see who had witnessed it and was having a laugh at her expense. She had simply sat there for a few moments, rubbing her thigh, a grin on her face – almost as though she had meant to do it – and then at last climbed up again. The whole thing had been rendered almost graceful by her ease and humour, and Brienne had a few times tried to ape that attitude to mishaps. Somehow – fuck knows why – that same impulse kicked in now, and she did not snatch her hand back, but left it there, fingers resting on his dick, as if this was fine, as if this was just a slightly comic gaffe, as if he could see the slightly sheepish smile on her face, and would join in the joke.

 

He hadn’t. He had not made a sound – not a laugh, nor a ‘whoa,’ nor the exhale of a smile. He had simply frozen, probably too shocked at this impromptu and lacklustre groping to know what to do. A few seconds had passed and Brienne had suddenly come to her senses. She had sharply withdrawn her hand and located the panelling. She began to pull and push at it, all ideas of humour and ease gone. Just needing to get out of this hole. She dreaded the moment when she would get it open and the light would flood in so she’d have to see the look on his face, but ... Gods, why had she just done that? And why wouldn’t the door open?! She was trapped. She aimed a kick at it.

 

“Hey,” he said, testily. He grasped her wrists and pinioned them at her sides. “You’re gonna break it. There’s a handle. Just – ”

 

He had moved his body between her and the panel, to protect it from further assault by her, and Brienne was suddenly very aware of his thumb on her right wrist, rubbing gently at her skin. She eased forward and could suddenly feel his breath against her lips. She was so het up she could barely think. The place between her legs felt… She arched forward, and instantly felt him against her. Hard. Swollen. Had she caused that? She had shifted one foot sideways, so that her thighs had parted very slightly for him.

 

“Oh,” he’d murmured, his hands tightening on her wrists. Not that she was struggling. His nose touched hers, and his hardness seemed to nudge between her thighs and settle there, hopefully, as though confident of its admittance now that it had made its presence known. And Brienne felt she would have given it admittance. If he had made any move to undo her trousers or his own, she didn’t see how she could have summoned any will to stop him. He didn’t though. He just kept breathing in that urgent way and pressing into her. Or perhaps it was her pressing herself against him, a cat marking her territory.

 

Then they had heard the dining room door open on the other side of the wall, and several little pairs of scampering feet coming towards them. Jaime had at once released her wrists. There was the sound of squabbling over who should open the ‘secret room’ (a wildly generous interpretation of the crevice that she and Jaime were currently occupying), a lot of fumbling, and then the door had swung open, and five triumphant faces had stared in at them.

 

“Got you! Found you!”

 

“Well done,” Jaime had said, stepping out. “Only took you – what? An hour?”

 

They had erupted at him, it had only been seven minutes, no – six, no – four. Only Jeyne had remained silent, her eyebrows furrowed in an expression of stony disapproval.

 

“What’s wrong, little one?” Brienne had asked her.

 

Jeyne, like her grandmother, did not believe in sugar-coating things. She had pointed accusingly at Jaime’s crotch and snapped, “His winky’s sticking out. Were you making a baby in there?”

 

Jaime had hastily placed his hands in front of his groin, like a footballer making up a wall for a free kick.

 

“You have to do it in a bed,” Jeyne had continued, annoyed. “And take all your clothes off. That’s what the book said. There was a picture.”

 

Genna had entered the room at that point, holding a pile of plates which she began to distribute around the table. In the absence of any response from Jaime, Jeyne pointed once more at his groin while turning to her grandmother. “Look, Grandma. That means he’s been trying to make a baby with Bri in the sep-turn hole, doesn’t it?” she had said, with a six-year-old’s logic. “But they didn’t have a bed in there, so will it still work?”

 

Genna’s face had been a picture. Her eyes had flitted from Jaime’s now quashed arousal to Brienne’s embarrassed face to Jaime’s defiant one. “Jaime, go and fetch the glasses and juice please. And the pie. And the potatoes.”

 

“They have to be married to make a baby, duh,” Willem had said to Jeyne, unpleasantly pushing out his lower lip with his tongue.

 

“No,” Jeyne had said, even crosser now. “Daddy said Barbrey Shaw is having a baby and she doesn’t know who the dad is because she’ll open her legs for anyone. That’s how men get the tadpoles in. Bri, did you have to open – ?”

 

“It’s a stork,” little Jon had squeaked. “The stork brings the tadpoles and they turn into a baby in a pink bag. Or a blue one.”

 

“Jon and Willem, be quiet,” Genna had said, characteristically choosing to ignore Jeyne’s dominant role in this conversation and instead blame the male scions for it. Jon had been so aggrieved that he had taken off his cap and thrown it at her, with the result that he was threatened with only being allowed one scoop of ice cream with his piece of jelly rabbit.

 

The meal had not been a roaring success after this. Genna and Jaime both had the kind of dominant personalities that meant their bad moods could unnerve everyone else. Genna had sent narrow-eyed glares down the table to Jaime and was waspish with the children; Jaime was more than usually obnoxious and had laughed loudly whenever the children misbehaved so that they were soon insulting one another, refusing to sit in their chairs and fighting over the food. Jeyne, sensing that the adults were uncomfortable with the baby-making topic, had pursued it for all she was worth, demanding explanations about how babies get out once they’re ‘ready for the world.’ Brienne, who still did not consider herself ‘ready for the world’ after almost 25 years in it, had been extremely quiet. She could not meet either Jaime or Genna’s eyes, and when Jaime had walked home with her later, she had made sure they discussed boats and nothing else. He had seemed happy enough with this, but, when they had reached the doorstep, and she had rebuffed his attempts to come in by claiming she was tired, he had looked mutinous. A moment later, though, and he had nodded and left. Which was, Brienne told herself, what she wanted.

 

He was not, she knew, attracted to her in any real way. It was simply that he was a very physical man who liked flirting. Perhaps knowing he had power over women made him feel marginally less out of control himself since his imprisonment. And she had touched his dick: of course he had got hard. It was just blood flow, as automatic as a flower stretching for the sun. He did not think of her in a romantic or sexual way. She knew that.

 

Nevertheless, over the next few days, she had got herself off several times to the thought of what might have happened if they had not been found so quickly. Each orgasm had a shameful, guilty quality to it, because she should not be thinking of him in this way. He was too beautiful, too uninterested, too fragile, his past behaviour too shitty, and now he was too much of a friend. And still she had never wanted anyone so much in her life. It was shit. It was really shit. She had put it down to her own sexual inexperience, that such a brief encounter could fuck with her head this badly. Gods, if she ever was on the verge of actual sex, she would probably spontaneously combust before she’d even got her pants off.

 

And now she is here with him in mid-air, gliding below the clouds. It makes her wish she were a bird, able to do this whenever the mood took her. They fly for about 40 minutes before he lands them with only a slight bump at the bottom of the hill. It takes almost two hours to climb back to where the car is parked at the top of the hill. Jaime abandons the glider by the car and takes the bags of food from the back seat. They find a smooth shelf of rock protruding from the hillside, and eat there, looking out over the countryside.

 

“That was nice,” she says. “This – this is nice.”

 

“Nice?”

 

“Don’t fish.”

 

“I have to fish. You never compliment me unprompted.”

 

“Why do you need compliments from me?” She breaks off a cluster of grapes from the bunch, and puts one in her mouth.

 

“I’m not completely insensitive. I do notice I’m always the one asking to spend time with you, while you just agree. I can’t tell whether you say yes because you genuinely want to or because you’re polite. It doesn’t exactly make me feel…”

 

“I enjoy spending time with you,” Brienne says, though she wonders if this is strictly true. She certainly feels a lot more when she is around Jaime. More elated, more irritated, more amused, unsettled, turned on, happy, upset. Her life and emotions had seemed largely level and within her control before he had turned up.

 

“I can let you alone, if you want,” he says. “I know it’s not always easy for you, given how – how I behaved.”

 

Brienne feels a sharp knotting of panic at these words. “I don’t want you to let me alone.”

 

“No?”

 

“It doesn’t always seem as though you enjoy being with me either, you know,” she says, “Sometimes I feel like you’re doing penance, that you’re so nice to me now to make up for not being back then.”

 

“I’m not nice.”

 

Brienne gives him her best detective stare, impassive and hard. He rolls his eyes, shakes his head, and grimaces, as though having to be as unpleasant as possible to balance out the sweetness in what he says next. “I do find it painful to be around you sometimes. When I see you cringe as though you expect to be mocked – it’s like I’m looking at a bruise or a split lip where I punched you earlier.”

 

Brienne has long suspected this. She has often looked up from her book or her work to find him staring at her, shamefaced. She has never felt entitled to her own emotions, has often called herself ‘silly’ for being upset by things, or pushed down anger when she wanted to throw things. Jaime’s guilty look always makes her doubt herself. Perhaps she had been wrong to bring up the past. Perhaps she had been oversensitive in wanting an apology for something that had happened over a decade ago.

 

“I’m not doing penance,” Jaime says, almost as an afterthought. “That’s not what this is.”

 

“What is it then?”

 

“What do you think it is?” He watches her.

 

What can Brienne say to that? That he has now completely supplanted Russell Crowe’s Maximus in her wank fantasies? That when work is awful, she cheers herself by reminding herself she will see him later? That even now, she had pernicious moments when she wonders if he is texting his old teammates, telling them about how Whale Girl is just as sad and ugly now as she was then?

 

“We’re two people who do things together,” she says, because this fact feels more manageable.

 

Jaime laughs. “That’s fair. I suppose it’s what we do together that determines the relationship. If we practised law together, we’d be a legal team. If we went to the pub together, we’d be drinking buddies. As it is, we eat, sail, swim, watch the telly, and go for walks together. But we don’t sleep in the same bed. That makes us a married couple with a snoring problem, doesn’t it?”

 

Before Brienne can stop herself, the words are out of her mouth, tentative. “I don’t snore.”

 

His grin vanishes. “Nor do I.”

 

They watch one another, wide-eyed.

 

When he takes her home that afternoon, he does not drop her off, but parks his car in the gravel drive, beside her bike. They edge around her kitchen, taking quick peeps at one another as they prepare beans on toast, before settling down on the couch to watch The Orphanage. It frightens them both, and at the end, Jaime says in a slightly too causal voice, “I’ll be too petrified to sleep alone after that…”

 

“So will I.”

 

“You’re in a creaky old house too,” he says. “In the middle of nowhere.”

 

“Yes." She dithers for a moment. "Maybe –”

 

“What?”

 

“You could stay. Only if you wanted. You’re tired, you probably want to get back to your own –”

 

“In your spare room?” he says, ignoring all but the first three words of this address.

 

The idea that they could sleep in the same bed may have been broached several hours ago, but still they are tiptoeing on quicksand.

 

“If you think you’d be able to sleep in there.” Brienne picks at the cushion cover.

 

“I doubt it. We’d still both be alone in your creaky house, with the ghost children closing in.”

 

“You can come in my room. If that would be better.” The cushion cover is all-but fraying now.

 

“Is your floor soft enough to sleep on?”

 

“It’s wooden floorboards. Could you sleep on that?”

 

“I’d rather sleep in a bed.”

 

“Well. My bed’s pretty big.” Brienne turns away as she says this. Even now she is worried he will say, ‘Oh… I actually meant a camp bed or an air mattress…’ or, ‘I was only joking. You didn’t think I was serious, did you?’

 

“Do you mind sharing? With me?”

 

“No.” She begins to stack their plates, clattering the cutlery, hoping the back of her neck has not flushed pink. It certainly feels hot.

 

She gives him her electric toothbrush and a spare head so he can clean his teeth. He showers too. She has never known anyone to shower as much as Jaime. He does it without fail morning and evening, and sometimes in the middle of the day too. When he comes into her room, in his T shirt and boxers, Brienne is already lying with her back to him. The only light comes from the bedside lamp on his side, and she feels the mattress shift as he climbs in beside her.

 

“Are we sleeping with the light on?” he says.

 

“No, that would be too pathetic.”

 

He clicks off the lamp, and Brienne feels the anticipation of being in the dark with him. It had been dark the time he had kissed her. It had been dark when he had got hard and they had rubbed against each other in the game of Hide and Seek. Tonight, however, he does not touch her. He stays perfectly well-behaved on his side of the bed, and she eventually falls into a frustrated, antsy sleep. When she awakes though, in the early hours, it is to find that in sleep, one of his hands has worked its way under her vest to lie on her ribs, his thumb grazing her breast, and the other, while respecting the boundary of her pants, is positioned proprietorially on her pubic mound. Oh gods, help me, help me, she thinks. I want… I want…

 

She is not religious, but there are no atheists on a sinking ship, and Brienne feels like this man will wreck her if she is not careful.

Chapter Text

There is a huge banner hanging on the door of the sailing club. It was created by the Year 4 pupils at the local primary, and the letters, not of a uniform size and all cut from different fabrics before being glued into place, give it the appearance of a spiteful anonymous letter. The illustrations that surround the text hardly dispel this feeling of doom. Lots of deformed dragons, houses burning, and stick people running for cover.

 

Remember, remember the fifth November

The dragon brought fire and blood

Out of this burning

The North got returning

To direwolf, Ice and weirwood

 

 

It is a damp November night, and Brienne is standing in front of a bonfire watching the effigy of a silver-haired woman blaze in the flames. All around her, bundled-up people chatter and laugh. Bagpipes play nearby and a big full moon trails silver onto the surface of Torrhen’s Mere. A bunch of absolute weapons – including, obviously, Tormund – are swaggering bombastically along the bank, about to do the traditional swim. Brienne can smell burgers and fried onions and beer fumes. Soon they will let off the fireworks and there will be sulphur too.

 

The press stopped running the story of the man they had sensitively named The Dreadfort Ripper about five weeks ago now. Once he was caught and charged, there wasn’t much else they could say, though they will descend again in ten months when the trial begins, creating headlines from the most horrific details. Brienne feels like a ghost. While all around her, breathing, warm-skinned people celebrate the Eve of Northern Independence, she occupies some liminal place between the quick and the dead. The slayed young women are her constant attendants. She knows their smiles, their wardrobes, their jewellery, the texts and emails they sent to friends, their paths to work, their romantic relationships. She knows their google search histories, which parent and siblings they were closest to, where they walked dogs, which coffee shops and bars they frequented, and when they went to the gym. It feels histrionic to say that she grieves –she had got to know them only after they had been ended – but she does grieve for them. For the families who will have to live on for decades with one of their clan missing and the awful knowledge of how it came about. It is unbearable. It is unjust.

 

Probably the one person in this crowd who understands what it is like to feel so entrenched in death and evil is on the other side of the fire. Jaime, the one hostage who survived, is standing with an unfeasibly lovely woman, a kind of scarlet goth. Her hair is that electric ruby that people only ever achieve in dye adverts. Her maxi dress is rose and seemingly bewitched to repel the mud that splatters the wellies of the mere mortals around her. She wears a crimson faux fur jacket with elbow-length sleeves, and crimson bangles around her wrists. Brienne can imagine the bloodshot décor of her house too. Red floorboards, red feature walls, red lambswool blankets on the chaise lounge where she reclines with a glass of red wine and a slice of red velvet cake. Perhaps Jaime will be invited into the bloody chamber tonight.

 

Beside Brienne, Talisa is telling Pod and Osha the gruesome tale of a man who deliberately infected his leg so that doctors would have to amputate it. “But they saved it,” she says. “He had a limp, but they saved it. So he went and lay it on a railway track instead. Rang the ambulance when he saw the train. Was still on the phone when the wheels cut through his thigh. Don’t think the train-driver was too happy about being roped into the self-actualisation scheme.”

 

“Poor sod,” is Osha’s conclusion, as Brienne, resisting the urge to flee from this story, keeps her face carefully blank. For her, the habit of not showing vulnerability runs deep at times like this. Jaime is the only one with any idea of how raw this case has left her. “So is he glad he did it?”

 

“Apparently. Mind, if he’s anything like most men, he wouldn’t admit to regretting it even if he did. Robb drove us to a wedding last week. I was directing him. He ignored me, took three wrong turns and still swore blind it was the fastest route when we had to do a three-point turn in this muddy paddock with some farmer shaking his fist at us. And I reckon chopping your leg off is harder to row back from than being ten minutes late for a wedding.”

 

“Yeah, funny creatures, men. No offence, Pod.”

 

Pod and Osha move off towards the food stalls, and Talisa slips her arm through Brienne’s. “They are funny creatures,” she says, looking to where Brienne’s eyes had been directed a moment before. “He’s like a dog with two dicks, isn’t he?”

 

Brienne shrugs. “No. He can do what he likes.”

 

“You’re more avant-garde than I am then. Spends all his time with you, sleeps in your bed every night, then chats up –”

 

“Not every night. Four, five times a week.” She says this as though to imply that sharing a bed every night would indeed be suspect behaviour, whereas four or five nights a week – completely normal platonic behaviour. “He’s my friend. Like you’re my friend.”

 

“And yet when I stay over, I sleep in the spare room,” says Talisa. “I don’t like to think you’re pretending to be okay with something you’re not.”

 

“I don’t like him like in that way,” says Brienne. Across the fire, Jaime’s face breaks into a smile as the woman shows him something on her phone.

 

“Right. And he knows that, does he? He’s clarified that with you? Because if not, he’s an unkind knobhead.”

 

“Yes, he knows. And he’s always very kind to me,” Brienne dislikes the brittle defensiveness in her tone. “I had… I had the odd nightmare while I was working on the Bolton case. It was nice having him there when I woke. He cooked tea for me when I was working all hours. Still does actually. He thinks of things to do that he knows I’ll like. He turns up at my work and whisks me out for surprise lunches.”

 

This. This is the moment when Brienne realises the depth of her trouble. Because, outside of shitty romance novels, who says things like that? ‘He whisks me out for surprise lunches.’ Bleugh, bleugh, bleugh. What kind of ocean-going numpty uses the word whisk apart from in the context of making egg or cream-based desserts?

 

 

~ ~

Brienne steps out from the office into the watery noon sunshine. Her fair hair whips about her shoulders as she shyly edges past the knot of smokers, their hacking coughs penetrating the thick fog of smoke that hangs about them. Several scowl at Brienne, resenting the contrast between her fresh-faced, dewy visage and their own sallow, wrinkled faces.

 

 Brienne’s huge sapphire eyes fix on the snow-white and egg-yolk-yellow M&S logo in the distance, heralding the doors through which she must pass to obtain nourishment. Should she get the bean wrap with halloumi, or the pasta and pesto salad? The rainbow cookie or the chocolate tiffin? Brienne’s sapphire orbs take on a misty aspect as she ponders the choices.

 

But suddenly, there he is. Him. Striding towards her, his long coat billowing. Tall and broad-shouldered. His jaw just as square as she had remembered it, his hair tousled, his emerald eyes glittering dangerously as they sweep up and down her body, lingering on the modest swell of her creamy bosom.

 

“Well, hello,” he purrs throatily, gazing down into her face. “Where do you think you’re going, my girl?”

 

Brienne flushes and simpers. “Oh. I… I…”

 

His eyes flash wickedly. He takes her hand and places it in the crook of his arm. “No arguments, my girl. I’m whisking you away for a surprise lunch,” he growls.

 

~ ~

 

“I’ll give it a rest,” says Talisa. “Will you think about what I said though?”

 

“Yeah, okay.”

 

“Good. Anyway, I’m knackered.” She taps the now enormous bump. “I’m going to tell Robb to drive me home. Speak tomorrow, all right?”

 

She disappears, and Brienne returns to watching Jaime. He has now reached the stage where Miss Scarlett is reading his palm, running fingers across his upturned hand. Perhaps she is predicting a sudden violent end for him. Lady Sapphire, with the lead piping, in the shadows of the car park. He suddenly glances over at Brienne and gives her a quick, sweet smile. Embarrassed at being caught, she looks away, and by the time she has looked back, he is giving Miss Scarlett his full attention once again.

 

The point at which Jaime is prepared to put aside his objections to this kind of quackery and where Brienne feels this… empty, feels like a good time to leave. She had come on her bike straight from work, meaning, thankfully, she is not dependent on the knobhead for a lift home, and he is not dependent on her.

 

After Brienne’s mother had died, she had spent a couple of months walking out of school whenever she felt like it. She had always resented school, its power to dictate how a huge chunk of her waking life should be spent, and in her grief, she had no longer cared about the bollockings from teachers or her father. To escape, to dodge members of staff, to find new ways out of the building and grounds, had provided some distraction at least. Now, her rebellious streak rises up again in the face of another being who has far too much power over her. Jaime. She will not let him know she is going. She will not risk him charming her into masking her annoyance. She will not risk him persuading her to come and make awkward small-talk with him and Miss Scarlett. She will flee in the same way she did aged eleven.

 

Rather than openly taking the path that runs straight from here to the car park, she wanders towards the crowds around the food stalls. She wants to seem, if he happens to look over, as though she is just going to get a drink or more food. Lysa stands near the burger stall with Robin, scrubbing ketchup from around his mouth with a hanky she has just spat on. Davos, drinking a pint of bitter, is talking to Robb’s little brother. Pod is chatting to a girl Brienne has never seen before, and Osha has disappeared completely. A toddler with mud all over her front is screaming at her harassed-looking father. Brienne passes several stalls before ducking off into the trees beyond. With the light from her phone, she makes her way through the woodland to the car park, where she mounts her bike and flies away towards home.

 

The ride home sets her mind free to race. Don’t think of it, stop thinking of it! She pushes away memories of the crime scenes, the interview in which cold, amused eyes had bored into her, the sobbing parents, and focusses on Jaime, who is at least a source of pleasure as well as pain. She imagines him looking up and realising she is gone. Imagines him scouring the crowd for her. Casually asking people if they have seen her. Realising that she must have left. Trying to ring her. She wants him to feel hurt that she did not tell him she was going. She wants him to be uneasy, even annoyed, that she had not felt obliged to keep him aware of her movements. If that makes her petty, well… She is sick of feeling so helpless when it comes to Jaime. Sick of the hold he has over her. Of how one-way that hold had been tonight; he had already been with the red woman when she had arrived. He had mouthed a greeting across the fire to her, and then there had been the quick smile later. That was it.

 

In her drive, she checks her phone. There is one text from Osha demanding where she has gone. Brrienne replies, then turns off her phone, and goes inside. The bathroom is full of Jaime-detritus: his L’Oreal Kids shampoo that he apparently once felt compelled to taste because it smelt so good, his toothbrush with its handle covered in dried toothpaste foam because he doesn’t rinse it properly, his floating bath duck radio, a can of Funatic Foam soap and one of those magic face cloths. Perhaps it was growing up in a house full of tasteful, timeless furnishings, but Jaime has a great fondness for kitsch. He had slept here last night, had still been asleep in her bed when she had left for work. Apparently, after she had left, he had found time to use his purple foam soap to write the word ‘Brienne’ along the bottom of the bath, with the word ‘Jaime’ intersecting it at the ‘i’. Brienne rinses it away and fills the bath. She scowls as she runs her hands across her breasts, checking for lumps.

 

Out of the bath, she realises all her thermal winter pyjamas are still languishing in the washing basket. Brienne’s washing routine has for several weeks consisted of her realising at about midnight that she has no clean clothes for the next day, and then bunging a few shirts, pairs of trousers and knickers into the machine and selecting auto-dry. She puts them on creased and sometimes a little damp straight from the machine every morning until the whole cycle starts again. The effort of washing all the dirty clothes in loads, in bringing them upstairs, folding them and putting them away in the wardrobe and in drawers is from another lifetime. Because she has no winter pyjamas clean, she selects her summer ones, shorts and T shirt, which Jaime had once said ‘look soft’ as he’d run a finger down her back. She goes downstairs, draws the curtains, rechecks that she locked front and back doors, and curls up on the settee to watch Derry Girls. Every moment, she half-expects to hear his engine outside her house, to hear Jaime’s car door slam, his footsteps on the path, his knock on her door. It doesn’t happen, and halfway through the Orange Order episode– which for the first time ever fails to make her smile – she turns her phone back on, and waits for any messages or missed calls to come through. After half a minute of fraught expectation, there are no notifications. He has not texted or attempted to ring. She left over two hours ago. He either has not noticed (because he doesn’t care), or he has noticed – and still doesn’t care.

 

She checks once again that the doors are locked, and then goes upstairs and climbs into bed. When she tries to sleep though, visions of Jaime and the woman play repeatedly in her head. Worse, they don’t play in some unrealistic Hollywood way, with soft lighting and schmaltzy music, but with all the bluntness of real life. It is as though she has a telepathic link and is watching their encounter for real.  She starts to cry. You’re not in love, she tells herself. You’re not. You’re just confused. He can’t sleep here again, he can’t spend every evening here. It has to stop now, until your head is right again.

 

The problem is, when she falls asleep, and the dreams come, it is horrible to wake alone. The world at 3am is a particularly grim place, and Brienne is no Pollyanna at the moment. For six weeks, all the strict routines that had kept her on an even keel for so long had fallen apart. She had slept very badly and her appetite had gone so she had lived on crisps, the odd Galaxy Ripple, and bites of the meals Jaime made her. She had not sailed, read or run because any time not working felt like a dereliction of duty. She had been doing twelve-hour days, six or seven days a week. Her left eye had started flickering and a crop of acne had appeared on her chin, as well as cold sores around her lips. It had been Jaime who took the edge of it all, curling his muscular, scarred body around hers when she jerked awake.

 

“I sometimes think,” he’d whispered once, “that depression and anxiety aren’t mental illness. That it’s more crazy how many of us can still go about calm and happy given the pain in this world.”

 

*

 

He doesn’t text or call or drop by. Saturday drifts by and so does Sunday, the weather too awful for even the bravest sailor to take to the waters. Brienne has forgotten how to have a weekend without Jaime in it, and she roams the house. She is fractious – or she would be if there was anyone to be fractious with. She has the attention span of an overtired puppy –starting something but restless within moments. ‘You’re not in love with him’ becomes her constant refrain. She says it while she sniffs the armpits of the hoodie he left on her couch. She says it as she checks Gennna’s drive from her spare room window, hoping to see his car there even though Genna is away. She says it as she reads through his past messages, checks when he was last online on Whatsapp, plays the songs he likes, eats his large supply of Haribo Fangtastics for her breakfast and lunch, and scrubs her face with his magic face cloth.

 

On Monday morning the snow begins to fall. Usually the first snow fills her with childish joy; today it means she can barely drag herself out of bed. She manages it because she cannot be late for work, and she knows she will have to to take the roads much slower than normal. She checks and responds to her emails, does a mentoring session with one of the new recruits, takes statements from two new witnesses who have just come forward, and rings the CSU to see if they have any more actionable DNA or fingerprint evidence yet. She speaks to the mother of one of the victims, who has just remembered ‘something that might be relevant.’ After that, she needs a boost, and the day ends on a high when one young woman, who had disappeared ten months ago and was suspected to be another possible victim, is found to be alive and living under a pseudonym in King’s Landing, having got fed up with her family. As Brienne crosses the car park at the end of the day in the half light, the snow is still falling, and she is feeling slightly less like the weight of the world is crushing her.

 

She is standing by her bike, searching for her keys in the rubbish-tip that is her bag, when Hyle Hunt asks her out. Snowflakes are falling into her hair and eyes and her fingers are blue. She does not at first register what he has said to her, and simply murmurs, “Mmm,” as she continues to scrabble through the bag.

 

Hyle, however, possesses all the confidence that male socialisation awards to mediocrity and does not let this nonchalance put him off. “Cool. So when are you free?”

 

Brienne has the sudden realisation that she has, without knowing it, committed to some kind of appointment with the man who works in the CSU and whom she has had fairly regular contact with over the last three months. “Er,” she mutters, staring at him, trying to see from his expression what she has just agreed to.

 

“For dinner,” he prompts. “When are you free for dinner?”

 

“Oh.” Her first emotion is confused disbelief. A man has just asked her out. Somewhere a herd of pigs are sprouting wings and contemplating take-off, and hell is freezing over, with woolly mammoths and polar bears wandering its icy landscapes. As he stands waiting, however, disbelief quickly gives way to panic. She has never considered Hyle Hunt in … well, she has never considered him full stop. He is just some bloke who sorts tissue and hair samples. Can she back out of this without giving offence?

 

“Wednesday night?” he suggests.

 

The memory of Jaime smiling at that woman by the fire comes back to her. Her own present misery and disillusionment with everything comes back to her. If she is unhappy, the thing to do is to change things, not wallow. “All right,” she agrees weakly. “Where shall we go?”

 

They agree to tapas at The Millstone on the high street at seven, and Brienne gets on her bike and rides home through the little flurries of snow. She is not suicidal, she really isn’t, but the thought keeps occurring to her that with just a wrench of her arms, she could plunge herself into that wall, into that tree, into that ditch. And then she could have rest. Someone would call an ambulance; she would be taken off to hospital and she would be able to sleep, maybe for days. No one would expect anything of her. They might even put her in an induced coma, and then she wouldn’t have to think of anything at all. Although perhaps she would just end up with never-ending nightmares.

 

She can summon up no excitement about Hyle. When she looks over their past encounters, all she can recall is a sarcastic man who had not seemed at all perturbed by the nature of the case he was working on. But perhaps she is being unfair. People who work in Brienne’s line of work have to be good at compartmentalising. They would never get out of bed if they couldn’t. And just because she feels nothing for him now, does not mean she never could. She had less than indifference when she first re-encountered Jaime, had outright disliked him, and now look at her. Clearly, feelings do not spring up at first sight. They can grow, like weeds, sprouting up where you do not want them. And Hyle Hunt had asked her out in the snow. That was a much better How-did-you-two-get-together? story than ‘he ignored me while his mates bullied me for a year, and then we met up a decade later when he was having a breakdown, and I sort of became his teddy bear.’

 

*

 

Genna arrives home the next day, the day before Brienne’s… dinner appointment. Genna had done Northern Independence with her characteristic gusto, going to White Harbour for four nights with five of her friends. They’d eaten haggis and cranachan, gone to a ceilidh, a fireballs ceremony, a lantern-making workshop, and had seen several bands play. When she rings to invite Brienne round for tea, Brienne accepts at once, desperately wanting the woman’s warmth and contagious assurance that the world is a place that can be ordered and bent to will.

 

Tramping down the snow-covered lane in her wellies, she realises that Jaime’s car is once again in the drive (‘you’re not in love with him’), and she braces herself to encounter him with composure. It doesn’t work. As soon as their eyes meet across the kitchen, she can feel her cheeks burning. To cover her distress, she crouches down and for several moments, buries her face in Daisy and Dora’s fur.

 

“You look nice,” he says, when she stands up and allows Genna to hug her for much longer than normal. “You’re all pink from the cold.”

 

Brienne is saved the trouble of thinking of a response to this by Genna, who, removing bread from the oven and ladling out soup from a pan on the hob, begins to recount the many things she has done and seen at White Harbour.

 

“That miserable one,” she says at last. “Looks furious all the time. Used to be decent-looking but then took a load of drugs and looks like a crow that’s been run over and stitched back together.”

 

This description could cover so many rock stars, Brienne doesn’t know where to start. “Morrissey?”

 

“Don’t think so.”

 

“Ian Brown? Liam Gallagher? Richard Ashcroft?”

 

“I don’t know.”

 

“You could just look it up,” Jaime suggests, peering over the top of his laptop.

 

“Are you still working? Can’t you put that away while we eat?” Genna demands, approaching him with a bowl of soup.

 

“I’m much too busy.” Jaime ostentatiously taps a few keys.

 

“Busy, my arse,” Genna says, staring over his shoulder. “You’re twatting about on Twitter.”

 

“On the contrary, this is time well-spent. I followed a link to it only half an hour ago and already feel much better about my own life. I’ll probably have to see a shrink for the rest of my life and my dad’s a sociopath, but at least I’m not as fucking nuts as the people on here. There should be an ‘I wrote this in my own shit’ font just to finish the effect off.”

 

Brienne would normally have smiled at him, but now her mind goes to the incel forum that Ramsey Bolton had frequented a couple of years ago. He’d posted his fantasies there to much acclaim from a bunch of other maladjusted young men. If only they’d been left as fantsies.

 

“Don’t call your father a sociopath,” says Genna. “Will you put the laptop away and eat? The children are coming soon. I’m taking them to the cinema tonight.”

 

“What to see?”

 

“The one with the girl and that singing crab,” Genna says vaguely. “And the grandma who gets reincarnated as a shark. It’s the sequel to that.”

 

“Moana? Pretty sure the gran comes back as a manta ray.”

 

“Close enough,” says Genna.

 

 “Is it? How would you feel if someone described you as a chimpanzee?”

 

Genna clips him across the ear. She does not hold with new-fangled ideas about not smacking children who are pushing their luck, and she doles out mild, jocular corporal punishment on a semi-regular basis. To her, Jaime is merely an overgrown child, and too large for her to wrestle to the naughty step.

 

Jaime grins, taps the keyboard again, and then pushes the laptop aside, as the jaunty first beats of ‘You’re Welcome’ begin. “Do you think,” he asks Brienne, “if they were all forced to listen to this as they tweeted, it would provide the dopamine hit and they wouldn’t be so furious?”

 

Brienne considers. “No. There’s a reason they say not to discuss religion, politics and money: we’re tribal, our brains weren’t meant for global telepathy. Any song would just become a crusade anthem.”

 

“I suppose. It is like church. Here’s some bullshit I just made up – don’t critically analyse it! Just believe it! Repeat it! If you voice anything but ecstatic support, well, you’re evil and going to hell. Though if these are the people off to secular heaven, I’d definitely prefer hell.”

 

“Most people aren’t even on there. Can we talk about something else please?” Brienne asks. In the last few weeks, she has done her best to shun the unpleasantness of the general world. She has avoided papers, TV news and got rid of notifications on her phone. Jaime, however, is dreadful for wanting to discuss whatever new calamity or pettiness has occurred, even if it is just to mock it. Brienne thinks it would be more comforting to watch news and read papers from a decade ago, so you could comfort yourself by thinking, ‘well, at least this shit is probably resolved and forgotten by now.’ Or, less optimistically, it would have laid the pathway for something even worse.

 

Jaime is on a roll, however. “You’re not telling me these smug pricks don’t buy from Amazon, endorsing the shit treatment of people in warehouses. You’re not telling me they don’t buy coffee from tax-dodging corporations, when that money would buy a bloody mosquito net for a kid in an LEDC. You’re not telling me most of them don’t eat meat and dairy, fucking up the environment, and meaning the guys who have to work in the abattoirs end up with trauma disorders because they have to cut the throat of an innocent animal that just came nuzzling up to them, hundreds of times a day. I bet they buy Nestlé. And Mars chocolate which depends on child slavery. And palm oil. I bet they buy fruit and veg packed in layers of plastic, and rack up thousands of air miles a year because it’s very important that they travel and become cultured even if the air pollution does kill other people, and a Tory government sees it as justification to build that third runway. I bet they buy clothes from all the shops that rely on sweatshop labour, and don’t give a second thought about the morality of upsizing houses or spending 30 on a smelly candle or some other tat when millions of people die every year because they haven’t enough food or clean water. I bet some of them have those flat-faced dogs that are bred not to be able to breath.”

 

“You do several of those things,” Genna points out.

 

“Of course I do – everyone in the west does – but I’m not on Twitter saying ‘Be better!’ or ‘Let me be very clear: if you think bla bla bla, then…’ as though I’m God Almighty setting out my commandments, am I?”

 

“Jaime, you slate people constantly,” Brienne points out. “You just don’t do it online.”

 

“Yeah, slate. There’s a difference. One’s letting off steam, the other’s proselytising and berating which just alienates people. There were things I agreed with fundamentally, but they were said in such a hectoring tone, it made me want to go the other way. You should get on there, aunty. You like sticking your nose in and telling people off.”

 

Genna ignores him in favour of addressing Brienne on the topic of bad behaviour. “You know what David Bowie used to do, don’t you?”

 

Dear God, won’t they just stop? She’d felt shit before she’d arrived, and here is the Lannister double act making everything seem worse.

 

“Underage girls. Do you want to do the crossword with me?” she asks Jaime as a way of changing the subject.

 

“Yeah.” He moves his chair round the table to her, and sits close so his arm keeps touching hers.

7a. A French communist embracing a bit is not reciprocal (10)

 

“A French is une or un,” murmurs Brienne. “Communist – red.”

 

“And ‘red’ embraces ‘a bit.’ Partially? Un-re-partia – no. Quite?”

 

“Un-re-quite-d.” Brienne watches him as he scrawls it in the grid in his babyish writing. Un-fucking-requited.

 

There is a sudden trio of widely-spaced booms from the lion knocker, a pattern Willem always does when he is trying out his persona of ‘gangster.’ Genna leaves her soup to answer the door and Brienne hears the sound of little footsteps in the hall. The next moment, Joanna, Jeyne and Willem enter the kitchen. Willem has his collar up, like Eric Cantona, and a candy stick protruding from his mouth like a cigarette. He is practising a sullen face with a jutting lower lip and narrowed eyes. Jeyne wears zebra-striped jeans, a dragon jumper and carries a dino-grabber. Joanna, the oldest but still only nine, wears a glittery black mini dress and some pink kitten heels, and is brushing her waist-length hair.

 

“I ain’t watchin’ anotha girl film,” Willem says, barely moving his lips.

 

“Grandma’s taking us to watch Moana 2,” Joanna explains to Brienne importantly. She thrusts the hairbrush back into her small pink handbag, and pulls out a small mirror and a lipstick and lipliner which she applies expertly, as though preparing for a wild night on the town with her grandmother. Brienne watches, half disturbed, half awestruck, thinking of her own bag, full of ratty receipts, tampons that have come loose from their packets, nomadic and crushed paracetamol, broken dog biscuits with which to recall Dora and Daisy, snapped biros, and empty deodorants. And then there is this nine-year-old, her handbag primed for organisation and femininity.

 

Jeyne, meanwhile, is scrutinising Brienne’s midriff. Ever since The Curious Incident of The Erection in The Septon Hole, over three months ago, she has looked in vain for the bump that will signify an incoming baby. The worst thing about it all is that she thinks she is being subtle. After The Incident, she had obviously cajoled someone – probably her mother – into detailing the symptoms of pregnancy, and Brienne is now regularly ambushed with casual questions as to whether she has been craving odd foods, whether she has been sick, whether she is weeing more, whether she is sleeping more. Jaime, seemingly unembarrassed about his role in all this, usually sits there, shaking with suppressed laughter, as Brienne awkwardly weathers the questions.

 

Today, Jeyne evidently decides to make her role as attendant physician a little more hands-on – quite literally; she approaches Brienne, and places a hand on her midriff. “What a nice top,” she says sternly, as she feels along Brienne’s abdomen.

 

“Thank you.”

 

“Have you done a period recently, Bri?” she demands after some moment. Fuck, this is a new one.

 

“Jeyne, you don’t do periods,” says Joanna in a weary way. “You have them.”

 

“But you do poos and wees,” Jeyne points out. “And they come out down there too.”

 

Watching Genna’s grandchildren, Brienne is often struck by how fascinated they are by the secretions of the human body. As thought to prove the point, Willem promptly forgets to be a gangster and begins to pick his nose using the candy stick that had been in his mouth, closely inspecting the crusts of snot that he extracts.

 

“When did you last have a period?” Jeyne asks.

 

“Hey. Runt,” says Jaime. “Give over. She isn’t having a damn baby, all right?”

 

Jeyne looks stunned that her subterfuge has been uncovered, but presses on unabashed. “You don’t always know,” she tells him patronisingly. “Sometimes a baby just drops out when the woman goes to the toilet. If Bri does have a baby – ”

 

“She isn’t going to,” Jaime says.

 

“But if she does – ”

 

“But she isn’t going to.”

 

“ – then would I be able to walk it?”

 

“Walk it?” Jaime frowns. “It’ll be a baby, not a puppy, my love.”

 

“I mean look after it. While Bri is working or you’re in your boat.” Evidently, Jaime’s Maths questions do not count as work. Like the water-rat from Wind in the Willows, he simply messes about in boats all day long.

 

“Absolutely not. I’ve seen how you treat your teddies and dolls. You smack them, shake them, and shut them in the grandfather clock.”

 

“Only when they’re bad. If they didn’t want to be smacked and put in the clock, they’d behave gooder, wouldn’t they?”

 

“Well, I can’t argue with that logic,” agrees Jaime.

 

“So I can have it? The baby?” says Jeyne rapaciously. She is a youngest child, and has spent all her life being bossed about by her brother and sister. Clearly the idea of lording it over an even younger child appeals to her.

 

“You’re like Rumplestiltskin, hanging about to snatch the firstborn. He didn’t end well,” Jaime warns her.

 

“You could pay me to babysit,” Jeyne suggests, suddenly spying a money-making opportunity. Unlike her older brother and sister, she does not get pocket money yet, and it is quite a bone of contention. “I could teach it times tables and spelling.”

 

“What’s 13 x 11?” asks Jaime at once.

 

Jeyne looks outraged. “They only go up to 12.”

 

“Really? What’s 12 x 12 then?”

 

“Jaime, don’t tease her,” says Brienne.

 

Jeyne goes virtually cross-eyed in attempting this calculation when she has not got past her 5 times tables. “98,” she says at last, with such conviction that Brienne almost believes it.

 

Willem immediately explodes with scornful laughter. “It’s 142, duhh-brain.”

 

Jaime ignores him. “And can you spell parallelogram? Because I’m dyslexic so genetically and environmentally our baby is up against it linguistically. If it’s left to me, she’ll still be reading Frog and Toad Are Friends when she’s applying for uni. And Brienne will be a horribly neglectful mother, always at work.” He throws her a grin.

 

“Whereas you’d wind her up and let her get away with murder,” says Brienne. “People always overcorrect from the way their parents raised them.”

 

“Well, I guess you won’t be neglectful then. In fact, you’ll be a helicopter parent, bringing her cocoa and custard creams in bed every night, ringing school to make sure she’s okay, and letting her stay off if she sneezes once.” To be sure, Brienne’s father had favoured the laissez-faire approach to parenting.

 

“Good thing there’s no baby then,” says Brienne. “No boundaries and wrapped in cotton wool.”

 

“Oh, she’d turn out well enough,” is Jaime’s gruff response.

 

“What’s diss-legs-it?” says Jeyne.

 

“It means he’s stupid,” says Willem.

 

“Thanks, Willem.”

 

Brienne gets up and begins to load the dishwasher with the tea-things. Jaime follows her quickly, and, trapping her against the counter, he puts his arms round her and hugs her very tightly. She has the impression that this demonstration has been deliberately kept for when Genna was not around to see it. Gingerly, she pats him on the back. ‘You’re not in love with him. You’re not.’ He releases her.

 

“Feels like I haven’t seen you in ages,” he says. “You disappeared Friday night. Osha said you went home. You didn’t tell me you were going…”

 

Brienne freezes, unprepared for being put on the spot like this. He is inspecting her face with a sharpness wholly at odds with his tone. She can’t speak when he is looking at her like that. Can barely breathe – this must be how those flat-faced dogs feel. It must be a lifetime of feeling like Jaime is looking at them.

 

“Uncle Jaime,” says Willem. He calls him this despite them actually being first cousins once removed. “Is Brienne your girlfriend?”

 

Jaime laughs awkwardly. “Well, she’s a girl and my friend...”

 

“But have you ever taken her on a date?” asks Joanna.

 

“I haven’t,” Jaime says, with mock solemnity. “Do you think I should?”

 

“Yes! Take her to McDonalds,” Jeyne says, grasping Jaime’s hand and swinging on it excitedly.

 

“Take her to Water World. They have eight slides,” is Willem’s suggestion.

 

“No, take her to dinner and then the cinema,” says Joanna.

 

“What do you think, Brienne?” Jaime asks. “Dubiously-sourced fast food, swimming in a pool that a load of kids have pissed in, or dinner and a film?”

 

What she thinks is that she will not be sorry if she never sees another child in her life. She also hates to be teased when it comes to this topic. Her stomach shouldn’t be squirming like this, they do things together all the time. It means nothing. She mutters something non-comital.

 

“Dinner and cinema then,” Jaime says in that same light voice. “All right?”

 

“All right,” says a voice which certainly comes from her throat and yet doesn’t seem to be hers. Perhaps she has progressed to full-on dissociative identity disorder, and this is the birth of her first new personality. Perhaps Brienne will have to go on the date with Hyle, and the other personality will get to go to dinner and the cinema with Jaime, and will make witty repartee with him.

 

“Tomorrow?” Jaime asks.

 

Tomorrow. Tomorrow she is meant to be meeting Hyle. Brienne has a sudden vision of herself re-enacting the scene from Mrs Doubtfire in which Robin Williams, having double-booked, has to weave hilariously between two tables in the same restaurant, donning and removing his old lady costume in the loos. No.

 

“I’m busy tomorrow, but – ”

 

“What’s happening tomorrow?”

 

She hesitates. Because she doesn’t really understand herself what is happening tomorrow. ‘I’ve got a date’ sounds so… ridiculous and adolescent. As though she has been waiting and pining for this boy to ask her out for so long; as though she is going to run about her bedroom, squealing, pulling on dress after dress and dicking about with her hair while her gay best friend says things like, “Bitch, you look fine.”

 

“I’m just meeting a colleague,” she says, but she must have taken too long to answer or her tone must have been off, because Jaime stiffens.

 

“Which colleague?”

 

“I don’t think I’ve mentioned him to you. He works in forensics.”

 

“And you’re meeting… why?”

 

Brienne is uncomfortably aware of the counter digging into her back. “Just for dinner.”

 

She takes no satisfaction in the hard look that settles on his face. Jaime tends to be proprietorial towards the people he cares for. That he is now visibly unhappy says little more than that he expects the few people he likes to be at his beck and call.

 

“Did he ask you?” he says slowly.

 

“Yes. Why?” She feels affronted that this should be surprising to him. The fact that she herself had been stunned is conveniently forgotten.

 

He shrugs. “Just curious. What’s his name?”

 

“Hyle,” says Brienne repressively.

 

“Hyle?? Like Heil H – ?”

 

“No. Jaime, don’t joke about things like that.”

 

“I’m not amused if that’s any help. So was it love at first sight? Or were you Mulder and Scully, the slow-burn solving crimes together? Are you his touchstone?”

 

“Don’t be stupid.”

 

“That’s the second time tonight I’ve been called stupid. I’m sure,” he says, “in the interests of full disclosure, you told him that you spend most nights in bed with another man, didn’t you?”

 

It is as though he has doused her in cold water. He has always treated their bed arrangement as platonic; mutual comfort after scary films, after sad films, and because they both have bad dreams. That he would now twist it to portray her as some kind of Jezebel is so unreasonable, she can’t even find the words to answer him.

 

“Probably should,” says Jaime. “I’ve a suspicion he might not like it.”

 

“Did you tell –?” Brienne cuts herself off.

 

His eyes flash. “Go on.”

 

But Brienne has no intention of bringing up Miss Scarlett. “You went on a long rant before about being no one’s conscience but your own, but I’m fairly sure you’re moralising at me now.”

 

“I’m not moralising. That isn’t what I’m doing.”

 

Brienne extracts herself from between him and the counter. Ignoring the kids, the animals and Jaime, she strides out of the kitchen. In the hall, Genna and her daughter-in-law are cackling over something – or more likely, someone. Brienne gets her coat and leaves before they can haul her into their bubble of febrile exchanges.

 

*

 

Over patatas bravas, crispy aubergine, garlic mushrooms, peppers, goats cheese, and olives, Hyle tells Brienne that he had initially suspected her of being a lesbian. Except he uses the word dyke. “You know, with how gruff you are, and with the short nails and the motorbike.”

 

“Right.” Brienne takes a sip of lemonade. “And when did you decide I wasn’t?”

 

“When you agreed to come out for dinner with me.”

 

“So if I’d said no, you’d have seen that as proof I must be gay?”

 

“’Course,” he laughs. “I’m a bloke.”

 

This statement pretty much sums up Hyle: he is a bloke, a generic off-the-conveyor-belt bloke. He drinks beer, gets his mum to do his ironing, and talks about “the lads.” He wears his fondness for Tarantino, kebabs and football with pride. His eyes drift to Brienne’s breasts whenever he thinks she won’t notice and sometimes when he thinks she will.

 

“You look fit in your leathers,” he tells her at one point, and the mystery of why he asked out her rather than a shorter, less ugly woman becomes clear. Like so many of his brethren, he has a fetish for a woman on a motorbike. God, men are obvious.

 

He insists on paying the bill, and when they leave the restaurant into a veritable blizzard, he says, “It’ll stop soon. Come and wait at mine if you want.” Happily for him, he had chosen a restaurant just a three-minute walk from his house. Unhappily for Brienne, this meant at least a 30-minute ride home for her, and there is currently no visibility.

 

Taking the Sod’s Law approach to life, she agrees to go with him, mentally reasoning that if she waits about outside, the blizzard is sure to hang about longer just to spite her. If she acts as though it is a long-term thing, it will stop quickly just to prove her wrong. She walks with him to his house, a terrace on one of the back streets. As soon as they are inside and sitting on his sofa, he starts, putting his hand on her thigh before moving in for the kiss. She allows it. His goal seems to be to get as much of his spit into her mouth as possible, which is hardly what a young girl dreams of when she reads about true love’s kiss in her ladybird books. No fairy-tale that Brienne had read had detailed the prince slurping across the teeth and chin and tongue of the princess. She ends up comparing it to the time Jaime kissed her in the waterfall pool, a comparison which renders Hyle’s technique even more unpleasant.

 

While nothing as crazy as an out-of-body experience occurs to Brienne, she certainly feels more disconnected from her flesh than normal. His hands are undoing the top buttons of her blouse and now his left hand is in her bra and massaging her breast. His hand is so cold that her nipple hardens, which makes him very happy indeed. He groans, grasps her hand and places it on the bulge under his flies, which reminds Brienne of some warm little rodent curled up in its nest. And all the time Brienne is having a weary, mental argument with herself.

 

‘You agreed to go home with him, you must have known –’

‘To keep warm. I never agreed to let him shag me.’

‘Why are you out at all then? You wanted to be more experienced with men! You’d rather just keep accepting crumbs from – ’

‘But I don’t much like Hyle.’

‘You don’t have to marry him. Just get rid of your virginity with him. Think of your virginity as a costume – like green hair, acne, a smelly poncho, mosher pants, belt chains and a teddy bear rucksack; people might be too polite to comment on it, but they see it and they think, “Wow, that 25-year-old is dressed like a 14-year-old. Weird.” But if you lose your virginity, people will sense that you’re just like them. That you’re not in arrested development. You will have the aura of a liberated woman of the world who can remain coolly detached from the men she obtains sexual satisfaction from. You’ll – ’

‘What?? I will still be huge. I’ll still be ugly. And people can’t see up my vagina to know if my hymen is intact or not. Nothing will change.’

‘It will! Just have sex with him. You’ll be a new person afterwards. Confident and…’

 

“Oh, bollocks,” mutters Brienne.

 

“Huh?” says Hyle, his head jerking up from her breasts. His hand, en route to the inside of her knickers, stops reluctantly as though caught at traffic lights. Brienne can almost hear its impatient revving, waiting for the light to turn amber.

 

“The snow’s eased off. I’d best go before it starts again.” She gestures to the window.

 

“You’re joking me,” he says.

 

“Never. Not when you told me earlier there’s no such thing as a funny woman. Thank you for dinner.” She stands and pulls on her coat. Hyle still looks stunned as she shuts the front door behind her.

 

*

 

Like Goldilocks. The television is on and he is lying on her couch when she gets home. The snow had started again when she was halfway back, and she had cursed herself for spending the money her mum had left her on a bike when it could have gone on a four-wheel drive. She notices the lights are on from her drive, so she is not too surprised when she finds him in her lounge. He sits up as she enters. His fingers are rubbing away at the grafted skin on his arm, something he does when anxious.

 

“What are you doing here?” She tries to sound scolding, tries to hide how pleased she is to see him. While they had not exactly parted on good terms yesterday, the very fact that he is here means he must be ready to make up.

 

“You gave me a key.”

 

“Yeah, I did, but…” She turns the heating up on the thermostat, deposits her bag on the shelf.

 

“Did you have a good night?” he says politely.

 

“Oh, it had its moments.” She pulls off her coat and slings it across the back of a chair. She realises her mistake immediately as Jaime’s eyes move to the several square inches of skin where Hyle had unbuttoned her blouse all the way to the navel. She had not stopped to do it up. Had just zipped the coat over it.

 

Neither of them says a thing while she scrabbles to cover herself, her face aflame.

 

“Tell me you didn’t,” he says, when the silence has gone on for far too long.

 

She had already felt defiled by the path Hyle’s mouth had taken across her flesh, and Jaime’s curled lip exacerbates the feeling of shame. “I need to have a shower,” she murmurs. She is out of the room before he can say another word, only realising at the top of the stairs that those six words had probably confirmed the suspicion in his mind.

 

And what does it matter if he does think that? she asks herself.

 

It takes two cycles of her electric toothbrush before she feels that her mouth is her own again rather than Hyle’s overflow reservoir. She is still frozen from the ride home, and she showers in water so hot she is slightly surprised it doesn’t blister her from head to toe. When she emerges, pink as a boiled lobster, she pulls on the summer pyjamas, a pair of knee-high hiking socks and a woolly jumper. She looks ridiculous and ugly, and wandering around upstairs, she keeps finding excuses not to go back down to Jaime. He had looked so – no, don’t think about it, Brienne. Push it away. Focus on the things you can deal with. Her hair needs brushing. That book shelf is a mess and needs ordering. She should charge her toothbrush. She should give the bath a quick wash. That basin looks grimy– she hasn’t cleaned that in weeks either. Perhaps all the windowsills need a wipe down too.

 

When she cannot feasibly put it off any longer, she descends the stairs. It is a full hour and a half after she had first bolted up them, and the set of Jaime’s jaw is not exactly friendly as she enters the room. Brienne determines not to notice this.

 

“Much warmer now, thought I had frostbite,” she tells him. “It was having to go so slowly that did it – the gritters had been out but when there’s a blizzard and you can’t see anything…”

 

He is watching her with a strange look on his face, and it takes her all her courage to come and sit on the couch with him. Even then she perches against the arm of the section that is perpendicular to his, as far as possible from him.

 

“I could only go at 15 miles an hour tops and there were these huge snowdrifts everywhere,” she continues, though even to her own ears, her attempt at careless chitchat sounds increasingly desperate. “I love the bike in the summer, but… it’s useless in this weather. And the traffic in town – I could probably walked faster. What have … What have you been watching?”

 

“Did you have sex with him?”

 

She crouches to pull at her sock, straightens up again. “No.”

 

“Then why have you come home half dressed??”

 

Brienne is unnerved by how upset he sounds. He has never exactly been bashful about his possessiveness, but it has always manifested itself in flippancy before. He would joke about her being his racing-partner now, not Talisa’s. He would tell Genna, when she tried to interfere, to back off from his woman.

 

She tries to keep her tone placid in response. “It was snowing hard when we came out of the restaurant, so he said I could wait at his until it slowed down. I agreed and he started….” She gives a vague gesture with her hand.

 

“He started the central heating up, got his wood-burner roaring, and you were really hot from the walk, so obviously it made sense for you to take off all your clothes while you waited?”

 

Brienne reddens. “I left after five or six minutes, when the snow eased off.”

 

“Poor Hyle,” sneers Jaime. “Thwarted by the weather. He didn’t think of singing Baby, It’s Cold Outside?”

 

Brienne loses patience. “If I had slept with him, you still wouldn’t have the –”

 

“You considered it then?” says Jaime, wide-eyed.

 

“Yes,” she says. “A bit. And you don’t have the right to be annoyed by that, even if we do share a bed sometimes.”

 

He is on his feet now. “I can be annoyed about whatever I want. Don’t you try and tell me what I’m allowed to feel.”

 

“And don’t you try to make me feel ashamed of doing what other people do all the time.” She is close to tears now, lurching on a cocktail of disgust after her encounter with Hyle – which had felt grubby – and this encounter with Jaime – which feels fraught and not at all in her grasp. At work she is always good at de-escalating angry situations. She is good at keeping her temper, at not lashing out. “You’re a hypocrite, you know. You are an unkind, bullying hypocrite.”

 

He flinches and for some time doesn’t speak. “Well, we know I’m a bully but how am I a hypocrite?” he says at last.

 

“I can’t even be bothered,” she says. “You barge into my house while I’m out, put on my telly, and then you think you have the right to sneer at me and demand –”

 

“How am I a hypocrite?” he snaps. “If you’re going to abuse me, you can at least do me the courtesy of explaining why.”

 

“You with that woman on Friday night. I bet you did a damn sight more than unbuttoning her blouse and kissing her …” She trails off at the look on his face. “I notice you’re not denying it,” she says after some moments.

 

“I haven’t slept with anyone since I met you!” he says furiously. “I haven’t so much as kissed another woman. I haven’t wanted anyone else!”

 

There is a long, awful silence after this. It goes on and on, Brienne trying to process what he has just said. All the time she is doing this, he is staring at her, which doesn’t help.

 

Eventually, she says, “You flirt with other women all the time.”

 

“No,” he says. “I flirt with other women when I’m with you.”

 

Brienne shifts from the arm of the couch and sits down heavily on the seat. “Why?”

 

He shrugs. “To make you jealous.”

 

“Why??”

 

“Because it’s really fucking difficult to just make a move on someone you don’t feel worthy of. Because I didn’t want to risk you not letting me sleep with you anymore if I overstepped the line. Because that night by the waterfall you told me you didn’t think of me in that way.”

 

“But you don’t think of me in that way,” she protests. “You’ve never –”

 

He erupts. “I think of you like that all the fucking time. I can’t stop thinking of you like that. There’s pretty much no time that I’m awake when I’m not desperate to be fucking you. It’s a nightmare. How can you not know that?”

 

“You said,” Brienne says, weakly. “You said kissing me was a misguided pass.”

 

“Yeah. I lied.”

 

He is still standing and she is sitting, and it is unsettling that he might start moving about. Might come towards her or walk out or just… wander.

 

“Will you sit down?” she asks. “Just sit there where you were sitting before. And be quiet.”

 

Surprisingly, he obeys, and Brienne draws her leg up onto the couch and begins pulling at a loose thread on her sock. She tries very hard to think, to take in the revelations of the last minutes, but cannot. Her job has made her familiar enough with how people react when they are in shock, but she resents that she herself is now in this vulnerable state, her wits too scattered for her to have any kind of handle on this.

 

When at last she does look up though, it is to find that Jaime’s gaze is no longer on her face, but somewhere lower. She is wearing pyjama shorts, no underwear, and in pulling one foot up onto the couch and leaving the other planted on the floor, she has positioned her legs slightly akimbo. It is the space between that draws Jaime’s attention, and rather than feeling shock or embarrassment, Brienne thinks: Oh, for fuck’s sake. She has already had her tits stared at for quarter of the night, has already felt like meat. Cheap meat, like that Billy Bear ham that only a devoted carnivore might eat when there is nothing better. And now Jaime is looking at her cunt. She doesn’t know quite how much he can see, it can’t be that much, but he is clearly thunderstruck. And as she watches him, she starts to feel something else. He looks so dazed. Reverent, desperate and… and it is part of her that is making him look that way. That look cuts through in a way that his words alone hadn’t. A reckless impulse occurs to her and she shifts slightly, parting her legs just a little more, presenting more of a view. Still unaware that she has clocked him, he swallows and looks as though he might pounce on her or pass out or something else theatrical.

 

Then he suddenly glances up and meets her eye. His shock at being caught is adorable. Finally, he says, “I didn’t – I wasn’t trying – ”

 

“Come here,” Brienne says quietly.

 

He does.

 

“Sit there.” She pats the couch next to her.

 

He does, and this is where Brienne’s reign begins to crumble. It starts with his kisses, tentative, then tender, then insistent. Then rough. Soon her jumper is off. Then his T-shirt. Then he pulls her top off.

 

“Is this all right?” he says, between kisses.

 

“Yes.”

 

A minute later. “What about this?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

When he licks his fingers and pushes them underneath her waistband, and whispers, “This?” she cannot even reply in words.

 

His fingers stroke and rub at her wetness, and she tries not to moan, and he murmurs into her ear, “I would do anything for you.” He draws his fingers back up and before she can stop him, is sucking hard on them. Oh. Dear. God. “Please let me fuck you.” he says. “Please let me.”

 

It’s hardly even a request really. Asking her this as his fingers slip down there once again to do that seems a bit like someone saying, ‘Would you mind donating your wallet?’ while they hold a knife to your throat; Brienne is in no position to refuse.

 

 

 

 

He is irritatingly pleased with himself afterwards, looking down at her with a dopey grin on his face. They lie on the rug which is spread in front of the fireplace. Stopping long enough to get up the stairs to a bed had not been suggested by either of them; Brienne had half-worried she would mess up whatever witchcraft was making him do this if she interrupted the momentum of it at all. Now she wants to reach for the blanket that is folded on the back of the couch and cover herself, but he seems in no hurry to surrender his position above her. She is trapped, aware of his strength now in a way she never had been before. A couple of his chest hairs have dropped into the space between her breasts, and she is sore down there.

 

“You know, you’re the only woman I’ve been with,” he says, “who cries out, ‘Oh no, oh no, oh no!’ when she comes.”

 

At some point, he had moved downwards and had begun to kiss along the insides of her thighs. Jaime, it seemed, liked to tease just as much when the clothes came off as he did when they were on, and she had soon found herself arching herself towards him, whispering ‘please’, and, when that had failed, wrapping her hands in his hair to force his face to where she wanted it. When he at last laughingly gave in, she had come in about fifteen seconds. The loss of control in front of him was both beautiful and terrifying, and she had given vent to her rather ambivalent feelings with several ecstatic wails of, ‘Oh no!”

 

“Don’t be mean,” she whispers.

 

“Never. So when are you next going out with Hyle?” he says, rubbing the tip of his nose against hers.

 

“This weekend. I thought you could help me pick out a dress. Tell me how to do my hair.”

 

“I’d just go naked. That way, he doesn’t have to waste his five minutes undoing buttons and zips. Or I won’t have to when you get home.”

 

“Might be a bit cold.”

 

“Well, you can work up a sweat when you see him. You can practise doing blowjobs on me if you’d like? I’m happy to give some tips.”

 

“You’re all heart.”

 

“Brienne?”

 

“Mm?”

 

“You’re not actually going to see him again, are you?”

 

“Well, I’ll have to occasionally at work.” She grimaces at the thought.

 

“Yeah, but –”

 

“I don’t think he’ll be buying me tapas again. I imagine he thought he was going to get a better return on his investment.”

 

“Instead of which, I got the return.”

 

“You did.”

 

“Well, for future reference, I’m happy to purchase as much tapas for you as you can eat if you’ll have sex with me afterwards. You can have tapas for breakfast, lunch, and tea.”

 

“How romantic.”

 

“Well, I know how greedy you are. A man uses such tools as are at his disposal, and I’m quite rich.”

 

“Then should we perhaps have some sort of prostitute-punter contract drawn up? I don’t want you suing me if I overindulge on the patatas bravas and feel too sick to perform.”

 

“I’ll contact my lawyer tomorrow. I’m going to want a clause that states you can’t repeatedly yelp ‘Oh no!’ as you climax though.”

 

“Dickhead.”