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you sang me a song as pure as the breeze

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In retrospective, Catelyn will think six months after the fact, maybe it was a sign that she had met Brandon Stark for the first time during a day that had started bad and had proceeded to get progressively worse until the moment they saw each other the first time. Except that, since life is not a romantic comedy, that particular moment had just been the worst of the day until then. Surely it didn’t get any better.

This is how things do, in fact, go on the fateful day in question.

Catelyn’s alarm is set for seven AM, but she wakes up at six by shouting going on in the next room over.

It doesn’t take her long to understand why – after all, when the argument is just between her dad and Lysa, it never really changes at all. He must have caught her calling from the landline at some ungodly hour in the morning, thus raising their phone bill more than they can afford, and right now she’s telling him that he had no right to force her to come here from Ireland just when things were looking up for her.

Catelyn hopes that Edmure doesn’t hear any of it (doubtful, but she can still hope) and sighs, heading for the bathroom – she’s not going to sleep again anytime soon. Maybe she should tell Lysa at some point that Petyr Baelish isn’t worth all the money she wastes calling him at six in the morning – after all, the kid had gone and told her straight to her face that he only hung out with Lysa so he’d have an excuse to see her. Catelyn never told her sister because she doesn’t have the heart to, but another month of this and she’ll have to – they didn’t move to London just so that all the extra money their dad makes at his new job, extra hours included, ends up paying the phone bills. She washes her face and gets back to her room, figuring that she might revise a bit for the math test today, and clearly that’s when the neighbor, whose living room has a wall in common with hers, has to contribute to the already bad situation.

Catelyn knows just a few things about the guy living next door. His name is J. Lannister, he never gets out of the house for some reason – she has never seen him in the flesh and they’ve been living here for two months –, he has a couple of friends who drop by at least once a week to try and drag him out and neither ever succeeds, and he really likes the Pogues. So much that he listens to that band constantly whenever he’s awake and in the room next to hers. Sometimes he did switch around a bit, but he always goes back to the same four records eventually. She did try to talk to him about it, but he never opened the door whenever she knocked, so now she’s just resigned. She gives up on revising ten minutes into it – he’s not listening to music at full volume, at least, but it’s still enough to be distracting.

She puts her books back in her bag and checks the time. Six thirty. If she wants to pretend that the argument didn’t wake her up, she can’t go to the kitchen and make breakfast at least for another twenty minutes. She goes back to the bathroom, brings her school uniform and puts it on after a quick shower – when she’s done fixing her tie, it’s seven. She gives her stockings a last look, making sure there aren’t holes anywhere, then she takes a deep breath and gets out of the room.

There’s breakfast waiting for her already, with a note. Lysa’s door is resolutely closed. The note is from her dad – he says he went to work earlier and he figured he’d leave her something to eat.

Catelyn sits down at the table, says a quick prayer under her breath and starts eating.

One hour later, she’s headed for school dragging Lysa behind – first she didn’t want to go, then Catelyn had to drag her out but her hair isn’t properly braided and she can bet money that some teacher will find her later to make sure that she reminds her sister not to break the dress code. At least Edmure had sensed what kind of day it was and said he’d go to school with some friend of his from the floor below – at least someone in the family has made friends. Catelyn is going to bake him something one of these days, since she knows he didn’t take the move to London that well either but he’s definitely being reasonable about it. After she leaves Lysa at the entrance of her school building, she runs to her own – she’s barely on time, and she forgot her lunch home again, and she never brings money with.

And clearly she still doesn’t know anyone well enough to ask them to share or to lend her some money to buy it.

Six hours later, she’s pretty sure that while she didn’t fail the math test she can’t have done more than average, the girl in the next desk was talking to her friend about the fact that Catelyn’s school clothes are obviously always the same (it’s true – she doesn’t have a spare uniform) and aren’t her shoes so three years ago. When the friend says something like but you know that in Ireland it’s probably this year’s fashion Catelyn ponders how it would feel to turn on her side and tell her a few choice words, then she shakes her head and looks back down at her book.

When the bell rings for the day, Catelyn feels like running out – she usually enjoys the religious studies class, but today she couldn’t follow half of the lesson and she knows that her teacher noticed. Thankfully she didn’t point that out and didn’t ask her what was wrong after class was done, small mercies.

She leaves class on her own, and walks out of the school’s door on her own, as usual, and clearly Lysa isn’t outside waiting for her. She’s usually done half an hour before her, and she’s supposed to wait for her so they can get home together, but obviously she hasn’t.

So now she has to go looking for her even if she just wants to go back home and eat a very late lunch. Great. She takes a deep breath and sets out for the middle school building – someone must have seen her sister when she left – and that’s when her two classmates from before come up to her from behind and walk past after both their shoulders collide with her own. Catelyn’s bag was half open, and so now half of her books are on the ground.

Right. She leans down to get them, feeling very self-conscious since the uniform’s skirt stops barely above the knee but still would show more than necessary in that position (she can’t spare money for a long coat and she’s only wearing a jacket that arrives at the waist), and that’s when she hears someone whistle.

She grabs her books quickly and raises her head to see who that was.

It definitely came from her left, and the only person at her left is a man on a motorcycle. He looks – well, not older than his mid-twenties, he’s wearing ripped jeans and a red leather jacket. He has dark hair reaching his neck, a pair of grey eyes that are staring right at her, and he’s smirking, and she knows she’s blushing crimson.

“Well,” he says a moment later, “I didn’t know that under that horrid uniform you could find such nice legs. I suppose you wouldn’t allow me to check for myself, would you?”

What?”

“Hey, don’t be like that. In my experience, when you’re talking nice Catholic girls, it’s…fifty/fifty, pretty much.”

At that he gets off his seat and moves closer, and fine, maybe he has nice legs, but it’s not what she’s thinking about right now.

“So, which fifty would you be?”

Catelyn doesn’t even waste time answering – she’s entirely too angry for this – and so she glares at him before raising her hand and slapping him across the face.

That kind of fifty,” Catelyn replies, and then she turns her back on him and goes straight for Lysa’s school.

She doesn’t think about the bastard outside her school for the entire day and the following, for that matter. It takes her one hour to find out that Lysa left with a classmate of hers because they have to do some school work together and she couldn’t bothered to tell her, when she gets home the fridge is half-empty and Edmure is at his friend’s downstairs, and the mysterious J. Lannister is playing Sally McLennane all over again.

She stays at home the bare minimum that it takes her to do her homework and leave dinner ready, then she leaves and goes to the evening mass – she usually only has time to make it on Sunday morning, but this really was the day for it.

When she comes back home, Dad and Lysa are arguing again – she can hear it from outside the door. She makes a beeline for the yard, which is empty save for Edmure.

“How about we get ourselves some fish and chips?” She asks him after two minutes of silence.

“Please,” Edmure says gratefully, and they go for fish and chips. It’s the only time of the day that doesn’t feel like a complete failure.

--

So, after that kind of day, it’s no wonder that when Catelyn goes back to school the next day, she isn’t thinking about the admittedly handsome jerk with the motorcycle.

So when she comes out of the door, Lysa is waiting for her at the side and the guy is standing not that far from her, she almost does a double take.

Especially when he goes and walks straight in front of her.

“I can’t deal with this,” Catelyn says before moving to his side.

“Hey, I just wanted to apologize for yesterday! There’s no need to –”

“I’m not interested,” she says, not even looking back at him. She grabs Lysa’s shoulder and walks away as quickly as possible.

“Who was that guy?” Lysa asks a moment later.

Of course.

“I don’t know. He was there yesterday, he said some stupid things and I made sure to tell him that he wasn’t welcome. Come on, let’s get home.”

“But – but he was –”

“Don’t even say that and just walk, please.”

Lysa doesn’t press it, but she’s obviously not satisfied.

She so doesn’t need any of this. Not in the year she’s supposed to take her final A-levels, not in the last six months of school and not ever.

--

The next day, Lysa tells her before hand that she has to go work on that science project with her classmate.

So she’s alone when she leaves school, and he’s there again.

“You won’t hear no for an answer, will you?” Catelyn sighs when she realizes that he’s not going to let her go anywhere unless she makes a scene.

“And you really make it hard for a guy to say he’s sorry, don’t you?”

“You didn’t look very sorry, two days ago.”

“Well, I realized I was being a rotten bastard. And you totally had all the rights to do that.”

“Fine. Accepted. Now can I go home?”

“Without even telling me your name?”

“Forget it. I don’t tell strangers anything.”

“Can’t argue with that point. Okay then. My name is Brandon, now you know who I am.”

“… really?”

“Fine, fine, Brandon Stark. Here, now that you have my surname you can even ask around about me.”

And – he’s grinning as he says it, and Catelyn should just ignore it, but – he has a really nice smile. And it’s kind of infectious. And – she can’t help grinning back just a bit.

“Fine. I’m Catelyn. Now will you let me go home?”

Fine, Catelyn. Nice name,” he says before going back to his motorcycle. Then he sits back on it, turns towards her, winks and drives away.

For a moment, Catelyn can barely move. Then she casts a glance around and sees her two classmates from the other day glaring at her as if they really, really hate her sight.

She walks back home and maybe if she smiles to herself a bit as she does, no one has to know.

--

When she gets back inside her building, she crosses ways with the two friends of the mysterious J. Lannister who are on their way out, both of them looking slightly dejected. They’re chatting with the porter, Mr. Seaworth, who smiles at her as she walks in and says he has mail for her dad. She takes it and can’t help hearing a bit of the conversation.

She knows they’re named Arthur and Oberyn, she’s met them enough times on her way out while they were waiting to be let in or seeing themselves out. Currently, Arthur is telling Oberyn that this really needs to bloody stop, and Oberyn is agreeing but adding that it’s not like he doesn’t have his reasons but could he just consider talking to someone, no, he can’t, figures he had to live up to the family name someway.

Well, she can’t help being slightly curious about what’s going on with the guy, but she has more urgent things to take care of. Like studying for her history essay due three days for now, putting dinner together, getting Edmure from his friend at seven and not thinking about the guy outside school, never mind that she shouldn’t even consider the option. He’s at least twenty-five, which is entirely too old, and – just no.

Clearly, the moment she walks into her room, she hears the usual music coming from Lannister’s flat. By now she barely even minds it – she’s had to learn to ignore it.

She’s halfway through her essay on WWI when the music abruptly stops and she hears someone cursing from the other side of the wall.

This is new – she never heard the guy’s voice, for that matter. She looks at her essay for a moment, then puts it on the side and goes to the front door. She can hear someone knocking firmly on Lannister’s door, and figuring that she’ll warn them that it’s useless, she walks out into the hallway.

She has never seen the person knocking – for a moment she takes them for a boy a few years older than Edmure, but after a moment she realizes she’s wrong. The person knocking can’t be older than fourteen, definitely, and is wearing jeans and a nondescript blue hoodie, but when they turn in her direction, she realizes that it’s definitely a girl – it’s not just the big, blue eyes with long eyelashes, it’s that when she says hi to Catelyn the voice is definitely feminine. Nothing else is, though – the girl is wearing short hair, which looks cut at home rather than professionally, her nose looks kind of weird – as if it was broken a couple of times, she has full lips that don’t really match her appearance at all and her cheeks are covered in freckles.

“Hi,” Catelyn answers her. “If you’re trying to talk to this guy to tell him to tone down the music, you can as well stop now.”

“Oh. Why?”

“I tried for a month. He never even opened the door. And – wait, you moved here recently, didn’t you?”

“Yes,” she answers. “My dad and I, we’re in the other flat. We moved in a couple weeks ago.”

Right. The third flat on their floor has been empty for a couple of months and she didn’t notice someone else taking it.

“I’m Catelyn,” she says.

“I’m Brienne.”

She stares at the door in front of her, then shrugs and knocks firmly all over again.

Catelyn’s jaw drops the moment she hears a key turning and the door slams open. She hadn’t expected it to work – how long has Brienne been knocking? Definitely longer than the fifteen minutes Catelyn spared the task once before giving it up.

And well, the mysterious J. Lannister is nothing but a sight for sore eyes, or at least he’d be if he cleaned up a bit. Catelyn can’t help staring at him at least out of curiosity – he’s tall, quite so, and if only he bothered to cut his hair and shave a beard that hasn’t been kept with much care for a while, he would be downright handsome. With that height and the green eyes he has, it’d be the minimum. She only notices that he has no his right hand after she takes in the ruined jeans and the Pogues t-shirt he has on – that part doesn’t surprise her at all. That stated, he obviously hasn’t looked after himself for a long while.

“Oh, fuck me,” he says, “this better be good. What the hell do you want?”

“To talk to you,” Brienne replies without being fazed for a moment.

“Yeah, well, you knocked for two hours straight, I gathered that. I also thought that you’d get the message that I don’t talk to people.”

“You’re talking to me now, aren’t you?”

“Oh, for – again, what do you want?”

“That music you were listening to before,” she starts.

“Oh, shit, don’t tell me, your mom wants me to tone it down because it’s not suited for her precious fourteen year-old?”

Brienne stares back up at him without missing a beat. “No. My mom’s dead, I live with my dad and he’s not even home right now. And I’m eleven.”

What? Christ, you’re tall. Okay, great, so?”

“So I was wondering if you’d be so kind to tape that record for me?”

“… wait. You want a tape?”

Brienne reaches down into her hoodie’s pocket and hands him a brand new one. “You are right about one thing – my dad thinks it’s not… suited. But I like it. And I’ve never met anyone who did as well and who’d make me a tape. So?”

Lannister stares down at Brienne like he can’t even begin to make sense of her, but after a minute of staring contest he obviously decides that she has passed some test, because he reaches out and grabs the tape from her.

“Come back tomorrow at this hour.”

He looks like he’s about to slam the door in Brienne’s face, and Catelyn is quick to grab her chance.

“Wait a moment!”

“Oh damn it. Yeah, fine, since apparently today I’m talking to people, by all means. What can I do for you? You want a copy as well?”

“I don’t need one, since I’ve listened to all your records as much as you do.”

“… Sorry?”

Catelyn sighs. “I live next door. My bedroom has a wall in common with – whichever room it is where you listen to music. By now I’m adjusted to it, but – if you wouldn’t mind starting sometime after half past seven in the morning I’d be grateful.”

Lannister stares straight at her, and for a moment she wonders how old is he – the beard makes him look well in his twenties, but now that she looks better, he does seem a bit younger.

He shrugs. “Well, I guess it’s not too much a sacrifice. Can you all leave me alone now?”

“Uh. Yes?”

Lannister slams the door in their faces.

“You knocked on his door for two hours?” Catelyn asks Brienne a moment later.

“I really like that album,” Brienne replies, looking a bit sheepish.

Well, if it means that Catelyn gets to sleep in peace until a decent hour, she hopes that Lannister tapes for Brienne every album in his collection.

--

The next day, Brandon Stark is outside the school.

Again.

“Really?” Catelyn asks when he walks straight to her.

Again.

“Really. Why, can’t I want to make sure that I apologized to you properly?”

“You did already.”

“And what if I wanted to apologize by bringing you out to dinner?” He’s grinning again, his lips curled up in a lovely smile, and Catelyn should run.

“Sorry, I don’t do dinners with strangers.”

“Fine. Then have coffee with me and we can get to know each other before we go out to dinner.”

“You really can’t back down, can you?”

“Not when I’m interested,” he answers.

And – the thing is, maybe Catelyn is a bit flattered that he’s being this persistent. And he does look nice. And – she doesn’t date, she’s saving herself for marriage because she wants to and she’s always wanted to, and she’s not sure that she can see herself in a serious relationship with this man, but – coffee. What harm can it be?

“Let’s say that I could get coffee with you Saturday at eleven in the morning. Would that be good for you?”

“Should I pick you up?”

“Do you think I can’t guess that you want my address? No, we can see each other at the bar two blocks over from here.”

“As you wish,” he replies, then winks at her again and leaves on his motorcycle. Catelyn really, really hopes that no one heard that conversation, because the last thing she needs is anyone at school finding out and possibly telling both her dad and some teacher.

She doesn’t let herself wonder what she’s even doing and heads back home – thankfully Lysa is still working on the joint science project or whatever it is that she does with her classmate, or she wouldn’t have heard the end of this.

--

At six, though, she can’t help sneaking out in the hallway to see if Lannister really taped Brienne that record. Brienne shows up at exactly six and knocks firmly on the door again, but this time the door opens after a couple of minutes. Lannister definitely hasn’t cleaned up much, but he doesn’t look half as angry as yesterday. He sighs and slams the tape in Brienne’s hand without too many ceremonies.

“If your dad ever finds out, it was some classmate of yours. Clear?”

“Clear,” Brienne replies, but she sounds as if that statement is laughable.

“What’s the matter, you don’t have any classmates who listen to inappropriate music?”

“Maybe, but I don’t have classmates that would tape me anything. Well, thank you.”

Then she turns her back to him, probably considering the conversation over.

“Hey, wait a moment. What’s your name?” Lannister asks a moment later. “At least I’d like to know who I’m taping shit for.”

“Brienne. But you should at least tell me yours, if you want to know mine.”

“Smartass. It’s Jaime.”

At least now she can attach a name to the face, Catelyn thinks. Brienne walks back home quietly and looking at her tape as if it’s some birthday present, and Catelyn goes back inside. She has to finish her essay.

--

She debates making up some kind of lie for Saturday morning, then she decides that Dad doesn’t deserve any of that and so one evening, after Edmure is long in bed and Lysa has gone back to her room after another shouting match, she sits down in front of him before he can go to bed.

“Dad, uh, I have to tell you something.”

“All right. You look strange, though. You aren’t sick, are you? Because if you’re running yourself tired doing everything I can’t –”

“Dad, it’s fine. I’m good. It’s just, uh, I might have met this person at school. And I might have told them that I’d have coffee with them on Saturday. But I’m not going if you don’t –”

“Cat. Are you doing it for fun or is it serious?”

“Is it – no. No, it really isn’t, but I figured it would be an excuse to go out. It’s not even going to go anywhere. But really, if you think it’s inappropriate or something like that I can just stand him up, it’s not that big of a deal.”

“Do I have to remind you that we don’t live in a relatively small town anymore? And that you haven’t had a day for yourself in months? Don’t think I’m blind, Cat. Go have that coffee, just promise me you’ll be careful.”

“Of course. I wouldn’t go if I didn’t think it’d be harmless.”

“Then God knows you deserve a break. That’s fine. Just be back for dinner.”

So maybe Catelyn is smiling to herself widely as she gets into bed that night, and not even Jaime Lannister’s binge of listening to the saddest songs in his favorite band’s catalogue fazes her.

So maybe she looks forward to that coffee, to the first date of her life and to the first thing she’d be doing for fun since her mom died. Who could blame her?

--

On Saturday, she leaves the house at then – they should pay the rent on Monday, but Dad likes to be early if he can, and so he hands her an envelope to leave to the porter. Catelyn never asked why Mr. Baratheon, the landlord, never collects it himself, but then again she lives next to a guy who spent six months without talking to anyone and only relented after being harassed for two hours – what does she know.

So she’s doubly surprised to walk out in the hallway just as Lannister opens the door to his flat, still wearing half-ruined clothes and still looking like he needs a barber. He has an envelope in his hand as well.

“Huh. Let me guess, you’re giving Seaworth the rent, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Why –”

“Great. So would you be so kind to hand him mine, as well? Thanks,” he says, and before she can object he has handed her the envelope and slammed the door closed.

God, she thinks, doesn’t he even worry that she could just steal the money, since from the thickness of the envelope she can bet that there isn’t a check inside?

She shakes her head, hands Seaworth both envelopes and leaves the house with her heart beating maybe slightly faster than usual.

--

The thing is, Catelyn hadn’t really expected much from this dating thing.

So when Brandon shows up wearing clean jeans and a nice white button-down and brings her to a café that is a lot more high class than she can afford, and when he proceeds to spend the next hour or so being not a jerk at all, she can’t help feeling slightly overwhelmed. He’s lovely throughout – he pays for her coffee and pastry, he doesn’t steal touches or anything, and she does in fact learn a lot about him.

He’s twenty-six, which is still definitely too old, and he works for the company his father founded – it produces and sells gear for winter sports, and Brandon does PR for it, but he’s currently taking a break for a couple weeks and that’s why he dusted off his bike and his comfortable clothes of his university days. And yes, maybe he likes to hit on pretty girls, but it’s all in good fun and she doesn’t find it hard to believe him. He says he has two brothers and a sister, all younger. They commiserate together about little sisters seeing people their parents don’t like – Brandon’s has a crush on some kid in her school who’s apparently old Scandinavian nobility or something like that and according to his father is everything but good news. In comparison to the old nobility from a family known for having had a lot of incestuous marriages and half of the members being supposedly insane, Petyr Baelish from Limerick kind of pales, but Brandon does listen with interest when Catelyn rants at him about the entire sordid story, and he seems to get where she comes from at least. By lunch time, she’s positively charmed and has reconsidered her stance on Brandon Stark, at least for the moment.

And then he asks her whether she would like to have lunch at his place – he admittedly can’t cook for his life, but his housekeeper can and left him lunch ready to heat the day before, and it’s definitely going to be just lunch, also Lyanna – his sister – is staying with him for a couple of days so they could meet.

Catelyn can’t find it in herself to say no.

--

So she goes to have lunch at Brandon’s, except that it’s not his sister she ends up meeting.

Catelyn’s first meeting with Ned Stark couldn’t have been more different than the one with his older brother. For one, she hasn’t had a horrible day and she isn’t feeling angry or frustrated. But then again, Brandon had looked handsome and charming from moment one. Ned – well, it’s not just that while he has the same hair and eyes as Brandon, he isn’t quite as good-looking or confident – he’s a lot more solemn, for one, and he doesn’t laugh quite as easily, and he has none of the charm.

It’s also that Brandon hadn’t looked like he needed a month of uninterrupted sleep and he certainly didn’t come with a maybe two-month old baby curled up in his arms.

From the moment she steps through the door of Brandon’s big, definitely high-class flat, her date takes a slightly surreal turn.

Starting with coming inside the house and hearing a baby crying, for that matter.

“… Brandon?” She asks. “You didn’t mention – I mean, you didn’t say you had –”

“What? No, I don’t! Have children, I mean. Ah, damn, it’s that Saturday. I totally forgot.”

“You forgot what?”

“That he said he’d keep an eye on him for me,” someone else says, sighing heavily, from the other side of the room. The man who has the same hair and eyes as Brandon and the solemn face and who’s holding a tiny bundle with equally dark hair and equally gray eyes in his arms, who is still crying faintly, takes a few steps closer to them.

“Hi,” he tells her, sounding very, very tired. “I’m Ned. His younger brother, if he never told you.”

“Oh, he has. I’m Catelyn. Nice to meet you. And he’s…?”

“Jon,” Ned says fondly. “And I guess I’ll go now.”

“Damn, Ned, I’m sorry. I got this week mixed up with the following. I was sure it was the one when Lyanna was supposed to stay over, and –”

“And this was supposed to be next week. I know, I know, don’t worry.”

“But didn’t you have that work thing?”

“I’m just going to ask Robert.”

Robert? Are you kidding?”

Ned rolls his eyes. “Of course I’m not leaving my kid with Robert, I do quite want him to live until he can at least finish high school. If I ask Robert he’s going to say yes, then he’s promptly going to call his brother, who’s going to say yes and then promptly ask his best friend who already has two children for help, and since said best friend is deserving of sainthood he’s going to take him and be better than you, Robert and Stannis combined would be, so I’m pretty sure it’s going to go great. Any other questions?”

“Er, no. It sounds like a good plan, though?”

“Good. Well, I’ll let you know how it went. And – miss, it was a pleasure meeting you. Hopefully next time I’ll be less busy. Have a great day,” Ned says, and then he goes back to the hallway, comes back after a minute or two with a couple of bags, grabs a coat and with his free hand and leaves without saying another word.

For a moment no one says anything.

“God, I’m so sorry about that,” Brandon says when the silence is threatening to become awkward. “I honestly had mixed the two weeks up, though.”

“That’s – that’s all right. Really, you don’t have to explain yourself.”

“Well, you do deserve an explanation though. I can give it while we eat, how about it?”

They do eat, and it’s in fact very good, and while they do Brandon does more or less explain the situation. He’s kind of vague about the details, but from what she understands Ned got married very young – nineteen or twenty – and everyone thought that it was a stupid idea, but he was head over heels for his wife and the reverse was valid, and after all since both came from well-off families and were working already, they had tried for kids pretty soon. And they were over the moon about that, too, except that Ned’s wife had died a few days after delivering the baby – it turned out that she had an allergic reaction to some anesthetic they had used at the hospital and no one had bothered to check, and by the time they realized what was going on it was already too late.

“And that’s how my brother ended up with a kid at barely twenty-two,” Brandon finishes while polishing off his meat. “He’s not doing a bad job of it, though. Actually this probably was the third time he ever asked anyone in the family to keep an eye on the kid, and I kind of feel bad for having totally forgotten, but at least it looks like he’s covered.”

Catelyn wants to say that she wouldn’t have minded if Ned left the baby with them anyway, but it’s probably not the kind of thing you say on your first date, especially if you don’t want distractions.

In the end she caves and lets Brandon bring her home. On that motorcycle. And maybe she feels a bit of a thrill when she puts her arms around his waist, feeling the leather of the jacket against her cheek. He leaves her a couple of blocks away just to make sure that no one sees them, and when he asks her if they can see each other next week, same time, she says yes before she can think better of it.

She heads back home feeling really, really good.

The feeling doesn’t last that much because Lysa is now raging because Dad has called their provider and blocked international calls on the landline.

Catelyn heads for her room and for once Jaime’s louder-than-usual music coming in from the other room doesn’t disturb her one bit.

--

She spends the following week anticipating Saturday – so fine, what’s the problem if she’s excited? It’s still all in good fun, and Brandon is nice, not to mention that she had liked being treated for once, and she needs a break from the almost constant arguments – she can’t blame Edmure for staying at his friend’s from the second floor more time than he’s actually at home.

Considering how things are on the home front, whenever there’s an afternoon when both Lysa and Dad are home she grabs her books and studies in the yard – it’s a pretty terrible one as far as it goes, all concrete and a few meager plants here and there, and it’s mostly kids playing football, but she’s usually left well enough alone if she occupies a bench. She doesn’t miss that Brienne does the same most days as well, doing her homework quietly while she listens to one of those Walkmans – probably the precious tape of Lannister’s, she figures.

A week goes on without any other happening of importance. Her second date with Brandon is as lovely as the first – he buys her coffee in the same place they went the first time, and she does end up meeting Lyanna after all. She’s perfectly lovely, and sounds very much smitten with the infamous guy at her school with silver hair and purple eyes. Catelyn kind of hopes that it’s an exaggerated description, because that sounds kind of creepy rather than fascinating, but to each their own. Also she can barely complain, not when her sister is still smitten with a guy who has nothing that exotic going for him. Brandon brings her home with his bike again, after another lunch which was nothing but delicious, and Catelyn agrees promptly to a third date.

“I’m seeing the guy again on Friday,” she tells Dad later that evening.

“Friday night? Will you be home for the night, though?”

“Sure.”

“You look happy, you know.”

“Oh. I – I do?”

“You don’t even know how glad I am. Just – be careful, all right? You’re still young. And you still have to finish high school. I know you’re eighteen, but just –”

Catelyn hears the unspoken be careful and don’t fall for a deranged person, and she assures him that it’s nothing dangerous and the guy she’s going out with, well, he’s a bit older than her but he’s perfectly nice and not interested in getting anywhere other than kissing, maybe, since she hasn’t even kissed him yet.

Dad seems satisfied with it and Catelyn goes to her room thinking, how would it be, kissing him?

--

On Friday night she finds out. He brings her dancing, but it’s a quiet club that only plays songs from the fifties and he kisses her on the dance floor, his hands cupping the back of her head carefully, and for a moment Catelyn doesn’t worry about her nicest dress that she bought two years ago and is obviously used up, and about her out of fashion shoes. As far as first kisses go she’s pretty sure it’d be hard to beat this one – it’s everything she has ever imagined, he’s not pushing much but he’s also not kissing that chastely, and it’s obvious that he knows what to do. His hand is buried in the back of her hair, the other arm around her waist, and she kisses back with enthusiasm if not skill, and she thinks that she really had misjudged him the first time they met.

--

They make plans for tomorrow before he leaves her at the customary three blocks from home, and she steps back into the building grinning openly, and feeling like she could walk on water for how elated she feels.

That lasts until she notices that someone is still down in the yard. Which is weird – it’s half past nine in the evening, and while it’s relatively early for a night out it’s kind of late for being outside. She moves closer, hoping that it’s not Edmure.

It’s not – it’s Brienne, actually. She’s sitting down on the bench, staring at a mess in her hands that looks a lot like pieces of Walkman and tape. Specifically, it looks as if someone has stomped their feet on both.

“Hey,” she asks sitting down next to her. “What happened?”

She shrugs. “Some of the kids in the yard,” she replies, curtly, closing her eyes. There are tear tracks on her face, even though she isn’t crying now.

“… Really? But why?”

She shrugs again. “Nothing that hasn’t happened already. Why do you think I said I don’t have any classmates making me tapes, if I ask?”

“Because they’re idiots?”

“You can say it, you know. It’s not like I have no clue.”

“Of what?” Catelyn is openly pretending not to know where she’s getting at.

“That I look like a freak. Whatever, it doesn’t matter.”

“But why are you down here?”

“Dad’s outside town for work. There’s no one up there. What difference does it make?”

“Still. It’s late.”

“It’s okay, no one can get in without keys. I’ll go up in a bit. But thanks for asking.”

As she walks up the stairs, Catelyn is half in mind of asking Edmure to get down and talk to Brienne if only for her own peace of mind and because at least he’s almost her age, but when she gets home there’s a note saying he’s spending the night at his friend’s. Dad is already sleeping, Lysa is in her room reading some novel with a scowl on her face and Catelyn knows she won’t get help there.

She goes to her room. There’s music coming in from the other side.

Fine then.

She puts on more comfortable shoes, goes outside again and heads for the drugstore in front of the building that is thankfully open until midnight. She buys five blank tapes, hoping that they’re going to be enough, then she walks back inside and heads up the stairs.

Then she knocks on Lannister’s door.

For five minutes there’s no answer. Then she knocks twice, but the moment she does, the door opens and the guy is staring at her as if he’s completely not impressed.

“Let me guess, you want to go to sleep at some ridiculous hour and you need me to shut it off.”

“Lannister, I slept with your music on for six months, I don’t even care.”

“Then what do you want? I thought it was clear that I don’t want to talk to anyone.”

“Believe me, it’s not like I particularly want to talk to you, but it’s not about me. It’s – listen, I was coming back home a bit ago and Brienne was in the yard on her own, and I asked her what happened and it looks like some of those kids who spend the afternoon down there playing football grabbed her things and broke them. I mean, she had one of those portable tape players things. In which I suppose there was that tape of yours. And both looked done for.”

For a moment, Lannister looks almost as if he’s sorry he’s hearing it. But before he can ask what’s his role in all of this, Catelyn hands out the plastic bag with the tapes.

“I bought five. Do those people even have five records out?”

“Four,” Lannister replies automatically.

“Whatever. Just tape them for her, will you? Hopefully she has something else to play them in the house.”

Lannister looks at her from bright green eyes with dark bags under them, then he shrugs and grabs the bag with his left hand.

“Fine. I’ll have it done tomorrow morning.”

“Great. When do I come by to get them?”

“Did I say you had to?”

“What? Well, you said that you don’t get out of the house, so I figured –”

“I still didn’t say you had to. And by the way, what’s your name? If I’ll need to talk to you again I guess I should know.”

“Catelyn. I already know yours, no thanks to you.”

“Sure thing,” he replies, almost cheerfully – for his standards, anyway. Then he closes the door.

Well, that went better than she thought.

--

The next day, she’s kind of surprised to see that one of Lannister’s two friends is sitting in the yard. It’s the blonde one with blue-purple eyes – Arthur.

What she doesn’t expect is for him to stand up and walk towards her the moment she notices him.

“Hey – uh, you’re Jaime’s neighbor, aren’t you? I see you’re going out, but – do you have five minutes?”

Catelyn shrugs – she’s twenty minutes early, she has the time. “Sure thing. But I doubt I know anything that you don’t.”

“Actually you might. I mean, I’m pretty sure you noticed both me and Oberyn dropping by – we’ve known each other for a while, and – well, you did notice he doesn’t leave the house much.”

“That’d have been hard to miss, but yes.”

“Okay. Well. We’ve been trying to convince him to get out or at least speak to a therapist or do anything that isn’t what he’s currently doing for a while, and you did see how well it went. So – why is it that this morning he called me saying that he needed one of us to bring him one of those portable cassette players things and then when I brought it to him upstairs he said that I should get down in the yard and wait half an hour?”

“He did what? Didn’t he say what he needed it for?”

“No, but he said to get a good one. And don’t look at me that way, he doesn’t dress to show it but he actually swims in money. When he remembers to use it.”

“Well, I might have an idea of why he’d want you to buy the cassette player, but no clue of why he’d tell you to go wait here.”

“Better than nothing. So, why – ah, fuck.”

Catelyn turns towards the direction he’s staring at and – well. She can see why he’s swearing, since Jaime Lannister in all his mighty self is down in the yard. For that matter, he has actually shaved – his hair is still long and it definitely needs a cut, but his cheeks are smooth and now Catelyn gets what felt weird about him. With the beard he looked in his mid-twenties, but now? It’s plenty obvious that if he’s not her age, he can’t be that much older.

He’s also still wearing worn-out clothes and ripped jeans, but still, the change is pretty striking.

“Can I ask how old he actually is?” Catelyn whispers to Arthur a moment later.

“How – he turned nineteen a few weeks ago. Still, you didn’t tell me –”

“Just pay attention for a moment.”

Brienne is sitting on her usual bench, her shoulders slightly hunched as she reads a book and flinches ever so slightly whenever some kid passing him by says a couple choice words.

Jaime takes a breath, walks straight up to her bench, and says something that they can’t hear from where they are. Brienne looks up and he shrugs before dropping a paper bag in her lap, then he walks back to where he came from, except that he stops one of the kids still playing football, whispers something in his ear and leaves after the kid’s face turns into a completely terrified expression.

Meanwhile Brienne has taken out of the bag a box with the new tape player and the tapes Catelyn left Jaime yesterday.

“I’ll be fucked,” Arthur says again. “Who’s that girl?”

“Our other neighbor. She lives with her dad in the other flat on our floor.”

“Well, fuck me sideways again. She managed to do singlehandedly what me, Oberyn and the guy’s entire family hasn’t managed in a year, not that his family tried that much. I guess there’s still hope yet. Sorry for having kept you waiting,” he says, and then he heads for the staircase – probably he wants the story directly from the interested party.

Catelyn now really wants to know how at nineteen you’re living on your own, not going to any kind of school, swim in money and by the way, also missing a limb.

But she has a date and she’s not running late yet but she might, so she stops thinking about Jaime Lannister and heads for the building three blocks from here.

--

The fourth date goes splendidly. The fifth as well. At the sixth Brandon brings her to the theater, and she realizes that she must have mentioned liking Beckett but not having seen any of his plays until now. So maybe that night they kiss for fifteen minutes straight before she has to go back home, but she had enjoyed it so much, and he had been so lovely throughout, and she really wanted to kiss him properly, so why not?

At the seventh date, though, she waits in front of their corner for twenty minutes and he doesn’t show up. It’s weird – he’s always there before her. And – well, considering that the rest of her family has taken a short weekend trip back to Limerick at Lysa’s insistence and Dad had seen it as a peace offering, she had really looked forward to not having to go back so early. Maybe something happened to him? She’s about to go back home and call his landline when an old Ford pulls up in front of the building and she realizes that it’s Ned. Who looks even more tired than he had when they saw each other the first time.

“Hi,” she says, coming closer. “Did something happen –”

“Well, not really,” Ned sighs. “I mean, Brandon was all set to come here, and then he realized that this evening there was some company party that he couldn’t avoid going to – he had forgotten to check his timetable, but – really, he does that all the time. It’s not like he forgot to check, he doesn’t have one and likes to think that he keeps track of everything. So he called me asking if I could drop by and warn you, and – well, that’s it.”

“Oh. Well, that’s no problem. I’ll go back home then.”

“But?”

“But what?”

“I can hear that. Come on, say it.”

“It’s nothing really. Just, my entire family went back to Ireland for the week, and I’m kind of on my own and it’s Friday night, so – but that’s fine. I can go bothering my neighbor if I really get bored.”

Ned’s eyes narrow for a moment, as if he hasn’t bought her speech at all – and fine, it was half-hearted for that matter. Then he takes a deep breath. “Well,” he says, “uhm. I really have to get back to my place, because – you know.” He looks at the back of the car, where she can see his baby sleeping quietly in his seat. “But – if you really don’t want to be on your own and you want to come with I can order dinner in and maybe we can watch a movie? I’m warning you, though, he’s not going to stay asleep until midnight.”

“Really? I mean, if I’m not imposing, why not. And I really don’t mind. I like children.”

“Get in then. It shouldn’t be too long.”

 

Ned’s place isn’t too far from hers – maybe fifteen minutes. He parks the car under the door, muttering something about her presence bringing luck because he never finds parking spots this close to the house, then he asks her if she can get the only bag from the back while he retrieves his kid.

His place is nowhere near as big as Brandon’s, and nowhere near as fancy and well-furnished, but it looks very lived in. It’s full of pictures, she notices, and clearly there are toys and various baby-related amenities scattered all over the floor. Ned apologizes for the mess, but it’s nothing she hasn’t seen at various stages of her life and she tells him not to worry. After he comes back from what seems like the bedroom, he tells her to take a seat in the living room and calls a nearby Chinese restaurant to order in some food. Then he proceeds to collapse on the armchair next to the one she’s sitting on.

“Long day?” Catelyn asks, figuring that she should at least try for small talk.

“You could say it,” he answers after stretching his arms. “Let’s say work was insane. And I skipped lunch, but that’s not any news.”

“Are you sure that I’m not bothering you? Because if I am –”

“Nonsense, you’re not. And if my brother can’t even write down his appointments you shouldn’t waste your evening because of it. Oh, I hope you like Chinese, actually? I didn’t even ask.”

“I like Chinese,” she answers, and maybe she shouldn’t be amused at how flustered he looks, but he’s kind of adorable, especially since it does clash with his solemn face.

“Oh. Good. I’m sorry, it’s just – I guess Brandon told you, but in the last five months or so I completely lost touch with everything.”

“Well, you’re raising a kid on your own, I think you’re excused. Anyway yes, he told some. I hope you didn’t mind?”

“Nah. It’s not some kind of family secret. But about that movie, everything I have is in the bookshelf over there. Just pick whatever, I think I haven’t seen any of that yet. Actually, I don’t think I’ve seen a movie for months.”

Catelyn goes to the shelf with the row of VHSs, and after a bit she picks one just when the doorbell rings.

“Wow, they’re efficient,” she says when Ned comes back with a couple of plastic bags.

“That’s why I always order from them,” he answers, and then grabs the tape she’s handing him.

“Stagecoach? Wow, you don’t look like the kind who likes westerns. No offense. It’s just –”

“Relax. I used to watch them all the time with my uncle. Who didn’t come with us, and I miss him at times, so… and I actually do like westerns, yes. Don’t look so consternated, though.”

“I am – ah, never mind. I’m sorry, I really am terrible at entertaining anyone. There’s a reason why all of that skill went to Brandon.”

“You’re doing pretty good for now, don’t worry.”

Ned snorts and hands her one of the bags – it’s a pretty standard order, spring rolls and lo mein, and they eat it while watching the television and sitting on their armchairs, until halfway through the movie Ned hears some quiet sniffling coming from the next room over.

“Didn’t I tell you? Pause a moment, I’ll be back.”

“Are you sure you don’t want to finish it later?”

“No, it’s okay. I fed him just before we came to get you, so it’s not that. I’ll be quick.”

True to his word, he is – five minutes later, he’s back in the room, bringing Jon with.

“Apparently someone just wants body heat,” Ned says, sounding mildly amused, before sitting back down and pressing play again. Catelyn can’t help thinking that Ned has the quietest kid in existence – for the next forty five minutes or so he doesn’t make a sound even if there’s shooting going on in the movie and they aren’t exactly keeping the volume low.

When the credits roll, Ned turns off the television and glances at her, then at the take-away remains on the floor. “I should have cleaned up earlier,” he sighs.

“Do you want me to? I mean, if you tell me where I should put it, it’s no problem.”

“Come on, I didn’t invite you over to pick up my trash. Actually – can you keep him five minutes while I clean up? I wouldn’t ask, but my already weird kid likes sleeping next to other people at this time of the evening.”

Catelyn agrees readily – it’s the least, really – and she takes Jon while Ned leaves the room and comes back with a trash bag. The baby keeps on sleeping throughout it without a peep, and up close he does make quite an adorable picture, considering that he definitely has his father’s solemn face. When Ned is back not long later, he’s still curled up against her chest and has barely moved.

“If only my brother had been like this back when he was born,” Catelyn tells Ned as she hands Jon over – she doesn’t tell him she wouldn’t have minded keeping him a bit longer.

“I know I lucked out,” Ned answers, and then he grimaces. “Ah, damn, I should drive you home, shouldn’t I?”

He should, but he looks dead tired and Catelyn isn’t sure that he’d stay awake if he had to drive, never mind that they should bring Jon along and it would probably wake him up.

“It’s fine, I can get a cab,” she says, figuring that she can save on lunch money for the next few weeks.

“If you let me pay for it.”

“What? No, it’s fine. I don’t really mind, and it’s not too much.” That’s a lie, definitely, but she doesn’t need to impose on him any longer. Then he takes a deep breath and looks back up at her.

“Well. If you don’t think it’s… some kind of indecent proposal, I do have a guest room. It’s all set up already since I might need it if someone who comes to keep an eye on him has to sleep over. He’s probably going to wake you up a few hours from now, but if you don’t mind it and you want to sleep here, it’s fine. You can even lock the door if you prefer.”

“Are you sure? I don’t want to impose, and you’ve been entirely too nice already, and –”

“Really, it’s not a problem. Unless you want to sleep ten hours straight, but –”

“Uh, that’s really not the issue. I mean, the guy living in the next flat over listens to music at every random hour of the day and at times he’s started long before seven in the morning, so it’s not like it’d make much of a difference.”

“Seriously? Haven’t you talked to him about it?”

“It’s a long story, but I adjusted to it by now. So – well. Thank you, I can’t even begin to –”

“That’s fine. The room is the second on the left in that hallway, the one in front of it is the bathroom. There are clean towels in the cupboard in there, and if you want to grab some spare shirt to sleep in just take whatever from the closet, there should be something halfway comfortable. Go first, I’ll put him to bed while you’re using the bathroom.”

“All right. Thank you again.”

Half an hour later she’s in bed, wearing just her underwear and some sweatshirt that is at least two sizes too big that she’s found in the closet, and she’s trying not to think about how inappropriate this whole situation is. Then again, Ned is what, four years older than her, and he has a kid, for God’s sake. She’s pretty sure that nothing of import is going to happen.

--

She does wake up in the night just once – her bedside alarm says it’s two AM. She doesn’t even know how did Jon wake her up, for that matter – he was crying, but it wasn’t overtly loud. She could only hear it because she left the door slightly ajar and Ned’s room is right next to her, and even then it’s pretty faint.

She turns on her side, closing her eyes again, and she’s asleep not long later, but before then she’s sure that she hears Ned singing something. Which sounds like some folk song that she definitely knows, but she can’t really recall the title right now.

He has a nice voice, she thinks just before falling asleep all over again.

--

At nine in the morning, no one is up and about other than her. She puts on her clothes again and sets for the kitchen – when Ned emerges from his room at a quarter to ten, she has managed to find out where the coffee machine, the bacon and toast were, and she has put together some semblance of breakfast.

“Oh,” he says, blinking a few times and rubbing at his eyes, “you really didn’t have to. I could have taken care of it.”

“I was up already and it was the least I could do, Ned. And I can take the bus back home, so don’t even offer to drive me. You look like you could sleep another six hours.”

“I probably could,” he replies as he helps himself to the leftover bacon. “But I can drive you if you want.”

“I’ll take the bus, don’t worry. Say hi to Brandon for me then.”

“Sure. Uhm, before you go, can I ask you something?”

“Of course. What?”

“Is – is he treating you well? My brother, I mean.”

“He does,” Catelyn answers, not quite guessing why he’s asking this kind of question. “Why?”

“Nothing of import, but it’s good to know.”

She’s pretty sure that wasn’t the whole truth, but she doesn’t think it over too much and gets out of the house, figuring that she should just try to get home and get started on Monday’s homework.

--

Brandon calls the landline a few hours later, he apologizes profusely and asks her if he can make it up to her with dinner tomorrow, nothing that would end late since she has school on Monday. She accepts as she smiles to herself, and she spends the entire day feeling so giddy that she completely forgets about that question that Ned asked while looking maybe a bit worried.

--

On Sunday, she puts on her best dress again and locks the door, and then heads for the stairs.

On which Jaime Lannister is currently sitting, with Brienne on step below his.

“You can’t possibly think that Fairytale of New York is better than Body of an American,” he’s groaning, shaking his head in what looks like mock despair.

“You didn’t tape me that one, how would I know?”

“Forgive me if I didn’t want to waste a sixty-minutes tape for a four songs EP, miss.”

“Fine, and then how can I think it’s a better song than my actual favorite?”

“Seriously?” Catelyn asks from behind the both of them.

“Seriously what?” Lannister replies without missing a beat. “This is an extremely serious conversation.”

“Well, she looks entirely too nice for her favorite song being so full of cussing, but whatever you want. Now can you let me pass?”

“How do you even know that song is full of cussing?”

“Please, after almost eight months I think I figured the titles out,” Catelyn answers, and maybe she feels a bit smug when he doesn’t answer at once. She seizes the moment to walk down the stairs and pass in between them, and she doesn’t see that Brienne is currently blushing crimson.

She’s still not entirely sure of what to make out of Lannister actually spending time outside his house, but good for him if he does.

--

The next few weeks are nothing short of perfect, at least as fare as Catelyn is concerned. Fine, after her family is back from Ireland the perpetual push and pull between Lysa and Dad comes back full force – she obviously still hasn’t figured it out about Petyr Baelish. She really should tell her the truth, but she doubts that Lysa would believe her at face value, and she’s entirely too content with her own situation, so she says nothing. Brandon takes her to the movies a couple of times, then dancing again, sometimes they go to his place and watch a movie and nothing else happens beyond kissing. She has only four months left until graduation, she can barely hear her classmates talking behind her back when they do – patience, who even cares. Her grades are still top-notch and she’s not stupid – she’s forbidden Brandon from ever picking her up from school, so nothing happens when people that aren’t her classmates can see.

Sure, a few times Brandon does cancel at the last minute, and it’s always Ned coming by and apologizing for him, but Catelyn gets it – Brandon still has to work, and the only thing she’s sorry about is that Ned has to waste time calling her or driving to their meeting place if Brandon couldn’t call to call the date off. After the third time she feels so bad about it that she tells Ned that really, if he needs someone to keep an eye on Jon he can call her as long as it’s not in the morning. He goes red in the face and says that she shouldn’t worry, but he doesn’t say no and he does call her a few times – he always apologizes profusely whenever he does though. Catelyn finds it kind of endearing – it is no problem at all, especially when both times she ends up going to Ned’s place bringing her homework and she gets more done in three hours than she does in six at her own house. Jon sleeps through most of the three hours and, again, he’s almost eerily quiet, and since she doesn’t have music coming from Lannister’s flat or shouting from the kitchen, paradoxically having a five-month old around is a lot less detrimental to her peace of mind than her own place.

When she tells Ned, he raises an eyebrow and tells her that he’s glad to be of service in that sense, and he’s maybe smirking a bit as he does, and she can’t help thinking that maybe he doesn’t have his brother’s dazzling smile but all the same, it’s a pretty lovely one.

Four months after the day Catelyn met Brandon Stark, she’s a lot happier than she was back then. That’s a fact – she is. Getting out regularly and talking to people that aren’t related to her has done wonders for her mood, and she feels homesick a lot less, and she thinks she’s a little bit in love with Brandon – right, maybe not just a little bit – and it feels great. She’s also a lot better at time-managing now, and so she manages to squeeze in a bit of volunteer work at a nearby soup kitchen, and after a week the girl on shift with her asks her how can she be this cheerful all the time – she loves the work but it does get her mood down after a three-hour shift. Catelyn wonders if it’s really that obvious, and – well, if it is, why would that be a bad thing?

--

In retrospective, she should have sensed that something was wrong when Ned asked the question again.

Brandon is bringing her out to dinner, but Ned had called her sounding terribly sorry to bother her and asked if she could look after Jon that afternoon – that friend of the brother of his best friend’s has to work and he couldn’t find anyone else, and anyway he’d be back just before Brandon came to pick her up. She’s glad to accept – and meanwhile she brings books for the English lit essay she needs to hand in mid-week. She ends up writing the entire thing with time to spare even with stopping in between. By the time Ned is back, her essay is done, his kid is cleaned and fed and sleeping, and she has fixed her meager make-up all over again.

She’s about to tell Ned goodbye and head out when he clears his throat and looks straight at her again.

“Sorry if it’s not my business, but – I see things with Brandon are still good?”

“They couldn’t be better.”

“Wow. Really?”

“Really. Why’s that?”

“Uh. Nothing. It’s just… never mind. I’m glad it’s going well. And off you go, I don’t want him chewing my head off because I’m keeping you here longer than needed.”

Catelyn leaves and thinks that the answer definitely was awkward, but what does she know? She doesn’t think about it for the entirety of the evening.

(Not a month later, she will tell herself that she really should have paid a lot more attention to it.)

--

Thing is, she did tell Brandon that she wasn’t going to go farther than kissing, when he brought her out for coffee the first time. She did put her cards on the table, face-up. She told him that she wasn’t interested in something that wasn’t serious, and that while she isn’t particularly hung-up about pre-marriage sex if someone else is into it, she wants to wait for the right person and save herself for the wedding night, or at least save herself for the person she’s sure she’ll spend the rest of her life with. He had said that he perfectly understood and he wasn’t going to push.

And he hadn’t pushed, so she had figured that he wasn’t lying when he said it wasn’t an issue and he was fine with kissing.

It’s not like that evening he even pushes, for that matter. They go back to his place and they make out for a while, as usual, and then he wraps his hands around her waist and kisses her neck, and she can see that he’s getting caught in the moment. She’s about to tell him that she doesn’t mind a little groping but maybe they should stop, and then he stops and looks at her and says I love you, and she says it back without even thinking on it because after all – she’s a lot more than a little bit in love with him, she’s been for a couple months at least. He looks and sounds like he means it, and when his fingers touch her thigh under her skirt, she gasps and tells him that she isn’t doing this if it’s not serious.

She doesn’t tell him that she isn’t doing this at all, and she’ll regret it later, but then Brandon says, I haven’t ever dated anyone as long as I dated you, I think it’s more than a little bit serious, with that lovely smile directed right at her, and if only she was standing, she knows her knees would feel weak.

So when his thumb hooks up in her stockings and threatens to pull them down, Catelyn doesn’t stop him.

And the thing is – Catelyn isn’t really expecting much from it. Everything she’s heard about sex from the time she understood what was the point, was that it’s something relatively shameful if it happens before you marry, that for women it’s not necessarily that great of a thing, and –from one girl at the beginning of high school who wasn’t famous for flattering reasons around the neighborhood – that it hurt a lot. Especially the first time.

Maybe it would have been better if it had gone like that.

Instead, it’s good. Brandon takes his time with her, and she stops expecting him to get straight to the point after he spends a great lot of time with the tip of his fingers teasing her clit and not going farther. She forgets to be ashamed of it when he puts his mouth on her and she can’t help moaning out loud. By the time he slides inside her, he has spent so much time getting her ready and kissing her everywhere that the pain she feels is a shadow of what she expected to feel, and by the time he’s done, she can barely think straight for how good it felt.

Which is why when after they laid together on the bed for a few minutes he asks her if she would be willing for another round she says yes, and it turns out that the second time is even better than the first, and by the time Catelyn has to get dressed and Brandon has to drive her back home, she doesn’t think elated covers it. She kisses him on the way out, they steal kisses on the elevator and again when he leaves her at the customary building three blocks over from hers, and she’s glad that it’s past eleven in the evening and no one will see her getting back inside the house because she doesn’t know what excuses to make up to explain why she can’t stop grinning.

What she isn’t expecting, though, it’s to find Jaime sitting on the stairs again, smoking a cigarette and looking down at his right wrist in what seems like disgust.

He moves when he hears her coming, then takes a look at her and smirks. “Someone got laid, huh?”

Excuse me?”

“Calm down. It’s obvious. Your dress is buttoned wrong and you didn’t brush your hair before leaving your guy’s place or wherever it was, and you look entirely too happy for it to be something else. I guess the guy was a good lay, huh?”

“It seems like you already have your answer, don’t you?”

“Well, good for you.”

“Can you even smoke in here?”

“I don’t see it written anywhere that I can’t, miss.”

“Yeah, miss. You know you’re six months older than me at most?”

“Go enjoy your afterglow. I’ll be nice and use ear buds this evening,” Jaime replies before taking another drag and looking like he’s done with the conversation.

Catelyn knows not to look at a gift horse in the mouth and goes back inside still feeling like this is the best day of her life.

--

It happens another two times throughout the next week. Both times entirely stand the comparison with the first. And God forgive her, maybe Catelyn has started thinking that she has found the man she’ll spend the rest of her life with. Every time she comes back home so happy she could burst with it. One of those times, it’s late in the afternoon – Lysa has finally made some friends at school and was going to a sleepover, Edmure is on a school trip and she had the afternoon free, so she went to Brandon’s place instead of coming home directly. She walks through the yard to find Lannister sitting on the same bench as Brienne, and he’s handing her some other tape, and for a moment he looks at her and gives her a frankly lascivious wink that would have made her rage any other day.

Today she winks back and tells him that it’s good that he’s finally seeing the sun after his entirely too long hibernation.

Everything feels great. Really. Maybe too much.

She goes to sleep wondering if she has enough money saved that she might buy herself a new nice dress for the next time they go out.

--

One day later, she’s sitting on the stairs, in the same spot as Jaime that night when she caught him smoking, and rather than thinking about clothes, she’s trying to be as quiet as possible while crying her eyes out in her cheap scarf – she feels like sobbing out loud, to be entirely honest, but she can’t do it at home, not when everyone is inside and she’s not supposed to be back for another two hours or so.

So she tries to be as quiet as possible, and then she feels someone sitting next to her. She raises her head, turning to her right.

Jaime Lannister.

Of course.

“If you’re here to say something inappropriate, just leave already.”

“Actually, I heard you from outside the door and I figured you’d like someone to share your misery, but if you want me to leave, you just have to bloody say it.”

He moves to stand and Catelyn doesn’t even think before grabbing his arm and dragging him back down. That actually sounded nice, coming from the resident person who almost never leaves his house and if he does, it’s to argue with an eleven year-old about punk music, and she really doesn’t want to be alone right now. Patience if it’s him.

“Wait. That’s – you’re not entirely wrong.”

He sits back down.

“Let me guess, your good lay from the other week turned out to be a deceiving bastard, or am I wrong?”

“That’s not wrong either,” she sobs. He sighs and hands her a packet of tissues – when she stares back at him he just shrugs.

“You sounded like you could have used them. So what, broke your heart?”

“I was an idiot,” she replies after blowing her nose. “It’s just – he was so nice, and he never pushed once for almost five months, and he knew I wanted to wait until marriage or at least until I found the person I was sure I’d marry, and – I was – I really thought it’d be him, and then we see each other again a few times and then he says he’s sorry but it wasn’t what he was looking for and he hopes we can stay friends?”

“What did you do?”

“I slapped him in the face and left, what should I have done?”

“Points for you. Just for posterity, that was your first boyfriend too or what?”

“Yes.”

“And you said you’re six months younger than me?”

“Well, if you turned nineteen when your friend Arthur said you did, more or less.”

“How do you even – never mind.”

“What are you going to tell me, that I was the typical young and stupid girl falling for the son of a bitch of the situation?” It sounds strange to swear out loud – she never swears for a rule, but it feels kind of liberating, if anything.

“I could, but I’ve been there and I know you really don’t need to hear it.”

You got dumped by someone who just wanted to get into your pants?”

“No, but I’ve been young and stupid. Actually, what the fuck, since according to my two dedicated friends I should talk about this to someone, I might as well share my parable with you, may you learn from it. So, once upon a time there was this sixteen-year old dumb kid who came from this very rich and very fucked up family and who was supposed to take his father’s place at the head of the family-founded company –”

“Wait, so that was why your name sounded familiar. I mean, Lannister like –”

“Like the weapons manufacturers, yes. Nothing I’m too proud of, but whatever. So, the dumb kid didn’t really like economics or that kind of shit, and he wanted to make a difference in life instead of sitting in an office. Add that his home life was… well, as crappy as it goes when you come from that kind of money, he figured he should go and join the army as soon as he could. His dad was angry as hell, and in retrospective the dumb kid should have just gone volunteering somewhere, but he had this ridiculous notion that if you went into the army you actually served your country and possibly help people if you were sent on international missions and all that jazz. So he went and ended up training under this bastard who descended from some Scandinavian noble family and was completely fucking insane, not to mention a wonder in keeping your morale down. A year or so after I got there and training was supposedly done he decided that it was time for a trial run, meaning he shipped everyone to some fucking island in the Pacific, and made sure it was as close to real as possible. That included using real mines.”

What? Is that even legal?”

“Fuck no, but he was very high in the food chain and his family was important and I don’t know if he fucking funded his own trial runs, but whatever. The guy I was paired with blew himself up on one of them – he walked right up on one and I’m pretty sure that at the funeral they had to keep the casket closed. So I stop following whatever orders I was given and I try to find the guy with the highest rank other than our lovely commander. Except that before I run into him, I see this kid who enrolled because he needed to send money to his family in some hole of a town and only got into the army because he couldn’t make money any other way. He was headed straight for a place where the leaves looked… well, like someone put something on the ground and then covered the entire thing with them. I scream at him to stop walking, he turns towards me and doesn’t understand what I was saying, so I just run at him before he can walk over that thing and – something moved anyway and the mine blew up. I ended up one hand short and the other kid is now deaf in one ear, but it could have gone worse. So after I get treatment I say that I would talk to the press or something like that because there was no way I was letting that shit of an Aerys Targaryen get away with it. That’s how it always happens in movies, right? The truth comes out, the bad guy goes to jail, you write books about how you overcame your horrible experience, all the package deal.”

“Right. And?”

“And I’m told that my dad had already settled with the army while I was on an operating table. Also, I find out that ten psychiatrists I never saw in my life certified that the entire experience fucked me up so much that I don’t know what I’m saying. He knew I’d have tried to talk anyway and made sure no one would take me seriously. At which I figured that since at least the fucking settlement money from the army went to me, I might as well make my dad unhappy by using it to move out.”

“And that’s why you picked a purposefully crappy place?”

“You don’t even know? The guy who owns it, his dad’s company used to be mine’s strongest competitor before the guy died and neither of his sons wanted much to do with it. This building was the company’s property I think, Stannis just went and decided to put it for rent at half the price. And since my dad hates Stannis’s guts, I figured it would send a nice message if I lived in one of his flats. Anyway, the moral of the story is, never trust your romantic notions about life, because it’s gonna screw you over anyway. By the way, you want a cigarette?”

“I don’t smoke,” Catelyn repeats feebly, still taking in that entire story.

“Does it even matter?”

“You know what, no. I’ll have it.”

“Good girl.” Lannister hands her the packet and his lighter. Catelyn takes a drag and starts crying all over again while she coughs, then she takes a second and it still tastes disgusting but nowhere as much.

“So you don’t leave the house to make your father angry?”

“No, I don’t leave the house because if I step foot out into the street and I hear unfamiliar noises I start thinking I’m back there, I start panicking and I become completely useless for hours unless someone talks me out of it. You usually find a therapist for that kinda shit, or so I hear, but I’m not interested in talking to any right now.”

“… I’m sorry.”

“About what?”

“I just thought – I always figured that you were some weird kind of loner, not that it was an actual serious reason.”

He shrugs. “Whatever. I get by.”

For a moment, the both of them don’t say anything as Catelyn smokes her cigarette. Then Jaime clears his throat.

“Listen, I don’t want to be invasive or stuff, and if you don’t want to answer just tell me to fuck off, but – uhm. You said you’ve been with the guy more than once, right?”

“Right. So?”

“So – er, were you using protection? I mean, from what I gathered the guy wasn’t the kind to get syphilis without knowing, but –”

Catelyn’s face goes white as she realizes that no, she hadn’t used any protection and he didn’t even bring the topic up. And she didn’t even think about it, because if Brandon was the love of her life then what was the big deal?

“Oh, fuck,” she says. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“On any other day, I’d say that hearing you swear is kind of adorable. But I guess you’d like another cigarette instead, wouldn’t you?”

Catelyn takes it wordlessly and she can only think I was such an idiot and God please I can’t be pregnant, I can’t, I can’t.

--

Point is, she needs to find out.

The next day, after pondering how exactly is she going to do it, she realizes that she’s fucked. No way to put it less horribly. She needs to get a pregnancy test, but the idea of buying it herself makes her feel paranoid. She might have been in London for almost a year but she can only navigate her neighborhood and Brandon’s really well, and in both places someone could know her or recognize her or she could meet someone from school at the drugstore. She resolutely cannot ask her dad and no one she’s related to can know, for that matter. And of course she doesn’t have any friends at school, and what is she going to do? Her period isn’t supposed to come for a week and a half at least, but she doesn’t want to wait for it to come (or not to) to know. And she’s not going to ask Jaime when he said why he doesn’t leave the building.

Surely she’s not going to ask Brienne, for that matter.

She’s about to start crying when the landline rings and Dad tells her it’s her boyfriend’s brother.

“What is this about?” She knows she sounds kind of cold, to say the least, but it’s not like she can pretend she’s glad to hear from anyone named Stark.

“It’s about that fucking idiot that is my brother,” Ned sighs from the other side of the line. “Listen, I think you’re owed at least some explanations here, and I actually should apologize to you, but – would you mind if we did it face to face? It’s all right if you don’t want to, but I figured that you wouldn’t want to talk about it out loud where people can hear you.”

That actually makes a lot of sense. “Right. Sure, I can do it. But why do you owe me an apology?”

“I’ll explain. When can we see each other?”

It’s Sunday. She has nothing to do. All her homework is in order.

“I can come by now, if it’s fine.”

“Right. I’ll be waiting then.”

Catelyn lies and says that she’s going out with Brandon, and then heads for the bus stop. If anything, she’ll get the explanation.

--

When he opens the door, Ned looks completely consternated.

“Right. Come in, take a seat. This is probably going to be long.”

“Well, at least that. Considering that the actual break up lasted five minutes.”

Ned visibly grimaces and says nothing as he sits down on the sofa. She sits down on the other side. Jon is nowhere to be seen.

“If you’re looking around because you’re wondering where my kid is, he’s with… you know, my best friend’s brother’s best friend. I figured we should do this without distractions.”

She’s kind of touched, but she doesn’t let it show. “Fine. So, why do you need to apologize to me?”

“Because I didn’t warn you.”

“You – you didn’t what?”

“This is hardly the first time Brandon dumps his girlfriend unceremoniously. I have first hand experience, actually, but – see, it’s usually all over in a month. Maybe two. He dated you for almost five and you looked pretty happy, so – so I figured that maybe he had sorted himself out and he was serious with you. I asked him once and he said he was, so I figured that I had no business interfering, but still, maybe I should have told you anyway.”

“Oh. So that was why you were always asking…”

“Yeah. I was really hoping he wouldn’t fuck it up because you were obviously smitten with him, and you don’t deserve that kind of treatment, but – yeah. I guess I overestimated him.”

“So – so I was just… some number on a list?”

“I hope not, but if he left you a week after doing the deed, I guess it was a lot less serious than both you and I assumed. So – well. I apologize for not telling you. I should probably apologize for him, too, but I doubt you want it.”

“No, and if I did, I’d like it if he apologized in person. But what did you mean when you said you had first hand experience?”

Ned takes a deep breath and looks down at his hands. “Did he tell you how I met Ashara? I mean, my wife.”

“Uh, not really.”

“Of course he didn’t. Well, I met her because she was one of his girlfriends. I mean, I already had seen her around at school and I was absolutely smitten with her, but I never said anything and she ended up with Brandon not long later. Still, well, let’s say she was a special case.”

“Special case?”

“She’s the only person he’s dated who ditched him before he could ditch her and before he went anywhere with her.”

“… Really?”

“Yeah. I mean, one day she showed up at home and told him to his face that she really wasn’t interested in being on his tally, and she had to thank me for opening her eyes. Because at one point during some party Brandon had going on at our place I had told her that my brother really didn’t deserve her. Then she asked around and… well, she put two and two together. Brandon didn’t even stay angry at me for two days, he just moved on, but then one day she comes up to me during recess – it was the last year of high school – and tells me that she’s quite sure that she picked the wrong Stark to date and did I want to have lunch with her? I said yes and – well. Things happened. Brandon also informed me that I was insane when I asked her to marry me two years later, but she did say yes, and I’m never regretting having done that. Still, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere if he hadn’t been a jerk to her before.”

“Wow. That’s… kind of touching, though. I mean, you really loved her, didn’t you?”

“I did. Anyway, I just figured that you should know that – it’s just how he is. I love him, don’t get me wrong, but I kind of want to punch him in the face. Not that he’d get it, but – well, if you need anything just ask. Provided that I can do it for you, obviously.”

She’s about to tell him that she’s fine, except – except that she isn’t.

And maybe he can do something for her, all right.

“What if I actually did need a favor? Related to your brother?”

“Of course. What?”

“Er. Oh God, this is so embarrassing. I’ve been such an idiot.”

“Don’t put yourself down, it’s his fault. So?”

“So. Uhm. I had told him that I wouldn’t have sex with someone that I didn’t think was the person I’d spend my life with. Too bad for me, I thought he was. So I didn’t even think while we were doing it, and – I really need to buy a pregnancy test, but I don’t want to go in my neighborhood or his. And – I don’t know who else to ask.”

“Oh, that idiot,” Ned says, sounding really angry right now. “Shit, he knewyou were eighteen, how didn’t he even think – never mind. There’s a pharmacy around the corner, I’ll go get you one now.”

“Wait – but won’t people ask questions if someone you know sees you?”

Ned shrugs. “Probably, but I don’t really care. Give me twenty minutes.”

He’s back half an hour later with a plastic bag.

“How much do I owe you?” Catelyn asks as she takes it.

“Nothing. It’s not your mess to clean up, and you shouldn’t pay for it. So. Uh. If you want to use the bathroom – I mean, I guess you don’t want to do it at home.”

“Right. Thank you. I’ll just – I’ll just go then.”

She goes.

Half an hour later, she’s sighing in relief as she looks at the result – not pregnant. Thank God. At least that. She throws the stick away and gets out of the room.

“So?” Ned asks, standing up the moment she walks inside the living room.

“Good news,” she replies, “you won’t be an uncle anytime soon. Not that I complain, because this just became a lot less complicated. And – thank you. Really, I was going completely insane over it.”

“That’s the minimum. Actually – well, I don’t think Brandon is the kind who doesn’t know if the people he has sex with aren’t clean, but if you want to make sure, I can drive you to some hospital whenever you want.”

“You – you would?”

“I guess you wouldn’t want to go on your own, on top of actually getting there.”

“… well, what about we go now then? I mean, it’s Sunday. I have nothing to do.”

“Sure thing. I’ll drive you to the nearest one.”

They spend the next half an hour in silence as he drives, and they say nothing as she compiles the forms. When she’s done, they tell her to come back in a couple of weeks – meanwhile, it’s dark outside.

“I’ll drive you home then,” Ned says as they get to the car.

“Are you sure? I mean, don’t you have to pick Jon up?”

“The friend with claims on sainthood lives three blocks over from you, so I’m catching two birds with one stone.”

“… Wait. I actually – that’s not where I live. Brandon always picked me up there so no one would see us. I live… three blocks over.”

“… Really. Number fifteen?”

“Yes. How do you know?”

“Shit, it is a small world.”

“The infamous friend lives there?”

“The infamous friend works there, he’s the porter. My friend’s brother is the owner.”

“Wait, Davos Seaworth?”

“Small world, right?”

Catelyn can’t help agreeing with that. He parks in front of the house for once, and leaves with her – sure thing, Davos is just closing up with the keys in his right hand and the baby nestled in the crook of his left arm. He doesn’t comment about Catelyn coming in with Ned, wishes them both a good evening and heads for his flat.

“Right. So, thanks. Really,” she tells Ned, suddenly feeling very awkward.

“No need. I just – I really hope you’ll get over him as quick as possible. And I’ll tell him to steer clear.”

“Thanks again.”

He turns his back at her, ready to go, and Catelyn should let him, because one person named Stark fucked her life up enough already, but Ned isn’t Brandon and he definitely didn’t deserve all this mess either.

“Ned, wait a moment.”

He stops and turns back to her. “Yes?”

“Listen, it’s just – you really never did anything wrong and I’m really sorry that you’re having to clean up his mess. And – well. If you want to stay friends, as long as I don’t have to see your brother for the next ten years, I’m good with it.”

“I’d be more than happy to. But just if you want to, because I’d totally understand it if you didn’t want to have anything to do with anyone named Stark anymore.”

“Oh, I think that while I’ve been an idiot where your brother is concerned, I’m pretty sure you’re not cut from the same cloth.”

“Well then. Let me know how the tests go. Or – call whenever you want. You know when I’m there. And – uh, if you’re still fine with it –”

“I’ll keep an eye on your adorable kid, don’t you worry. After all I still get more done when I’m watching him than when I’m at home.”

“Good to know I already have the first embarrassing story for Christmas dinners,” Ned says before leaving.

Well, at least she did salvage something out of the Brandon Stark-related shipwreck. Now she just has to make sure that it doesn’t slip out that she slept with him after all, because while she knows that her dad wouldn’t care, but she knows that he knew how she felt about it and it would only make him sadder. Never mind that if Lysa finds out she might end up using the ‘if she did it why can’t I’ card without realizing that it’s nowhere near the same situation. At least, Catelyn figures, it was with a handsome jerk, and not with one three years younger than her and who always looked slightly creepy even when he was six.

She doesn’t know where she finds the force of will to focus on some schoolwork, and she can’t sleep much at all even if the other side of the wall is surprisingly quiet lately. On Monday morning she wakes up at five and can’t go back to sleep whatsoever, so she fixes breakfast for everyone and walks out at five thirty, figuring that she can take a breath of fresh air and wait for Lysa to get ready.

She’s somehow not surprised to find Jaime still smoking and still sitting on the stairs.

“Don’t you have weird hours,” she says, dropping next to him without ceremonies.

“I’m not the only one awake, am I? Are you about to bum some cigarette off me?”

“No, that was a one time deal. But is there a reason why you’re being awake here and not in your comfortable flat, blasting my ears off?”

Jaime snorts and takes another drag. “Because maybe my two friends have a point when they say I can’t avoid getting out of the house for the rest of my life, but I already have enough issues getting down to the bloody yard if I’m not getting distracted talking to someone. The stairs will have to do for now.”

“You know, if you want to get down to the yard when the resident eleven year-old isn’t around to discuss punk music you can ask.”

“And why the hell would you do that?”

She shrugs. “You’re less horrible than I pegged you to be.”

“Why, thank you, you’re flattering me.”

“You really want the serious answer, don’t you? Fine. Let’s say that this entire sordid affair made me realize one thing.”

“Which would be?”

“That other than my family and… him, and his family, I don’t know anyone even if I’ve lived here for almost a year. And when you need to buy a pregnancy test that might be a problem.”

“Ah. Uh, and how did that go?”

“The guy’s brother is actually a perfectly nice person and bought one for me. And I’m not pregnant, stop looking at me as if I’m about to fall into hysterics.”

“Good for you.”

“So. Maybe it’s the time I actually make some friends. And as stated you haven’t been as horrible as I thought you could be.”

“You realize that I’m a walking mess, don’t you?”

“You’re still less of an idiot than my former boyfriend.”

“Your fucking funeral,” Jaime says. “Don’t think that it’s going to stop me from listening to my records.”

“I wasn’t doubting that.” He smokes for another forty minutes and she revises her homework – not like anyone is going down the stairs at six in the morning.

When noise starts to come in from the yard, though – the first people leaving for work, she supposed – he stands up and grabs his keys.

“Right. I’m gonna turn in. If you want to commiserate about life, I’m going to be on the bloody stairs sometime around midnight.”

He disappears into the house a moment later and if Catelyn reads him well, she could bet that he was trying to be nice.

--

On Tuesday, she tells Dad that she and her boyfriend broke things up. She lies and says it was mutual. It’s obvious that he doesn’t believe her, but he lets it go.

When she leaves with Lysa, she notices that Jaime is in fact sitting on a bench in the yard next to the friend that isn’t Arthur – right, Oberyn. He looks like he’d rather be anywhere else, but she supposes he’s putting an effort. She nods at him, waving slightly, and he half-heartedly waves back, and clearly Lysa notices.

“Who’s that?”

“The guy living next door,” Catelyn answers curtly.

“… do you talk to him? Wasn’t he some kind of recluse?”

“Sort of, but it’s more complicated than that, and I talk to him sometimes. Why?”

He isn’t your –”

“We broke up and that surely wasn’t him.”

“But if you can have one why can’t –”

“Lysa, you’re definitely better off without, and can we please drop this?”

She’s sure that she’s never sounded so much like her mother in her entire life and maybe that’s what ends the conversation.

One week ago she was feeling so happy, thinking about the next time she’d see Brandon, and now it’s all back to square one. She kind of wants to cry, but she’s not going to give him the satisfaction again – she’s cried over the bastard already, no point in doing it again.

--

She’s studying for her philosophy test when Ned calls her that afternoon. He sounds so very sorry again for the short notice, but would she be fine with keeping Jon the following afternoon, and she’s quick to answer yes. The test is tomorrow and she needs to distract herself from not having anything to do until the following week, since it’s the last until after Easter break.

That evening, against every instinct in her that says that she should go to sleep early, she slips out of the door at midnight and sure thing, Jaime is smoking on the stairs. Again. He’s also smoking quite nervously.

“Are you all right?” She sits down next to him while he shrugs.

“I just can’t fucking believe it.”

“What?”

“Brienne’s dad. He knocks on the door some time this afternoon and I’m sure it’s because he found out who exactly is providing her daughter with inappropriate tapes.”

“Did he?”

“Find out? No, he told me that he knows that I talk to his daughter sometimes and he knows that she’s very mature and responsible for her age so he knows she can stay on her own when he’s outside town working, but since she started talking to me apparently she’s somewhat less awkward in school or at least she doesn’t come back home crying because her classmates are jerks and he’s willing to pay me if she ends up taking that much of my time. Christ, am I a fucking babysitter now?”

Catelyn can’t help laughing a bit at how flustered he looks.

“And pray, how exactly your influence is being helpful?”

“I have no bloody clue! At some point I thought we were discussing the depths of some song on the last record –”

“Depths? She’s eleven!”

“Well, she’s pretty damn good at getting that shit, what can I say? Anyway, at some point she asks me what would I do if I had people constantly harassing me and I told her that since I’m not an idiot and punching people in the face only gets you suspended I’d keep my eye open for gossips and then blurt out something very embarrassing that they did some place where people could hear me? And apparently she followed the advice and her dad is fucking happy? Have I ever said that it’s fucking weird?”

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“Come on, who the fuck would think I am a good influence? I can’t even fucking cross the road without panicking, there are exactly five people including you and her that can stand my presence on this planet and I’m a good fucking influence? I’d need a drink. If I actually did binge drinking.”

“Why, don’t you?”

“Tried it just out of the hospital. Worst fucking idea ever. And the worst thing is that I said it was no problem and I didn’t need to be paid and he looked like I was the solution to all his problems. The hell is my life, I’d like to know.”

Then he lights another cigarette. Catelyn doesn’t point out that chain-smoking isn’t really much healthier than binge drinking and she doesn’t go home for another fifteen minutes or so. At least if she worries about Jaime’ Lannister’s chain smoking she isn’t thinking about her blood tests and about Brandon Stark, or at the fact that she really should confess, it’s been a month since she did it last, and won’t that be hilarious when she does.

Small mercies.

--

She confesses herself the following Sunday and says nothing about Brandon, and she feels entirely horrible when she walks out of the church, but she couldn’t bring herself to. Not when the act itself had felt anything but shameful or everything she’s always been told it was supposed to feel – if only she had picked the right person, indeed.

Then she spends the following two weeks studying like mad for her final A-level tests. Mostly she does it at home with her door locked – she’s not getting into Lysa’s drama because she’s been failing half of her classes and she’s not going to salvage the situation in the last month of school. If not, she goes to the yard and if it’s because Jaime asked, she ends up throwing her notes at him and asking him to quiz her – if anything, it seems like it’s a decent distraction. At some point he ropes Brienne into the quizzing and Catelyn isn’t entirely surprised when it turns out she knows modern history better than him. She still barely talks to her classmates and she washes her uniform every evening because it’s getting warmer and she only has winter clothes for school – she never got around to buy the approved uniform for warmer weather, mostly because she didn’t see the point in wasting money on it.

The landline never rings for her and she doesn’t have time to worry about it, but this entire mess with Brandon definitely reminded her that if there’s one thing she misses right now is living some place where she had constant social interactions with more than five people, and where most of her interaction wasn’t just with people related to her.

She concentrates on studying – if anything, she’s not going to fail her A-levels in the last year just because Brandon Stark decided that she was a suitable item for his list.

And at least her hospital results for STDs come back negative.

 

She passes her A-levels with flying marks. Edmure passes all his classes with equally good ones. Lysa fails most of her classes, so neither of them make a big deal out of it, though Catelyn does bring him out for good fish and chips one day – she doesn’t even care that much, but the poor kid managed it with barely any help from all of them and if he had any reservations about moving he never made them to Dad, and he deserves to be treated for once. And since it’s treating, she brings him out for a movie, too, and they get back at midnight even if it’s way past his curfew. Before coming back home, though, she buys some fish and chips to go, figuring that if Jaime isn’t perched on the stairs she can heat them up for lunch tomorrow.

There’s no need though.

“Is the guy on the stairs the person living next door?” Edmure asks when he sees him from the bottom floor.

“Yes. Pretend it’s a normal thing.”

“It’s not normal. It’s midnight, what he’s doing on the stairs?”

“When you hear him out, it almost makes sense. Come on, go ahead, I’ll be in just after you.” She gives Edmure the keys and he takes them with a shrug. He tells Jaime good night when he passes him by and then heads for the door.

Catelyn stops and drops the paper bag in Jaime’s lap.

“What’s that?”

“Fish and chips.”

“Why the hell are you bringing me fish and chips?”

“Because I’ve never seen you eat dinner and I was outside already, so why not?”

“Uh. Thanks then. Any particular reason you were having a lascivious dinner out with your brother?”

She shrugs. “He ended the school year with great grades, I did as well and our sister failed all over the place, so we didn’t exactly go and talk about it. Still, he deserved it.”

“Right. Sounds reasonable. I used to do the same with my brother, ages ago.”

“You have a brother?”

“And a sister. Haven’t seen either in years, not that I thought I would.”

“Aren’t you cheery.”

He shrugs. “My sister told me to speak to her again when I’d see the entire situation with Aerys reasonably when I tried to get her on my side. And my brother was… what, twelve? Thirteen? Even if he wanted to drop by they’d never let him. I’m just sorry that it means that his life sucks even more now, but what can I do.”

“Why would it suck?”

“Both my dad and my sister hate his guts for entirely stupid reasons that aren’t his fault. Ah, well, what can I do. Thanks for the dinner.”

He lights up another cigarette and Catelyn leaves him be – he obviously didn’t want to share any longer.

--

She decides to take a week off before starting to worry about university – she should look at her options, see if they can actually afford it or if she can land a scholarship or if she should just give it up and find some work so Dad isn’t the only one in the house having to shoulder the bills, but she’s too dead tired and the last few months really did a number on her. She needs time off.

She’s in the middle of her week off, heading back home from buying groceries, when Davos Seaworth asks her if he can have a word.

“Sure,” she tells him. “Is it about the rent? I mean, were there problems –”

“The rent is all right, miss Tully. I was just wondering – from what I saw, you’re friends with Ned Stark, aren’t you?”

That’s when she realizes that she hasn’t heard from him in three weeks. Or more than that. “Uh, yes. I guess so. Why’s that?”

Seaworth stares at her for a moment. “Because I think someone should pay him a visit right now.”

“Why me?”

“I don’t know any other friend of his who might be suited.”

“But what’s going on?”

“Just pay him a visit if you have time.”

Catelyn brings up the groceries and thinks about it, and then decides that she has nothing but time. Also it’s not like she can go bother Jaime about it, since she saw him in the yard discussing with Brienne again – ah, right. The Pogues have a new album out, since she’s started hearing new stuff during the day whenever she’s in her room, so they’re probably having some weird punk music appreciation moment. Anyway, she’s not going to touch that with a ten foot pole. And she has nothing to do, so… well. She has time. She might as well pay Ned a visit.

She takes the bus, gets to his place and when she sees someone else letting themselves in with a key, she tags along so that she doesn’t have to use the intercom.

When she’s at his floor, she takes a breath and knocks on the door.

“Coming!” Ned shouts from the inside, and then he opens the door, and he looks entirely surprised to see her. He also obviously has slept even less than he used to when they saw each other once a week, his hair is in a state of total disarray, he hasn’t shaved in at least a week, his clothes are frankly in need of a wash and most of all, Jon is crying in the other room pretty loudly. Which is definitely not a normal occurrence.

“Oh. Hi,” he says, looking suddenly flustered. “What brings you by?”

“You tell me. Davos Seaworth stopped me today and asked if we were friends, I said yes and then he said I should pay you a visit and refused to tell me why. So… why would he do that?”

“Er. Oh God, I knew something was up with him.”

“Ned. What’s going on? You look terrible.”

“Yeah, uhm, my kid might be teething, and I might have taken a week off work because I thought it was unfair to ask someone else to look after him now, and – I might have overestimated myself. Davos knows and he asked if he really didn’t want him to ask his girlfriend to drop by and give me a hand, and I said that he shouldn’t bother her, and he probably guessed that I had overestimated myself. But really, it’s… I’m going to work it out.”

“You look dead tired.”

“Well, I kind of tried to rope Lyanna into it but she lasted half a day. Also he only calms down if I’m around, so it’s useless to inflict it on other people.”

Catelyn glimpses across his shoulder into the living room. Which is covered in take-out bags and cartons, and he obviously hasn’t cleaned in a few days at least.

“Well, good for you I have nothing to do.”

“What –”

“Now, unless you really don’t want me here, you’re going to get back inside and I’m going to clean up that trash and make you something to eat, at least. And then I’m going to load up your washing machine and take down whatever trash I’m sure you haven’t taken out.”

“I can’t impose –”

“I’m offering. So?”

Ned thinks about it for a moment. “Well, they say the flesh is weak. Make yourself at home, then.”

Catelyn spends the next few hours taking out the trash, sweeping the living room floor and cleaning the kitchen out of all the food stains covering the walls while Ned stays holed up inside his room.

While she cleans off dust in the hallway, she hears him singing Leaving of Liverpool – right. It’s the same she heard that night when she slept here, she thinks. For a moment she stops, thinking that it’s downright adorable now that she’s awake to hear it, and then she proceeds on sweeping. When the floor is suitably clean, she heads for where Ned told her the laundry would be. The only good thing is that he has the same washing machine as the Laundromat in front of her building, so she’s quick in putting in all the whites – she’ll leave the blacks for later. He doesn’t seem to wear any other color at all for that matter – the only spots of not-black in the pile of laundry are Jon’s clothes.

When that’s set, she opens his fridge. It’s empty except for a full eggs carton and baby food, so she ends up using all the eggs and making them scrambled – better than nothing.

Ned emerges from the room not long after she’s done, still looking like he could sleep for the next fifteen days straight. Then his eyes go very wide as he notices the state of his living room and his kitchen.

“… did you get all of this done in three hours?”

“Yes? I do it at home all the time, it wasn’t that hard.”

“Christ, you’re a life saver. Are you sure you don’t want me to pay you for your time?”

“Shut up and eat. And the only thing you could give me money for would be grocery shopping, since your fridge is completely empty of anything you could eat.”

“Right. I thought I should call the supermarket a couple blocks over and ask if they can deliver at home, but I never got around to it.”

“Don’t, just tell me what you need and I can go get it now.”

He looks about to ask her if she’s sure, then he shakes his head and grabs a notepad and a pen from the kitchen counter. He writes down the list and hands it over along with some money he grabs from his wallet.

“Right. I’ll be back in a few.”

“Did I say thank you already?”

She smiles and leaves for the supermarket. When she comes back he’s nowhere to be seen – she puts the groceries in the fridge and then heads for the bedroom.

The door’s open. He’s passed out on the bed with his equally passed out son curled up against his chest. She smiles and leaves him be – she writes him a note telling him to call if he needs help, really, and then closes the door softly behind her.

--

He calls two days later asking her if she can please buy him some more food.

When she knocks at the door with her supermarket bags, the house is still relatively clean and the bags under his eye are even darker.

“You know you’re running yourself sick, don’t you?”

“The pediatrician told me that after three weeks they get adjusted to the pain. I just need to hang on for another.”

“Are you sure that you can’t rope your sister into it again?”

“No, especially since she’s gone to the seaside with her precious noble classmate.”

“… the one with purple eyes?”

“Yeah. And I’m not talking to Brandon at the moment, so he’s out. Not that he’d be much use. And our other brother is off to boarding school for another month, so not help there either.”

“You aren’t talking to Brandon…?”

“Long story. I might have told him that he should really stop with this ditching girlfriends all over business and he got riled up over it, so he isn’t talking to me.”

“… I’m sorry?”

“It’s not your fault. It’s that he just hooked up with some ex-classmate of his who only ever wanted to jump his bones and I’m sure it’s going to end the same way. Whatever, he’s out of the picture, too.”

“Er, forgive me if I’m not minding my business, but your wife’s family…?”

“Her parents died in a car accident the year after we married. And she has a brother, but he works for the army and has ridiculous hours, and while he drops by whenever he has time I’m not too sure I can ask him to come here for three days straight.”

“Well, you really do need a break though. I mean, just one evening and one night off, at least.”

“Easier said than done.”

Catelyn thinks for a moment that it’s a very bad idea.

But – she’s also taking her week off now because she’s alone in the house. Edmure is out for the weekend with the friend from downstairs, who turned out to be a girl, but Catelyn has met Roslin once and she’s quite lovely, and she and Edmure probably bonded on crappy family situation since from what she knows Roslin’s mom is divorced. Lysa and Dad went back to Limerick and Catelyn kind of had wanted to go, too, but she knows Dad could barely afford two tickets out of their extra money, and she can always go some other time. The house is empty for another three days.

“Listen, I’m alone in the house for the weekend. I’ll take him for the night as long as you drive me. You can come back tomorrow evening.”

“… really?”

“Well, if you trust me to do it, obviously.”

“He’s going to let you sleep for maybe half an hour straight at most.”

“Fine. I spent my entire first month not sleeping because I had music blasting until two in the morning and starting again at six. I can handle it.”

“He won’t let you have a moment of peace.”

“My sister argues with my dad every time they’re at home. Can’t be that much worse.”

“You really would do that?”

“I offered, didn’t I?”

Two hours later, they’re outside her door. Jon is fitfully sleeping in the backseat and Ned clears his throat twice after they stop.

“Right. I’ll be back tomorrow at this time. Did I say thanks already?”

“About twenty times.”

“I think the least I should do for this would be buying you lunch,” he mutters, and then he suddenly goes kind of red in the face. “Shit, sorry, I didn’t mean –”

“Ned, you know, it’s fine. I wasn’t presuming anything.”

“Well, it really would be the least.”

“You can ask me when you’re not falling asleep on your feet. Go home, I have it covered.”

Ned doesn’t try to thank her again. Good, because it really isn’t that big of a deal.

Ten minutes later, she’s holding to her chest an openly crying six-month old as she puts formula bottles in the fridge and sticks the list Ned left her on the door.

All right. Ned did it for an entire week, she can do it for one evening.

Sometimes around eleven in the evening, Jon is still crying – and the worst thing is that he doesn’t even wail or anything of the kind, he just cries and lets out perpetual small sobs that are making her feel like she’s completely failing at this even if she knows that it has nothing to do with her. She’s pretty sure that he drank half of the formula portion Ned recommended, but he already told her that it was fine, it was a good thing that he kept some food down at all. Also, while she isn’t half-bad at singing Leaving of Liverpool, it doesn’t work if it’s her.

She’s getting ready for spending the next few hours awake, and then the usual Lannister-approved music starts all over again. Nothing too new.

Until the baby in her arms goes quiet a minute into it, and now that Catelyn pays attention to it she realizes that it’s… wait, Leaving of Liverpool. Definitely sung by a man – maybe that’s what makes the difference.

So maybe she doesn’t even think before knocking on Jaime’s door, baby who has just started crying again in her arms and all.

Jaime’s eyes go relatively wide at the sight.

“Didn’t you say that you weren’t pregnant?”

“Smartass, he’s not mine. It’s… er… Brandon’s nephew.”

“… and why is he with you now?”

“Because I’m still friends with my Brandon’s brother and he needed a favor?”

“How old is the brother anyway?”

“Twenty-two. Anyway, uh, I just – I’m not above begging, but can you lend me that record you’re listening to right now?”

“You want one of my records.”

“It’s not – listen, he quieted down the moment that song about Liverpool started and I really could use it, and I have a sort of decent player in my dad’s room, so –”

Sort of decent. Tully, I know I’m going to regret it, but just grab the kid’s stuff and get in. Not that I wouldn’t make you a tape, but I’m pretty sure my record player is a tad better than whatever you have going on.”

“… Thank you?”

“Whatever. Not like I sleep at night anyway.”

Catelyn quickly goes to grab the bag – she can always come back for the food later. Then she comes in and finds out that Lannister’s small flat is in fact not as horribly untidy as she had imagined, that his bookshelves are covered in worn-out paperbacks and that he has a lot more records than the five he listens to, and that Brienne is sitting on the sofa.

“Uh, what are you doing here?”

“My dad’s out of town again,” she answers earnestly. “And he said he had cooked too much dinner for one person only.”

“Brienne, you should rejoice, that kid is going to join our ranks one day.”

True to Jaime’s word, Jon goes instantly quiet when he puts Leaving of Liverpool back up again.

“I take back everything I ever said about your music being inappropriate,” Catelyn says after sitting down next to Brienne on the sofa.

Turns out Jaime can cook a decent chili. Who’d have known.

--

Brienne goes back home half an hour later and Catelyn doesn’t dare move – keeping that song on repeat has worked and the quiet sniffling going on right now is nothing compared to the previous full-on sobbing. She runs a hand through Jon’s dark hair – all his father, and patience if it’s all his uncle as well – and he snuggles further against her.

“Tully, are you sure this entire thing is friendly?”

“Sorry?”

“I mean, if the guy’s a decent person and not like his brother it’s all good, but not anyone looks at her ex boyfriend’s nephews that fondly.”

“I’m not –”

“You are. Fine, the kid is cute, but you still look very fond.”

“Come on, we’re friends. I don’t like Ned that way.”

“… Wait. Ned how?”

“Stark. Why?”

“… Someone up there is laughing at me.”

“You know him?”

“Considering that the quite cute kid is my best friend’s nephew as well? Yeah, I know him. Well, by name at least.”

“… Your best friend’s nephew?”

“You met Arthur, right? Ashara was his sister. The entire shebang went down when the both of us were doing army training so I’ve never met her or your guy, but from what Arthur says he’s everything but the douche that his brother is, so good for you, I guess.”

“Good for me why?”

“Never mind. Small fucking world, though.”

Catelyn is starting to think the same. She passes out on the couch and stays like that until Jon wakes up two hours later, and before she leaves Jaime sighs and hands her a tape telling her that if she doesn’t give it back there’ll be blood to pay. It’s the same record they’ve been listening to until now. She thanks him and the night goes by as painlessly as it gets, even if by nine in the morning she thinks that if she doesn’t listen to Leaving of Liverpool for the next ten years after today is over, she’ll be glad to sign for it.

--

Ned knocks on her door at eight in the evening the next day. He shaved and put on cleaner clothes, and it really looks like he’s slept for sixteen hours straight. He probably needed it if it was the case.

“Well, you really needed that break,” Catelyn tells him as she lets him in, holding Jon in the crook of her arm – he’s gone to sleep maybe half an hour ago and out of exhaustion, but he did sleep fitfully throughout the day, he did eat some and she managed to take a few naps as well, so she counts it as a win.

“I did,” he admits. “I hope it didn’t go too horribly?”

“Not really. I mean, he likes my neighbor’s music. In ten years you’ll probably hate his tastes.”

“I’ll take my chances,” Ned replies dryly, taking the baby from her. “Really, thank you. And – uhm, listen, I really meant it when I said I’d be glad to buy you lunch since you don’t want me to pay you for your time. It’d be the least.”

He might be blushing just slightly as he says it.

“Call me when you have time then,” she answers, and as he leaves she doesn’t know if she wants him to call or not.

--

He does call a week later, after an evening she spent gathering information about university scholarships – she’s reaching the conclusion that she should just try to find a job, regardless of her excellent A-levels results.

“If you still want to go out to dinner, my sister was kind enough to help me out,” he says.

“Say when,” she replies, figuring that getting out of the house won’t hurt. She leaves dinner ready for everyone else, makes up some lie about her ex boyfriend wanting to catch up since they stayed friends, she doesn’t take the bait when Lysa starts saying something about her and Petyr Baelish not having broken up, and walks to the usual building three blocks over.

She doesn’t know what she’s expecting, but it ends up being a lot better than she had thought. Ned brings her to a nice Indian restaurant that is nowhere near as fancy as the ones Brandon used to buy her dinner, and while at the beginning they mostly talk about how weird it is that most of the people they know seem to be related or to hang around each other someway, then it gets better. It turns out they both like classical music better than modern, that they both hate football, that his favorite subject in school was history as well and that after he has had half a beer he does stop being that solemn. And after half a beer he stops reminding her that she really was a lifesaver.

Overall, he’s definitely not anywhere like his brother in every sense, but spending time with him feels good, and the fact that they’re just hanging out as friends makes everything entirely less complicated, and she isn’t worrying at all about how she looks or her old dress being out of fashion, and when he drives her back she thinks she hasn’t had this much fun in ages.

“I was wondering,” he says as he stops the car. “I don’t really see that many people since – well, since. I think this was the first time in six months I hung out with someone just because – I mean, I still see my best friend because he works in the building next to mine, but since I had a kid I can’t exactly go to clubs to play wingman for him. If you ever want to do it again, no pressure…”

“I haven’t hung out with friends properly since I left Ireland,” Catelyn interrupts. “I’d totally be fine with doing it again.”

He smiles at her, that small grin that makes his face look a lot less solemn. Catelyn still thinks that it suits him a whole lot.

--

In the end, she finds a part time job for the summer when the kid manning the grocery store in front of her building quits it. It’s just in the mornings and it’s some money that can cover half the rent, and even if Dad says it’s not needed it makes her feel at least slightly useful. She has lunch or dinner with Ned a couple times each week, and the fact that she really likes hanging out with him doesn’t change at all. She barely thinks about Brandon, these days, and when she does it’s mostly with cold resentment – she was an idiot falling for him and he was a jerk, and she can’t berate herself for much longer.

Then one day when she should have dinner with Ned in the evening, the mom of that friend of Lysa’s at school – the one she did the science project with – drops by and informs Dad with a certain embarrassment that her phone bill had skyrocketed in the last month, and after a check it turns out that Lysa’s friend let her call Limerick from their landline, and they can barely afford the extra charge. Catelyn, who just got her first paycheck, sighs and checks the amount while Dad apologizes profusely. The extra money from the phone bill is a almost all of her newly earned money, so before things can get weird or complicated she takes out ten pounds from her envelope and hands it over, saying that it should cover the difference.

To think that since their landlord has decided to lower the rent for the rest of the year – Catelyn doesn’t question it – she had thought that at least she’d buy herself a new good dress, since hers is completely worn out, and her summer flats are falling apart. And maybe she could have paid for dinner tonight, but she’s never going to manage to cover for two people, with ten pounds. She sighs and sits down at the table and hands Dad the remaining money.

“Just tell Edmure to buy himself something,” she adds. “Or maybe he can buy Roslin something, as long as it’s him getting it.”

“Are you sure? I mean, I could have –”

“No, you couldn’t, and we both know it. It’s all right.”

Clearly, the moment Lysa is back home, Hell breaks over. At that point Catelyn chimes in and tells Lysa that seriously, Baelish had told to Catelyn’s face that he only cared about getting inside the house so he could see her rather than Lysa herself. She should have never done that – Lysa accuses her of lying because he would never, and Catelyn vacates the premises because she really can’t deal with it.

So she ends up in the yard. Jaime is there. Brienne is, too. From what she sees, he’s quizzing her on her summer homework.

“Seriously? Is your teacher crazy? That wasn’t how Le Morte d’Arthur went at all, and why are you studying that shit now? I didn’t touch it in school until I was fifteen, if I – woah, what happened there?”

He was talking to her, wasn’t he?

“To me? Nothing.”

Brienne stares at her. “You’re lying.”

“How…?”

“I know how it is,” she replies with a small shrug.

“What she means is that when someone knows how it feels to be miserable inside as well as she does, they recognize the signs. What happened?”

She sits down in the next bench over. “I got paid two hours ago and I thought that since we have the only landlord who lowers the rent, I’d treat myself to some new clothes. Not that I care, but –”

“Your nice dress hasn’t looked nice for the last few months?”

“I don’t even want to know why you paid attention. Anyway, yes. But it turns out that my sister has been calling her boyfriend back home from her friend’s house and my paycheck covered pretty much exactly all the extra money they were charged. So I figured it’s time I told my sister that the little creep liked me instead, and was just using her, and now she’s mad at me and my mother would be horrified if she heard me saying it, but I wish that she had to suffer the consequences for once.”

“Why would your mother be horrified? Sounds kind of reasonable to me.”

“Because it’s not very nice to wish ill on others,” Catelyn sighs. “Whatever. I can wait another month. It’s just – I also wanted to pay tonight, but that’s not going to happen.”

“Wait. You’re going to dinner with Ned Stark? Again? And you wanted to pay?”

“He always does, I figured I should do it for once.”

Jaime doesn’t answer immediately and Brienne doesn’t contribute either. For a couple of awkward moments, there’s just silence.

Then Jaime sighs and reaches down inside his jacket’s pocket – he always wears jackets with ridiculously long sleeves even in the summer, but then again she can get why. Then he throws the wallet at Brienne.

“Hand me some money, will you?”

“What?”

“Why should I go and kill myself getting it with one hand when I have someone available to do it for me?” He’s almost cheerful as he says it and grabs a number of notes from Brienne. Then he hands them over to her.

“What – what is that?”

“What do you think it is? Go buy yourself a nice dress, Tully. You’ve been slaving over in that hole for a month, never mind that I know that the guy owning it pays you less than the other kid because you’re a woman and he’s an idiot. There’s no reason why you shouldn’t buy yourself things because your sister is young and stupid.”

Catelyn reaches out and counts. Then she promptly hands it back.

“That’s twice my paycheck.”

“So fucking what? Did you miss the point where I could live comfortably without working for the next fifty years or so if I spent my money like a normal person, which I don’t? I can spare it.”

“Are you sure –”

“Don’t even try to say thanks.”

Catelyn relents and takes the money before someone sees them handling so much cash in the open. Then she opens her mouth to say thanks anyway.

“Don’t,” Jaime replies amiably before grabbing back Brienne’s notes. He then proceeds to strike out words and write over them with a terrible penmanship.

“Are you sure he should do that?” Catelyn asks her after he’s handed back over four pages of it.

“He knows more about that stuff than my teacher. And his handwriting is terrible, but I think I got the hang of it.”

“I was born fucking right-handed. And this wasn’t the deal with Galahad,” Jaime interrupts, and Catelyn leaves them to it and heads outside.

She usually buys her clothes second-hand, but this time she heads for proper shops and comes back home with a nice new dark red summer dress and new black flats – the moment she walks back into the yard, the sole on her old right one completely detaches itself from the rest of the shoe.

Just in time, then. She doesn’t dare going home to change, though, so she knocks on Brienne’s door – her dad is out as usual, and Catelyn can’t even fault him since he looks devastated about it the few times he’s home. Brienne agrees to let her use the bathroom, and Catelyn wears both new dress and new shoes. She can’t put on any make-up, of course, but she’ll survive.

“You like him, don’t you?” Brienne asks as she heads out.

“Who?”

“The guy you’re going out with.” Brienne sounds like she can’t believe that Catelyn didn’t understand it the first time.

“We’re friends! No, I don’t like him like that.”

“If you say so,” she says, obviously not believing it at all.

Catelyn leaves for the usual meeting spot.

When Ned sees her as she gets into the car, his eyes go very wide.

“Wow. You – you look great. New, right?”

“Yes. I figured I’d treat myself, since it was my first paycheck. Oh, and by the way, I’m paying tonight.”

“You don’t need to –”

“I want to.”

“Well then, be my guest,” Ned says, smiling again, and it still lights up his face, and why is she even thinking about him in these terms?

--

She pays for dinner, and it feels great to finally be able to do it. Then when they’re back Ned tells her that since it’s a nice night and it’s still early, why shouldn’t they take a walk before he leaves? God knows he can use some fresh air, since he doesn’t have that much time for taking strolls around town on his own.

They walk together around the block for some fifteen minutes, until they end up in front of her door.

“So, thanks again,” he tells her after they stop. “See you on Wednesday?”

“Sure thing. And it was my pleasure, really. I couldn’t wait to be the one paying, for once. I mean, I felt bad that you always had to.”

“Don’t feel bad. But if you want to pay next time as well I won’t be the one stopping you.” Is he sounding… like maybe he’s flirting? No, she’s probably imagining things.

Not that she’d mind if he were doing it, and where did that come from?

“Good to know. Well, see you on Wednesday then. And if you need help with Jon just say it, I’m free in the afternoons.”

“I know,” he replies softly, and then she turns to leave.

Then it happens.

She’s still not entirely broken in her new shoes, and her feet maybe hurt a bit, and she had forgotten that the concrete in front of the door has a crack in it, and so she puts her foot wrong and unceremoniously starts to fall down to the ground.

Except that she doesn’t because Ned catches her with an arm around her waist, and now that she’s pressed up against him she feels that his heartbeat is quite fast all things considered, and his face is centimeters from hers and for a moment he held her quite close and –

And it had felt good.

“Careful,” he says, his voice sounding as if his throat has just gone dry. “Can you stand?”

“I – I can,” she answers, and makes no move to get out of his embrace.

What is she even doing?

“Oh. Good.”

He’s not letting her go either, though, and he’s still this close to her, and her hand is curled around his elbow, and he’s – he’s staring at her with those solemn gray eyes, and he looks so very young right now, and she’s suddenly reminded that he’s a lot closer to her in age than his brother ever was.

Then he leans closer. Just a little bit. “This is a horrible idea,” he whispers.

What is an horrible idea?”

“The one I just had,” he says.

“If it’s the same I just had, I don’t think it’s that horrible.”

He visibly swallows, and doesn’t move away at all.

“It is.”

“Why would it be?”

“I’m – you’re eighteen.”

“I’ll be nineteen in two weeks. And your brother was twenty-six, Ned.”

“Yeah, but he didn’t come with attachments.”

He sounds as if it’s paining him to say it out loud, and he’s still holding her close, and for a moment Catelyn doesn’t get what do attachments have to do with the situation, but then she realizes what he had meant.

“You mean, he wasn’t raising a kid on his own.”

“That, too, but – listen, I guess it was clear by now, but – I don’t do casual relationships. I never could do them. And – it hurt like nothing else when Ashara died, but I know she wouldn’t have wanted me to spend the rest of my life without moving on. Then again, I thought I never would, but – maybe I was wrong.”

“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?”

“I’m saying that I really like you, and I thought that Brandon was an idiot for being this careless around you since that time you slept over, but I can’t possibly ask a serious relationship out of you, especially when no sane person would want anything serious at nineteen with someone who has children. And I’m not going to go through with it and take advantage of –”

“Ned?” Catelyn has heard enough and she’s pretty sure that she knows what Ashara Dayne had meant when she said that she was dating the wrong Stark. He’s still looking flustered, and he sounds entirely sincere, and he’s actually giving her an out, and he’s really that nice, and Catelyn really likes his smile and maybe she melts inside when she thinks about the way he sings folk songs to Jon, and hadn’t she wanted something serious from Brandon anyway? Or well, wasn’t she ready for that with Brandon?

“Yes?”

“You’re not taking one thing into account.”

“Which would be?”

“My opinion,” she answers.

When Catelyn Tully kisses Ned Stark for the first time, she starts it – she closes the distance between them with a fluid motion, bringing their lips together, and it’s nowhere near like the first time she kissed Brandon. For one, Ned doesn’t move at all and she leans back a few seconds later. He’s looking at her with wide, sort-of-hopeful eyes, and his free hand goes to her cheek tentatively.

“That’s your opinion?”

“My opinion is that I really like you, too, and if the package deal includes your frankly adorable kid, I think I can do a lot worse. Never mind that I’m apparently fond of him.”

“Of Jon?”

“Er. I might have gone over to my neighbor’s that time you left him there. You know, because I wanted him to lend me the magical tape with folk songs on it. He might have said that. Never mind that my neighbor is a mental case, but he’s usually not wrong on this kind of thing.”

“He said that.”

“He said that. And seriously, I guess we can talk about this tomorrow if you’d like, but I don’t think I want to do casual either.”

“If that’s so,” Ned says, and then he’s kissing her again and oh.

He pushes, and Catelyn is only too happy to part her lips for him and kiss back as fiercely – his grip on her waist becomes stronger, and it feels as if he’s been wanting to do this for a while and now is pouring all of that into it, and as she buries her fingers into his hair she can’t help thinking that he’s kissing her like he means it entirely, and it’s so very different from what she was adjusted to.

And she likes it a whole lot better.

 

Half an hour and a lot of kissing hidden behind the corner of the building, Catelyn walks up the stairs to her flat.

Obviously, Jaime is there. At least he isn’t smoking.

“Congratulations,” he says before she can open her mouth. “Both for the dress choice and the guy choice.”

“… how do you know?”

“Did you forget that my best friend is the guy’s brother in law? Or well, what passes for it in the circumstances. They do speak to each other. So maybe Arthur dropped by yesterday and he said that maybe good old Ned was interested in someone, and if you asked him it’s a good thing, and I had to stop myself from laughing in his face and tell him it was you, but never mind that.”

“… wait, he says it’s a good thing?”

“According to him the guy didn’t spend three months holed up in his room wallowing in his sorrow just because he couldn’t do that if he had to raise a kid, and his sister would have wanted him to get on with his life instead, and who am I to question his judgment?”

“I can’t believe you have more insight into this stupid situation than I do when you don’t even go out of the house.”

He smirks trying to look as if he’s not smug – he fails. “What can I say, I’m good like that. So, celebratory cigarette?”

“You seem awfully sure that you won’t have to offer me a consolatory one a week from now.”

“Because I am awfully sure. A guy who gets married at twenty and has a kid at twenty-two and actually feels bad about asking others to babysit doesn’t have time to waste with ditching people, and I’d say that even if I didn’t know someone who actually knows the man. So, cigarette?”

“You know what, yes.”

“Good. And I hope as fuck it’s the last time I have a reason to give you one.”

“… Was that an actual nice thing?”

“Shut up and smoke.”

Catelyn does just that and even if it still tastes like crap, it’s definitely less bitter than the last one she had.

--

She carefully keeps her mouth shut about Ned to everyone she’s related to – the last thing anyone needs to know is that she’s seeing someone else, especially given the circumstances. She goes over to his place Monday afternoon saying that she’s on babysitting duty, which isn’t entirely untrue since she did tell Ned she was available. But after he comes back from work, he cooks her dinner after Jon goes to sleep.

Turns out he’s nowhere half bad at it – he says he taught himself before getting married, because he didn’t want to be the kind of guy who can’t find his way around a kitchen or that thinks that his wife should automatically be on cooking duty because she’s a woman.

“So no cleaning lady with mad cooking skills for you?”

Ned snorts as he puts away the last of the dishes. “God, no. Never mind that if someone had to put my stuff in order I’d never find anything anymore and it’s not like keeping the place much tidy when you have children is any useful. Then again I’m sure Brandon’s maid doesn’t overcook the fish.”

“Maybe I like it better overcooked.”

Catelyn has no clue of how she’s decided that flirting with Ned is the way to go. Mostly it has to be that he still flushes a bit whenever she attempts.

Then again, five minutes later they’re on the couch and he’s putting a lot of effort into kissing her stupid, so if anything, it works. They’ve made out for quite a lot longer than that when they’re interrupted by soft sniffling coming from the bedroom.

Ned moves away muttering a quick apology and goes there, and Catelyn doesn’t even think about it before following him. When he tells her that he’d have been back in a moment she answers that it’s fine, but if they’re being serious when at least she should be here checking what’s going on, shouldn’t she?

“And anyway,” she tells him as he makes sure that the only thing Jon wants is human contact for the next two hour or so, “you do realize you have the only baby in the world who manages to be quiet even while crying?”

“Believe me, I’m still trying to understand from whom he took after because sure as rain it wasn’t anyone related to me or to his mother. Not that I’m complaining.”

“That you aren’t.”

“Uhm, far from me to presume, but are you sure you don’t want to spend the night as well? I mean, I can pay you a cab –”

“I can spend the night.” She doesn’t want him to pay for a cab and to be honest she doesn’t even want to go back home until the situation with her sister has defused completely – and Lysa still glares at her whenever they cross ways, so it definitely still hasn’t.

She calls and tells Edmure that she’s staying over for the babysitting thing, and that she’s getting paid for the extra time (she feels bad for lying to him, but what can she do). Then she goes to grab the same stuff she had put on the first time from the closet in the guest room.

“Should I sleep here?” She asks Ned after she’s done in the bathroom.

“I’d say wherever you want,” he says, flushing ever so slightly again.

She ends up sleeping there because she isn’t sure she wants to share his bed after they kissed exactly twice, but then she wakes up during the night to find out that both her door and the bedroom’s are open and that Ned is sleeping on the other side of the guest room’s bed.

For a moment before she moves closer to him and puts a hand on his hip, she’s sure that her heart might have swelled a little bit.

--

It happens another three times in the next week or so before it happens that they don’t stop at kissing when they wake up.

Maybe it’s that there’s no sound coming from the bedroom, maybe it’s that it’s a chilly night for it being July and they ended up curled around each other, maybe it’s that when she wakes up and looks at his face this close to hers she thinks I wouldn’t mind it if I woke up to this every morning.

But not long later he’s awake, too, and when they kiss it’s not a peck anymore – he kisses her with that same intent as he did the first time, and when he moves on top of her she’s entirely too happy to let him, and then he stops abruptly and moves back.

“Uhm. Sorry, I got – I got carried away. I’m just going to take a quick shower –”

“Did I seem to mind?”

“Well. No. But I don’t want to –”

“Tell me you have condoms somewhere.”

“… I do? If they aren’t expired.”

“Then I don’t see why you should leave now.”

“Are you sure, though?”

She shrugs. “I’m a lot more sure now than I was… well. When it happened the first time. In retrospective. And if your condoms are expired… it’s not like you have to go there, right?”

The condoms aren’t expired and Catelyn doesn’t think about Brandon Stark once.

It’s not just that they’re completely different in this, too – it’s that sex with Brandon had felt like some kind of fantasy come true. This time, it’s anything but. Both of them have morning breath, there’s a lot of fumbling because both of them can’t seem to open the condom’s packet and Catelyn ends up tearing through one in haste. Then he tells her beforehand that he hasn’t been with anyone since so he hopes she doesn’t end up disappointed and she has to kiss him stupid just so that he stops with that particular argument. Then she suddenly feels nervous because before she hadn’t done much of the work at all and now she figures she should and she feels like she doesn’t know where to put her hands. It’s everything but a fantasy coming true.

But.

Maybe it doesn’t feel like she’s dreaming – not at all – and that’s probably why it’s a lot better. So maybe they both taste foul – she still likes the way he kisses her, because he’s nowhere near gentle and it feels like he’d like to taste every place inside her mouth if he could, even if she tastes foul. So maybe it takes them more than one try to finally put on the condom, but when his fingertips touch her clit she’s wet already and when they slid in she has to bite down into the pillow not to moan out loud. So maybe he hasn’t done this for months but when he leans down and kisses the inside of her thigh before running his tongue in between her legs, it really doesn’t feel like he’s out of practice.

So maybe when he finally slides inside her she’s more than ready for it, and maybe he comes after a few thrusts, and when he pulls out he’s red in the face and apologizing all over and he hadn’t realized it had been this long, and fuck, she didn’t even –

She stops his rambling and tells him that she’ll be more than glad to give him a couple of second chances or ten, and then he kisses her again and his fingers slide in again and keep on doing it until she moans into his mouth and tells him that he really shouldn’t stop.

When she’s laying down on the bed, panting heavily and feeling very much great all over, he’s spooned against her side and they’re both filthy, and he’s not asking her if she’d like to shower with him or whether she wants some tea or any post-coital small talk, and he’s muttering under his breath that he really doesn’t want to move at all.

While they’re having breakfast half an hour later, he sits down in front of her looking kind of embarrassed. “Can I hope it at least could compare a little bit?”

Catelyn eats some of her eggs and shakes her head. “No, because it was so much better that comparing would be useless.”

“… Seriously?”

She wonders if she should tell him or if it’s too soon. Then she figures that he deserves to hear that.

“Yes, because it was nowhere near as glamorous but I felt like you were doing it with me because you wanted to, not because you wanted to show how good you were at it regardless of who I was.”

Or at least, now she thinks she can say why, in comparison, those dreamlike times with Brandon felt like something was off, when thinking about it with a clear head.

“You can’t brag to him about it though,” she adds before taking another bite of bacon.

“Believe me, the last thing I want him to know is what happens in my bedroom,” Ned says into his coffee, but he looks quite pleased at that, and she’s not going to point that out.

She thinks she could get used to that look on his face.

--

“Can you believe the rent has gone up again?” Ned says at the end of August, while they have lunch at the small restaurant they went to the first time. He still likes to bring her out sometimes, even if they don’t eat outside as much since she decided she liked his cooking better.

“At your place?”

“Yes. Not that I can’t afford it, I can, but another one hundred and fifty pounds for a living room, two bedrooms and a bathroom is a robbery.”

Which is an entirely good point.

“You could move out.”

“I could, but I have no time to look at places to stay. And I’m definitely not asking my dad to crash at his place for a few weeks while I do it.”

Considering that he’s still not talking to Brandon, Catelyn sort of gets it.

Then she puts two and two together. “Fine, but – I think you’re overlooking something.”

“Like?”

“The place I live at. It belongs to your best friend’s brother, right?”

“Right. And?”

“And there are at least four empty flats, even if I don’t get how it happens since he keeps on lowering the rent. Do you think he wouldn’t give you one?”

“He would, but I didn’t want to make it seem as if I was trying to get ahead of other people, since –”

Four free ones that I know of, Ned.”

“… Put like that, you’re right. I’ll ask him.”

Ned asks and at the beginning of September he’s living two floors above her.

She ends up heading to a cabin so she can call her uncle Brynden – she kind of needs advice about how to break the news, and she hasn’t talked to him in ages, but the ban on international calls is still there and she’s not going to munch off someone’s phone bill.

Clearly she never gets there – Jaime is perched on the stairs since it’s ten in the evening (at least he doesn’t go out at midnight anymore, and he reads instead of smoking), gets the story out of her and tells her not to be ridiculous, she can call from his landline and give him an excuse to waste his settlement money.

She doesn’t refuse and calls from his place while he’s still outside.

“I suppose you aren’t to blame for the ban on international calls, are you?” Her uncle sounds half amused and half as if he’s sorry for the situation. It sounds accurate.

“I’m not. And – uhm. Listen, we never had this conversation, all right?”

“Sure thing. So, what’s the deal?”

“Did Dad tell you about the guy I broke up with?”

“He did. He also said it was mutual.”

“It wasn’t, but he was an idiot and I’m better off without him. But – er. I’m in love with his brother.”

“How do you know that?”

“I’ve been seeing him for… a long time. And I’m pretty sure I am.”

“So just tell your father and don’t add that the break-up wasn’t mutual?”

“I could, but… is he going to take well that he might gain a nephew with it?”

“… Are you pregnant?”

“No! He has a baby. From his wife, but she died for childbirth complications. Eight months ago or close to it.”

“And you’re sure about this? I mean, you’re nineteen. You really do want to get serious with him?”

“I’m already serious with him.”

“And you don’t mind that –”

“I’ve known from the first time we met. No, I don’t. And I’ve looked after his son enough times even before I realized I liked him.”

“Well, I know how you are when your mind’s made up, and it sounds like it is.”

“So how do I break the news?”

“Talk to your dad on his own at first, prepare your speech and make sure it’s perfectly clear that it has nothing to do with your former boyfriend, then you grab your guy and bring him to meet Hoster as early as possible and if he’s good for you he’ll probably see it. Just don’t tell when it’s the three of you together and don’t tell your sister until the meeting’s happened.”

“Do you know something I don’t?”

“Let’s say I might have gone looking for Baelish, arranged a call and made sure he did tell your sister the truth about why he was so set on dating her. And it happened yesterday, you couldn’t have known if no one told you and you were out.”

“… How is she now?”

“Not that great as far as I know, but just don’t show up being happy with your new guy until she’s half-over it.”

Which is entirely sensible advice. She doesn’t waste more time with small talk because she doesn’t want to spend more of Jaime’s money than necessary, but she’s glad that she’s talked it out. Now she just has to figure out how she’s telling Dad about it, and she also has to figure out what is she going to do with her life since the grocery shop doesn’t make great wages.

“I’m nowhere near old enough for this,” she sighs as she leans back on the couch.

“I think I get that feeling. So, before you go and tell the entire story, how about you help me terrorizing a few kids in the yard?”

“I can hardly terrorize anyone, but sure thing.”

So maybe spending one hour sitting next to a guy who in turn glares at whichever kid dared insult his protégé yesterday isn’t anyone’s definition of a good time, but by now she doesn’t even question why she doesn’t mind it at all.

--

She corners Dad that evening, making sure no one else is around to listen.

“I have to tell you something.”

“All right. Shoot. It can’t be worse than your sister finding out about that little creep.”

“The guy I broke up with.”

“What about him?”

“I’m in love with his brother.”

“… The one whose kid you babysit for free?”

She takes a deep breath. “Yes. And. He might have moved up to the fifth floor.”

Here?”

“Yes, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me. He knows the landlord and he needed a new place.”

For a moment neither of them says anything. Then Dad takes a deep breath and looks straight at her. “You never said you were in love with that other one.”

“I thought I was, but I wasn’t.”

“And you’re sure about this.”

“I’m sure about it.”

“And this person lives two floors above us.”

“He does.”

“I suppose it’s only reasonable that I withhold judgment until I meet him?”

“Do you want him to come over now?”

“No time like the present, isn’t it?”

Catelyn walks up the stairs and knocks on the door. When Ned opens it, she can see a bunch of boxes still covering the floor.

“… Is there some problem?”

“My dad wants to meet you. … Right now. Get to the third floor, it’s the first flat opposite the stairs.”

“It’d be better if I went alone, wouldn’t it?”

“I’ll stay here and keep an eye on Jon, don’t worry.”

“Oh. Okay. Er, any last second advice to make sure he doesn’t hate me?”

“Just don’t try to impress him and be yourself, it should do the trick.” She quickly kisses him before pushing him towards the stairs and getting inside the house. Ned visibly swallows and then goes for the third floor.

He’s back forty minutes later – he finds her unpacking books from one of his boxes while Jon is sitting next to her and proceeding to get her hair in a tangle that will take her half an hour to unknot, but she doesn’t really mind.

Ned looks like someone who’s just run a marathon.

“How did that go?”

“… Well, the most worrying thing he said was that if I tried to break you heart the way my brother did he’d make sure my body wouldn’t ever be found, but that was after we spoke for half an hour and he concluded that I wasn’t half bad, so…”

“Breathe, Ned, I think you passed the first test.”

“How many do I have left?”

“My brother and my sister. My brother would probably just be glad if more people hang around, so don’t worry. My sister is going to hate you on principle, but she’ll come around.”

“So I’m as good as it gets?”

“Pretty much, yes.”

“By the way, how long will you have to brush your hair this evening?”

“It always gets tangled anyway.”

“Well, if there weren’t enough proofs that no one switched babies in the cradle I think I have the definite one now.”

“And what would that be? That he likes my hair?”

“Why, I positively love your hair, but that was the gist.”

She laughs and drags him close for a quick kiss, and then he goes back to unpacking and she stays there until dinner time.

--

When she breaks the news to the rest of the family, it goes pretty much as expected. Edmure looks kind of excited at the idea of acquiring a nephew through her, Lysa stands up from the table and slams the door of her room and Catelyn just hopes she’ll come around sooner rather than later. Meanwhile the grocery store she works at hires another clerk and she has the proof that Jaime was right when he said that the owner paid her less than his male employees.

She definitely needs to find something better.

She tells Ned that while he cooks her dinner at his newly free-of-boxes flat.

He seems to think about it for a moment, then she tells her that his best friend’s secretary has rage-quit her job.

“She has rage-quit it?”

“Let’s say that Robert isn’t the easiest person to deal with. He’s good at his job but he’s terrible at organizing his time, he doesn’t respect his appointments half of the time even if someone else set them for him, he doesn’t know what it means that you should keep a distance from your employees and he also pays you very well.”

“What do you mean with keeping a distance?”

“He’s going to ask you all kinds of personal things two hours after you met for the first time, he’ll ask if you want a drink or five with him after you’re done for the day and he likes to work with heavy metal music on. And he hates doing job interviews, so if I tell him I found a replacement he’s going to hire you without even interviewing you.”

Catelyn thinks about it for a moment. “Well. My best friend is a mental case who doesn’t leave the house unless it’s to go to the yard and made me listen to punk music I don’t even like for months, and he still does that regularly. And you can figure out if he’s being nice to you or not by the way he insults you. And if you wanted to talk to him your best bet used to be looking for him perching on the stairs at midnight or five in the morning. Can your best friend be that much worse?”

“… If you put it like that. I’m going to call him then.”

It turns out that dealing with Robert Baratheon isn’t that different from dealing with Jaime Lannister at his worst, except that Catelyn has to re-evaluate punk music after a week of working for Robert – heavy metal is a lot worse than the Pogues, to her ears, but it comes with triple the money Dad used to make back in Ireland.

Catelyn is going to learn to stand heavy metal and always gracefully refuse invites for a drink out, if that’s what she gets in return.

When she does sort of reluctantly tell Jaime that maybe his records aren’t all that bad, he laughs for five minutes straight and asks her if the apocalypse is coming. Catelyn ignores him and tells him that she’s willing to buy him lunch for his dubious support if he’s willing to go to the fish and chips place across the road, and Brienne can come too if he’d like two distractions other than one.

She doesn’t expect him to accept, but he does. So she invites Brienne as well and she spends an hour quietly eating her food and learning more than she ever wanted to know about the Arthurian cycle and the absolute depths of the lyrics of Body of an American.

She can think of worse ways to spend the evening.

--

Everything goes smoothly until November. She keeps on making excellent money by never losing her calm around Robert, even if he does skip half of his appointments and only tells her after the fact and she has to do damage control most of the time. Still, he gives her a raise after two months just because apparently no one else who worked for him ever did damage control as well as her.

Then in the span of three days the following happens. First, Jon quietly calls Ned dad while they were having breakfast – she’s sleeping at home, but Ned makes sure to let her know every detail the moment he knows no one will kill him for barging inside before everyone in the house wakes up. Second, Lysa does see them kissing on the doorstep after Ned is done talking while they look entirely too excited for seven thirty in the morning and after Ned is gone back upstairs she comes over and apologizes for having been such a drag about Catelyn being with someone and being happy with them. Third, while Catelyn is still reeling from the joy of having finally buried that particular axe, and just after Jaime emerges from the flat asking what the fuck was all that excited squealing, Brandon walks up the stairs.

For a moment, everyone freezes in their tracks. Then Catelyn clears her throat. “And what are you doing here?”

“Paying my brother a visit, since he didn’t even see fit to mention that he moved. And I didn’t know he moved two floors above you.”

“Well, he did? By all means, go. You don’t have to stay here and stare.”

“Right. Just – you look good, you know that?”

“Thanks, but I’m not falling for it twice.”

“Oh dear, this is the heartless bastard who is at least a good lay?” Jaime interrupts, and she’s kind of grateful, since it was threatening to turn ugly.

“… Sorry?”

“Hey, you did break her heart and left me to pick up the pieces this summer, didn’t you? Too bad that her and me are just not compatible like that and she’s otherwise occupied, but what can you do, I got over it.”

The hilarious thing is that Brandon’s eyes go wide in horror – oh dear, he is buying it. Catelyn wants to laugh so hard that it’s a miracle she manages to keep her composure.

“You and him – you didn’t really –”

“Not like it would be your business,” Catelyn half-grins, “but no, he was right when he said we’re sadly not made for each other.”

“But you’re – otherwise occupied?”

“Well, I wasn’t going to wait for you to come back for the next ten years, was I? But please, we’re keeping you. Fifth floor, by the way.”

Brandon shakes his head and makes his way up the stairs.

“Damn,” Jaime says, “you sure you can’t stay for another twenty minutes? The moment he finds out it’s going to be priceless.”

“No, I’d be too late. But by all means, tell me how it went when I come back.”

When she comes back she can’t even ask him – she finds Ned waiting for her on her doorstep.

And he looks kind of embarrassed.

“Is there a problem?” She asks.

“Uh, no. It’s just – I think you met Brandon this morning, didn’t you?”

“Yes, but I left just after he went up to your flat. Why?”

“Nothing of import. Anyway, he knows. And it could have gone better, but I just wanted to make sure he wasn’t… horrible to you on his way in.”

“And you’re not telling me something else, are you?”

“No, but – ah, damn. Well, we might have argued. And he might had said something that I didn’t like, but it’s fine, you don’t have to get through our crap again.”

“What did he say?”

“He asked if my favorite past time was playing house with people who were with him first and most surely are just using me to get over him,” Ned sighs. “Not that I bought it – shit, Ashara never sure as hell needed to get over him, but still, it might have ended up ugly.”

“How noble of you,” Catelyn says, moving closer. “And you do know that by the time I realized I liked you I was long over him, don’t you?”

“I do, but still –”

“How about I show you exactly how much?”

Ned’s eyes look a darker shade of grey as he slowly nods and grabs her hand before running up the stairs.

Fourth thing that happens during that day, the condom Ned’s put on breaks and they only notice after the deed is done.

Catelyn tells him not to mind – they don’t know at which point it broke, after all.

Still, a couple of weeks later she decides that it’s better to be safe than sorry and buys a pregnancy test in a pharmacy near her work place, where no one definitely knows her except for her boss, and she has a feeling that her boss wouldn’t care if she slept with a different person every night.

--

That evening, she waits for Ned sitting on his sofa – she let herself in before he came back from work. She waits for him to get Jon out of his coat and scarf and put him in the playpen in the corner, then she takes a deep breath when he sits next to her.

“Cat, is there a problem?”

“There might be. Or there might not.”

“Meaning?”

“I’m pregnant,” she blurts out, looking at his hands wrapped around hers, and for a moment she wonders, is he going to let go?

His grip suddenly becomes tighter.

“So it did break on time, didn’t it?” Ned asks then, his voice slightly shaky.

“So it seems. And – well. That’s it.”

“Do you want it?”

Well, that wasn’t the first question she thought he’d ask. “Sorry?”

“Cat, I’m not saying anything until I know how you feel about it. We weren’t trying for it and you’re nineteen.”

She’s had more than enough time to think about it, between taking the test and him coming back home.

“I want it if you want it,” she says, and for some miracle her voice sounds as firm as she had hoped it would. “It might not have been what I had planned, and I can’t possibly do it on my own and I don’t even want to, but if you do want it, then it’s another matter. And by the way, it’s not just me. I mean, you already have one and you aren’t even twenty-five, the reverse is valid. So, that was what I think. What about you?”

“Marry me?”

… That wasn’t what she had been expecting.

“What?”

“Well, my answer would have been that I wanted it if you did, too. So if we’re keeping it – I mean, if you think it’s too much –”

“Yes.”

“– we can always wait for – sorry, did you just say –”

“Yes, I’m marrying you.”

She was about to say something else, but he presses her against the sofa’s cushion and then his mouth is on hers and she forgets it entirely.

--

They marry early in December – neither of them wanted to wait too long and she had wanted to do it before she started to show.

The only fancy thing about it is her dress – she went out of her way to get herself a nice one. It’s not particularly grand, all white silk with the waistline moved up under her breasts, but it’s exquisitely done and it’s comfortable, on top of it. They marry in Ned’s church – Catelyn had stopped going to hers after someone who lives in her same building saw fit to inform the entire parish that she was seeing a man who already had a kid from someone else and whose mother wasn’t somehow in the picture. There aren’t that many people – Catelyn’s family, along with her uncle Brynden who flew in for the occasion, Ned’s (she was surprised when Brandon showed up looking apologetic, but she’s going to let bygones be bygones) and Arthur Dayne (who’s the one keeping Jon during the ceremony). Robert is Ned’s best man, and he showed up bringing his fifteen year-old brother along. Then Davos Seaworth shows up five minutes before the ceremony dragging the other Baratheon brother along – Catelyn hasn’t ever seen her landlord in the flesh and she can’t believe that he’s pretty much Ned’s age. He also looks perpetually sour, but he seems entirely sincere when he offers his best wishes. Catelyn had pondered long and hard about the best man part of the ceremony – she didn’t want to ask a relative, but it’s not like she had many other options, so she ended up asking Jaime, who had promptly asked her in return if she had just gone insane. Then he accepted as long as he didn’t have to dress up and someone drove him, which was easily arranged. At least he showed up with jeans that aren’t ripped anywhere and a nondescript red shirt instead of band t-shirts. Catelyn invited Brienne as well, who had accepted a lot more promptly but still, just if she didn’t have to dress up as well. It’s not quite the lavish and grand wedding she had hoped she’d get once upon a time, but maybe grand and lavish isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

They say I do after a short but heartfelt ceremony, and then they all end up in Ned’s flat since it’s the only one that might house them all. They eat food that the both of them cooked the previous day in paper plates, Jon vomits all over Arthur’s shirt because he was fed something that wasn’t obviously agreeing with him – Arthur’s fault, at that –, somehow beer ends up getting spilled over her dress, at some point Jaime decides that their choice of music is boring as fuck and he proceeds to get downstairs and grab his tapes, and Ned keeps on stopping to eat so he can kiss her when she’s not expecting it, and it’s probably not a coincidence that she feels his hand on her stomach most of the time.

All things considered, she thinks she wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

 

Ten months later

 

“Why am I not surprised that your kid is a total screamer? Especially since he’s all you.”

Catelyn rolls her eyes as she moves the redheaded bundle in the crook of her right arm to the left, hoping that changing position will somehow quiet him down.

“Be glad you don’t have one taking after you or the moment they started talking you’d wish they’d have been the silent kind.”

Jaime snorts and doesn’t light the cigarette he’s keeping in between his fingers. “I think there’s no danger on that front. But seriously, you’ve been walking the hallway for twenty minutes yet and it hasn’t worked, I think it’s a lost cause.”

“I can hardly go home now, can’t I?”

“It’s three in the afternoon.”

“Yes, and Ned has spent the entire last night awake because he decided I needed a break, and it’s not like Jon slept either, so since they were out when I left, I’m not going back in.”

“You two so deserve each other. By the way, you sure you don’t want to try the foulproof method?”

“Oh, no.”

“Oh, yes.”

Catelyn doesn’t even try to stop him, and she isn’t too surprised when Robb calms down considerably a minute after Jaime turns on his record player. When he walks out of the room, he looks so smug that Catelyn thinks he might burst with it.

“Seems to me like it’s really foulproof.”

“Do I have to get worried that they both are fond of all that cussing?”

“Are you sure you don’t want that tape?”

“And what if I did?”

Jaime moves closer and puts one in the pocket of her skirt. “You’re welcome, Tully.”

“Get lost,” she laughs, and he goes back inside the flat but he leaves the door open.

She stays there for a minute, relishing the quiet and still feeling massively out of her depth – but it’s been barely a month, she will get the hang of this for good. Then she hears footsteps coming down from the stairs and Ned moves so that he’s standing next to her. His arm goes around her waist – Jon is in the crook of the other, completely dead to the world. At least one of them is catching up with sleep.

“Don’t tell me,” Ned says, sounding half-amused and half-resigned to his destiny. “It turns out that it’s not just one of them liking that dreadful music?”

“It does.”

“I guess I’ll have to beg him for a tape, won’t I?”

“No, he already gave me one.”

She leans into his side and looks down at the yard covered in dirty snow – it’s hardly a nice sight, but for some reason it looks less terrible right now than it did a year ago.

Then again, a year ago she had no clue that this was what life had in store for her.

“I guess the low rent makes up for the horrible location,” Ned says, and she could bet he was reading her mind. “Should we go back up?”

“Let’s just wait it out. When one of them wakes up we can go back up and make sure that tape is in a safe place.”

He laughs against her neck, his forehead pressed against her temple, and maybe she got it wrong the first time she thought she had found the person she’d spend the rest of her life with, but now? She’s pretty sure she got it right.

“Wow, that’s almost disgusting. The four of you are a sight for Hallmark cards,” she hears coming from behind them as Jaime’s door is shut and the sound of footsteps going down the stairs is heard.

“Are we really?” Ned asks when he’s sure no one’s around to hear them.

“No clue, but I wouldn’t mind that much if we were.”

And as he leans down to kiss her again, still doing it carefully enough that he doesn’t disturb either of the children they’re holding up, she knows that she really, really wouldn’t mind at all.

 

End.