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==

London, 2013
You’re not my savior, but I still don’t go
Massive Attack, Dissolved Girl

==

For once that day there was no rain to speak of, the skies were clear and the sun burned bright, peeking through her curtains and coating her face with the glow of the morning. Brienne was awoken by the sheets stirring beside her, a rhythmic, furry movement against her foot as it hung limply outside of the bed, a purr. Pod, her British shorthair cat, demanded to be let out, staring at her with his calm yellow eyes. After stretching lazily and rubbing her eyes, she opened her bedroom window for him and he left her alone.

She gazed at the alarm clock on her bedside table. Eleven. Sleeping late made sense when she had been frantically painting away until well past three in the morning with her earphones on, listening to La Traviata at a ridiculously loud volume, her brush tracing the trees in the field, the delicate lines of a wall, bricks worn out by the time and the rain, a palfrey in the background, chewing at the half-dead grass, making up stories in her head of how the life would be soon ripped out of the inhabitants of her canvas, as it had from her.

Brienne would listen to the symphonies and fantasize about existing in a different time period, feeling like she was born in the wrong era, while deep inside seeking to avoid the fact that what she truly longed for was to close her eyes and open them in a different body where she could feel safe.

She would paint until her arms were cramped, until the day had exhausted, until the morning greeted her, she would sleep by her fireplace and wake up and paint some more, would jump in the shower and look out the window to witness a light rain and leave, walking alone at night, perceiving every texture of a wall, the humidity that hung in the air, feeling the first drops of rain kissing her eyelashes, then she would head home and paint them; Clair de Lune would play in her near-empty living room, occupied only by her canvas and her paints, and she would weep upon every note, recalling the moments that gave her life and were now so far in the past that she regretted never touching them again.

Pod came and went as he would; she was barely getting used to his presence. Only two months had passed since life led her to this cold, damp city, or since she led herself away from hers, feeling sick of her own discarded life, of the same familiar streets, of her apartment, inspiration crashing down day after day as the memories threatened to toss her into a spiral of self-loathing and regret.

The cat had followed her home on a windy evening, so malnourished and with such an expression of abandonment that it had touched her last fiber of compassion; she had taken him home and nurtured him as she could, and he had stayed by her side ever since, a quiet presence that managed to expel the loneliness that tugged at her.

What she was doing here, she was not certain; it surely must have something to do with Catelyn Stark offering to become her art dealer abroad, advising her to take a few months off the capital of the world to get a breath of fresh air somewhere else, so that maybe her muse would be awakened by sheer need of adaptation.

It would not be for him.

Brienne could not even know for certain where he was living at the time; she might not want to know at all so that she could stop trying to put together the puzzle in her head, utterly upsetting herself in the process as each time she reached the conclusion that his piece was too dissimilar to hers; she was too jagged for him to fit. Might as well leave it be.

Her breakfast today was a cigarette and a black, sugarless coffee, a glance at the city from the roof terrace where her flat was located, drop after drop waking her senses and inciting her to drive herself through the day, lest she get crushed by the unbearable weight of her own thoughts and uncertainties.

After jumping in the shower and throwing on a pair of jeans, a white top and her black combat boots, she headed downtown to meet Catelyn at the art studio. She was near her forties, but as beautiful as she had been years before, when Brienne had first met her at RISD, teaching her Art History and pushing her way into her life, becoming the first woman to have any significant influence in her character.

Catelyn sat in her office, looking up at her from her black-rimmed glasses. She must have internally wanted to question her; the blonde had bouts of artistic inspiration and she would disappear for days without any notice, but this was probably the longest she had spent without so much as a phone call.

It was the air of the city that affected her. The uncertainty blurred the edges of her patience, demanding answers she was neither wont to have nor interested in seeking. What always won out was knowing that the only constant in her twenty-five years of life was the knowledge that fantasy always topped reality, in her dreams everything could be the way she wanted; she could close her eyes and paint the world in the eye of her mind and live in it for hours, untouched, untainted by the corruption and depravity of the very real world that threatened to disarm her.

Brienne did not believe in religion anymore, regardless of being educated in a catholic school since her early years. If there was a god he had laughed at her one too many times, all her prayers had gone to rest in the cemetery of oblivion, much like herself. But she had a tendency to feel that sometimes her life was led by someone with a string, dragged along by fate, that she had fallen into a number of serendipitous and perhaps unfortunate situations that might have made her into a different person had she not gone through the experience. She longed for the idea that deep inside her the innocent, naïve girl who first went to RISD was still alive, calling out her name and trying to make her remember, but she had needed to bury her so she could have enough strength to get up in the morning.

Then such events happened that she could not contain her disbelief, taken through a nauseating rollercoaster time and again, wondering if she would survive and exactly who she would become once she managed to get off. This was one of those events.

“Cersei Lannister wants to commission a mural. She requested you specifically,” Catelyn told her, in her most business-like tone. Of course she would not know how her heart jumped at the name, she would not know how her stomach became a knot, how her hands started to sweat at those last nine letters; she was both paralyzed and ecstatic in equal measure.

A shuffle of hands, a lewd whisper into her ear, a tongue running along her earlobe, and silence, silence, silence.

Silence. She remembered she needed to reply. “Where?”

Catelyn shuffled a pile of documents on her desk, focusing on the last few lines of the request. “Knightsbridge. Though I don’t know how that factors in.”

Brienne looked away, doing what she could to conceal her distress. “Does she live alone?” That was an actually relevant question. Working in environments with children or other family members wandering about while she worked could prove to be a nightmare.

“Yes.”

A wave of relief washed over her, but as soon as it passed she felt a pang of longing, longing for something she was sure never to have . . .

“I’ll do it.”

==

She could not quite grasp why it had taken her so long to dress the next morning. Over the years, living in the artistic scenes of so many big cities, she had managed to diminish her long-term anxiety about her body, her height, her ugly face, her crooked teeth. There were so many peculiar-looking individuals in her classes that sometimes she managed to slip by unnoticed; pink and green and blue hair, all kinds of clothing, accessories and women as short as children and others almost as tall as herself.

Brienne had long since developed her own style, nonchalantly choosing whatever attire best suited her at any given time, her vanity all but nonexistent. Thus it was extremely difficult to understand why it was that she could not decide what she should wear to her first brief meeting with her new client. She had taken the time to research her thoroughly, as she would any other. Cersei Lannister was the editor of Vogue UK, an enviable position for any woman involved in the fashion industry; she lived alone in one of the most luxurious areas of London, was divorced and had no children.  

Of course she would not include into her thoughts the fact that she was also Jaime Lannister’s twin sister.

At the end she went for a simple pair of jeans and a black t-shirt, draping her light green scarf around her neck for good measure. The weather of the city was one of the first things she had gotten to know, unable to predict when the rain might start falling. Pushing her big feet into a pair of sneakers and locking the door behind her, she took a deep breath and prepared for the meeting, smoking a cigarette on her way to catch a cab.

==

Her flat was medium sized, but quite elegant, glass walls decorating the wide living room. The woman had already moved the couch out of the way so Brienne would be able to take in the wall that would serve as her canvas. Once she had a first look at the place, she turned back to study Cersei, who was doing exactly the same with her.

She wore a smirk on her lips that to any man might have seemed like an invitation into some indecent activities, clasping a glass of red wine between her fingers; red nails, red lipstick, her perfect round breasts peeking from the cleavage of her tight green dress. Her black heels made her taller, maybe as tall as him . . .

“So, Brienne, is it?” she asked, never dropping the graceful smile on her lips. In spite of living in London for a long time, she had not lost her natural American accent. “I have seen your work. Catelyn Stark strongly recommended you.”

“I specialize in murals.” Brienne’s tone was firm and detached as she continued, “Are you looking for something in particular?”

A soft laugh escaped her perfect lips. “Aren’t we all?” She raised an eyebrow. “You’re free to paint what you want. Far be it from me to limit your . . . artistic abilities.”

She knows.

Brienne pulled out her cell phone and snapped a picture of the wall, then took her time to write down its measurements, studied the light and the texture. During the entire time Cersei stared at her, sometimes biting her lower lip, as if she had to contain an urge to bring the matter into collation, to drop a hint, to make her see, but Brienne did not need her to.

“Has anybody told you you’re quite . . . unusual . . . for an artist?” she asked her between sips of the wine that she had not bothered to offer. “It must be so hard for your reputation.”

“Yes, they have told me,” Brienne said simply, “and yes, I am unusual. It makes my work no better or worse. My reputation makes no matter. No one knows my face.”

“I know your face now.” Her green eyes sparkled as she spoke. She sat on a barstool, placing an elbow casually on the kitchen counter and leaning back. She crossed her legs in a manner that made Brienne nervous. If this was her way of seducing men, her bed must see few lonely nights.

“Only my clients.” She placed her cell phone back inside her pocket, finished with her first assessment of the space.

Before she could turn to leave, Cersei pressed on, “Does it please you to dress like a man?”

Brienne looked away. Her fingers were aching to grasp another cigarette. I need to stop smoking. “Does it please you to display your cleavage as a lure?”

To her surprise, the woman’s features twisted into a lopsided amused grin. “Do you believe yourself so interesting as to insult a well-paying employer?”

“I’m sure if you sought to dress me instead of having me paint your wall, you would have contacted one of the models from your magazine. What you asked for is a mural. So any additional comment is merely conversational. If what you want is to share fashion tips, I might as well give my opinion.”

The long golden earrings Cersei wore brought out the deepest green in her eyes. Every one of her eyelashes was elegantly decorated with mascara. Her cheekbones were flushed with an emotion that Brienne could not pinpoint. She had claws and was not afraid to show them, but Brienne wore too much armor around herself to feel affected. A tight-lipped smile adorned Cersei’s features. Her gaze was as hostile as it was alluring.

“You may take the key on the table next to the door on your way out.”

==

Cersei left early, long before Brienne arrived, and she stayed out late. More than once Brienne worked until the first hours of the morning, giving that one final touch, adding just one more stroke, until the sun started shining on her face and announced the arrival of a new day. Sometimes she would leave at ten in the morning and then not come back for two days, sick to her stomach of the painting, wishing to pour fresh paint all over it and start over, but then she would return and feel hypnotized by the image.

First she painted Jaime’s eyes.

It took her a week to finish them. She had entered a state of disquiet at the store when she could not get enough tones of green to give every breath of life she needed for those two orbs that lit her way back to life too many times when she thought herself lost at sea. Every line she painted took her closer to finishing his gaze, trace by trace leading her into an almost orgasmic elation brought on by too many memories put together.

Once she was done with them, she sat on the floor, drinking a glass of pure vodka from Cersei’s cabinet, wishing to wash off the taste of his tongue from her mouth, the feeling of his touch over her skin, the smell of his hair, his sweat on her fingertips. Staring as he stared back, reading her, stripping her of all kinds of façades, leaving her bare for him to take. She would walk barefoot out to the balcony, staring at the city lights, having a smoke. Cersei would arrive and watch her, then she would change into a long silk robe and sit far from her, on the floor as well, asking her for a cigarette and sharing a lighter, both looking up at his gaze. Then the woman would go to bed and Brienne would stay still, counting her own breaths, calculating the speed of her pulse, falling asleep for minutes.

In the morning she went back home, fed Pod and took a long bath, listening to London Calling and sinking her head in the warm water, cleansing herself of the past. Her cat would sit by her and watch her for a while, once or twice meowing, you’re not alone, he told her with his eyes, but truly she was, all the time she was.

 

==

New York City, 2010
You’ve crossed the walls, excelled
Deftones, Lucky You

==

Jaime Lannister was a guest lecturer at the School of Visual Arts in New York while she was in the Fine Arts program after graduating from RISD; a playboy at heart, spreading smiles to the other women in her sculpting workshop, and getting into more than one bed in the process. Handsome like no other man she had ever met, an astonishing artist in his own regard, his golden hair falling almost to his shoulders. He was in his late thirties by then, hardly visible but for the white that had started splashing on his scruffy beard.

Only thirteen students participated in the class, handpicked by Renly Baratheon, the head of their Masters program. One by one Jaime had been able to charm the women and generate outmost respect in the men, his passion for art sneaking its way into his otherwise blasé lectures, coloring his comments with graceful jokes that made the boys laugh and the girls blush.

Brienne would have none of it. She listened attentively and absorbed all the useful information while mentally disposing of the rest. She knew Jaime Lannister’s work was flawed at best by then; he was unfocused, his art lacked his previous touches of personality that earned him high esteem from academics and spots in the most prestigious galleries in the world. All that was left of him was the solid reputation that launched him into a successful career and the false praise from the critics that failed to see the transition, blinded by their visionless fanaticism.

But Jaime would have none of Brienne’s rejection, either. More than once he had cornered her after a lecture at the workshop, making japes at the expense of her height or her freckles or her big lips, branding her as uptight and overly tense, ‘in need of a good fuck’ in his very own words. She would do nothing more than point out his evident deficiencies as an artist at the present and emphasize that he was no longer as brilliant as he once had been. It soon became a cycle that intensified too quickly, raising the tension between them with far too much speed for his meager two weeks as a guest.

He only lusted after her resolve, wishing to break her as he would any other young woman who would fling herself at his feet, to dominate the indomitable with a thrust of his cock, and just for once she dwelled in the perverse satisfaction of letting him believe it, while allowing his touches to cleanse her of the sensation of being used to fulfill a lucrative challenge.

A brush of his fingertips as he handed her a cup of coffee, a glance through the corner of his eye as she moved a strand of hair from her face; then soon an angering retort, calling her out on her absurd ugliness much the same as she did with his general bullshit, his tongue running over his lips, eyes glinting with the fever of the chase.

It was dark but for the lamp beside her station at the deserted painting workshop, her brush tracing maddeningly fast strokes over the canvas, tainting it with tones of red and fiery orange, before he stepped inside and kissed her without a word, every trace of his tongue marking her as a conquered inch of land, celebrating himself as the lord and king of her cunt, while she took every stroke of his hard cock inside her as a learning experience, finding out what it might feel like to be fucked for something other than indignant mockery.

Then he had her again for good measure, bending her over the table, her chest pressed against the freshly painted canvas, staining her with deep crimson, appearing to foreign eyes as if he were killing her with his plunges, splitting her in two. He brushed against a yet undiscovered spot inside her that made her moan and grind against him with absolute urgency, flinging her mercilessly down into the most intense orgasm of her life as he whispered her name into her ear, teasing her, telling her, “You said you were not interested, but your cunt says otherwise.”

When they were done she assumed he would leave, but as she closed the buttons of her no longer white shirt he sat her on the stool and kissed her, cupping her face, teaching her how it truly felt to fall into an almost majestic synchrony with a lover, tongues sliding into each other, his hand stroking the back of her neck, her breath caught in her throat and her heart so close to leaping right out of her chest.

He had left for London the next day and that was that; there were no tears to be shed over their brief, unceremonious lay, each to their lives and their days.

The thrill of that night still made her moist and more than once she had felt so overpowered by the memories that her skin would burn and she would touch herself while recalling the feeling of Jaime inside her, down to the last brush of his fingertips.

 

==

London, 2013
Hold on ‘cause the coldest hasn’t thawed yet
Yeah Yeah Yeahs, The Sweets

==

The next time Brienne showed up at Cersei’s flat, she knew it was time to move forward. She brought every shade she needed to finish the face, and as soon as she got to work she saw how piece by piece Jaime’s visage disappeared behind other features, a longer chin, crooked nose, a more ample forehead, brown hair and no beard. Her brush made the inexplicable happen, turning an illusion into a harsh reality, a face that melted into a mix of Hyle’s, Ronnet’s, even a hint of Renly deigning to show up. Fibers of hatred clouded her mind as she stamped their images on the wall, converting them into rough traces, giving the image a raw essence that in her opinion quietly matched Cersei’s own internal flame.

They had barely spoken two words to each other after their first encounter; some days she would arrive from work and head straight into her room or the bathroom without a single word. Other days Cersei would catch her with paint up to her elbows and such a distressed expression on her face that she would quietly pour wine for both of them and they would share it while the raindrops crashed against the windows with a fury.

A month and a half after beginning it was done, a piece that stunned whomever watched it, penetrating eyes upon an anonymous face with the streets of New York City in the background, colorful pink and purple circles adorning the side, bringing to mind the lights of Times Square through tear-stricken eyes. Cersei said nothing, but she did not fail to display a half-pleased, half-impudent smile as she stamped her cursive signature on a fat check with her manicured hands and gave it to the blonde, getting the keys to her apartment in return and hopefully forever closing their deal. Brienne usually gave Catelyn a set of pictures for her public portfolio, kept at her art firm, to show to any future clients, but she marked this as one of her private murals and kept all the photographs to herself, each brush stroke evoking the smells and tastes of a distant past.

It was not long after she began walking down the street toward the nearest café that she heard the clamor of breaks screeching on the street, only a few feet from where she stood, slightly stunned by its suddenness. The sound had been followed by a crash; she rushed to find the taxi driver getting out of the car and a man lying on the floor with his eyes closed.

Life and death touched her for the first time in years.

==

“Am I dreaming?” Jaime asked her, his green eyes barely open.

Brienne shook her head for a reply.

His eyes closed once more.

She pressed her white sweater against his forehead gently, staining it with intense shades of red.

 

==

Paris, 2011
The stairways up to la butte can make the wretched sigh.
Rufus Wainwright, Complainte de la Butte

==

It was the smell of freshly baked bread and the taste of the wine on the tip of her tongue that incited her to continue sitting right where she was, at the Elysian Fields Avenue. Or perhaps it had something to do with her voice, Edith Piaf’s, her very particular voice in the background of the café, urging her to forget about the past, to start anew. Her hand reached for the pack of cigarettes in her pocket, her teeth bit at the edges of her lower lip softly, her ears listening to the soft tones of voice of the natives speaking in French, every word rolling so elegantly off their tongues. She closed her eyes and imagined she understood the words, seeking just enough inspiration to capture the experience in an image that she would later convert into an artistic reality with the tips of her fingers.

One of her legs wanted to leave, one wanted to stay, both wanted to spread for him, so she sat, she waited, each second an hour in her perception, each smell of the autumn breeze seeming incomplete in that they did not carry his scent. Thirty days without a smoke, her hand fumbled, grasped and let go, her lips touching the glass, the red running over her tongue, a bitterness lingering.

Then Jaime.

It was that grin, that self-satisfied look in his eyes, that glance of possession over its target, the way his hair shone against the night lights. One smoke, just one. The wine dissipated and she licked her lips, averting her gaze, if only to prevent the almost inevitable blush that would spread on her freckled cheeks.

He sat opposite of her, a mischievous tone in every one of his words, “You waited,” he told her, “Were you so sure I would show up?”

Her teeth clenched, her tongue running against the roof of her mouth, her heart raced. “The world does not revolve around you.”

His smile widened. He gestured at the waiter to bring him the same wine she was having. He set his elbows on the table and leaned against it. Her gaze wandered to his lips, then up at his eyes, glimmering with malice, just waiting for the right moment to take advantage of his high ground while she scuttled under the table like a rat.

The wine arrived. She crossed one leg over the other, if not a frequent position for her, the first she could think of to contain her expectancy. He shook the glass. She looked at his fingers, knowing where she wanted him to bury them. He noticed and let out a laugh. She took a soft, deep breath; her skin turned to goosebumps.

“So I’m not as important as I think? I wouldn’t have thought that you did this with just anyone,” Jaime remarked, drinking his wine, “I thought I was special.”

Skip a beat. Specialspecialspecial.

“Are you so hypocritical? I’m thinking at this point your bed is so worn out you’ll soon be needing a new one.”

He laughed. His easy laughter threatened to fill her eyes with tears of sheer longing. “It might, but not by you. Yet.”

Yet. Her hand was shaking, so she hid it under the table as discreetly as possible, resting atop her lap. She could feel the sweat of her palm on her thigh, still questioning her decision to wear a skirt. But he liked her legs; she had seen him look at them. She looked okay, even if she could not come up with the courage to wear heels, ending up with her black skirt and her combat boots. It did not matter. If her ugliness bothered him he would not be sitting here.

Her failure to reply did not shake him. He leaned closer. “Surely you’re one to believe the rumors.”

She smiled sardonically at that and hid her lips by sipping her wine, studying his eyes. There was a glint of seriousness to his words. Speech between them was often wasted. He could read her like a book in all her naiveté, but he was not alone in his sensibility. Brienne understood the depths of the conflict that disarmed him to the point where his art became crooked. Though she knew not the reason, she knew his sculptures and she knew his touch. Nothing else was necessary.

Thirty days.

She pulled her zippo with the Rolling Stones logo out of the pocket of her skirt, along with the unopened pack of cigarettes. Brienne knew he was waiting for a response, he knew she would give it, but she would take her sweet time about it. It was a sore topic. Embarrassing would be a gentle word, scandalous might be more proper. The perfect one would be revolting.

She opened the pack; he stared at her fingers. Didn’t you quit? He asked her with his eyes. Don’t push me, her own blue ones replied, taking the cigarette to her mouth and lighting it. Zero days. He did not join her with one of his own.

Brienne finally spoke, “You don’t think it’s natural for me to believe that you can be narcissistic enough to sleep with your own sister?”

His face remained still, but his eyes moved away from hers, taking her lighter and fiddling with it. She stared at the surface of his wine. A smirk that did not quite reach his gaze spread on his lips. “Why are you still here, then?”

Because you’ve given me the only authentic hours of my life.

“I’m not the one sleeping with her. That’s no business of mine.”

His laughter shook her ears. “You’re not disgusted?”

She flinched and sat with her back completely straight on the chair. She was of a height with him, possibly slightly taller. You will not look down on me. “It most certainly appalls me, in this day and age, but you’re an adult. Quite an adult at that.”

He moved a strand of hair away from her eyes, placing it behind her ear. His wrist was warm.

“So I’m old, narcissistic and incestuous.” His fingertips trailed too long behind her earlobe, a teasing caress disguised as a kind gesture. “Again I ask, why are you here?”

Avec mes souvenirs
J'ai allumé le feu

“I just am.”

She knew it was useless. He would dig into her mind the way he had dug inside her body until he found what he wanted, until he held her heart and did with it what he would. His index finger touched her chin, ever so softly.

“You do want me.”

She squirmed. Drank from her glass. Inhaled from her cigarette. Looked away.

“Are the words so hard to say, or do you just like it when I fetch them out?”

A long tablecloth, the last table on the corner, the dark and freshness of the night; she was thankful for it all when his foot brushed against her leg and his left hand rested on her knee while the other held her chin, pressing her to look into his eyes. She might have shivered were it not for the constant flow of heat through her veins.

“I don’t think there’s much left to say,” Brienne told him, “What I don’t know is exactly why you’re here.” She thought she knew, but maybe he was farther than she predicted. She felt like she could read him, see through his disguise where others could not, but uncertainty crept into her; did it thrill him? Or was this just the game he played with all the girls? The game he played with his sister? “They all line up for you. Sparkly and shining and petite and willing. Yet you’re here.”

His hand moved further up, sliding its way to her inner thigh. “Does it trouble you that I would pick you?”

“You only want what you think you can’t have.”

He laughed. “But I’ve had you.”

She put out the cigarette on the ashtray and finished the rest of her wine.

Non, rien de rien
Non, je ne regrette rien

He pulled out a bill from his wallet and set it on the table. She put her lighter back inside her pocket and threw on her jacket.

Car ma vie, car mes joies
aujourd'hui, ça commence avec toi

 

==

London, 2013
Just like you said it should be
we’ll both forget the breeze
most of the time
Damien Rice, The Blower’s Daughter

==

“Hold still,” she commanded. He complied. The doctor added another stitch. The blood had dried on his face. When the older man walked out, Brienne wiped away the stains on his cheek with some damp gauze.

It was impossible for him to avert his gaze. Though she had denied it, he still wondered if he might be having a vivid fantasy rather than facing an implausible reality. She knew he was thinking of that; he understood it when she pushed a finger against his wound to help him confirm his very live surroundings.

She washed her hands at the small sink in the bathroom of the hospital room. They had stuck him there because the ER was cramped. She stared at her face in the mirror for moments, wiped some blood from the side of her face. She was cradling my head against hers. He had been unconscious then.

As the minutes passed Jaime started to feel his wound, the effects of the anesthesia fading. Brienne remained silent, sat on an armchair, looking at nothing in particular. Every time she averted her gaze, he knew he had her. It was her subconscious demonstration of submission.

This is London. She’s here.

“Art exhibition?” he asked simply.

She shook her head. His heart beat faster. His mind raced to the past, so distant, yet he could still reach for it, as if trying to turn on a light switch in the dark.

“Course?”

Once more she gestured her denial. Are you here for me?

The world does not revolve around you.

He might have been bothered by having to play twenty questions, was it not for the sick pleasure he felt every time he played these games with her, as the woman hid around corners and he ducked and ran to find her just before she would slip away from his grasp once more. “Are you living here?”

“I’m living here,” she confirmed, standing from the chair. She was restless. Maybe she was almost as rattled as he was, running into him in such a way, serendipity tugging at both their chains, though she had the advantage of knowing they were inhabiting the same city. Or did she hope he had moved, perhaps?

“Did you get tired of the Empire State? Or did you just miss me?” He directed a grin in her direction. He thought he might be failing at hiding his enthusiasm, but she gave no signs of detecting the weakness. She opened her mouth, moving her lips, unable to produce a sound. Her cheeks reddened so slightly he might have missed it if he had not been expecting it.

Her eyes. Their blue engulfed him, and when the light touched them in that way that told him she was as fragile as glass beneath her rough surface, he wished for nothing more than to kiss them, to kiss her, but most of all to hold all her broken pieces in his hands, to enforce that power that he had over her; a power to summon her unlikeliest tendencies to both extremes, dissolving her into no more than passion or enraging her to the point of violence.

“I need a break. I’ll be back,” the blonde told him. He stood to follow her. She turned so abruptly he stopped on his heels and sat back down at the foot of the gurney. “Alone.”

“Are you going for a smoke?” He raised an eyebrow, amusement written all over his features. “I thought you stopped. Many times.”

She pulled her hand out of her pocket and remained in the room. One of the fluorescent lamps on the ceiling flittered to give a last sign of life before its inevitable death. The sink she used earlier had a leak; the silence allowed them to hear every last drop of water wasted.

“Do you have plans?” Jaime inquired before he could think about it.

There was a glint of antipathy written in her eyes as she replied, “I’m sure your doctor would suggest you not to jump into bed for the rest of the day. You have a concussion.”

His smile faded, but his gaze intensified. “Is that all you can think to do?”

“That’s all you’ve ever been interested in doing.”

He rubbed his fingers together absently. There was still dried blood on them.

Jaime wished he could string together the right sentences to explain life to her. He wished he were the kind of man to be able to say them, even if he had a speech written and ready to deliver. Those moments when she forgot to hold back her tongue and say to his face how much he disappointed her, every time she had touched him whilst whispering what a conceited bastard he could be; then he thought she understood him, saw through him. She did, but then she toyed with him with her back and forth, confusing him. You can be so naïve, Brienne. My Brienne. You’re still so young.

He wished he could grasp her, consume her, inhale her very essence, while still managing to keep enough distance not to fade in the process. Every one of her words when he met her was a slap on his face as much as it was a breath of fresh air, a glimpse of authenticity among a sea of ass-kissers and half-enamored whores. He had put his soul in every kiss and rescued his teenage romantic only for her, to convey it in every caress, to tell her for one second through his touch I’m here, I live in your world, you live in mine, though they both felt like aliens in a distant planet, all alone in the madness, the disease, the immorality.

Still she believed herself one more figurehead to warm his bed, as if he could objectify such a peculiar character, such a face as would never appear in a portrait, an exceptional, ugly, closed-off woman. “You’re a walking contradiction,” he told her, “you believe yourself small enough not to interest me beyond the bedroom, but when I try to find you all you do is hide from me.”

She clutched the doorknob angrily, standing by the doorway, unmoving.

“Close the door and come here.”

Brienne looked up at him. She wanted to defy him. He could see her jaw tensing; she was clenching her teeth. He wished he could feel them biting his lips. He held his position. Her grasp on the knob relaxed, the door closed silently and she approached him, stiff as a statue.

He remained seated, surrounded her waist with his arms and buried his face in her almost flat chest. One heartbeat. Two. Three. Her shaking hands reached out for his hair, entertaining all the nerve endings on his head as she ran her fingers through every strand. Too many times we have danced this dance. He felt her chest rise and fall, her breathing strained; he knew her mind was racing, for so was his. Don’t think, was their implicit motto, don’t think and do, and maybe one night of lust after another will keep us alive just long enough to take us longer to die.

She traced her finger all the way down from his ear to his chin. He had no beard at the moment, only the scruff of not shaving in a week, so he felt every bit of her fingertips. Her thumb moved to touch his lower lip, he caught it in his mouth and sucked on it, and from her eyes he could tell he had her; he always had her, no matter how much they sought to shake each other off, they always went back to this junction. He grew hard at the idea of taking things further right where they were, but seconds later she pulled back her hand, picked up her bloodstained sweater from the chair and left without another word.

It mattered not. She had made sure to stick her new business card into his pocket long before.

With her it was the rush. The rush . . .

==

Middle ground, or so Brienne considered it, the Courtauld Gallery. It was late enough in the afternoon for the building not to be crowded; only a few visitors passed by. Her movements were slow and awkward, she had not slept the previous night, painting until her wrist ached, draining away her unease. By the time she was done it was already one in the afternoon and sleep would be wasted. Only caffeine kept her together.

It was he who chose the venue, a feeble peace offer, indicating that the territory would be hers. He enjoyed doing that, flinging them into a neutral environment under the false pretense of giving her space, whilst pulling her towards him with his gravity.

She stared at Claude Lorrain's Landscape with an Imaginary View of Tivoli, a baroque painting from 1642, similar to her own style when working with landscapes. A twilight, so like her last few years, always orbiting between day and night but never quite staying in either of them, hanging by a thread of longing. It reminded her of her lonely palfrey, wondering if maybe it had already rotted away in her painting, delivered to a big law firm weeks ago.

Her legs were safely hidden away in long black pants, her feet wrapped in grey Oxford shoes; her hair, now longer than she usually wore it, was tied in a bun at the back of her head. A long grey wool coat protected her from the cold outside.

Jaime’s hand wrapped around her waist when he arrived, quiet as a mouse. “Always this one, here in London. There are many others, you know?” His voice was soft and he wore a cheeky smile.

She started walking down the hallway full of paintings, effectively escaping his grasp. “It’s a matter of taste,” she told him, “you should know that. You have your own particular set of tastes.” He walked beside her, as slowly as she did. She reached out and touched the bandage on his forehead softly. “Have you learned not to text while crossing the street?”

He brushed the side of his face against her hand, eyes shining with delight. “If every time I get run over by a car you’re going to show up, I might as well keep doing it.”

Brienne pulled back her hand slowly, studying him with her bright blue eyes. “You may die trying.”

“I’ll die happy.” His hand fell once more around her waist as they walked. She rolled her eyes, but made no movement to break free of his touch.

Paintings stared back at them from the walls, so old that they had lived many more lives than them; some sadder than others, some so beautiful she could almost touch the painter’s face and hold his fingers as the brush stroked the canvas. The hallway ended and they climbed the breathtaking white spiral staircase, one floor, and another, until they reached the last and stared up at the round rooftop window. There was barely any light of day left and soon they would be asked to leave.

“Why are you here, Brienne?” he asked her, cutting to the chase.

Her eyes remained focused on the glass window over their heads. “I grew tired of New York. I was stuck in a cycle. I needed fresh air.”

Jaime smiled. She could hear it in his tone. “There are so many cities in the world. London is just one of them.” He paused, playing hard to get, like he always did. He thought it was charming. She did too, sometimes, but not always. Not now. “I live in London.”

Brienne was unfazed. “Catelyn Stark is here. She’s acting as my dealer and a manager of sorts. She knew I needed a new atmosphere and brought me out here.”

He laughed. “I’m guessing you didn’t put up a much of a fight about it.”

Then she gazed at him, her stare cold as ice. “I didn’t know if you were still living here. You still think the world exists just for you.” Her fingers tapped rhythmically against her thigh. “Had it not been for that car, we might have never seen each other at all. It’s a big city.”

“Oh, I’m not complaining.” His fingertips touched her wrist so slightly she could hardly feel it. “I don’t mind sharing it.”

An amused sigh came out of her lips. “I’m well aware of that.”

His index finger ran down her palm. Her heart froze, her mind focused on shoving every one of her emotions into a box and keeping it closed, as if she were putting together every piece of her clothing into a suitcase and sitting on it just so she could shut it. Was I mistaken to come here, of all places, or will I finally be able to write an end to this sob story?

The floor where they stood was almost deserted by then, only ten minutes before closing. The light coming from the window continued to fade. A lady on the speaker announced the time and asked the visitors to head for the exit.

“Does it anger you?” His lips brushed against her earlobe as he whispered, “Do you want me all for yourself?”

Before she knew what she was doing, her tongue was sliding inside his mouth. She did not even touch him to pull him closer, just standing beside him, her hands frozen at her sides, her lips running against his, his taste awakening every minute of the past, the scruff on his face scratching her. Her head was spinning as if she was falling down a cave, much like Alice, following this white rabbit once and twice and thrice and always collapsing down at the bottom while he scurried away. His right hand moved to hold her chin and his tongue dug deeper, he bit her lower lip and opened his eyes as she opened her own, green meeting blue in a storm of yearning.

“Are you here for me?”

She drew back from him and started her way back downstairs. He followed suit. “No.”

She heard him laugh, a few steps behind her. “Are you here for me, Brienne?”

“You give yourself so much importance,” she told him, reaching the next floor and continuing to descend, “think yourself indispensable.” Subconsciously her step became hurried and before she knew it, she was half running down the stairs, but she was jerked to a stop by his hand grabbing her wrist.

“I want you to be here for me. I want you.”

Her heart was beating too fast, the lady called on the speakers again, the five-minute announcement sounding so far from her it might as well be broadcasted on a different continent. She threw a look of fury in his direction, sick of being torn apart by his indecision. Her words were bitter in her mouth, as bitter as the reality they had faced so many times. “You want everything, everyone. Neither of us is ever enough for you.”

Jaime gritted his teeth. She had awoken his anger. It was her that brought his sister up, so she could only expect him to finally ask the question that must be eating him up inside. “Why were you at Cersei’s?”

“Maybe I decided to find out why it is that you like fucking her so much,” she spat out, “maybe I decided to try for myself.” She knew he would cringe at the idea and she wanted him to cringe, to feel pain, to drink a glass of the misery she swallowed every day. She shook his grasp violently and he stood there, dumbfounded, watching her walk away.

 

==

I want to ask where I went wrong
but don’t say anything at all
Garbage, Cup of Coffee

==

Cersei’s skin was burning against his. Her legs were at his sides, wide open for him, as he thrust into her rhythmically, furiously. He could feel his own eyes at his back as he pressed her further up on the opposite wall of the mural. Few things in his life had caused him that level of unconventional arousal, the moment encompassing all the things that made him who he was, Cersei, the mural, Brienne’s soul plastered upon that face that screamed his name, buried under the features of different men. Once he came he pulled back from her, still angry, hauled in two diametrically opposed directions, throwing his sprawled clothes back on, zipping up his jeans.

His sister remained nude, just as she had received him, wearing nothing but a pair of high heel sandals on her dainty feet. She sat on the couch, lit a smoke and brought it to her lips, looking up at the image she had commissioned Brienne; Jaime gazed out the balcony, wishing to sort out his ideas, but coming up short. The noise from the cars in the street was intense, the traffic of noon pouring out on the road, vehicles honking, the murmur of the passersby.

He walked back inside and stared at her, avoiding her stunning, medium-sized breasts, her inviting lips, her pronounced waist, instead seeking her eyes to put some distance between them, between the parts of them that mattered. “Why her?”

His sister smiled. “I wanted to see what it was that thrilled you so.”

His hand became a fist. “Did you?”

Her eyes glinted with the perverse satisfaction he had witnessed so many times when she managed to screw someone over, be it an enemy or a friend, it mattered not. “She’s ugly, lacks manners and is barely feminine at all.”

All the things he assumed she would see. If I were a woman, I’d be you. He had been her. That was exactly what he thought of Brienne before she opened her mouth, time after time, to say the words he had needed to hear for years. Before she had started scraping at his mask in spite of herself, a girl, barely a girl.

However, against his expectations, Cersei continued, “But she did paint that.”

He approached the mural and ran his hand over it, over every inch of color, breathing in Brienne’s scent, the smell of the hair at the back of her neck as he ran his tongue over it, exploring her meager excuses for breasts, his hands wandering down, lower still, sneaking his fingers inside her folds, his name on her lips condemning him to a special kind of hell.

The eyes, his eyes, her hands creating these impeccable strokes were going to be the end of him.

“She’s different from your usual brand of groupies and whores.” The blonde chuckled. When he turned he saw her tits shaking with her laughter. “Did you get tired of sleeping with nameless, barely legal tramps?”

He touched the paint, took in the angles of the figure’s face, carefully studied the tones of green she had employed, traveling back to the very streets of the city where he met her, so many lives ago. “It would take one to know one,” he told her coldly, “but you’d never know, because she’s no whore.”

Silence met him. He continued to inspect the image.

“If you think me so, it doesn’t seem like you have much of a problem with it, brother.”

Jaime knew she needed no reply. Up until that point, for months, at least over a year, he had kept their relationship strictly away from the bedroom. Since Paris. For him to just show up one afternoon to express his anger at her for playing games with Brienne and end up fucking her instead, as he would have done in the past, was a sign of only one thing, and she knew it, just like she knew almost everything else about him. About the past version of himself, he corrected, you’re a page from such an old book.

She was not afraid to tell it to his face, either.

“She rattled you by saying no. Is this the first time she doesn’t give in? So you come and stick it to me instead, you come to look at her work, to marvel at her art.” She exhaled a puff of smoke. “She makes you hard and I get you off, is that what we’re playing?” Derisive laughter poured out of her. “I’m sure sometime in the past you did the same, just the other way around.”

The way he turned was so abrupt she closed her mouth. He could see her words came from a place of hurt, but at the moment he was past caring; she had dragged her into this sickening situation, she had sought her out and brought her here, she had prompted her to give her a piece of her soul in the strokes of a brush. Now the least she could do was face the result. “Wake up and smell the coffee, Cersei. This is bad terrain for us to fight in.”

She shifted her eyes at him. “Because you love her?”

He said nothing.

“You loved me once, too, and here you are today. Maybe you’re as bad a lover as you are a liar. You don’t know how to handle an actual woman.” She inhaled from her cigarette, despair written in her eyes, her disarrayed hair around her perfect face, her lips enticing as the smoke was blown out.

He fumbled for his keys between the purple cushions until he found them and stuck them in his pocket. A drop of blood ran down his forehead and he understood the strain of their activity had made him pop one of the stitches.

“How do you think she’d feel if she knew you were here?” Cersei smirked. Her eyes did not. That was most likely why she had sought every possible way to get him to fuck her. She wanted to have the gratification of telling Brienne, but she could never understand the complexity of their relationship.

“She’ll know I’m here. She always knows.”

Cersei rolled her eyes, putting out the cigarette on the ashtray by the table. “She’s a child, Jaime. You’ve got fifteen years on her.”

Brienne would never look it, though; her stature always made her pass as older, it was her eyes that gave it away, but her eyes were so much darker now. All because of me. That was what had drawn him, her innocence, her very idealistic view of the world back then, in spite of her many tragedies, it had both frustrated and captivated him.

“She doesn’t care. Neither do I.”

The blonde finally stood and covered herself with her black silk robe, neatly draped over the back of one of the chairs. With a grace that even swans would envy, she walked to the door, still wearing her heels, and opened it. “Go to her, then, like a dog asking her to throw you a bone. And what a master you have. Your lack of self-respect astounds me. You used to have some dignity.”

“For all the good it did me,” he told her, walking out of her flat with Brienne’s mural etched into his memories.

I was full of pride, full of alcohol, full of blow, welcoming any and all women into my bed, about to choke on my own self-pity, because of you and your incessant need to spread your legs to get your way. I was a fool, then a junkie, then a philanderer. I was everything and still I was empty inside, and you were married all along.

Will Brienne be mad? he asked himself, mulling over the answer. She already hates me, just not as much as she hates herself.

A smirk spread on his lips as he lit a cigarette and brought it to his mouth before wiping a new drop of blood from his forehead with the back of his hand. She makes me hard and Cersei gets me off. The absurdity—and truth—of it was almost poetic.

 

==

London, 2012

If I didn’t know better
I’d hang my hat right there
if I didn’t know better
I’d follow you up the stairs
Clare Bowen & Sam Palladio, If I Didn’t Know Better

==

The first day of the year he spent with Brienne.

His bed felt so much warmer, his mind so much clearer, his art far more focused. His fingertips were almost frantic as they ran over the clay, molding it to his will, transforming it from a simple mass to lips, a forehead, a chin; a supernatural kind of magic generated by his mere touch, driven by his revived instinct as an artist, awoken from its decade-long stupor. He wore nothing but his boxers, having snuck out of bed as she slept soundly, half-covered by a sheet.

The notes of Vince Giordano and the Nighthawk’s You’re Just My Type filled his workshop with its soft trumpets, a gift from her, from so long ago, that he had learned to understand and perceive; his heartbeats increased as he came closer to completing the face, giving the last finishing touches to the nose, but it was too straight to look like hers, the frame was too petite, the lips too small.

Only then did he feel her presence, unknowing of how long she had stood there, watching him at work, wearing the sheet around her like armor, with a glass of water in her hand. She knew that it was not her, it astounded him how she could read his art better than she could read him, looking past any privacy he might have wanted to attach to his work; no matter how well disguised, she was too hard to fool where his pieces were concerned. Brienne could tell which ones were made when he was still with Cersei, which ones he had worked on once she got married, which had been chiseled after more than one line of cocaine; only one she could not read: the only one he ever made for her, of her, inspired by her, the skyline of New York City in balsa wood, two meters long, with a sunburst on one side and the moon in another, reminiscent of twenty-four hours in Paris.

She saw it in his eyes but did not display her emotions in her own; she knew who this was, for though the clay was colorless, this figure’s eyes were green; green and not blue.

“How do you always know?”

Brienne blinked slowly, as if awakening from a slumber. She reached out and touched a spot on his forehead, tracing it with her thumb gently. “This line, here . . .”

Jaime pressed on, “What about it?”

She tilted her head to the side, lost in thought. “You have no lines on your face yet, from aging.” She bit her lip almost cheekily. She knew he often felt so old for her, but liked to push that button through and through. “Except this one. This one is hers.”

The clay had dried on his hands. He turned his body completely to face her. As he was sitting, she looked down at his face attentively. His gaze was full of questions. Just a girl, you’re just a girl, how can you tell? You’ve never even known love.

“You had it in New York. You didn’t have it in Paris at first. You have it right now. You only ever have it when you think of her.” She hesitated, but then continued, “When she yanks your chain . . .”

Fury rose in him, something visceral, all consuming. He pulled the back of her knees towards him, forcing her to approach him. “I wear no chain.” His gaze was so intense it almost made hers back down, but he had taught her too much in such few encounters; her blue eyes held their ground and she placed her hand over his heart, his very chained and worn out heart.

She was such a fast learner that she managed to baffle him. At first she had been so shy that he had wanted to fuck the docility out of her inch by inch, and so he had, and she had accepted it and let it transform her, making him understand that she had never lived it before with anyone, she had never been given a spoonful of real emotion directed just at her; whomever had taken her virginity had left no trace of it other than one less barrier, whomever played the role of her first had left her a little more broken and possibly a better artist, having more despair to pour into the canvas.

Then he had left and it was behind them, but not really, never really in the past. Paris had lit the flame, it had forced them both to face the inevitability of such a life force. Ever since he set foot on that café she had not been able to stop herself from tiptoeing into the corridors of his mind and she had known it, though she remained skeptical to the fact, always so eager to believe the worst of herself, ever unwilling to trust his very tangible attraction towards her for what was on her mind rather than what the naked eye could see.

And so Brienne had learned that though he belonged to another, he would come up for air sometimes, and she would open her mouth and deliver it into his lungs, and then either of them would walk away first and leave the other behind, living with only that dose of oxygen for so long that it poisoned their brain.

Oxygen.

Breathe her in.

His hand made its way inside the sheet, pulling it from her, sliding down to the floor and exposing her naked body; his clay-covered fingers brushed the small of her back, soft pale skin greeting them with its gooseflesh, his grasp becoming tighter as his hands moved to her backside and pulled her closer. He slipped his tongue into her mouth and saw the light, felt the fresh air, don’t let me go, I’m tired of drowning, the feeling of impending doom scurrying into his veins, she’s leaving, she’s leaving you here with Cersei, he sat her on his hips, grinding his cock against her entrance through his boxers, rubbing a finger against her moist nub, hearing her moan her response, sucking on her lip, pulling back his hand and spreading her apart as his boxers came off, desperation seeping through his pores. A violent bout led him to drive her towards the table, lying her down as she bit her lip, asking for his permission, and she didn’t need to because a second later he pushed away the sculpture himself, falling unceremoniously to the floor, its features now deformed.

He pushed his way in and her walls clutched tightly around him, all rules were broken, all the players who mattered were here, opening his way into her, pulling out and pushing in and pulling out again, making him feel alive just this once. Brienne, Brienne.

As he lay atop her to sink deeper, to reach her further, his eyes lingered for a moment on the distorted clay, your eyes are green, he told it in his mind, but hers are blue and hers are mine.

 

==

London, 2013
If, when I say I may fade like a sigh if I stay,
you minimize my movement anyway,
I must persuade you another way
Tool, Pushit

==

She had called Catelyn to let her know she would be unavailable for at least two weeks; she called the local art store to have a three-meter long canvas sent to her flat, then she proceeded to turn off her cell phone and throw the battery down the toilet for good measure. She bought enough groceries and cigarettes for at least that long and locked the door, seeking to fall into oblivion, to distance herself from the rest of the world, to vanish for all intents and purposes.

The last thing she did while still outside was picking the paints, one by one, at least three times the amount she needed, in case she had to start over.

She put on a pair of comfortable shorts and a tank top, cranked up the volume of her speakers, at the moment playing the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra’s version of Stairway to Heaven, and sat on the floor of her living room to stare at the blank space of the fabric. There was no furniture; there had never been since she moved in, all she had ever wanted was an empty room where she could paint anything and everything; her parquet flooring was comfortable enough to sit for hours while she mulled over the conceptual base of the piece, and once she was ready she would sit on her stool until her legs were cramped.

The first week after seeing Jaime she felt frantic, the ideas were pouring out of her faster than she could paint them, giving an edge of rush to some of the traces, a rough quality that so reflected her emotions. First she drew the grass, the exact color of that grass, then each line of the pair of hands, each fingernail, up to the crevasses of the fingertips. It made her so dizzy to capture such intricate details that she got a strong headache that had her in bed for the rest of the day, in complete silence, falling in and out of sleep.

She had not slept peacefully in days, her hours now more poorly adjusted than ever; once the brush became her main appendage it was impossible to stop, time became meaningless and bodily functions became paused until her need of air, satisfied by the painting, became placated. Without her cell phone she could not tell what day it was, long ago she had lost the habit of wearing a watch, it was the type of thing to become irrelevant for an art student.

It must have been five days after she started when, while she sat and inspected an architecture magazine, studying the angles and drinking a cup of black coffee, a delivery boy appeared at her door to hand her a bag of takeout, all paid for. She told him he must have the wrong apartment, but it was her address in the receipt, and her name was clearly indicated in the order.

The bag contained a box of Chinese food, the smell awakening the hunger she had not previously noticed she even had. As she ate it she became unsettled, for no one had her address but Catelyn, and no one ever ate Chinese with her but him. I know where you are, was the message, I know where to find you.

Days went by without any other incidents, possibly the entire weekend; she focused every day more and more on the architecture, on the structure, playing with the dangerous tones of black and gray, seeking to perfect every single line of the tower to do it justice. She must have done it for days, but all she recalled was at least two nights completely awake, then two afternoons completely asleep, brought back to consciousness only by Pod’s meowing, asking her to feed him.

That day she had finally composed herself by waking up early, having a full breakfast and a long shower, feeding Pod and watering her half-dead plant, a housewarming gift from Catelyn when she arrived, and sitting down to listen to Eric Clapton singing Further up on the Road while she had some fresh air in her small terrace. Brienne could not help but laugh at the idea that today she was behaving like a responsible adult, wondering what her manager would think if she could see her usually ludicrous routine, with her motherly attitude toward her, and how she would feel if she knew that was the only way the young girl could create worthy art. She hadn’t even had a smoke since visiting the gallery.

A knock on the door startled her, barely audible above the music. Her first reaction was turning down the volume; the second was glancing over at her painting. A three-meter long canvas was too big to hide with her usual sheets, but this piece was too fragile, she did not want anyone to see it and was convinced that the first thing she would do when finishing would be to take it to an incinerator, cleansing her palate of its taste.

Though she had told herself time and again that she needed to replace the peephole, especially in a city that was still foreign to her, she always became distracted and it never seemed like a priority due to the few visitors she ever received.

“Who is it?” she asked cautiously.

There was no reply. The blonde turned to walk away from the door, but then there came a rhythmic, playful knock, and she needed to know nothing else. She debated her best course of action while noticing Pod become slightly agitated, approaching her and looking up at her face with vigilant eyes.

His voice was muffled by the door. “What, are you going to pretend you’re not there? You already spoke, you know.”

Brienne leaned her back against the door, closing her eyes, what do I do? You should just stay out of this . . .

A second later her hand was turning the doorknob and she slid out into the hallway in an oddly graceful manner, shutting the door closed behind her with determination, keeping her hand firm on the knob. Jaime wore khaki pants and a white long-sleeved shirt; she was still in her shorts, barefoot.

“It’s bad manners to receive a guest in the middle of the hallway,” he told her. His breath smelled of cigarettes, but it did not cause her an urge to have a smoke of her own.

Her brow was furrowed, her eyes focused. “You’re not a guest. And if we’re going to talk about manners, it’s bad manners to show up at someone’s place uninvited, most especially when that person has not shared their address.”

He placed one of his arms against the door, tentatively trying to push it. “What is it you want to hide? Do you have some one-night stand in there?” He laughed. His green eyes glinted the way they always did when he teased her, when he was playful with her, when he sought to soften her resolve.

“It’s none of your business,” she told him with a steady voice, mustering all the willpower she could find inside herself, which was not much at all. “Tell me what you came here to say. I’m busy.”

He came closer. The previous scent mingled with his own, his chest clashing against hers as his arm reached further. “I can take it, you know, it’s not like it’s such an unfamiliar thing for me.” She understood he was not going to stop, so she placed both hands on his chest, letting go of the doorknob, shoving him away, but then Pod meowed loudly, distracting her, and the door was swept open. Initially the gray cat hissed at Jaime, understanding he was upsetting her, but the force of the door spreading to its widest and crashing against the table beside it startled him and he ran away at an astonishing speed, climbing out the window.

“Shit!” Brienne cried, forgetting everything about the door, everything about the painting, rushing to the window to see which direction her cat had chosen. She heard the screech of car breaks and her heart skipped a beat, but then she saw the furry gray figure scuttling down an alleyway.

When she turned to throw on a pair of shoes and chase after him, her world came crashing down upon watching Jaime staring at the painting with an expression that told her he was nothing short of dumbfounded. She became torn, having no time to wonder what it was that she had to do, running Pod’s favorite places over her head. She looked around the room until she found her sneakers and threw them on clumsily.

“How can you not want me to see this?” he whispered.

Her stomach was a knot; she felt exposed, as if she were standing in the middle of a public park completely naked, she wanted to close her eyes and cry out her embarrassment, wishing she had not painted anything at all, wishing she had simply let it go, but the painting’s exquisite lines had begged her to capture them in the canvas and she had given into it.

It was the Eiffel Tower in all its majesty, standing proud above her city, their city, the grass as green as if it were summer, the sun bright and the sky clear, the hedge walls at its sides, the fingers barely intertwining, life, life and more life in her usually melancholy landscapes, too many touches of clear blues instead of her preferred grays, the grass so texturized she could almost smell its freshness, the shades of a past that forever changed her.

Its only unfinished part was the group of trees beside the hedges, only done up to the trunks, its branches colorless and empty.

His fingertips reached out as if he wanted to touch it, but she knew he would not, he knew it was fresh. For once in so long Jaime was speechless. She was grateful for the distraction, giving her time to wipe away the tears of rage falling down her eyes, pleading for her barriers to rise again as quickly as possible, to hide her from him, don’t look at me, please look away.

Down to the last inch of her patience she tied her laces and stood, grabbing her keys and rushing down the hallway, down the street, thinking of her cat and wishing more than anything for him not to be hurt. She was two blocks down from her apartment building when she felt Jaime rushing to catch up to her, a bewildered expression on his face.

“A cat?” he asked in disbelief, “Since when are you—”

She turned abruptly, making him crash against her. “He’s my cat, and you scared him.” She was not going to let this become some topic for his japes. “He’s terrified of sudden noises and he runs and hides and he might get run over by a car if I don’t find him.”

The playful tone of his voice faded and his silence told her he would help her look.

Three more blocks down they reached the alleyway where she had found him the first time. She shook two of the trash bins slowly, seeing if he was hiding inside. Then she checked a group of worn out, damp boxes, but he hated anything humid, so he would never approach them.

“Pod!” she called out. Nothing stirred.

She pulled her keys out of her pocket, remembering the little bell she had hung in it. She had bought it to place it around his neck, growing tired of being startled by his sudden appearances at first, so she wished to give him some kind of announcement of his presence, but after a few failed attempts at keeping a collar around his neck, she gave it up. He loved the sound of it, though, so she shook it and called out once more, “Pod, come here!”

A pair of little yellow eyes peeked at her from underneath an old newspaper in the corner, and he approached her with caution. When she picked him up, he was shaking. She suspected something unpleasant happened to him in the past ever since a plate slipped from her hands in the kitchen and he had the same reaction, running away as if his life depended on it. This is where she found him the first time.

Jaime said nothing on their way back, and all she wanted to do was turn back time and never open the door. When she walked into her flat she left the door open for him to come in; everything was out in the open now, all of what she wanted to keep inside her, for her eyes only.

Brienne occupied her nervous hands by preparing coffee once he walked in and closed the door. Pod disappeared into her room, probably still bothered by Jaime’s presence, while the blond stared at him with curiosity.

“Let me guess. You picked him up from the streets and decided to adopt him.”

She gave no reply.

“You’re too kind.”

The lid of the coffeepot slipped from her hand. She picked it up. Get a hold of yourself.

“Please tell me why you’re here.” Change filter, two tablespoons, fill with water, place on the base, turn it on. Every fiber of her being was concentrated on keeping a calm tone of voice.

He moved to stand behind her and reached out for her hand. Her fingers were trembling slightly, so she pulled back, occupying them by looking for clean cups in the cabinets, but there were none. She washed two of the ones in the sink. Soap, rinse, dry.

“I want you,” he told her firmly. “Look at me.” It was a command. She took commands from no one, especially not him; he knew it would bother her, he was trying to irritate her, because he knew from irritation to sex there was but little. A bad feeling in her gut told her this was not about sex, not today, and that was worse, she was not ready to handle that.

She placed her hands on the counter to steady them, and pushing through all her anxiety she looked up at his face for the first time since he arrived. His eyes were reluctant, atypical in him, I’ve only ever seen them twice, his mouth was closed and tense, his hair was in disarray from their rush to find the cat.

There was a line on his forehead.

She attempted to smile the most cynical smile of her life, but it came out sad instead, much to her dismay. Her insides crumbled, she felt her throat tighten, her heart seeking to run away, leaving her chest a hole; she turned abruptly, grasping for the first thing she found, the cups, but her grip was so weak, so very weak and he said nothing, he knew she had understood.

“Brienne, talk to me—”

The balloon sucked in more air, and more, and more, the balloon filled and stretched and the air was too much and it burst.

The mix between her utter rage and her contained tears gave a growl as a result, “You can’t ever make up your mind, you can’t ever decide anything.” The coffee boiled, its noise warning her, she pulled the coffeepot out of the base and poured it in both cups with an impressive dexterity for her emotional state. “You never know who you are or what you want but it’s so easy for you to just stick it anywhere.” She placed his cup on the counter with such strength that half the liquid poured out and splashed on the surface. “You tell me you want me and play games with me, it’s always a game with you, always the thrill, isn’t it?”

Her gaze was so intense that for the first time he flinched, his mouth opening, but nothing coming out. Was it shame?

Don’t cry, just don’t cry, a drop of the salty liquid peeked from the corner of her eye, then another, “You lie to me, you tempt me and then you go and sleep with her, making us interchangeable, always.”

The last year and a half of her life came into her mind as if it were a torrent, all the lonely nights, all the wasted hours, that feeling of awakening he brought out in her that died as soon as they were apart once more and most of all her regret, the regret of making a wrong choice for pride or fear or both, berating herself more than once having touched joy with her fingertips but being too scared to truly grasp it, and him just confirming that it was never true, it was always a lie, because what he offered her was always tied to her, always to his sister, always to his past, he reveled in the poison of Cersei’s magnetism while Brienne dwelled in the one he had given her, far more toxic, managing to stay in her veins month after month.

You wanted to play with the adults, this is an adult, you’re just a child; it had excited her to know he was so much older than her, she had felt like perhaps he was far past the games of the men her age, men like Hyle, he must have left them behind and so it made her susceptible to believe his passion meant something special; he could have anyone and still he sought her, her with her absurd frame and unladylike manners, her with her unattractive persona, her with her childish illusions. She recalled his fingers touching her lips, his soft words whispered in this very city so many months ago, she wanted to believe them, I love you, stay, but it was too hard, it was too false, it was too close to her. Her suitcase had been so heavy but the plane had felt so safe, her apartment in New York had been a den for her terrified self, I’m back in my life and Jaime’s not here, but then the days had gone by and she had enough time to think, enough air to breathe, enough moments to understand that with two words she had thrown her life away, I’m leaving.

The words burned her tongue, they were scalding, they were painful, “I have loved you.”

There was nothing more for him to say, he reached out and kissed her, kissed her as if he were drowning and needed to be revived, she took him in at first but then she remembered the poison flowing through her veins, the emptiness of her life once he was not in it, the long days and longer nights, when before him it had just seemed like routine, and after his presence she understood it was the pain of existing alone and he had made his way into her world only to leave a void in his stead.

She bit him so hard she tasted the copper of his blood in her mouth, she pushed him away by the chest and walked away, further, further, toward her painting. Paris, it all came down to Paris. The tower became blurred as her tears filled her eyes and she felt it was just a dream, just one single day of living in heaven, the exception to the rule. Her painting felt so fake then, so much like a simple imitation of life that she was filled with the necessity to make it disappear from her sight; she looked around her, to the floor, feeling a tear dripping down to her hand, finding what she sought as he rushed toward her, “No”, she heard him say, “don’t.”

You can’t stop me, it’s mine, it’s mine to do with as I like.

When she flung the bucket of paint over the canvas he had already moved in front of it, facing away; everything became stained, including his clothing, everything faded, everything but the hands, the hands were safe and steady and locked together, and the Eiffel Tower wept black tears.

 

==

Paris, 2011
I know your name
I know your skin
I know the way these things begin
Suzanne Vega, Caramel

==

She felt like a sheep headed for the slaughterhouse. It was absurd; she was the one who contacted him to meet at the café. She could not expect him to lead her into a field of butterflies and flowers or some other ridiculous setting, she knew where this would end up, she knew the bed was their stadium and their match would be straightforward. Am I longing for romance? If so, this was very much the wrong person for it.

His hotel room at the Four Seasons was luxurious, occupying the entire floor. His bed was neatly made. Brienne tried to divert the thoughts of speculation about its previous visitors; it made her feel so anonymous that it threatened to dissolve her into the young woman she was instead of the adult she so tried to emulate.

They had said nothing on their way there from the restaurant. It was not necessary. Their liaison in New York had established the well-defined frontiers of their exchanges, and she thought him sincere enough to respect his lack of slick talk when trying to lure her into his orbit, the cards were on the table and she had been the one to agree to the game, knowing full well that someone in his past had chafed him raw to the point of twisting his art into a shade of everything he had ever sculpted before, though she had only recently found out the level of perversion involved in the situation, figuring that the object of his despair had been his own sister.

Anyone else might have shied at the idea, but Brienne’s very life had been so unconventional that she did not feel in a position to judge. She had been isolated from the world for years, steering her towards art, she had managed to squeeze her way into the art scene of New York while still in high school, only to be viciously excised by Ronnet Connington. Then her only sexual experience at RISD had become the summit of her humiliation, the rebirth of her paintings into something baroque and far more somber than it had ever been, thus catapulting her into a much more sophisticated environment than before and drawing the attention of all the important dealers in Rhode Island.

To top off her personal tragedies she had been infatuated with Renly Baratheon’s kindness toward her when he had expressed an interest in becoming her first art dealer; though by then she no longer showed her face, he had asked for a personal meeting and had not shied away from her ugliness; he had taught her the first lessons of how to participate in the artistic medium, the best types of galleries to exhibit her work, generating her decent profits that she had not imagined she would see so early in her career and through them receiving the freedom she needed to evolve as an artist, acquiring a small apartment of her own in New York City and experimenting for days and weeks on end.

Renly Baratheon was also gay, as she discovered when she started her program of Fine Arts at the SVA, which he coordinated, finding him once in his office with his long-term partner, Loras Tyrell. By then her life had seemed like such a joke that her heart became cold and hard as stone, done with her childish illusions and faraway dreams, focusing on her courses and her workshops and her paintings, managing to convey new levels of muted dejection in each piece.

She was over halfway done with her Masters when Jaime Lannister swept in like a storm in the desert, the first person to pay her any kind of attention in her reduced environment, to challenge her on an intellectual level and to awaken any sort of clever conversation in her world of silence; his initial insults had washed off her like any other, already used to them, but his subtle flirtation had not, in spite of her instinctive distrust.

By that point she felt that it was hard to live any worse experience than the ones before; the death of her brother when she was ten years old, Connington’s very public professional rejection, Hyle’s games, Renly’s unattainability. She felt curious as any woman her age might, being twenty-two years old and only having been with someone once, and most of all she felt both perplexed and agitated by Jaime’s insinuations.

She was naturally attracted to him, he had the most handsome features she had seen in her life, and the fact that he was much older than her gave her a bizarre sensation of security and discretion that calmed her anxiety. Back then she was still utterly ashamed of her body, feeling insecure at being solicited by such a good-looking man, but knowing that he had already slept with half the women in her workshop somehow eased her doubts; it led her to believe that he must see something beyond that, that perhaps it was their exchanges that excited him, that maybe he wanted to try something different just once, and there was surely no one more unconventional than Brienne.

So for all intents and purposes she understood what it was like to be dragged towards whichever direction fate resolved to take her, to fall for the wrong person, to be disappointed and used and discarded and hurt. Still somehow she felt that by being with him she was intruding on the woman’s territory, sneaking silently through the back door into her domain. Though she had no right to feel jealous, just for seconds she closed her eyes and imagined being her, Cersei Lannister, having more of Jaime than just his frenetic lust.

Her experience with him had changed her. More than all the other men, it had left a dent in her personality, it had brought out her private thoughts and a level of adult emotion that she never had to face before; contrary to all others he had pressed a button that showed her a bright light instead of mind-numbing darkness, he had given her a taste of true vivacity and made her heart beat faster and revived the sensation of trusting someone, while at the same time leaving her empty upon his departure, tasting only a drop of that sweet poison and awakening a thirst she had not known existed before him.

Then they had met in Paris by happenstance, both invited to the same art exhibition by Renly, their only mutual acquaintance. Once she found out about him and Loras she had slowly distanced herself from him and dismissed him as her dealer, but they remained sociable enough for her to accept his invitation. As always she went as a simple guest, an anonymous face in the crowd; so many of the visitors may have seen and admired her work before without even knowing it, passed right by her and ignored her without a second thought, but she had learned her lesson and her life was the better for it.

To Jaime she was not anonymous anymore.

Their gazes had met across the room like fire melting steel, her heart had raced in her chest, the person he was talking to walked away at his sudden silence, while she remained still as a gazelle caught in the woods by the eyes of a fierce leonine predator. Her fingers on the untouched champagne glass had tingled, ideas had flowed into her mind like an unstoppable torrent, the possibilities stinging her like a thousand hornets.

Every lonely night since New York had marked her to the point where she had written a note for him with trembling fingers in the back of her business card, Deli’s Café, 76 Champs-Élysées tomorrow 8 PM, and she had turned and left before he could think to speak to her, handing the piece of paper to a waiter and asking him to please deliver it to the gentleman in the dark, expensive suit and crimson tie.

And so here they were.

She stood on the doorway of his bedroom, unsure of what exactly she should do. There was a certain feeling of pressure to live up to the kinds of women he usually went for; whereas she was inexperienced and ignorant, they must have provided him with all kinds of interesting seductive moves. She had none, so she just stood there, clueless and awkward.

He must have felt her apprehension, because he headed for the minibar and poured her a glass of something she was too far to spot, selecting Scotch for himself—the Johnnie Walker tag was too recognizable—and handed it to her with an amused smile.

She brought it close to her face and smelled it, then took a sip. Vodka. “I don’t drink,” she stated.

“You were drinking wine at the restaurant.” He sat on the bed casually.

She leaned against the doorway, staring at the liquid with distaste. “The waiter said something along the lines of ‘you can’t visit France and not drink French wine. It’s rude’, so I just humored him. And wine is not such a strong drink.”

Jaime drank from his glass, watching her with curiosity. “I’ve never seen an artist who doesn’t drink. You do know that studying different states of consciousness is a part of art, right?” His smile was charming. Her knees felt weak. “It makes you more keen.”

She looked away, placing the vodka on the bedside table. “Doing lines and drinking your anger away made your art worse.”

A slight frown appeared on his features. He was good at keeping a façade of nonchalance about him, but even he had his limits. His irritation at her comment was only evident because of his silence; the words stuck in his throat whereas before he would have thrown her some unpleasant retort. Have I offended him? She thought his shield so solid that those observations had no effect anymore, but now she was not so certain.

She took a deep breath and reached for her purse, resting on the dresser. “I need a second,” she told him, walking out and making her way to the balcony.

She lit a cigarette. What a shitty habit. She never smoked before she met Jaime. Hyle had taught her once at RISD, while teasing her for being such a prude, but she had thought it pointless. However, the slowly developing turmoil caused by Jaime’s arrival in her life and space had made her paintings insufficient as a tension reliever, leading her to seek a different target to unfetter her from the stress.

The night air was cool and breezy, but not quite enough to be cold. She sat in the small table in the balcony, where two comfortable chairs were set out. The breeze flowing through the strands of her hair had a calming effect. What am I doing here? It was the question every human must ponder at some point. Do I allow myself to feel the pleasure of this moment and take it for what it is, or do I deny myself the experience and avoid more pain?

Jaime did not give her a moment of respite. He came out into the balcony with a playful air about him, the drink now gone, took the cigarette from her lips and kept it for himself, inhaling and blowing out a puff of smoke with a sassy smile. She must have looked like an idiot, fascinated by the lines of his face, by his jawline, by his eyelids and eyelashes and the few gray hairs in his beard. He said nothing until the cigarette was down to the filter and he crushed it under his shoe.

“Are you scared of me?”

I’m scared of everything you entail.

He didn’t wait for a response before firmly gripping her face in his hand and bringing her lips to his. His kisses were hungry and unrestrained, hers were needy and responsive. She could hear Clair de Lune playing in the room below them, every note a torturing reminder of where they were, the city of love, a temporary thing, a dream frozen in time.

==

Brienne tasted like youth. Not her own, but his. It reminded him of decades past, when he was just a young boy experimenting with his art, turning every thought and emotion into sculptures, all of them progressively becoming more intricate and sophisticated, all of his workshops at the Royal College of Art shaping him into a better artist and awakening his natural talent. She roused a spirit that he had thought forever lost, the inspiration to create something new and untainted by the basic banality of their medium, unaffected by anyone’s thoughts and suggestions, something that was only his to craft.

All of it had previously faded along with his disillusionment as Cersei drifted and vanished behind Robert Baratheon’s plump figure, he had sought to fill the void with so many trifles and came up with nothing; he had let his art become half-assed and mediocre and he had laughed as he observed the critics praising his ordinary excuses for a legacy, he had fallen into the field of abstract figures, never conveying any message at all, selling pieces that would adorn public parks and important office buildings while knowing they were not worth the cost of the materials that composed them.

And no one had seen through it. Cersei had never understood his art; she belonged in a different existential plane. The women had continued to swoon and throw themselves at his feet—though now he accepted them into his bed—and the galleries still welcomed anything he sent their way. But then there was Brienne. Brienne’s blue eyes had drilled through his subconscious and touched a part of him that he thought long deceased.

Jaime had wanted to leave it behind, buried in the hallways of the SVA in New York, pretending that the encounter had not affected him, but he had kissed her with a conviction that had not existed in his heart in years. With anyone else he might have just had her and left, he might have turned around and never come back, but he had felt such an overwhelming yearning to convey his bewilderment at the power that she executed in him without ever even suspecting it, that he had left a piece of him behind, and now her words, her eyes, her lips proved to him that she had remained as stupefied and transfixed as himself.

In the cool air of the night he kissed her. The balcony was awash with the moonlight drifting through the clear sky. He was very patient; the girl provoked an impulse to teach her everything he knew gradually, slowly, so that he could savor every inch of her mouth. She was clumsy at first, but after tasting so much falsehood it felt nothing short of endearing, he slowed down his tongue and prompted hers to fall into a dance, his hands grasping her waist, his lips softly biting hers, stealing a glance and then another between kisses, spotting the slight blush on her cheeks. Though his cock was very eager to move forward, to step away from this very slippery territory into something more familiar and much less threatening, his emotions overflowed and kept him grounded to his chair, limited to tasting her lips, to place kisses on the side of her face, to run his hands through her hair, to transform her into an adult with every stroke, and she did not shy away from him in spite of the trepidation poorly hidden in her eyes.

Only when she was ready did she lead him to the bedroom herself. He took his time to undress her, to touch her, to absorb the image of her skin and her freckles, seeing every line of her nose, her wide mouth, the crooked teeth peeking through her half open lips; she had been shy to explore his body, but he gave her as much time as she needed and never mocked her for her bashfulness. Her insistence to cover her breasts once she was nude brought a smile to his face, he removed them and kissed her buds and kissed her, his legs tangling with hers, their bodies slowly melting, their barriers dropping readily in the face of how brief the moment was, knowing that soon it would be over, that they would once more be half a world apart, condensing too many emotions in the space of a bed, too many confessions surfacing as a response to the limitations.

==

Brienne lay on her belly, her breathing rhythmic, right on the verge of falling asleep. His fingertips warmed upon touching her temples, feeling her stray straw-colored hairs on his skin. Her astonishing blue eyes appeared and disappeared beneath her eyelids as they grew heavy. He lifted the sheet off her back and ran his hand between her shoulder blades, studying every line of her tattoo, every color, every shape. A moon and a starburst. It was the first time he saw it; in New York the clothes had never come off.

He wanted to ask about it and she knew it, Brienne knew he fed on her secrets as if they were a banquet, basking in her hidden treasures, always believing it was just a hobby for him, never wanting to see how interested he was in digging deeper, in unraveling the mystery.

She caught his intention when he bit his lip, a gesture so unlike him, that she whispered, “I had a brother once.” His fingers traced the edges of the drawing, carefully etched upon her skin, a reminder, a mark. “Galladon. He died.”

The intensity of his gaze made her flinch so slightly he almost missed it. She laughed it away. His heart almost crumbled at the sight. All her ugliness was forgotten when he watched her smile. “I wouldn’t have slept with him, though.”

==

He had never slept, really slept, with a woman other than Cersei, and with his sister everything was always so clandestine that it had not happened often, either. Brienne’s sleeping figure was warm and tender. Her head rested on his chest as he counted her slow breaths, one, two, three, hypnotizing him into a soothing, dreamless sleep.

==

Upon waking they fell into a heated encounter under the sheets, he studied her further, learning her rhythm, her quirks, her favorite spots for him to touch. He learned that running his tongue down her earlobe made her almost immediately wet, that running his fingers over the small of her back made her shudder, that she liked kisses to be slow and probing rather than quick and desperate; most of all he learned that compliments made her skittish and it angered him, wondering who had caused her such distress in the past that her trust was hardly ever given and it came drop by drop, if at all.

Half the day they remained in bed, playing at loving each other, playing at making love instead of having sex, sharing unexpected confessions and more than once a sweet word escaping either of their lips. He told her about Cersei and she told him about Hyle, his chest had tightened upon hearing how he had sought to captivate her with easy compliments and attention, how she had rejected him and how he continued for so long that she had believed it to be true, until one day he had awkwardly taken her to bed and in bare minutes had stripped her of her virginity in order to satisfy a bet with his colleagues.

Word after word he gave into it, into her, puzzled by the experience of having someone impact him so deeply in such an absurd manner, sticking to his mind after fucking her twice in New York and now sticking to his heart after mere hours in Paris; shocked and confused and most of all daunted by the possibilities. Before he knew it he was dreading every minute that passed, pushing him closer to his midnight flight back to London and her later one to New York City; he clung to her and refused to let her go back to her hotel, they had showered and dressed and he had taken her to the Champ de Mars while there was still light out.

“You couldn’t think of anything more cliché?” she had asked him with a laugh, but he could tell she was marveled by the spot. She kept staring at the Eiffel Tower as they sat on the grass and he realized she had never seen it before.

Something stirred in him and he wordlessly held her hand, intertwining his fingers with hers.

==

Holding hands with Jaime while looking at the most famous tower in the world felt like if she was born only for this moment, if all her years of life existed only to lead her here, it was worth it.

They had been together so many times since the previous night that she had lost count, they had slowly crawled into a place of safety for both of them to gain enough confidence to explore, to feel, to sink into each other, and still when her fingers felt his, she knew this was the most intimate contact of her life.

She opened her eyes to her surroundings, studying every leaf, every line of the tower, every inch of the sky, wanting to pour the scene into a bottle so she may open it anytime she wanted.

==

The Charles De Gaulle Airport was cold, it was freezing, it was killing her.

His flight was called on the speakers. He dared not look into her eyes. Her hand was sweating and her stomach and throat were knots.

Jaime gave his first step and stopped as if his feet weighed more than steel.

Brienne’s hand trembled as she touched his fingers so softly she wondered if he had felt it at all. Her mind was blank, but her lips still said the word, “Stay.” It was barely above a whisper.

His lips were almost furious when they kissed her. She dropped her lightly gripped suitcase on the floor. With a last breath he turned and left.

 

==

London, 2013

Will you still love me
when I got nothing but my aching soul?
Lana del Rey, Young and Beautiful

==

Her fingers became stained as she washed his shirt over the sink, a current of diluted black circling around the drain once, twice before disappearing. Her reflection in the mirror of the bathroom, distorted by drops of water, reminded her of her ugly face, her unattractive features, distancing her from everyone else, setting her apart as a different species. Her tortured soul hid inside, pouring itself into such art that the eyes of the observers became shocked and astonished, so long as they did not look directly upon her.

Her nude chest rose and fell, her blue eyes returned her gaze in the glass, until Jaime’s greens materialized beside them, his arms surrounding her waist, warm to the touch and gentle, his lips coming to rest on her temple, sitting there, unmoving, her knuckles paling upon wringing the piece of clothing, her heart aching and singing and melting into a liquid structure that took the shape of its beholder.

His naked body, now clear of the black paint, came into contact with hers; his thighs brushing against the back of hers, his hips pressing against her backside, his chest warming her back, his scent intoxicating her. The shirt fell from her grasp, untangling itself over the ceramic of the sink, opening up to the world beyond, its stains now faded to gray.

Step by step he led her back to the bed, never letting go of her, holding her tightly, refusing to cover them with the sheets as they lay down sideways. Her chest tightened at the invasion of being looked upon inch by inch, the shame of it and the intrigue of being unsure what his eyes saw on her freckled skin, on her long legs, on her almost nonexistent breasts. Then he turned her around so they would face each other, his gaze enraptured whereas hers was filled with doubt and disbelief, but his lips reached for hers and he kissed her slowly, the tip of his tongue carefully brushing against hers, one of his hands cupping her face while the other held her close by the waist, every other moment of her life fading, every preoccupation of daily routine being left behind, thinking not of the future or the past but of this single second, closing her eyes to savor him further, almost hearing white noise in her ears as her ego blurred.

“It never bothered you before,” he whispered, as if they were hiding and sharing secrets in a secluded crook, “for me to be with her.”

She averted her stare, her breath catching in her throat, Don’t say it.

He caressed her chin with the tip of his nose. His words were venom. His words were life. “You always felt the outsider. Not so today.” A soft moan escaped her lips when his index finger circled one of her nipples teasingly, then his thumb swept over it. His mouth wandered to her collarbone, to her shoulder. “Am I yours today, that you would be so enraged?”

Brienne let out a heavy sigh. She could feel her pulse beating maddeningly against her neck, as if her own blood wished to escape her. The hand around her waist ventured lower and lower still, down to her front, into her moisture, his teeth scraping the nape of her neck when she faced away.

No, no, no. “Are you?”

His smile grew into a grin, his fingers spreading her lower lips, his words so gentle that in spite of every conviction she believed him, “I’m here.”

She groaned softly as he slipped inside her folds, twisting his fingers, prompting her hips forward. His erection was pressing against her thigh. “You manipulate me,” she whispered into his ear. Her voice was broken. The line on his forehead was gone.

“I have to pull it out of you.” His tone became strained. It was all becoming too intense too quickly. A third finger slipped inside her.

She frowned while her breath turned to a pant, “You have no right.”

“You run away, but you want to hear it, you want me to tell you the words.” Jaime’s hand withdrew and he climbed on top of her, his eyes meeting hers, a whirlwind of wills. “I went to her after the gallery. I went to defend you. And I went to see it.”

She ran her hands through his soft, golden hair. Her hips were grinding against his, demanding it from him just as she demanded the answer that she did not yet want to acknowledge. “It’s yours.”

He nodded so slightly she barely caught it. “You can’t paint that and not love me. And most of all you can’t paint that gaze and not feel loved by me.”

She closed her eyes, driving it all away, remembering her wrist moving as she traced every inch of his eyes, the hours she spent mulling over each and every single color. “I was thinking of her. Of how you’d look at her.”

A soft laugh escaped his lips. She felt the tip of his cock in her entrance. “I was thinking of you when I was with her.” He thrust into her so slowly while kissing her that she thought the anticipation might kill her. When his lips broke, her mouth felt cold as ice. “And she knew it.”

She felt like laughing hysterically. She did not.

“I don’t need you to defend me. If I wanted that, I would’ve told her no.”

He drove himself into her, then once more, and again. “She thinks you’re too young for me. Are you, Brienne?”

She bit her lip. He knew it aroused her. Her walls clenched around him and she moaned upon feeling him reach deeper inside. “She doesn’t like . . . me . . . playing with her toys . . .”

Rage took him. He dug his head into her neck, biting it and pulling at the skin. “Tell me now. Stop hiding around corners. Demand it from me.” The look he gave her when he lifted his head was as serious as she had ever seen it. Once more the rhythm of his hips slowed down; everything became unhurried and calm.

“I . . .” She swallowed. The words had spikes that raked her tongue. “You’re mine today. You have to stop.” The only expectation she had was his easy, nonchalant laughter, once more proving he was just teasing her, just wanting to drown her in her own voracious infatuation.

But that was not what she obtained. He moved harder, faster. His mouth clashed against hers, stripping her down to the bone, his kisses washing the anger from her, a relief settling over the disappointment of his slip with Cersei, making her feel sick to her stomach. He was with her and I feel relieved. He broke the kiss and she bit her lip, shutting her eyes closed as hard as she could. I knew he’d go back to her, but I never knew he would use her for my benefit. It almost made her want to cry from the ludicrousness, it made her want to scream, to climb back to another time, when all they had was a sordid affair, an exchange of pragmatic profits, you make me feel wanted for the first time in my life, and I’ll briefly distract you from the manacles of your owner. A time when the rules were so clear, do not fall in love, he belongs to another, this is just a one-time thing, before it became a two-time thing, a three-time thing . . .

You’re just a child playing at love.

A rush washed over him and he sat, bringing her with him, sitting her atop him on the bed; her legs moved to encircle his waist, a symphony coming to a crescendo, her hips matching his, his mouth on her neck, his hands around her back, rocking her with blithe passion, drawing her closer, her mind losing its grip as she approached her bliss and he reached his, groaning and whispering his name, and she let go and reveled in her orgasm, almost laughing out at the improbability of the moment.

The relief came from knowing that no matter how long he had been free of Cersei, he had to come back to her once, just one last time. He had to be the one to see and feel the toxicity that might have killed him otherwise, she could not be the one to spell it out for him. Has he understood it? His lips pressed against her cheek gently as he withdrew from her and kept her close in his arms.

“Will you be faithful?”

She had traveled back through time so many years back to be able to say it. For a second she was just a girl, just a girl dreaming of love, before real life had kicked it out of her.

His hand grasped her chin. His eyes were clear and focused. “I will be anything you ask of me.”

A dream, it was a dream; none of it would ever come true, but still she shut her eyes, nodded and jumped off the cliff with him.

 

==

London, 2014
Those who are dead are not dead
they’re just living in my head
Coldplay, 42

==

“Nice job, Dunk,” Hyle told her with a mocking grin. “Who’d know Brienne the Beauty would end up exhibiting in a gallery in the great city of London.”

Brienne sipped her champagne and said nothing, staring straight at the photograph, his words melting against her ironclad defenses.

“Oh, come on, it can’t be that you still hate me.” His hair was longer than she remembered, and he was sporting a beard now. It seemed ridiculous to her, he was far too young to try such.

“Hating you would imply that I care about your opinion.” She pushed back a strand of hair that fell across her eyes. The smell of the cigarette in Hunt’s fingers was bothering her, for the first time in months, it was making her crave one of her own.

She heard his easy laughter at her comment. “You know I do care about you. That whole thing back at RISD was just a dumb prank. I do apologize for it.”

Brienne gazed at him from the corner of her eye. “Okay.”

“Do they pay you by the word?”

“I don’t see what there is for us to talk about.”

The gallery had a very dim light; only the works were well illuminated. The photograph of her mural was in one of the main hallways, with the word “Dunk” written below it; her pseudonym after all the business with Red Ronnet. It gave her a sort of sneaky pleasure to stand beside it and listen to what the visitors said without ever knowing she was the artist. If she closed her eyes and thought hard enough, she could easily picture the japes if she were to be unmasked.

The empty space in the gallery was almost overwhelming; enough for the guests to mingle and discuss the works. Most of the comments she heard were so sugarcoated that it almost disgusted her, praise toward artists that were far too pretentious, words like “beautiful” poured into pieces that were clearly meant to characterize the basic depravity of humanity. Art is subjective, was one of the first lessons she learned at RISD, you can never know how it will be received.

“Maybe we should talk about your golden boy.” Hunt inhaled from his smoke as he stood beside her. “I would’ve never believed you’d fall for a playboy like Jaime Lannister.”

“You’d rather I continued to be with you so you’d make more money off me?” Her tone was cold as ice.

He smirked. “I’m way past that, you know. If I thought you’d become this kind of artist after that little joke, I may have done it earlier. I mean, look at it. It’s dazing.”

Brienne’s features twisted into a hateful smile. “Little joke? I suppose I should be thanking you, then, for being such a magnificent muse. Really, it’s not everyday that a girl gets taken advantage of. How lucky of me.”

Hyle moved to stand in front of her, forcing her to look at his face. “Hey, I am sorry. Really. I was a stupid cock-driven boy back then. Can’t you take an apology?”

She huffed. “You can’t ever be serious. Why should I believe you?”

“Because I have nothing to gain from it.”

Her blue eyes searched his face. “Do you feel guilty?”

Hunt’s brown eyes hesitated for a moment, always seeking to cover everything with japes and witticisms, but he nodded.

“You should.” She brought the flute to her lips and drank the last of her champagne.

He moved once more to stand beside her. “So, Jaime Lannister. Are you two serious? I heard you’re living together.”

Brienne rolled her eyes. “I don’t see who could have told you that. And it’s none of your concern, either.”

A soft laugh poured out of his lips. “Your life might be private, but his, not so much. It looks like he’s engaged in some pretty interesting conversation, though. And she’s quite a sweet plum, too.”

Brienne turned her head slowly, gazing across the room. Jaime stood beside Cersei, her long golden curls brushing her waist, her dark red dress reaching her ankles and a slit on the side exposing her slender legs. Her feet were clad in a pair of black heels. So close to Jaime, in his suit, they looked like a pair of models from a high-end fashion magazine. She faced the front once more. Balrog Boogie started playing in the background and she almost laughed bitterly at the precise timing.

“He can speak to whomever he wants.” She reached into the pocket of the gray pantsuit that Catelyn had custom-made for her. Her jacket was tightly clad in the middle by a navy belt and the pants were loose at the bottom, ending in a pair of short-heeled sling back shoes. Her hair was longer than she liked, down to her shoulders, combed back so it would stay out of her face. A small pack of cigarettes greeted her fingers. She pulled one out and lit it.

Sine cura, vade mecum,
casus belli, lusus naturae

“She’s very pretty,” Hunt emphasized, loosening the green tie of his beige suit. “Do you think she’s single?”

A soft laugh escaped her lips along with a puff of smoke. “That’s Cersei Lannister.” In her dictionary that was defined as ‘unattainable’.

He shrugged. “I don’t care about her name.”

Same old, same old . . .

“Of course you don’t.”

==

“Isn’t she lovely in her suit?” Cersei mocked, “She almost looks completely like a man. You must be so sexually confused.”

Jaime stuffed his hands in his pockets. “I think you’re the one who’s confused.”

Her green eyes inspected him carefully. Her makeup was impeccable, every one of her eyelashes covered in mascara, her lips prominent with a dark brown lipstick. He had to admit that his sister was one of the few women who continued to get better with age; now that she was stepping on her forties, her vivacity was barely awakening and she exuded an air of renewed sensuality.

“Am I?”

“Yes, you are.” He tried to concentrate on the lines of the painting before him, a piece by a German student, one of the best works of post-impressionism in the gallery, but whenever he began to think about this color or that angle, the very atmosphere around his sister made his thoughts drift. “I think we cleared things up last time. I’m not even sure what you’re doing here.”

Cersei laughed softly. “It’s my commission that’s being displayed here. Do you think she didn’t have to ask my permission? We agreed the mural would remain private. I wonder why she changed her mind.” There was a note of suggestion in her tone. “I’m guessing it was you who forced her into it. Public attention in galleries is not her main drive, she likes it private. Now that you two are so very close, are you trying to turn her into you? Or making her famous so she’ll be good enough for you?”

He looked away. “It’s got nothing to do with me. I wanted her to be confident about her work. She deserves it.”

The blonde shook the glass of wine in her hand. “Keep telling yourself that, maybe it’ll become true.” She drank. “Either way I think she’s receiving more attention than you originally intended.” An amused grin greeted him when he looked at her face. She pointed her head toward Brienne.

He turned to look at her, standing beside a brunet, engaged in conversation. Her foot was beating rhythmically on the floor and she was smoking. She hadn’t smoked since they moved in together. Jaime racked his brain, wondering who this character could be, and only two important figures came to mind: Hyle Hunt and Ronnet Connington, but Ronnet was a ginger. That meant that the man standing half a room away was the asshole who took her virginity for a bet. When he was younger he might have felt like expressing the violence it brought out in him in a physical way, but this was not that kind of relationship; it would upset Brienne to have him defend her, and in any case she had worked hard enough to leave the experience in the past. But the way the man spoke so close to her unnerved him, a feeling that dripped into his eyes, a bullet for Cersei to stick inside a gun and shoot him with.

“So he’s a sore subject.” She touched his hand ever so slightly with her fingertips, reminding him of how soft they were. Brienne’s were calloused from the brush. “He’s younger, much closer to her age. You know she’ll eventually get bored of the age thing. After fucking you for so long she must have outgrown it.”

Jaime reached out and grabbed her face on an impulse, looking deep into her eyes, discernibly enraged. Their lips were barely centimeters from each other as he growled, “She’s mine. Leave it alone. And I’m not just fucking her. Get that through your thick head.”

He let go of his grip slightly, realizing he might be hurting her, but her response was laughter. His heart skipped a beat at the reaction and he turned to see Brienne rushing out of the room. Hyle Hunt stood staring at them, but then he directed his gaze back toward the picture of Brienne’s mural, possibly thinking of how many of his own features stood out.

He hurried to the street to find her, but she was gone.

 

==

Silently reflection turns my world to stone
Patiently correction leaves us all alone
The Killers & Lou Reed, Tranquilize

==

Brienne was gone for days. She did that when she needed space, when she felt too close to a breaking point with him; she left to paint and to detach herself from their relationship, to stop being a lover and become only an artist. He knew she would go back to her old flat to spend days and nights in her own territory, seal contracts with Catelyn, sell one painting or another; she even took Pod with her, as if for a moment she raced back to the past, before they had taken things to a different level.

Jaime suspected she was feeling caged, the main gravity of her universe was always her art, and during the moments when they would sneak past the anguish and delve in one or two or three layers of happiness, her paintings became too realistic, too focused, too pure; it would anger her and lead her to gain distance once more so she could summon the misery that drained the life of the characters in her imagination, because live characters were too unfamiliar, too fragile.

It was her that was fragile, and he knew it. Every day she was with him she was walking on a tightrope. She would gladly jump into his arms and let him touch her and make love to her and mark him for his own, she would give him her body, she might even give him her love, but she would not give him the last strand of her faith. There was always that dangling suspicion that an imminent commotion was approaching, that the end of their bond was unavoidable, and most of all, that he would leave her. But he was too taken with her. Whereas her art was affected negatively by him, Jaime’s soared, his mind became clear enough to renovate his image, his ideas and concepts, to rise to the quality that he had always truly aimed for and construct a real legacy to be proud of.

The night after the museum she had been cold and withdrawn, as if she was a firefighter holding the extinguisher in her hands and waiting for the flames to take them both; she hardly spoke and her appetite was gone during the rest of the weekend. He had caught her looking at herself in the mirror for minutes, her gaze lost, and he held her and told her that he liked how her long hair looked. The next day she had grabbed a pair of scissors from her toolbox, cutting away every strand until it was as short as when he first met her, packed up some of her things and told him she would be away for a while.

Jaime wanted to go to her flat, to push her, to ask her things, to get her to react, but he knew that would make her unhappy; no matter the cost, he had to give her space. She had left behind a pack of cigarettes and he had smoked them all and bought some more, he became edgy and in a matter of days drank every drop of Scotch in their flat, he began sculpting and the result angered him to the point where he threw it against a wall and every piece of the dry clay was dispersed in the living room. He had stared at her stained painting of the Eiffel Tower, hanging in their bedroom, until his resolve melted, and it was then that he headed for Cersei’s apartment.

His sister wore her silk robe when she opened the door for him with a pleased expression and her hair in disarray. He had barely taken two steps inside her flat when Hyle Hunt came out of the bathroom in his boxers, wearing that ridiculous beard and looking as delighted as she did.

“So you’ll just fuck anyone,” he growled at her, “so long as it manages to screw someone over. Was this one for Brienne’s benefit, or mine?”

His sister shrugged. “I thought you said things were clear between us. Hyle here,” she shot a suggestive glance in his direction, “is quite charming when he wants to be. And he has a tendency to stay until the next morning, isn’t that polite?”

“Stop talking about me like I’m not in the room,” Hunt told them, “I’m failing to see the problem here. You live with Brienne, right? So then why exactly do you care who your sister fucks?”

“Leave,” Jaime said in his most commanding tone. The young man opened his mouth to protest, but Cersei threw him a head gesture to indicate that he should heed his brother’s request. He begrudgingly threw on his pants and shirt and left without another word.

“What is it that you think you’re doing?” he questioned, his face starting to redden from the anger.

“Fucking him,” she said simply, disregarding him with a flick of her hand, like a servant. “I’m a single woman, Jaime. It’s my prerogative, really.”

Rage brewed in him and he threw his jacket on the first chair he found and pushed her against the nearest wall, realizing that he had employed too much strength and letting go almost immediately. He was getting far too used to Brienne’s bigger frame and resistance, whereas Cersei was slight and delicate, like a rose. His sister’s answer was pushing him away with an angry expression. “Don’t touch me again.”

His hands turned into fists. “Why him, Cersei, only because of Brienne? To fuck with her head?”

The blonde shrugged. “She doesn’t come here, why would she find out? You’re so paranoid.”

He exhaled heavily. “I’m honest with her, as she is with me. I’m sick of lying and plots and intrigues. This concerns her.”

“It’s not like he was her boyfriend.” She laughed. “He only thought it amusing to get into her pants. The woman was in her twenties and no one had even fucked her by then. Hyle did her a favor, really.”

He gritted his teeth to prevent himself from pushing her again. “Did you enjoy fucking him? Was it everything you hoped for from a boy like him?”

“He’s Brienne’s age.”

“Brienne is different.”

She snickered. “On that we agree.” Her tone then became almost a whisper, that voice that for years kept him awake at night, fantasizing about any and all filthy words coming out of her mouth, of touching her, of having her for himself. “See, Hyle is still so young, he’s on the peak of his sexuality, really. And women my age are, too, so we’re a good match. He’s a good fuck, though he’s clumsy, he’s very interested in learning, and I always find instruction quite amusing.” Her fingertips brushed against his arm, her body approaching his, her almost exposed breasts resting against his chest. “He fucks me like he’s trying to impress his teacher, so eagerly, I can see what it was that you liked about being with her, it made you feel like she’d look at you as her savior.” Her lips approached his ear and she whispered, “Of course, you could never feel like that with me. I’m too good in bed. You just wanted someone to idolize you, but she’s grown tired.”

Jaime stepped back, retreating from her grasp. “So all you were looking for was a good fuck,” he told her, his voice rising, “How long was your bed cold, half a night? Did he manage to make you come, or did that teenager spill himself in his boxers?”

“He has made me come.”

“Did you enjoy it?”

“Yes.”

“Was it better than me?”

The pot was boiling. He no longer knew if he was asking on Brienne’s behalf, or Cersei’s.

She laughed. “I’m betting for Brienne he wasn’t.”

He smashed his fist against the nearest wall, sending a wave of pain through his arm. “Was he better?!”

“He was different. You’re bigger, but he has more stamina.” Cersei backed slightly away from him, realizing that his fury was very real at that point. “He’s very good at finding that one right spot.”

He needed to find something to break, something to damage. An empty vase over her kitchen counter was the first thing he found. He pushed it with his arm, smashing it against the dinner table and sending pieces flying to the floor. “Was he better?!”

A mischievous smile crept on her lips. “You’re better. You’re always better. We’ve had so much practice, you and I. You’re such a dedicated little lover. But he’s rougher and he very much likes his fill of filthy words. He doesn’t go around saying ‘I love you’.” She ran her hand through her beautiful locks. “Do you tell her you love her while you fuck her? I’m betting she would fall for that so easily. She must really want to believe it, too, but she knows she’s out of place.”

“You’re out of place!” he roared.

I am? Then tell me exactly what you’re doing here, Jaime. Shouldn’t you be warming her bed right now? Instead you’re here with me, because you know this is where you belong no matter what. We’re meant to be together, always.”

Blue eyes, green eyes, blue, green, blue, green, everything melting into his head, North Pole and South Pole tearing him apart.

“Why him, why?!”

Her smile was poisoned. “Because I knew it would drive you mad.”

Jaime opened the door so harshly he wondered how it was not pulled off its hinges. “Fuck off and die, Cersei.”

==

When he went back home, the lights were still off and the space was still empty; he could feel every bit of her presence gone, missing every one of her words, every hair on her head, wishing for nothing more than to kiss her and look into her blue eyes, the eyes he chose, the eyes he would keep, discarding Cersei forever, leaving her behind, wanting to wash off the taste of the perverse situation they had perpetuated, wishing to close his eyes and start over once and for all.

When he turned the light on he discovered that every single one of her things was gone. Jaime furiously opened the closet, the cabinets where she kept her paints, the box where she hid her shoes, her sock drawer, her boxes from under the bed, everything was gone.

He rushed to her old flat so quickly that he came close to being run over once more; got into a cab with his heart beating so fast he thought it would escape him, please be there, I swear I’m done with the ambivalence, I promise I’ve made my choice, let’s just leave it all behind, but it was futile. The apartment was deserted, every piece of furniture covered in white sheets, ready to be sold; every inch felt impersonal and devoid of life, the view outside the window seemed like the very image of hell, and the painting he saw on the wall caused him such an impact that he retched in the middle of the living room.

Whereas the mural she made of his eyes had been overwhelming in its intensity, his gaze trapping the attention of the observer and speaking of an unrequited, melancholy love, Cersei’s gaze on the wall was as toxic as her soul, her beautiful, full lips were full of satisfaction, all of her features were so well rounded and the colors were so intense that to anyone else it might have seemed like a most captivating painting, but he saw beyond it into the pollution that Brienne had expressed, the lines of red telling him of her anger, of Cersei’s passion, of a futile swimming trek in the ocean, trying to reach for both sides of it and failing to get anywhere; as an artist this was the most accomplished piece of hers he had seen in his life, never had realism merged with baroque so flawlessly, never had a picture of Cersei conveyed every angle of her personality with such precision, never had his soul felt so ripped out of his body as it did when looking at the image, for he knew that he had lost her, he had left her to drown while he took his time burying the past. Brienne was gone and she was never coming back.

 

==

London, 2012
Tell me you see it with your own eyes
tell me the sky is falling now
in your world
The Devlins, World Outside

==

No matter the way he spun it, he was running in circles, chasing his own tail, wishing to plant his feet firmly on the ground, only to be dragged away by her current, by her waterfall, by her silences and moans, by her gazes and her closed eyes and her open mouth. The tip of his tongue traveled all the way up her spine, his fingers teasing her nub, her body stirring underneath his. A kiss, a caress, a thrust, then another, an exploration from a different angle; her inner walls clutched him tightly at the novelty of the sensation, always reluctant to allow herself to sink in the pleasure whenever it was something new; he brought his fingers to her lips and felt a sudden bout of intensity possess him upon watching her take them into her mouth and taste herself, licked her earlobe and whispered in her ear, demanding that she say the words, demanding that she express how much she enjoys it, both subjugating her and giving himself into her in the process.

His body obeyed but his emotions were not listening, if anything he became even more psychologically drawn by both Brienne’s willingness to comply and her own drive to explore, by her own sexual curiosity, her own ways of setting the pace. Only moments before it had been her atop him, playing at pulling his cock out of her completely and then fully inside, only to repeat the process; the gesture a torment for his achingly hard length, feeling the air between them and then her wetness in turn, trying to thrust only to be stopped by her, controlled by her, forced to follow her rhythm and to witness each of her climaxes while almost begging for one of his own, biting her, scratching her back, until she lay and let him climb upon her back and take control, their encounters exceeding any earlier boldness and their unspoken communication becoming almost instinctive, raw, impassioned.

After reaching his peak he held her hands, slid off her and pulled her to his chest, moved a strand of damp hair from her forehead and took her face in his fingers, wishing to absorb her blue eyes into himself, stay, stay, stay, why won’t the words come out? Her skin was covered in sweat; his fingertips traced circles on her shoulder blades while her head nuzzled under his neck. He asked himself what she thought when she heard every one of his heartbeats, if she wished it to stop, if she would ever wish him dead for his damages or if she wanted to sink in the torrent of his blood as he did hers.

Cersei, Cersei, her claws firmly wrapped around his throat, choking the life out of him, always incapable of making a distinction between his sister and everything else in his past, never able to conceive what his life would be without that other half, but the taste of Brienne was honey, it was fresh coffee in the morning, it was the smell of wet grass after a thunderstorm. He kissed her cheek, making his way to her lips, her eyes were heavy with exhaustion whereas his were brimming with an emotion he could not understand, he could not conceive that the warmth he felt with her could come without a cost, without misery, without concealment. The response of her lips was soft, slow and calm, as relaxed as ever, resting on an island after they contended in a sea of lust, but he wanted to convey something else, he wanted to kiss into her lips the words he could not say.

Brienne did not understand, because she still believed herself a spare.

He led her to the bathroom under protestations, he sat her on the wide marble sink and held her and made her look at them together in the mirror. Though she meant to flee at the idea he forced her to stay, his arms wrapped around her waist, his gaze unflinching. “Tell me why you’re Dunk,” he whispered in a commanding tone. I will have you, all of you, all the way down to your name.

She seemed perplexed, unable to understand why such a question would arise after their unabashed entanglement between the sheets, puzzled by the way he jumped from one extreme to the other, wondering why he sought things inside her that his cock could never reach.

“I . . . Why do you ask me this?”

“I want to know you.”

A soft laugh escaped her lips. “You already know me . . .”

This embarrasses you more than your lust.

He placed his hand at the back of her neck, his fingers circling the hair there, creating small knots under his touch. “I want to know why no one knows your name.”

Brienne’s eyes inspected him with caution, evaluating him and his intentions, analyzing just how much of her she was willing to give him. Her eyes focused on his forehead, unblemished by any lines. Her fingers were shy when they removed his hand from her neck and set it away from her. All her words were carefully measured and thought out. “When I presented my first painting in a gallery of Manhattan, one of the guests expressed an interest in buying it. I was new then, so I had not been introduced to the dealers before. His name was Ronnet Connington.”

The name did not ring any bells in his mind. He nodded, indicating that she should continue.

Her voice was unemotional, like she had run this event so many times in her mind it was now a distant past. “When he met me, he laughed at me in the middle of the exhibition. He told me he would never buy anything from an artist more appropriately suited for a zoo than for a gallery.”

Silence bloomed and extended. She had not glanced at herself in the mirror once. He wanted to reach out and kiss her, but pushing his hand away had been her indication of necessary detachment. Instead he touched her chin gently and turned her head toward the mirror. She let herself be guided by him, numb, unfeeling, but her eyes became unsettled by the sight of his figure beside her in all their nakedness.

“Brienne,” he whispered in her ear, then once more. Her identity, her face, her very name were his to grasp. She understood the gesture, for she finally met his eyes through the looking glass. That’s your name, you must keep it, hold it and never let it flit away. He let his gaze speak for him. He stamped the moment in his imagination, recalling her scent, her irises, her bare breasts, the feel of her sticky skin, imagining his fingers chiseling it. His fingertips brushed against her dry, well-kissed lips and the silence continued, silence outside while the storm inside ravaged every long established structure of his world.

==

The second day of the year they lay quietly in bed, watching the snowfall, seeing the clock turn, hearing the noises of the city outside of his apartment. The third day Brienne told him she wanted to go for a drive in his new sedan, getting to see the streets of the city from behind the wheel. The day was cold and the snow kept falling, the streets were lonely, the skies were gray. She had not wanted to stop for hours, so they ended up on one of the roads that led north, enjoying the sight wordlessly, a peaceful existence in a white world.

It was then that curiosity stung him and like snakes slithering from their lair, the words slipped from his mouth, “Why did you come to London?”

Her gaze was straight, focused, unbreakable. “I came to see Landscape with an Imaginary View of Tivoli.”

“You haven’t asked me to take you to the Courtauld Gallery.”

It took her seconds to give him an answer. “I want to go alone.”

“We can fuck for days on end, but looking at a painting is too intimate for me to join you?”

Her eyes slipped away from the road just long enough to study his expression. “It’s personal.”

“More personal than slipping my cock between your thighs?”

She flinched slightly, but then her hands gripped the wheel tighter. “I have a right to my privacy. I have a right to keep things from you.”

He let out a sigh that manifested how absurd he believed the statement. His eyes focused on the trees outside his window and the mounds of snow on the side of the road.

“I don’t think you really want us to get into this,” was her response.

His shoe started beating against the floor rhythmically, a reflection of the tension that was starting to spill out. “What if I told you I do? I do want to get into this.”

“All you want to get into is me.”

“I want more.”

“I offered it.”

The words were penetrating. They cut him like a knife. He groaned in irritation. “We can’t get hung up on that. It was different.”

To his surprise, her reply was a soft laugh. “What’s different now? We’ve done it a few more times? I’ve gotten to see your own bed up close instead of doing it in a hotel or on top of a fresh canvas?”

“I want you.”

Brienne frowned. “Be serious.”

“I am being serious.” Only then did he face the front once more. “You’re driving on the wrong side of the road.” He was grateful that no cars had appeared in miles.

She let out a deep breath and steered toward the left lane, cursing British roads under her breath. He said nothing else, unable to figure out what he could say so she would believe his ridiculously honorable intentions. They had gotten stuck in a cycle of seeing each other over such distant periods of time that every month apart managed to burrow a hole inside his very well developed defenses; Brienne often made her way into his mind while he worked or when he ate or when he went to bed and longed for the feeling of her warmth. It felt like the voice of his conscience was nagging at him, trying to give him the message, she stepped forward and you rejected her, you should try it now, but it was so hard for her to acknowledge his words.

“You are, too.”

Her voice woke him from his thoughts. “I’m what?”

Her brow furrowed. “Driving on the wrong side of the road.”

==

The last place they visited together was Postman’s Park, in Little Britain. She felt that it was so appropriate for him to take her to see the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice, yet at the same time so extremely despondent. It was always that way with her, she loved him and would probably continue to do so for who knew how long, but it was always on her to patch up her wounds and move forward while he remained forever frozen in his past with Cersei. It was always on her to give him almost all of herself in his bed and beyond while still knowing deep inside that it would never go past the temporary, heading toward five minutes of bliss only to spend a year in darkness, like a merry-go-round, cycling over and over.

She read all the names and ran her fingertips over the tablets, some of them over a hundred years old, containing the names of people who died while saving the lives of others, to keep their deeds in a place of honor so that they may never be forgotten. Would Jaime forget her soon?

Half the time she felt that he must think of her as she thought of him, while the other half she wondered what her level of anonymity was amongst his many flings. His words in the car had left a dent in her armor, a flame that was melting the snow she surrounded herself with. I want more, but what? How far? The cliff that separated them sometimes seemed so wide that a simple sentence that meant the world to her might mean squat to him.

Once they were done circling the monument they sat on a bench, very aware that in less than an hour she had to be at the airport. She grasped her very lightly packed suitcase firmly in her hand, looking at everything but his eyes.

“You don’t have to be the one to sacrifice everything, always.” He was looking straight ahead as well. Steam came out of his mouth from the cold when he spoke. His hands were clad in leather gloves and he wore a red scarf around his neck. His coat was much warmer than hers; he had offered to give it to her so she would not be so cold, but she refused. The cold was good. The cold would protect her from his fire.

“You took a leap and I left you hanging. But things are different now. They are.”

Is that why he brought me here? Sacrifice?

The conviction in his tone was faltering and she knew why. He had begun to understand that words were of little consequence to her; it was one of the first things of a person she had trouble trusting, and though she had trusted his at first due to their bluntness and raw honesty, the record was wiped clean after one or more sweet things had escaped his lips in Paris and he had crushed them under his shoe as he turned and left her standing at Charles de Gaulle. He did her a favor, truly, annihilating her ridiculous hopes. Still to that day Brienne wondered what could possibly possess her to say that word, how she could have believed that he would just leave everything behind for a foolish girl while a very real woman waited for him in London.

“Jaime, I . . .” She wasn’t exactly sure what to say. This was a version of him that she failed to read. “I understand why. You don’t have to explain it to me. I never should have asked. It was not my place.”

He frowned and turned his eyes directly toward her face, seemingly upset. “Why is it that you can give no credit to yourself?”

Brienne shrugged. “I’m just being realistic. You belong to someone. And you have others to warm your bed. Please don’t think me so naïve as to believe you feel anything else for me.”

He gritted his teeth. “That’s not for you to decide. I told you I want you. I want more with you.”

She looked away, to a different direction, seeking to hide her ugly features, so coarse against his.

“Look at me!” His hand pulled her chin gently toward him.

All she could do by then was humor him until he decided to drop the ludicrous, impulsive idea on his mind. “Okay, fine, let’s say I stay, I stay with you and believe you and give you more, whatever that means,” her tone became irritated, almost offended, “will you buy a bed big enough for three? Because I’m sure your sister would have to fit in there somewhere.”

He stood in anger. “I’m not talking about a bed, Brienne!” He looked up to the sky and groaned in exasperation. The snowflakes fell against his golden hair. “I haven’t even been with her since Paris.”

Her eyes opened wide at the words; she felt as if he had just struck her with a heavy mace. That was so far off the concept of the situation in her head that her thoughts immediately tried to reevaluate every one of their experiences since she arrived on New Year’s Eve. He was telling the truth, she told herself, her stomach knotting, but I didn’t believe him for a second.

All that came out of her was a soft whisper. “Why?”

He flinched at the idea of having to reply to her question and she kicked herself for it. It was never comfortable for him to talk about his feelings for her. It had been so hard to reach any kind of calm ground; their relationship was always one of bickering, one of harsh truths, one of insults and realities and facts, never standing in this quicksand, sinking lower, lower . . .

“Because I love you. Please stay.”

She shut her eyes, felt the blood running through her veins and her hands begin to shake. Brienne willed her ears to shut down, her senses to dull, willed the world around them to disappear. This is not happening, this is just not true. He was lying to her just like Hyle had lied, he had some dark secret like Renly did, or maybe she had died like Galladon and these were just her last thoughts, her wishful thinking, that must be the truth, because in this life and universe Jaime Lannister would never love her.

When she opened her eyes they were unfocused, she felt like she might be hyperventilating or maybe she was just not breathing, so she remembered to inhale, exhale, avoiding his gaze at all costs, picking her suitcase from the floor—she did not notice dropping it—and concentrating all her energy on standing up, steadying her knees, blocking out the cascading ideas.

My flight is so soon, and in this weather I need at least an extra half an hour, I have to get a cab and then I need to walk through Gate 16, my passport is in the front pocket of my shoulder bag, my cell phone is fully charged and in my pocket. I have eighty-nine pounds and sixteen dollars in my wallet. New York is waiting for me.

Her main purpose in her life at the moment became putting one foot in front of the other, approaching the street and hailing the first cab she could find, while Jaime stood next to the bench, his hands at his sides, his eyes broken.

“I’m leaving,” she realized she had whispered at some point, but surely it must have been a different girl, surely it must have been a different life.

 

==

New York City, 2014
And when you think you’re safe
as you fall upon your knees
living in your picture
still forget the breeze
Damien Rice, The Blower’s Daughter Part II

==

Six months had passed since she came back home. Her old apartment had greeted her like an old friend, her old wounds wide open and bleeding, the same as they had been the last time, like a replay of the exact same movie, with enough alterations to make it seem like maybe it was not the same at all. When she had returned from London years ago she had been scared of the possibilities, wanting to run instead of facing them, wishing she could create the story and live the fantasy instead of exposing herself to getting hurt, so she had come home with the weight of the regret, of the fear that denied her any possible happiness, it had been on her, it had been her fault.

Today it was both of theirs, it was her inability to participate in a confrontation, her lack of disposition to believe in them enough to pretend he belonged to her, her conviction that the wild soul of an artist could never be tied down. His spirit had been forever connected to Cersei, the path of his art had closely followed the path of their relationship, she was envious and resentful while at the same time feeling a deep understanding toward the situation because they could manage to have something she never did—a partnership, a feeling that no matter what happened there was someone out there that would be a part of you; Galladon was dead, he had been her protector, her confidant, her island of safety in the world, and afterwards loneliness had always haunted her, like death carrying a sickle, reminding her that there was no place for her to hide.

Her months living with Jaime were as much a haven as a ticking clock, the more she gave in, the more she feared for herself, expecting the inevitable and almost wishing the rope would twist and break so she could be free of the foreboding. And so she was, his conversation with Cersei in the gallery had exuded enough passion for her to understand that though there were fewer strings, he would always be entwined with her. So it had been as devastating as relieving, she had found the hole in the wall to slither through, she had found the opportunity to dismiss herself as his main priority and move on, move away from the city, move away from the memories, find a new light in the horizon.

The notes of The Getaway seemed almost hypnotic as she sat on the roof of the apartment building, watching the planes take off in the distance. She liked to stay still and speculate about the destination of each of them, its passengers, their motivations; she had been a passenger herself until not that long ago, traveling the unpredictable path of life and seeing where it would take her, though she always knew who she wanted to find at the end of the road. She had found him, touched him, had him, only to pull away from the difficulty of the predicament, wishing to stop being a variable of the equation.

But the two of us knew
that the urban structure fitted so much better with the drugs
and the sick little goings on . . .

She had stopped smoking for what she hoped would be the last time, she had discarded the idea of drinking vodka to both wash him off and pull him back to life in her mind, she had fallen into a stable schedule and a stable apartment and a stable work rhythm. Brienne made her peace with Renly and asked him to once more be her art dealer; now so far past her childish crush on him that she could hardly recall how it felt. The level of passion she had experienced with Jaime had widened her emotional limits to the point where now she knew that was the only true love she had ever felt and would possibly ever feel. The first months had been for grieving, for crying all her despair away, for walking the streets of Manhattan late at night, attending shows and plays and dwelling in the taste of other people’s stories, watching movies and reading books and transporting herself to a place where she could maybe find peace, distancing herself from her own reality so that her wounds would close and her skin would harden and her mind began to move forward.

Where she once longed for him and made scenarios in her head, now she blocked all thoughts that might lead in his direction. She wondered if it would last, but her resolve was strong and she was clear that if she went down that road, she would drown in a well so deep that it would swallow her whole.

The bright city lights called out to her and for the first time in years she felt like she was home.

Living in London had been for his benefit; her heart had hoped that their story would come to something objective, something tangible, and it effectively had. The first month she regretted everything, the next she dwelled on what ifs, but by now she knew that she had to live through it. London had taught her to survive in the world of adults, it had given her a bitter taste of the weight of an affair, of the accountabilities involved in a relationship, it had allowed to get to know herself better, it had even led her to forgive Hyle, though she would never forget.

“What’s up with your boyfriend?” he had written her that night, the night she left, “He’s all riled up because I was at his sister’s.”

She had laughed a bitter laugh, not even caring how he knew her number. As she added the final touches to Cersei’s golden locks in her living room, she understood the brilliance of the woman and couldn’t help but feel as impressed as she was revolted. She knew Jaime would already have mixed feelings about Hyle from her own past, and she also knew that through Hyle she could get him to explode and let out all his possessive feelings over her. It would mean that not only her, Brienne, would have been with him, but Cersei had used him, sought him, and in so doing she would effectively create enough of a turmoil to draw him right back into the eye of the tornado.

The mural of Cersei was still the most beautiful piece she had painted; she had tried new colors, new angles, she had added a level of realism that up to that moment had been foreign to her, lines that conveyed the woman’s strong and relentless nature, her intensity as well as her vulnerability. It had such an impact on her that she had not even taken a picture, it was all imprinted in her memories, more than the image she remembered the feel of it, the emotions while painting it, and it was the only thing she would treasure, far more than the result.

The symmetry had felt so natural to her. The mural of Jaime at Cersei’s flat was a drop of water in the desert of both the women’s lives, it was a matter of comfort, a roof to hang over their heads in the rain, but most of all it was Brienne’s gift to her. The travesty of it was not lost on her, but had it not been for the woman’s treatment of Jaime she would have never even met him, he would have never given her what he gave her, he would have never found her wandering his same path. In that sense it had meant closure to paint Cersei for Jaime as a goodbye, the other face of the coin, the other half of his destructive self. Only then did she understand that was the requirement for the circle to be complete, that she needed to get off the train, that she had to be the one to walk away or be burned by the ring of fire.

She took a deep breath and the air felt fresh in her lungs. Her cell phone rang and she absently picked up without even looking at the screen, so deep in her own thoughts.

His voice paralyzed her.

“I brought you something.”

 

==

I’ve watched the change in you
it’s like you never had wings
now you feel so alive
Deftones, Change (In the House of Flies)

==

The sculpture at MOMA was two meters wide, chiseled in marble, a material Jaime had never had the patience to work with. Its white was bright and pure, its base was made in granite, four lights at the corners illuminating and defining the curves. Her throat was a knot for so long that she wondered if she had forgotten exactly how to breathe. The body was so detailed and close to hers that she felt as if she were looking in a mirror, her face reddened at the thought that she had never been more exposed, a light sheet was draped over the hips of the statue, all the way down to her feet. Her nose, her crooked teeth, her short hair, her big hands, it all seemed taken out of her, as if he had poured white liquid over her own body and used it for a mold. One of her arms was draped over her breasts, always insistent on hiding herself, always timid even in their intimacy. The edges of the sheet had so much movement it felt like they were caught in the wind, in the breeze, that breeze of Paris. The eyes were sapphires.

The title of the figure was Dunk.

The tears fell silently down her cheeks at the sight. Everything she had been and felt up until that point became a river full of life, flowing peacefully, a stream that took away all her pain and all her longing and all those happy moments in the past as well, for they were always tainted with the doubt, with the hesitation.

There were no words to express what he had told her through this work. It spoke of his determination to learn a new technique and in so doing, articulating his intention to treat her as a new phase in his life. The whiteness of the material, an exception to his work with clay and even granite, was his way to tell her that to him, she was still untainted in spite of every single setback they had ever suffered; her nudity was his way of pushing her into the world without her shame, the sheets were her shield, the eyes broke her, because they were the very last string of Cersei’s green being left behind.

And if she could still harbor any doubts, the name was the final touch, the coup de grâce, it was a revelation that put her face into some of the most famous pieces of Manhattan in the last three years, it was his very own way of stepping over Ronnet Connington and his mockery while at the same time establishing that she had a face, an identity, a name that she should stand behind, that she had a right to be recognized and celebrated for her work.

But neither of those things surpassed the fact that Jaime had started exactly fifteen sculptures of Cersei and he never finished a single one.

==

The level of privacy he gave her to take in the entire piece was so unlike him that she understood he had outgrown every terrible habit that made her skeptic about the future of their relationship. He had not shown up when she did; a waiter from the exhibition had handed her a card much like she had done with him. Café 2. It did not even have a time. He would wait for her as long as it took.

Once she had managed to pry her eyes away from the piece, she headed for the second floor. He was sitting at a table drinking a cup of coffee. His hair, though still long, was neatly trimmed and once more he had grown out his beard. He wore a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved green shirt that brought out the most astonishing tones of his eyes.

For the first time in her life, seeing him brought her not edginess, but warmth.

Brienne sat across from him, wearing her old combat boots, some slightly ragged jeans and a navy sweater. He smiled at her and said nothing, waiting for her words, letting her take the first step, offering the space she had needed before and he had not been able to grant.

“It’s . . .” There were no words, really, what could she say? She looked down at the table, studying the foam of his coffee. He asked the waiter to bring one for her. She cleared her throat. “For me?”

A grin spread on Jaime’s face. It was a stupid question to ask. She was not sure exactly what she wanted him to say, when it all came down to it, he had already expressed everything with the mere gesture. So she changed her initial inquiry, “How?”

His fingertips touched hers. His hand was warm. “I was in Italy four months working on it. I made sure to get the best marble I could. The transportation was quite a bitch.”

She looked up at him and lost herself in his gaze, swimming in completely different waters than she ever had before. Jaime pulled a business card out of his pocket and slid it towards her. It was a New York address. Her heart skipped a beat.

“I’m ready.” His voice was so clear. The age difference between them vanished and for a second they were just their thoughts and experiences, melting into conviction. They were the result of fate and fortune, the product of a battle well fought, the fresh air after holding their breaths through a tunnel while making a wish.

He had known what she needed much before her. When she left London he understood that words were wind. She needed actions and he had given her bits and pieces that could never quite merge into a solid reality, not until today. Brienne reached out and held his hand, intertwining their fingers.

Paris crumbled and faded and became the past, and she breathed today.

 

==
It won’t do
to dream of caramel,
to think of cinnamon
and long for you.
==