He is standing in the rain at 2am, shivering and attempting to shield his camera with his umbrella while waiting for Prince Renly to stumble out of a nightclub. And Davos Seaworth wonders what the hell has happened to his life.
Several months later, and he sits in his car in his allocated space in the Kensington Palace car park about to start his first day working for Prince Stannis. And Davos Seaworth wonders what the hell has happened to his life.
But it doesn’t start with Renly, or with Stannis. No, it starts months earlier, and, as it always does, with Salladhor Saan.
It’s been a long afternoon and evening waiting outside the Ritz hotel, where he’s been on the hunt. At least, that’s what they call it. Davos stands in wait, weapon - in this case, camera - poised. His prey? The rich and the famous.
He isn’t on a contract job, but instead hoping someone famous will emerge, preferably on the arm of someone they’re not supposed to be with. Notorious playboy rich kid Loras Tyrell is meant to be in town, and he always stays at the Ritz before hitting the nightclubs and casinos.
To Davos’ dismay, he has been joined by fellow photographer Jorah Mormont, who stands cool and collected, as though he doesn’t feel the chill right down to his bones. Davos fights off a shiver and checks the settings on his camera.
“I was in Spain last week,” Jorah brags. “Sun and sea.”
Davos grunts. Jorah spends his time chasing actress Daenerys Targaryen around. He likes to claim he once ‘saved her’ from the paparazzi, hiding the fact he was in fact one of them. He claims something happened between them several times. But since her other half is world boxing champion Drogo, Davos very much doubts it.
Jorah works for Varys, the highest paid newspaper editor in the country who keeps an exclusive grip on his favourite photographers. Davos has chosen to stay freelance, not that it’s doing any good for his bank account. Varys has given him an offer of a more long-term contract, but Davos has sworn to himself that he won’t be a member of the paparazzi for much longer.
Jorah gets bored after a while and wanders off and it’s another hour before Loras Tyrell emerges. He is wearing a plaid shirt with a white t-shirt underneath, teamed with some snug trousers and walking as though the weather means nothing to him. At his side is Lady Sansa Stark, who ducks her head to shield herself. Loras stands between Lady Sansa and Davos’ lens, but he doesn’t try very hard to hide her. Loras likes getting caught on camera as much as he likes his designer clothes, and having Lady Sansa on his arm guarantees him the kind of publicity money can’t buy. Publicity equals contracts for fancy clothes and cushy TV jobs, and it seems the privileged really do get an easy life.
Davos ducks into a pub to get warm and use its wifi so he can send his photos to some newspapers.
And that’s where Sal comes in. Davos meets him at Covent Garden an hour later, and Sal is wearing a bright blue shirt and far too much jewellery. To Davos’ relief, Sal has already bought him a pint and Davos doesn’t have to battle the crowd of people around the bar.
“Long day, was it?” Sal grins at him, smug as ever. He probably spent the morning in bed and the afternoon spending his money.
“Long day, long, boring night.” Davos takes a long sip from his pint, and sinks into his chair, savouring it. “Couple of the papers may have been able to get some pictures in last minute.”
Sal raises his eyebrows. “You look knackered.”
“Yeah. Well. You work long hours when you work for yourself.”
“I thought you made a lot of money from the pap work?”
Davos shrugs. “Yeah, if I get exclusives. But the paparazzi hunt as a pack, and you don’t get as much if there are 15 other photographers all getting the same shots. I’m trying to work alone.”
“And how’s that going for you?”
“About as well as trying to get my pictures into art galleries went for me.”
Sal tries to look sympathetic, but it comes across more as exasperation. “Drink your pint.” He grins then, all teeth and mock seduction. “You can always come and do some work for me.”
“C’mon, I haven’t told you what it is yet.”
“I’m not going back to prison.”
“You wouldn’t go to prison.”
Davos huffs a breath. “Maybe not the first time, or the second time, but I’m not taking any risks. I’m going to drink this pint, then another pint. Then I’m going to go home and hopefully I can pay for my electricity.”
“You know I’d lend you cash if you needed.”
Davos pulls a face. “Yeah. I’m not there yet.”
“I thought you had a temporary contract? Some singer?”
“Yeah, I did that. Chasing Oberyn Martell around when he went from one gig to another and drank too much booze and did too many drugs. I got lucky once when he left with a bloke on one arm and a woman on the other.” Davos can’t help but smile at the memory. He was well-paid for that one.
“You see? It pays off when you get a good gig.”
“Mmm. But those kinds of jobs are few and far between. I might get another chance, I don’t know. It just feels like a waste of time. I mean, who really cares what these people are doing?”
Sal points around the crowded bar. Many of them are scrolling through their phones or taking pictures of themselves. “Everybody. Everyone cares.”
“Oh yeah? Do you really give a damn who Loras Tyrell is spotted with?”
“Not Loras.” Sal’s eyes light up. “His sister, however...”
Davos rolls his his eyes. “Of course. Because people with more money than sense are much more attractive when they look like her.”
“She wouldn’t need money. I still would.” Sal winks and then his eyes widen. “Hey! That’s what you need.”
“I need what?” Davos asks, wary.
“To get laid. I could hook you up.” Sal starts scrolling through his phone before Davos can even process what he’s said. “I can think of plenty of women who would go home with you for a night. I reckon I could even find some blokes, I know you’re an equal opportunities kind of guy.”
Davos laughs and holds his hands up. “No. No thanks.”
“Come on. You must be sick to death of your hand.” Sal studies him. “Although I suppose it’s an interesting experience for you, if you alternate.”
Davos tucks his maimed hand under the table. That’s Sal’s fault too. Not directly, but if he hadn’t been working for Sal that day… “I haven’t even got time for that,” Davos tells him. Sal shows him a picture of a rather well-endowed woman with pouting lips, who is probably half his age. Davos snorts. “No. I’m not letting you fix me up with anyone. I’m absolutely fine.”
Sal sighs. “Well, I don’t know what to suggest. I offer you jobs, I offer you sex, and you turn it all down. You’re getting boring as shit, Davos.”
“And yet still you invite me for beer.”
Sal beams at him. “You may be boring as shit, Seaworth, but you’re still my favourite punching bag.”
They have another drink, but the doubt is cemented Davos’ head now. Sal is right. Either Davos tries to find another job, and he isn’t great at anything except taking photos, or he will land up working for Sal again. And that hasn’t exactly worked out for him in the past.
And that’s why he gets home, and re-reads the contract Varys sent him. Knowing he is signing a deal with the devil, Davos finally agrees to work for him.
Of course, as always, as with everything, it’s all Sal’s fault.
The words on the documents in front of him are burning holes in his retinas. He rubs his temples, frowning down at the papers as though they might just explode. Oh, if wishing made it so.
“You have to sign it,” Mel tells him from the corner of the room. Stannis does not fail to notice how she is keeping a safe distance from him, as though he might be the thing due to explode any moment.
“I know,” Stannis growls at her, lifting his pen and gripping it in his fist. “I’m going to.”
“If you do it now, sir, then we can send out the press release before the papers are printed. That way-”
“I get it!” Stannis snaps. He knows how it works. If he signs it now, it means the reporters will only have time to write the bare bones of the story and will not start hunting around for ‘unnamed sources’ to spill secrets about the divorce. Stannis will never know who those ‘unnamed sources’ the papers quote are, but they’re always, inevitably, half-right. The trouble is, the half they get right is the part no-one is interested in. The newspaper editors much prefer exaggeration and lies.
He taps his pen against the desk. It isn’t that he doesn’t want to sign them. He knows it’s the right thing for all concerned. What he does not want is the accompanying circus with paparazzi by the iron fences and journalists waiting by the gates and the speculation and stories.
He and Selyse have been separated for two years. She continues to live at Kensington Palace in a separate apartment. In that time, there have been plenty of stories about the separation, but they still attend events together and put on a good show. Now it’s time to end the charade.
Mel has written the press release and he and Selyse agreed the wording hours earlier. But now he has to put pen to paper, and announce he has agreed to the divorce proceedings his wife has filed for. As though his family can take another scandal.
After a final internal argument, he signs his name and pushes away from the desk, shoving the papers in Mel’s waiting hands. “You can tell Selyse that it’s done,” he says and marches past her.
He heads straight for his bedroom and slams the door. He rubs his temples and leans against the wall. He is too tense to even consider sleeping. So he takes himself to Shireen’s room instead, nudging the partly-ajar door open so he can slip inside. He sits in the dark in a high-backed chair in the corner, the one she likes to read in. He shares the space with her favourite teddy bear, a battered old, balding thing which used to belong to him. He watches as she sleeps and he rubs his thumb against the bear’s soft arm.
She deserves better than all of this, he knows. Selyse deserves better too. He fought the divorce for as long as he could, because the public perception of their final break-up seemed worse than the pain he was putting her through. Eventually, though, he had to concede he was all but keeping his wife prisoner.
He gazes at Shireen, and she is peaceful while a storm rages in his head. He leaves without waking her, and changes for bed. He gets under the covers and turns to the last few pages in a book about Leonardo da Vinci.
The palaces of his childhood were filled with the most beautiful pieces of art by some of the world’s most famous artists. His favourite has always been Edwin Landseer’s The Sanctuary, featuring an exhausted stag seeking respite in the water as a flock of ducks fly by. It seems so tranquil, with the fading light and miles of surrounding countryside, no-one in sight. He wishes he could jump right into the canvas and sit and watch that stag, and get lost in those fields. He can only dream of feeling so free.
In the past, when the crowds of visitors left the palace he lives in now, he roamed the halls and stared up at the works by countless artists. He does so less often now. Somehow even that rare joy has been tainted by the inevitable failure of his marriage.
He is still reading at gone midnight, when his phone rings. Only a select few people would dare call him this late, and he already knows the cause will be Robert or Renly.
“Your brother is at the door,” Mr Cressen informs him, his voice thick with sleep.
Stannis' shoulders sink. “Let him in and keep him in the hallway. I will be there shortly.”
He tugs on a royal blue wool dressing gown with silk lining and some well-worn slippers. He finds Renly in the hall, slumped in one of the chairs, watching Stannis with unfocused eyes. Mr Cressen is sat at his desk, his tie askew and the imprint of a pillow still pressed into his cheek.
Stannis mutters a ‘thank you’ to Mr Cressen and gestures for Renly to follow him. His brother stumbles and sways as they make their way to the sitting room, and he collapses onto the settee as soon as he gets there. He holds his head in his hands and groans.
“You couldn’t find your own apartment?” Stannis asks, taking the chair opposite.
Renly swings his arms around, distractedly. “Yours was closer.”
Stannis eyes him for a moment. “You have to stop doing this. It doesn’t look good, you going out and getting drunk every other night.”
Renly huffs a sardonic laugh. “Can’t look any worse than it already is for us.” Renly adjusts the cushions under his head, pulls off his tie, and toes his shoes off, letting them fall onto the lush red carpet.
Biting back further comments, Stannis fetches him a glass of water, and doesn’t apologise when he slams it down on the table and Renly jolts awake.
“How many times have we done this now?” Stannis demands of him. “How many times have I had to open the newspaper to see pictures of you falling out of nightclubs? This family cannot take any more scandals.”
“That’s all you care about,” Renly slurs, his eyes falling closed again. “How it looks. Well, who gives a fuck?”
“I told you not to use that language in my house.”
“Sorry, brother, does it offend your sensitive ears?”
“My daughter is upstairs.”
Renly’s expression softens at that, at least. “Don’t you hate this?” he asks.
Stannis clenches his teeth. Oh God, how he hates it. Just as he hates his brother when he gets this drunk and ends up morose and speaking aloud the words Stannis tries not to let into his own head. Hating this won’t change anything. “We are in a very privileged position,” Stannis reminds him. "Do not forget that.”
“But for how much longer?”
“Drink your water and go to bed, Renly.” He heads off to his own bed and passes Mr Cressen carrying a blanket and pillows through to Renly. There are spare beds upstairs, but they both know Renly will be gone to the world, and it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try to force him up the stairs. Better that he stays where he is.
Stannis lies in bed, and stares at the ceiling and dreads the morning.
Mel always reminds him not to read the papers when his family are in them, but Stannis always does. The broadsheets keep to the facts, weaving in a few rumours from the past few years.
The tabloids, though, are not so kind.
Stannis knew they would not be. They stop short of calling him abusive, but they reference his stubbornness, his cool demeanour and cite his lack of affection as the reason why his wife became unsatisfied. One even claims it is his lack of potency in the bedroom which caused their marriage to fall apart, as though they somehow have had access to that room themselves and watched their failed attempts at love-making.
He is only glad Shireen is too young to understand.
There are pictures of Renly on the internet, tie hanging low around his neck, his hair mussed, eyes bloodshot. One of his entourage is keeping him upright.
If there is a good thing in his life though, it comes in the shape of his daughter. Shireen reads cross-legged on the floor, leaning against a beanbag. Stannis stands in the doorway to her bedroom, where he has remained unnoticed for the best part of five minutes.
He clears his throat and she finally sees him there, smiling, perhaps a little shyly, before returning to her book. .
“I’m going to see Uncle Robert,” he tells her.
She lowers the book. “Yes, father.”
“What are you going to do today?” he asks, though he already knows the answer.
“I’m going to read.”
Stannis manages a faint smile and goes to his room to dress for battle. His brother is hosting them in the King’s private apartments today, and a headache is threatening before Stannis even goes through Buckingham Palace’s gates.
Stannis hates the room Robert has chosen for them to meet in. It’s the same one they gathered in nine years ago, after their parents died in a plane crash. The wallpaper is the same bright yellow, the carpet still well-cushioned beneath his shoes. It’s an airy room, and it gets the sun during the morning. Today, though, it’s grey outside, and the chandelier is on.
Stannis requests a cup of tea, before Robert’s adviser Petyr Baelish saunters into the room. Baelish bows at Robert, and then opens a folder. “Your majesty.” He glances at Stannis with a condescending smile. “Your royal highness. May I speak with you about strategy for the next few minutes?”
“Quickly,” Robert tells him. “I’ve got a schedule to keep to today.”
Stannis frowns. “What are you doing?”
“Seeing Cersei. Not that it’s your business.”
Stannis bites his tongue. They have this argument so many times, it’s like he is living his life on a constant loop. If a groundhog walked into the room any second, he would not be at all surprised.
“Of course, sir,” Baelish agrees. “We should talk about the rest of the family doing more engagements. At the moment, if you forgive my saying, public opinion is at an all-time low.”
“This bloody referendum business,” Robert snarls. “The Government should get on with it and announce it and stop holding it over our heads.”
“I believe it’s inevitable,” Baelish says, and Stannis knows it too. And as it stands, the public would almost certainly vote to end the monarchy. “So we should do what we can to improve public confidence until that time.” He turns to Stannis. “Shall we start with you, sir?”
Stannis narrows his eyes. “If you expect me to stand around cutting ribbons…”
Baelish’s smile is condescending at best. “If only it were as simple as that.”
Stannis frowns. “What will you have me do?”
Baelish lets out a long-suffering sigh. “The charities won’t have you,” he says. “It’s not the done thing to have a royal patron anymore. It’s seen as a political statement. There is sport…”
“I detest sport.”
“Then perhaps Prince Renly will be best placed to attend international games?”
“Renly isn’t best placed to represent this family at present,” Stannis mutters. “He won’t put a stop to his partying.”
“No harm in asking, Stannis,” Robert says. “He’s young, of course he goes out and drinks.”
“He doesn’t act like a man in his position should.”
“He is barely a man. I did the same at his age.”
“You were at least discreet,” Stannis points out. “He courts the paparazzi.”
“The paparazzi will be wherever he is. He doesn’t encourage it.”
Stannis inhales deeply. “He seeks attention. He always has.”
“Just leave him be, Stannis. And that’s my final word on the matter.” Robert turns to Baelish. “Renly will attend sport matches. You will find some charitable cause for Stannis to do something with.”
“It cannot be just anything,” Stannis warns. “I won’t do animal charities. I’d prefer military charities.”
“They won’t have you, I know that without asking,” Baelish says. “The military is politically neutral, and by encouraging your patronage… Well. They don’t want people worrying about a military coup, do they?”
“I will sort it out for myself,” Stannis tells him.
“Certainly, sir,” Baelish says, that smile never fading. “But may I advise you to try something a bit different when you carry out your engagements? Perhaps… smile.”
“I am a member of the royal family, not some court jester. I will behave as is fitting someone of my stature.”
“As you’ll have it, sir,” Baelish agrees. “But you may not find the charities queuing up to have you.”
Stannis grits his teeth. “I must have a word with my brother. Alone.”
Baelish rises from his chair and collects his papers. “Of course.” He bows and leaves them alone.
Stannis waits until the door is closed and until such time Baelish should be well out of earshot, and goes to stand by the window. “And what will you be doing while Renly and I try to change the opinions of the whole nation?” he asks.
“I have a busy diary. Charity events, foreign travel. Don’t assume I sit here and do nothing.”
“You should not see Lady Lannister. The public won’t accept her. She has been divorced twice. If the press get one sniff of…”
“You are getting divorced, Stannis. If anyone in this family is causing a scandal, it’s you. Renly is only doing what any 19-year-old will do. But you?”
“The papers don’t report the facts.”
“And what are the facts, Stannis?” Stannis stays silent. “As I suspected,” Robert says, standing up. “If you want this family to survive, you have to ask yourself what you can do to change opinions.”
“I have never done anything less than is expected of me.”
There is a long pause while Robert heads for the door. Stannis looks at him from over his shoulder. “The public despise us,” Robert mutters angrily. “Our heads are on the block. But if they did a survey about who they hate the most, you would top every single one of them.”
Out of respect for his brother’s position, Stannis bites his tongue. The door closes, and he clenches his fists and internally, he lets out a frustrated yell. Externally, he is silent, staring back at his reflection in the window, seeing a man clinging on by his fingernails.
He spends his afternoon in his study, the door locked and barricaded with a chair. He has the painting of the stag above his desk, and he finds himself gazing at it as he replays the conversation with Robert around in his head.
He reviews his diary, and knows it is emptier than it has a right to be. Whether that is a reflection of the political landscape, or his own reluctance to carry out public engagements, he isn’t sure. But he does know it has to change.
His eyes flick to a silver frame in his desk, with a picture of his mother inside. Queen Cassana is there in a rare private photograph, one of the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel puppies in her lap. She is laughing, and not looking at the camera, and Stannis does not remember her ever looking so at ease.
He knows she would have fought tooth and nail for the monarchy to survive. She would have dragged his father, Steffon, by the hair if necessary. She was the column which kept the rest of them standing. Without her… Reluctantly, Stannis calls Mel and invites her to his office.
Mel conjures engagements out of thin air, and soon his diary begins to fill.
It will all begin in a few weeks’ time with the opening of a new lifeboat station, since the Royal National Lifeboat Institution has always been affiliated with the monarchy. It is a natural fit for Stannis, who spent some time in the Navy.
He takes dinner with Shireen, just the two of them alone around a dining room table which sits 18. Shireen talks about his books and they go through her times-tables. In those moments alone with his daughter, at least, Stannis can find some peace.
Warnings for drug and alcohol abuse references.
It goes against everything he wants for himself, but eventually he gives in and contacts Varys. To his relief, he is given a job. He is put straight onto the royal beat, and it’s the lowest paid of the lot. Everyone knows it’s near impossible to get access to the royals, and every other paper has a photographer chasing them too, so the images are worth less. Davos supposes he can expect nothing else until he's proved himself, and at least this way he can pretty much guarantee he will get paid each month.
He takes a long breath as he signs the contract and signs away what's left of his soul. There are front pages above Varys’ desk, each proclaiming some celebrity scandal, complete with pictures of them in some of their lowest moments. This is what Davos is signing up to. Capturing pictures of people at their very worst, when they are at their most desperate, most human.
“We want the usual posed publicity shots but I’m expecting a little… more from you,” Varys tells him. His eyes flick to one of the front pages, its headline reading ‘Join our campaign to end the monarchy’. The Sun is leading the campaign calling for a referendum to bring down the royal family. Davos knows he's somehow becoming a part of that. In truth, Davos doesn't have an opinion on the monarchy either way. He's swayed by the view they have too much money and don't do much of any use. But there are surely more important things happening in the world.
“What are you after?” he asks, though he knows exactly what Varys wants. He wants the royal family gone, and he wants Davos to take the pictures to bring it crumbling down.
“You know the royal family. Scandal follows them wherever they go. Prince Renly will be making appearances at sporting events, where alcohol flows. Prince Stannis is incapable of smiling and acting like a human being, and that never looks good while you’re meeting people more unfortunate than yourself. The extended royal family is also getting in on the act. Lady Sansa Stark is still best friends with Loras Tyrell, and Lady Cersei Lannister has been spotted with the king. I want you to be there for their public engagements but anything additional… well, I’ll pay above and beyond for a picture of Renly getting in trouble or the king being salacious.”
“Long lens jobs.”
“I’m sure you can manage that.”
“Aye, I can manage,” Davos agrees. “I guess you want me working exclusively for you then.”
“For a three-month trial period. It’ll be long hours.”
His work begins a week later, starting with an England rugby game where Prince Renly is enjoying the free alcohol in the royal box. Davos keeps his camera trained on the box at all times, capturing his reaction to England tries. It is mind-numbing work, as he hopes for a moment of indiscretion.
He slips out of the stadium before the final whistle. He manages to follow Loras Tyrell’s car, and it leads him to a private event at a London club. Davos is the only photographer there, and he captures the moment Renly tries to sneak inside.
He gets home at 6am, and after three hours sleep, he is on the train to Bournemouth.
It’s a brisk walk to the seafront under grey skies, his face damp from drizzle. He tightens his scarf and checks the map on his phone before he finally reaches the RNLI station.
The crew are dressed in their yellow and black kits, joking around as they wait outside. A line of patient royal supporters line up behind a barrier, huddling beneath umbrellas.
A woman with red hair stands with a clipboard, and she seems to know what she’s doing, so Davos makes his way over to her.
“Here from The Sun,” he says. “To take some pictures.”
“And your name is?”
She skims over the names on her clipboard. “Mr Seaworth,” she says, handing him a pass. “I am Melisandre Asshai, the prince's press assistant. You may find your position with the others to your left.” She points to the other photographers, all jostling for room. “The prince will be here in 10 minutes. He will walk past the crowd and finish by the doorway. He will give a short speech and then cut the ribbon. He will go inside and meet the crew. Photographs are not allowed inside.”
“Prince Stannis will then meet the town’s dignitaries at the Town Hall afterwards. You will be allowed to take pictures of his arrival and departure, but not inside the event.”
“Thank you.” He smiles at her, and takes his place alongside the other photographers. He checks his watch and tries to set himself up in the best position he can.
He gets pictures of the crowd with their damp faces and red cheeks. He remembers seeing pictures of royal events from decades ago where crowds were three or four rows deep, waving flags and cheering. It is not the same these days.
He begins clicking as soon as the black Rolls Royce pulls up outside. He finds himself holding his breath as the back door is opened by the chauffeur and the prince emerges.
He is taller than Davos expected, his posture straight, looking far older than his 29 years. A member of his entourage holds a black umbrella over his head while he greets the crowd. He does not smile. His brows are furrowed, eyes narrowed. He doesn’t offer his hand to shake, just nods and mutters a few inaudible comments.
He is led to the red ribbon and handed a pair of scissors. Looking at him straight on, Davos wonders if he has ever seen anyone look so tense. The prince takes a card from his breast pocket and bites down on his bottom lip as he stares at the card.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he begins, and Davos realises he has never heard the man speak before in all his years of watching the news. “It is a great honour to open this lifeboat station today.”
Davos raises his eyebrows. He seems the very opposite of honoured. There is something robotic about him, composed almost to the point of insincerity. But he cannot help but listen to him. His voice is commanding, deep and gravelly. Everyone seems on edge, holding their breaths, anticipating what he may say next. But he stays silent, pauses while they take their photos, and then cuts the ribbon. He is led inside, and Davos lowers his camera.
“Well, he’s a bit of a fierce, isn’t he?” one of the photographers comments. “You wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”
“I doubt he even has a right side,” another laughs. “Bloody hell, never seen anyone like that in my life. If looks could kill… This is meant to be a happy event.”
“I photographed him a year ago,” a third says. “I never saw him smile once. He just looks down on everyone. Sooner the royal family’s gone, the better.”
Davos stays out of their chatter, and waits for the prince to re-emerge. He takes a few more pictures when he steps out of the station again, but Stannis does not linger and he is taken back to his car. Davos walks along the beach with the other photographers to the Town Hall. They crack jokes, gossiping about Stannis' divorce.
“What happened to his kid?” one of them asks. “Wasn’t there something wrong with her?”
“Burned,” another answers. “When she was really young, she was set on fire. No one’s seen her for years.”
“Well, I suppose it’s enough to make anyone turn into a total bastard.”
One laughs. “No, he’s always been like that. I photographed him when he was here as a teenager. He’s just a fucking royal prick.”
Davos does his best to ignore them. He tries, as a rule, not to judge those he is taking pictures of. He doesn’t envy them, living in the public eye as they do. And he supposes Stannis has never really had a choice in the matter either.
There is a brief opportunity to get some pictures of him entering the Town Hall, and the other photographers leave for some other jobs. But as he's the last one left, Davos is invited into the lobby by Melisandre while the dignitaries talk in the room beyond.
While he hovers and checks through his pictures, his phone rings.
“It’s Varys’ assistant here,” she says. “We’ve just heard a rumour Prince Renly has been taken to hospital. We need you to do everything you can to get a picture of Prince Stannis. We’re sure he will have heard the news by now. Any images of him looking distressed will be worth a bonus.”
“Right,” Davos mutters. “Sure. Yeah. On it.” He pockets his phone. Considers it for a second, imagining how he would feel if someone took a photo of him when a loved one was taken to hospital. No, he decides. No. There may be a bonus at the end of it, but he does not want to accept it as a result of capturing someone’s distress on film.
Determined to find himself in the wrong place, he walks through the building and finds himself in a garden. He takes a few pictures of it as evidence, if Varys needs it, that he checked everywhere for the prince. He has his excuses lined up already. The prince snuck out, he will say. Went out a back door.
He stands beneath a canopy and chooses to wait a while.
The mayor drones on, and Stannis tries to nod in the right places, when Mel pulls him aside. “Are we leaving?” he asks, trying not to sound too hopeful.
“Mr Cressen is on the phone,” she says, and he sees the concern in her expression. “It’s Renly.”
He takes the phone from her. “Is there somewhere I can go?”
“The gardens,” she replies, pointing. “Through there. I’ll make the excuses.”
Stannis wanders out through the door. “It’s me,” he says, when he is out of earshot. “What happened?”
“Your brother has found himself in hospital, sir,” Mr Cressen says. “They think he took something.”
“I’m afraid so, sir.”
Stannis closes his eyes. In truth, he's been expecting something like this to happen for months, it was only a matter of time. “I’ll be there immediately.” He hangs up and presses the heels of his hands into his eyes. “Damn it, Renly,” he mutters.
He takes a long breath and looks around the gardens, willing himself to keep his composure. He will still have to walk out into the public gaze in a few minutes, he cannot show even the slightest bit of weakness. As he takes a few long breaths, his eyes fall on a man beneath a canopy, half-hidden beneath it. A camera is in his hands.
They hold each other’s eyes for a long moment, the man staring, mouth partly open. Stannis turns up his top lip, breaking the silence. "How much will those pictures be worth then?”
The dark-haired man falters. “I never took a picture. Er. Sir."
“I don’t believe you.”
The man steps forward, but Stannis holds up a hand. The man stops in his tracks. "I'll show you if you want," the man protests. "Look, even if I did take a picture, I wouldn't sell them. I wouldn't make money out of this."
Stannis huffs a disbelieving breath before he can argue any further. He has more important things to do than get into a disagreement with a member of the paparazzi of all people. He strides past the dignitaries and gets back in the car to go straight to London.
Renly is unconscious, but over the worst. He had an allergic reaction to something, the doctors explain, though they are not sure what he took. He is alive. Alive, though clearly an idiot.
Stannis sits at his bedside, hands folded in his lap as he gazes out of the window. It’s a private hospital, and the ethics on disclosing a patient’s condition are well-enforced, but still, he suspects the details will hit the papers soon enough. Mel is working on the situation, since Renly keeps his staff as thin as possible. He prefers his well-to-do friends, who get him into all sorts of trouble.
The door opens, and Selyse enters, grapes in hand. “He’s not awake,” Stannis tells her. “And I think he prefers peaches.”
Selyse puts the bag of fruit down beside the bed. “How long have you been here?”
“Hours. Where’s our daughter?”
“The nanny is looking after her.”
“I don’t like that,” Stannis mutters. “I don’t like someone else bringing her up.”
“I wanted to see how you were.”
“I’m fine. It’s Renly who isn’t.”
Selyse pulls up a seat. She regards him with a cool gaze, and he is reduced to silence. After growing up together, there is very little they don’t know about each other. Once upon a time, she could drag him down to some more human plane, make him see the good in people. Somehow, she’s grown colder. He barely recognises the girl he once knew.
“What are you going to do?” she asks.
“What we always do. Damage control.”
“I wasn’t talking about the public response, I was talking about you. What are you going to do?”
“I’ll stay here until he wakes up. We’ll have to find a way to get him some sort of help. He might only be 19, but the drinking is a problem and drugs are even worse. Robert won’t allow him to go to some sort of rehabilitation facility, but I’ll fight for it.”
“Renly won’t allow it either.”
“Damn Renly,” Stannis snaps. “He gave up any say in his life the minute he snorted or injected or swallowed whatever he took.”
“He is an adult.”
“He acts like a child." He rubs his forehead. "I haven’t looked at the papers online, have you?”
“I avoid the internet, and you should do the same.”
“I have to know what they’re saying.”
“It drives you mad.”
“Well, someone in this godforsaken family has to know what’s going on. Everything we do is about appearances. Everything. It’s the only way we survive this forthcoming referendum. And this doesn’t look good.”
“I heard Mel is working on a statement.”
“An allergic reaction, she’s saying.” Stannis clenches his hands. “It’s not a lie, but it won’t reference the drugs or alcohol. But if the paparazzi were in force then they’ll know where he was.” He pulls a face. “Oh the paparazzi,” he says biting his lip. He knew he had forgotten to tell Mel something, but it is far too late now. The pictures will surely be all over the internet by now, or being stored up for tomorrow’s front pages at the very least.
He can already see the headlines. ‘Exclusive: The moment Prince Stannis learns his teen brother is rushed to hospital’. Look at this man in his moment of abject misery. Let’s all gawk at the royal horror show.
“Stannis," Selyse says. "It’ll get out. It always gets out.”
“I’ll deal with,” he promises. “You know I’ll deal with all of it.”
She raises her eyebrows then rises from her seat. “Be sure he eats the grapes,” she says. “They’re supposed to be good for you.” And with that, she sweeps from the room.
Stannis sighs and rubs his temples. He reaches out towards the bed as if to squeeze his brother's hand, then thinks better of it. He folds his hands back in his lap. "Damn it, Renly," he murmurs to himself. "Why do you do this to me?" He hangs his head and sits there until Renly wakes up.
It takes three days for the references to Prince Renly’s drug and alcohol problems to hit the papers. Davos is surprised at first. He had believed the royal family’s statements referring to an allergic reaction. Part of him is still convinced the papers are lying, though he knows they can’t print something completely made up.
Davos feels a pang of sympathy. Renly is too young to find himself in hospital for substance abuse. And, having seen it in his own family, Davos wishes he had never read the reports.
The royal family keeps a low profile after that, and Davos attends a few low-key red carpet events instead. He prefers that. Yes, there are no bonuses, and he is forced to juggle his bills and keep every light in his small house off when he can, but it’s better than watching a young man succumb to booze and drugs.
He spends an evening in Marya’s kitchen after they attend their sons’ parents evening. He curls his hands around a cup of hot tea, staring out through the glass wall and into the immaculate garden beyond.
“Are you okay?” she asks. “You’re rather quiet.”
“Yeah, fine. Just thinking about a few things lately.”
“Are you going to talk to anyone about it?”
Davos shrugs. “Do you need to ask?”
She takes a seat opposite him, offering a biscuit. “No. But you know, you should talk about things. Sometimes it helps.”
“Mostly it’s nothing.”
“It’s… Doesn’t matter.”
Marya studies him for a moment, head tilted. “I think you… need to find somebody.”
Davos huffs a laugh. “Between chasing the boys about and then chasing after celebrities, I’ve hardly got time to eat and sleep.”
“That may be the case. But you should try to meet someone. I know plenty of women who…”
“No. No. There’s a line. And it’s too weird.”
Marya sighs and pushes some hair back behind her ear. She looks down to the boys' school reports. “We’ve done okay. Considering.”
“Yeah, we have.”
“How’s the money situation?”
Davos frowns, staring down at the table. “I’m fine. Honestly.”
“I know. But I also know it’s been a struggle at times, and I’d rather you talked to me so we could sort it together than if you ended up following Sal.”
Davos rolls his eyes. “I’m not going to follow Sal.”
“Good. Because he’s no good.”
Davos presses his lips together. “You can’t decide these things for me," he says after a moment. "We’re not married anymore. I wouldn’t do anything which could hurt the kids.”
“Sorry. I know that.”
“I.” He sighs. “I could have made a lot of money on a picture. A bonus.”
“The opportunity was there. It would have taken 10 seconds to get the shots. And there would have been a bidding war for them, if I’d been freelance, but anyway, I was signed up to Varys…”
Marya lets out a startled laugh. “Varys? Really?”
He winces at the tone in her voice. “I needed the money,” he says, knowing he shouldn’t feel like he has to justify himself to her. “But I… I blew it.”
“What did you do?”
“I didn’t want to take the picture. So I didn’t.”
“The man was…" Davos thinks back to how Prince Stannis had looked. Fragile, somehow. And alone. "He’d just received some bad news. And I didn’t want to do it. And I don’t regret it, but the money… Right now, the money would be good.”
“But your conscience is clear. You’re a good man, Davos, doing a job which doesn’t suit you.”
“I don’t really know what else I can do. I’ve got no education, a CV with years missing out because Sal wouldn’t be a good reference. And even more years missing because I was in jail. And who wants to hire a criminal?”
“You made a mistake, learned from it and moved on with your life.”
“And what do I move on to? I want to take normal pictures of people. I could do weddings, I could do family portraits.”
“But you don’t pass the checks to be around children because of the conviction," Marya reminds him.
“No,” Davos mutters, regret hanging over him for those in years in jail for handling stolen goods. “I don’t.”
“You’ll work it out,” Marya promises, reaching over and rubbing his shoulder. “In the mean time, you did a really good thing. And your website is doing better too. You had more web hits last month than the one before.”
Davos manages a smile at her. “Well, at least that’s something.”
“And the boys are doing really well at school.”
“That’s the one thing we did right, you and me.”
She smiles and gives his shoulder one last squeeze. “We did okay. We didn’t do perfect. But we did okay.”
Renly stays at Stannis’ apartment for the first few days out of hospital, but he refuses to talk about what happened or take any counsel for his actions. He spends his mornings in bed and his afternoons watching films and playing with Shireen.
Stannis sits in the living room, reading through papers Robert should be paying attention to. Renly is oblivious to the suffering going on around him. He is 19 and resilient, yet only nine years before, he and Stannis entered this apartment for the first time, in mourning for their parents.
Stannis was 20 years old, only six months into his training with the Navy. Renly was nine, looking to Stannis to take him under his wing. But neither of them were prepared for dealing so closely with one another. Stannis was ill-equipped to deal with a child, especially one who sought the spotlight. He knows Renly resents him for that now.
Renly takes Shireen to bed, and returns to sit on the settee. “I wish you had some beer,” he says, stretching out and flicking through the channels. He settles on an action film.
“I don’t keep alcohol in the house,” Stannis reminds him. “You should stop drinking. It’ll clear your head. The perception…”
“I don’t care what the perception is, and nor should you.” Renly looks over his shoulder at him, pushing his dark hair out of his eyes. “Look, I just won’t take those drugs again.”
Stannis frowns. Finally the story is coming out. “And so you did take them willingly.”
“Yes, I did. I don’t know why you’re so surprised.”
Stannis rubs his forehead. “We need to be better than this, Renly. All of us. We need to be above all of this.”
“Does it really matter?” Renly asks. “If we weren’t ‘royal’ any more, would it really matter?”
“It’s our heritage. Our history. Our parents…”
“Our parents are dead. It doesn’t matter what they wanted for us, they’re gone. And I don’t care what they would have wanted. They’re not here, so they don’t get a say anymore.”
Stannis swallows and stands up. “Our parents…”
They stare at one another for a long time. Finally Stannis lowers his eyes, collecting his paperwork.
“Go on, say whatever you wanted to say,” Renly says.
Stannis ignores him and strides from the room, papers cradled in his arms as he tries to blank out a hurricane of thoughts. He goes to his study and barricades the door and pours a glass of water from the jug on the side.
Stannis was not equipped to deal with any of this nine years ago, he knows that much. Renly stopped listening to him many years ago, and Robert never has. With Selyse now living separately from him, he has no-one to talk to at all, no-one to vent to.
Mr Cressen, though a good man, is too honourable and too loyal to say a bad word about any of those he has served. Stannis treads a fine line with Mel, one where he accepts her guidance about the press, but does not want her to run his life and his affairs. Which leaves him in exactly the same position, stood beside his desk, glass of lukewarm water in his hands, a solitary figure in an echoing home.
They mention the word rehabilitation. Baelish gives Robert a list of suitable centres, or, barring that, suitable therapists who can make discreet visits to Renly’s apartment. But Robert slams his fist against the table to silence him.
“I won’t have it,” Robert declares noisily. “Renly sits there and tells me he hasn’t got a problem. He’s 19, how can he have a problem?”
“Well, exactly,” Renly agrees, smug.
“Renly doesn’t need therapists or rehab. He needs to be busy, that’s what he needs. Sitting around and doing nothing isn’t healthy.”
“Robert, if I may…” Stannis begins.
“You may not,” Robert snarls at him. “We’re holding a party. Something to prove this family isn’t troubled by drugs and alcohol, how is that?”
Stannis raises his brows. “Will this be an alcohol-free party, by any chance?”
Robert lets out a hearty laugh, lifting his head to the ceiling. “Stannis, Stannis, who knew you had a sense of humour? Baelish, get writing. We’ll invite all the lords and ladies who are still our friends. And we’ll raise some money. Who can we raise money for?”
“You are patron of 12 charities, sir,” Baelish says.
“Fine, that’ll do then. We’ll sell the remaining tickets, and their money can go to those charities. We’ll fill Buckingham Palace with people and music and open the cellars and they can all drink a gallon of wine. And then the press will see how Renly is just fine. How this family is fine.”
“I have my reservations,” Stannis murmurs.
“You have reservations about everything. Your reservations have reservations.” Robert stands, and they all do likewise. “Make a list of your reservations and send it to Baelish.”
Stannis eyes him. “And then what will happen?”
“Well. You’ll have said your piece, and I won’t have to listen to it, and then we can all enjoy this party." Robert points at him. "You’re coming, Stannis. That’s an order from your king.”
Renly laughs. “Well, this will be an interesting evening,” he grins, turning to Stannis. “When was the last time you actually went to a party?”
Stannis narrows his eyes at Robert. “May I take my leave?” he asks.
Robert laughs even harder. “What are you, out of a Victorian novel? Take your leave? Fine, go, but be back here in a fortnight for the best night of your life.”
Clenching his teeth, Stannis walks on past him, ignoring the eyes fixed on him.
He sees what other people see when he looks at his reflection in the mirror. He sees the tightness in his jaw, and fails to relax it even when he tries. He sees the frostiness in his blue eyes, the distaste evident in the sneer on his lip. He blinks and tries to soften his gaze. Tries to look at himself as he hopes he looks at his daughter.
But then his eyes just seem full of some kind of sadness, a longing, perhaps. It is not an expression he can wear in public. It is not, in fact, an expression he can wear anywhere but when he is alone and allowing himself to feel the weight upon his shoulders.
And so he clenches his teeth again, because it seems to strengthen his resolve, and with it, his disconsolate expression.
He straightens his tie and leaves his bedroom. Shireen is sat on the landing outside his room, cross-legged on the floor, holding onto her bear. Stannis frowns down at her. “What are you doing?” he asks.
She peers up at him with those big blue eyes of hers. “I wish I could come,” she says.
Stannis presses his lips together. It has been many years since Shireen has been to any sort of party, ever since that night when her dress had caught fire and… He bends down and touches her hair, just for a second. “It won’t be fun,” he promises her. “You’ll have a better evening with your books. Don’t stay up too late. Your mother will be here shortly.”
She stands up, and nods, eyes full of understanding a seven-year-old simply shouldn’t have. “Goodnight, father,” she says.
He nods at her. “Goodnight. Be good.”
Mel is already waiting for him downstairs, mobile phone in hand. She wears her red hair up, it contrasting with the green satin dress she has on. She quirks a smile at him, and holds the door open. “Good evening, sir,” she says.
Stannis grunts. “The sooner we get this over with, the better,” he replies, heading towards the car. He slides onto the backseat. Mel joins him seconds later, and soon they are onto their way to the palace.
“I need to warn you, sir,” Mel starts. “Your brother has arranged for a red carpet in to the event.”
“Can we avoid it?”
“Not easily, sir, no. I suggest you don’t.”
“Because the newspapers will report on the ‘rift’ between Robert and I.” Stannis sighs, and peers out of the window as they continue past the sights of London.
His chest tightens as they approach the palace, it all lit up against the darkness. The car begins to slow, and he risks a look outside, to where a red carpet had been rolled out to lead the guests inside. He sneers, and adjusts his tie. “It’s ostentatious,” he murmurs. It's typical of Robert.
Mel smiles at him. “It will take 10 seconds to walk from here inside. But I suggest you walk at a slightly slower pace than you do usually.”
“Please. Trust me?”
Stannis frowns but consents. She smiles again and the driver opens her door. She slides out with all the grace in the world, and stops by the ropeline. No one knows who she is, though some of the photographers will surely be interested in the glamorous woman gliding by their cameras. The driver opens Stannis’ door. He checks his tie again and gets out, forcing himself to keep his head up.
He can’t smile. He has nothing to smile about, not in an orchestrated situation like this. Mel is several steps away from him, speaking to some of the security guards along the way. Taking a deep breath, Stannis steps on to the carpet.
There are some reporters along the way, but he does not stop to speak to them. Instead he walks down the carpet, keeping his movements slow, keeping a mask on his expression. Photographers call out his name, but he only turn his head towards them a fraction.
He sees faces only briefly, the camera flashes making his eyes burn. He drops his head for half a second and then looks up again, back out into the sea of cameras, the chorus of demands for his attention. One man stays silent, he notices. He holds his camera in his hands, but it is not flashing. Stannis recognises him in an instant, that man who had taken photographs of him stood in a garden while he had received the news about Renly.
And yet, those pictures had never seen the light of day. He turns away and finishes the walk along the carpet, stepping inside, and refusing the glass of proffered champagne.
He had forgotten about that man, he thinks, turning back over his shoulder to look through the glass door. He can no longer see him. But somehow his face stays with him as he is led through to the ballroom, where music is already being played.
He makes his way to his table, one he is sharing with a few politicians. Renly demanded the ‘fun table’, with Lady Sansa Stark and Loras Tyrell, who has somehow managed to secure himself a ticket. Stannis takes his seat, hands clasped in front of him. He is alone at the table, watching as others mingle, making idle chit-chat.
That is not for him. He cannot bear to talk about the weather, or ask people he does not care about how they are feeling. It is a waste of his time, and theirs, and he prefers to sit in silence, trying to find comfort in his own company.
Mel mingles for him. She greets dignitaries on his behalf, and then carries over a glass of orange juice for him. He murmurs a ‘thank you’ and looks over to Renly who is holding onto two glasses of champagne and is deep in conversation with the Tyrell boy.
Stannis sighs. It is going to be a long night, he knows. A politician, one who serves on the Privy Council and therefore advises King Robert, reaches Stannis’ table.
“Good evening, Your Royal Highness,” the man says.
“Good evening,” Stannis replies, gesturing to the seats. “Please.”
Roose Bolton takes a seat, and holds a hand out to his wife to do the same. Stannis takes some bread from the basket in the centre of the table and begins to butter it, ignoring the couple. They try to invite him in to conversation, but he ignores them for the most part.
He looks over at Renly again. His brother has taken a seat, an draped an arm around the back of Lady Sansa’s chair. She leans in to him, smiling brightly and laughing at his jokes. A waiter tops up their glasses. That is at least Renly’s third drink for the evening, and it will not be his last.
Stannis is thankful for Mel. She is bewitching. She engages the whole table in conversation, keeping the topics light and pleasing them all with her dry wit and cool smiles. Stannis, for his part, prefers to stay quiet. And he is sure their guests prefer it too.
Robert gives a speech, and he is his gregarious self, the guests falling about laughing at his jokes. The divorced Lady Cersei is at his side. Robert has no shame, in that regard.
The lights dim as the desserts are taken away. Renly dances with Lady Sansa, while Tyrell sits at a table nearby, talking animatedly to the other well-connected guests.
This is a quiet party for Renly, Stannis supposes. There will be no illegal substances here, he is sure of it. But there are free drinks, and Renly will surely wake with an aching head in the morning. But at least in the confines of the palace, he is away from the over-critical eyes of the press.
Stannis frowns and clasps his hands together. Of course, one member of that press had not been so forthcoming in making money out of Renly’s dabble with drugs.
It could have been worse, Stannis thinks. No one had managed to take photos of Renly or Robert in those days while Renly lay in a hospital bed. They had avoided the press. They had hidden well. Or at least, they had once the news was delivered, for Stannis could have found his own face on the front pages. ‘The moment the prince found out about his brother’s hospital admission’.
Except for the photographer, the man who had taken those pictures, and had clearly never shown them to anyone. Stannis catches Mel’s attention, and she wanders over to his table from where she is talking to Robert's staff.
“There’s a photographer outside,” Stannis tells her. “One with a beard and… dark hair. Tall. About my height.”
Mel frowns at him. “That could be any one of them.”
“I want to give him a slice of cake.”
She opens her mouth, but does not respond for a moment. Stannis simply stares at her, until she finally says: “You want to give a photographer a slice of cake?”
“Don’t argue with me on this. I just want you to do it.”
Thank the gods for Mel, for her expression barely changes. “Very well. Give me five minutes.”
She walks out of the ballroom, leaving Stannis bewildered at his own actions. He wants to give the man cake? For what? For being the only man he has come across in recent years with any shred of human decency?
Mel returns with a clipboard containing all of the photographers’ credentials. Each name is accompanied by a photocopy of their press ID, and a photograph. Stannis skims over the pages.
He sees the man there, on the third page. He looks a little younger, and has only a slight stubble on his cheeks, but those warm eyes are almost unmistakable. He taps the page. “That one.”
“Davos Seaworth.” Mel glances at him and shrugs. “What shall I say it’s for?” she asks.
“Nothing. Just give him the cake, don’t say a word.”
“I think he might find that just a little odd, sir.”
Stannis clenches his fist and lets out an exasperated sigh. “Oh for… Fine. Tell him… tell him thank you.”
“Will he know what you’re thanking him for?”
Stannis pauses. “Yes,” he decides. “Yes, I suspect he will.”
He watches as Mel collects a slice of cake and a napkin and leaves to take it outside. Stannis, for his part, collects his own coat in preparation to leave.
Davos yawns. They can hear the faintest hint of music coming from the palace, but for the past few hours, that has been the only sign there is anything even happening in the grand building. The cars and limos stopped arriving a while ago, and fellow photographers and the security guards are his only company. Conversations died a while ago, among a group of people who have very little in common outside of work. And there is only so much of Jorah’s bragging that Davos can take.
“Hi, Mel,” one of the photographers says as Prince Stannis’ press officer emerges at the doors, wrapping a black fur coat around her shoulders. She half-smiles, her eyes skimming along the line. Her eyes land on Davos.
“Mr Seaworth,” she announces, walking towards him.
He smiles quizzically, glancing down at the package she holds in her hands. “Miss Asshai,” he replies.
She steps close to the barrier, holding her hands out. “For you.” It is a red and gold serviette, wrapped around something. He takes it from her, frowning. He pulls the tissue-paper back, staring down at the slice of chocolate cake in his hand.
He blinks at her. “Sorry, what was this for?”
“It’s from Prince Stannis, with his thanks.” She meets his eyes, and Davos can see she is just as bemused as he is.
“Right,” Davos mutters. “Thanks for what?”
Mel narrows her eyes. “He said you’ll know.”
“Do you know?” she asks.
Davos swallows. He is pretty sure he can guess. “Yeah,” he whispers. “Tell him thanks for me, will you?”
She stares at him for a few seconds before wordlessly spinning around and heading back inside for the party.
“What did you get cake for?” Jorah asks him.
Davos shrugs and pulls off some of the chocolate icing. “Best pictures? Who knows?” But as he eats the delicious moist cake, he cannot help but stare at the entrance, wishing Stannis would come out himself and speak to him. Not that Davos knows what he would possibly be able to say to him. But Stannis never emerges, not even long after the majority of the guests leave. And by then, the red carpet is being rolled up and the photographers told to move on.
Robert is seated in the most ostentatious chair he has been able to find. It is made of dark wood with a tall back, with ornate flowers and patterns carved into it. The cushions are a deep red, with gold thread making patterns across the fabric.
By contrast, Stannis and Renly are led to plain, beech wood chairs, which look as though they have seen better days.
Renly stops as he gets to his, pulling a face. “This chair looks like someone’s thrown up on it,” he comments.
“Just sit your bloody arse down,” Robert chastises. “We haven’t got all day.”
Stannis looks towards the door, to where Mel is in a heated discussion with Petyr Baelish. Stannis sits down onto the worn cushion, looking straight across at Robert.
“Sit down, Renly!” Robert snaps at him.
Renly lets out an agitated breath, and does as instructed, perching on the edge of the seat.
“Baelish!” Robert calls out, and his adviser saunters away from Mel and to the three of them.
He bows to Robert, a cool smile on his face as he turns to Stannis and Renly. “I hope I can be of assistance,” Baelish says, opening the folder in his hands.
“Well, I hope someone is going to hurry up and actually explain what we’re all doing here,” Renly snaps. He fidgets on the edge of his seat. “Some of us have plans.”
“It has been brought to my attention that neither of you are doing your duties,” Robert says. “Baelish. Explain the numbers to them.”
“Yes, sir,” Baelish replies, taking a step forward. “We have been doing some external polling-”
“-Polling?” Stannis interrupts.
“Yes, sir, someone has to know how the public is feeling about your family. A referendum looms, as we all know. But perhaps with the right action, we can nip it in the bud. In the past few months, Stannis, your approval rating has… actually, somewhat against trend, improved.”
Stannis frowns. “Excuse me?”
Baelish flashes him a fake smile. “Your approval rating has improved. Not by a lot, but enough to suggest it is possible to change public opinion. Unfortunately Stannis is the only example of any improvement.”
“There’s a turn up for the books,” Stannis mutters.
“Your approval rating is still lower than King Robert and Prince Renly’s,” Baelish adds quickly, before Stannis can bathe in the moment for too long. “Nonetheless, yours is the only substantial improvement since I began conducting these polls five months ago.”
“I bet that’s just perfect for you, isn’t it?” Robert snaps, turning his attention to Stannis.
Stannis narrows his eyes at him. “If you spent a little less time with the Lannisters-”
“-Lady Cersei,” Robert interrupts. “Use her correct title.”
Stannis sighs. “If you spent a little less time with Lady Cersei, and more time on your duties then-”
“-You’re going to try to take it.”
“The throne. It’s what you’ve always wanted.””
“No,” Stannis murmurs. “No, it isn’t. Admittedly, I could do your job better but…”
“That’s what they’re all saying,” Robert bellows at him. “The newspapers. And I know who is responsible for that.” Robert turns his head, shooting Mel a look.
“Mel doesn’t control what the press says,” Stannis replies.
“No, but she has friends, hasn’t she? Friends who manipulate public opinion in your favour.”
Stannis rises from his seat. “I am not spending another moment in your company while you are in this mood.”
Robert points at him. “I am your king, you sit back down.”
Stannis shoots him one long, hard look. “I will continue working for this family the best I can. I suggest you do the same.” He glances at Renly. “And you need to do something with your life rather than wasting it away on drink.”
And with that, he storms from the room and the palace, knowing he has a far more bracing task ahead of him that day.
Shireen is collecting her books for her tutoring session when Stannis knocks on the door.
“I came to tell you I’m going out in a few minutes,” he tells her, looking around her neat and tidy room.
She spins around to face him. “Are you going to the hospital?” she asks.
She springs off her bed, rifling through her drawers. She hands him an envelope. “Will you give this to one of the children?” she asks. “It’s a drawing and a card.”
Her gesture catches Stannis off guard for a moment. He finds himself gawping at her, before he finally lowers himself down onto the bed. “Of course,” he says, staring in wonder at his daughter. How he and Selyse managed to bring up such a well-adjusted child, he will never know. Somehow, she is kind, and loving, and sweet, and puts others first.
She beams at him, but makes no move to hug or kiss him goodbye. Stannis looks down at the envelope and stands up. “I’ll see you this evening,” he says. “You will have dinner with your mother tonight.”
“Yes, father,” she says still smiling at him. Stannis nods to her and leaves.
It is only a short journey across London to the hospital with a dedicated burns unit. But as Stannis steps out of the car, a wave of trepidation comes over him, that same fear of stepping over the threshold and seeing his daughter lying there, covered in bandages, as they hope against hope she will make a full recovery.
She had been so small then. So tiny the day she had knocked into the candle at one of Robert’s balls. Her dress had caught fire so fast, and though people were with her in seconds, desperately putting out the blaze, still she cried and she was badly burned.
Long months had followed, months which would have tested even an easy marriage, but only sought to make things more difficult between Stannis and Selyse. In many ways, Stannis is sure she blames him for it. Blames him for Robert’s existence, for his desire for extravagant balls, for his insistence that Shireen be there, for appearance’s sake.
They had spent many months going in and out of this hospital. And it has just completed its extension to its burns unit. And of all Stannis’ duties, he is committed to the hospital above all other things.
He has gone there every year since, giving short speeches and speaking to the families. But this is the first year he has allowed Mel to invite the press. He had always said no in the past, telling her the patients deserved privacy. In truth, it was him who had needed it, too afraid for a journalist to spot some weakness in him, to try to unravel the deep and painful emotions which flare up every time he remembers that day and the fire.
“Here is your speech,” Mel says. “The top one is the standard speech. The second… I thought you might like to try it.”
Stannis skims over the words. The second speech is beautiful. It reminisces on his darkest days, the devotion the nurses have to their work. But it is far too emotional for him, no matter that it comes the closest to expressing how he feels. “The top one will do,” he tells her.
Photographers are lined up outside the burns department, along with nurses and doctors. Stannis greets them, shaking hands. He isn't good at this, shaking hands and greeting people. But these nurses and doctors are so familiar to them, he knows some by name and almost all by sight. It eases his nerves somewhat, because he feels he is among people who not wish the worst on him.
He is handed a pair of scissors, and he opens his piece of paper, reading from the top speech. “This hospital provides some of the best medical care available in this country," he starts. "Not only that, this is not a private hospital. It is a tax-payer-funded hospital which offers some of the very best in medical treatment, specifically for burns. And with that in mind, it is an honour to open its new burns department today, so many families can receive the expert care and attention which can be provided here.” He nods to the hospital’s chief executive and cuts the ribbon.
“Would you like to meet some of the patients?” one of the nurses asks.
He turns to her, realising quickly that it is not just any nurse, but the very one who has helped Shireen so many times.
“I would,” he agrees. He looks over his shoulder to speak to Mel, but his eyes land on one of the photographers instead. Seaworth, was it? The man is putting his equipment away. Stannis catches Mel’s attention. “Invite him in,” Stannis says, nodding his head towards him.
“Invite him in, sir?” she echoes.
“You heard me.”
Stannis nods to the nurse, Talisa Maegyr, and steps into the burns unit. The extended department has a special area for the children to play, which is where Stannis is led. A young girl is sat on the floor, her arms and legs heavily bandaged. But she sits playing with a dollhouse. She smile shyly when Stannis enters the room.
Her mother stands and curtsies awkwardly.
“This is Asha Greyjoy, sir,” Talisa says.
Stannis shakes her hand. “And who is your daughter?” he asks.
“Yara,” Asha tells him. “Say hello to Prince Stannis, Yara.” The little girl with dark hair waves at him, but she hides her face behind her hands. “She’s always so shy,” Asha says, apologetically.
“She isn’t the only one,” Stannis replies. He looks up as Davos Seaworth enters the room, accompanied by Mel. No, he thinks, she certainly wasn’t the only one. He longs to hide away from the camera himself. But not today. He wants to be better today. He wants to show his family still has some dignity and compassion left, just as his mother used to do.
Davos is surprised when Melisandre invites him to the private event. He had expected for other photographers to be led in behind them, but no, she is closing the door, leaving him in a room with Prince Stannis, some nurses, and families with poorly children.
He swallows and takes his camera back out of his bag. “The families have already given permission for the children to be photographed,” Melisandre tells him.
Davos lifts his camera. Stannis is looking in his direction, and he seems wary of his presence, but he clears his throat, reaching back into his pocket and taking out a piece of paper.
“I,” Stannis starts, before stopping. He clears his throat. “I gave a short speech earlier, which I suspect will be shown on the news, but I wanted to share something privately with the families here today.” He looks down at the paper and then scrunches it up in his fist. “It wasn’t very long ago. Five years ago, in fact, almost to the month, that I stood in this very spot while my daughter was admitted to the hospital with severe burns. The treatment she received was…" Stannis unfolds the paper again and takes a long breath. "The staff here. I couldn’t fault them.”
Davos pauses for a moment, the camera still in his hands. He studies Stannis’ face, seeing some emotion there for the first time. A flicker of pain in his eyes, his steely resolve faltering. Davos lowers his camera, giving Stannis all the privacy he needs to say what he wants. Stannis catches his eye, and Davos finds himself holding his breath.
“We could have gone to a private hospital,” Stannis says, and Davos sees his hands shake as he grips the paper. Stannis doesn't even look at the words on it, and Davos is sure everything he's saying is coming from him, not a script. “But in the emergency, this hospital was closer. And this is the hospital we returned to, over the next few months, because we knew they would give our daughter everything she needed. Some days are still hard, for her and for myself and her mother. But I know we can always come back here, and one of the staff will give us a kind word to lift our spirits. The support network here has been beyond compare, and it has meant a lot. And that was what I really wanted to say today. I won’t try to patronise the families, and to try to say that I understand. Because I don’t. Every family is different. But if there is anything I can do or say to help you then… just ask.”
Stannis looks down at the floor as the parents applaud him. Unable to meet their eyes, he slowly kneels down beside the girl playing with the dollhouse. “Tell me about the toys, Asha,” he says. “What do you like the best?”
Davos stares at him for a moment, mesmerised. Then, remembering himself, he lifts his camera, and quickly begins to take pictures as the young girl starts handing him all the toys and showing them where they belong in the house. Stannis is still stiff, unsmiling, but that he tries, that he cares enough to try…
Soon, another little girl joins them, and she has drawn a crown on a piece of paper and sellotaped it together. Stannis lets her put it on his head, though it is much too small. He thanks her, and then keeps one hand on the mock-crown so as to keep it balanced on his head.
He spends the next hour walking around the families and speaking to the parents and the children. Davos has taken so many pictures, he knows he has more than enough to be getting on with. So he takes a seat by the door, just watching Stannis. He feels as though he has intruded, yet he can't stop watching. He knows he is privileged to see the prince as few do. He's not at ease, his spine is still ruler straight, but there is genuine empathy in his eyes, and Davos hopes he has been able to convey that in the pictures he's taken. Hes grateful for this opportunity financially too, since Varys has dropped him. He's back to working on his own, but for now he still has his press credentials with the royals. This surprise invite should pay his bills for the month.
Eventually, when Stannis has spoken to all the families, he reaches into his pocket and takes out a card. “This is from my daughter, Shireen,” he tells the little girl. “It is a drawing she did. She would like you to have it.”
The little girl blushes and thanks him. Stannis stands back up, wincing and rubbing his knees as he does so. He turns to Davos. “Not as young as I once was,” he comments offhand. And then he hesitates, his expression clouding over as he realises who he spoke to. “Did you get everything you wanted?” he asks, his voice stiff.
“I. Yes, sir,” Davos tells him, standing up. “More than.”
“Who will you be giving those pictures to?”
“Whoever wants them. I’m freelancing here today, so I’ll be trying to sell them later.”
“You don’t work for a newspaper?”
“No. Sometimes. Mostly I do what I can by myself.”
“You’re a member of the papparazzi.”
Stannis frowns and glances at him. “Your kind make my life a living hell. Did you know that?”
Davos swallows. “Yes, sir,” he admits.
“But you do it anyway.”
“I wouldn’t choose to, if I could afford not to,” Davos tells him. “But I have children, and I need to make ends meet.”
Stannis pauses for a moment. “I do understand that,” he says, his voice low.
“I should thank you for the cake, sir,” Davos says. “It was good cake on a cold night.”
“What you did. Before, in the garden. I mistrusted you.”
“With good reason.”
“Yes, with good reason. But you didn’t lie to me, you did what you said you were going to. The cake was the least I could do.”
“Well, still, I should thank you, sir. It was a cold night. You’re a decent man for it, I think.”
Stannis glances at him, eyes wide as if in surprise. He catches himself and turns away. “Good afternoon, Mr Seaworth,” he murmurs as he steps away, catches Melisandre’s eye, and then turns and leaves the room.
Davos makes a lot of money from those pictures, though not as much as he expected. The newspaper editors don’t believe him at first when they see Stannis, a paper crown on his head, children staring at him and hanging onto his every word, and laughing and smiling at him. Not with him, because Stannis doesn’t seem to have learned to smile, but the children do not seem to mind.
It’s a relief, because the bills are stacking up. Davos stands in the rain and takes more pictures of Renly Baratheon falling out of nightclubs, and he wonders why this is his life. It has been 13 years since he left prison, when he left with a photographic qualification and little else.
He takes his photos of the rich and famous as part of the pack, and he tries not to care about those he photographs. But he struggles with Renly now. He’s barely an adult. He has more money than sense, and as far as Davos can tell, he’s a lost lamb. He is surrounded by lions, leading him through London’s underbelly, dragging him down.
Davos thinks of his eldest, Dale, and it makes his heart hurt to think that in seven years he will be Renly’s age. And it would break him if Dale ever acted as Renly does. The young prince is drinking to forget, Davos thinks, though he does not know the boy trying so hard to be a man. He thinks sometimes about Stannis, his shattered expression as they stood in that garden that day. He tries not to think about it too hard, because then he will never be able to photograph any of them again, and pictures of the royals are still worth good money.
Winter turns to spring, and Davos stumbles through as he always does. He does one job for Sal, one driving job, where he spends the whole trip looking in the mirrors, thinking he is being followed. He makes the delivery and promises himself never again.
He works almost every weekend, and he does not see his boys as often as he wants to. But he is making do. He puts Stannis and Renly out of his mind, and the royals seem to be keeping a low-profile, so he sees no reason to think about them at all.
That’s why he’s so surprised when he gets a phone call from Melisandre asking him to visit Buckingham Palace on a Saturday afternoon. She does not tell him why, just tells him to wear a suit and take his camera.
Davos has Marya dress him. She is a web designer, and has an eye for these things, so she picks him out a tie and a shirt, and he reluctantly lets her pay for the suit jacket and trousers. They’re not expensive, but it’s £100 he isn’t able to part with.
He takes the tube to the palace and follows the instructions to go to the side entrance. He has to show his passport, and wait for half an hour until she breezes in and shakes his hand. “Mr Seaworth,” she smiles. “Please follow me.” The entrance is not as grand as Davos expected. It’s the staff entrance, he supposes, looking around at cleaners and secretaries as they buzz around them. “I hope you were discreet,” Melisandre says.
“I… yes, of course.”
“The family would like you to take some photographs.”
“The King, Prince Stannis and Prince Renly. You may have seen the most recent stories in the papers.”
Davos has. The King’s relationship with Lady Cersei is progressing, it seems, and the closer they get, the more the papers fight for the monarchy to end. It’s not looking good for them.
“We need some pictures which show them in a favourable light," she continues. "Not those stuffy posed pictures from long ago, but something modern. Are you able to do that?”
“I… I haven’t done that sort of thing for a long time. But I imagine I could. If I can ask… why me?”
“Your discretion with other matters has been appreciated,” Melisandre tells him. She passes him a piece of paper. “Your contract.”
He stops still and unfolds it. He has to stare long and hard at the words, squinting as he does. The font is too small, and the words too long, and he feels the pressure of the moment, the fact that they’ve come to an abrupt stop, and his heart begins to race… “Is there a problem?” she asks.
“No,” Davos murmurs and tucks it into his pocket. “It’s fine, I haven’t got a pen.”
“Then sign it later, we shouldn't be late.”
She leads him through a grand living room, one with paintings on the walls and a gold clock and a chandelier. The glass doors are open, and she shows him outside. Prince Renly is sat at a table with headphones in, an Irish setter puppy at his feet. He looks up, grins and takes his headphones out.
“Finally!” he exclaims, standing up. He all but bounces over to Davos and sticks his hand out. “Renly,” he says before Davos can speak and shake it. “I’ve got 20 minutes then I’m out of here, so we’ll get these pictures done quickly so I can get on with my day.”
Davos shakes his hand quickly, while bowing his head and stammering. “Yes, your… highness, sir… Is it just you, or are you going to be in a picture with your brothers, sir?”
“No, no, just me. Honestly, you don’t want all three of us in a room, Stannis is a terrible bore.” Renly beams at him again and skips down the steps onto the grass. “I thought we’d get some casual shots,” he calls up to Davos. “Me walking Cookie should be enough.”
“The puppy. Someone else named her. Terrible choice, really, but she suits it.” Renly beams a smile of straight white teeth, and whistles and the pup bounds to her feet, running down to him. “Got her a week ago.” He kneels down and ruffles her fur and then pats it down again, before taking her lead. “Fifteen minutes. Are you ready?”
Davos fumbles with the zip on his bag and takes his camera out as quickly as he can. Renly is talking to the dog, and Melisandre is keeping well out of their way on her phone. Davos gets everything set up as quickly as he can and then shrugs at Renly.
“Act natural then?” he suggests.
Renly laughs, and walks in the opposite direction, Cookie bouncing beside him. They turn, and walk towards Davos, not looking in his direction, and Davos gets the shots. Renly’s dressed casually, his shirt unbuttoned, but tucked into trousers which probably cost the entirety of Davos’ wardrobe several times over. He kneels down to fuss over his dog, and Davos realises he is a natural at this.
He has a pleasant look about him, he’s carefree and happy. Davos wonders how much of it is an act. They take some posed photos of Renly sat on the steps, the puppy in his lap and then licking his fingers while Renly laughs. They’re natural-enough looking pictures, and Davos has to admit to himself that he’s quite proud of his efforts.
Renly checks his watch. “We’ve got five minutes, or are you done?”
“I think we’re done, sir,” Davos says.
Renly grins. “Efficient. No wonder Stannis chose you. Well, I’ll be off then.” He waves to Melisandre and tugs at Cookie’s lead. “With me.” He goes back into the palace and Davos lets out a sigh of relief.
“King Robert has cancelled,” Melisandre says as she walks up to him with a resigned look. “Prince Stannis will be down in a moment, with his daughter.”
“Right,” Davos replies, and he feels strangely tense again.
“Prince Stannis prefers posed pictures,” she tells him. “He has advised he will sit at the table in the dining room with his daughter, and you will also take some pictures indoors.”
“Okay,” Davos agrees. He is adjusting the position of the table and chairs when Stannis emerges, dressed in a black suit with a blue tie. He eyes Davos. “Your highness,” Davos murmurs.
Stannis ignores him and looks over his shoulder. “Shireen,” he calls. A young girl with long dark hair enters the room, dressed in a blue dress with a satin bow. She smiles from under her fringe, and it lights her face up. She has the look of her father in some ways. The same intense eyes and thin lips. But she’s softer, happier. Just as shy though, Davos thinks. Shy? When had he come to thinking Stannis was shy?
Stannis takes a seat at the table. “Does here suit you?” he asks Davos.
“That’s fine, sir. And Princess, if you’d stand next to your father there…” Shireen does as he asks. Davos gestures for her to move forward. “And, sir, if you’d put your hand on her shoulder… perfect.” He grins at Shireen. “We’ll say ‘cheese’ on three,” he says. He counts it down, and Shireen choruses ‘cheese’ with him, and beams and Davos is smiling right back at her. Stannis… not so much.
He’s staring at Davos as though he would rather pick him up and throw him into the lake than mutter ‘cheese’. “We could try another word?” Davos suggests.
“It’s always cheese!” Shireen exclaims, laughing.
“Cheese it is,” Davos agrees, moving for another angle. He takes more pictures, and adjusts where Shireen stands, but Stannis still does not smile.
They move to the living room, the pair of them sitting beside each other, but no matter how much Davos tries, Stannis’ jaw is tense, and a smile never forms. His eyes do not even soften. He looks at the camera as though it might electrocute him. Davos has hinted as much as he can about smiling, and Shireen’s cheeks are pink with it.
Davos glances at Melisandre. “How much time have we got?” he asks.
“You have some more time,” she tells him.
Davos chews his bottom lip. He kneels down in front of Shireen. “What do you like to do, Princess?” he asks. "Do you have any hobbies?"
She blinks at him. “I like reading,” she says.
“Have you got a favourite book?”
“There’s a ballet book,” she says. “They’re at a ballet school.”
“Have you got it here?”
“Yes,” she says. “Shall I get it?”
“I’ll go with you,” Melisandre says, and they leave the room together.
Davos lifts his eyes, and finds Stannis’ intense stare boring into him. “What are you doing?” Stannis asks.
“I think we should go back outside,” Davos says. “I’ve just got a bit of an idea, and I think it might make some good pictures.”
Stannis grits his teeth and stands up, brushing down his suit. They wait in heavy silence for Shireen, who returns with her book and skips outside. Stannis follows.
“Right, sit on the grass,” Davos tells Shireen. “It’s not wet, I promise.”
She laughs and sits down, adjusting her dress. She puts her book in her lap. Davos gestures to Stannis. “If you would, sir,” he says.
“You want me to sit on the grass?”
Stannis frowns at him. “I’m the heir to the throne, Mr Seaworth.”
“Yes, sir,” Davos says, unblinking. They stand like that for a few moments, Stannis glaring at him. But he eventually lowers himself onto the grass, sitting with his legs stretched out in front of him. “Read your book, Princess,” he tells Shireen. “Ignore me.” Davos crouches down to their level.
Shireen flicks through her book and finds her page. She begins to read it aloud while Stannis watches Davos with a sceptical expression.
“Father, I don’t know this word,” Shireen says, pointing to her page. And there it is. Stannis turns his head to look down at the book, and leans towards his daughter, who seems to instinctively tilt her body towards his.
Davos cannot hear what Stannis says, but it doesn’t matter, because Shireen looks up at his face and repeats the word back at him, and as their eyes meet, it’s like a light has gone on, it’s like someone injected Stannis with warmth. Because there is nothing but love and adoration in his eyes when he looks at Shireen.
And they do ignore him. Stannis begins to read the story to her, and Shireen nestles closer, until there’s no gap between them, and soon Stannis is reaching over her shoulder to turn the next page in the book. It happens so slowly, but Davos captures it all, and they’re lost in their own world. Finally, his thighs aching, Davos rises. He looks to the doorway and finds Melisandre with a half-smile on her face. “Come with me, Mr Seaworth,” she says.
Davos follows her, but looks back at Stannis and Shireen, still wrapped up in the book. He is led to a small office, where a laptop has been set up. “We would like to see the pictures to review which we want,” Melisandre says. “Please take your time to choose the best, and then we will make the final decisions.”
She sweeps from the room, and Davos spends half an hour editing pictures and choosing the best. He turns around as he hears footsteps, and he expects Melisandre. But it’s Stannis instead. He closes the door behind him and walks to the laptop.
There is a picture of Stannis and Shireen on the screen, Shireen smiling, Stannis with a whisper of a smile on his face. There’s still no mistaking the adoration in his eyes.
“Why did you take these pictures?” Stannis asks.
Davos wonders how the man cannot possibly see what Davos finds completely obvious. He takes a second to consider his response, knowing he can’t come up with a suitable lie and the truth isn’t exactly palatable. “This is all about… creating a different image, isn’t it?” he asks finally turning his head to meet Stannis’ eyes. He had not realised they were so blue. “These are going to be public photos. So, you wanted them to see you differently.”
“And how do you think they would see me in the posed photographs you took?”
“That you’re…” Davos swallows. “You don’t smile.”
“You think I’m cruel.”
“That’s the perception of me. Cruel, stern, hard.”
Davos sighs. “Aye, they do think that.”
“And what gave you any reason to think I wasn’t those things?”
“Just a… a hunch. And I’ve seen you. In that burns unit. And I knew you wouldn’t look at your daughter that way. It was just a hunch that you were a kind man. And I was right.”
Something flickers over Stannis’ expression, something unreadable but softer, before he tenses his jaw again, taking control of his emotions. “No one would dare say what you just said." There's a warning tone to his voice.
Davos frowns. “Sorry, sir?” he asks. “I don’t quite follow.”
“Do you like being a paparazzi photographer, Mr Seaworth?”
“No, not particularly. It’s a means to an end.”
Stannis frowns at him. “Do you have the contract?” he asks.
Davos fishes it out of his pocket and unfolds it. Stannis hands him a pen, and Davos lays it out on the table. He blinks down at the words, and he does his best to read it. He is handing the rights to the images over to the palace, he knows, but there are parts he cannot understand.
“Is there a problem?” Stannis asks after a while.
Davos sighs, and scrubs his hand over his face. “I can’t read it all,” he admits. “The font’s too small.”
“Do you need glasses?”
“No. No, I… It’s just it’s…” He swallows. "The words are swimming a bit and..."
Davos stares down at the paper. “I’ve heard that before,” he admits. “Not that anyone’s ever tested it.”
Stannis pulls up a chair and sits beside him. He points to the first paragraph. “This is saying you agree to give the royal family the rights to these pictures,” he says, but he does not sound condescending. “This part says we will credit you for them. This says publications must use that credit, with your name, when they use them. This part says if a publication buys the pictures, then you will be paid half of what they pay. This part says you will not sell the pictures yourself. And this is the date, and where you sign your name.”
Davos glances at him and smiles. “Thank you,” he says, and scrawls out his name and signature at the bottom. He catches Stannis looking at the picture on his laptop.
“Will you show me the others?” Stannis asks.
Davos does so. He has kept the posed pictures too, but there’s something so cold about them, that he hopes Stannis does not choose them. “Delete those,” Stannis decides. “We want the ones from the grass.”
“Yes, sir,” Davos agrees, pleased.
Stannis stands up and makes for the door. “You hate your job,” he says, turning back around.
Davos frowns and looks at him from over his shoulder. “I love taking photos," he replies, careful.
“You hate the paparazzi.”
“I do, yeah.”
Stannis presses his lips together. “I would ask you to work for me.”
Davos blinks. “For you?”
“At Kennsington Palace. You must read the news you know that I…” Stannis stops and wanders away from him, gazing out of the window. “I’m holding this family, and our traditions, together with my fingertips," he says after a long minute. "Hundreds of years of history, and Robert could very well be the end of it, and bring us down with him. I need someone who sees things and speaks candidly. And you…” Stannis looks at him from over his shoulder. “You see things, Mr Seaworth. You watch. And you speak candidly.”
“What would I be doing, sir?”
“Take pictures. Speak candidly, when asked.”
“I’ve never… I don’t know anything about working with a royal family. I don’t know any protocols.”
“Someone can teach you that.”
“Well, I suppose I can’t refuse. But you should know. I went to prison.”
Stannis frowns. “For what?”
“Handling stolen goods when I was 19.” He sees Stannis stiffen again, his eyes narrowing. “You’d have found out eventually, sir, which is why I’m telling you now. I’ll understand if you’ve changed your mind.”
“Why did you do it?”
“I needed the money and I felt like I had no other option. I didn’t have an education, there was a job crisis. I had to survive somehow.”
“What happened to your education?”
“The… dyslexia, if that’s what it is.”
Stannis studies him, brow furrowed. “My Chief of Staff will be in touch.” He glaces at the laptop, the picture of him and Princess Shireen still filling the screen. He nods to Davos and leaves the room, leaving a heavy silence in his wake.
The road to the palace is a winding one, with green trees up one side and well-tended gardens on the other. Davos reaches the security station, where a guard leans out of the window, the name Gilbert Farring on his name tag.
“ID?” Gilbert asks.
Davos fishes around in his pocket, and hands over his driver’s licence and passport.
Gilbert eyes him before turning to his computer. “First day?” he asks.
Gilbert ignores him while he types, before handing Davos’ documents back to him. “Keep going up the drive, you want the car park on the second left.”
“Any advice for my first day?” Davos asks.
The man snorts, his attention already turning to the car behind Davos’. “Don’t fuck up,” he answers.
Doing his best to mask a grimace, Davos continues down the driveway, hardly looking at the palace in case it becomes so intimidating he has to drive away again. Kensington Palace seems different to Buckingham Palace somehow. Buckingham Palace is grander, but also watched by crowds at the gate, staring at it as though they may see the King himself emerge at a window.
Kensington is old and built with orange-red bricks, but it is marginally less imposing, even with the guards and large, spiky black gates. He finds his car parking space, a sign bearing his name hammered into the ground in behind it. He checks his watch. He is 15 minutes early. He follows the signs round to the staff entrance, a discreet door with a black curtain over the front and a swipe machine to the left. He hesitates, thinking to knock, before he hears a voice beside him.
“Good morning, Mr Seaworth,” Melisandre says, falling into step beside him and swiping her card between long fingers. “Perhaps you would like to follow me?”
Davos flashes her a smile and follows her indoors. “Thanks,” he says. “I haven’t got a pass yet.”
“We don’t send those in the post,” Melisandre says, showing her ID badge to the guard on the door. “This is Davos Seaworth. It is his first day.”
The guard takes Davos’ passport from him and hands him a large folder. “Good luck,” he says.
“Come with me,” Melisandre says before Davos has a chance to take anything in. She points to the door in front of them. “That is the door to the ground floor of Prince Stannis’ apartments.” She opens the door to her left instead. “But this is the way to the staff offices.” Davos follows her down the stairs, until they are surely in what were once servant quarters. The corridor is now a row of offices with a meeting room and what appears to be a staff room with sofas and a TV.
Melisandre opens a door to a small room - it could easily have been a cupboard once - with room just about for a small desk with a computer and printer, and a chair. “This is yours,” she tells him. “I wouldn’t expect you’ll be spending a lot of time in here.”
“No?” Davos asks.
“You will follow Prince Stannis to all of his engagements and events and take photographs. There may also be other events here at the Palace we will ask you to cover. You’ll come here to put your images on the computer and send them to me so I can work my magic.”
“I can do that.”
Melisandre turns to him, and Davos is sure she is looking right through him somehow. “When he told me he hired you, he told me to undo it,” she says, eyes narrowing.
Davos frowns. “Sorry?”
“Prince Stannis told me he had hired you and then he regretted it.” She shuts the door, closing them into that tiny space. She seems to own the room somehow, even though she is slight and smaller than him. Davos finds himself leaning against the wall, eyes fixed on her assessing expression. “The family used to have a professional photographer,” she continues. “Three, in fact. They followed them everywhere. After the crash, after the King and Queen died, one of them sold a lot of private pictures to the press. They were beautiful pictures of family holidays and days in the gardens. But by then, there was already a brewing resentment that the royal family cost the tax-payers too much money. The pictures made them appear wasteful, lazy, spoiled and rich. The photographer made a few hundred thousand pounds. And King Robert, whose parents had just died in terrible circumstances, was the wrong man to be King. The rumours followed, then the women, he neglected all his duties, turned up late to meet the Prime Minister… it all got into the papers. And Prince Stannis was 20 years old, and suddenly next in line to the throne and bringing up Prince Renly. He fired all his staff. Every one of them, except Mr Cressen. He trusted no one.”
“He trusts you.”
“His wife trusted me. It took Prince Stannis several years, and even now, he guards his tongue. To have offered you the job means he trusted you. Perhaps only for a few minutes, but for a short time, he trusted you enough to invite you into our world. He would fire me if he knew I was telling you this, but you need to know. If you think there is any possibility you will ever spill his secrets, if you ever think there is a chance, however slight, that you will leak anything to the press, email a photograph he doesn’t know you’re going to send… then you need to walk out of this building and his life this instant. This family, his family, is barely surviving. The monarchy may well fall in the next two years. And if it does, he will hold himself responsible. He hates this life. But he will defend it with everything he has, because it’s what he thinks is right.”
“You have my word,” Davos says. “I’m going to be loyal to him. I can’t prove anything right this second, but I won’t do what they did before.”
“And why won’t you? For the offer of hundreds of thousands of pounds?”
Davos takes a long breath, considering it. The offer of all that money, the chance to live without the stresses of paying off debts and bills, the ability to free his children from financial worries, to buy them cars, houses… And then he thinks of what that would mean. He imagines Stannis, firing all his staff because he has been betrayed… and how would he ever trust people again? “Because I think I like him,” Davos finally says. “And because I know he’s not exactly like the papers say. And because he gave me a chance. That’s why.”
Melisandre regards him for a moment before resting her hand on his shoulder. “We are all he has,” she says. “Come.”
Davos wavers before dropping his bag and folder on the chair. He follows Melisandre down the corridor as she introduces him to cooks and cleaners. She introduces him to the security team and the drivers. They seem to regard with Davos with scepticism. They smile, politely, but they do not seem to trust him much.
And then Melisandre opens the door to the main house. “Your pass provides access 24 hours a day,” she tells him. “Three people have that kind of access. The rest will not get past this door without Mr Cressen’s say-so.”
Sat by a table, book in hand, is the man Davos supposes is Mr Cressen. He has a warm face, though he is a man weathered by years of dedicated service. He stands, shaky on his feet, and holds out his hand. “This must be Mr Seaworth,” he says as Davos shakes his hand. “If there is anything you need, you come to me.”
“Yes, sir,” Davos replies.
“I’m going to show Mr Seaworth the rooms,” Melisandre says, before leading Davos up into the main floors of the apartment. The first floor is made up of what she describes as the ‘public rooms’ though, she adds, very few make it that far. They are there for guests and dignitaries, visiting politicians and royalty from overseas. There is a reception room, a more comfortable sitting room, and a dining room, all elaborately decorated with patterned floors and ceilings. There is a kitchen, a large one and a smaller one. “The Duchess of York would cook in this kitchen,” Melisandre explains, and with a soft smile, she adds, “Prince Stannis does not tend to cook.”
Davos can believe that, he thinks to himself, trying to imagine the man with oven gloves on. He bites back the threatening chuckle. There is also a reading room, where Princess Shireen is sat at a table with a tutor. She smiles at him when they enter the room.
Davos bows his head to her and she laughs. “You don’t need to bow,” Melisandre tells him.
Shireen beams at him. “I remember you,” she says.
“Aye, do you?” Davos asks. “I remember you too, Princess. What are you learning there?”
“Maths,” she says, pulling a face.
“Maths is important, so I’ve heard,” Davos replies with a smile.
“Father says you’re going to be working here.”
She tilts her head at time, her face soft and pleased. “I hope you like it here,” she says. “We don’t have many new people.”
“I like it here already,” he promises her. “Good luck with your maths.”
She laughs and turns a page in her book as Davos follows Melisandre out of the room.
“Prince Stannis isn’t here today,” Melisandre tells him. “He has a meeting with King Robert. It should give you plenty of time to understand the protocols.”
Davos winces. “I take it I just messed up completely back there?”
“Ordinarily, yes. But Prince Stannis prefers his daughter to live as normal a life as possible.” Melisandre leads him back down the stairs. “Mr Cressen will give you the briefing,” she says, before sweeping off to the staff quarters.
“It feels like I’m not cut out for this,” Davos admits as he takes a seat beside the old man, glancing at the TV screen with CCTV images of the grounds on it.
“You will get the hang of it,” Cressen promises. He opens a bag of Werther’s Originals and Davos smiles gratefully as he takes one. “There are a few rules you should know,” Cressen starts, his voice low and steady. “When the royals stand, you stand, unless they are giving a speech and you are already seated. Wait until they are sitting before taking your seat. You will address the King as ‘Your Majesty’ and Prince Stannis as ‘Your Royal Highness’. After that, ‘sir’ will suffice. Prince Renly will likely tell you to call him Renly. He is a prince, therefore you will do as he asks.”
Mr Cressen opens a map and begins to show Davos who lives in which apartment. Davos is studying the Kensington Palace handbook when the door opens. Davos has to grit his teeth to keep his mouth shut as he stands, bowing his head to Stannis as he walks in. Stannis sweeps his eyes over them both, his pace brisk as he heads towards the stairs. He stops when he reaches the door and he turns to look over his shoulder.
“It’s your first day,” he says, frowning at Davos.
“I-uh-yes, sir, your royal majesty-highness,” Davos splutters.
Stannis’ expression does not flicker. “Did you see Shireen?”
“Good.” Stannis glances at Cressen. “Finish early this evening. We will be hosting a formal dinner for a US ambassador on Friday night and I will require your services. Both you of you,” he adds, looking at Davos. With that, he goes upstairs, leaving them alone.
The meal is Davos’ first formal royal engagement, and he buys himself a new suit for the occasion. He takes photographs of the guests as they arrive in dinner jackets and gowns. As the food is served, he leaves and heads home to a bowl of undercooked pasta in a tomato sauce.
He does not see Stannis often over the next month. The King is facing another scandal as he has declared he will marry Lady Cersei, but she is accused of cheating on him, and the rumours have hurt the family. The calls for the abolition of the monarchy continue unabated, and Davos can see the strain on the faces of Stannis’ employees.
He wonders if he has made a mistake in coming here.
Six weeks in, and the dark mood at Kensington is yet to lift. Davos occupies himself by taking pictures of the grounds. He knows where the deer go at different times of day, and for the first time in years, he finds a joy in having a camera in his hands. He has missed this, taking pictures simply for the joy of it. He has always loved photographing scenery and landscapes, and the grounds are large enough that there is plenty to explore.
Renly’s dog spends time with Stannis’ staff while Renly goes to parties, and Davos has spent many hours photographing her.
He is lying on his back on the carpet of one of the state rooms open to the public, taking photos of the ornate ceiling, when Melisandre finds him and leads him to the private rooms on the second floor.
Davos has never been to this part of Stannis’ private apartments before. He is led down a long, deathly quiet corridor. Melisandre knocks on a door and opens it.
Stannis is sat behind a dark-wood desk, bookcases towering behind him. It is the first time Davos has seen him in a fortnight, and he is shaken by the dark circles under his eyes. Stannis gestures for them both to take a seat.
“We need to make a change,” he says, brusque as ever, as he opens an A4 diary. “I want to fill this for the next six months. Every day.”
From the seat beside Davos, Melisandre takes out her own diary and address book. “They’ve said ‘no’,” she says.
Stannis drums his finger against the desk. “Everyone?”
“The charities, the RNLI. All of the royal organisations have declined an invitation.”
Davos glances at Stannis, who sits with a tense jaw, eyes narrowed. “What do you suggest?” he asks.
Melisandre sighs. “We need to start finding alternatives.”
Stannis looks away, to a framed picture on his desk, though Davos cannot see what it shows. “I don’t care for animal charities,” he mutters.
“The sustained attacks in the press have made you… Well…”
“Unwanted,” Stannis finishes for her. “Unwelcome.”
They all fall silent. “I’m sorry,” Melisandre says after a short while.
“I will do any engagement you can get me,” Stannis says. “Whatever it takes.”
Melisandre flicks through her address book. “The actress Daenerys Targaryen is holding a charity ball.”
“A celebrity ball,” Stannis scoffs. “That’s what we are now. Celebrities. Famous names.”
“Put it in the diary.” Melisandre copies the appointment in the two diaries. “Next.”
“A red carpet event. A film premiere.”
Stannis stares at her in disbelief. “My mother founded charitable organisations before she married my father. And they will not have me?”
“An estate agent is opening. The proprietor is a friend of your brother, Prince Renly.”
“An estate agent. Fine. What else?”
“There is nothing else, sir.” Melisandre takes out her phone. “Let me make some more calls,” she says, leaving them alone.
Stannis stares across at Davos. “Well?” he questions.
Davos frowns. “I’m sorry, sir?”
“Do you have any suggestions?”
“For your diary, sir?”
Davos bites his lip and glances around the room. He stares at the books behind Stannis, all old-looking. There are paintings on the walls, and he wishes he could take a closer look at them. The room is like the others in the palace though. Museum-like. Void of character and personality. It is decorated as it probably was a 100 years ago or more, and Stannis sits in it, his shoulders tense, a shell of a man. Davos looks back at the paintings. From the corner of his eye, he sees Stannis follow his gaze.
Davos points to the wall. “May I?” he asks, already rising from his seat. He goes to the wall without waiting for an answer, and gazes at the painting of a stag by some water.
“They’re by Edwin Landseer,” Stannis says, his voice closer than Davos is expecting. He jumps and finds Stannis stood by his shoulder. He gestures to a picture of two dogs. “They all are.”
“Did you choose them yourself?” Davos asks.
“I needed to decorate the room.”
“But you chose these yourself.”
Stannis pauses. “I admire his work. And they wouldn’t let me put a da Vinci in here.”
Davos glances at him, and he thinks he sees the shadow of a wistful smile in Stannis’ eyes. It lasts barely a second before Stannis retreats back to his desk and shifts his books around. Davos retakes his seat, and recognises the picture of the Mona Lisa on the cover of one of those books. “Are you reading that, sir?” he asks.
“Yes. No. I finished it some time ago, but I’m looking back at certain passages.”
“What are you going to read next?”
“I haven’t decided. Something about Michelangelo, I imagine.”
“You like art.”
Stannis sits back in his chair and frowns. “Yes,” he says, guarded, as though admitting that is akin to admitting a weakness or a vice.
A small smile plays on the corner of Davos’ lips. “You could do an event at an art gallery,” he suggests. “They always have new exhibitions. So I’ve heard. Or…” He bites his lip. “Organise an art exhibition for kids.”
“I don’t understand.”
Davos sighs. “My boys. I’ve got four, did you know?”
“I’ve got four of them. And they’re all really different. But Matthos, he has a real talent for drawing. Even when he was three, he could do things none of the others could do at that age. But they’re so busy doing maths at school and thinking about exams that he never gets to paint or draw. He’s never seen his work anywhere but on a fridge. His mum takes him to galleries sometimes. I would, but I’m always working, but he loves it. You like art, so does he. So do loads of kids, I bet.”
“We don’t organise events here.”
“Why not? You’ve probably got more art in this palace than most kids have ever seen. Matthos would love to come here. Me? I walk past those paintings every day and I don’t even look, but he’d sit there for days if he could.”
Stannis parts his lips and glances down at his diary. He closes the book and holds it out to Davos. “Tell Mel to organise it. As soon as possible. We will set up a marquee outside, and use it as a gallery for the children’s work. And the winners will come and view the private collection here.” Stannis rises from his seat. “I must see my daughter.”
Davos smiles and bows his head to him. “I’d love to help to organise it. If you want me to.”
Stannis looks, and after a moment of hesitation his eyes softens a little.“Yes, of course,” he says. Davos takes the diary from him and heads for the door. “Mr Seaworth,” Stannis calls from behind him. Davos spins back around. “Your son. Invite him here for the exhibition.”
“Yes, sir,” he says with a smile, and, as he opens the door, he thinks there is something under Stannis’ cool exterior that he really could come to like.
School groups visit the palace throughout the spring and summer. Hundreds of children put their work on display in a marquee in the grounds, and draw and eat sandwiches in the gardens. Stannis spends some time with them, and delights in their refreshing honesty. The children have opinions, and likes, and dislikes, and they all seem so confident in them. They chatter amongst themselves, and Stannis regrets not sending Shireen to school where she could be around other children.
The art competition is a resounding success. Stannis even agrees to an interview in the Guardian, as long as they speak only about the art. The journalist tries to sneak in a question about Robert, but Mel clears her throat and the words die on the reporter’s lips. It ends up as a two-page feature, filled with Davos’ photographs, and quotes from the children and teachers and comments about the Government’s lack of interest and funding in the Arts. It is the most positive press Stannis has ever had.
He finds himself visiting community groups which use art to help vulnerable children. He goes to a poetry recital organised by children in care. And he is invited to open a new exhibition focusing on work by Turner.
He is welcomed to a private viewing evening, and he brings Shireen along. Davos has three of his boys with him, and Matthos sits with Shireen on the floor as they both try to draw a copy of one of the paintings. The other boys are listening to the curator tell them stories about famous artists which are perhaps more than a little ruder than they should hear, but Davos does not seem to mind.
Stannis looks over at Davos, who is staring at a painting, a frown on his face. He has proved himself to be invaluable in the past few months. Mel and Davos have shown themselves to be a good team, and the family’s approval ratings are slightly better for their hard work. Davos' gaze is distracted as he rocks on his feet. This is not entirely to his taste, that's clear.
Stannis falls into step beside him. “What do you think?” he asks, looking at the paintings filled with chaotic blues. It is calledStormy Sea Breaking On A Shore, and Stannis supposes he can see the reality behind it, but it also looks a bit of a mess.
“Is it supposed to show something?” Davos asks.
Stannis frowns and takes a step back, assessing. “I prefer his earlier works,” he decides.
Davos hums and tucks his hands into his pockets. “Kids are enjoying it anyway.”
“Are you not?”
“It’s alright. I don’t think it’s for me.”
“Perhaps you haven’t seen the right art.”
Davos smiles, and it lights up the whole of his face. “I just prefer photos. It’s real. They show the world as it is. Not how… not how we want it to be.”
Stannis bites his lip. He prefers not to see the world at all, he thinks. He would prefer never to have to be in it. To escape, to be free, to get lost and never be seen. He wishes no one ever took another photograph of him. Stannis wanders to another painting. Davos follows him, and they both look at it for a few moments. “Your son was telling me earlier that you are taking them on holiday next week," Stannis said.
Davos huffs and shakes his head. “No, no, my ex-wife’s going on holiday with her boyfriend, so I’ve got the kids.”
“Are you… taking them on holiday?”
“No, just keeping them during the half-term week.”
“It’s fine,” Davos says with a grin. “I like her boyfriend. And so do the kids.”
Stannis bites his lip and looks back at the picture. He hears Shireen laugh, and he looks over to her. “Thank you for bringing your sons,” he says after a while. “She doesn’t know many children her age.”
“They seem to be having a good time. It’s good to see her out.”
Stannis eyes him. “You think I’m over-protective.”
Stannis raises his eyebrows, but he knows he invited the honesty. He knows Davos is right, too. “Shireen and I are going to Scotland,” he says. “Next week. We go every year, but this is the first time it will be just the two of us.”
“Where in Scotland?”
“The Highlands. In the middle of nowhere.”
“She hates it.” The words leave his mouth before he can stop them. He grits his teeth and frowns. “She doesn’t hate it. But she does get bored.”
“You could take her somewhere else?” Davos suggests.
“Photographers will not follow us there. There are no hotels for them to stay in, and they can’t get close to the house. There’s no where else in the world like it.”
“Ah. Yeah. I understand.”
Stannis grimaces and looks back at her. “I would invite you, all five of you, if I thought you wouldn’t hate every second.”
There’s a long, drawn-out pause and Stannis wonders if he has over-stepped the mark somehow. That he has made assumptions about Davos, as though the man would ever want to see him outside of work.
“Apologies,” Stannis begins, as Davos says: “I’m up for that.”
They look at each other, then quickly look away. “You don’t have to stick to it,” Davos says with a laugh. “But thanks.”
Stannis swallows and clenches his teeth. He stays silent for a while, words like ‘come with us’ and then ‘I take it all back’ rushing around in his head, until Davos turns away and goes to collect his jacket from the bench. “I’d like you to come with us, if you'd like to,” Stannis murmurs to his back, not daring to look at him.
“Then yeah,” Davos says. “The boys will be fine anywhere, as long as there’s a TV, XBox and a football.”
Stannis blinks, suddenly uncertain. “I don’t have an XBox.”
“You could come then. Shireen would like it.” I would like it, Stannis realises, and he ducks his head as he collects his own jacket, as though Davos will be able to see that admission written all over his face.
“Then we’ll come.”
When he goes to bed that night, Stannis finds himself flooded with doubts. He wonders how he can take the invitation back without seeming rude. It isn’t that he doesn’t want Davos there. In every fleeting conversation he has with the man, he learns something new about him, and it intrigues him.
But every time he thinks how good it would be to spend a week with Davos and talk about photography and to learn more about him, he thinks how dangerous it is. Not just because he is afraid of letting his guard down with someone, but because deep down he knows he has caught himself admiring Davos’ smile, the creases at the corners of his eyes. He feels an extra beat in his pulse when Davos smiles at him, and his expression is warm and kind. It is dangerous. Stannis cannot bear the thought of finding someone who makes his heart race, who could get close to him.
But he does not take back the invitation. He tries to. He gets close to it when he and Davos are back at that official opening of the exhibition the next night, but instead he tells Davos that the aeroplane will take off from Gatwick Airport on Saturday at 8am. The seats are booked, the bags packed, and by the time he has gathered his resolve, they are already seated, and the ‘plane is taking off.
The castle stands imposing, with its grey walls and turrets and ivy growing up it. But they do not stop outside it. Much to the dismay of Davos’ sons, they continue past the castle and rivers and hills until they begin up a stony drive, lined by thick trees. Davos frowns to himself as he follows the Land Rover in front of him. Stannis is driving it, Shireen and Matthos with him. They drive up to a white house overlooking a lake. Davos pulls the Land Rover into a space beside Stannis’ car and gazes at the building, surprised to find the straightforward three-storey building with a plain black door and very little character.
“I thought we were staying in a castle,” Dale complains.
Davos looks back at him. “We’re in the most beautiful place we’ve ever seen, and all you can talk about is the castle? This place will be good too.”
He follows Stannis inside, carrying the bags. The small hallway leads into a nice-sized living room with a medium-sized telly (smaller than Davos’ if he’s honest), a few bookcases and two big green sofas, cushions and blankets scattered over them. It’s homely, with a big red rug in the centre, and paintings of the Highlands on the walls.
The kitchen leads off the side, and there’s another hallway off the lounge. Stannis is brisk as he points to where they’ll stay. Dale and Allard will share one room downstairs, and Matthos and Devan another upstairs. Shireen has a room to herself on the first floor, and Davos’ room is beside Stannis’ on the second floor. He stands by the window and stares across the lake before unpacking.
His boys are already outside kicking a ball around, and Davos lets the peace of the place sink into his bones. He’s never been anywhere so quiet in his life, and he’s used to big cities and London these days. But this is nice in its own way, and he’s looking forward to a week with his boys.
He finds Stannis in the kitchen. The fridge is full, and a lasagne has been left for them for later. Wordless, Davos turns the kettle on. He’s glad they’re not staying at the castle. It’s a strange enough situation as it is, to be sleeping under the same roof as a prince and his daughter. But the castle would be a firm reminder of their status. Here, Davos thinks, at least they can be on a more equal footing.
“Tea or coffee, sir?” Davos asks after finding the mugs.
Stannis hesitates. “May I call you Davos?”
Davos grins. “Of course, sir.”
“Then. While we’re here. Call me Stannis.”
Davos nods and spoons some coffee into a mug. “Tea or coffee, Stannis?”
There is a pause, and Davos looks up to see Stannis gaping at him, as though Davos hasn’t just done the very thing he asked him to do. “Tea,” Stannis finally says. “Milk, one sugar.”
“Coming right up.” Davos expects Stannis to slip into the living room and let Davos bring the tea to him, but no, he waits at Davos side as the water boils.
Stannis reads indoors during the afternoon while Davos plays football and catch with the boys and Shireen. When he goes indoors, he is panting for breath and wiping the sweat from his brow. “Just what I needed,” he grins at Stannis. “A reminder that I’m not 20 anymore.”
Stannis looks up from his book. The sight of him grips Davos immediately, stealing his breath from him. Stannis has settled onto a high-backed chair and he has stripped off his tie and jacket, and his shirt is unbuttoned at the top. He has draped a red throw over his lap, he’s wearing a pair of grey socks, and he looks… soft. “Just how old are you?” Stannis asks.
Stannis hums. “Are they still playing?”
“Yeah. Shireen’s got a good left foot on her.”
A flicker of a smile dances on the corner of Stannis’ mouth. “It wasn’t inherited from me.”
“You’re not a footballer?” Davos sinks into the sofa and toes his trainers off.
Stannis slides a bookmark into the book and closes it. “I ran. Long distance. I make do with a treadmill now, but I liked running.”
“Wind in your hair?”
Stannis’ eyes seem to sparkle with humour. “Perhaps that explains why it seems to be disappearing.”
Davos laughs and gets up. “I’m going to have a shower.”
Stannis gets up. “I’ll put dinner in the oven.”
They eat dinner together around the table, and Stannis is quiet while the boys chatter amongst themselves, except Allard who keeps shooting wary glances at Stannis. Stannis does not finish his food. He shifts in his seat and his eyes flicker around the room. He doesn’t seem to be listening to any of them. Davos tells his eldest two to collect the dishes, and they do so without much complaint.
Stannis tells Shireen not to stay up too late, and disappears up to his bedroom. Davos winces. He ends up watching a Disney film with the kids, before they go to bed. He channel-hops until midnight and tiptoes off to bed. Stannis’ bedroom light is still on, and it means he’s spent the past five hours locked up in his room. Davos lets out a long breath, and tells himself not to think too hard about it.
The next day, though, Stannis is back to his normal self, which is both a relief and a disappointment, because Davos thought Stannis would be different away from the palace. He spends the morning reading and letting life carry on around him. Davos deals with breakfast, and struggles to get more than a few words out of him. After lunch, the rain lashes down and Davos stares out of his bedroom window and out to the lake, wondering if he had his boys are more unwelcome than Stannis has let on.
When he goes back downstairs, someone has set up a chess board, and Stannis is sat on a chair on one side, Allard on a cushion on the floor opposite him. The rest of the children are playing Mario Kart on the Wii, the volume down low. Davos slumps onto the sofa and keeps half an eye on them all. Allard is listening intently as Stannis talks him through the chess pieces, and teaches the rules. And Allard, Allard who seemed so wary of Stannis the day before, now cannot seem to care about computer games.
Stannis is patient with him as they begin to play. He talks about strategy, and thinking about the next move, and Davos keeps his eyes closed, but he listens.
After a while, Shireen stands by Stannis knee and leans against him. After a few minutes, Stannis touches her shoulder. She sidles closer and closer, until all he can do is pull her up onto his knee. She laughs and his eyes soften as he lets her take over his chess moves. He whispers suggestions in her ear and makes her giggle, and he still gives Allard tips.
Davos wishes he could photograph this scene. Stannis seems to have relaxed and he even watches the boys play Mario Kart for a while. (He doesn’t agree to have a go himself, but Davos promises himself to challenge him one-on-one at some point). But instinctively Davos knows Stannis would flinch if he brings the camera downstairs. Stannis trusts him a little, but not enough to allow him to capture these private scenes, no matter that Davos would never share them with anyone else. Still, he thinks, he’s sad Stannis will have no photographic reminder of this moment, of him and Shireen playing chess and Shireen laughing as her father makes ludicrous suggestions in her ear about where she should put her rook.
The games continue after dinner, Snap and more chess, until they are all playing Monopoly at the dining room table. Davos keeps landing on Stannis’ Mayfair. “You rigged this dice, I reckon,” he accuses as he hands over more of the thin cash.
Stannis raises one eyebrow and separates the notes into his neat piles. “Perhaps if you had listened to me when I told you the water company was not a good investment, you would not be in this situation.”
“I didn’t have a choice. You took all the train stations.”
“You landed on one of them very early on, and I remember you debating with yourself for at least five minutes about whether to buy it or not.”
Davos laughs. “I was not debating for five minutes. You were getting tea, I was waiting for you.”
“That was when you made your first mistake, Davos Seaworth. Not buying the station.”
“And what was my next mistake?”
“Not listening to me and buying the water company. I did warn you.”
Davos huffs and passes the dice to Shireen. “Beat your dad for me, Princess.”
She laughs and rolls the dice, moving the dog over the board. She, too, lands on Mayfair. Stannis looks positively gleeful and holds his hand out for more cash.
“I think you’ve won,” Davos tells him, looking around at their depleted notes. They all turn to Devan, who has fallen asleep, his head on his arms. “Time for bed, I reckon.”
The kids slide down from their chairs and call goodnight to Stannis and traipse to the bathrooms to brush their teeth. Davos lifts Devan out of the chair.
“Do you want a drink?” Stannis asks.
“Yeah, I’ll take whatever you’re having.” Davos tucks his youngest into bed, and then checks on the others. They have been on their best behaviour so far, and although they are still awake and talking, he is content to close the door and let them get on with it.
When he heads back to the living room, Stannis is on the sofa with two wine glasses on the table and he is holding a bottle of red wine up. “A peace offering,” he says.
Davos tilts his head. “I didn’t know either of us had declared war.”
“Do you want the wine or not?”
Davos grins and slumps onto the sofa beside him. “Fine with me. Cheers.”
Stannis pours them two full glasses, and sits back with his own. “I don’t often drink,” he admits.
“I found it under the sink. It’s a very good vintage and it seemed a shame to leave it sitting there.”
Davos takes a sip, and he may not be a wine drinker, but he is already considering changing that opinion. “It’s good.”
“Smooth,” Stannis agrees.
Davos smiles and lets the quiet settle around them as they drink. Stannis rests his head on the back of the sofa and gazes at his wine glass, and Davos watches him from the corner of his eye.
“I had fun today,” Davos says, when the silence grows heavy.
Stannis hums. “Allard is good at chess for his age,” he says. “It seemed as though he had played before.”
“He hasn’t, as far as I know. Unless he played at school.”
“He said he hadn’t. I’m sorry if they’re bored here. I forget that children like to be busy.”
“They’re fine. Their mum never lets them play this many computer games. And they’ve got the football, they don’t need anything else.”
“They’re a credit to you,” Stannis says. “It can’t have been easy for them. The divorce.”
Davos pauses and takes a long sip of his wine. “They took it in their stride. I don’t know if that’s because of anything I did, or Marya did, but they dealt with it well enough.”
“How long ago was it?”
“Five years ago. Devan has never known any different, and Matthos doesn’t really remember when we were together. It hit Allard, I guess. Dale was always the louder one, he’ll deal with anything. Allard is a bit more sensitive.”
“Allard is the middle child, I suppose.”
Davos glances at him, and wonders if there is a kinship between Stannis and Allard that comes from being second-born, stuck between an older child and a younger one, both as loud and boisterous as the other. “Yeah,” is all Davos can say in reply.
They talk about work for a while. When they get back, Stannis has a diary full of appointments, and Davos will attend most of them. The tension drifts back into Stannis’ shoulders as he talks of his duties and responsibilities and what is expected of him. He says it mechanically, as though those words and roles have been drilled into him and he is a robot, programmed with what he should think, and say, and do.
“You’d make a good king,” Davos says after a while, when the first bottle of wine is almost finished. He knows he has said something wrong straight away, because Stannis’ goes rigid. “I just. Shit, I shouldn’t have said that, should I?”
“Robert is king. A good one?” Stannis lets the question linger. “But I have no plans or desire to replace him. I may not want him to marry Lady Cersei, but at least if he does and they have children then I will no longer be heir to the throne.”
“You really wouldn’t want it?”
“I’d be terrible at it. No one can support a king they do not like.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit.”
Stannis stays silent and finishes his wine. “Do you want to open a second bottle?” he asks.
Davos shrugs. “I’ll get it.” He finds it already on the side and takes a seat back on the sofa, closer to Stannis than before. He doesn’t realise it until he pours the wine and goes to hand Stannis his glass, and finds he does not have to reach over. He doesn’t move. He can’t, not without it looking obvious. So he sits back and pretends not to notice.
They drink in companionable silence, and listen to the rain outside. The wine has eased Davos’ nerves, and he doesn’t feel such a need to end the silence. He catches a glimpse of Shireen’s book on the side, and he smiles. “She seems happy here,” he says.
Stannis picks up the book and flicks through the pages. “She has read this so many times. It’s too young for her, but she still reads it.” Stannis takes a deep breath, his shoulders rising and falling with it, before he puts it back down. “I know it’s my fault she’s lonely.”
Davos looks at him, and wants to say ‘she’s not lonely’ but Davos is sure she is, and he isn’t cut out for lying. Stannis wouldn’t ask him to anyway. Stannis swallows and stares into his glass, frowning. “I know you could be having a better holiday elsewhere, Davos, but I’m grateful you came.”
“I wasn’t sure for a while. Seemed you… would have preferred we were elsewhere.”
“I’m not used to this much company.”
“Seems like you and Shireen could both use it sometimes.”
Stannis puts his glass down. “I can’t take a risk. Not in my position.”
Davos hums and angles his body so he can look at him properly. “You’ve got Mel.” You’ve got me , he wants to say, but it seems too presumptuous. “She’s a big fan of yours,” Davos continues. “Seems like you could have a lot of company, if you wanted it.”
Stannis’ eyebrows go up. “Melisandre?”
“Just because you’re a prince doesn’t mean you have to be alone, does it?”
Stannis stares at him and then shakes his head. “Davos,” he breathes out, looking up at the ceiling.
“She’s my employee.”
“She’s an attractive woman. She’s smart. She likes you. You get on well enough, I reckon. What’s the problem?”
Stannis presses his lips together. “I can’t.”
“Can’t what? Get a girlfriend? Be in love with someone?”
“Yes. To both those things.”
“Just because you’re royal doesn’t mean you have to be alone, Stannis.”
“It does when you’re royal and you’re gay.” Stannis squeezes his eyes closed, grimacing. “Forget I said that.”
Davos’ eyes widen. Oh, he thinks. Oh, oh, oh. And oh. He should say something. Stannis looks wrecked by his own admission, and he is moving to leave, head lowered as if he can no longer meet Davos’ eyes. “I’m bisexual,” Davos says quickly, before Stannis leaves and regrets how the wine has loosened his tongue. “So, it’s fine. I get it.”
Stannis meets his eyes, his expression pained. “You can be with a woman, Davos.”
“And you can’t. Yeah. I get it. But you love who you love. It shouldn’t matter. Law says anyone can marry who they like. Why is it different for you?”
Davos rolls his eyes. “I wish I could tell you to fuck tradition and expectation, but I know you won’t.”
“You don’t mind your language when you’ve had some wine.”
“And you look like your whole life is going to be about being alone, and it doesn’t have to be like that.”
“I have Shireen.”
“Who will grow up, and meet someone and marry them.”
“I’m not lonely.”
“Aren’t you?” Stannis grits his teeth. “You invited me here, Stannis. Some man who works for you and takes your picture. You asked for me to come and now I’m drinking your wine, and, I’m telling you, it’s okay. It’s all okay.”
Stannis stares down at his knees and Davos shuffles closer. He lifts his arm and lets it hover over Stannis’ shoulders for a few seconds. But eventually he lets his arm drop, and pulls Stannis close and Stannis lets him, though he stays tense beside him. Davos rests his cheek on the top of his head and squeezes his shoulder. He wonders if anyone has done this for him. Ever held him, and told him everything is alright, no matter how bad it seems. It sits uncomfortably in his chest, to think he could even be the first person Stannis has come out to. Even worse, that he could regret doing so in the morning.
“I’m going to tell you this for free,” Davos says. “When you wake up tomorrow, I want you to remember that I told you it’s okay to be who you are. And I want you to know that it’s between you and me, whatever you say to me, whatever happens. You can trust me.”
Stannis sighs. “I should go to bed.”
“Yeah, probably.” Davos squeezes his shoulder again and lets him go.
Stannis stares down at his feet and gets up. “I’m sorry,” he mutters.
“Hey. Look at me.” Stannis slowly lifts his head, until their eyes meet, and Davos reaches forward and takes hold of his hand. “You don’t need to be sorry for anything.”
“I’m sorry I drank so much.”
Davos smiles. “Yeah, okay. And your head might be sorry too. But that’s the only thing you can be sorry about. The rest of it? Not an issue.”
Stannis runs his thumb over Davos’ knuckles, and they both glance down to where their hands are joined. Stannis pulls away, abrupt. “Goodnight, Davos.”
“Sleep well. I’ll clear up here before I go to bed.”
Stannis’ eyes linger on his for a moment, before he begins a slow ascent up the stairs. He doesn’t look back, and he seems to grip the handrail as he goes. Davos hears a door close and he lets out a whuff of air. He touches his hand and thinks he can still feel where Stannis’ held onto it. Damn, he thinks. Oh damn.
Stannis lingers in bed in the morning, staring up at the ceiling, even as he hears the chatter from energetic children in the hall and the pots and pans in the kitchen. The covers are pulled up to his chin, and he thinks it would be safer for all concerned if he lay in his bed all day. His head, as predicted, does throb. Not quite as badly he expected it would, but it’s a reminder of what happened last night, revelations and behaviour both.
It makes him wince every time he thinks of it, his stupid admission and then letting Davos hold him. What was he thinking?
He doesn’t move until he hears the front door close, and a peak through the curtains shows the boys outside, chasing a ball around. Davos is out there too, playing catch with Shireen, and Stannis knows he has been given all the space he can hope to find.
He showers and dresses and swallows some painkillers and wishes the past twelve hours away. He drinks a coffee, leaning against the kitchen counter and wondering how he will face Davos later. He cannot avoid the man forever, and he is no coward.
He skips breakfast and cuts up vegetables for a casserole. He may not know how to cook much, but he can chop potatoes and carrots and put it all in a dish in the oven. He decides to pour the end of the wine into the pot too, so he cannot possibly make the same mistake again.
He is planning the herbs and flavourings when the knife slips and he cuts his thumb. For a moment, he doesn’t react. Then the blood flows, then he feels the pain. Hissing, he grabs a cloth from the side and presses it tightly around his thumb. It’s a deep cut, he knows that already. “Dammit,” he mutters, making for the door.
It is flung open before he has a chance to get there, and Davos is stood with a deflated football under his arm, his cheeks flushed from the cold, and the easy grin on his face is so kissable, Stannis forgets about his thumb and his fears, and he thinks he could get used that sight.
Davos’ smile falls though, as his eyes drop to Stannis’ hands. “What have you done?” he asks, striding over.
“It’s only a graze.”
Davos peels the cloth away and they both gawk at the amount of blood on the fabric. “That’s not just a graze.” Davos wraps it back around Stannis’ thumb and both hands keep it pressed down. “I leave you alone in the kitchen for a few minutes…” Davos’ grin returns, and he lets go of Stannis to pull a chair out. “Go on. Sit down. Have you got a first aid kit anywhere?”
Stannis sighs and sinks into the chair. “In the bathroom.” He keeps his pressure on the bleeding and tuts at himself.
Davos returns a minute later and sits opposite him, amused smile still on his face as he wipes some of the blood away with a damp cloth. “What were you doing anyway?” he asks.
“I was chopping vegetables. For a casserole.”
“Was essence of Stannis part of the recipe?”
Stannis scowls at him. Davos grins and applies the disinfectant cream. Stannis winces, but Davos ignores him and goes about his task. He covers the cut with a plaster, and finishes with his hand in his. “All done,” he says, though he still hasn’t let go. Stannis stares down at where Davos’ fingers wrap around his. “I might not leave you unattended in here again though.”
“Might be for the best,” Stannis admits, unable to tear his hand away. He wants to. Oh, he wants to. But Davos’ cold hand feels right wrapped around his, and he wants his hands and his arms, and his mouth…
Davos appears to catch himself, and he lets go with one tiny pat to Stannis’ arm. He moves to the counter and Stannis sighs and dictates the cooking instructions to him. He still feels Davos’ hand against his, as though his skin has been burned by him. He touches the place Davos’ fingers rested, and he knows he is done for.
The kids run out of energy by mid-morning, and with the casserole in the oven and the boys and Shireen playing chess and Mario Kart, Davos decides he will go for a walk, clear his head. He pulls on some boots and a coat and leaves them enjoying themselves by the TV. Stannis is already outside, throwing some firewood into a bucket to take indoors.
“Need a hand?” Davos calls out to him, pulling his gloves on.
Stannis lifts the bucket. “It’s done.” Stannis’ eyes seem to stare right through him, and he frowns. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Just for a walk. I thought I’d take some photos. It seems too nice to waste.”
Stannis looks at the countryside surrounding them. “You might get lost.”
“I’ll be fine if I walk in a straight line. Unless you want to come and give me directions.”
Stannis looks back at the house. “Will the children be okay?”
“Yeah, they’re just playing games. C’mon. Walk’ll do us both good.”
Stannis tight-jawed expression indicates he believes otherwise, but he does up another button on his coat and points towards some trees in the distance. “We’ll go that way then. There’s a lake that way, I’m sure you’ll get some nice pictures.”
Smiling, Davos lets him lead the way. They fall into step beside one another in an easy silence. It’s so peaceful, with birds flying overhead as they trek. They pass some grazing cows, and Davos takes some pictures. Stannis waits for him, looking towards the hills ahead of them. Davos lifts his eye from the camera, glancing towards the view, and sees only Stannis. His heart skips, and he is in trouble, and he knows it.
He knows so little about the man really, but he knows enough. He knows his generous heart, and he knows Stannis has been burned too many times to let it show. He knows Stannis feels alone, and all he sees is a future where he has to be out in public surrounded by people… and have to hide his true self away. Better to live alone than leave himself exposed to the vultures.
I was a vulture, once , Davos thinks as he approaches him, his footsteps slow and heavy on the ground. He thinks of all the times he photographed Stannis, when he seemed some distant, well-to-do, entitled snob. He feels like he might as well have ripped Stannis’ heart out, with every photograph he took.
They walk again, towards the hills. Davos is looking around, letting the cool air sink into his lungs, when Stannis reaches out a hand to stop him in his tracks. A stag stands before them, silent and still as it regards them with black eyes.
Davos lifts his camera, keeping his movements slow. The creature stands there, watchful, letting out puffs of airl. He takes pictures of the majestic animal, holding his breath the whole time. A smile plays on the corner of his mouth and he knows he has captured one of the greatest pictures he has ever taken.
He turns his head to share the moment with Stannis, but the man is not looking at the stag. Instead, his gaze is fixed on Davos. Just as soon as their eyes meet, Stannis looks away again, back to the stag who watches them with all-seeing eyes.
Davos keeps half an eye on the creature, but it’s Stannis he truly wants to see. Their eyes meet again, but this time Stannis does not look away. Davos takes a small step towards him, and Stannis remains unmoved, his lips pressing more tightly together. But his eyes are not cold; there are so many emotions swimming in them that Davos cannot look away. More than anything, he seems… unsure. The wind swirls around them, but Davos ignores the urge to shiver. He lifts a gloved hand to Stannis’ cheek, and Stannis’ eyes flicker then, his lips parting.
Davos knows there are hundreds, if not thousands, of reasons why he should not entertain this, and he knows he should back away. But he cannot listen to sense, not with the way Stannis is staring at him, tense and fearful all at once. He expects Stannis to jerk away, to reject him, but he stays perfectly still, arms rigid by his sides.
Davos’ eyes flick down to his lips, then back to his eyes as he tries to signal his intent. Stannis is unmoved. They both stay there, rooted to the ground, Davos’ hand on Stannis’ cheek. Stannis turns his attention to the ground, but just for a moment, and then his eyes are back on Davos’. His tongue flicks out to wet his lips, and Davos closes the distance between them. His eyes fall closed as he realises he has initiated the kiss alone, that Stannis has not moved to meet him. But the doubts melt away as Stannis’ lips mould against his.
The seconds speed by, the kiss breaking of its own accord, lips barely touching. Davos brushes the tip of his nose against Stannis’, and he opens his eyes, fearful of the expression he might see looking back at him. Stannis’ eyes are still closed, his mouth slack, cheeks flushed.
Davos kisses him again and Stannis’ hands come to rest on his waist. Davos takes another step towards him, his arms wrapping around Stannis’ neck, as their lips begin to move. There is light drizzle on his cheeks and the cold air bites against his skin, but he is nothing but warm where their bodies meet. The kiss is everything, it’s slow and it’s tender, and they meet each other as easily as if they have been doing it for years. Stannis kisses with some hesitance, and Davos leads it for them both, hand curled around the back of Stannis’ neck.
He doesn’t want it to end, but their mouths break apart, and they stare at each other as the rain gets heavier. Stannis swallows and turns away, just as Davos’ touches his chin to guide his face back to his.
The trace of a small, sad smile emerges on Stannis’ face, before it fades, replaced by a far-off look. Letting out a long breath, Davos’ wraps his arms tighter around him until they are stood toe to toe, chest to chest. He guides him close, until Stannis buries his face in his shoulder, his arms wrapped around Davos’ waist.
Davos risks a glance at the stag, who gives him one lingering look in return, before dropping its head and turning around, heading back the way he came. Davos keeps his eye on it, until it gets lost in the rain and the fog.
Stannis’ arms tighten around him, then he lets go, lifting his hands to wipe the rain from his face. Davos flashes him a smile and does the same. “We’re going to freeze if we stay out here,” he says.
“Yes,” Stannis agrees, looking to where the stag had once been. He frowns at Davos, words seeming to form on his lips, with no comment coming from them.
“Tea,” Davos says for him. “We need tea and biscuits.”
“And a fire.”
“Aye. Let’s get moving, the sooner we’re back, the sooner we can warm up.”
Stannis keeps his eyes on Davos, before he lowers his head. He takes a step away, which has Davos reaching out to touch his shoulder. Stannis freezes, but does not look back at him.
“There’s no pressure,” Davos tells him. “There’s no regrets either. At least, not from where I stand.”
Stannis looks off into the distance, silent and unblinking. “It’s easy for you,” he finally says through gritted teeth.
Davos stays silent. He won’t compare with Stannis. But he already knows it is not easy for him. He’s not sure if he can be with a man like him, one who seems so far away. He’s not sure he’s ready, either, to open up to someone in all the ways romantic entanglements require.
With a stronger smile than he expected to manage, Davos pats his shoulder. “Back to the house,” he says. “Before we turn into icebergs out here.” With a final look back at where the stag had been, he follows Stannis to the cottage, wishing, not for the first time, that he could read his mind.
They don’t say a word as they slip inside. Stannis says ‘hello’ to Shireen then mutters something about needing a shower, and he stays upstairs for well over an hour. It leaves Davos to dish up their dinner, the meat tender, flavoured with the wine and the herbs.
Stannis comes down to dinner, and the kids don’t seem to notice any tension as they chatter away, laughing and joking and taking the mickey out of each other. Davos meets Stannis’ eyes a few times over the table, but he looks away, and Davos forces himself to admit Stannis may not be able to accept what happened. It’s one thing to drunkenly express his sexuality, to kiss him in the middle of nowhere… But it does not mean he is not ashamed.
Davos and Dale wash up, and when they go to the living room, Stannis is at one end of the sofa, Matthos on the other. So Davos sits between them, uncomfortably close to Stannis, feeling the heat radiating from him.
They put on a film which Stannis spends buried in a book. And that would be fine. But both Davos and Stannis shift around in their seats, and every now and then, Stannis turns the page and their arms brush and Davos feels it like an electric shock, like a burn, and it takes everything he has not to let in a sharp inhale.
Davos hardly watches the film. He lives every one of Stannis’ sighs, Stannis clearing his throat, Stannis tutting at the TV, Stannis being Stannis, Stannis, Stannis and Stannis. It’s a film, then The Simpsons, and Davos isn’t sure it’s age-appropriate but Stannis doesn’t complain, so he lets it lie.
The kids all troop off to bed as it gets later and the TV stops holding their interest. Dale is last to go, and Davos stares at the adverts, as though he’s watching it. He can’t move; it’ll be awkward if he moves. So he sits there, tense and uneasy. Stannis doesn’t turn a page in his book for a long time, and Davos risks a look at him. Stannis is gripping the book, eyes not moving over the page. With a long sigh, he closes the book, and lifts his head. The tension isn’t broken, even by the canned laughter on the telly. Somehow, it makes it even worse.
Stannis looks away and sinks back into the chair, hands clasped in his lap. “We’re adults,” he mutters.
Davos huffs a laugh. “Yeah.” He drops his head, frowning at his knees.
“What you did earlier…”
Davos winces. “Look, I’m…”
Davos sighs. “Yeah.”
Davos risks a look at him again. His teeth are clenched, and he has a deep frown between his eyes. “I mean, I’m not…” Davos runs a hand through his hair. “I’m not sorry about kissing you, I’m sorry that it… I mean, it bothered you, right? I’m sorry I bothered you.”
Stannis still doesn’t look at him. It’s like staring at a statue, something frozen. Davos waits, because he believes he’s worth waiting for. It’s scares him to briefly consider how long he would wait for. Stannis turns to him, biting his lip. His eyes are piercing, scrutinising him. Then he looks down at his knees, shaking his head. “I want…” Stannis begins, his voice harsh, almost. And he looks Davos in the eye, reaches out to him and grips his shoulder, fingers curling in his shirt. “Will you just…?” He trails off again.
“Do you want me to kiss you?” Davos asks him, heart racing, hope rising.
“Yes.” The word escapes, and Davos feels the weight of it, the vulnerability in that admission. Davos cups his cheek, lets his thumb smooth over his cheekbone, and leans in towards him. Stannis meets this kiss this time. He loosens the grip on Davos’ shoulder as their lips press together. Stannis’ lips are dry, and Davos can feel the tension radiating off him.
It’s going to be better this time, Davos promises himself. The kiss earlier was intense, as fits a man like Stannis, but he wants this one to be fun, for them to learn about each other. Davos wets his lips and slides closer to Stannis, moving his hand to the back of his neck. Stannis shivers, and as his lips part, Davos turns his attention to his bottom lip.
He kisses him with care, thumb stroking his hairline, maimed hand coming to rest on his knee. Stannis covers his hand with his, fingers reverently stroking against his knuckles.
If Stannis is scared, and Davos thinks perhaps he is (hell, he thinks he is too), then Davos commits to keeping everything at a pace they can both follow. He flicks his tongue out for a moment, then withdraws, lets Stannis adjust to it all. The kiss breaks of its own accord, and Davos presses his lips to the corner of Stannis’ mouth. “Okay?” he whispers.
Stannis hums and squeezes Davos’ hand. “I have been kissed before.”
Davos smiles. “That’s a relief.”
Stannis hums and looks down at their joined hands. “Not like this,” he admits.
Stannis stays quiet for a moment, before he lifts Davos’ hand to his lips and he kisses the tips of Davos’ maimed fingers. “I don’t want this to stop,” he breathes against Davos’ hand.
Davos’ breath catches, and it takes a second for him to recover. When he does, he leans forward again and he’s smiling as they kiss. He’s not quite on target, and he laughs and even Stannis releases a nervous chuckle. And then Davos sinks into it, kisses him slow, kisses him like he wants to seduce him. He does want to, but he doesn’t expect it. If it comes to it, he’d probably tell Stannis ‘no’ because he doesn’t want to rush this. It’s not about sex, though it’s certainly on his mind. But this is all about discovery and connection and it seems right that they spend their time kissing on the sofa, learning each other.
He deepens the kiss, and it feels like the most normal thing in the world to have to Stannis respond to him, for them to mutually part and rub their noses together. And it’s so right, so natural, when Stannis drops his head to Davos’ shoulder, and Davos wraps an arm around him and holds him close. They breathe in sync, Stannis still holding Davos’ maimed hand and stroking his fingers as though he doesn’t notice the missing fingertips.
Davos turns the volume down on the TV and he kisses Stannis’ head, smiling to himself. Stannis yawns, and curls further into Davos’ embrace.
He wakes with a dead weight against his side, pins and needles in his leg. He blinks into the light, and kisses Stannis’ forehead as he tries to adjust. Stannis groans and stares at him through half-lidded eyes. He lets out a long breath, rubs his nose with the back of his hand and stretches. He’s looking at Davos with soft eyes and a confused smile and Davos pulls him closer and kisses his lips with an exhausted kiss. “We should go to bed,” he says, looking at his watch. “Gone midnight.”
Stannis groans and moves himself to the edge of the sofa. “Thank you,” he murmurs, looking back round at him.
They meet in a kiss, hold one another’s eyes, and then Stannis rises, making for the stairs. He looks back over his shoulder, no tension in his jaw, softness in his eyes. Davos smiles at him then watches him go upstairs. He thinks he’s a man he could love. The fear of that holds him in a vise for a few moments. Then he breathes it out.
Stannis spends the next day in a daze, playing chess with Allard and reading with Shireen. It rains all day, and the boys are bored and moody. Davos tries to entertain them with games, but Dale and Matthos get into an argument and storm off to their own rooms. Stannis lets it all happen around him, but it means he cannot be alone with Davos.
He watches him out of the corner of his eye. He is at ease with Shireen, handles his boys with the right amount of kindness, lenience and warning looks.
They’re sitting down to lunch when there’s a knock on the door, and Davos offers to get it.
“It’s probably a member of the castle staff,” Stannis calls after him as he studies the chess board. “They’ll be checking we have enough food. We could probably use some more milk, actually.”
Davos laughs. “I’ve never seen anyone drink as much coffee as you do.”
“I’m trying to keep awake enough to beat Allard at this,” Stannis replies, frowning. He glances at Allard. “You’ve got far too good at this.”
Allard beams at him and folds his arms across his chest. “I’ve been practising in my head before I go to bed.”
Stannis rolls his eyes. “Then I’ve got no chance,” he says, moving his castle.
“Sir,” Davos calls out from the hallway, and Stannis lifts his head.
“Think very carefully about your next move,” he tells Allard and heads out to the hallway. Renly is leaning against the doorway, a smug smile on his lips. Stannis frowns at him. “Why are you here?”
Renly grins. “Is that really the way to greet your brother? I came to see you. Robert and I arrived last night.”
“That doesn’t explain why you are here.”
“Come round and have dinner with us tonight.”
“No one really. I thought I’d be polite.”
Stannis rolls his eyes. “We have dinner planned already.” As an afterthought, he adds: “Thank you.”
“Suit yourself,” Renly mutters. “Robert didn’t want you there, anyway.”
“What a surprise.”
“Lady Cersei’s here. I thought you should know.”
“Robert’s a grown man, he can do as he likes.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” Davos murmurs, heading back to the living room.
Renly raises his eyebrows. “I thought it was just you and Shireen coming here.”
“We had a change of plan.”
“It’s all very…” Renly purses his lips. “What’s going on?”
“Nothing’s going on.”
“Have you… are you friends?”
“He’s a photographer. He takes photographs. What do you want, Renly?”
“Robert said there’s a few bottles of that fancy wine here. You know, the one father used to have some money invested in.”
“Robert swore there was last time.”
“We drank it.”
Renly laughs. “You did what?”
“The wine. We drank it. And I put the rest in a casserole.”
Renly blinks. “Are you kidding?”
“For once, no,” Stannis responds.
Renly laughs again. “Robert’s going to be pissed as hell.”
“What a pity for him.”
“We’re going hunting tomorrow. Coming?”
“In this weather? Someone will end up off their horse, and more than likely it would be me. No, I’d much prefer to be indoors. Tell Robert he should do the same, if he has any sense.”
“There’s no telling Robert what to do,” Renly replies. They regard each other. “It’s weird to see you with a friend.”
“He’s not a friend.”
Renly grins. “For God’s sake, Stannis. Let yourself enjoy life, will you? Especially when we’re here. No press, no commitments, no job, no photographers… well, except the one you brought with you.”
“He takes pictures of the countryside.”
Renly frowns. “Why?”
“For… it doesn’t matter.”
“Robert will be pissed about the wine.”
“Perhaps it’s a few less bottles for him to drink. And for you to drink.”
Renly tuts. “I’m going now, because you haven’t even invited me in. Rude, Stannis. Very rude. Are you sure you won’t come? Save me from Robert and Cersei’s company?”
“I’ll not be coming.”
“But Robert mocks me all the time when you’re not there. I prefer it when you’re the target.”
“Have a safe hunt, Renly.”
“Hm. Fine. Have a… who am I kidding, I hope you have a terrible time.”
Renly smiles. “Make friends, Stannis. It might do you good.”
“Don’t drink, Renly. It might do you good.”
“See you later.”
“Yes. Goodbye.” Stannis watches him head for the car before closing the door. He restarts the chess game, and thinks nothing of Renly and Robert staying in the castle a few miles away.
He joins Davos in the kitchen, where he’s cutting up some vegetables for dinner. Their eyes meet, and the smile Davos wears makes his heart race. The door closes behind them, and Stannis dips his head as he turns the kettle on. They stand in silence as the water boils, Davos chopping up carrots as they wait. The kettle clicks.
“Would you like a cup of tea?” Stannis asks, reaching for the cups.
“I’d love one.” Stannis manages a half smile, and fills the mug. “How are you doing?” Davos asks, as he passes the milk over.
Stannis raises an eyebrow. “Fine.”
“Yeah? Renly was…”
“Renly was Renly.” He turns away from the counter, finding Davos closer than expected. He swallows. “And you?” he asks, but the words sound tight in his throat.
“Well, I’m fine.”
Stannis glances at the closed door, then reaches out to him, latching onto the bottom of his T-shirt with thumb and index finger, stroking the cheap cotton between his fingertips.
The sure grin returns to Davos’ face. It doesn’t take a word before he is taking Stannis’ face between his hands and their lips meet. They let the seconds run by before the kiss breaks, and Stannis licks his bottom lip, releasing his T-shirt.
“You should finish dinner,” he whispers.
“Tea’s getting cold,” Davos adds.
Davos blinks at him, and the smile returns, his eyes brightening. He drops a kiss to Stannis’ cheek, then goes back to the carrots. Stannis leaves him with his tea, gives him one last, searching look, then returns to the noise of the living room.
He’s nervous, not managing to read the book he was enjoying before the kissing started. Now all he can think about is kissing. Lips on his, beard against his chin and his cheeks, teeth biting… the biting. Now he can only think about biting, and kissing and Davos’ tongue, parting his lips, it’s obscene, the things Davos can do with his tongue, and the only place it has been is Stannis’ mouth.
He breathes in, because he’ll get lost in those thoughts if he’s not careful. He thinks of Davos’ fingers in his hair, his lips against his neck… He wants, wants more than he has ever wanted anything. More than he has even wanted to be an average person, and God knows, he has wanted to be average for his entire life.
He cannot be average, nor will he be straight, but if he has to be royal and he has to be gay, then he thinks he would like to have Davos as compensation. He would like his kisses. Oh, the kisses…
The day goes by slowly, too slowly, but when the children are tucked away in bed, he has Davos’ hand on his knee, lips against his, pressing to his cheek, his jaw, before they kiss again. Stannis has allowed his hands to explore a little, starting on Davos’ arms, moving up to his shoulders. He has one hand on the back of his neck, the other curled in Davos’ T-shirt.
Davos hums against his mouth, and they part. “Should go to bed,” Davos whispers to him. “I have it on good authority that you turn into a pumpkin after midnight.”
“It’s the carriage that turns into a pumpkin,” Stannis murmurs, kissing his chin. “Cinderella does not become a pumpkin.”
“I knew you were secretly watching the film.”
“I was not. I read my book.”
Davos grins and kisses him again. “Mmm hmm. You were watching the film, and I know it, because I think your foot even tapped along with the music.”
“Do be quiet.”
Davos chuckles. “Is that an order?”
Stannis doesn’t reply, just kisses him again, and that does seem to be an effective way of shutting Davos up, not that he really wants him quiet. Davos displays his pleasure quite openly, humming when they kiss, whispering Stannis’ name in appropriate pauses.
Stannis breaks the kiss, trails the backs of his fingers against Davos’ jaw. “We should go to bed,” he murmurs, not meeting Davos’ eyes.
Stannis reaches for his hand, touches his fingers, takes a breath and doubts himself. Then says: “We should go together.”
He has never seen that surprised expression on Davos’ face before (he thinks nothing phases this man), and it fades as quickly as it starts. And where Stannis’ heart is racing so fast he thinks he might just fall over, Davos is taking his hand and leading him up the stairs, socked feet quiet on the floorboards.
The lights are all switched off upstairs, and Davos leads the way into his cool bedroom. They close the door behind them, and Davos doesn’t once let go of Stannis’ fingers as he leans over to turn the lamp on. They both blink into the light. “Y’sure about this?” Davos asks.
Stannis looks between Davos and the bed, and he raises his eyebrows with the casualness of a shrug. “It’s what I want to do,” he says. He isn’t certain it is the right thing to do. But Davos’ mouth is back on his, and they’re pressing so closely together, sinking into the touch, and he forgets those doubts in an instant.
He has never been touched like this before, not by someone who cannot seem to get enough. Davos’ hands start on his cheeks, fingers graze against his neck and slip to his shoulders. His arms encircle him, and he melts into the kiss. They could be in the middle of a tornado, and Stannis would not notice, he is so focused on Davos, kisses unlocking sensations Stannis did not know it was possible to feel.
Davos fingers rest on Stannis’ shirt buttons, and Stannis nods once and kisses his neck. Davos makes slow work of undressing him, of leading him to the bed and then stripping himself, until there’s nothing for either of them to hide from the other. Stannis lies on his back, frowning and rigid, but when his hands find Davos’ naked skin, somehow it’s easy to sink into him.
And he is shattering like glass under Davos’ fingertips.
Davos’ lips trail down his chest, fingers tracing a pattern on his skin, as he slides down Stannis’ body, humming his approval between kisses. Stannis has to hold his breath, fingers brushing through Davos’ hair. He is afraid to touch and afraid of letting go.
He does not know what comes next. He remembers doing to Selyse as Davos does now, but she was not interested in sex at all, and Stannis was not interested in her. Their fumblings were embarrassing, awkward and always left them too ashamed to meet one another’s eyes.
But Stannis is so hard, harder than he can ever remember being, shuddering as Davos’ lips find his hips and then his thighs. He wants the seductive torture to end, and to lose himself and come undone, but he also never wants this to stop. He feels worshipped, as though he pleases Davos simply by being pleased by him.
Davos stretches back up over him, lips finding Stannis’ mouth. Stannis does not know what he wants, or how he can get it. But the kisses are wonderful on their own against his lips, tender from every kiss which came before. He loses himself in that small contact, greedy for it, stealing groans from Davos’ throat as he sucks on his bottom lip. And… Oh. That .
Davos huffs a laugh against his lips and Stannis realises he said that aloud, practically moaned it aloud, but Davos is rolling his hips again, and their cocks press back together, and it’s electricity and prickles of heat all over him. He wraps his arms around Davos’ neck, and Davos moves again, but the friction is less this time. Stannis imagines he should be doing more than lying there prone, expecting Davos to do all the work, but he cannot find a way to move without spoiling the moment.
Davos kisses him again. “You’re beautiful,” he whispers against Stannis’ lips, and Stannis doubts it very much, but he is determined not to argue, because Davos is pressing down against him again, and the contact is very much desired. “How is this?” Davos asks.
“Fine,” Stannis whispers back, then winces. “More than fine, I mean to say it… It…” He trails off and glances off to the side. Davos cups his cheek and guides him to look back at him.
“I’ve got you,” he whispers, a fragile promise Stannis hopes he’ll keep, because he is already afraid of Davos letting him go. He kisses Davos like it might chase away his demons, might stop him from getting lost. He kisses him as though the world might burn if they were to stop.
Davos’ hand, roughened and warm, wraps around Stannis’ hardness, and the universe dims to only Davos face as he arches up towards him. He knows, faintly, he is shaking, that he’s grasping Davos’ shoulder and staring into those brown eyes. If he blinks, Davos may fade away, and that is intolerable and horrifying to him.
He is overwrought with emotions, wavering between desperation and adoration and desire. Pleasure sweeps over him in waves, and he rides the crests, panting against Davos’ collarbone. He bites back his cry as he comes, before he collapses against the mattress and presses open-mouthed kisses to Davos’ forehead.
Davos looks at him with a grin. “You seemed to like that,” he says and Stannis brushes his fingers against his cheek.
He swallows, letting his hand drift to Davos’ hip. “I’ve never…”
Davos cuts his words off with a kiss. “I know,” he says. “You don’t have…”
But Stannis has never been one to run away, and he finds Davos’ cock, and he breathes in Davos’ resulting gasp. He wants to remember every little detail, the soft sounds escaping through Davos’ lips, the firmness of him against his palm, the heat shared between their bodies. He buries his face in Davos’ neck and breathes him in, and strokes him, trying to replicate what Davos did to him. He kisses his neck and his jaw, and lets out his own hums, because he desires to do this to Davos as much as he desired it when Davos did it to him.
Davos’ orgasm comes suddenly, their mouths meeting in a heady, desperate kiss. Davos grabs his shirt to clean them both up, and Stannis can’t muster the energy to argue the point. He sighs instead as Davos lies down beside him, one arm slung over Stannis’ chest, his lips resting against his shoulder.
Stannis turns to him, feels the corner of his mouth turn up in a smile, closes his eyes and lets Davos pull the covers up over them.
Sorry for the delay with this chapter, life happened.
Warning for character death in this one.
When he wakes up, Stannis is already half-way across the room, pulling on his underwear and sneaking out of the door. Davos holds his breath, pulling the covers up to his chin. He hears the toilet flush, and closes his eyes again, wondering if Stannis will return to him or not.
He wouldn’t blame him either way. The week has been filled with an intensity Davos has never known before, and not simply because Stannis is permanently on edge. He doesn’t know if what has happened between them means a lot to Stannis, but it already means so much to him. Somewhere in the isolation of the Highlands, he has forgotten their relationship to one another, and it hits him only now Stannis is no longer in bed that they’ll have to return to their employer-employee relationship.
Worse, Davos realises, a bit too late, admittedly. Prince and… subject?
He closes his eyes as the door opens again, and Stannis tiptoes back across the room. He slips back under the covers, and Davos bites his lip. He knows he is being false, that he should admit to being awake. But he doesn’t know what to say if he does, and his heart is racing at only Stannis getting back under the covers with him.
He thinks, perhaps, if they never discuss this then the sun will not rise and they can forever hide away in this bed. Stannis lets out a long breath, and he slides closer, his body moulding itself against Davos’ side.
He listens as Stannis’ breaths even out, and it’s not long until he’s falling asleep again.
When he wakes the next time, Stannis’ chest is plastered to his back, an arm slung over his waist. Davos smiles to himself, entwining his fingers in Stannis’.
“You’re awake,” Stannis mutters into the back of his neck.
“Mmm. ‘Fraid so.”
“I’ve been awake for about an hour. I should move. The children will be awake soon.”
“Okay,” Davos agrees, regretful. He waits for Stannis to move, but the man just lies there, his breath hot against his neck. Davos huffs out a laugh and rolls onto his back. He pulls Stannis into his arms, and he goes willingly, resting his cheek on Davos’ chest. They tangle their legs together beneath the sheets, and it’s so sweet to have Stannis like this. He seems untroubled for the first time, content to rest there, fingers brushing over Davos’ chest and arm. Davos cannot take his eyes off him. Stannis’ eyes are closed, he seems to breathe so deeply, but Davos knows he is awake because his fingers continue a hesitant exploration over his skin, like he’s mapping him out with his fingertips, marking him with fingerprints.
The heat has gone out of the room; he can feel a chill on his cheeks, but beneath the covers, he is surrounded by warmth and he savours the whispering skim of skin on skin like a touch-starved man. And when Stannis pulls back, when he allows the air to creep in beside them, he does so with a hesitance that tells Davos he feels much the same. It’s heavy and still, and it’s everything.
They kiss, dry lips on dry lips, and it carries so much weight, even in that lightness of touch. Stannis’ eyes smile, and he slips from the bed, dresses, and leaves the room without a word. Davos, though, thinks he has started to learn him somehow, and Stannis’ reluctance to leave is written in his every footstep.
Davos smiles, lets out a long breath, wraps a hand loosely around his half-hard cock for a half-hearted stroke and falls back asleep.
And when the sun has risen, when they are both dressed and the children are up and running around with breakfast in their bellies, their eyes find one another’s eyes across the room. Davos can’t help but smile at him as steel eyes bore through him, but he’s gaze is soft. What’s happened between them is better than he could ever have imagined, and there’s certainty coursing through his veins, in ways it perhaps should not be there.
There’s no future here. There can’t be.
Yet the longing is there already, so strong in his chest he believes they’ll work through anything. Stannis would not have taken him to bed - for it was Stannis who took him there - unless he meant it with everything he had.
Their fingers brush as they do the washing up, nary a word passing between them. It’s only when Stannis’ phone rings that Davos huffs a laugh, dries his hands, and then presses one kiss between Stannis’ shoulderblades. Stannis looks right at him, right through him, and he doesn’t seem to mind at all that Davos has taken their private bedroom caresses to the kitchen.
Stannis watches him go, quizzical, as he lifts the phone to his ear. “Yes?” he demands, but he can hear the remnants of a smile in his tone. What Davos is doing to him, he fears he will never be able to unravel.
“Your royal highness…” Petyr Baelish’s voice slips out, like an oil slick. “Your brother is dead.”
There’s a beat where Stannis thinks he must have been thinking about Davos again, imagining the brush of his beard against his cheek, lips against his, and he thinks he must have misheard. And Baelish must take his silence for confusion, for he repeats it.
“What?” Stannis says, leaning against the side. “I don’t. What?”
“Your brother was in a riding accident,” Baelish tells him. “My sincere condolences for your loss.”
“The King, your royal highness. The King is dead. We will be-” But Stannis can hear no more, and he ends the call.
He finds himself standing there, phone in his hand, the silence ringing in his ears. When the door opens and Davos frowns at him, Stannis begins to wonder if he has blacked out.
Davos closes the door and crosses the floor to him, leaning against the counter beside him, with enough distance between them to be comfortable. “Stannis,” he whispers, as Stannis stares ahead at the door. “Stannis.”
“My brother’s dead.” He holds his breath on the final word, unsure of how to progress with the sentence. His brother.
“Stannis,” Davos whispers. “I. God. I’m sorry. I don’t…”
“No, I don’t know what to say either.” Stannis presses his lips together and turns his head to Davos. He blinks at him. “I need to go to the castle. I have to… make arrangements.”
“You can take some time at least.”
“I can’t. I need to get to London. I’m next in the order of succession. I’m…” He trails off, and he can’t say the next words. He isn’t next in line for the throne now. He is the king.
“I’m the King, Davos.”
“Wait, it’s Robert…?”
Davos lets out a long breath. “I’m so sorry,” he whispers.
Stannis glances at him. Is he sorry for Stannis’ loss? Or for the life he has suddenly been forced to lead? Stannis bites down hard on his bottom lip. He had not admired the man Robert had become. But he loved him still. “I need to go to the castle to see Renly.”
“Of course. What about Shireen?”
“I will have to tell her later.”
“It’ll be on the TV. Everyone in the world will know before she does.”
Stannis knows he’s right. But she’s eight years old, and Stannis doesn’t know how to tell her. It hasn’t sunk in for him yet. And she has never lost anyone before. Stannis’ parents were dead before she was born, and Selyse’s parents are still there. “Then I will tell her now,” he decides.
“D’you need…” Davos trails off. “Do you want a glass of water?”
“Do you want some space?”
“I don’t know what I want.” He does know. He doesn’t want this. He doesn’t want Robert to be dead. He doesn’t want to be King. He doesn’t want Shireen to be next in line for the throne. He doesn’t want this life for her. He wants to shield her from it all.
Davos’ hand rests on the back of his neck, strong and possessive. Against his better nature, Stannis turns into Davos’ chest. Davos’ arms come around him and he stays there, forehead on Davos’ shoulder as the grief grips him.
He knows he should cry. He doesn’t know when he last did. Perhaps when Shireen was burned. He had sobbed then. But he knows he cannot, not now. He has to be a leader, a ruler. He has to lead the country in its own mourning… or not, as the case may be. He squeezes Davos’ shoulder and breaks away.
“Will you get me Shireen?” he asks.
Davos nods, pats his shoulder, then retreats to the living room.
Stannis manages to sink into the chair by the time Shireen comes in, smiling. Her face falls as she sees him and closes the door. “Father?” she asks.
He longs to reach for her, but he thinks the touch would break him. “Come here,” he murmurs. She does so, with frightened eyes. “Uncle Robert has died,” he murmurs, not able to meet her gaze. “In a hunting accident. I know this is all very sudden and confusing.”
Her bottom lip wobbles and she reaches out to him, finding his hand, small fingers wrapping around his. Stannis swallows. His own daughter, upset and confused, and, to his shame, he freezes. Then he beckons her closer and wraps her up in his arms. He manages to pull her into his lap and she buries her face in his neck, small arms wrapped around him. She cries and he kisses her hair. “It’s alright to be sad,” he whispers to her. “Just cry. It’s okay to be sad.”
He squeezes his eyes shut, rocking her. He will let himself release his emotions later, when he is shut behind a locked door. He needs to leave, he knows that. All he wants is to hold her, try to promise her the world is not so cruel.
“I have to go to the castle,” he whispers, and she squeezes him tighter. “Davos will look after you, is that okay?”
“Yes,” she whispers between shaky breaths.
“I will be as fast as I can,” he promises. He stands, still holding her in his arms. He carries her out to the living room. Somehow Davos has ushered his sons outside and Stannis can hear them playing football outside.
“Come here, princess,” Davos murmurs, taking Shireen from Stannis’ arms and lowering her into the highback Queen Anne chair. She looks tiny, her hands coming up to wipe her eyes. Stannis leans down and kisses the top of her head.
He meets Davos’ eyes. “I’ll be as fast as I can,” he says.
Davos’ fingers brush against the back of his hand. “I’ll be right here.”
Stannis’ next footsteps feel heavy as he makes his way to the door, tying up his shoes and putting on his coat. The boys have run to their makeshift goal, and they do not watch him slide into the car. They do watch him pull off the driveway, but by then Stannis has gritted his teeth, and he has only his destination in mind.
He finds Renly in the doorway, cigarette in hand, it burning down towards his fingers. They meet each other’s gaze and Renly drops it onto the floor. “There was nothing we could have done,” Renly says as he stamps the light out, and Stannis doesn’t know who his brother is trying to convince.
For a few long minutes, Stannis stands there, staring up at the castle, feeling oh so small. There’s nothing to say, it seems. Reality has hit them both.
Renly pats him on the shoulder in some gesture of solidarity and they go inside.
Petyr Baelish is at the dining room table, laptop open, typing frantically. He glances at them both, then stands, bowing in Stannis’ direction. The gesture leaves Stannis cold.
“Your majesty,” Baelish says. “I have almost finished the statement. We need to get this out in the next five minutes.”
“His body isn’t cold,” Stannis mutters. “We need longer than five minutes to work out what happens next.”
Baelish is alert and apparently unaffected by the whole thing. “We know what happens next, sir. You are the King. We must leave for Buckingham Palace immediately, so you can lead the country in its grief.”
Renly snorts. “The country won’t grieve for him.”
Stannis frowns at him, but says nothing. He walks around so he can read the statement. It is short, concise, and asks for privacy. Stannis knows they will get none, not when their aeroplane touches down. “We will leave for Buckingham Palace immediately.”
Baelish has already started making phone calls. The housekeeper brings them a tray of teas. Her eyes are red, her make-up smudged. She curtsies to Stannis. “Your majesty,” she whispers.
“No more of that,” Stannis mutters. “I will need seats on the ‘plane for Davos and his sons.”
“It cannot be done,” Baelish tells him. “There is a protocol. It can only be the royal family and your closest advisers.”
“My daughter and my things are…”
Baelish takes out his phone. “I’ll see them collected and taken to the airport.”
“I want my daughter brought here.”
“There is no time. We must leave immediately.”
“She is eight years old, and scared, I won’t let just anyone…”
But Baelish is already leaving the room, making arrangements for Shireen and Stannis’ belongings. So this is the kind of power a king wields? Stannis wonders. He suspects Baelish is trying to worm his way into his staff. Stannis knows he will be searching for Baelish’s replacement as soon as the funeral is…
He squeezes his eyes shut and takes a long breath. When he opens them again, Renly is staring at him, and for the first time in many years, he looks all of a child again. Stannis is immediately struck by the silent panic in his brother’s dark eyes. That he is lost and unsure, because he has always lived in Robert’s shadow. That he knows how to be a mere prince to Robert’s kingliness, but he does not know how to serve Stannis. Their standings have shifted in a matter of moments, and Renly may lack respect at times, but not at this moment. Stannis is king now, and Renly seems to understand what that means even before Stannis does.
There is no time to stop and consider it.
Stannis finds himself ushered to a car, and he sits alone as he is driven to the airport. He does not look out of the window, for there he sees freedom and forests and rivers which go on for miles. He sits alone now, as he must always sit from this day on.
Shireen is crying when he finally reaches her on the aeroplane. He goes to sit down beside her, but Baelish steals his attention with press releases and reminders of protocol, and by the time they are finished, Shireen is asleep beneath a coat Stannis recognises as Davos’.
Alone, he bows his head and listens to the rumble of the engines.
He hates the quiet. It doesn’t matter where he goes, hushed voices exchange condolences and sorrows, and vacuum cleaners provide the only hum along the near-empty corridors. Stannis’ staff are split between Kensington and Buckingham Palace, trying to find order in near-chaos. No one was prepared for this. It came too soon and too suddenly, and protocol is being lost in the confusion.
Stannis has been touring the country, a solitary figure, uniting the country in grief. There weren’t large crowds, not on the first days. Groups of people a row or two deep lined the streets behind hastily-erected metal barriers. Stannis walked along them, nodding his head, accepting their words. The crowds had grown larger in the past few days, as though the public has begun to see something in Stannis they had not seen in Robert. Not love, or affection, Davos thinks, as he leafs through the pages of the newspapers. But something strong and brittle all the same. They see his stoicism… and too, the haunted look in his eyes.
When Stannis arrives back at Kensington, Davos is lingering by Cressen’s table. Stannis barely notices either of them, his shoulders slumped as he heads for the stairs to go up to bed. Minutes later, a tray filled with plates of untouched food is returned to the kitchen.
Melisandre takes Davos to one side the next day. She has pinned her red hair back, and it seems so much brighter contrasted with the darkness of her dress. “You have one job at present, and do you know what it is?” she demands of him, as she backs him into a corner.
“He trusts you. You have to be there for him. Do not let Baelish close, do you understand me? Baelish wants power, and Stannis is weak enough to give it to him now.”
“What can Baelish really achieve?”
“Favour? Money? Who knows. But he is no good for Stannis and he is no good for the rest of the royal family. Watch him.” She squeezes Davos’ shoulder and retreats.
It’s all very well to be told to be there for Stannis, Davos thinks, as he returns to his office. But there is very little he can do when Stannis is locked in endless meetings trying to arrange a state funeral.
Davos returns to old family albums, and continues to scan the pictures. He is building a digital archive of old royal family photographs, for it is all he can find for himself to do. He aches with the want to be by Stannis’ side but he knows there will not be even a second to cling to, not for a long time.
It’s early in the morning, two days before the funeral, when Shireen finds him in his office. Her cheeks are tear-stained, and she climbs onto his lap before he can even ask where she’s been and if she is supposed to be somewhere else. He holds her like she’s one of his own and he promises her things will return to normal soon.
“But… how can it?” she whispers, burying her face in his shoulder. “Daddy’s a king now.”
Not for the first time, Davos is deeply sorry this poor girl is so perceptive. He cradles her until she admits she is supposed to be eating breakfast, and she shoots him a watery smile before running back to where she came from.
Davos does not go to the funeral. He doesn’t even watch it on the TV. He sits at home with his boys and plays board games and chooses not to watch the news afterwards. When he sees the newspapers the next morning, it pains him to see Stannis’ blank expression has returned. Davos knows he is hiding a volcano of emotions behind his eyes, that he’s keeping a prison filled with pain inside himself. He runs a finger over the printed page, down Stannis’ cheek, smudging the print.
The red boxes come first. Red boxes, filled with legislation requiring his signature and minutes from Cabinet discussions. He reads it all in his study until the early hours when the letters swim and his head is pounding. He does it over and over for a week, and still the red boxes come every day, filled with more for him to read. He has months, maybe years, of Robert’s work to catch up on. Stannis had always been behind him, picking up the pieces of his fraying kingship, but there has clearly been plenty he did not see. All of it is littered around him now, paperwork and dignitaries, and meetings with the Prime Minister and all those well-wishers who do not mean a single word when they utter their condolences.
Even Lady Cersei, who was given too prominent a position at the funeral for Stannis’ liking (Baelish was responsible for the funeral arrangements, damn the man), cannot manage a bit of dignity and is threatening a ‘tell all’ in the next few weeks.
There’s nothing she can tell that the public does not know, Stannis thinks, as the headache sinks in even deeper and Mr Cressen gives him painkillers and tops up his water. Yet she can mix some elaborate lies among the truths, and those could only harm the family. And it is Stannis’ family to protect now, he alone has responsibility for it.
There is the question of a Coronation, probably not for another 12 months. ‘Once the country is finished grieving’, Mel tells him, though Stannis knows no one is grieving for his brother except those few doomed to love him despite his many flaws.
They sit in the study, Stannis on the settee, Renly’s dog at his feet. (Renly is gallivanting in Australia, chased by paparazzi, by all appearances, a brother spiralling out of control after the loss of Robert. It kills Stannis that he hasn’t the time or energy to pull him back and force him into rehab and he can barely give it any thought).
Baelish is talking him through the procedure for moving to Buckingham Palace until Stannis lifts his hand. “I intend to stay here,” he says, frowning down at the inventory Baelish has drawn up. “This is my home.”
“Buckingham Palace is where the monarch has lived for hundreds of years. I’m afraid, your majesty, tradition dictates-”
“I am the monarch. I can ignore tradition if I so choose.”
Baelish attempts a pitying smile, but it is distilled condescension instead. “I am afraid, if I can be so bold, that your brother spent too many years foregoing tradition himself. That tactic has not endeared the family to the masses. I believe a return to your parents’ style of rule - their stability - is what will earn you favour at a time the public is mostly on your side.” Stannis narrows his eyes. “Sir,” Baelish adds, without due respect.
Stannis looks to Mel, but she is fiddling with her pen, not meeting his eyes. She agrees, Stannis knows without asking, and he knows she despises siding with Baelish.
“Fine. We will move to Buckingham palace within the next four months. I will keep my staff. Keep those of Robert’s staff who know the building, and find the others we do not need suitable positions in Renly’s household.”
“My brother needs to play a greater role. He should take a larger apartment at Kensington Palace and grow his staff and take more responsibility. He can take Robert’s staff. Those we cannot find positions for should be helped into suitable jobs, perhaps in some of the other palaces. I will not make anyone redundant.”
“As you wish. But the crown’s outgoings are… well…”
“What?” Stannis snaps.
“King Robert had a tendency to do as he wished. And we cannot afford to keep all the staff.”
Stannis grits his teeth. “How much money is left?”
“We’re going to make it work. I am not making anyone redundant.”
“You do not have a choice.”
“He has a choice,” Davos says from the corner, the first words he has said in more than an hour. Baelish turns, clearly having forgotten he was even there. “I believe King Stannis has made himself clear about what he wants. Maybe we can find other ways to save money?”
“Quite right,” Mel mutters.
“And how do you suggest we do that, Mr…?”
“Seaworth,” Davos is forced to tell him for at least the hundredth time. Baelish knows Davos’ name, they all know that. But Baelish has taken a dislike to him, that’s clear. He probably knows Davos’ criminal record, and his lack of education, and is trying to chip away at him. He does not know Davos, Stannis thinks. The man is made of sterner stuff.
“How do we save money, Mr Seaworth? Take a look at these spreadsheets.” Baelish passes over the book.
“I cannot read it,” Davos says. “The font’s too small.”
“Then fetch your glasses.”
“That won’t make a difference.” Davos holds the book out. “I’m not claiming to be an accountant, but I’m sure someone smarter than me can figure it out.” A look passes between Davos and Baelish, a brief moment of mutual dislike where their eyes meet and it seems Davos can say a lot with the smallest flicker of his eyes. Stannis keeps silent, though he wants to leap to his defence. There’s something more at work here, he thinks, some internal war among the staff and it is better for all concerned if he keeps out of it. Maybe Baelish knows, Stannis thinks, and then dismisses it. Why would Baelish have any reason to suspect he and Davos of anything other than friendship?
He tightens his jaw and returns to his notebook, where he is making his own lists for the next few months. He will have precious little time with Shireen in the future, he knows that, and he has to lay the groundwork now for what his kingship will be. A knot tightens in his chest. With every word he writes, he feel he is building a path on which he does not wish to tread. This was never the plan.
Baelish hums and clicks his tongue. “Perhaps you can come up with an answer some time soon? Preferably before the debt spirals even more.”
“We won’t make any unnecessary changes to Buckingham Palace,” Stannis says, browsing his own copy of the crown’s expenditure. “Scrap all of these refurbishments, with the exception of Shireen’s bedroom.”
“There is a child’s bedroom already at the palace, sir. It may require dusting but…”
Stannis lifts an eyebrow as Davos cuts in. “The Princess is the priority. She needs to be settled in, and giving her a bedroom like the one here is the way to do it.”
“Her needs come before anyone else’s,” Stannis agrees. “That’s my final word on the matter.”
His pen hovers over the page. And then he writes, in small, precise lettering: ‘My bedroom, any time this evening after 9pm’. He considers adding a ‘please’ but deep down he knows Davos will come. And he cannot beg for it. He slowly tears the page out of the book, and Baelish and Mel are disagreeing about something so it hardly makes a sound over their tense exchange.
He folds the page, and holds it in his palm while the discussion rolls over him. Baelish stands. “I will call the decorators now, sir.”
“For the princess’ room?” Davos asks.
Baelish nods. “Of course the princess takes priority,” he says, as though it was his idea all along. He bows to Stannis and leaves, followed by Mel.
“Davos,” Stannis murmurs to him as Davos turns to go too. He walks towards him and holds his eyes as he slips the note into his jacket pocket. Davos’ lips twitch a smile before he heads out.
He regrets it for a moment, as the door closes and he is left alone with his swirling thoughts. He has been longing for Davos for weeks, those fleeting glimpses not enough to sate a need to bury his head in his neck and curl up in his arms. He knows he may be asking something from him that Davos cannot agree to, but he has to ask. He is so completely alone otherwise.
He keeps looking at the note throughout the day, the seconds ticking by like hours. He usually leaves by 7, so he locks himself in his office and hopes no-one will question why the light is still on. He tries to give himself things to do; he’s been meaning to catch up with Sal for ages, but Sal’s phone just rings and rings.
It’s torture, knowing Stannis is probably just a few floors above him, probably filled with as much anticipation as Davos is. Or perhaps not, if Davos is about to be fired. You’re not getting fired in Stannis’ bedroom , he tells himself. That only reminds him that he’s going to be in Stannis’ bedroom, and he feels the expectation of that prospect as his cock twitches in his trousers.
Still more than an hour to go though… too much time to think about it. He tries not to think, and tries to go through his diary, but of course, it’s all Stannis, Stannis and more Stannis, and he can’t avoid the thought of him when the man is his work.
When it finally hits five to, and he’s so sick of fidgeting, he swipes his card and heads up the stairs. He listens for footsteps behind him, but there’s no-one about, not at this hour. Stannis may be king, but he still gets some privacy, even if it is only between the hours of nine and six.
He raps his knuckles against the door, hears Stannis’ thin ‘come in’ through the wood. He runs a hand through his hair and slips inside, shutting it behind him without it making a sound before adjusting to his new surroundings.
There’s a bed, a large one, centre of the room, and the fact it’s Stannis’ bedroom is unavoidable now. There are cupboards and drawers and paintings on the wall, but he hardly notices because Stannis is wearing grey cotton pyjama trousers, a worn white T-shirt hanging off his broad shoulders, no longer bright through over-washing, and his feet are bare on the plush red carpet.
He’s stood by his desk, a book in one hand, hair damp from a bath or shower.
“I,” Stannis starts. “You came.”
“Course I did,” Davos says with a smile, shrugging. “Never going to turn down a chance to see you so…” Stannis frowns and looks down at himself. “So like yourself, finally,” Davos finishes.
“What else could I have been?”
“King-you. World on your shoulders-you. Now you’re all… soft looking.”
“I’m never soft.”
“Yeah, no, you are.” Davos takes a step towards him. “You just keep it hidden. With good reason, I guess.” Stannis moves towards him until they’re in touching distance and lowers his forehead onto Davos’ shoulder, a weary kind of defeat. Davos thought it would be harder than this, that they’d wrestle with space until he could coax Stannis towards him, startled eyes and shaking hands and all. But no, Stannis is there already, and Davos wraps his maimed hand round the back of his head and holds his hip with the other. “There now,” Davos says, and leaves the rest unsaid. He kisses Stannis’ temple, and matches the rhythms of his breathing until they’re chest to chest and toe to toe, and Stannis arms are twining round his middle.
It takes a solid few minutes until Stannis’ body is less rigid and he sinks into the embrace. And then it’s easy, when Stannis turns his head, for Davos to kiss his mouth and pry his lips apart with tongue and teeth. Stannis trembles then, but there’s no mistaking his want, not when it presses against Davos’ thigh.
Davos mouths down his neck, rubbing his beard against the tender skin, as they shuffle to the bed. Stannis barely makes a sound, but his breath catches and Davos toes off his shoes. “This what you wanted?” Davos asks, as Stannis sinks onto the edge of the bed.
Stannis nods, eyes not meeting his, but Davos touches his chin and encourages him to look up. “Oh, I missed you,” Davos whispers, holding his shoulders and getting his mouth on his again, feeling quiet desperation against his lips, long fingers gripping his hips. Stannis kisses like it’s all about to end, like he’ll never taste it again, and it’s intoxicating to feel the need radiating from him.
Davos drops to his knees, and kneels between Stannis’ legs, hands running against soft cotton. “Missed this,” he says again, mouthing Stannis’ cock through the fabric. Stannis lets out a keening sound then inhales hard, as though he’s trying to gasp it back in. “Room’s pretty soundproof right?”
“I… I suppose, yes,” Stannis murmurs. “There’s no-one else near here.”
Davos strokes his calves and kisses his knees, his thighs. They hold one another’s eyes, until Stannis is matching Davos’ content smile with one of his own. “Stop that,” Stannis mutters, looking away.
“Stop what?” Davos grins, rising to his feet.
“Looking at me like…”
“Like you like what you see.”
Davos feels it uncoil in his chest again, his desire to shield him and comfort him and make him believe he’s worthy of more than a self-imposed exile. “But I do,” Davos says, as he kisses him and lets Stannis drag him onto the bed.
After that, it’s a blur of clothes being tugged off, heady kisses against a mouth that cannot get enough. Stannis’ teeth are on his shoulder, he’s sucking a mark to Davos’ collarbone, and when Davos traces his lips with his finger, Stannis’ tongue presses to his fingertip, though he seems hardly aware of his actions, not with Davos’ hand round his cock, stroking him as his back arches.
And when Davos takes him into his mouth, when he’s holding Stannis hips still and working him with tongue and throat, it’s hardly a minute until Stannis’ release comes. Davos swallows what he can, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand and kisses his way back up Stannis’ body as the man pants and murmurs apologies.
“Shh,” Davos soothes, nuzzling his neck. “That was perfect, everything…”
Davos had almost forgotten about Stannis’ quiet determination, so when Stannis cuts him off with a hand round his own leaking prick, it’s such a relief to be touched that Davos moans deep against his neck. Stannis’ still seems unsteady, his eyes still glazed from his orgasm, and what he lacks in precision he makes up for with a steady rhythm, unrelenting as he eases Davos into more kisses.
“What feels good for you?” Stannis asks after a few minutes, when it’s clear Davos isn’t going to come this way.
“It’s all good, this is good,” Davos promises.
“The angle is awkward. My wrist is cramping. Roll over.”
Davos laughs and rolls onto his back, and gets two of Stannis’ hands on him, one on his cock, the other against his balls, and his chuckles become heated groans instead. His own hand joins Stannis’ and find a pace together, and Davos comes with his gaze fixed on those ice blue eyes.
After Stannis has retrieved a damp flannel, after they wipe themselves clean, he comes to rest beside him. Davos guides him into his arms, and kisses his head and keeps his mouth closed. He’s not going to make this difficult by asking questions and trying to tease what this means to Stannis out of him.
He’s content, instead, to let Stannis switch off the light, to pull the covers over them both, and to kiss his mouth with something soft and lingering. It’s still early, so they lie together and exchange touches and kisses like men who have been starved of them.
And Davos supposes that is exactly what they are.
They slide into a pattern after that. Davos visits his bedroom on a Thursday, the only evening Stannis feels as if he has finally cleared his paperwork away. (Being a king involves so much more paperwork than Davos ever imagined). There are plans for a Commonwealth tour being drawn up, and progress is being made to move the family to Buckingham Palace.
On those nights, Stannis is already in his pyjamas, softened round the edges by the comfort those clothes provide. But he still kisses with a quiet ferocity, clinging to Davos as they rock naked together. Stannis lasts much longer than their earlier encounters and starts to seem more comfortable with how they are together.
His eyes are still filled with uncertainty, watchful, when Davos goes to the en-suite bathroom or walks around the bed to take his face in his hands and kiss him. He’s not hesitant, hell, Stannis can never really be called that. But he’s still unsettled, and Davos knows it’s because he’s never been touched this way.
So Davos tries to give him everything in those stolen hours. He kisses him with passion and longing. He strokes him quickly, and draws it out. They explore each other and enjoy restful sleeps. He spends the next six days counting down, following Stannis with his eyes as he moves from engagement to engagement, weariness deepening until finally Thursday comes again and they can find release and peace with one another.
They don’t talk a lot. They see each other every weekday, some more than others, sometimes it’s only a glance across a crowded room. Some weekends, Stannis has to go to some dinner or occasion, and Davos is there to document it all. Just once, after a state dinner with the Japanese president, they find themselves alone in a room together, and all they can do is reach out and squeeze each other’s hands for the briefest of moments.
It’s confusing for the first two months, because everything Stannis says to him in private is said through moans and whispers and related to the bedroom. They don’t talk about what this is or what it means. And that’s fine, really, because Davos isn’t sure what he can say. He knows talking has never been his strong point, and he doubts the words will come out easy now.
On Tuesday evening though, Davos is working past six o’clock, trying to send some last-minute pictures from the day’s publicity events to the papers before they go to press, when his office door opens and Stannis walks in.
“Hey,” Davos says, rising to his feet. “Can I help you, sir?”
Stannis sinks into the chair beside him. “No. Sit down, Davos.”
Davos does as he says and returns to his computer. “I’ve got to finish this off in the next five minutes. Can you wait a couple of minutes?”
Davos is aware of Stannis watching him as he flicks through the last pictures and sends them. “Renly looks exhausted, don’t you think?” Stannis asks after a minute. “In that picture there, he looks…”
“Yeah,” Davos agrees. “I thought that myself when I saw him earlier.”
“He said it was jet lag but I… He doesn’t look well.”
Davos closes the laptop and gets up to turn his kettle on. “Are you going to speak to him?”
“Do you expect him to listen to me?”
Davos shrugs. “He’s your brother. I haven’t really spent a lot of time with him, I don’t know what he will or won’t do.”
“He hasn’t listened to me properly since he was 13.”
“We had an argument. It was stupid to argue with a 13 year old. But he… he has a habit of winding me up, and he managed it then too.”
Davos passes him a coffee and takes his seat. “What did you argue about?”
“Responsibilities.” Stannis wraps both hands around the mug. “I told him what was expected of him, I treated him like he was a man, not the child he was. He started rebelling soon after that, in hindsight. He skipped his classes, started smoking. The drinking started at 16, no doubt encouraged by Robert. And here we are, three years down the road from that and…” Stannis rubs his forehead. “I apologise, this isn’t what I came down here to talk to you about.”
“Why did you come down?”
“I was going to invite you dinner.”
Davos quirks a smile. “Yeah?”
“Unfortunately I… I wasn’t sure what you might like to eat.”
“You must have a favourite?”
“Fish and chips. Fish with crispy batter, but the cod still flaking and melting in your mouth. And big, chunky chips with salt and vinegar and the odd crispy chip too.”
“I’ve never had it. I’m not sure I’d be able to cook it either.”
“Why don’t I go and get some? I bet there’s a chippy near here somewhere. I’ll bring a couple of bags, and meet you somewhere?”
Stannis opens his mouth, almost as if he’s about to protest. But his eyes soften and he drinks his coffee. “Bring them up to the kitchen upstairs. And get some chips for Shireen too, she’d like that.”
“What d’you fancy? Cod? Sausage?”
“I… cod. And the chips. I’ll have them exactly as you do.”
Davos grins and shrugs his coat on. “Do you have bread and butter upstairs?”
“I should think so.”
“Butter up some bread, we can have a chip butty too.”
Davos watches Stannis’ curious smile as he heads to the door. “Right then,” he murmurs, hands still wrapped around the mug. He pauses, then crosses back over to Davos to press a delicate kiss to his cheek. “I’ll see you upstairs.”
He hurries out before Davos can say another word. Laughing to himself, he heads outside and walks around until he finds a place selling fish and chips. He feels strange carrying the paper bags through the palace, and though he passes a cleaner or two on the lower floors, the private floors have been vacated already.
He finds Stannis and Shireen in the kitchen, both buttering bread. Shireen runs to him and gives him a hug, then directs both Davos and her father to the table so she can carry the bread over.
“We don’t need plates,” Davos says as he tears open the paper bags to reveal the food. “Just a fork, no knives. It’s better from the paper, I promise.”
Shireen and Stannis exchange a look, but give in and both tuck into their food. “This is good,” Shireen says, munching happily on her chips.
Stannis nods in Davos’ direction. “I don’t disagree,” he says. “How are your sons?”
Davos recounts their latest news, how they’re getting on at school, and their latest sporting achievements. “Dale got some sort of running record,” he says. “The 400m, I think. The fastest in the school’s history. You told me you ran,” he says to Stannis between mouthfuls. “Did you run at school?”
“Yes, but I never beat any records. I used to run cross country, but rarely in competitions. I was at a boarding school, and, of course, I had security guards who tailed me wherever I went. I used to give them the slip and run over the school field and sneak through a hole in the fence. And then I’d run for miles through the countryside.”
Davos grins at him. “You rebel.”
Stannis lets out a startled laugh. “I don’t believe anyone has ever called me that before.”
“Did you leave school at 18?”
“Yes. I considered studying somewhere but… my father preferred I joined the Navy. And I enjoyed it. I was… one of the men. I was treated just the same as the others. It was orderly.”
Davos can imagine that, somehow, Stannis keeping a well-made bed and scrubbing his shoes clean and following orders.
Shireen yawns. “May I go to my room?”
Stannis tucks her hair behind her ear. “Of course.” She smiles at them both and hops off her chair. “She’s gone to read, I suspect,” Stannis says when she closes the door. “She’s very much like me in that respect.”
“I’ve never known what it’s like,” Davos admits. “When I saw people reading for hours, I never understood it. I suppose because I can’t really do it.”
“You could. With the right aids.”
“Yeah. I mean, I can read, but it takes so long so…”
“What would you read? If you found it easier?”
Davos frowns. “I don’t know. I don’t know what the options are. Thrillers, I guess? I like those kinds of films. Those whodunit mysteries.”
“I’m afraid I… I don’t know a lot about you. It occurred to me the other day that you know everything about me, but I never asked you.”
Davos pulls a face. “I don’t really like talking about me. I guess it’s one of the reasons me and Marya didn’t work out. She asked and I… found it hard to answer.”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.”
“No, no, it… You can ask. I want to tell you.”
“You have painful memories.”
Davos lets in a long breath. “Yeah. Family stuff. We moved around a lot, me and my mum.”
“That explains your accent.”
“It’s… a strange mixture of accents.”
Davos laughs. “Aye, I’ve been told that before. Northern, mostly. I spent some time in Wales and the West Country. All over.”
“Did you choose London or did it choose you?”
“Chose me. Well. Marya chose me. I met her at a club in the city and never ended up leaving.”
“What happened between you?”
“We drifted apart. She was so successful, launched her own website business and it really took off. She worked a lot. And I found it hard that I wasn’t a success. I tried to take photos for galleries and entered competitions… but I never managed it. There was always something missing from my pictures, I guess. I don’t know what. So I gave it up, joined the pap pack. She’s happy now, with her fella. He’s a nice enough man, we get on okay.”
“Are you satisfied, working for me?”
Davos blinks, surprised at the question. He takes a long swig of water and mulls it over. “Yeah. No. I don’t know. I like it, day to day, I like seeing you. I know if I go somewhere else…”
Stannis looks down at the table, and it’s as if they both know, though they’ve never expressed it, that this thing of theirs requires them to be discreet, and that’s not possible if Davos has no reason to be in the palace. They can pretend to be friends, but questions will be asked, especially if Davos leaves the job.
“For what it’s worth, I am sorry,” Stannis mutters. “That it’s like this. That this is all it can be.”
Davos swallows and bunches up the fish and chip paper. “I’ll take what I can get. Before you, I didn’t have anything else except being part of the pack.”
“You had your sons.”
“I couldn’t give ‘em a proper life. When they came to mine, it was cold because I was saving the electricity money. I see them more now, with the stable hours and I know what I make every month.”
“Were you lonely, Davos?” Davos can’t meet his eyes when he nods, just once, and watches as Stannis’ hand covers his own. They sit that way for a while, until Stannis says he needs to put Shireen to bed. They clear the glasses and paper away and kiss by the door, Stannis cupping Davos’ face in his hands.
“Are we still doing Thursday night?” Davos asks.
“I hope so.”
“I’ll be there at nine.” He kisses Stannis once more, and slips out.
It sticks with him as he travels on the tube, that he will never be able to have more of Stannis than he already does. He looks at the man opposite. He’s reading the paper, and Stannis’ face is front and centre of the first page. Stannis is public property for as long as he is king. And the thing Davos admires about him the most - his steadfastness, his determination - is the reason they will never be able to be together. For Stannis will never stop being king, not unless he is pushed.
He realises, for the first time, that this cannot last. He knows they’re going to have their hearts broken.
But as he crawls into bed with Stannis on Thursday night, when he nuzzles the man’s neck and feels the heat in Stannis’ kiss, he cannot bear to start the conversation. He’s a coward, maybe. But he isn’t ready to let this go yet.
Shireen’s birthday and Christmas come in quick succession. Neither occasion is as private as Stannis prefers, not when they have to send pictures of Shireen opening her main gift (a camera, since she’s taken to following Davos around and asking him questions about photography), and the traditional royal march to church on Christmas Day. The King’s Speech is aired on Christmas Day too, but it’s filmed days before. He is informed viewing figures are lower than Robert’s. But since Stannis knows he is understated compared to his brother, he is not at all surprised.
And then he has to go away for a Commonwealth tour. In the past, the monarch would be married and no-one would be forced to go alone. But since he’s not, and since he won’t subject Shireen to all that hysteria, he goes by himself.
He spends two months in Mel and Baelish’s pockets, or so it feels, pulled from parliaments to dinners, from opera houses to processions in the streets.
He misses Shireen something dreadful, and the time difference makes it hard to speak to her. He speaks to Davos two or three times a week, when one or both of them should probably be asleep. Davos keeps Stannis in touch with what’s happening at home. Baelish seems to have his fingers in every pie and he’s controlling what he can even from the other side of the world. Thank goodness for Davos, and Selyse, who steps up too, and they seem to be preventing him from doing anything disastrous.
When he steps back on English soil, it’s spring, and the first flowers are blooming around Buckingham Palace. Kensington Palace is no longer his home. Instead it’s the sprawling palace in the heart of London, surrounded by crowds of tourists every day who remind him his duty is to the country’s tourism industry, not to serve as kings of old once did.
He lets himself into the private apartments, and Shireen runs into his arms, beaming from ear to ear. He holds her and gives her presents, one small gift from every country he has visited. “I have a present for you too,” she says, tugging at his arm.
He lets her lead him to what he supposes is his new study. The sight of it fills him with relief. He runs his fingers over his familiar desk, and looks to the Landseer painting on the wall.
“I thought this all had to stay at Kensington Palace,” he murmurs, more to himself than anything.
“Davos made sure it came,” Shireen says, pointing to the wall furthest away from the door. “Here, look. We made this.”
Stannis walks towards the large framed picture, realising as he gets up close that it isn’t one image, but a collage of many. Some are black and white photographs from his childhood, somehow ones where he looks at least content. There are some of Davos’ pictures in there too, ones of Stannis with Shireen, some of sweeping landscapes in the Highlands. “I took the picture of Cookie,” Shireen says, pointing up to the photo of Renly’s dog.
“You made this with Davos?” he asks, still staring at it.
“Yes. We were doing photography lessons every day but we wanted to do something special so we made this. Do you like it?”
“Yes. I. Yes.” He swallows and rests his hand on her shoulder. “Very much. Thank you.”
He has dinner with Shireen and Selyse, but he knows he’s distracted. His daughter wants to know about his trip, but he wants to see Davos with his own eyes, to know if the spark between them is still there. When they spoke on the phone, they spoke only about their work commitments, and two months is a long time and Stannis would not blame him if he has found someone else.
He has to wait two nights. As is their way, Davos comes to his room on a Thursday. “It’s a bit different,” he remarks as he looks around the bedroom.
Stannis sighs. “Too big, I should think. You could lose a baby elephant in here.”
Davos laughs. “How was your trip?”
“I believe ‘acceptably understated’ is what the press are saying. Some of the press, anyway. How was everything here?”
Davos shrugs. “Truthfully? We missed you.”
Stannis regards him for a moment, then reaches out to him. They link their fingers together and Stannis drops his forehead to Davos’ shoulder. “Thank you for my collage.”
Davos’ hand comes to rest on the back on Stannis’ neck. “You’re welcome.”
“And for my desk.” Stannis looks back at him. “Petyr Baelish said it was part of Kensington Palace’s official inventory. How did you manage to get it here?”
“We er…” Davos quirks a smile. “I know someone with a van.”
“You know someone with a van?”
“A friend of mine. Sal. I borrowed the van. Cressen and I carried the desk and painting out together. Selyse kept watch.”
“Selyse kept watch? This is sounding more and more like a comedy sketch.”
Davos grins. “We did it at midnight. We knew we couldn’t get it out with some of Baelish’s men watching, so we stayed up in your old kitchen ‘til they went to bed then we swapped the desk with one from Buckingham Palace and changed the painting for a print-out.”
“Kensington Palace is currently hanging a printed Landseer picture?”
“And who is Sal?”
“You don’t really talk about him much.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Davos murmurs, shoulders rising, defensive. “Nothing to tell.”
Stannis eyes him for a moment, questions forming before he lets them go. “And Selyse? She kept watch?”
“She was the brains behind the whole thing. She pulled me aside and said you wouldn’t be happy without your desk, and I agreed, and so she told me what we needed and we put a plan together.”
“I don’t know whether to be proud or outraged. The painting, the desk… they’re a part of Kensington Palace’s history, there’s a reason they have to stay there.”
Davos kisses his cheek. “Screw it, Stannis. Sometimes things move on, yeah? I wish I’d seen your face when you saw it. I bet you looked all… pleased. Secretly pleased.”
“I am pleased. And it’s no secret. Selyse really asked you for help?”
“Yeah. Why are you so surprised?”
Stannis smiles slightly, taking Davos’ hand in his and running his thumb against his fingers. “It sounds like something she used to do, that’s all. Something from before we were married.”
Davos squeezes his hand and leads him to the bed. Stannis finds himself sinking into his embrace, rubbing his cheek against Davos’ shoulder. “What was she like then?” Davos asks, a hand rubbing the back of Stannis’ neck.
“We were children when we met. We were the only two the same age. Robert had a few older friends, but Selyse was my age. But she was… freer. When we were teenagers, we used to go jogging around the grounds together. She used to play practical jokes on Robert, no-one would believe it was her.”
“It was. She knew I was gay, but she agreed to marry me anyway.” Stannis frowns, taking a moment to appreciate the enormity of what she sacrificed for him. “She didn’t want to marry her other choices, and she was the only one who knew the truth about me. She knew I wouldn’t ask anything from her. After Shireen’s accident… things changed when Shireen got hurt.”
“What happened to her?”
“We were at a party and her dress caught alight. She was burned from her thigh up her side and her whole left arm. We were at one of Robert’s parties, and Selyse blamed Robert, and I think she blamed me too. It was no-one’s fault, but when something like that happens… you have to blame something.”
He turns his head and captures Davos mouth with his before either of them can say anything more, before Stannis can be stripped down any further by his memories. His fingers brush over Davos’ beard, and down his neck, and Davos makes a pleased sound in his throat. Stannis makes quick work of unbuttoning his shirt so he can get his hands on his skin and caress along his collarbone and down the centre of his chest.
His brain hums with blissful silence as Davos eases him down onto the bed and kisses him as though their lives depend on it.
Shireen seems taller and shyer all at once, and he regrets the time away from her when she was facing so many changes. He takes her out on her first official engagement, the second year of his children’s art competition. The location has moved from Kensington Palace to Buckingham Palace, but the children still come and so do the journalists and the cameras.
He gives a few interviews on the proviso they stick only to the event, and the journalists, thankfully, obey. He lies in bed one evening reading through Government papers as Davos talks to Mel on the phone. They’re both still dressed, though Stannis’ tie lies at the end of the bed, and Davos’ shirt is unbuttoned. Their socked feet touch as they work.
From beside him, Davos laughs. “No, I don’t need all ten fingers to sort out some wiring. I can manage. Aye, I’ll suggest it. No promises he’ll listen to me though.” Davos nudges Stannis’ shoulder with his, an amused smirk on his face suggesting Stannis is the topic of conversation. “Well, I’ll try, but he’s stubborn sometimes. I’ve got as much chance getting him to agree as you do.”
Stannis raises his brows and rests his hand on Davos’ knee. Davos is biting back a laugh. “Well, I will suggest it,” Davos is saying, as Stannis moves his hand up his thigh. “He can be very touchy sometimes.” Davos shoots a pointed look at Stannis’ hand. “About cameras, I mean.”
He is unexpectedly bold as he kisses Davos’ neck and sets his paperwork aside, nestling into his side and letting Davos wrap an arm around his shoulders. He closes his eyes and listens to Davos’ side of the conversation. “Yeah, I’ll speak to him tomorrow, maybe after lunchtime. Although I’d rather see the Abbey for myself first, if there’s any chance. You can always talk to him, you know? It doesn’t always have to be me.”
Stannis toys with the buttons on Davos’s shirt. He slides his hand up under his shirt and over his chest, fingers stroking the hairs up the wrong way, before flattening them again. Davos’ maimed hand presses down on his before he can run his fingertip around a nipple.
“Spoilsport,” Stannis mouths to him, resting back against him.
Davos talks for a while longer then hangs up. “The BBC wants more cameras in the Abbey for your Coronation.”
“It’s months away.”
“I know, but we need to sort these things. I’ll check the Abbey tomorrow, see what we can get away with.” Stannis scrubs at his face and sits back up, collecting his paperwork again as his good mood slides away. Davos’ hand rests on the back of his neck. “It’s a fact, Stannis. You can’t run from this.”
“Don’t talk to me about my responsibilities when we’re together like this. I know what I have to do, I know what my duties are.”
Davos shifts onto his back, hands dropping from Stannis’ skin. “Right. We don’t have to talk about anything. We can do as we always do.”
“Yes, because you’re always so willing to share things with me. How did you lose your fingers, Davos?”
Davos eyes him, shoulders rising as he shuts down again. Stannis returns to his paperwork. Stannis knows perfectly well what it means to be closed off. He knows perfectly well how much safer it is to keep his walls up. But he’s been trying to share things with Davos, because he thinks it matters to try. Davos listens effectively, shares his thoughts and kisses tension from his jaw, but he doesn’t give back in the same way.
“Perhaps you ought to-” he begins at the same time Davos lifts his maimed hand in front of Stannis’ face.
“I did it the night I got arrested. We could hear sirens, the fella I was with got spooked and ran off, and he left the box we were trying to move to crush my fingers. Police caught me because he left me stuck there.” Davos drops his hand and Stannis frowns down at his paperwork. “You can ask for the stories all you want, but they’re not going to be pretty. You can’t be angry at me because you asked for it, and you knew it wasn’t going to be what you wanted to hear.”
“I already know you’re a criminal, Davos. I wasn’t asking for pretty stories, I only wanted to…” He cuts himself off before he can admit just how far he has fallen into this relationship, and how much he wants to understand Davos, from his fingerprints and the visible veins in his arms right through to the darkest bruises imprinted across his soul.
“Marya never forgave me for my past,” Davos says, his voice soft. “For the financial pressure it put on us as a family when I couldn’t get a job, or for the risks I took with Sal whenever we got desperate. Until her, my family were criminals. And that’s who I am and it’s right here.” He lifts his maimed hand again. “And I knew if I told you then that’s what you’d see, every time you looked at my hand, you’d see the same things she couldn’t get over. Because you and Marya, you’re good people. You never stole from anyone, never took something a person didn’t give freely. And good people don’t understand how this... how it works and…”
Stannis reaches for his hand, lifts it to his lips and kisses what is left of his fingers. “I’ll never understand, I agree. But you took your punishments…”
“I wouldn’t have done, if he hadn’t run off. My punishment was for one crime, on one night. There are more nights, worse nights, that I have never served time for.”
“I don’t believe you would truly set out to hurt anyone,” Stannis says, holding Davos’ fingers to his lips. “Would it have been easier for you to continue your criminal activities than find a job in the paparazzi?”
“Then you sought to better yourself. If we were only our mistakes, then Renly would never speak to me, my daughter would think she could never hug her distant, affectionless father. We are our mistakes and we are also improved because of them. The good you do now will never wash away the bad you did. But the bad will never take away the good. And you are good. You are very good.”
The weight of his words hover between them. Then Davos rolls over and rests his forehead against Stannis’ chest. Stannis’ cradles his skull in his hands, strokes his fingers through his hair, and watches over him as Davos’ muscles start to relax. “I never forgave myself,” Davos half-whispers.
“I know,” Stannis replies, shutting his eyes and kissing the top of his head. They lie together for a long time, as Davos gradually relaxes against him.
It seems over the coming weeks, a weight has been lifted from him as he gradually opens up to Stannis about his years of money worries, the difficult years when he was trying to hold his marriage together. They still only have a night a week, but when they are together, it feels as if Davos can finally be soothed. He seems to let go of everything he has been holding onto.
The Coronation is approaching. They settled on a September date, when the sun should still be shining. Baelish has been getting under people’s toes, orchestrating the event until it is far larger than anything Stannis hoped for. He wants something understated - the country is still in the grips of austerity, and the royal family is reviled for its apparent opulence and wastefulness. Stannis will have it no longer. It will not be as it was under Robert.
Apparently Baelish has never received that message, because he is planning an extravagant party with fireworks and music, and Stannis wants none of it.
He takes Baelish aside one afternoon, when some of the arrangements have been cancelled. “I’m afraid this is not working,” Stannis tells him. “I kept you on because you know how things work. However, I feel we have come to the end of our working relationship. Our differences are irreconcilable. I am taking the monarchy in a different direction to what you are used to, and I am afraid we will have to let you go.”
Baelish stiffens in his seat, eyes narrowing. “Let me go?”
“I’m sure a man of your talents will find plenty of opportunities elsewhere.”
“I don’t think I understand you, sir.”
“What don’t you get?”
“You can’t let me go.”
Stannis frowns. “Why not?”
“Because I know everything about this family, and I am the only thing between you remaining as King and the monarchy’s complete and utter destruction.”
Stannis almost laughs off his arrogance. “I assure you, Renly and I can do a suitable job without your assistance.”
“Well, it’s your prerogative, of course, sir. But with the Coronation only a month away, I should remind you, any scandals will be incredibly harmful for your family.”
Stannis narrows his eyes. “What has Renly done now?”
“Not Renly, your majesty. You. I know about your relationship.”
Stannis takes in a long breath. “What relationship?”
“With the photographer. Sea… Sea… Seawood, is it?”
“Eighteen months in jail for handling stolen goods, was it he got? Not to mention, he is a commoner and… well… a man. Times have moved on, equal marriage is legal now. But those who will vote to keep the monarchy in a referendum aren’t exactly the most liberal in the country and well… The things I know will end everything.”
“You wouldn’t do anything.”
“Wouldn’t I? May I make a suggestion, sir. Don’t try me.” Baelish rises. “I shall see you tomorrow at the Coronation rehearsal, sir.” Baelish bows to him and Stannis cannot say a word. He only feels cold.
He doesn’t know how Baelish knows about he and Davos. He only knows they’ve tried to be discreet, but Baelish is clearly always watching. He was foolhardy not to let him go from the beginning, but no one knew the ways of royal life like he did. It’s too late now, there’s no way to get rid of him. And Baelish is right, and Stannis knows it, and he despises him for it.
The only way the monarchy will survive is if the public votes to keep them. Suggestions are already being made for a referendum to be held six to eight months after the Coronation. Life is very different to when Stannis was a boy, there is no shame in his sexuality, not like there used to be. But it does not matter. Stannis knows it would be made out to be some sordid secret, his hidden shame. And Davos’ past would be picked over, and they both know it isn’t an easily digested history. Perhaps if he were some Lord with a grand estate of his own and money in the right hands then things would be different, but he isn’t.
Stannis knows he has been forced to keep Baelish. But he also knows he has to let Davos go.
He invites Davos to his study, and it’s almost as if the man knows somehow, because there’s a tightness in his posture when he’s shown to the seat. “Petyr Baelish knows about us,” Stannis says as he sips his water. He stands over Davos’ shoulder because he cannot bear to see his face. The thought of losing him, the thought that the last time they kissed, five nights ago, was the last time, is too difficult.
Davos lets out a long breath. “Shit. How?”
“I don’t know. But he has threatened me.”
“It doesn’t matter what you call it, I cannot fire him.”
Davos turns in his chair to look at him. “Then what?”
“This can’t go on, Davos. I’ve thought about it from every angle, but we were foolish to get so swept up. We cannot have a life together. We’ve always known.”
Davos looks down at his knees. “Yeah,” he murmurs.
“If it were different… If Robert… But I’m king. I will be the crowned king in four weeks time and I have no choice but to end this.”
“I get it.” Davos rises to his feet. “I can’t keep working here.”
Stannis swallows. “I understand.” He can barely look at Davos. Everything inside him is screaming at him to grab his hand and tell him he’s wrong, that they should just get through this. But he can see the picture of his mother on his desk, and he knows he has to let this go because it’s his duty to.
Davos reaches him and touches his shoulder. “Look after yourself,” he says.
Stannis meets his eyes, just for a second, and then Davos is gone. He’s all alone again. Just as he suspects he will always be.
He sinks into his chair and buries his head in his hands.
Chapter 11: Chapter 11
It took five minutes for him to lose almost everything. His lover and his job in one brutal swoop. He doesn’t take time to say goodbyes to those he’s got close to, not to Cressen, not to Mel. He has to collect his things as fast as he can and leave the palace for the final time. It hurts him to leave without giving Shireen one final hug, and he knows she’ll be confused and hurt but he can’t face telling her goodbye without giving her an explanation.
He watches Dale and Matthos play football on a Saturday afternoon. Marya’s there with her boyfriend Alester, as Devan and Allard play in the park nearby. Davos shouts praise from the sidelines and takes a few photos for the family albums. He hardly notices as Marya sidles up beside him and wraps an arm around his waist.
“What’s this?” he asks, looking over her head to where Alester is standing, apparently not bothered by her affection.
“You looked sad,” she says, giving him a squeeze before releasing him.
“I’m alright,” he says, clapping when Matthos saves a penalty. “I’m going to need your help though. I need another job.”
“I can’t really go into it. I’ve left on good terms but… just had to leave.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Update my website for me?”
She smiles and pats his back. “Of course. Send me a selection of your best pictures and I’ll put together an updated portfolio for you.”
He can feel her eyes on him but he ignores it in favour of cheering Dale on. “Are you alright for money?” she asks after a few minutes.
“For a bit,” he says. He managed to save some while working for Stannis. He made extra on top of his living expenses every month, and aside from buying gifts for the boys, he squirrelled away as much as he could. He was so busy with his work he hardly had time to enjoy it properly anyway. “I’ll be good for a couple of months.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I can’t decide.”
“I’m sure Alester can find you something. He’s opening the restaurant next week, we need pictures for the website and the menu, and then on opening night too.”
Davos sighs. “Yeah. I can do that.”
Marya squeezes his shoulder and calls Alester over so they can make the arrangements. He’s a friendly enough man, and secure enough in his relationship that he doesn’t mind spending time with Marya’s ex.
Davos aches when he sees them together though. He knows he and Stannis could never have had what they have. They would never have kissed or even held hands in public, they’d probably never have seen each other in a romantic capacity outside of the bedroom. It was never going to be enough forever, deep down he knows that. But it’s still painful to think of what they did have.
Davos had felt the weight of so many painful memories slide off his shoulders when he was with Stannis. Stannis just took him exactly as he was, without hesitation, even in the places where he had every right to doubt.
These wounds will take some time to heal, without question.
He takes a long breath, and tries to forget.
Forgetting is not easy when Stannis is so often on the television. Davos avoids the news and the papers and tries to walk away from any conversation when the royals come up. Sal wants to know the gossip from his time in the palace, but aside from a few anecdotes about Stannis’ staff, Davos has nothing to say.
He goes along to Alester’s restaurant and takes pictures for the website and menu, and there will be other opportunities in the future for the social media websites. Marya introduces him to a number of movers and shakers at the opening night, and he secures himself some extra work on top. He ends up visiting other restaurants and does a wedding or two, and through word of mouth, he is in a better position than he was before Stannis. The title ‘official royal photographer’ carries some weight, it appears.
He sits with Marya one evening while she updates his website. It’s a beautifully put together site with his best photos from over the years.
“You’re good at this,” he says as he reviews the pages she's put together.
“It’s my job for a reason,” she laughs. “Hey, what’s this?” She’s been flicking through his albums of printed photos for the past five minutes, and she pulls out a selection from the back of the book.
“Just some sceneries,” he replies, not able to look at them. Those are his favourite pictures from his time in the Highlands. Some are of the boys kicking a ball around, but the best are the ones he took during his walk with Stannis.
“Oh. Oh, Davos,” Marya breathes out. He turns to look at her, and sees her holding up the picture of the stag. The picture holds a million memories he cannot say aloud. A million memories he hardly wants to think about now. “Oh, gosh.”
“This is… Davos. I think you’re a wonderful photographer, I do. But this is is another league.”
He scrapes the chair across the kitchen so he can sit beside her at the table. Alester moves from the oven to look too, and they all stare in silence at the image. The stag is looking straight at Davos, and he knows everything about it is just right. The lighting, the staging, the scenery, the expression on the animal’s face.
“Wow,” Alester says. “It looks good, mate.”
“This is your best work,” Marya says, still staring at it. “We could frame this. We should frame this. You should… win awards for this.”
“Don’t be silly,” Davos mutters, moving back to the laptop.
“I’m not being silly. You should enter this into a photography competition. Wildlife photographer of the year. That’s a thing, isn’t it?”
“I’m entering it for you,” Marya decides, pulling the laptop out of his hands.
Alester laughs and checks back on the lasagna. “Don’t fight her,” he says. “You know how she gets.”
Davos mumbles a few choice words to pretend to put up a fight, but in the end he lets her get on with it. If this makes her feel useful then he isn’t going to stop her. She fills in a form and sends the picture off. A little bit of Davos allows himself to hope it is recognised. But he refuses to hope too hard.
Westminster Abbey is huge. Stannis has always known that, and always appreciated the scale of the place. But knowing this is where he will be crowned in a few days’ time, it truly hits him just how big the building is, and how small he really is.
He sits on the throne and says the words he will have to say. Mel directs where the cameras will be and where he should look and how he should sit. He doesn’t argue. He’ll behave as is expected of him, no matter how it hurts, or how hard he finds it.
There is one final rehearsal before the Coronation, and he forgets all the words and he snaps and shouts at Mel and he makes a scene and he apologises for it.
Davos should be here, he thinks, as he takes the chair again and goes through the lines for the hundredth time. Davos would smile, Davos would tell him it’s nearly over, that he’ll never need to do this again. Davos might even take him to bed after.
He can’t think this way. It’s like a sword is plunged into his stomach every time he thinks about the man and every time he sees Baelish, which is far to often for his liking. So he gets on with his work, until Mel is satisfied the news crews will get what they need, and Stannis won’t stumble over the words, and will speak clearly enough.
He aches all over by the time he returns to the palace. His head throbs, his shoulders are carrying so much tension in them, and even rubbing them doesn’t ease the dull ache. He winces as he moves his head and swallows two painkillers.
At seven, he goes to dinner, joining Selyse, Shireen and Renly. Cookie sits by Renly’s feet the whole time, and Renly feeds her scraps from his plate. Shireen and Renly talk enough for them all, because goodness knows, Stannis cannot handle talking tonight, he has been forced to speak all day, and the only words he can think about now are ‘the things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep’. To promise to govern the people, cause law, and justice, and mercy.
He manages to eat half his dinner, despite the duck, his favourite, being perfectly cooked with the roast potatoes and cabbage. He rubs his temples as Renly gets up to take Cookie out for a stroll. “Why don’t you take Cookie for a walk with Renly, darling,” Selyse says to Shireen. “I need to speak with your father.”
Shireen smiles at them all and follows Renly out, chattering with him. “How are you?” Selyse asks after a long minute.
Stannis stares down at the table. “Fine.”
“Mel said this afternoon didn’t go as well as you’d have liked.”
“It’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“Of course it will. What happened, Stannis?”
He rubs his forehead. “I got the sentences the wrong way round. It’ll be fine tomorrow.”
“Not the Coronation. What happened to you?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Only a month or two ago, you were wandering around the palace with what some people described as an actual smile on your face.”
“I’m sure there’s no truth to it,” he mutters, accepting the tea a waiter passes to him.
“I would have said the same, had I not seen it myself.” Stannis ignores her, settling for folding his napkin instead. “Stannis, you are not an unkind man, but you smile in private, for your daughter. You don’t… smile much in public.”
“Yes, so Baelish keeps reminding me.”
“But you were. A few months ago.”
Stannis shoots her a look. “What are you getting at?”
“What changed? You were happy, now you’re not, and everyone knows, including our daughter, and it’s worrying her. You know she’s sensitive to these things.”
“You don’t have to apologise to me. Or anyone for that matter, I know losing Robert has been difficult, and so has moving to this palace, and the Coronation. Of course it has all taken its toll, and in a couple of months we’ll take Christmas in the Highlands and forget all of this for a short while, won’t we?”
“In the meantime, your daughter’s worried, and so am I.”
He shoots her a look. “You needn’t be.”
“Stannis, I’ve known you for more than 15 years. You can’t tell me not to be worried. I’m committed.”
“We were friends first. Friends who were honest with one another, because we had no-one else.” Selyse sits back in her chair. “But you did have someone else, didn’t you? For a while.”
Stannis swallows and unfolds his napkin. “What are you getting at?”
“Where did Davos go?”
“He took a new job.”
“He wanted to do something else.”
“Did you argue?” she asks.
“No. I should…” He gestures to the door, starting to rise from his seat.
“Stannis. Did you have feelings for him?” He frowns and stares off to the side, and those feelings, those darned feelings he cannot ignore rise in his chest again. It aches. “You did,” she whispers. “Oh, Stannis.”
“I knew it would end, I was perfectly prepared for it. I was ready.”
“End? Did something happen between you?”
He grimaces. “Many things,” he admits, sinking back into his chair, resigned. “But it had to end, and so it’s over.”
“Did he… have feelings for you?”
“I think so,” Stannis says, swallowing. He rubs his jaw. “But it hardly matters now.”
“No, I suppose it doesn’t. I am sorry.”
“As am I.”
Selyse sighs and dunks her biscuit in her tea. “And the public thinks you have everything.”
Stannis drinks the last of his tea and stands up. “Goodnight, Selyse. I’m sorry I worried Shireen. I will make it up to her tomorrow. Perhaps we should get her something? Some books?”
“She has enough books. I think she’d just like a hug with her father. And I think her father rather needs one too.”
Stannis nods and goes to Shireen’s room to wait for her. He gives her a long hug when she returns, her cheeks and hands cold from her walk. They read a book together for a while, CS Lewis’ Prince Caspain, and kisses her cheek before tucking her into bed.
He stands outside his bedroom, fingertips touching the handle as he acknowledges another Thursday night without Davos. He squeezes his eyes shut, contemplates him, shuts the daydream down with a muttered ‘no’ then turns the handle. He doesn’t open the door. Instead he spins around and jogs down the stairs, and finds Mr Cressen’s office.
It’s easy to get his hands on the personnel files and to find Davos’ home address. Then all he needs to do is track down Gerald Gower, his newly appointed security man, and demand he takes them out on a drive.
He tells himself not to go even while he sits in the car and tunes out the sound of the radio. Even while they drive down still-busy London streets, and then through housing estates, he tells himself he will not see him. He will just wait there for a moment, outside his house, remind himself that he had something once, then they will return back to the palace.
He will just take a moment, he promises himself. That is all.
The TV is blaring out some action film, with cars flipping and exploding, when he hears a knock on the door. He’s stripped down to his boxers and a black T-shirt, and he’s half-asleep when he hears it. He grabs his dressing gown from the side and makes his way to the door. There is nothing in the universe that could prepare him for the sight of Stannis, suit on and a car with its engine still running on the driveway. For a moment, they just stare at each other, until Stannis looks away and crosses his arms. “I,” is all he says.
More silence, more waiting. Until Davos steps aside. “Hang on a moment,” a voice calls, and a security officer makes his way past Davos and into the house. The man turns up the empty pizza box and checks the open plan kitchen and living room over before heading upstairs.
Davos watches Stannis. He’s restless, eyes looking anywhere but Davos, arms folded and then unfolded and fingers picking at some non-existent pulled thread on his coat.
The security guard returns and heads outside with an ‘all clear’, and Stannis takes the opportunity to enter Davos’ house. Davos isn’t wholly sure he wants him here. At least here there are no memories of Stannis, this is his house where Stannis has never been. Until now.
He closes the door. “Tea? Coffee?” he finds himself asking.
“Coffee,” Stannis answers, still not looking at him. “Please.”
Davos busies himself with the kettle. “Are you going to tell me why you’re here?” There’s no reply. Davos looks round to see Stannis perched on the edge of the sofa, hands clasped in his lap as he stares at the floorboards. “Alright then,” Davos mutters to himself. He frowns. “Isn’t tomorrow your Coronation?”
Ah, Davos thinks, stirring the coffees. He carries them over and leaves them on the table before taking a seat beside Stannis.
“I’m sorry,” Stannis murmurs. “I know I shouldn’t be here.”
“It’s alright. Big day tomorrow, I know. Just needed a friendly face, yeah?”
Stannis sips the coffee, pulls a face, but keeps drinking it. Davos turns the TV down so the shouting and bangs don’t distract him. “How did you know where I lived?”
“Oh. Right yeah.”
“I snuck into Mr Cressen’s office.”
Davos manages a smile. “Course you did.”
“My head was pounding,” Stannis says. “I didn’t know what else…” He trails off and returns to staring at the floorboards.
“Nothing a bit of paracetamol and water could fix then?”
“It wasn’t that kind of headache.”
“Nervous about tomorrow?”
“I feel sick when I think about it. I never wanted…”
Davos hears his unspoken words. Stannis isn’t one to not finish his sentences, but on this occasion he’s clearly struggling. It’s better he’s here than alone, Davos thinks, except he knows this is bad for both of them, that when the clouds clear and tomorrow dawns, they’ll still be alone and miserable.
Against his better judgement, Davos wraps an arm round Stannis’ shoulders. He stiffens, then lets go of the tension he’s holding and leans into Davos’ side. It’s been six weeks since they were last together. Apparently that’s enough time to forget how good it feels to have the warmth of someone else beside him. It’s a reminder this is everything he wants, and everything he cannot have. Yet he cannot say no to Stannis, not when he so clearly needs this.
“Is your driver going to wait outside?”
“Yes, I suspect so. I don’t think he’ll ask questions. I chose him myself.”
He’s not one of Baelish’s stooges then. He’s Stannis’ man, just like Mr Cressen, and Mel. Like Davos was. It sits uncomfortably with him, though it shouldn’t. He wants Stannis to be looked after with people who want the best for him, who have his interests at heart, even though Davos wishes it could be him.
Davos doesn’t have anything to say to comfort him, so he squeezes his shoulder and leans back against the cushions. He’s left watching the side of Stannis’ head, the stiffness in his shoulders. He rests a hand between his shoulderblades.
“I keep thinking,” Stannis starts, his voice barely a whisper. “I keep thinking maybe it’d be better if I just stepped down. If I told Renly just to… but I can’t. He’s so unhappy, Davos, and I can’t do a damned thing. And Shireen… she hates the cameras and the crowds just as I do, how can I ever force her into all of this?”
“I can’t tell you what to do.”
“I just want to forget,” he says, rubbing his face. “I just need… Davos, I… I’m sorry I came, I shouldn’t have, I know that.”
Davos reaches for him and tugs him back against the cushions beside him. He waits until Stannis turns his head to his and he takes hold of his face, cups his cheeks and presses his forehead to his. He cocoons their faces in that tiny space, where they share breaths, where Davos can see the distress in Stannis’ eyes so close up that his heart shatters. He can read everything in Stannis’ clenched jaw, that he’s holding everything inside him, that he’s trying to be strong like everyone needs him to be, and they both know he’s falling apart inside.
And Davos can’t do anything but kiss him, and he can’t stop himself once he’s dedicated himself to it. Stannis makes a muffled sound against his lips, part complaint perhaps, but it’s only a second until he’s kissing with uncontrolled desperation, grabbing and Davos’ T-shirt and trying to lift it, and failing as they tumble down onto the sofa.
Davos grips his arse, pulls his shirt free of the waistband and slides a hand up his spine. Stannis shudders against him, lips still rough against his mouth then his neck, hands gripping so tightly into his shoulders, Davos imagines he could be leaving fingerprints there.
“God, Stannis,” Davos manages between kisses, pulling them back up to a seated position, and pulling Stannis onto his lap. They overbalance, and Davos tugs at Stannis’ tie to steady them. He’s breathless already, and kisses him even so as he yanks the tie away and fumbles with the buttons, struggling with trembling hands and missing fingers.
Stannis pushes his hands away and completes the job himself, shirt and jacket falling to the floor in a heap as he pushes their hips together. Stannis reaches down to pull his shoes and socks off and they stare at one another, panting.
“Are you sure?” Davos asks, when he realises neither of them is moving anymore.
Stannis rests his lips against Davos’ forehead. “You’re the only thing I am sure of,” he whispers, and Davos pulls him into another scorching kiss.
They stumble up the stairs, Davos shucking off his dressing gown and shirt on the way, leading them to his chilly bedroom. Stannis’ kisses are so full of heat, he barely notices it. They fall onto the bed, and it has never been like this, even though Stannis’ kisses have always tasted of the final embrace from a departing lover. But this desperation is coursing through them both this time, and though Davos held himself back so many times, he does not restrain himself from digging his fingers into Stannis’ back, from pushing him down onto the bed and holding him down and scraping nails down his chest as if marking him might keep him here.
And Stannis is gasping and grunting, pushing Davos’ underwear down as fast as he can. It takes longer than it ought to for them both to undress, but kissing and touching already uncovered skin gets in the way.
“I need you,” Stannis mutters against his mouth, the words coming out between kisses. “I have to feel it, feel you, you have to let me, please, please…”
“Shh, shh,” Davos soothes, stroking his cheek. “I’ve got this, let me take care of you, okay? Let me.”
“I’m letting you, I’m asking you, to please…”
“I will, I will.” Their kisses soften, until Stannis’ grip on his shoulders ease, until he’s no longer shaking beneath him. Until they’re back to how they’ve always been, gentle and careful, and Davos is back to cradling Stannis in his arms, whispering kisses down his neck and collarbone, caressing him like he’s fragile, like he’s precious, like he could just fall apart.
Stannis keens when Davos’ first finger enters him, he arches up, hands gripping at the covers. He has always taken one finger easily, always been so receptive to it, but they’ve never gone further than the second. As always, he tenses then, despite Davos’ lips on his cock and he starts to close his legs and Davos has to nudge them back apart with his shoulders.
“We don’t have to,” he starts to say, but Stannis is shaking his head and mouthing ‘please’ at him, and he can’t say no to him, to this. So he rubs his beard against the soft skin on the inside of Stannis’ thigh, he kisses his cock, keeps telling Stannis how good he feels, how well he’s doing.
He’s used so much lube that it’s sticky on the covers, and he thinks at some point he’ll probably end up sleeping on it, and he’s grateful for the brief distracting thought because it eases how much he needs to be touched.
He listens as Stannis’ breathing steadies, and he starts to press down against Davos’ crooked fingers, a soft ‘oh’ escaping his lips as his tension dissolves. Davos kisses the inside of his knee with a smile. “That’s it,” he breathes out. “That’s the way, just keep relaxed like that, keep trusting me.”
“I do,” Stannis says, his voice far away. Davos looks up to find his eyes are on his, glazed and relaxed.
Stannis is back to trembling by the time Davos has rolled a condom on and lined up between his legs, but he says ‘go on’ anyway, and Davos complies. He holds back a groan because if he gets swept up in his pleasure he might not be able to keep still. Instead he bites down on his lip and braces a hand next to Stannis’ head.
Stannis winces, then nods, and Davos presses forward. He keeps it slow, but doesn’t stop until he’s buried inside him. “Breathe,” he reminds Stannis, nuzzling his neck and kissing beneath his ear. Stannis hands move from their vise-like grip against his shoulders and slide either side of his spine.
“Does it always feels like this?” Stannis asks, eyes wide.
“I dunno, what’re you feeling?”
Stannis’ lips brush against his. “I… I can’t describe it.”
“Good. Like I need… need more.”
Davos rolls his hips and Stannis gasps and his legs tighten around Davos’ waist. “More, like that?” Davos asks.
A slow smile draws over Stannis’ face, and it’s easy after that. Their noses brush together, lips find necks and cheeks and miss occasionally, and everything is blurred at the edges, it’s hazy except where Stannis is. Stannis’ eyes are closed, his fingers trailing along Davos’ cheek and his beard, and he lets out breathy moans every time Davos rocks his hips. There’s so much more Davos wants to give him, so much he wants to show him that his chest is suddenly tight and his eyes burn, and he has to bury his face in Stannis’ neck to hide it.
His hips stutter as he comes, Stannis’ hand on the back of his head. His cock slips out as he softens, and he strokes Stannis while they kiss, wrapped around one another, both of them unable to pull away. Stannis bites back his pleasured groan and comes on Davos’ belly, and then presses so close it smears between them, but he doesn’t seem to mind as he clings to Davos like a liferaft.
Somehow, sometime between mumbled ‘thank yous’ and an uncertain ‘sorry’, they fall asleep.
Davos wakes when it’s still dark outside, but the bedroom door is ajar and enough light is coming through the hallway for him to see Stannis buttoning up his shirt.
“Time is it?” Davos mumbles, rubbing his eyes.
“It’s five am.”
“Where’re you…” Davos winces. “Shit. Coronation.”
“So, you’re off then?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“Were y’going to say goodbye?”
“I. I don’t know.”
Davos grits his teeth and sits up. The condom packet is still on the bed, and the sight of it brings back so many sudden flashes of that night and he wants to yell and let it all out, but he can’t. What’s the point?
“I can’t do this, Stannis," he says, running a hand through his hair, hardly able to look at him. "I can’t sit here and wonder if one day you’re gonna… gonna come round again because you’ve had a bad day and…”
“I know,” Stannis cuts him off. “I know.”
They stare at one another, and Davos can only just make out his pained expression. “Shit,” Davos whispers, slumping back down against the pillows. “Just. Look after yourself, okay?”
Stannis turns away. “You too.” Davos watches as he makes for the door, then stops, hand gripping the doorframe. “For what it’s worth.” Stannis looks over his shoulder, sorrow written over every inch of his face. “For what it’s worth. I do love you.” He lingers for but a second, the words still in the air, then he’s jogging down the stairs, and the moment rings in Davos’ ears and he can’t do this, he can’t let him walk away without telling him, without kissing him again, just once more, hell, maybe they can make it work, maybe... He hears the front door close.
“Fuck.” He leaps out of bed and runs nude down the stairs, grabbing his dressing gown and shrugging it on as he goes. He yanks open the door, and the car is just turning out of his road.