They walked through the sliding double doors marked “Exit Only”, and almost collided with a mother and four small children all hanging onto a runaway trolley. Arya sidestepped the bouncing wheels and pressed her back up against several floral dresses hanging from a rail, while Sandor swore loudly and promptly knocked up against a stand of DVDs. Thankfully, the stand remained upright. The flustered mother glared in response to the tall, muscular man’s lack of manners, and the four small children started gleefully repeating the forbidden, bad words they had just heard uttered in a public place.
Arya smacked her partner’s arm and rolled her grey eyes.
“What did I just say about keeping a low profile here?” she snapped, looking around and meeting the curious eyes at the checkouts, warily watching this odd duo enter the supermarket.
Sandor rubbed his arm and sullenly shoved his hands into his pockets.
“You should have let me stay in the bloody car, then,” he grunted. “Hurry up, let’s get this shit over with.”
They walked around the checkouts, realising at this point that they had entered through the wrong doors. Arya unfolded the crumpled paper in her hand as she strode along towards the entrance. The shopping list was hurriedly written in her sister’s elegant handwriting, not very long but a nuisance nonetheless. Sandor stomped along next to her, towering over most everyone else there, but still somehow appearing like a sulking toddler. A cheerful song was echoing around the expansive store, the beat matching the fall of Arya’s trainers on the floor for a while.
She had not wanted to go into a crowded place, disliking crowds in general, especially when there was a chance that the smallfolk would recognise her and ask for an autograph or a photo. As a result, Arya had her hood up indoors, and a scarf around her neck. She had made Sandor brush his hair over the scars on the side of his face before they got out of their jeep, but honestly, attempting to make the man look any less conspicuous in a place like this was impossible.
There were bright blue plastic baskets inside the entrance doors, and Sandor grabbed the handle of a wide trolley instead.
“We only need a basket,” Arya sighed, and picked one up.
“You say that now,” he grouched, leaning on the metal frame. “Come on, wolf girl, I need something to do other than follow you around here. Let me push the damn trolley.”
“Why not carry the basket?” she asked, raising a dark eyebrow.
“I’d look a right arse carrying that little thing around, wouldn’t I?”
“Didn’t know you cared much about what people thought you looked like,” Arya muttered, and then leaned closer, noticing a teenager standing nearby staring at them. “Don’t say the word wolf here, idiot. Someone might recognise us.”
Eventually, after some more heated whispering and bickering, they settled on the compromise of a smaller trolley, which Sandor clumsily shoved in front of himself while Arya walked ahead into the first aisle, scanning crates of vegetables and fruit. A cool draught washed over from a fridge, and another song started playing, this one with obnoxious nasal vocals. She tapped her foot and waved Sansa’s list in front of her face, while Sandor dragged his thick-soled boots along. A pair of decrepit old ladies stared nervously up at him, sensing the general dark air of potential violence about him, but he ignored them, like he pretended to ignore everyone.
A little boy was tugging his father’s shirt tail, pointing at the tall scary man’s scarred face with wide eyes.
You think my face is fucking bad? Look at the chocolate smeared around your mouth, you little shit.
Arya paced back and forth, making a clicking noise with her tongue.
“What even is a squash?” she grumbled quietly next to him. “And how does Sansa know they even sell lasagne sheets made out of it? She always sends servants.”
Sandor rubbed his nose. “About that,” he said. “Why did she send you?”
“Wanted me out of the castle, I think,” Arya rolled her eyes. “She’s having some of her prissy lady girlfriends over for lunch, and I was not welcome.”
“You did insult one of them, last time, wo...I mean…girl.” He just managed to correct himself before he used that nickname, and aside from a sharp sideways glance, Arya let the near slip go.
“Ha!” she exclaimed suddenly, her gaze alighting on something next to Sandor’s elbow. “Butternut squash…lasagne sheets! Got them.” The packet was tossed unceremoniously into the trolley before they strolled on. “I didn’t really insult her,” Arya claimed defensively as they walked. “Or if I had, I wouldn’t have meant to insult her.”
He snorted, grinning at the memory. “Tell that to the dress you ruined throwing soup at her.”
“Shut up and help me look for parmesan cheese.”
Sandor prayed that everything did not take this long to find. He amused himself by thinking of all the different ways he felt isolated among these random shoppers. It was not only his height, or the fact that he was involved with the famous Starks, which made him feel apart and disconnected from regular people. Did any of these strangers understand or even comprehend the kind of struggles he or Arya had gone through the last few years? Did any of them have scars like theirs; internal ones, hard to spot walking past? Smallfolk in the town all seemed the same, somehow, aside from noticeable colourful exceptions. He stared at a long-legged blonde picking up bitesize cheeses with claw-like red nails, and replacing them on the shelf. The woman noticed his gaze, and became flustered, tucking a lock of platinum hair behind her ear.
“Focus!” Arya snapped, and kicked his ankle. “Did you even hear what I just said?”
“What?” He pretended not to have heard just to rile her.
“It’s like talking to a stupid bloody wall,” she sighed. “Are you done eyeing that woman up, or should I wait for you to finish?”
“So jealous,” Sandor sneered. “Can I not even fucking look at other women now?”
Arya threw some ham into the trolley and glared at him. “She’s probably scared of you, staring at her like that. You looked like a serial killer wanting to slice her up like a steak.”
At that, he just laughed, and reached over to affectionately ruffle her hair through the material of her hood, provoking additional ire from Arya.
“I’m taking the trolley,” she glowered, and ducked under one of his arms to seize control of it. “Go buy something for yourself and stop acting like a spoilt child.”
“As you wish, my sweet little assassin,” Sandor rumbled sarcastically, and lurched forward to try to kiss her. Disliking public displays of affection even more than crowds, Arya dodged his sloppy aim, and shoved the trolley forward, avoiding curious gazes.
By herself, she made faster progress through the aisles, and through Sansa’s shopping list. She got a few items for herself along the way, and some chew toys for the direwolf pups. The supermarket was becoming more congested, and the bleeping of barcode scanners at checkout drowned out the music. Arya seethed to herself about her partner as she pushed the trolley, thinking angrily just how much of an awkward pain he had to make himself every time they went anywhere which involved acting even remotely like normal people. She watched other couples wordlessly traipse along, side by side, not even communicating, yet still managing to progress from aisle to aisle. Actually, she thought, they all seemed remarkably bored. Indeed, some couples appeared to have merged into the one person, separated in half only by skin and air, each of them lifting items from the shelves without apparent need for verification from the other. Honestly, she would prefer death to that kind of co-dependence. Perhaps arguing with Sandor was a price she was willing to pay, if only to prevent boredom.
He came back when she was visually dissecting the bread shelves, fed up with the draughts on her legs and the overly cheerful tunes drifting through the chilly, artificial-smelling air. She raised her head, and groaned internally, seeing that he was carrying three bottles of wine and two whole chickens in his thick arms. Sandor dumped all of them into her trolley without asking if she cared.
“Got no money to buy this myself,” he grunted awkwardly, glaring at a passing group of three teenagers who were all laughing.
“Why not?” she asked
On booze, no doubt, Arya thought, but money meant very little to her. There was always some lying around in Winterfell, and she could find some herself if a dire situation demanded her to do so. Being a Stark had its advantages, even with winter growing colder every day, and Arya was as light-fingered a thief as the best of them.
“Just one more thing to get, then,” she shrugged, and they headed towards the supermarket clothing section.
“I’ve never known your pretty sister to wear anything from a supermarket,” Sandor chuckled with amusement. Arya smirked at the very thought.
“Sansa just wants some cheap hair slides for some reason,” she explained, and shoved the trolley towards him. It was getting heavy with the weight of his additional items. Sandor groaned, seeing where she was leading him.
“Seven fucking hells,” he muttered. “Why are you dragging me in here?” Frilly brassieres and other brightly coloured underwear hung either side of the aisle, from rails as high as his head, and Arya giggled at the sight of his uncomfortable expression. Sandor tried to look only at the floor, but failed and settled for the wolf girl’s laughing face.
“You’re like a little boy,” she said. “What are so afraid of? It’s just underwear.”
With a mischievous expression, she lifted a pink spotty thong from the rail, and threw it at him. Sandor tossed it away, and pushed the trolley along, glaring at her intensely. Arya found the hair slides, and threw a pack of them into the trolley without much thought given to colouring.
“Can we fucking go now?” he growled.
They emerged into the relative brightness of the rest of the store after the dense jungle which had been the clothing section. Some child had clearly thrown up near the staff-operated checkouts, and a grey-haired man was very slowly mopping up the mess. Wailing and the stink put both of them off drawing too close to that area.
“Self-service checkout?” Arya suggested.
“Over there, dumb-ass,” she pointed, and they walked over to the machines.
At first, the challenge of operating the system did not appear particularly daunting. Even a ten-year-old seemed to be managing the task adeptly, so Arya handed Sandor his bottles and poultry, and directed him to a different machine to speed the process up. They simultaneously started scanning and then setting items into what they were informed was a “baggage area” in a monotone, crisp female voice.
“Unexpected item in baggage area.”
Arya blinked, and looked down, seeing nothing out of place. She took a tin off, and the screen returned to the previous image.
“Please place your item in the baggage area.”
She put the tin down again, hoping she had outwitted the dumb machine.
“Unexpected item in baggage area.”
Gritting her teeth, she glanced at Sandor, who had actually finished packing, and opened his large hand towards her with an expectant grin, seeking cash. Arya slapped a few notes onto his palm and lifted a bottle of juice off the baggage area.
“Please place your item in the baggage area.”
Frustrated, she repeated the process a few times, every time with the same result. It only increased her growing rage that Sandor, who failed at every possible technological challenge, had already finished with his items. Eventually, her patience started to break, and she kicked the machine.
“Fucking ridiculous!” Arya cursed. A little girl stared at her and giggled. An elderly man gave her a disgruntled, disapproving glance. Sandor leaned over the screen and squinted, patting her shoulder patronisingly.
“I think there’s an item there that’s not meant to…”
“I know what it means!” she spat at him, slapping his hand away. “But every item is there, and I don’t know…”
“Can I help you and your daughter, sir?”
A nervous shop assistant had come over, obviously worried about the destruction of supermarket property. The teenager had a multitude of freckles across his nose and the wispy beginnings of an orange moustache above his upper lip.
“Not my daughter,” Sandor grunted, irritated that their age gap was so obvious to other people, but he stood back after Arya shot him a glare.
“Your shit machine isn’t working,” she told the assistant, and watched with folded arms while the teenager slowly picked up a random item.
“Please place your item in the baggage area.”
“I did that,” Arya groaned, and Sandor tried not to give any sign that he found her rage humorous. That would undoubtedly leave him having to endure one of her extremely bad moods during the drive home.
“Wait a moment, miss, and I’ll…”
“I don’t care. Just do it, quickly. We’re in a hurry.”
“Are we?” Sandor raised his only eyebrow at her while the assistant dragged a card along the edge of the screen, and she clenched her fists.
“We are now.”
The assistant took a painful amount of time to insert codes into the machine, and Sandor could feel his much shorter partner’s frustration building with every second. He was starting to get irritated himself when the youth turned back around and sniffed with disinterest.
“It seems this one’s broken, but if you’d…”
Arya lunged forward with lightning speed, and grabbed the teenager by his throat. Other customers stared in shock, and Sandor watched, vaguely impressed by the effectiveness of the move, as the boy struggled to breathe.
“I’ll tell you what’s going to happen,” Arya whispered softly to the assistant while his eyes bulged. “I’m going to give you the money for these items, and you are going to find some way of paying for them. Otherwise, we’re leaving without paying, and your throat will end up somewhere in the baking aisle. Understand?”
The teenager nodded, buying her exaggerated threat, and she released him.
He lurched backwards, clutching his neck and gasping. Without another word, with shoppers staring at them in remote terror, Sandor and Arya gathered their purchases, handed over the cash, and headed for the exit, trolley wheels clattering over the threshold. Outside, feeling the fresh winter winds which were blustering through the car park, they looked at each other with satisfaction, perversely enjoying the end of that particular struggle. Everything seemed more hopeful with a little distance.
“That could have gone a lot bloody worse,” Sandor observed, and Arya rested her hand on his while he pushed the trolley.