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A Winterfest Carol

Chapter Text

 

Man of the worldly mind” replied the Ghost “do you believe in me or not?”

A Christmas Carol, Stave One.

***

Soft winter daylight streamed in through the floor to ceiling windows of the luxurious CEO’s office.  The news had been making much of the lack of snow this Winterfest season, but the gathering clouds indicated that situation would change before the time came for Lord Snow to make his annual journey round the country, leaving presents for all the good girls and boys.

The changing weather was lost on Jaime Lannister.  He sat in his fine leather executive chair, a porcelain cup of Dornish roast coffee forgotten at his elbow, his entire attention trained on the figures scrolling on his laptop. 

The partnership looked promising, but you could never be too careful.  The world was always out to screw you, whatever people claimed to believe during this stupid season.

The offices of the Lannister Group would close at lunchtime this Winterfest Eve, though most employees had taken the whole week off.  Jaime was known for quashing any display of holiday spirit at the office.  If his employees wanted to openly celebrate the season, they were wise to do it elsewhere.  On the executive floor that morning there was only Jaime, his useless assistant, Peck and the security guard, another useless dishrag named Blount.

Blount was going to find himself out of a job as soon as HR came back from the holiday.  When Jaime Lannister directed you to keep someone out, you were supposed to bloody well keep him out.  But Jaime’s attempt to get two days worth of office work done in one morning was interrupted by a visit from his most-useless-of-all nephew.

Gendry Baratheon had the look of the stag about him: brawny, blue eyed and thick as a post.  He showed up every year on the holiday eve and every year Jaime did all he could to insult the boy so badly that Gendry might finally take the hint and never darken Jaime’s doorway again.

“Happy Winterfest, Uncle!” Gendry barged into Jaime’s office before Peck could announce him, much less prevent him.

Jaime raised his eyes fractionally from his laptop. 

“Winterfest?  What bullshit!  You know I have no time for Winterfest and it has no time for me.”

The bright smile creasing his nephew’s face dimmed for a moment then made a determined reappearance.

“I’m here to invite you once again to spend Winterfest Day with my family, Uncle Jaime.  There’ll be a big party like every year and I know my wife would be happy to welcome you to her family home.”

“Your family’s party?  You mean a Stark party.”

“Uncle Renly and Loras will be there and Cousin Lancel, even Stannis may stop by for a bit.  You gotta know you’d be more welcome than Stannis.”  Gendy tried the conspiratorial version of his ridiculous grin.

How is this stupid, clueless boy Cersei’s child?

Something in Jaime’s face must have finally pierced Gendry’s thick skull.

“I miss them too, Uncle Jaime.  But you have to admit Uncle Tyrion would be so pissed at you for missing out on a party with good food and free booze.”

“Don’t.” Jaime’s voice was like ice.  “Don’t you bring up my family, my brother just to try to manipulate me into making you look good in front of your new family.  I have damn good reasons for not celebrating Winterfest.  Even if I did, even if I were some idiot who went around spreading the joy of the season, I still wouldn’t want to spend the day with a bunch of low rent, self-righteous do-gooders like the damn Starks.  I still wouldn’t want to spend it with you.  How much more blunt do I have to be, Gendry?”

Baratheon rage began to burn in those light blue eyes.

“I’ve never done a damn thing to you.  I’ve never asked you for anything but a couple hours so I can spend the holiday with the only piece of my mother’s family I have left.  Why are you so shitty to me?”

“Because you ruined your mother’s life!  She got drunk at a Winterfest party, hooked up with your careless asshole of a father and found herself pregnant before she even finished college.  Cersei could have been anything she wanted to be.  She should be running this company with me.  She was smart and she was ambitious and she gave up all her dreams so you would have a family.  And every time she looked at you, she saw that worthless, cheating bastard who knocked her up so he could get at my father’s money and influence.”

“How could I possibly want to spend any time with you, Gendry?”

Jaime stared at the young man for another moment and then dismissed him from his mind and went back to his spreadsheets. 

“You may hate the sight of me, Uncle Jaime,” the whisper came from across the desk.  “But you and Uncle Tyrion took care of me when I was just a frightened kid and my parents were more invested in tearing each other apart than in raising their children.  I’ll never stop trying to find any part of that Jaime Lannister that’s left in you.  So every year I will be here no matter how fucking mean you are to me.”

“I wish you a very happy Winterfest, Uncle.   And may Lord Snow bring you everything your heart desires.”  Proclaiming this loudly, Gendry turned to leave.

“Happy Winterfest, Mr. Peckledon.  How’s your family doing?”

Josmyn Peckledon startled at the civility after such an ugly scene.

“They are very well, Mr. Baratheon.”  Then Peck couldn’t stop himself from adding with pride, “My oldest boy is up for a scholarship at the Red Keep School.”

“The Red Keep?  Best school in the city.  My wife’s youngest brother goes there.  I’ll be sure to tell him to keep an eye out for your boy next term.”

“Thank you, Mr. Baratheon.  You are too kind.  A very happy Winterfest to your family as well.”

Jaime had had enough.  “You’d best get back to work, Mr. Peckledon, or you’ll spend your Winterfest looking through the want ads.”

Jaime’s day went downhill after that.

He found he couldn’t concentrate on the work in front of him.  Every move Peck made seemed designed to distract and irritate.  The waves of anxiety coming off Blount were rank with the stench of failure.  Jaime roared at them so often that his voice became hoarse. 

Simmering with frustration, Jaime closed the office down a half hour early and took himself off to the Sigil Club for a hearty lunch.  But even in that bastion of male, moneyed conservatism, he could not escape fucking Winterfest.

He insisted on sitting at a secluded corner table meant for a larger party.  It faced the one part of the dining room not dripping with decorations.  There was only a wreath of greenery and holly berries to offend his sight and Jaime could pretend that it was just an ordinary, ugly centerpiece created by an inferior florist.

Jaime was just finishing his excellent prime rib when he was approached by two of the newer, younger members of the club.

“Such a pleasure to find you here, Jaime.  Happy Winterfest.”  The tall, handsome one said. 

Jaime looked up from his plate, fixed the speaker with a cold stare and saw him tremble.  Jaime smiled then, a smile that could have cut his meat for him.

The other young man cleared his throat and tried.  “You do not know us, Mr. Lannister…”

“And I don’t want to.”

“But we, of course, know you.”  The fat one soldiered on, talking over Jaime’s sarcastic reply.  “I am Samwell Tarly and this is my brother, Dickon.”

Oh yes.  That asshole Randall Tarly’s two boys had been admitted to the club in the summer.  They had wanted the thin one, but had to take the fat one as well.  Fucking legacies.

Samwell Tarly paled from the force of Jaime’s glare, but kept on going.  “The club is partnering with the Margaery Foundation this Winterfest to help provide food for the homeless and presents for disadvantaged children.  We noticed that you have not made any contribution yet.  I’m sure this is an oversight on your part…”

“No, it’s not.”

“I beg your pardon, ser?”

“It is not an oversight.  I don’t celebrate Winterfest and I will not pay for others to make fucking idiots of themselves just because the sun rises.”

Samwell’s mouth dropped in shock at that outrageous statement.

“But surely you can’t mean that, Mr. Lannister.  You are one of the richest men in the club, in the country even.  Surely you feel some obligation to help those less fortunate.”

“I pay a ridiculous amount of taxes that support a shitload of social programs designed to help those who refuse to help themselves.  That is more than enough to meet any obligation to my fellow man.”

Gods, I’m starting to sound like Dad. 

Jaime couldn’t stop a shudder at that thought.  He picked up his wine glass and drained the last of the excellent Rhoynish red.  He thought longingly of the apple dumpling with custard sauce he’d ordered for dessert.  But waiting for it wasn’t worth more drivel from Tarly’s boys or the possibility that more of the wit and wisdom of Tywin Lannister would come out of his mouth.

Jaime threw down his napkin and rose.  He signaled the waiter to place the meal on his tab and leaned forward into Samwell Tarly’s personal space.

Young Tarly shook like a bowl of full of jelly.

“I have important business to attend to.  Business that does not stop for fucking nonsense like Winterfest.  I’m sure you boys will excuse me but even if you don’t, get the hells out of my way.” 

***

Finally!

The building snow storm had made traffic a nightmare.  And all the people convinced that their last minute errands were so much more important than anyone else’s safety only made things worse.  Jaime had abandoned his car and driver and walked the last few blocks home.  His handmade dress shoes were not made for walking on icy pavements and he’d almost fallen several times.  He was freezing, soaked to the skin and pissed as hells.

But he’d made it and was alone at last.

Jamie shut down the private elevator to his penthouse and triple locked the door that covered it.  Now all he had to do was draw all the curtains and avoid any kind of media, and he could resurface in 36 hours with another Winterfest behind him, avoided, unacknowleged and over.

After he showered away the chill and dressed in worn jeans and an old forest green henley, Jaime poured himself three fingers of whiskey and pulled his laptop out of his briefcase.  He squirmed around to find the single comfortable position on his ultra modern sofa chosen by a decorator who thought a sore back and knees was a fair price for style.  Maybe here at home with no interruptions, he’d be able to finish reviewing the proposal for strip mining the Mountains of the Moon.

A few hours, a tuna sandwich and a couple more whiskeys later, Jamie came to the conclusion that Mockingbird Corp. and Twin Towers, Ltd. had made a good case for a partnership.  Baelish would pay off the leaders of the hill clans and do the mountain top removal.  The Frey’s would oversee the mining and “disposal” of waste materials.  It would all be very profitable.  Lannister Reclamations might even get in on the government contracts when environmental damage was inevitably discovered a few years down the line and a Superfund site declared.  It was certainly a proposal that deserved further exploration.  Baelish and old Walder had a reputation for weaseling out of any legal consequences from their actions.  Jaime had once been an excellent attorney himself, but he wanted his team of lawyers to examine the contracts before continuing negotiations, just in case he’d missed something.

Jaime leaned his head against the back of the sofa.  He’d just rest his eyes for a minute then he’d move to the next item on his endless to do list.

***

The bells of the New Sept tolling midnight startled Jaime awake.

Fuck it’s cold!

The world outside his condo window was a swirling mass of gray and white.  The open curtains billowed in the howling wind.

But the curtains were drawn.  And how can I hear the bells?  This place is soundproofed. 

And my windows don’t open.

Jaime sat up so quickly that his laptop crashed to the floor.

“Fuck!  What the hells is going on?”  Jaime’s voice echoed strangely through his condo.

Weird, awful noises were coming from the elevator.  There was a high pitched wail like fingernails on a blackboard amplified a hundred times.  Under that something metal scraped against the floor, against itself.  The sounds sent shivers down Jaime’s spine.

The locked doors flew open and a hazy figure emerged.  It was tall, with long silver blond hair and piercing violet eyes.  It was wrapped in a heavy chain and dragged more chain behind it for several feet.

Jaime scrambled for his cell phone.  He should be able to call the Gold Cloaks before …

Crone’s tits, it was transparent!

Maybe that last drink was one too many.

“What are you?  Who are you?”  Jaime’s voice shook.

“You’d do better to ask me who I was.”  Came the reply.

A ghost who was a stickler for technicalities?  “Okay, I’m drunk and hallucinating or maybe having a stroke, but okay.  Who were you?”

The figure came closer and seemed to grow more substantial. “Do you really not recognize me, Jaime?”

“Rhaegar?  Rhaegar Targaryen?  But, but … you’re dead!  You’ve been dead for years.”

“No shit, Sherlock.  Gods, Jaime, take a breath.  You aren’t hallucinating.  You aren’t having a stroke.  I’m a dead guy and I’m standing in your, hmmmm, very nice apartment, talking to you.  Now let’s move on.  We haven’t got all night.”  A wry smile crossed the spirit’s face.

“Okay, okay.  Just go with it.”  Jaime muttered.

“Can I sit down?  These fucking chains are heavy.”

Jaime’s default mode, sarcasm, resurfaced.  “Please, make yourself comfortable.  Never let it be said that I’m a lousy host to dead people.  I’d offer you a drink, but I’m afraid it would go right through you and stain the upholstery.”

“Ha ha.  I see your sense of humor hasn’t improved with time.”

“Not that I’m not loving the idea of catching up with my long dead old buddy, but c’mon, Rhaegar, what’s the deal with the wind and the moaning and the chain?”

“Sorry about the special effects.  Being dead gets really boring.  You’re the first person who’s been allowed to see me.  Plus I needed to get your attention.  I need you to listen, Jaime.”

Jaime leaned forward, elbows on his knees.  “I think it’s safe to say that I’m riveted, Rhaegar.”

“Oh, man, where to start.  I should have spent less time planning my entrance and more on what I was going to say when I got here.”

“Yeah, you never were one for thinking ahead, Rhaegar.  Why don’t you start with what that fucking chain is about.”

“You’re right.  You’re exactly right.  I never thought ahead.  I never considered my actions or the effects on other people.  I was young, handsome and rich.  I deserved to have anything I wanted, everything I wanted.  I steamrolled over anyone who objected.  And every time I hurt someone, every careless action, every unintended consequence forged a link in this chain.”

”Every time I did something good, something selfless, a link was destroyed.”

Rhaegar rattled his lengthy burden.  “You can see where the balance came out.  I was selfish and self-centered and I hurt way more people than I helped.  I died being selfish.  I was driving too fast, driving drunk and I wrapped my car around a tree.  I killed three people that Winterfest Eve: myself, Lyanna and the baby she was carrying.  Then Elia, deserted and humiliated by me, fodder for every mean spirited gossip in the kingdoms, committed suicide.”

“I died about as far from the light of the Seven as anyone can.  So I was cursed.  Cursed to walk in the world, but not of it.  A silent witness to all the petty meanness people inflict on each other without being able to warn them of the consequences.  Silent witness to all the goodness and joy that people share without feeling any of the warmth myself.”

“Well that sucks, Rhaegar.  I’m really sorry for how things turned out for you.  But what does that have to do with me?”

“You’re really going to play dumb, Jaime?  You can’t feel the weight of the chain you carry yet.  But it was almost as large as mine back when I died.  Given all the shit you’ve pulled these last few years, how long do you think it is now?”

“You know you do look really miserable, but you were always kind of a downer, Rhaegar.  Maybe that’s why you’re having such a shitty afterlife.”

The spirit leapt to its feet.  A freezing, gale force wind arrowed from it and blew through Jaime like a thousand icy daggers.  The noise it made was overwhelming, unearthly.  The impact of both dropped Jaime to his knees.  He curled in on himself, covering his head with his arms and begged whatever gods might be listening for it to end.

Looking pleased with this result, Rhaegar once again took a seat.  The sudden silence in the condo was deafening.

Jaime regained his sense of sight, then hearing, then the feeling in his arms and legs.  He unlocked each joint one by one and, trembling, pulled himself back up onto the sofa.

“What do you want from me, Rhaegar?” Jaime asked in a small, hoarse voice.

“You are being given a chance for the Mother’s mercy, Jaime.  You will be haunted tonight by three more spirits.  The first will come when the bells toll one.  The next when the bells toll two.  The third one will show up whenever it damn well pleases.”

“I’d ask if they couldn’t come all at once and get it over with, but I’m afraid I’d piss you off again.”

“This is the only chance you’ll get, Jaime.  I only wish someone had been there to make me the same offer.”

“You’re a good friend, Rhaegar.  I wish I had been there for you when you needed me.”

There was a muted clink in the room.

“That sound was one of your links dropping, Jaime.  You can save yourself.  Do it.  Or you’ll end up like this.”

The window curtains billowed again and an unseen force pulled Rhaegar out of the room and into the storm.  Jaime rushed to the window to try to see where he went. 

There were figures within the storm.  Jaime’s attention was drawn to a tall man whose chain was enormous.  He ran aimlessly back and forth from building to building, seeking something he did not find.  There was a woman, straight and proud, her long hair billowing behind her.  She stopped every few steps, threw her head back and howled soundlessly to the sky.  If he could just get a clear look, Jaime was certain that he’d know them both.

***

The alarm on his cell phone buzzed and he startled awake.  It was one minute past midnight.  Winterfest Day had begun.

That was a freaky dream.  Note to self: no more mixing whiskey and tuna fish.

Jaime Lannister rolled over in his bed and fell back to sleep.

 

Chapter Text

What!” exclaimed the Ghost. “Would you so soon put out, with worldly hands, the light I give?”

A Christmas Carol, Stave Two.

***

The bells of the New Sept woke Jaime again, the single loud toll sounding like a clap of thunder right next to his slumbering head.  Groaning, he buried his face in the pillow, seeking to hide from the light that was flooding his bedroom.

Why is it so bright in here?  Did I sleep all the way into the afternoon?

But it wasn’t the light of a bright winter sun reflecting off new fallen snow.  It was hazy, yet blinding, like fog in the middle of a lightning strike.  Jaime turned on his back and threw his hands over his eyes to protect them.  The light seemed to pierce right through his bones and flesh, but then it started, not to fade as much as to gather and concentrate in a long column that floated in the air by his bedside.

“Wake, man, and look on me.”  The voice that emanated from the light was deep, with more than a hint of the North in it.

Jaime sat up and watched as the bright light resolved into … oh, fuck, … a shining great sword.  It was held reverently by a man a few years older than Jaime.  He was dressed as if he was a character in some television costume drama.  His dark tunic and breeches were covered by a long, thick woolen cloak with a wide collar of some animal fur.  His face was long and solemn.  He looked like someone who didn’t laugh easily.  His eyes were grey as storm clouds heavy with snow.

“Are you the first spirit Rhaegar told me about?”

“I am.”

“Crap, I really thought that was just a dream.” Jaime muttered.

“It was.  And it wasn’t.” the spirit replied.

“Sure, whatever that means.  Could you dim the light a little?  I can barely see.”

“I bring the light of Truth.  Would you have me extinguish it?”

“Don’t get your small clothes in a bunch.  I’d just like to get through whatever this weird shit is without my eyeballs searing in my head.”

“Very well.  I forget how fragile you mortals can be.”  The spirit pulled a scabbard for the sword out of midair.

“Is that a direwolf pelt?  They’re supposed to be a myth, something that pulls Lord Snow’s sled.”

The spirit slung the thing over his head and settled the great sword on his back. “That is neither here nor there, Jaime Lannister.”

“I am the Ghost of Winterfest Past.”

“Long past by the look of you.”

“No, your past.”

“I know all about my Winterfests past.  I have no desire to revisit them.”

“You think you know.  You were there, but you did not see.  Rise, and come with me.  And learn the truth of things.”

Jaime got out of bed and gestured to the boxers and t shirt he wore.  “Can I have a minute to change?  I’ll get arrested going out like this, not to mention freeze to death.”

“While you walk in my light you will be unseen.  You will feel neither heat nor cold.  For the light is insubstantial as a thought, yet protective as a suit of armor.”

“Ooooooookay.  If you say so.  I’d still feel better with some shoes and pants on.”

The ghost led Jaime to the window.  Just as when Rhaegar was pulled away, the glass looked like it was still there, but wasn’t any sort of barrier to the world outside.

The condo association is going to fine the hells out of me if this shit doesn’t fix itself by tomorrow.

“I do not know what a condor soliation is, Jaime Lannister, but it should not be on your mind tonight.”

“You can hear what I’m thinking?”  Fuck that was bad.

“Yes, I can hear your thoughts.  You have no way to hide your truth from me.  Now take my cloak in your hand.”

The ghost started to drift out the window.

“We’re thirty floors up.  It’s going to be a long drop …”

They were encompassed in a violent storm.  Jaime did not think he would survive the buffeting of the wind, then, suddenly, he was on the ground.  He knelt there while nausea clawed its way up his throat and fought to keep his dinner down.  He felt the spirit’s hand on his back for a moment and felt better, well enough to look around. 

He was no longer in King’s Landing, but on a snowy path winding through woods.  Jaime grinned for the first time in a long time.

“You recognize this place, Jaime Lannister?”

“Of course.  This is the path to my school, Crakehall.  We spent hours in these woods, playing the armies of the Five Kings or the Battle for the Dawn.”

Several boys ran down the path towards them.

“Daven!  Addam!  It’s been years!”

“They do not see you, Jaime, and would not know you if they did.  These boys are but shades of things long past.  Their Jaime Lannister is a mischievous youth, waiting just around the bend to ambush them as the Young Wolf once ambushed your ancestors.”

“I remember.  They fell right into my trap.  I got them good.”

“There is another boy here at Crakehall: younger, smaller, defenseless.  He is abandoned by his older brother when he needs him badly.”

“Tyrion!” Jaime turned to run down the path, pulling on the spirit’s cloak as he did.

Quick as a wink they were within the dormitory for the youngest boys.  A very small boy, his body, limbs and head all out of proportion - a dwarf - was packing a small suitcase.  He was towered over by a cold faced man with golden hair turning silver.

“The Bolton boy has invited you to spend Winterfest with his family in the North, Tyrion.  You will accept or you will stay here at school all by yourself.”

“But he hates me.  He’s mean to me, Father, and creepy.  I don’t want to spend Winterfest with him.  Why can’t I come home with Jaime?”

“He will not be mean to you anymore.  I own that family.”

“But why can’t I come home?”

“Do not whine, Tyrion.  It makes you even less appealing.  You are too old now to keep in the nursery and I won’t have you embarrassing the family before all of King’s Landing.  Now finish your packing.  I still need you to write a note to Jaime expressing how happy you are to be spending the holidays with your good friend, Roose.”

“If you fail to convince Jaime that you are doing this willingly, I will send you to a different school next term and you will not see your brother again for months.”

Tyrion sniffed back tears and whispered in a broken voice, “Yes, Father.”

Jaime’s jaw dropped open.  “He spent the next five Winterfests with the Boltons.  He always seemed so happy to go even though he and Roose were never very friendly during the term.”

“Did he truly seem happy, Jaime, or were you just relieved that you wouldn’t spend the holidays caught in the middle between him and your father and sister?  I’d show you how Tyrion spent those Winterfests if we had the time.  But we must move on.”

Jaime felt engulfed by the rushing wind, twisted and thrown about.  As he tumbled through time, he thought he caught glimpses of passing years, but they moved by his eyes so quickly that he could not fix them in his memory.

***

They came to a stop in a luxurious living room, in the middle of a raging argument.

“You bastard!  You couldn’t even leave your whores for one day!  One lousy day to be here for your children.”  The beautiful, blonde woman was screaming at a big, dark-haired man who was running to fat.

Cersei grabbed an ornament off the Winterfest tree and threw it straight at her husband’s face.  Robert batted it away and it hit the floor, shattering dangerously close to the two golden haired moppets cowering beneath a table.

The Ghost sighed heavily.  “Every Robert ends up the same.”

Turning away from the fight going on in the living room, Jaime spied another child: dark haired, older, but still much too young for the panic in his blue eyes.  He was pulling a cell phone from his mother’s purse.

“Please pick up. Please pick up.” the boy whispered as the call connected.

“Hey, Cers, don’t nag.  I’m on my way.”  Jaime heard his own voice whine teasingly.

“Uncle Jaime.”  Gendry’s voice broke as tears began to stream down his face.

“What’s wrong, Gendry?”  The voice on the other end of the phone turned serious quickly.

“They’re doing it again, Uncle Jaime.  Dad just got home and Mom’s been drinking since lunch.”

A loud crash came from the living room followed by a man bellowing in rage.

Fucking Father of Justice!  Your kids are in the fucking room!

The ghost turned to Jaime.  “Didn’t you have any idea how bad it was?”

“I knew they hated each other at the end.  But I never imagined Cersei would be so out of control in front of the children.”

The telephone conversation continued.  “I’m about 10 minutes away, Gendry.  Are you safe?  Where are the twins?”

“They’re still in the living room with Mom and Dad.”

“Can you get to them?”

‘I think so.  Maybe.”

“Don’t try unless it’s safe.”

The boy squared his shoulders.  “No, I’ll … I can get them, Uncle Jaime.”

“I want the three of you to grab your stuff and stand right by the front door.  As soon as I pull up, run out onto the porch.  I’ll come up and get you into your coats and boots.  We’ll go to … we’ll go to my place for the night.  I’ll tell your Uncle Tyrion to meet us.  We’ll spend the night there, all together.  It will be an adventure.”

“Okay, Uncle Jaime.  Please, get here soon.”

The gale lasted only for another blink of an eye and Jaime found himself in the bedroom of his old apartment.  He saw himself tucking the three children into his bed.

The soft green eyes of the three-year-old twins were almost closed as he pressed kisses to their smooth golden foreheads. Ten-year-old Gendry was fighting sleep, his fair skinned brow still creased with worry.

“Will Lord Snow be able to find them here, Uncle Jaime?  Tom and Myrcy have been so excited for Winterfest.  It will break their hearts if they don’t have any presents in the morning.”

Watching the scene unfold, Jaime’s heart clenched.  Gendry had been just a little boy.  He should have been greedily anticipating all the loot under his Winterfest tree, not worrying over the twins and fearing his parent’s tempers.

“Don’t you worry, Gendry, Lord Snow knows all and sees all.  He’ll find all three of you as soon as you get to sleep.”

Gendry’s voice dropped to a whisper.  “I’m too old for Lord Snow, Uncle Jaime.  I know it’s just Mom and Dad.”

“We’re never too old for Lord Snow.  Now shut your eyes and let go of your worries.  We’ve got you: me and Tyrion and old Lord Snow.”

The front door opened as Jaime closed the bedroom door on the sleeping children.  He met Tyrion in the foyer.

“Crap, big bro, it was just like you thought.  Robert had scarpered and our sweet sister was passed out on the living room couch.  I taped a note to her forehead to let her know we had the kids and she could see them at dinner tomorrow and not one second before.  I thought about writing it on her face with magic marker, but figuring out the lettering so she’d be able to read it in a mirror was just too much like work.  Your dyslexia might have come in handy for that.”

“Did you get everything?”

“Yes, of course I did.  Uncle Imp to the rescue and all that.”

Tyrion gave Jaime the stink eye.  ”Don’t even think of making that elf joke that’s on the tip of your tongue.”

“You and your brother were friends as well as family?” the Ghost asked.

“He was my closest friend for years.  I really thought I knew him, knew what he was capable of.”

Tyrion continued into the living room and headed straight to the sideboard that housed the liquor.  “Aren’t you glad now that I convinced you that you needed a Winterfest tree in here.  Once we bring the kids gifts up from the car and get them wrapped, it will look like a Driftwood Crown greeting card in here.”  He toasted Jaime with a generous shot of WyldFyre rum.

“She hadn’t even wrapped the presents yet?” 

“Nope.  I couldn’t take the time to hunt out where she keeps all that stuff.  Luckily Cersei still hides the presents under the bed.  I don’t think I would have found them otherwise in that ridiculous McMansion.  I made a stop at WallMart and picked up paper and ribbon and tape.  The choice was pretty limited, but I think everything I got is age appropriate.  I also grabbed some donuts for breakfast tomorrow and a big jar of aurochs jerky for some reason.  That store is amazing.”

“Thank you for doing this, Tyr.”

“Hey, you had the hard job, dealing with three traumatized kids.  I just did a little B&E on Baratheon land.  Although I am the one who called Father to let him know what was going on.”

“How’d Dad take it?”

“With his typical icy disapproval.  He wanted us to bring the kids over to the mansion right away, but I convinced him you’d gotten them settled here for the night.  I think he’s going to tear Cersei and Robert a new one tomorrow after family dinner.  I hope they’re still hung over, just to make it extra painful.”

Jaime looked at his younger self and his dearly beloved brother with tears in his eyes.  “That turned into one of our best Winterfest mornings ever.  Tyr and I stayed up all night wrapping presents.  Putting together that bloody bicycle drove us nuts.  But Gendry’s face when he saw it under the tree … the kids were so resilient.  It was the perfect way to christen that apartment.”

“I spent the best times of my life there.”

“Yes, the best times of your life.” said the ghost.  “Let’s move on to another of your Winterfests.”

***

This time they came to a stop in a large lecture hall, cheaply but festively decorated for the holiday.  The party going on there was in full swing, students gathered in tight groups debating the future of the world while scarfing up the university’s free food and drink.

Straightening up to his full height, Jaime ran a hand over his hair and tried to do a discreet breath check.

“They cannot see you, hear you or smell you, Jaime.”  the Ghost said, rolling his eyes.

A straw blonde head towered above the rest.  She was standing with three or four others, waving her glass excitedly while she made her point.  She was glowing with enthusiasm and youth.

Gods, I’d forgotten her eyes.  How could I have forgotten her eyes?

“You forgot much over these last years, Jaime Lannister.  Things you knew and things you didn’t know you knew.  Things you loved and things that you forgot to love.”

“Well that’s just fucking cryptic.  Wait, here I come.”  Jaime moved closer to the group.

“So, it’s ridiculous that a Lannister is teaching a seminar on corporate responsibility.  It’s like asking a Greyjoy to teach maritime law.”  Brienne brought her argument to a close and waited for laughter from her audience. 

It didn’t come.

“Perhaps,” a voice drawled from behind her, “the administration thought you should be taught by someone who’s been in the trenches, maybe learn some practice with all your theory.”

Brienne whirled to face him and froze, her face paling then flaming crimson.  Her friends all found some other place to be, abandoning her to her fate.  Jaime Lannister was notorious for having a sharp wit and sharper tongue.  They obviously didn’t want to get shredded with Brienne.

She shook off her shock.  “I apologize, Mr. Lannister.  I shouldn’t have expressed my concerns so sarcastically.”

“But you have concerns nonetheless.  You’re what?  A second year?”

“Third year, ser.”

“Really?  And still so idealistic.  Most third years are getting jaded, worrying about finding a job and passing the bar.”  Jaime looked her up and down and added skeptically.  “You’re tall, but you still look too young to be a third year.”

“I skipped a couple grades when I was a kid.  And I finished my B.A. in three years.  I don’t tell lies, Mr. Lannister.”

“That’s going to make it difficult for you to be a lawyer, Ms. …”

“Tarth.  Brienne Tarth.”

He extended his hand.  “Jaime.  My name’s Jaime.  Mr. Lannister is my father.”

The Ghost watched the scene with an enigmatic expression.  “You were trying something different with teaching, weren’t you?  A change of direction?” he asked.

“I was so tired of all the wrangling with Dad over ethics.  Tyrion was much better at getting around him than I was.  I’d always been fascinated by the law.  I insisted on getting a JD along with the MBA Dad wanted.  I really hoped I’d transition out of the company and into teaching full time.  But life came along and fucked things up.”

“Too bad.  It would have been a good path for you.”

There was the now familiar rush of air and Jaime found himself back in his old bedroom.  It wasn’t the children in his bed this time.

She was lying beside him, looking stunned and breathing hard, her face still flushed from pleasure.  He was sprawled next to her, also panting to regain his breath.

“Oh gods, I never do this.  Never.” Brienne whispered.

Jaime turned on his side to face her and ran a lazy finger along her elegant collar bone.  “What?  Come your brains out on the first date?”

She smacked his hand with a snort.  “Go home with a man I just met.”

“And come your brains out on the first date. You did come your brains out, right?  I wasn’t imagining it?”  A hint of concern crept into Jaime’s voice.

Even barely knowing him, she heard and soothed that trace of anxiety.  “Yes, okay?  I’ve never done that either.  Not that hard.  Or that many times.” 

Jaime smirked, his worry forgotten.  He brought his hand back to her chest inching under the sheet she was clutching like a lifeline.  “Good.  Give me a few minutes, maybe some Gatorade, and we’ll do it all again.  Unless you have somewhere else to be?”

“No, I wasn’t doing anything tonight but the party.  I have to meet up with some friends for Winterfest dinner tomorrow but until then I’d just planned to get a head start on the new semester.”

“Well you can get a head start right here.  I bet you give great head start.  I’ve already proved I do.”

Jaime face palmed with a groan.  “I’m lucky she didn’t punch me in the mouth and leave right then and there.”

The Ghost cracked a grin.  “Damn lucky.”

“I can’t believe you just said that!”  Brienne sat up in her outrage and the covers fell to her waist.

Both Jaimes let out a groan.

“Gods, look at you.  Just look at you.”  the Jaime in the bed whispered.  His hand moved to cup one of her small breasts.  “It’s gonna take me forever to taste all these freckles.”

Brienne drew in a deep, broken breath as his fingers pinched and teased her nipple. “Dammit, I can’t take your class now.  Not after this.”

“Doesn’t matter.  We’ll teach each other all we need to know right here.”

The Ghost was actually blushing.  He cleared his throat.  “Time to move on, Jaime.

“Can you slow things down at all while we travel?  I’d like to see this year.”

They left Jaime and Brienne Tarth lying in bed, alternating between bickering and kissing. 

The wind this time was gentler.  Jaime looked around him to catch glimpses of the days rushing by.  There were a lot of images of them in his bed, fucking.  And in his office, fucking.  And at Brienne’s tiny apartment, fucking …  But there were also dinners spent talking about who they were and who they wanted to be, movies dates where they shared the popcorn and fought over the arm rest, challenging runs and rambling walks through the city, times he brought her chocolate truffles or winter roses just because he loved her.  In every image, Jaime was smiling.

***

And then it was over and they were in Cersei’s living room again.  She was involved in a serious discussion with their father.

“This is where it’s going to get difficult for you, Jaime.”  The Ghost’s grey eyes turned sad.

“You mean it hasn’t been already?”

“Not like this.”

Tywin passed his daughter a leather portfolio.  “I’ve read the dossier your ‘detective’ compiled.  It’s quite different from what my own man discovered about the girl.”

“When Dad did finger quotes with just his voice, you knew he’d caught you in a lie and you were in trouble.”  Jaime told the spirit.

Cersei didn’t look intimidated by Tywin for once.  “Well, it‘s certainly true in spirit if not in fact.  She’s just after the money.  She has to be.  What else could she be after?  That makes her a whore in my book.” 

“He believes he’s in love.  He’d never listen to this coming from you.”

“Of course, he wouldn’t.  But it won’t be coming from me.  It will be coming from Jaime.”

“No, spirit.  Not this Winterfest.  Please not this one.”  Jaime turned to the Ghost and begged.

The sword on the spirit’s back began to glow through the sheath.  “You must see Truth, Jaime Lannister.  Only then can you understand what has led to your present state.”

Tywin looked upon Cersei with unprecedented approval.  “That is an intriguing idea.  You’ve changed since Robert died.  There’s more of the lioness in you than I thought.”

“Thank you, Father.  I hope that means that you’ll consider my request for the open vice president position.”

“Let us see how this gambit turns out.  We’ll discuss expanding your role with the Lannister Group in the new year.”

“Once we have Tyrion separated from his trailer trash, we should turn our attention to that blue-eyed cow of Jaime’s.  She certainly isn’t the appropriate person to be on my brother’s arm.”

“You will do nothing about Miss Tarth.”  Just that quickly Tywin’s approval was lost.  “Jaime has shown more commitment to her than any of the more conventional women he’s dated over the years.  She would not have been my choice for a good daughter, but she will give Jaime strong sons with the Lannister name. I’ll finally have grandchildren who will carry on the family’s legacy.”

A false, fixed, conciliating smile landed awkwardly on Cersei’s face.  “Of course, Father.  Speaking of the family name, I’m going to petition the court to become Cersei Lannister again.  Being a Baratheon means nothing in King’s Landing since Robert died.  I also thought … Well, Gendry is too old and too proud to change, but Tommen and Myrcella are still young.  They could be the Lannister grandchildren you’ve been waiting for with the stroke of a judge’s pen.”

She raised her eyes to meet her father’s gaze, hoping to find agreement there.  Instead she found only ice.

“You chose to wed a Baratheon, Cersei, and a Baratheon you will remain.  Your children will remain so as well.  There is already too much whispering over the twins’ lack of resemblance to Robert.  You will not fan those fires by trying to strip them of their father’s name.  Do you understand me, Cersei.”

“Of course, Father.  It was just a thought.”

“A very bad one.  See that you don’t bungle this plan for Tyrion the way you bungled your marriage.”

Jamie looked after them in disgust.  “Crone’s tits, I never believed it, but she really did it.  She set the whole shit storm in motion. Tyrion was nothing to her.  My love for Tyrion was nothing, as long as she could try to please Dad.  Like Dad could ever be pleased.  If she was here I think I’d strangle her.”

“Don’t let your emotions cloud your vision, Jaime Lannister.  There is more truth yet to see here.” the solemn faced Ghost replied.

Cersei maintained her smile until she had seen her father to his limo and watched it pull away.  She kept her composure all the way to back to the living room.  Then she picked up a vase and threw it against the wall.

“Bastard!  I will be Cersei Lannister again.  Tommen and Myrcella will have their rightful name.  Some day he won’t be able to stop me.”

The door from the study opened and a middling man emerged.  He was average height, average build with graying hair and a face only a ferret could love.

“Did you hear that, Dr. Qyburn?  He rejects my children in favor of some theoretical spawn from Jaime and that giant bitch.  I present him with an ideal solution to the Tyrion problem and all I get in return is ‘wait until the new year’!”

“Absolutely shameful, Mrs. Baratheon.  The idea that a father would treat his daughter so dismissively, in this day and age.”

“Father’s always longed for the times when Lannisters ran the country and the kings.  When sons were worth having and daughters were just currency to buy alliances.  He ordered me to go after Robert and now he scolds me for marrying him.  And he treats my children like dirt.”

“If only we could reveal that Tommen and Myrcella are entirely Lannister.  But you are correct that your father is too narrow minded to accept the special way the twins were created.”

“What the fuck is that creepy lab rat doing here?  I didn’t even know Cersei knew him.  She never had anything to do with the R & D section.” 

“Wait, you know what?  I don’t care.  I know what’s going to happen.  So, what if I don’t have all the details?”  Jaime had already lived it once.  Why did he have to go through it again?

The Ghost’s face became hard as stone.  “You will see.  You will learn.  Truth is in the details.”

“The wheels are in motion, Mrs. Baratheon.  By next Winterfest, the Lannister brothers will no longer block your way.”

“He deserves what’s coming, the evil, little imp.  You’re going to make it something disgusting, aren’t you?  A big, juicy scandal he can’t finesse his way out of.  I need the gossip to destroy him.  The world has to see Tyrion for the monster he is.  That will finally give Father the excuse he needs to disown him.”

“Calm yourself, Mrs. Baratheon, you are becoming agitated.”  The doctor’s voice became rhythmic, strangely soothing.  “You still have to convince Jaime of your sincerity.  Unless he truly believes this Tysha girl is a whore who’s using Tyrion, he’ll never cooperate.”

“But Jaime’s been getting the medication, hasn’t he?”

“Yes, but only small doses.  Not enough to strongly affect his judgement.  I will need to increase the dosage gradually or the change in his behavior might arouse suspicions.”

“We’ll do something about that cow he’s dating after we’re done with Tyrion.”

“I don’t think that will be necessary.  Increasing the medication should have the desired effect.”

An ominous frown creased Cersei’s perfect brow.  Dr. Qyburn backpedaled.  “Of course, if Jaime doesn’t destroy the relationship himself, we will take steps.”

“I have to go freshen up.  Jaime will be here soon and I want to look like perfect picture of sisterly love and concern when he does.”

Cersei turned at the bottom of the staircase to address him again.  “The medication, it won’t affect him?  Physically, I mean.  I’d hate for it to ruin his looks, like make him gain weight or something.  Will he still stay handsome?”

“I can’t vouch for what Jaime might do to himself while under the influence of my formula.  But the drug itself should have no damaging cosmetic effects.”

“Well, I suppose that’s the best we can hope for.  I’ll be able to help him and watch over him.  He’ll need me once Tyrion and that Tarth cunt are out of the way.”

Qyburn rolled his eyes once she turned her back.  As she went up the stairs, her hips swaying provocatively, he whispered.  “Gods, just admit you want to fuck him.  Why are you so resistant? I can bring him round to it once he’s on a high enough dosage.  A child made the old-fashioned way would be an intriguing study of comparison with the twins.”

“Gods,” Jaime cried out in revulsion, “That bastard was the lead researcher for LannPharma.  He was in and out of our offices for years.  What did he do to the kids?  How long was he poisoning me?”

“Not nearly as long as he was drugging your sister.  It made her willing to carry the clones Qyburn created.”

Before Jaime had a second to deal with that concept, the weaselly little man pulled a cheap cell phone from his pocket.  The number he dialed was preprogrammed in.  “Yes, it’s me, Gregor.  Do you have her in sight?”

He listened for a few moments.  When he spoke again his voice had that odd, sing-song cadence.  “Yes, that’s good, Gregor.  Now remember.  This is very important.  It must look like the little man did the deed himself.  Nothing else can be done to the woman.”

His voice got sharper.  “Gregor!  You heard me.  Nothing else.  I don’t care how soft and pretty she looks.  You must restrain yourself.  I will meet you at Mr. Lannister’s apartment tonight to oversee things.  There must be no injury to the woman.  Except for her being dead, of course.  The drugged bottles of wine I sent will put them both to sleep and we will do the necessary staging as quickly as possible.  No one can suspect anyone else was there.”

“Do a good job on this, Gregor, and there will be a treat waiting for you when you get home.  Yes, you are getting better.  Yes, I am taking care of you.  But I won’t be able to continue if Tyrion Lannister keeps poking his nose in my special projects.  I will see you in a few hours.”

Qyburn ended the conversation and returned his phone to his pocket.  “It’s so hard to find good help.” he said to himself.  “The smart psychopaths are too strong willed but the stupid ones have to be monitored every minute.”  He sent a contemptuous look towards the staircase.  “Just like the society bitches.”

Jaime slid down the wall and buried his face in his hands.  “This can’t be true.  The police investigated.  They said it was all Tyrion’s doing.”

The Ghost placed his hand on Jaime’s shoulder.  It seemed to calm the emotions roiling through him. 

“Examine your memories, Jaime.  You always suspected that there was something off in what happened with Tyrion.  Cersei’s genuine horror, your father’s rage and indecisiveness, their reactions were all wrong.  But you were afraid to pursue it because of the guilt you felt.  You thought that you told Tyrion the ugly facts about the woman he loved and, in his anger and despair, he killed her and then himself.”

The clock in the living room struck three.

Jaime raised his tear streaked face.  “Do you know where I am right now, spirit?  I’m at the jewelers picking up my mother’s engagement ring.  I had it resized for Brienne.  I was going to ask her at our anniversary dinner.  It was in my pocket when I went to talk to Tyrion.”

“Afterward I was too ashamed to give it to her.  And everything fell apart so quickly.  Dad had the heart attacks.  He got weaker and weaker until he just slipped away the next year. Winterfest in a cardiac unit is almost as depressing as Winterfest at the city morgue.  Cersei got crazier and crazier and the tabloids ate it up.  The accident, it was because she was rushing to get to the hospital before Dad died.   Those fucking photographers were chasing her, hoping for a picture of her or the twins and the car went off the road, all of them killed instantly.  It felt like Winterfest killed my whole family”

“Not your whole family, Jaime.”  the Ghost said without sympathy.  “There is still more you need to see.  Hold my cloak.”

*** 

The anniversary had come around again.  That was how Jaime had come to think of Winterfest, the anniversary.  They were supposed to meet at the gravesite, leave some flowers and talk about their lost loved ones.

Jaime and the Ghost watched as Gendry and Brienne waited in vain for Jaime to show up.

Gendry had turned eighteen that year.  He was finished with boarding school and started on his metallurgy apprenticeship instead of college.  Cersei and Dad would have wanted Jaime to fight him over that, but Jaime didn’t have the energy.  Just a few months in and Gendry was already adding muscle to his lanky frame, making him look more Baratheon than ever.

Brienne stood next to him, one hand on his arm as she put away her phone with the other.  She had been a rock through the dark days for Gendry, as he lost one family member after another.  But sometimes a young man needs more than a friendly rock to lean on.

“What the hells is Uncle Jaime’s excuse this time?” 

“I don’t know, Gendry.  It went straight to voice mail.  He planned to be here.  I texted a reminder this morning and called his assistant as well.

“He promised that we would talk, Brienne.  He promised.  Uncle Jaime never used to break a promise to me or the twins.”

“He promised me too, Gendry.  Something very important must have come up for him to miss this.”

“I don’t know what to do, Brienne.  I planned to spend today with Uncle Jaime.  I don’t want to be alone for Winterfest.”  The despair in his face reminded Jaime of how young Gendry had still been.

“Oh, Gendry, you won’t be.  You’ll be with me until Jaime can get free.  One of my clients, Mrs. Stark, holds a big party every year.  They’re doing party prep today and she’s expecting me to drop by.  She’s very nice and she has children about your age.  I’m sure she’d be happy to have you come too.  Then we’ll go and drag your Uncle home and start making our own Winterfest traditions.”

“Why didn’t you keep your promise to them, Jaime?  You could still be having Winterfests if only you had.”  the Ghost asked, disappointment in his eyes.

“I don’t know.  I was so busy, it was easier to forget.  Remembering, it just hurt too much.”

“It hurt Gendry too.”

“I know.  Gods, I know that.  But seeing him, having him need me to be a good man, a strong man.   I couldn’t do that.  I knew I was an interfering bastard who killed my brother, my dad, everybody.  I couldn’t be what Gendry needed and it was agonizing every time he looked at me, physically painful.”

“Some of that was withdrawal from the drugs that Qyburn had been giving you.  But most of it was just plain cowardice.”

Jaime drew himself up in outrage.  “You don’t know.  You don’t know how it felt to bury and Gendry needing me, the company needing me, Brienne needing me.  I wasn’t built for it.  I couldn’t feel that much.”

“You’ve told yourself that for years, Jaime.  But if you truly believed it, I wouldn’t be here.”

***

They were in Jaime’s office, now.  It was the hour of the wolf.  An elaborately decorated but drooping Winterfest tree stood in one corner.  It coordinated with all the other designer decorations around the executive floor.

“This tree needs water, Jaime.”  Brienne tested the drying needles of the pine.

“The staff takes care of that, Brienne.”

“Speaking of your staff, I left three messages for Peck to remind you about our plans with Gendry.  Didn’t you get any of them?”  Brienne wandered around the office.  She hadn’t been there very much.  It wasn’t like it had been in law school with Brienne spending as much time in Jaime’s office as she did in class.

“Peck’s wife went into labor this morning.  He was so freaked that he ran out without his coat.  Ridiculous, really.  This is number four or five for them.  He should be used to it by now.”

“Gendry really missed you today, Jaime.  He was trying to say his goodbyes and move on.  He needed you there to support him through it.”

“I wanted to be there.  I did.  But there was too much to do here.  There’s always too much to do.

“Especially when our plans involve Gendry.  If you don’t make time for him soon, Jaime, you’re going to lose him.”

Brienne’s meandering finally brought her to the desk.  She perched on the corner.  “What was it, by the way?”

“What was what?”

“The baby, Jaime.  Girl or boy?  Is Peck’s wife okay?”

“How the hells would I know?  I’m his boss, not his buddy.  We don’t trade recipes and braid each other’s hair.  Not like you and that Stark woman.”

“She’s a client, Jaime, an important client.  And she’s a very interesting person, if you’d just make the time to meet her.  You should be grateful to her.  She gave Gendry a place to stay tonight and he’ll have a real Winterfest in the morning.”

“She’s an interfering busybody.  Did you know her foundation is trying to block the waterfront project?”

“Of course.  I’m working on that with her.”

“The fuck you say!  Casterly Construction is bidding on those contracts.  If the project falls through, we could lose millions!”

“You can’t be serious!  You know that development is going to destroy any trace of the old Mud Gate and level that entire neighborhood.”

“Good, that slum should be destroyed!”

“It’s not a slum.  It’s one of the last places working people can afford to live in this city.  If you turn it into high rise condos, where are all those people going to go?”

“Not my problem.”

“I thought I was talking to Jaime Lannister, not Tywin 2.0.”

“Brienne, I’ve got employees and shareholders who are counting on me to turn a profit this year.  And that’s been hard enough between the scandals, that mess in R&D when Qyburn disappeared and all the confusion while Father’s estate was settled.  I can’t start overhauling the corporate strategy now.  It will break us.”

“Maybe you should go back over your class lectures.  You used to say that if being socially responsible would break a company, it deserved to be broken.”

“It was easy to say that in a classroom.  Now I’ve got people depending on me for their paychecks.”

“Let’s not argue on Winterfest, Jaime.  C’mon.  Call it a night.  We can sleep at my place and pick Gendry up at the Starks in the morning.  I’ve got the stuff at home to make a big Winterfest lunch.  We can pig out and watch A Winterfest Story a couple times.  Gendry loves the stuff with the BB gun.”

“Tommen loved the BB gun.  Gendry loves the Grinch.”

“So, we’ll watch the Grinch then.”

“I can’t, Brienne.  Really.  There’s too much work to do.  I’ll catch a nap on the couch.  If I hustle I might be able to take a break for dinner in the late afternoon.”

“Jaime ...”

“I’ll do my best, Brienne.  And I’ll make it up to you.  Next Winterfest will be the best one ever. I promise.  But now I’ve got to get back to work.  They don’t have Winterfest in Southyros and I have a conference call in an hour.  I need to prepare.”

Brienne heaved a sigh and then stood up.  She dropped a kiss on the top of Jaime’s head and whispered to him.  “I’m going to hold you to that promise.”

Looking on, the Ghost commented, “But she didn’t, did she?”

“No.  By the next Winterfest, we were done.”  Jaime’s eyes were dry, but desolate.

“Why was that, Jaime?”

“I was busy.  She got busy.  We kept fighting over the waterfront, over Gendry, over the Starks, over what color the sky was.  We stopped talking.  Eventually we stopped fucking.  When I bailed on the holiday ski trip she’d planned with Gendry and her dad, it was the last straw.  I came home on Winterfest Eve and she’d left a box with all my stuff from her place.  She’d cleaned all her stuff out of my place.”

“She left you a note, didn’t she?  What did it say?”

“I don’t remember.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Look, can we just get the fuck out of here.  I’ve seen enough.  I know enough.  I just want to go the fuck back to sleep.”

“What did the note say, Jaime?”

“Fuck you.  You already know.  You know everything, you creepy fuck.”

“WHAT DID IT SAY!”  the Ghost’s voice was like a clap of thunder.

“It said she didn’t believe.  Okay?  Are you satisfied?  It said she didn’t believe in us anymore.  She didn’t believe in me.”

***

Jaime woke in his own bed as the bells finished tolling the hour.  It was still one o’clock.  How was that possible?  He’d been with the spirit for hours, for days.  Every part of his body was sore or numb.

Jaime scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair.  “So much for not feeling cold or pain, you lying bastard.”

He rose slowly from his bed, like an old man, joints creaking, muscles stiff.

“The next one of you sons of bitches isn’t going to catch me in my underwear.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us”

 A Christmas Carol, Stave Three

***

The bells of the New Sept struck two and Jaime Lannister slept on.  His cell phone buzzed insistently and Jaime Lannister slept on.  He was fully dressed in jeans, henley, down vest and hiking boots and Jaime Lannister lay crosswise, his feet hanging off his king-sized mattress, and slept on.

“Oi, ya lazy git!  Wake the fuck up!  I got places to be.”

Jaime swam slowly up to consciousness.

Crap, his bedroom was filled with bright light, again, this time emanating from a golden torch held high.  The figure that held it was sumptuously dressed in a long brown tunic with voluminous golden sleeves gathered at the wrist.  A blue brocade cloak was tied around his shoulders and circlet of holly leaves sat on his head. 

The fine clothes were at odds with the man.  He had a narrow face and pale eyes that spoke of a life hard lived.  His dark hair swept back from his forehead in a high widow’s peak and a close-trimmed beard covered his jaw and chin.

“Well, at least you’re dressed.  Didn’t fancy hauling you all over the town in your small clothes.”

“Who the hells are you then?”  Jaime asked, surly from lack of sleep.

“I’m the Ghost of Winterfest fucking Present.  C’mon.  Rhaegar and old Neddy explained all this shite to you.  Let’s get a move on so I can have some of my day left to enjoy.”

“Neddy?”

“The Ghost Of Winterfest Past.  Gloomy fella, carries a big sword.”

“He never mentioned his name.”

“Gotta stick so far up it’s a wonder he can walk, that one.  Well, I’m sure I’ll show you a better time than he did.  Name’s Bronn by the way.”

“Brawn?”  Jamie continued to lay with his booted feet hanging off the duvet.

“Bronn.  Do you need to step into that fancy privy and clean out your ears?”

The Ghost gestured grandly with his flaming torch.  Jaime was glad he was still lying down or it might have taken his head off.

“Get your lazy arse outta that bed or I’ll leave you behind.  Though these are pretty nice digs to stay miserable in.”  The Ghost … Bronn … turned to survey the luxurious master suite.

“The Father’s big blue balls!” he exclaimed, catching sight of himself in the full-length mirror on Jaime’s wardrobe. “Why did no one tell me?  I look a right prat in this get up.  Those bastards, sendin’ me out like this.”

He waved the torch in front of him and the light flared.  When the spots cleared from in front of Jaime’s eyes, Bronn was dressed in a worn, dark leather jerkin closed with buckles on his chest, a kerchief knotted round his neck, black breeches and boots.  Instead of a torch, he had a sword slung across his hip, the hilt and scabbard worn from use.

What is it with these guys and swords?

“They look impressive.  More than some poncey puffy sleeves.”  The Ghost evaluated himself in the mirror.  “But no cloak, no cloak.  What will you hang onto?  Don’t want to go skippin’ arm in arm through the town.  Wenches might get the wrong idea.”

Jaime watched as the Ghost wandered through the bedroom, picking up one thing, then another.

“Ah, this’ll do.”  Bronn grabbed the crimson tie that Jaime had set out to wear to the office the next day.  “This is nice.  I’m keeping this.”

He flicked one end of the tie to Jaime, who caught it on reflex.  “Hold onto that and don’t wander.  Or I’ll tie it round your wrist like a leash.”

The familiar buffeting of wind as Jaime traveled through time and space was even more disorienting when started while lying down.  They came to a stop with a thump and Jaime bent over, hands on his knees, trying not to puke.

“You don’t seem quite as skilled at that as the other ghost was.”  Jaime remarked, gasping.

“Course not.  This is my first go round.”

Jaime looked around him.  The suburban cul de sac was lined with small, cookie-cutter townhouses, the paint color and Winterfest trimmings the only way to distinguish them one from another.  It was the sort of place that Jaime avoided like domestic beer, off the rack suits and capital gains tax.

It was no later than mid-morning by the look of the sky.  The street was still fairly quiet.  There were a few children in front yards playing in the snow, a few men shoveling walkways.

“Where have you brought me, Bronn?”

“Never been here, have you?  Not even once?”  Bronn asked, eyebrows raised.  “Well, it’s just a modest neighborhood, homes filled with hard working people trying to live their lives.  Let’s visit one, eh?”

“That’s not really necessary.”

“Oh, it is.  Because I say it is, Lannister.”  Bronn turned in a slow circle, the hand holding the other end of Jaime’s silk tie outstretched.  “I say we go into that one.  It looks jolly enough with the snowman family in the yard.”

“Oh, very well.  I thought this was supposed to be my Winterfest, but …”

Bronn interrupted while dragging Jaime towards the house.  “Not everything is about you, Lannister.  Unless it is.”

It was pandemonium in the house.  Children were chasing one another around with what must have been a Winterfest gift of toy swords and shields, yelling various mottos of the old great houses at the top of their lungs. 

Jaime dodged out of the way, yet the running children took no notice and a swinging plastic sword passed right through him.

“Well hit, girl.  Little lass has an arm on her, she does.”  Bronn crowed in delight.

In the kitchen, a woman was doing the almost swearing thing that parents learn to do, lest small people start repeating curse words at school or in the grocery store.  A thin man with a skimpy beard was trying to listen to the woman while keeping an eye out to prevent merry roughhousing from crossing over into outright violence.

“It won’t work, Jos.  I’ve been preheating for an hour and it’s cold as stone.”

“Are you sure, dear?  Maybe the pilot light needs to be lit?”

She rolled her eyes heavensward as though seeking strength.  “It’s electric, not gas, Jos.  There is no pilot light.”

“Is anything working?”

“The burners do.  It’s the big heating element thingy in the oven that’s broken.  But I can’t cook a turkey on the stovetop.  You promised me we’d have a new stove for Winterfest this year.  You promised.”

Pia Peckledon had been a scary woman back when she had worked as a receptionist at the Lannister Group.  The years had not made her less formidable.

Poor skinny Peck is going to catch hell for not buying her a new stove.

“Don’t be so sure about that, Lannister.”

“Qhorin will need that money for new school uniforms, gods willing.  We didn’t have enough for the both.  We agreed, Pia.  Qhorin deserves to go to the Red Keep and if you and I have to make sacrifices to do it, we will.”

“It’s not right, Jos.  You haven’t had a raise in years.  He keeps you working all hours of the day and night and not one copper more.  Even Tywin, the mean old … tyrant, gave Winterfest bonuses.  But, oh, not Mr. Jaime Winterfest-Is-Bullpucky Lannister.”

“He’s getting worse every year.”  Peck said sadly.  “You should have heard him with young Mr. Baratheon.  It was cruel and shameful.”

One brown haired moppet took time out from bashing her brothers with a cheap replica of the legendary Oathkeeper and asked, “Who’s shameful, Daddy?  Is it Jem for not keeping up his shield?”

“No, my sweetling, it’s me, your poor old dad.  I forgot that Mama and I decided to cook the turkey on the barbecue this year.  We need to go out to the garden and sweep off the patio so I can bring old Fireball out from the garage.  Dany, you, Martyn and Jem put up your swords and take the brooms out and get started.  Genna, help you mother get the turkey ready to go on the grill.”

“Qhorin, put that down and help me bring the stuff from the garage.”

A dreamy-eyed boy of about eleven turned another page of a book big enough to be a doorstop.  “What, Dad?”

“It’s all hands-on deck, Qhorin.  You can read more of Maester Hawking after dinner.  That’s the thing about Lord Snow’s presents.  They still waiting for you after chores are done.”

“Daaad, you know Lord Snow …”

“Qhorin, now!”  Jos interrupted his oldest with a significant glance at the younger children.

As the kids trooped out to fulfill their assigned duties, Jos Peckledon kissed his wife’s cheek.  “Don’t worry, love.  We’ll get through this like we get through everything else.  Together.”

“Well,” said Jaime, “where’s that initiative and authority at the office?  If he showed half that much spine, he might have gotten those raises.”

“Sure.”  Bronn said.  “Because it’s not enough that a man does everything he’s asked to do without bitchin’ about it.  That doesn’t deserve a living wage to house and feed and educate his family.”

Pia grasped her husband’s chin and returned the kiss.  “And you’ll apply at Highgarden in the new year?”

Jos sighed.  “Yes, dear, it’s time to give up on Jaime Lannister.”

“Why that traitorous …”. The rush of moving onward snatched away the last part of Jaime’s comment.

***

They were in a different part of town now, one more familiar to Jaime.  Fancifully painted old homes with elaborate wood trim lined the hilly street.  One house in particular was bustling with activity.  Brightly lit even at midday, the holiday decorations twinkled and gleamed.  The front walk was lined with red and white poinsettias in low pots and candles in jewel toned votives that seemed to welcome you into the home before you even reached the front door.

Jaime huffed out a exasperated breath.  “Do we really have to go in there?  I’ve been avoiding this place for years.”

“Course we have to.  This is one of the best parties in town.  A bit staid for my tastes, lackin’ in the tits and wine department.  But still filled with happy people enjoying the season and each other.  For the most part.”

Most of the rooms on the lower floor had been turned over to the party.  It was loud but not painfully so.  It was crowded but not uncomfortable.  People stood, sat, leaned and wandered, conversations ongoing, concluding, beginning in the spontaneous fashion that characterized a well hosted get together.  The whole thing was orchestrated, presided over by an elegant woman of late middle years, her red hair perhaps a touch too bright to be entirely natural.  A couple young men and a young woman who could only be her children circulated, keeping the party flowing, the guests happy.

Bronn led Jaime to one of the quieter corners.  Two young people were whisper arguing, fixed smiles on their faces.

“I can’t believe you went there again, Gendry.  How many times does that fucking robber baron have to hurt you before you just give up?”  The small, dark-haired girl-woman’s whisper was as powerful as most men’s shouts.

“Looks like your good niece doesn’t like you at all, Lannister.”  Bronn lounged against the wall, close enough to touch the young couple if he wished.

“She’s a Stark.  Starks have hated the Lannisters since before the reconquest.”

“Yes, I’m sure her feelings are all about king slaying and beheading, not the fact that you’ve shat all over her husband for as long as she’s known him.”

“I’m loathe to agree with a wannabe eco terrorist like Arya Stark, but she’s right.  Gendry should just take the hint and stop bothering me every year and they could keep their Winterfest however they like.”

Gendry’s blue eyes darted about, trying to ensure no one heard him and his wife marring the joy and peace of another Winterfest with an argument.

“I know you don’t understand, Arya.  But I wish you could respect my need to keep trying to reach him.”

“But you set yourself up for disappointment every year.  Every year you spend the whole day waiting for that rat bastard to show up and every year when he doesn’t you end up miserable.  And those big, stupid, sad eyes of yours break my heart every year, so I can’t enjoy Winterfest.  And I’m sad, so Mom doesn’t enjoy Winterfest and on it goes right down the family.”

“I love your family, Arya.  I love them like they were my own.  But none of you can really understand.”

“Well, we can’t if you don’t tell us, you big dummy.”

Gendry took a deep breath and squared his shoulders.  “Winterfest has always been like this for you, hasn’t it, even after your dad died?  Everybody happy and loving each other.”

“Not always.  You’ve been here for some pretty spectacular fights.”

“Yes, you and Sansa may snipe at one another and get on Catelyn’s last nerve.  Rickon may pull some practical joke that drives Robb or Bran up the wall and gets him sent to his room for a while.  But it all comes right in the end.  All the guests go home saying this year’s party was the best one yet and we all sit around the fire, with the leftovers and the eggnog, while your mom reads the story of Lord Snow to Robb’s kids.”

“You make us sound like some barf inducing sit com family like The Braime Bunch.”

“In some ways, you are.  You’re what I saw every year in all the Winterfest movies and shows and I couldn’t understand why my family couldn’t be like that.”

Arya’s sharp grey eyes softened and she put her hand on Gendry’s arm. “Oh, babe.”

“I’ve told you what my parents were like, loud and drunk, violent and miserable.  Mom didn’t get any better after Dad died.  She was mad at the world instead of mad at him.  It was like the ability to be happy had been leached out of her. Grandfather, well, he was like the way Uncle Jaime’s become, but instead of hot with anger, Tywin was cold as ice.  We had to go to that mausoleum of a house every year for Winterfest, because that’s what Lannisters did.  One year I pointed out that Tom, Myrcy and I were Baratheons.  If looks could kill, from both Mom and Grandfather, I never would have survived to meet you.  So, we sat around a dining table so big that we could barely hear one another speak.  We ate twelve gourmet courses, none of which tasted as good as your mom’s green bean casserole.  We were served by staff who were so pissed at having to work the holiday that they were all probably spitting in the soup.”

“And the only bright spot every single year was when Uncle Jaime and Uncle Tyrion would take us out to play in the snow, so Grandfather could yell at Mom and Dad for everything they’d done to embarrass the family.  We’d have epic snowball fights and make whole legions of snowmen.  We’d stay out as long as we could, until Mom and Dad had been dismissed by Grandfather and they left in a huff.  And then it was back home and too much booze and rage.”

“When I was about ten or so, the fights got so bad we had to stay with at Uncle Jaime’s on Winterfest Eve.  It was the first time, the only time I felt like I had a normal Winterfest morning until that first year when I stayed here.  Tom, Myrcy and I were so grateful to our uncles that every year after we pooled our allowances and bought them each a new Winterfest tie.  Gods, they were awful, ugliest damn things you ever saw, like those pictures of your dad and his Winterfest sweaters.  It was always snowmen for Jaime and Winterfest trees for Tyrion.  And every year they acted like those were the best, the most beautiful ties in the world and wore them to dinner, despite, or maybe because they got the stink eye from Grandfather.”

Jaime smiled a little, remembering.  “Gods, those really were the most awful ties, giant neon colored illustrations on them.  One year they actually had little batteries and lit up, played music even.  I guess the last year the kids did it, Myrcella had finally started to develop some fashion sense and they were at least not eye-searing.  I missed the getting the really ugly ones, though.  It meant they were growing up.”

Gendry continued.  “If any part of that man remains in Jaime Lannister, I have to try to reach him.  He wouldn’t give up on me if the situation was reversed.”

Arya wrapped her arms around her husband’s waist and rested her head against his chest.  “Okay, I’ll try to understand and not bug you about it.  Doesn’t mean that Jaime Lannister isn’t on my list, though.  He stays right where he is, just below Walder Frey and Petyr Baelish.”

“Fierce little thing your nephew married.  Bet she’s a hellcat in the sack.”

“Gods, Bronn, what is wrong with you?  That’s my family.  The last thing I want to do is imagine them in the sack.  There’s not enough brain bleach in the world.”

Bronn smirked at Jaime.  “So at least you acknowledge that they’re your family.”

“Shut up.  Are we done here?  And also, shut up.”

“Not quite, Lannister.  There’s something else you need to see before we move on.”

They were now in the main room.  And there, focused on Catelyn Tully-Stark, were the most beautiful blue eyes in all worlds and times.

“Her eyes?  Are you kidding me?” Bronn exclaimed.  “What about them legs?  Those things’ll wrap around ya twice and squeeze ya til ya break.”

“She’s changed her hair again.”  Jaime said thoughtfully.  “It’s as short as when we first met.”  Jaime walked toward Brienne as though drawn by an invisible cord.

“Please, Brienne, don’t be cross with me.”  Catelyn smiled up at the very tall figure of Brienne Tarth.

“Oh no, Catelyn, not again.  Wasn’t last year and Hyle Hunt a big enough disaster?”

“I’ll admit, Hyle wasn’t the man I thought he was.  But I am determined to see you happy if it’s the last thing I do.”

“I am happy, Catelyn.”

Catelyn Tully-Stark leveled a long look at Brienne, the kind of look that made politicians quake and drew confessions from guilty children.

“All right, maybe, I’m not skipping with joy every minute.  But it’s not like I’m unhappy or even lonely.  I get dates just fine on my own.”

“You go out one or two times with a man and then nothing for months, until one of your friends prods you back out of your rut.  You are too young and too good to spend your life alone.”

“At least you didn’t try to say I was too pretty.”

“Your eyes are beautiful.  You have a wonderful smile.  And the young man I’m going to introduce to you saw you on the news last month and wouldn’t stop badgering me to meet you.”

“Really?”  Brienne perked up.

“What the fuck?”  Jaime burst out.  “Who the hells does this Stark woman think she is?  Ambushing Brienne with some random guy, the nerve.  But Starks never lack for nerve.”

“What’s it matter to you?  You haven’t seen her in how many years?  Is she supposed to be a septa now that the great Jaime Lannister is done with her?”

Jaime tamped down his outraged feelings.  “No, not at all.  I haven’t been a White Cloak since we broke up.  No reason for her to be either.  But who is Catelyn Stark to think she knows Brienne well enough to set her up with men?”

“Catelyn Stark’s known Brienne longer than you did by now.  She probably knows what she needs better than you ever did.”  Bronn was a little bit gleeful in pointing that out.

Catelyn had drawn Brienne’s arm through her own and started to cross the room to a new arrival to the party.  “He’s a geologist.  He’ll be working with me on the Mountains of the Moon campaign.  He’s already been very helpful finding evidence that those Mockingbird surveys may be falsified.”

Catelyn came to a stop before a large man who was already looking at Brienne as if he was starving and she was a five-course meal.”

“Who’s this ginger fuck?”  Jaime demanded.

Before Catelyn could begin the introductions, he reached out and captured Brienne’s hand in both of his.  “I’m Tormund Giantsbane, lass.  I’ve been waiting to meet you.”

“Oh, fuck no, get your giant paws off …”. Jaime once again felt the disorientation as Bronn wrapped the red tie around his wrist and pulled him from the scene.

 

***

“Gods dammit, Bronn!  I wasn’t done there.”

“Oh yes, you were.  Done, over, finished.  Time for everyone to move on.”

They had come to a run-down section of the city.  A truck at the back entrance of a food bank was being unloaded, supervised by the Tarly brothers.  The end of a long line of people waiting for the doors to open was just visible.

The last jump seemed to have aged Bronn somehow.  His hair was as much silver as black.  The lines on his face had deepened.  His eyes were harder, colder than before. 

“Do you think we have enough, Dickon?  The news said this would be one of the busiest Winterfests for people wanting meals.”

“They’ve said that every year since Mudgate was leveled.  Too many people having to choose now between rent and food.  Too many people who don’t even have that choice.”

“The presents go under the tree for now, miss.  I’ll hand them out when we start serving dinner and I’m in my Lord Snow costume.”  Sam directed one of the food bank staff, a thin girl with dark hair and a charming overbite.  She called a couple volunteers over with a single sharp look.  “I can’t believe he wouldn’t help at all, Dickon.  He put hundreds out of their homes and he doesn’t feel like he owes them anything.  It would be useless to try to talk to him about my ideas to resurrect Mudgate.  I see that now.”

“Father says that he gets meaner and ruder every year.  Doran Martell tried to get his membership to the Club revoked after that incident with those crazy Sand girls, but it turns out Lannister owns the building.”

“And when Randall Tarly calls someone mean and rude, he’s got to be a demon from the seven hells.”  Sam looked about furtively to be sure his father hadn’t appeared out of nowhere to overhear his words.

Jaime was examining the contents of the truck.  “It looks like they did well enough without my contribution.  There should be plenty here for Winterfest dinner.”

“Yes, there will almost be enough to fill the bellies of the people who are willing to swallow their pride along with dry turkey and lumpy mashed potatoes.  And there will be almost enough cheap, generic toys for the children who didn’t receive any other presents to keep them believing in miracles for one more year.”  Bronn looked at Jaime with real disgust in his eyes.  “You don’t have to worry your pretty, golden head about how those people are going to eat tomorrow and where those children will find boots to wear to school next week.”

“My taxes …” Jaime began.

“Oh yes, your bloody taxes.  Have you ever paid one lick of attention to what your taxes actually provide, the part that’s not coming back to you in subsidies and government contracts or going to pay for the endless wars in Essos?  Have you compared what it actually costs to feed and house a family in this city with how much the dole pays out per month?  Until you’ve done that, Lannister, I don’t want to hear you comparing the pittance you pay to be a member of a free society to what a rich man with love and light in his heart might do for the world.  Samwell Tarly is a fat, timid, cowardly boy, but compared to you, he’s a lion when it comes to openness of heart.”

Bronn’s anger drew lightening from the cloudless sky and when the flash dissipated, it was night and they were in an even worse neighborhood than the food bank.

“Do you recognize this place, Jaime Lannister? You should.  It’s part of the neighborhood you destroyed with your bloody Rivergate project.  You brought down whole streets in Mudgate, killed the businesses and tore down the homes and never bothered to do the lower income development you promised to match your condo palace.  Once you get three blocks south from your multi-use paradise, this is what you find, worse than Flea Bottom.  Empty store fronts, condemned buildings full of squatters, the strong preying on the weak.  Course you don’t see any of it from your perch high on Visenya’s Hill, do you?  You just look out from your sealed windows, see the top of the tower you built and count the dragons in your purse.”

“I tried.”  Jaime justified.  “I tried to get this land re-zoned, tried to get partners to bear some of the costs.  The council wasn’t willing to work with me.”

“So, you stopped trying, didn’t you?  You always run when you think the times have gotten rough.  You need to see truly tough times.”

They were suddenly inside one of the decrepit buildings.  It must have once been a small apartment, one of the ones that called the old walk-in closet a bedroom.  The wallpaper had long since peeled, leaving the walls looking like the room had some terrible disease.  There was a variety of furniture scattered about, all of it old, tattered and looking like it would fall apart in a slight breeze.  A single cable ran from an electric pole outside and was jury-rigged to run a space heater and a hot plate that had a small pot of watery soup bubbling away.  Gathered around, wrapped up in a variety of old clothing and blankets were a careworn woman and six boys aged from mid teens to just about school age.  Standing at a rickety table was a slight man, balding, with a salt and pepper beard.  He was using a scaling knife to try to hack through a loaf of bread that looked hard as a rock.

“You’ll see, boys,” the man said in a heavy Flea Bottom accent, “once we soak this bread in your mam’s good soup, it’ll be soft and sweet as a butter roll.”

The woman sent him a fond but worried look.  “Davos, how much longer?  They’ll cut the current off in half an hour and we all need to be snug in our beds by then.”

“I paid Olyvar for some extra time tonight.  Now don’t look at me like that, Marya, it’s Winterfest.  We can at least take the time to enjoy our meal and have the room heated long enough to hold us til the dawn.”

“What are these people doing here, Bronn?  He’s a healthy man, able to work.  They have kids who’d qualify for assistance.  They could at least be safe in a shelter rather than freezing in this rat trap.”

“Davos used to have a stall in Fishmonger’s Square Market, til you tore it down.  It had been his father’s and his grandfather’s.  Only place he ever worked.  Only place he ever wanted to work.  Everyone he knew, all his friends worked in those stalls as well.  Once the market was gone, those folk couldn’t help each themselves much less each other.  He had no skills, but selling the freshest fish in the town.”

“And he couldn’t find work at a restaurant or a grocery store?”

“You threw dozens just like him onto the street with one stroke of a pen, Lannister, and dozens more in other trades.  There was no way for the job market to absorb them all.  I’d have thought a brilliant businessman like yourself would have reckoned that out.  They applied for assistance and a corrupt social worker gettin’ kickbacks from group homes wanted to take the kids into care “until the family got back on its feet”.  So, poor old Davos picks up what work he can and pays most of his wage to the gang that runs this building to keep this poor excuse for a roof over his family’s heads.  And tries to keep his eldest out of the clutches of the drug dealers and pimps who run these streets now.” 

“Is there nothing to be done for them?”

“For them, no.  You see how that little heater of theirs is glowing all uneven.  Not tonight or tomorrow night, but one day soon it will spark and this whole building will go up like the tinder it is.”

“No, Bronn say that isn’t so.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered, no other of my kind will find this family again.  But people who “refuse to help themselves” are no concern of yours.”

“Using my own words against me, Bronn?  That’s low.”

“Yes, Jaime, I’m the one who’s low.” 

They traveled again.  They were outside now, under a freeway overpass near the Blackwater Rush.  A cold wind cut through Jaime like a strike from the sword at Bronn’s side.  Things moved in the deep shadows as clouds passed over the moon, animal-sized things and man-sized things.

“Well, I’ve brought to the place you created.  This is where I leave you.  My time is over and I am done.”

“What the fuck, Bronn?  This isn’t my place.  Take me back to my bed.”  Jaime demanded, panic edging his voice.

“What is it you modern folk say, Jaime?  Oh aye.  It’s been real.” 

The silken tie in Jaime’s hand seemed to heat to scorching.  He marveled that it didn’t go up in flames.  He could not hold it anymore lest the flesh be burned from his right hand.  Jaime dropped the tie with a yelp of pain.  A thick fog rolled in and he could see Bronn no more.

Jaime was alone.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Are these the shadows of the things that WILL be, or are they shadows of things that MAY be, only?”

A Christmas Carol, Stave Four

***

 “Dude!  Hey, dude, you need some help or something?”

Jaime peered through the fog towards the voice calling out.  A figure emerged, hazy and indistinct, a young man, in dark jeans and a black parka.

Jaime gasped.  “Tommen?”

“Don’t know who that is, dude.  Look, this ain’t a good neighborhood to get abandoned in.  I’ll get you to one of the main drags and you can catch an Uber or whatev.”

As the young man approached, it became obvious to Jaime that this wasn’t some weird dream version of his dead nephew.  He was bulkier than Tommen would have grown to be, raw-boned and solidly muscled.  His hair was the color of daffodils, not spun gold.  And his eyes… they were an almost unearthly blue-green, bright and shimmering as a peacock feather.

Those eyes called to something in Jaime.  He shuddered and almost fell.

“Hey, man, it’s okay.  Just lean on me.  I’ll get you where you need to go.  Grab onto my jacket.”

Jaime drew back as though burnt.  “You!  You’re …”

The kid threw up a hand and stopped Jaime mid-sputter.  “Yeah, that’s me.  The Ghost of Winterfest Yet To Come.  I know.  You ‘fear me most of all’, yadda, yadda.”

The spirit drew himself up, topping Jaime’s not inconsiderable height by several inches.  His voice deepened and resonated within Jaime’s being.  “And perhaps you should fear me, Jaime Lannister.”

Even cold, tired and frightened, Jaime would not be intimidated.  “And what am I supposed to call you?  'Winterfest Yet To Come' is a bit of a mouthful.”

“I don’t have a name.  Not yet.  Yet To Come is kinda literal, dude.”

“Well, I’m way too old to call you dude or broham or whatever other terms all the young, hipster spirits are using these days.”

“Hipster!  That hurts, man.”  He glanced around and his eyes lit on the abandoned remains of a distinctive donut shop.  “I know.  Call me Dunc.”

“Really?  You’re naming yourself after a pastry franchise?  Then why not go with Hot Pie or Marya Callendar?”

“Well, Marya’s out cos I am a guy after all.  And Hot Pie’s a fat and jolly fellow, not too bright but never means any harm.  That’s so not me tonight, dude.”

Jaime drew back a bit.  “So, you mean me harm?  Bronn leaving me in crime central wasn’t enough?”

“You’ll see the truth of where your road is leading, Jaime Lannister.  Whether that is harmful or healing is up to you.  But see it you will.  Now take hold of my coat.”

And the tempest picked Jaime up and buffeted him about intensely. 

***

Jaime was feeling nauseated again when they came to a stop.

“You’re worse at that than Bronn was.  Couldn’t Ned give the two of you some lessons before letting you behind the wheel?”

“It’s not me, dude.  The farther we travel the rougher it is.  You’ve just forgotten how bad those first trips were.  The human brain is a miracle of self-deception.”

They had come to rest in full daylight, the sun glinting off new snowfall, blinding Jaime so that he needed to release Dunc’s jacket to shade his eyes for a moment.

“Don’t wander off.”  Dunc said.  “You don’t want to get stuck here and things are about to get very interesting.”

When his eyes adjusted to the glare, Jaime realized they were in the civic square, about a block away from the Kingdoms Courts building.  A large crowd of protesters, reporters and looky loos were milling around the front of the court, waiting for something.  Even a full block away, Jaime heard the gunshots.

And the world went crazy.

Dunc just stood there calmly as frightened people fled in all directions, as the Gold Cloaks and EMTs came pouring in, dodging the terrified mob as best they could.  It seemed like hours passed in minutes as Dunc stood there, a cold and distant expression on his handsome, young face.  It was like he was waiting for something more.  When whatever it was came, grief seemed to overtake him for a moment before he shook it off.

It felt like Jaime merely blinked his eyes and the day had gone from morning to late afternoon.  There were TV reporters all around them, doing broadcasts about whatever had happened in the courts on the day before the Winterfest break.

Jaime could only hear snippets of what was being said.

A well-groomed brunette with a permanent smirk was closest to them.

“…declared dead at the scene.  The two other defendants have been rushed to St. Baelor’s, where they are reported to be in critical condition.  One of the plaintiffs’ attorneys was at the scene of the shooting but was not injured.”

And that reporter’s voice was overtaken by a twitchy young man with an Iron Islands accent.  “…the verdict had just been handed down.  The defendants, all partners in Moon Mountain Mining, had been absolved of any responsibility for the so-called Toxic River Syndrome that has plagued the population on the Green Fork of the Trident for the last several years.  The plaintiffs had alleged that improper and neglectful practices by 3Ms resulted in contamination of the river and caused the illnesses and deaths.  The judge in the case, Janos Slynt, is already being accused of bias in his instructions to the jury…”

Another voice took over.

“The gunman has been identified as one of the plaintiffs in the case.  Podrick Payne, 27, a resident of Harroway Town, blamed Toxic River Syndrome for the fatal illness of both his young children.  His wife committed suicide soon after their second child, a ten-month-old baby, died.  Mr. Payne was shot and killed by the Gold Cloaks who were acting as guards for the unpopular defendants.”

“Well, they weren’t very good guards if this Payne guy was able to shoot all three of them.”  Jaime observed.

“And that’s what you're taking away from this?”

“I don’t see what else I should.  What does this have to do with me?”

“Have you always been so bad at lying to yourself?  Well then, let's move on.”

***

The Sigil Club remained unchanged, with the same dark woods, the same leather furniture, the same Winterfest decorations.  Members still spoke in hushed tones to preserve the much-cherished sedate atmosphere.

Three men Jaime knew slightly, though they looked substantially older, had drawn their arm chairs more closely together than was considered seemly at the Sigil.

“What do you think they’ll do about the funeral?”

“No idea.  Is there even anyone to plan it?  The family that’s left wanted nothing to do with him.”

“Probably fall to his assistant, whoever that poor bastard is currently.  What I want to know is what happens to his company.”

“There are some cousins, aren’t there?  One of them may step in and try to salvage things now that the verdict was in his favor.  That’s another poor bastard to pity.  It was already at rock bottom from all the other lawsuits and government penalties.  Someone talented might be able to salvage something.”

A portly man in his late-thirties joined the conversation from a neighboring chair.  That was considered the height of bad manners at the Club.

“Let it all burn, I say.  Serve the miserable wretch right.  Money was all he cared about.  Only right that he dies nearly bankrupted, with his family legacy in ruins.”

“Didn’t know you hated him so much, Tarly.”

“Everything he touched turned to shit.  He deliberately bought the land the food bank was on.  That was where I met my Gilly.  She ran it and she loved it, loved helping people. He tore it down to build a strip mall no one wanted.  It’s practically abandoned now, just another of the developments that he got rich on and then dumped like a clingy girlfriend.  My wife got into an argument with him at a cocktail party and he retaliated by destroying her life’s work.”

“What kind of piece of crap would do something like that?  Tearing down a food bank in vengeance is something even my father would have balked at.”  Jaime looked to Dunc for answers.

Dunc averted his eyes and said nothing.

Samwell Tarly cleared his throat and blinked rapidly a few times, then went on.  “So no, I didn’t like him.  I wouldn’t have wished this fate on him, but I can’t say I’m surprised.  He’s been loading that gun for years with his dirty dealings.”  Having said his piece, Sam went back to his newspaper.

The conversation continued without him.

“There’s a nephew somewhere, isn’t there?  Maybe he’ll take things over.”

“Doubt it.  He’s been in Essos for years.  Wife’s a bit of a radical, had some dust ups with the Gold Cloaks.  She can’t show her face in Westeros without getting arrested.  It’s ironic.  I think she was protesting the 3Ms project when she got in trouble.”

“Well, I’ll go to the funeral if they provide a meal at the wake.  His restaurants are still good.  Maybe Chef Arthur will cater it.  They used to be friends, I hear.”

Jaime shook his head in disbelief.  “Listen to them.  Some poor bastard’s been murdered and he’s worried about lunch.  Tarly’s airing old grievances.  Isn’t anyone feeling anything real over this?”

***

Jaime found himself standing with Dunc in front of the city morgue.

“What are we doing here?” 

“You asked if anyone was feeling anything real.  There are some inside who are.”

There was obviously a party going on inside the morgue.  Winterfest decorations hung from the walls and loud cheerful music rang out from what must have been the staff lounge.  Jaime and Dunc walked past a couple offices with partly open doors, serious drinking and hook ups underway inside.  They moved into the autopsy room where a figure rested on a table, fully covered with a sheet.

Two lab techs leaned against one of the walls.

“How long do you think this is going to take?  I got tickets for The Raven’s Tale tonight.  My wife and kids have been looking forward to it for weeks.”

“Better tell them to go on without you.”

“Yeah, but it’s an open and shut case.  Guy was shot, shooter’s dead.  What’s the emergency?”

“You kidding?  It happened on city property.  The vic was guarded by Gold Cloaks.  The shooter was killed by Gold Cloaks.  There’s going to be an outbreak of finger pointing and ass covering over this like you wouldn’t believe.”

“Well, shit.  My kids are never going to forgive me.  I was even kinda looking forward to going to the ballet.”

A pissed off looking woman entered the room, dressed in fresh scrubs and holding a plastic face protector.  “Look alive, boys.  It completely blows, but we’re stuck here until the mayor and chief are satisfied that we’ve found someone to blame besides the city.  Let’s get going on the evidence collection and then maybe I’ll have sobered up enough to start cutting.  And we’ve got the shooter to do after this guy.  It’s going to be a long and crappy night.”

“This isn’t what I wanted to see.  They aren’t sad this man is dead.  They’re just inconvenienced.  There’s no grief, no tenderness here.” Jaime glared at Dunc.

“Oh, you wanted someone who was sad for him, not because of him.  You should have been clearer.”

***

They were in the messy living room of a middle-class home.  Three large, red haired children chased one another around, yelling.  The Winterfest tree shook with the stomping of running feet.  They were being assiduously ignored by a man who had to be their father.  He sat in an easy chair, dress shirt unbuttoned and tie discarded, a half-finished beer at his elbow while he watched the golf channel.

The front door opened and shut.

“Babe, that you? You’re later than I expected.  Jury still out?”

“Mom, Gal stole my Barbie.”

“Mom, Ari pulled my hair.”

“Mom, what’s for dinner?”

“Yeah, Mom, what’s for dinner?”

The youngest of the children piped up, “I want macaroni!”

“Yeah, Mom, I want that, too.”

“Me three!”

“I could go for that, babe.” 

The mom they were all yelling for still hadn’t entered the room.

Brienne stood in the hall, face pale and drawn.  One hand was still on the front door as if she was contemplating walking back out again.  But she was Brienne, despite the grey in her hair and some lines around her beautiful eyes.  She squared her shoulders and moved into the living room, still wearing her overcoat.

“Gal, give Ari her Barbie back.  Ari, don’t pull your brother’s hair.”  She said wearily.  “Tormund, I’m really wiped out.  Could you do dinner tonight?”

“It’s your night, babe.”

“I know it’s my night.  But it was a really rough day and I need to unwind a bit.”

“You’re the one who sets the schedule, Bri, not me.”

“Yes, I am, and I covered for you all last week when you were in Dorne.”  Brienne’s fists were clenched.

“Didn’t the verdict come down today?  What did you have to do but stand there and listen to old Janos kiss millionaire ass?  My day was no walk in the park.  I had two client meetings across town from each other.”  Tormund raised the volume on the TV.

And Brienne lost it.

“For fuck’s sake, Tormund!  Would you just fix dinner already?  Can I get a minute to myself?  Act like a grownup, help me out for once and make your kids some damn Mac & Cheese.”

Brienne’s hands came up to cover her mouth and she fled the living room.  Her children gaped open mouthed after her.

”Mom said fuck.”  The youngest child breathed in awe.

“Jeez,” Tormund grumbled, lumbering out of his chair and heading towards the kitchen, the opposite direction from Brienne’s flight.  “You’d think I didn’t pull my own weight around here.  You’d think I don’t work hard too.”

Brienne took the stairs two at a time.  She fast walked to what had to be the bedroom she shared with her husband.  She closed the door very quietly behind her and clicked the lock.  She finally stripped off her coat, balled it up and threw it across the room.  A large, dried bloodstain marred the front of her skirt.

Jaime’s face turned pale and he gripped Dunc’s arm hard.

“Don’t worry, dude. It isn’t hers.  She was at the courthouse.  She held him and he died in her arms.” 

Brienne went to the closet, knelt down and started moving things out of the way.

“I guess I should be grateful he ignored me all those times I asked him to fix this.”  Brienne whispered as she pulled up the loose floorboard in the very back of the closet and stuck her hand in to root around.  She pulled out a bag of mini-Snickers.

“She hides those from her kids.  She doesn’t want them eating too much sugar and doesn’t want them to see her doing it either.”  Dunc explained.

Next, she took out a vibrator.

“Her husband thinks that her just having that is an affront to his skills as a lover.  But she keeps it anyway, so draw your own conclusions.”

Finally, reaching deep into the hidey hole she found a golden box that had once held the world’s most expensive chocolate truffles.

Brienne put the other two items back into the cubbyhole.  Rising from the floor, she walked into the bathroom and turned the shower on full blast.  She took a deep shuddering breath.  Then her legs gave way and she slid down the wall to sit on the tile floor.  She lifted the lid off the box as tears began to fall.

“What’s in there?” Dunc asked.

Jaime crouched beside Brienne.  He felt his heart stop as Brienne took a dried winter rosebud from the box.  She ran the crinkled petals over her wet cheek and then set it aside.

“They’re the only kind of roses she likes.  But you know that, don’t you Jaime?”

Next came a small packet of cards and letters, lovingly tied together with a crimson ribbon.  She held them under her nose for a moment.

“Citrus and spice.  I can still smell it, Jaime.  After all these years, I still recognize that scent over any in the world.”

“I’m here, Brienne.  I’m right here.”  Jaime tried to reach for her.  As his incorporeal hand passed through her arm, she gave a great hiccoughing sob and the dam broke.  Jaime watched as the only woman he had ever loved wept like her heart was broken.

“She doesn’t know you’re here, Jaime.  She can’t hear you, see you, feel you.”  Dunc said with little sympathy.  “We have to go.”

“I can’t leave her like this, Dunc.  I won’t.”

“You left her years ago, Jaime.” 

Dunc place his hand on Jaime’s shoulder and in the blink of an eye they were gone.

***

It was dark where they came to a stop.  No streetlights shone.  They picked their way carefully down a gravel path.

“I asked you for true grief, real tenderness.  And you’ve shown it to me.  I don’t know how I know, but our time is drawing to an end, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“Then tell me truly, Dunc.  Are these things you’ve shown me inevitable?  If I change my life, can I change these shadows?”

Dunc came to a stop.  Light began to glow around him.

Jaime recognized the place now.  “This is the cemetery, the Lannister family plot.  What are you showing me here?  Please, answer me before I look.  Can I change this future you have shown me tonight?  If I can’t, what was the point?”

Duncan said nothing, merely looked down at a snow-covered headstone. 

“Please Dunc, let me know that I can change.”

The wind came up and blew away the snow. 

And engraved on the stone was “Jaime Lannister".

Jaime fell to his knees.  “No, Dunc.  I’m not the man I was.  I will change.  Even if my fate still leads me to this grave, I will change.  I will be a better man and live an honorable life, whatever life is left to me.  I swear it.”

Lightening flashed, thunder clapped.

Jaime woke up on the floor of his bedroom, fully dressed, damp and chilled.  The clock struck three.

“I swear to you, Dunc.  I swear it.”

Chapter Text

Best and happiest of all, the Time before him was his own, to make amends in!

A Christmas Carol, Stave Five

***

Are those bells?

Jaime Lannister went from deep sleep to full consciousness between one toll and the next.  He turned onto his back and stretched hugely, reaching out as though he could touch the four corners of his mattress, working the kinks out.  There was a pleasant ache in his muscles, the way he felt the morning after a hard workout.

His bedroom was soft with a rosy light.  Even being so many floors above the ground, at the top of the tallest tower on the top of Visenya’s Hill, he knew somehow that it was the rising winter sun reflecting off the new fallen snow.  The bells of the New Sept continued to ring out, five, six, seven.

Jaime smiled.  He hadn’t noticed the bells for years.

He suddenly felt like he couldn’t stay in bed one more moment.  His skin was crackling with energy.  Jaime knew he had spent a disturbed night, awakened several times by dreams he did not remember.  Yet, he felt no fatigue.

It was Winterfest morning.  For years he had awakened on the holiday overwhelmed with rage and despair.  Jaime looked deep within himself.  He still felt the absence of those he’d loved, those he’d lost.  He prodded at the feelings like an aching tooth.  Tyrion, Tommen, Myrcella.  He mourned the times he would never again experience with them.  Jaime mourned Cersei and his father as well, the possibilities unfulfilled, the hoped for connections that would never become reality.   But something had changed.  The anger, the crippling grief was gone.

He remembered sweet, tone-deaf Myrcella singing carols at the top of her lungs. 

He remembered gentle Tommen making snow angels from first snowfall to last. 

He remembered his father catching Mom under the mistletoe, running a gentle hand across her pregnant belly.

He remembered standing with Cersei back when they were still in footie pajamas, holding his twin’s hand as they looked up, up, up to the top of the Winterfest tree in the great hall.

He remembered sitting with Tyrion, sharing brandy cadged from Dad’s private stash, as they decompressed after another tense family dinner.

Jaime smiled.

He remembered teaching Gendry to skate on the pond behind the mansion.

Jaime remembered making love to Brienne on the rug in his old apartment, presents piled around them, the lights from the tree glowing on her skin.

Not everyone he loved was gone.  There were still people in the world who lived in his heart, even if he didn’t deserved a place in theirs.

What to do?  What to do?

“What to do first.”  Jaime spoke out loud to the reflection he could just see in the mirror on his wardrobe.  “There are so many things that must be put right.  Where should I start?  Who would be up and doing this early?”

Jaime rolled out of bed and grabbed his cell phone from the nightstand.  He chose a name from his contacts list and whistled as the phone rang.

“What!”  The voice on the other end of the line shouted.

“Happy Winterfest, Arthur.  Glad to hear you’re brimming over with the joy of the season.”

“I’m working on prep, Mr. Lannister.  I don’t have time right now to account for the cost of every carrot and potato we’ll be serving at dinner today.”

“I deserve that, Arthur.  I’ve been a first class asshole to you.  I won’t take much of your time.  How are the bookings today?”

“We’re down, way down.  I over ordered hoping it would turn around but people can’t afford to go out for a fancy Winterfest meal this year.  I’ll be putting a fair amount of food away to use later in the week.”

“No, cook it all.  I know some places that could use it.”

“And who’s paying for this sudden generosity?”

“I’ll cover it, Arthur.  How soon can you have a meal for, say, seven ready to be delivered?  With plenty for leftovers.”

Was it yesterday or the day before that Peck was complaining about his state of his home appliances?  An anonymous gift of Winterfest dinner should come in handy for a growing family.

“I can have that ready to go by noon if you can get me the delivery address.  I’ve got too many wait staff scheduled today.  One of them could drive the catering van to do deliveries.”

“I’ll text it to you.  One generous family meal and then anything else you don’t need to cover the reservations and possible walk ins packed up separately, catering style.”

“I’m not sure what you’re up to, Lannister.”

“Something good, I hope.  Or least not anything bad.”

“You sound weird, Jaime.  Are you okay?”

“Jaime” at last.  Maybe me being a not-silent-enough partner hasn’t killed our friendship.

“I’m good, Arthur.  Just woke up after a very long night and I’m enjoying the morning.”

“Oooookay.  Are you sober?”

“As a septon.  You can trust me.  I won’t renege on this, Arthur.  Hells, I’ll give you the number and you can charge my credit card right now.”

“Not necessary.  You own seventy percent of this place after all.  If we lose money, it’s mostly your money.”

“I’ll let you get back to your kitchen.  But call my assistant tomorrow and get on my schedule.  I want to talk about returning Starfall and the other restaurants back to you and some of your other suggestions as well.  Ask Peckledon to carve you out an hour or two.  I’ll take you to a lunch you don’t have to cook.”

“Really, Jaime, are you all right?  Nobody’s holding a gun on you, making you behave like a decent human being for once?”

“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Arthur.”  Jaime was delighted his old friend was thawing out towards him, ragging on him like the old days.  “And book me a table for tonight, seven’ish.  I feel like a real, old fashioned Winterfest dinner.”

Jaime ended the call. 

I wonder how many other people are going to wonder if I’m under duress or drunk?  Probably quite a few.

Jaime chuckled.  Then he laughed.  He felt light as a feather,  happy as a … happy as a boy on Winterfest morn.

Jaime was humming a carol as he went about his morning routine, showering, shaving, and spending a ridiculous amount of time on his hair.  He smiled at himself in the mirror and shook his head at his own vanity.

Standing in his small clothes, Jaime contemplated his wardrobe choices.  The charcoal grey suit he had laid out for work tomorrow was much too formal and barely warm enough for walking to and from his town car.  He did don the white dress shirt.  He slid into pressed black jeans.

It’s going to be slick and wet out there.  Where’d I put those new boots?

Jaime was puzzled when he found his hiking boots kicked under the bed and looking a bit beat up.  He couldn’t remember wearing them, but he must have.  He gave the boots a quick buff up and found that they were nicely broken in, perfect for him to walk around the snowy city and enjoy the Winterfest atmosphere.

Jaime looked for his red tie. 

Where the hells has that got to?  I must be getting senile.  I could have sworn I put it out last night.

A thought occurred to him.  “I wonder if I still have it?”  Jaime dug around the back of the tie rack.  Yes!  He looped the dark green tie covered with a pattern of happy snowmen around his neck.  It wasn’t tying the knot that caused the tightness in his throat. 

I’m back, Myrcella, Tommen.  I got lost for a while, but I’m finding my way home.  I’ll find my way back to your brother if he’ll have me.

Since he was feeling nostalgic, Jaime added the dark green Skagos Knit sweater vest that Brienne had surprised him with on a romantic long weekend in the North.  With a grey tweed sports jacket, his pea coat and gloves he should be warm enough to brave the temperatures outside, appropriately dressed for anywhere the day took him and able to shed enough layers to be comfortable indoors. 

He had so much to do.

***

After astonishing the lobby staff by presenting each of them with a generous tip along with a hearty “Happy Winterfest”, Jaime finally reached the outside world.  He breathed deep of the crisp, cold morning air.  The bells were pealing the hour again and then going into an elaborate concert of Winterfest hymns that signaled they were nearing the end of the dawn service.  Enjoying the day, greeting the other people going about their Winterfest morning business, Jaime trekked down Visenya’s Hill to the New Sept.

Jaime had always been a bit puzzled by how Winterfest had evolved into a holiday of the Seven, since the original story of reclaiming the dawn had more to do with the Old Gods and the Lord of Light.  Those two minor religions still competed for time and attention during the holiday season and Jaime dropped a few dragons in each collection plate as he passed red priests with their small bonfires and tree worshipers waving branches of weirwood leaves in an elaborate dance.  They were outliers in Baelor’s square, where the faithful had begun streaming out of the sept and heading in the direction of the food trucks set up to provide sustenance to church goers who had fasted since yesterday’s moonrise to acknowledge the deprivation that had accompanied the fabled Long Night.

Jaime got a large coffee and a sweet roll studded with dried fruit and chocolate chunks from the Walda’s Wonderful Pastries truck, just beating the crowd.  He sat down on one of the benches edging the square and enjoyed watching the children in their holiday finery running off the energy that they had tamped down during the service.

He noticed a huge, shaggy dog edging close to the remains of his breakfast.

“No, don’t eat that.  Chocolate isn’t good for you.”

The dog sat a Jaime’s feet and looked longingly at the pastry.  Jaime smiled and popped the last bite into his mouth and followed it with a slug of coffee.

“Best to remove temptation, boy, but I’m surprisingly hungry this morning.  How about we share something more substantial?  What do you fancy, bacon or sausage?”

The dog’s tail thumped against Jaime’s leg. 

“Both?  We’ll see what we can do.”

The dog followed Jaime to a truck where the scent of cooking pork was practically sublime and stayed by him through the wait in line, graciously accepting scratches behind his floppy ears.  Jaime bought for himself and his new friend.  They were returning to his seat with eggs, bacon, sausage and a ham slice to share when the dog perked up and scampered towards the approaching figure of a tall, stoop shouldered Septon.

“What have you been up to, Dog?  Have you convinced some poor person that you’re on the verge of starvation and will drop if they don’t feed you?”  The Septon leaned down to run a hand over the dog’s head.

“Yes, he did indeed.  He has quite the routine.”  Jaime called from his seat, the containers of food in his hands.

“I apologize for my friend’s poor manners.  He only does this on Winterfest, even though I don’t make him fast with me.  Perhaps it’s sympathetic hunger.”

“Have you not eaten yet, Septon?  I bought enough food for an army.  Everything smelled so good this morning.  If you and your dog won’t enjoy it with me, I don’t know what I’ll do with it all.”

“I could not impose on you further than my dishonorable Dog already has.”

“It wouldn’t be an imposition, Septon.  It would be my pleasure.”

The Septon looked at Jaime curiously for a moment, then he smiled.  “I do believe that you are speaking the truth, ser.  I would be glad to spend some time with you this lovely morning, Mr…”

“Jaime Lannister.  Please, call me Jaime.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Jaime.  I am Septon Meribald.”

Jaime sat with Septon Meribald for some time, right through the second service.  They chatted about many things until the septon led Jaime around to talking about what had brought him to the sept that morning.

“I cannot describe it.  I woke this morning and saw the world differently.  I saw Winterfest anew.  It’s like I spent years walking through the fog and now the sun is shining on me.”

“You have reclaimed the dawn for yourself, Jaime.  You have received a blessing.”

“I don’t know about that, Septon.  I’ve never been a religious man.”

“Neither have I.”

Jaime drew back in shock.  “But you’re a Septon.”

“I hope that I am a man of faith, not religion.  Religion is a thing bound and constrained by books and rituals.  Faith lives and breathes.  It rises and it falls.  It recognizes blessings and celebrates them rather than claiming credit.  Appreciate the blessing you have received, Jaime.  Follow the path it has put you on.  It has led you here to this sept.  Accept where it will take you next.  Don’t rush to the end and miss the journey.”

Jaime looked away from the light shining in the septon’s eyes.

Septon Meribald rose and offered Jaime his hand.  “It has been a pleasure talking with you today, Jaime.  You have been a Winterfest gift to me and to Dog.”

“Thank you, ser.  I will think about your words.”

Jaime sat and watched the man and his dog cross the square and enter the residence beside the sept. 

Where was his path leading him next?

Well, he was in front of the largest sept in the world. 

It was quieter inside than Jaime expected.  The novices were cleaning up the detritus from the two main services of the morning.  There would not be another until the afternoon. 

Jaime sat in a pew.  He felt no need to pray.  A sudden, deep awakening to the religion of his childhood was not what was happening to him.

His childhood… His mother had brought Cersei and him to the sept on certain days, like the birthdays of his grandparents and an aunt he had never known.  She had lit candles for the people she had lost and felt comforted by it.

Jaime lit a candle on the Maiden’s altar for Myrcella, so young, as beautiful inside as she was outside.  He lit a candle on the Mother’s altar and thanked his own mother for the love that she had shown to him.  He lit a second candle on the Mother’s altar and then one on the Father’s and forgave Cersei and Tywin for their failings and hoped that they forgave him for his.  Jaime lit a candle at the Smith’s altar for Tommen, who always offered to help, no matter what the project was.

Finally Jaime lit a candle for Tyrion at the Warrior’s altar.  Tyrion had fought every day of his life, in ways that brought him no medals.  Tyrion had fought for respect, for recognition and for love.  Jaime hoped his brother forgave him for the disillusionment and despair that  the truth of Tysha’s motives brought.  Jaime forgave Tyrion for the harm he had caused as a result.

And Jaime felt like he had closed a chapter in the book of his life.  It was time to move on.

***

The square had cleared out by the time Jaime left the sept.  It was still a cold morning.  On a bench, standing out like a beacon, was a small red coat, left behind by a carefree child who must not have had to worry about getting chilled.  A lucky child.

How many weren’t so lucky today?

Thinking about the issue, Jaime hailed the cab that had been idling at the corner.

“Happy Winterfest.”

“Yeah, yeah, happy Winterfest.  Where to, ser?”

Jaime gave him the address of Starfall and hoped that it wasn’t too early to descend on Arthur.  Then he and the driver fell into conversation.

The young man wasn’t thrilled about working the holiday, but he was paying for college and his wife had just gotten a promotion and had to work.

“Is she a nurse or a Gold Cloak?  What does she do that they’re making her work on Winterfest?”

“No, she works in retail.  She’s head clerk today.  At least half her staff called in sick, but nobody’s shopping on Winterfest morning.”

“Which store?”

The driver named a chain store that was notorious for never closing for any holiday.

“They’re open now?  Right now?”

“They’ve been open since seven and she’ll be there until they close at six.  They won’t even pay overtime, they’ll just cut her hours the rest of the week.  And bonuses are tied to how much the store makes today.”

“They have clothing, don’t they?”

“Yeeeeaaah?”

“Take me there.”

“Ser, its way out of your way.  It’ll cost a fortune.”

“Not a problem.  I have a fortune.” 

Jaime ran his credit card through the cab’s machine.  “Let’s start with a hundred dragons.  If you can get me there in half an hour, I’ll double it.”

“You got it, ser.”

“Jaime.  My name is Jaime.”

“I’m Lew”

Jaime descended on the nearly empty store like a berserk Dothraki khalassar.  He and his new friend, Lew, grabbed carts and dashed through the children’s section, pulling coats in various sizes off the racks and tossing them in the carts.  When those carts were full, they took them to Lew’s wife, Jeyne and got her started on ringing up.

Jaime dragooned the two idle cashiers into helping him with mittens, gloves, scarfs and hats, while he and Lew pillaged the shoe department for winter boots.

Jaime looked longingly at the toy department.  But toys come from Lord Snow and must be wrapped.  There wasn’t time.  Next year.

It took longer than Jaime expected and it was afternoon when they were finished.  There were so many bags and boxes crammed into Lew’s taxi that Jaime sat up front with him.

“Now off to Starfall.  I have some food to pick up.”

“I don’t know where we’ll put it, Jaime.”

“Not to worry, they have a van.”

Arthur Dayne was deep into preparations to open his restaurant for the day.  He didn’t have time to more than wave Jaime over to the trays of food prepared for transport. 

“The family dinner already got delivered.  Were they ever happy.  Their oven chose today to pack it in and they were trying to grill their bird.  Unbrined!  Would have tasted like old shoe leather.  What are you doing with the rest of this?”

“The Free Folk Food Bank is coming up short this year.  I thought I would help out.”

“You’re giving my creations to a food bank?  Are you crazy?  There’s hundreds of dragons worth of food here.”

“And it’s better off going there than spoiling in your walk-in.  Besides I know your secret, Arthur.  You give unused food to the banks all the time.  They’re just getting it a little early today.”

The food was loaded into the van and the driver given the address.

“Hold up a minute.”  Jaime called out, then took Lew aside.  “I’m going to send you with him.  Deliver all the clothes, help them set up, whatever needs doing.  Just don’t tell them who everything is from.  It’s anonymous.”  Jaime pulled out his money clip, which was getting a little lean, and peeled off three hundred dragon notes.  “Take this, Lew.  It should cover the time you’ll be off the clock.”

“No, Jaime, it’s too much.  You’ve already given me double what I expected to make today.”

Jaime smiled at the young man.  “All right.  When you finish your degree, look me up.  The Lannister Group needs honorable people working for us.”

Jaime smiled as he waved Lew on his way.  Then he looked at his watch and determined he had just enough time to walk to his next destination.

***

The Starks lived halfway up Rhaenys’s Hill in the row of houses locally known as The Painted Ladies.  The old tales told of a string of brothels in the area that once catered to all manner of perversions, but now the gaily painted, rambling homes from the beginning of the previous century were a noted landmark of modern King’s Landing.

You could tell the Stark house because it looked like Winterfest had exploded all over it.

Jaime laughed in delight at the exuberance.  It might be the last chance he had to laugh in a while.

Unsure of his welcome, Jaime attached himself to a group going up the cleared walkway and kept his head down.

“And can I take your coat, ser?”  A lovely young redhead asked, then squeaked when she recognized his face.

“You’d be … Sansa, I think?  Gendry has mentioned you fondly.”

“Why are you here?” the young woman asked, all the welcome gone from her voice.

“I’m hoping to see my nephew.  I was invited.”  Jaime kept his voice cordial and his body language open.

“What do you want with him, Mr. Lannister?” She bit out.  Some of the people milling around the entry began to take notice and she gave them a sickly smile.

“Nothing bad, Ms. Stark.  If I wanted to hurt Gendry, I’d just stay away like all the other years.”

Jaime caught sight of a dark head and wide shoulders moving toward him through the crowd.  Jaime straightened, a small smile blossoming on his face.

“Uncle Jaime?”  Gendry’s expression was wary, but Jaime could still see hope in his nephew’s eyes.

“Hello, Gendry.  Happy Winterfest.”

Sansa Stark reached out and put a hand on Gendry’s arm, as if to hold him back.  Gendry covered that hand with his own and gave it an affectionate squeeze.  “Sansa, have you met my uncle, Jaime Lannister?”

“Sansa was welcoming me just now.”  Jaime smiled sweetly at the Stark girl.  “Is there somewhere we could have a quiet word, Gendry?”

“Of course, Uncle Jaime.  The study is usually pretty quiet.  We can go there.”  Gendry turned to his good sister.  “I’ve got it from here, Sansa.  I’d like to have a minute with my uncle before I introduce him to the family.”

Sansa looked between Jaime and his nephew.  “You’re sure?”

“Yes.  This is a good thing, Sansa.  I know it.”

Jaime’s heart swelled at the certainty and love in Gendry’s voice.

The study looked lived in.  There were books and papers scattered around.  A couple desks and lots of bookcases had been crammed in along with a small sofa and easy chair.  Gendry motioned for Jaime to sit and then leaned up against one of the desks.

“It’s hard to know where to start.”  Jaime began.

No.  This is a new day and a better version of me.  I know where to start.

“I’m sorry, Gendry.  That’s where I begin.  I’ve been a total shit to you.  I don’t deserve your forgiveness.  I failed you every way I could.  I hope that you can accept my apology and you’ll find it in your heart to let me try to earn your respect again.”  Jaime breathed deep.  That had been hard.  But some burden he hadn’t acknowledged he was carrying felt lighter.

“Why, Uncle Jaime?  I need to know that before we can go on.”

And Gendry wasn’t going to make it easy for him.  Jaime knew he didn’t deserve easy.

“It was too painful.  I wasn’t the man you needed me to be.  You don’t know this but I was the one who told Tyrion about Tysha being … being after his money.  I could tell Tyrion was furious, out of his mind, when I told him, but I left him there.  I should have stayed with him, helped him through it.  But I took the easy way and let him throw me out of his apartment.  I failed him.  I failed your grandfather.  I could see he was ill, running himself into the ground, but I couldn’t get out of my own guilt to help him.  I failed your mom and” Jaime took a moment as his voice broke, “and Tommen and Myrcella.  I knew Cersei was falling apart and the tabloids were eating it up.  I should have found a way to get those vultures to back off of them.  I’m a lawyer, for gods’ sakes.  But I was paralyzed.  I couldn’t even help myself.  I knew I was going to fail you, disappoint you.  It was easier to do it all at once, and then keep doing it on my terms, rather than failing you in a way I couldn’t control.”

“That’s stupid, Uncle Jaime.  Tyrion made his own choices.  None of us could have conceived that he’d do what he did.  And the rest of it, you were grieving.  The only way you failed was in trying to do it alone.”

“Well, I’ve always been the stupidest Lannister.  All those things I said to you yesterday and all the yesterdays before.  They were all bullshit, trying to push you away for good.  Your parents loved you the best that they knew how.  Your mother loved you and was proud to be your mother, no matter how she fought you over the choices you made.  She wanted the best for you and she just couldn’t accept that what she and your grandfather wanted might not be the best.”

“Are you happy, Gendry?  If you are, then your mother is happy too.”

“Yes, I’m happy.  I have a good life, work that I love, a woman I adore.  And family that’s come back into my life at last.”

Jaime rose from the chair and reached out to cradle Gendry’s cheek, just as he had when he was a little boy.

“You look like your father.  You carry yourself like your mother.  But there is a goodness in you that … I don’t know where it comes from.  It’s just yours.”

“Can you stay a while, meet the family?”

“I’ve heard from a reliable source that this is quite the party and Tyrion’s ghost would haunt me if I skipped out on good food and free booze for yet another year.”  Jaime smiled and suddenly found himself wrapped in his nephew’s embrace.

When had Gendry gotten so big?  He was still a hair shorter then Jaime, but much more solid, with the Baratheon bulkiness, and strong from his work at the forge.  But he had always been this kind, this generous.  Jaime hugged him back, blinking away tears.

The two men broke apart and awkwardly cleared their throats.  Before either could say another word, the door slammed open and a petite figure burst into the room.

“What’s going on here?”  A young woman with icy grey eyes demanded.  She took one look at Gendry and flew at Jaime.

“You’re making him cry again, you bastard.  Wasn’t yesterday enough?”  A small but powerful fist connected with Jaime’s solar plexus.  All the air was forced out of his lungs.

A couple inches lower and I’d be a eunuch.

Gendry grabbed his … wife? ... around the waist and lifted her off the floor.  She continued to yell and struggle as Jaime fought to catch his breath.

“It’s okay, babe.  Calm down.  It’s happy crying today.  Jaime’s apologized and he’s here to meet the family as last.”

Arya straight out snorted.  “Like the family wants to meet him.”  The look she sent Jaime was meant to be lethal.

I may be taking my life in my hands here.

“Gendry, I sense your wife has some things she wants to say to me, things neither of us would like you to hear.  Can you give us a few minutes, maybe get us something to drink?  Clearing the air might make the rest of this go easier for everybody.”

Gendry’s eyes darted back and forth between his boiling mad wife and his newly regained uncle.  “You sure about that?”

“Yes, I’m sure.  But no more punching, Mrs. Stark-Baratheon.  It’s not fair since I can’t hit you back.”

“It’s still Ms. Stark, but call her Arya.  She’s your family, no matter how she’s acting at the moment.”

Arya sent Gendry a betrayed glare.

“Do you promise, Arya?  No more hitting?”  Gendry’s voice was downright indulgent.

“Yes, I promise.”  Arya said grudgingly.

“No kicking either.”  Jaime added.

She snarled at him and then nodded.

“Okay.  You’ve got as long as it takes me to get to the bar and back.  Ale for you, babe?  Is whiskey still your drink, Uncle Jaime?”

“I’ll have an ale, too.  I think the next few minutes are going to be thirsty work.”

Gendry left and before the door was shut behind him Arya Stark started in.

She listed all the ways Jaime had failed Gendry in the last few years.  All the milestones that he’d missed while Gendry missed his presence.  All the times Gendry cried for his family without Jaime there to share memories and tears.  She denigrated Jaime’s character, reviled his business practices, insulted his hair.  Anything and everything she could throw at him, faster and faster.

Jaime stood and took it all, feeling he deserved nothing less.  Gendry had let him get off too lightly.

She was breathing heavily when she threw the metaphorical knockout punch.

“We lost a baby last spring.  It wasn’t planned and we’re too young, but we were so happy.  I was five months along and then our son was just gone.  I had all my family to help me get through it and Gendry had no one of his own.”  As hard as she was trying to hold it in Arya started to cry.  “Gendry wanted to name him Tyr, for your brother.  For the uncle he thought might still love him.”

Jaime approached Arya carefully.  He laid a gentle hand on her shoulder, only to have her bat it away.  Then she suddenly had her arms around his waist and was crying into his sweater.

“I don’t do this.  I’m not like this.”  Arya wailed.

Jaime rubbed slow circles on her back, like he’d done when the kids were little.  “We’re all like this sometimes, Arya.  Or you end up being like I was, a bloody minded bastard.  A few tears doesn’t mean you’re not as fierce as a direwolf.”

She sniffled and then pushed him away.  “This doesn’t mean you’re forgiven.  It doesn’t mean I like you.”

“Of course not.  Wouldn’t have dreamed of thinking it did.”  Jaime smiled down at her and received a growl in return.

The door to the study burst open again.  Leading the charge was an elegant redhead who could only have been Catelyn Stark, famous defender of the oppressed and downtrodden.  Behind her was her older daughter and several young men who had to be her sons.  Bringing up the rear was Gendry, bottles of ale in his hands.

“What’s going on here?”  Catelyn demanded, putting an arm around Arya’s shoulders.

“It’s okay, Mom.  Uncle Jaime and I were just coming to an understanding.”  It could be said that Arya grinned at Jaime, but it was more like baring her teeth.

“Mrs. Stark, I’m sorry if we disrupted the party. This is not the way I wanted to meet you.  But Arya was telling me about the baby and we both became rather emotional.”

Gendry set the bottles down on the first level surface and came to wrap his arms around his wife.

Catelyn looked at her daughter, aghast.  “You told him?

“Yes, Mom.  It was his great nephew after all.”

A great nephew?  Cersei’s grandchild?  Gods, I’m getting old.

The little wolf girl glanced to see if that barb landed and smiled when she saw it had.

Jaime stepped up to Gendry, who loosened his hold on his wife.

“Another thing I have to apologize for, Gendry.  I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help you through that.”

Gendry’s reply was drowned out by the youngest of the Stark boys.  “He didn’t need your help.  He had us.”

“Rickon!”  His mother exclaimed.

“And you will all have my eternal gratitude for taking care of Gendry while my head was up my ass.”  Jaime looked from face to face of the Stark family.  “I know you neither need nor want my gratitude, but you have it all the same.”

Arya stepped out of Gendry’s arms and came over to Jaime’s side.  “Stand down, guys.  I already tore him a new one.  That was enough for today.  There will be lots of future opportunities for all of us to beat up on him, won’t there Uncle Jaime?”

Jaime smiled down at her evil little face.  “Yes, there will be, good niece.”

“Mom, you’ve got guests examining our dirty laundry.  Maybe we should all get back to the party.”  Sansa, who was obviously the sensible daughter, spoke up.

“Oh, gods, what kind of hostess am I?  Everyone back out there at once.”  Catelyn Stark made shooing motions to her children.  “Mr. Lannister …”

“Jaime, please, Mrs. Stark.  If you don’t mind, I’ll stay in here for a bit.  The last few minutes have been a lot to take in and I’d like some time to settle myself and to let you settle your guests.”

“Thank you, Mr. Lannister.  That is probably for the best.”

Catelyn Stark exited and closed the door behind her.  She didn’t seem to notice that one of her sons had remained behind.

He made a beeline for the forgotten bottles of ale.

“Are you old enough to be drinking that?”  Jaime asked.

The young man was tall and thin.  His dark hair had a red sheen to it even in the low light of the winter afternoon.  “Yes,” he replied.  “Well, almost.”

“You’re the middle boy.”  Jaime delved deep in his memory and pulled out a name.  “Brandon, right?”

“Bran.  Only Mom calls me Brandon and only when she’s mad.”

“Are you even in college yet?”

“I’m a sophomore.”

“Then you actually aren’t old enough to be drinking that, but I expect you aren’t a beer virgin, so I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“Thanks.” 

The boy’s light blue eyes were strangely penetrating.  Jaime turned from his gaze to examine the room.  He walked around the bookshelves, examining titles.  His eye fell on a grouping of photographs on one shelf.  Curious, he picked one of them up.

“Who is this?”

“That’s my dad.”

“He was a Gold Cloak?”

“Yeah.  That’s him with his partner.”

“They look familiar to me.”

“I thought they might.  They were the investigators on your brother’s case.”

“No, that was some bureaucratic jackass named,” Jaime reached into his memory bank of names again.  “Slynt.  He’s a judge now I hear.”

“Captain Slynt took over when Dad was killed.”  Even after all the years, sorrow colored Bran’s voice.

“I’m sorry.  I kind of remember what happened, but I was deep in my own family troubles at the time.”

“A drug addict, high on some kind of hallucinogen, was going crazy in a mini mart.  Dad had just stopped for some milk, walked in totally unprepared.  The guy, Clegane was his name, Gregor Clegane, he jumped Dad before he could get his gun all the way out of the holster.  Dad did manage to shoot him, but he was a really big guy and …”

“It’s okay, kid.  I get it.”  Jaime put the picture down.

“Dad’s partner went kind of nuts when Dad was killed.  Kept saying it was a conspiracy, that someone matching Clegane’s description had been seen near your brother’s building the night he … well, that night.”

“What?  I never heard anything about that.”

“Everybody but Dad and Bronn thought it was an open and shut murder/suicide.  But Dad thought something didn’t smell right and he had the best instincts on the force.  As soon as Dad died, Slynt closed the case the next day.  Bronn made a lot of noise and was ‘invited’ to retire.  Someone influential didn’t want your brother’s case looked at too closely.”

“That may have been my father or my uncles after Dad’s first heart attack.  They would have thought avoiding further scandal was more important than finding out what really happened.”  Jaime said, some of the old bitterness creeping back into his voice.  “Will this Bronn fellow be here today?  I’d like to talk to him.”

“He and Mom don’t get along so well.  But I’ll get you his phone number before you leave.  He’s working as a PI now.  So expect to pay his going rate for conversation.”

“That’s the advantage of being ridiculously wealthy.  Whatever the going rate is, I can pay.”

Normal party sounds could again be heard through the study doors.  “You about done with that beer, kid?  I don’t want your mom to see you with it and blame me.  She has enough reason to dislike me already.”

“And you’re probably not even counting the Mountains of the Moon.”

“Is the foundation taking that up?  Gods, another reason to reconsider.”

***

Jaime spent some time getting to know the oldest Stark boy, an earnest young architect named Robb and his sweet faced wife, Jeyne, and to admire their two kids.

He chatted with Renly Baratheon and his partner, Loras Tyrell and managed cordial handshakes with the ever dour Stannis and his creepy girlfriend.

He got some food and ate with Gendry, chaperoned by Arya, in case Jaime’s new Maester Jekyll personality reverted to Lord Hyde.

He spied Sansa gathering used glasses and plates and lent a hand despite her protests that guests didn’t clear up.

He allowed himself to be dragged into the game room by Rickon, who thought that someone so ancient would be no challenge at foosball.

Jaime generally tried to make himself as pleasant a guest as possible.  Except at foosball.  Jaime took no prisoners when it came to foosball and Rickon Stark went down in flames, begging for a rematch soon. 

Jaime finagled an introduction to the headmaster of the Red Keep School for a discussion of scholarships. The obsequious prig, Pycelle by name, salivated at the thought of Lannister gold more than he did over the buffet table and Sansa Stark’s pert behind.

Having other stops to make and not wanting to wear out his welcome on the first visit, Jaime was thinking about saying his farewells when he moved from one room to another and there she was.

Gods, I’d forgotten her eyes.  How could I have forgotten her eyes?

They both stopped short, stunned to be within arms reach of each other after so long.

“Brienne.”  Jaime breathed, unable to say more, think more.

She recovered more quickly.  “Jaime, I didn’t know you were here.  What are you doing here?”

The little rumble in her voice when she was surprised and covering it was so familiar, so dear.  It broke Jaime out of his shock.  “Gendry invites me every year.  This year I finally remembered I still have family.  I hope I even still have friends.”  He smiled as he saw something soften in her eyes.

“That’s good.  Gendry has missed you terribly.  It’s good you’re here.”  Their gaze locked for a moment, then Brienne broke away, cleared her throat.  “For him.  It’s good you’re here for him.”

Jaime opened his mouth to speak again but was forestalled by a large ginger with an epic beard appearing behind Brienne.

“I’ve got the coats, lass.”  He stopped short, picking up on some of the swirling emotion.  Brienne now seemed like the one who was frozen.

Jaime stuck out his hand.  “We haven’t been introduced.  Jaime Lannister.”

“Oh gods, where are my manners.”  Brienne said.  “Jaime, this is Tormund Giantsbane.  Tormund, Jaime is an old friend.”

Giantsbane looked at him suspiciously.  “Jaime.  Lannister.  Of the Lannister Group?”

“One and the same.  How have I abused or insulted you or someone you know?”  Jaime hadn’t intended to be glib, but the man ignored Jaime’s outstretched hand and was instead moving to wrap his arm around Brienne’s waist.

“Jaime,” Brienne said sharply, as she slipped away from the ginger’s grasp. “Tormund is one of the geologists working to stop the 3Ms project.”

“Are you now?”

“That’s right, Lannister.  We aren’t going to let those mountains be raped and pillaged without a fight.”  Tormund leaned aggressively into Jaime’s personal space.

“Then this meeting is fortunate.  I have concerns about the reports accompanying the business proposal from Mockingbird and Twin Towers.  I don’t have a geologist available at the moment to discuss them with.  Would you be willing to come by my office and go over my issues?”

“Wha?”  the large man was flummoxed by Jaime’s request.

“I can’t share any work product with you, of course.  That’s proprietary.  But I have enough doubts about the public documents to give me pause.”

“What are you trying to pull, Lannister?”

“Nothing more than due diligence, I assure you.  Bring a witness to the meeting if you want to be sure I’m not trying anything underhanded.  I’m sure Arya Stark would be happy to attend.  She’s been in the vanguard of protesting the project.”

Giantsbane continued to look suspicious, but there was more than a hint of interest in his eyes.  “I might just do that, even if it’s only to figure out what you’re up to, Lannister.”

Jaime pulled out a business card and held it out.  “I’ll be back in the office tomorrow.  My schedule is pretty free for the next few days because of the holiday.  Call my assistant and set something up.”

Brienne had watched the whole exchange, astonished.

“It’s been good to see you, Brienne.”

Her lips moved a few times, but no sound came out.

Giantsbane touched her shoulder tentatively.  “We need to go, lass if we’re going to make the weirwood ceremony.”

Brienne shook her head slightly.  “Of course.  Let’s just … It was good to see you, too, Jaime.”

Jaime watched her walk away.  She was almost to the front door, when she said something to her companion and turned around.

Jaime smiled as she walked back.

“What’s really going on, Jaime?”

“Just what it looks like, Brienne.  Everything has changed.  Or gone back to the way it was.  I feel like I’ve woken up from a years long nightmare.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I don’t either.  Meet me for coffee.  You say where and when, and I’ll be there.  Just coffee and a chance to talk.  I’ve missed talking to you, Brienne.”

“And if I want to have coffee in Riverrun?”

“Then I’ll go to Riverrun.  I’ll go to the Wall if it means I can talk with you.”

“I’ll think about it, Jaime.  No promises.”

Jaime pulled out another card.  “That one’s got my direct line and my cell.  I really hope I hear from you, Brienne.”

She took the card from his hand.  Her fingers brushed his and heat radiated up his arm.  He could be warm for the rest of his life from that heat.

“You’d better go.  Your date is getting anxious.”

“It’s just a set up.  Catelyn arranged it.”

“Nevertheless, that man is smitten.  I recognize the look.”

She blushed.  A full-on Brienne Tarth blush that probably when all the way down.  Jaime grinned as she walked away.

“Mr. Lannister?”

“Mrs. Stark?”

“Brienne is very dear to me.  I do not want to see her hurt again.”  Jaime would find more empathy facing a firing squad.

“She said you set her up with Giantsbane.  Have you arranged many blind dates for her?”

“A few over the years.”  Catelyn Stark now looked more wary than aggressive.

“How did those turn out?”

“There were varying degrees of success.”

“Brienne admired and respected you back when we were together.  I’m sure those feelings have only grown as she’s continued to work with you.”

Jaime let a little lion creep into his voice.  “I don’t want to see her hurt again, either.”

Mrs. Stark gave him a little nod, like a duelist acknowledging a hit.

“Thank you for your hospitality today.  It was a pleasure meeting your family.  I’ll go say my goodbyes to Gendry and be on my way.”

Something in the lady’s demeanor softened.  “Thank you for coming today, Jaime.  I know it meant the world to my good son.”

***

The Free Folk Food Bank wasn’t all the way down into Flea Bottom, but on the edges at the bottom of Rhaenys’s Hill.  It was early enough and there were enough people out and about on the streets that Jaime felt no trepidation in walking there.

Getting my exercise in today.  This keeps up and I can skip the gym tomorrow.  I expect I’ll have a packed day.

There was still a line of people waiting to get in for meals.  Jaime made his way around the back to the kitchen and caught the eye of a pretty, dark haired young woman.

“Do you still need any help here, miss?  I’d be happy to volunteer some time.”

“Yes,” she said instantly, “we’ve been bleeding folk for the last couple hours.  They’ve all gone off to make their own dinners.  Do you have any skills?”

“I can’t say that I do.  But I can clear tables and wash up if you have a spare apron.”

She looked Jaime up and down.  She didn’t seem to notice the golden hair, emerald eyes, high-end clothing.  She saw hands that could be put to use.

“All right then.  Hang up that coat and roll up your sleeves.  Val will show you how to run the dishwasher.  It may be better if you aren’t in the dining room too much, Mr. Lannister.  Some of these people lost their jobs because of you.”

Jaime acknowledged that with a nod of his head.  “I don’t want to cause you or anyone else any trouble, Miss …”

“It’s Gilly.”

“I’m Jaime.  I intend to start helping instead of harming.  Washing some dishes seems like a way to make a beginning today.”

The wash area of the kitchen was like a sauna.  Jaime stripped off is his vest, tie and shirt along with his sports jacket and top coat, to the admiration of several people working in the kitchen.  He tied a long apron over his undershirt and turned to Gilly.  “Where do I start?”

“Oi, Val, close your mouth and show Jaime here the dishwasher.  Then get back out to the dining room and bus some tables.  We’ve still got a line at the door.”

Val startled at the sharp commands.  “All right.  No need to be so bossy.  Here, Jaime, let me show you what to do.”  She brought a hand up to grasp Jaime’s bicep.

A wooden spoon appeared out of nowhere and smacked her hand away.  Jaime felt the impact, so he wasn’t surprised when Val yelped.

“I told you to show him, not fondle him.  If you can’t keep your hands to yourself, I’ll have Mopey Ed work with him.”  Gilly turned back to Jaime.  “If any other of my sisters start groping you, Jaime, let me know.  I’ll sort them out.”

Jaime smiled.  “I’m a big boy, Gilly.  I can take care of myself.”

“Not against Wilding girls you can’t.  You don’t meet sluts like my sisters above the Muddy Way.”

Val stuck her tongue out when Gilly turned to move on to other tasks, but she still did keep her hands to herself while describing how to run an industrial dishwasher and, somehow, making it sound like a porn film.  Jaime was relieved when she left him and went back to the dining room.

Time passed quickly as Jaime worked to catch up with the backlog of dirty dishes.  A series of tough looking young woman passed through the kitchen, each taking a moment to ogle him before Gilly’s glare sent them back to work.  He spent some time trying to pry conversation out of Mopey Ed, who deserved his appellation.  But he did learn from Ed, as they scraped and rinsed plates, that “some crazy bugger sent a buttload of food from a fancy uptown restaurant” and it had allowed them to open the food bank an hour early.

“Gilly made sure almost every crumb went to the customers, but I managed to grab a slice of the ham and some cheesy potatoes.  I ate like that every day, I’d be big as Balerion the Dread.”

 “So it was a hit?”

“Them first folks through the door thought they’d died and gone to Visenya’s Hill.”

Jaime smiled and got back to work.

Despite Gilly’s protests, her sisters - and there were quite a few of them working at the food bank that day - kept skivving off as evening fell and the new diners slowed to a trickle.  Jaime found himself heading out to the dining room to clear tables.

A rotund young man in a Lord Snow costume was trying to comfort a little girl as she wailed in front of the table where all the clothing had been piled.  Lord Snow was sweating, and not just because he was swaddled in a grey velvet robe trimmed with fake wolf fur.

“Don’t cry, sweetling, please.  I’m sure we can find something that you’ll like.”

“PIIIINNNNNK!” The little girl wailed.  That was the only word Jaime recognized in her cries.

“I don’t think we have anything pink left, oh dear, oh dear.”  Lord Snow was wringing his hands as his eyes darted around the room, seeking assistance from someone, anyone.

At the other end of the table, Jaime caught sight of a WallMart bag that had slipped to the floor and been forgotten.  Spilling from it was a pair of bright pink mittens.  Jaime bent over and bundled them back into the bag and then cleared his throat ostentatiously.

Lord Snow’s eyes bulged as he seemed to recognize Jaime.

Gods, is that Randall Tarly’s boy beneath that curly white wig and beard?

Jaime nodded his head towards the floor a few times and then kicked the bag over to Tarly’s feet.

“Wait, I do have something for you, sweetling.”  Sam Tarly pulled out the mittens, followed by a hat and scarf in the same eye searing shade of fuchsia.  “Will this do with that blue coat your mother picked out?”

The little girl’s eyes widened and widened and widened some more.  “Pink.” She breathed, ecstasy rolling over her features.  “Look, Mam, pink.”

A young woman in her twenties, who’d been scare during the color driven meltdown, made her way to her daughter’s side.  “And what do we say to Lord Snow?”

“Thank you, Lord Snow.”  The little girl ran around the table and hugged Sam Tarly’s leg.  Then she followed her mother back to a table that still had pieces of pie waiting to be eaten, her precious pink scarf set clutched tight in her arms.

“Thank you for the help, Mr. Lannister.  I must say I’m surprised to see you here.”  Tarly said stiffly.

“I’ll bet you are.  I was an asshole to you and your brother yesterday.  I apologize.  Gods, I’ve been saying that a lot today.”

“How did you end up here, Mr. Lannister?”

“Please, Sam, it’s Jaime.  There were notices everywhere at the Club about giving to this food bank.  I figured I’d missed my chance to contribute money to your drive, but I could at least give some of my time.  They needed an extra set of hands in the kitchen.”

“Yes, Gilly’s sisters are a bit unreliable.”  Sam gazed at the dark haired martinet who was directing the remaining volunteers.  It seemed like time had stopped for Sam.

I remember having that look.  But Randall Tarly won’t like where he’s directing it.

“Miss Gilly’s a taskmaster, no doubt.  I don’t think anyone else could have handled them better.  If she didn’t look so content here, I’d offer a job wrangling executives for me.” 

A suspicious look passed over young Tarly’s face.

Don’t worry, boy.  I’m not trying to move in on your girl, even if she weren’t young enough to be my daughter.

Gods, when did I get so old?

“Gilly’s devoted to the work here.”  Sam said defensively.

“Oh, I could tell that.  She knew right away who I was and what I’m responsible for, but there were no recriminations, no guilt trips.  She just put me straight to work.  It’s rare to find that kind of clear headed decisiveness in one so very young.”

Way, waaaay to young to be interesting to me, so stand down, boy.

But it was still good to see Sam Tarly had some backbone.  His father probably worked had to bully that out of him.

Sam’s eyes darted from Gilly to Jaime and then to the remaining piles of clothes left on the table.

“How did you know to look for that bag, Jaime?”

“It was right there on the floor, Sam.  You just couldn’t see it from where you were standing.”

“Gilly said all these clothes just appeared.  A cab driver dropped off an anonymous donation of hundreds of dragons of warm clothes and boots for the children.  We even have extra to give away in the days to come.”

“An anonymous donation.  Imagine that.”  Jaime tried to keep a straight face, but he knew he was smirking just a little.  He couldn’t help it.  He was still a Lannister, after all.

“And there was all the food that was dropped off too, also an anonymous donation.  From Starfall, of all places.  You own Starfall, don’t you?”

“Let’s keep this quiet, Sam.  I owe immeasurable debts to the working people of this city.  And you know what they say about Lannisters and debts.  Too often it’s been more about payback and revenge than balancing the scales.  I mean to change that.”

“That’s easy to say, Jaime.”

“And hard to do.  The people of this town have no reason to trust me.  I’ve given them every reason not to, just as my father before me.”  Jaime paused as inspiration struck.  “You work for the Margaery Foundation, don’t you?”

“Yessss.” Sam said warily.

“No institution is more trusted than the Foundation.  I’d like to talk about a partnership, a project, I don’t know what we’d call it, but I’ll need help, legitimacy, if I’m going to achieve anything good.  Can we talk about it?  As soon as you can make time.”

“I’ll have to talk to my bosses about this.”

“Clear it with whoever you need to.  But I want to work with you on this.  There can be people overseeing your work, but you’ll be in charge of the operation, okay.”

“I don’t know if they’ll go for that, Jaime.”

“When they hear the size of the donation I want to make, they will.  Don’t worry about that.”  Jaime leaned forward and whispered an amount to Sam that made his jaw drop.  “Talk to your boss first thing in the morning, then call my assistant and set something up.”

Jaime patted the thunderstruck Sam on the shoulder.  “Now you’d best make a round so all the children get to meet Lord Snow and I’d best get back to work before Gilly catches me away from the dishwasher.”

***

Jaime woke early the next morning, again bursting with energy and good will.

Thank the gods, it wasn’t just a Winterfest aberration.

He dressed in the grey suit he’d laid out on Winterfest Eve and, still not finding his favorite crimson silk tie, Jaime opted again for the happy snowmen.  He grabbed a power bar and some coffee and called for his car service two hours ahead of schedule.  There was even more to do today.

Sitting in the quiet office, Jaime fired off memo after memo.  He was going to shake things to the foundations.  He left a voicemail for his Uncle Kevan to come by first thing.  If he could get Kevan on his side, the rest would fall in line.

It was a fifteen minutes past the hour when Jaime heard noises in the outer office, Josamyn Peckledon’s office.

“Late again, Peck?”  Jaime chortled quietly before roaring “PECKLEDON!” out his half opened doorway.  He was trying to be a better man.  It didn’t mean he’d become a saint.

“Oh, fuck!” Jaime’s assistant said, not quietly enough.

Jaime bowed his head over his desk to hide a grin.  “What do you mean, Peckledon, coming in at this hour?”  It was difficult to keep his voice gruff.

“I apologize, Mr. Lannister. I am late.  The trains are still digging out from the snow storm and I didn’t allow enough extra time for my commute.  It won’t happen again.”

“I don’t know how you expect me to tolerate this kind of behavior, Peckledon.  I don’t think I have any choice but to…” Jaime took a dramatic pause.  “Raise you salary!”

“WHAT?”

“You’ve been an excellent assistant these last few years, Peck and I haven’t been sufficiently appreciative.  All the staff are getting salary bumps, as well as belated Winterfest bonuses, but you’ve born the brunt of my bad temper for so long, that you deserve a bit more.  I think a thirty percent raise will begin to compensate all the overtime I make you work.  Do you think that’s fair?”  Jaime raised his eyebrows expectantly.

“Fair, Mr. Lannister?”  Peck seemed rather shell shocked.

“Yes, fair.  If you think it should be more, if that is what it will take to keep you committed to this position and this company, let me know and we can discuss it over some coffee.”

“No, I think thirty percent is very generous, ser.”

“Don’t let me off too easily, Peck.  Take some time to think, maybe talk to your wife about it.  Now, there is a whole list of calls I want you to make for me.  And I expect calls from Arthur Dayne, Samwell Tarly, and Arya Stark or Tormund Giantsbane in the next few days.  They should all get on my calendar as quickly as possible.  My Uncle Kevan should get in immediately, no matter what I’m doing.  Set something up with his assistant ASAP.”

“Yes, Mr. Lannister.  I’ll get right on all of that.”  Peck looked at Jaime tentatively.  “Is there anything else?”

“No, I don’t… Wait, how could I forget?  You’ll be getting a call from the Red Keep School in the next couple days.   Your son is going to be the first recipient of the Tommen and Myrcella Baratheon Memorial Scholarship.  When you get that call you can take any time you need to deal with the technicalities and to let your family know right away.”

“Mr. Lannister, I don’t know what to say.”  Poor Peck looked he had been run over by a steamroller.

“I meant to set up the scholarship years ago, but it got lost in all the noise.  Hearing that your boy needed a hand gave me the push to get it done.  I spoke with the headmaster yesterday.  Your son sounds like a brilliant young man who will do great things.  I’ll be proud to help him in any way I can.  Now off to your desk, Peck.  There is so much to do.”

***

Another hour passed before Kevan Lannister came barreling into Jaime’s office.  Peck trailed behind and announced “Your Uncle is here to see you, Mr. Lannister.”

Jaime smiled at him.  “Can you bring us some coffee, Peck?  I think my uncle will need something warm to soothe his throat after he yells at me for a while.”

“I’ll take care of it, ser.”

“Oh, and some pastries or bagels, whatever you can lay your hands on.  Breakfast was a while ago.”

“I don’t want any damn pastries, Jaime.  What the hells are you playing at?  The whole company thinks you’ve run mad.”  Kevan Lannister was a portly man with thinning grey-blond hair.  His face was almost puce with exertion and choler. 

“Have a seat, Uncle.  I think we’re going to be here a while.  I had Peck keep my morning clear for you.  And before you blow an aneurism, take a few breaths and listen to what I’m proposing.”

Kevan Lannister seemed to dig deep for control.  He sat down in the chair Jaime indicated and rolled his shoulders and neck.  When his color has subsided a bit, he nodded at his nephew.

“All right.  First off, we are walking away from the Mountains of the Moon Mining project.  It stinks to the seven heavens of corruption already and they haven’t even dug a hole yet.  Catelyn Stark is already gearing up to fight it and it’s going to blow up in Baelish and Frey’s faces sooner or later.  I don’t want to be standing next to the likes of them when it does.”

“All right, I wasn’t thrilled about getting into bed with old Walder to begin with.”  Kevan nodded his agreement.  “But passing on 3Ms and completely revamping the company are two different things, Jaime.”

“That proposal was just a symptom, Uncle Kevan.  Or maybe a wake up call.  Whatever, the path the company has been on is untenable.  You’ve been making that argument for years.  We’ve become modern day robber barons and the regulatory agencies or the justice system are going to catch up and destroy us.  They’d be right to do it.  We’re walking on the edge of outright criminality and I’m to blame for that.  We are going to course correct before we all end up in jail.” 

Jaime laid out his plans for changing the business model for the Lannister Group.

 “It’s going to be a hard sell, Jaime.  You’ve been too profitable these last few years for anyone to happily see those dragons go into anyone else’s pocket.  You’re in for a fight.”

“Then it’s good I took the company private again.  Any executive who doesn’t agree with the new policies is welcome to leave with a generous severance package and an iron clad non-disclosure agreement.  The only shareholders are family, and I’ll buy out anyone who wants to bail.  I’m already the majority owner and not even you could unseat me as CEO.”

“It’s not the business end that’s going to cause the most problems, boy.  It’s these damn, quixotic notions you’ve developed about needing to save the world.  I read those memos of yours and all I could think was that you’d fallen and hit your head.  It’s mad, absolutely barking mad.”

“It needs to be done.  The Rivergate expansion is a disaster and we’re not going to be able to hide that for much longer.  But if we can revitalize the Mudgate area, we can salvage our investment eventually and do some good while we’re at it.  It’s a win-win for everybody concerned.”

“All right, if you want to do this, then start a foundation yourself.  Keep control of it.”

“A Lannister foundation?” Jaime scoffed.  “How much trust do you think that would get?  We are possibly the most hated family in Westeros.  Hells, people still remember that a Lannister killed the good, little queen in the old legends.  No one is going to believe that anything with our name on it will be about anything but lining our pockets with more gold.”

Jaime continued.  “It’s got to be the Margaery Foundation.  It’s got the best reputation in the kingdoms.  It’s more trusted than the government, the media, maybe more trusted than the Seven themselves.  We give them the money and the mandate and let them get it done.”

“The family is going to balk as giving away all that money without any strings.”

“They can bitch all they want.  I’ll finance it myself if I have to. I’m writing the check for the startup costs out of my own accounts today.  I can get the rest of it pretty easily.”

“How?  The amount of money this will take will bankrupt you if the business profits are taking hits at the same time.”

“I’m going to sell the house.”  Jaime laid his big gun on the table.

Kevan gasped.  “You can’t.  You can’t sell Casterly House.”

“As a matter of fact I can.  All of Dad’s assets were left to me personally without restrictions.  The house and all it’s contents are mine to do with as I see fit, along with all the other family properties.”

“I’m never going to live there again.  I don’t have many good memories of that place after Mom died.  I don’t feel any attachment to it.  But it would be good to keep it in the family, if only to silence gossip.  So I’m giving you first bid, Uncle.”

“No, Casterly House goes to the eldest son.  It’s always been that way.”

“Just because it’s always been that way doesn’t mean it has to stay that way.  Didn’t you used to say that to Dad all the time?  You don’t have to answer immediately.  Take a couple days to talk to Dorna.  If you decide you don’t want it, there’s an Essosi oil prince who makes me an offer every year.  I’m sure he’ll be interested in bidding.”

“You can’t be serious.  That will happen over my dead body.  And your father would probably climb up out of his grave to stop it.  Of course, I’ll buy the house.”  Kevan blustered.

Jaime smiled.  “Then I’ll have the lawyers start on the paperwork.  We can talk about the contents later.  I plan to auction anything that isn’t tied to the family’s history.  I’m going to open up the vaults and let some sunshine in.  The art alone could keep the company afloat while we regroup.”

“Gods, that will cause even more uproar.  Lannister’s will be coming out of the woodwork to file lawsuits against you.”

“The house is mine with all it’s contents.  That’s what Dad’s will said and nobody contested it.  It’s too late now.  I’m a lawyer, remember.  And I do plan to let the family have first crack at the goodies, as long as they behave like ladies and gentlemen.”

***

Jaime spent the next couple days alternating between productive meetings and reassuring relatives and executives that it wasn’t the Long Night come again.  The company would survive.  The family would thrive.  And the Lannisters would do something good for once.

He put Samwell Tarly together with Arthur Dayne to talk about revitalizing Rivergate, starting with reestablishing the public market that used to be it’s heart.  The conference complex that had anchored the failed phase two of Jaime’s original project would be redesigned to house the old style food stalls, new restaurants, food trucks and pop-ups, whatever would bring people back into the area.  Arthur had been trying to sell the plan to Jaime for months.  A new Dayne restaurant would be the crown jewel of the new market.  It was Sam’s suggestion that the unsold condos be rented cheaply through the Margaery Foundation to house the market workers and stall owners while the whole project got on its feet.

“This will be a hard sell, Jaime.”  Sam said.  “Those people are scattered to the winds and not likely to trust.  Even the Foundation might not get them back.”

“There was a stall owner, a fish monger I think.  He led the others when they were fighting me over tearing down the market.  If you can find him and get him on board, the others might follow.”  Jaime said.

“Do you remember his name?”

Jaime consulted his memory bank of names and came up empty.  The man had been a nuisance, a pesky fly, nothing more.  “Not a clue.  But I believe I can find it out.  I’ll get you his contact information in the next couple of days.  If you can convince him of our good intentions, you should make him your second in command.”

Jamie’s week was long with meetings from early morning til late at night.  Tormund Giantsbane and Arya Stark spent several hours with him going over the environmental reports on the mining project.  Giantsbane, it turned out, new his stuff.  And Jaime was happy to spend more time with his fierce, little good niece.  As she left he gifted her with a brand new laptop that somehow had reams of untraceable documents from Petyr Baelish and Walder Frey.  Jaime didn’t even have to send his refusal of the proposal before the whole thing imploded in the press.

Jaime followed up on his conversation with Bran Stark and met with Bronn Stokeworth of Blackwater Investigations.  It was an interesting meeting to say the least.

The PI looked like he had just rolled out of bed, likely not his own, after a night of hard drinking.  Eau de strip club wafted from him every time he passed as he wandered around the office, picking up knickknacks as though contemplating whether their absence would be noted if one or two made their way into his pockets.

“So, Mr. Stokeworth,” Jaime began.

“Bronn’s fine.  Don’t hold much with formality, Jaime.”  The Flea Bottom accent was thick enough to cut with a knife.  “I don’t do entrapment if you’re looking to mess up a business rival.  I don’t fuck up other peoples lives with lies.  So if that’s what you want, tell me and I’ll bill you for this hour, no harm, no foul.”

“That’s not what I’m looking for, Bronn.  You came highly recommended as a man who can ferret things out.”

“Ferret?  That a comment on my looks, pretty boy?”

Jaime took a deep breath and held onto his patience.  “Not at all.  Brandon Stark told me that you had some issues about the death of my brother and his girlfriend.  I wanted to see if that was true.”

“Oh, young Bran, was it?  Well, all right then.  Your brother’s case was fucked up from the get go.  Don’t know how many people trooped through the scene before the uniforms arrived.  Even more before old Neddy and I got there and took control.  Something wasn’t right.  Ned sussed it right away.  But pressure kept coming down from the brass to close it, close it up tight.  Figured your old man wanted the scandal over and done.”

“I’ll want to hear about your issues with the investigation, but first, I’d like to have a trial to see if we can work together.”

“You gonna pay me my hourly and expenses?”

“Of course”

“Then try away.”

“I need a man found.  I don’t have much information about him.”

It hadn’t even been 24 hours before Jaime received a call from Bronn Stokeworth.  “Fella you want is called Davos Seaworth.  He’s working the next two days on the wharves.”

“Can you stay on him?  I’ll send someone down to talk to him as soon as I can.”

“You’re not comin’ yourself?”

“We need to get his cooperation.  I don’t think he’d be too happy to see me.”

“What I’ve seen of the man’s circumstances, he’d be happy to see the Stranger if it would put food in his kids’ mouths.”

Seaworth was a hard sell and he demanded a face to face with Jaime before he’d agree to anything.  Once Jaime laid out his plans, Davos became the first employee of the Rivergate Public Market and the first to move his family into one of the condos.  With his help many others followed.

In the midst of all the activity, Jaime got a text.  It said “Coffee, the Rosby Hot Pie in two hours.”

Well, at least she isn’t making me go to Riverrun.

Jaime made it all the way across the city to the suburb of Rosby with half an hour to spare.

***

When the next Winterfest came around, everything was different. 

Bronn Stokeworth had cleared Tyrion’s name and Dr. Qyburn was enjoying the hospitality of the Dothraki prison system.  Just before Tywin’s last heart attack, Qyburn had disappeared from King’s Landing and turned up with one of the minor khals.   He had found financing for his ongoing experiments, without any pesky corporate oversight or regulatory agencies.  When there simply weren’t enough prisoners from the endless skirmishes with other ethnic groups, Khal Morro started letting Qyburn use Dothraki as test subjects.  The Khal of Khals did not approve.  In appreciation for the investigator’s part in exposing Qyburn and Morro, Bronn was given several hours of access to Qyburn’s files before the great Khal Drogo had the lab put to the torch.

A heavily redacted version of Qyburn’s crimes was leaked to the Westerosi press.  Several prominent members of law enforcement were forced to resign, including the former police captain, Judge Janos Slynt.  Bronn stood on the courthouse steps as Slynt was taken away in handcuffs for accepting bribes to cover up the murders of Tyrion and Tysha.

There was more in the complete file that Bronn supplied to Jaime, including, Bronn warned him, information about Tommen and Myrcella.  Jame ran the thumb drive through the shredder without ever looking at it.  Tommen and Myrcella were his niece and nephew.  He loved them.  He missed them.  And that was his truth.

It took three months before the occasional coffee or lunch with Brienne led to actual dates.  It took another three before she let him back into her bed.  And nine months after that fateful Winterfest Eve, with hope in his heart, Jaime retrieved his mother’s ring from the safe.

Chapter Text

… he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

A Christmas Carol, Stave Five

***

Twenty five years had passed since Jaime Lannister altered the course of his life.  The town, the country, indeed the world had been amazed at the change in him and the changes that change wrought.  It was said that if any man had the true Winterfest spirit in his heart and kept it all the year, it was Jaime Goldenhand, the most generous man in King’s Landing.

But today Jaime paced the living room of his home impatiently, while his three tall, blonde daughters snickered at his childishness and his wife rolled her eyes.

“When is he finally going to get here, Brienne?  The day’s half gone already.”

“It’s barely 10 o’clock, Jaime.  He’ll be here.  The plane from Bear Island got in on time and it’s only an hour or so from the airport.”

“But I want my Winterfest present!”  Jaime whined.

The front door opened and a deep voice called out “Mom? Dad?  We’re here.”

Jaime rushed to the front hall and stopped short for a moment to take him in.  Tall, strong, with hair the color of spring’s first daffodils, he’d been born at 3 am, 23 years ago to the day.  The best Winterfest present Jaime Lannister ever did and ever would receive.

His sisters swamped him as Jaime looked on, grinning, his eyes taking in the tiny but fierce looking girl his son had brought home to meet the family.

Breaking free from the sister-mob, he put his arm around the girl’s shoulder.  “Mom, Dad, this is Lyanna Mormont, my fiancée.”

Jaime felt like his smile would split his face if it got any wider.  “We’re all so glad to finally meet you, Lyanna.  You’ve been all our boy can talk about for months.”

“Daaaaad!”  His son blushed as red as his mother could.

Jaime reached out to cradle a flushed cheek in his palm, as he had so many times over the years.  He met those blue-green eyes that always seemed to glow with some magical inner light. 

“Welcome home, Duncan.  Happy birthday.”