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Old Habits

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She remains parked outside the Stark house for ten minutes after her arrival. The flowers are sitting carefully in the passenger seat, deep purpling blues and vibrant whites against the fading leather. They’d been roses, and then they’d been azaleas, and then they’d been roses again. The woman at the flower shop had been very patient, and had talked Brienne through a range of choices before she decided on the hyacinths. Vibrant and regal and fine, and some of the petals approach a shade of blue that is very close to the colour of Catelyn’s eyes.

Brienne blushes. She’s still not completely used to calling her anything other than ‘Mrs. Stark’.

It takes a few more minutes for her skittering nerves to settle, and then she screws up her courage and exits the vehicle, holding the bouquet carefully in her hand. She resists the urge to check her image in the mirror, or in the hazy reflection of the side window as she approaches the house. She knows what she’ll see. A big freckly face, wide eyes, short limp hair. Her only concession to the importance of the occasion was to wear nice slacks, a blue shirt that Renly once told her made her eyes shine, and little diamond studs. They feel strange in her ears, and she has to keep reminding herself not to fiddle with them.

Out of habit, she does a quick sweep of the perimeter as she reaches the front door, but the street is quiet. There's a little wolf sticker above the doorbell. Brienne stares at it for a second before pressing it with a finger that only trembles a bit.

A few moments later, it opens. Catelyn Stark beams at up her.

“Hello my dear.”

“I…” She looks really lovely, like something out of an old movie. Her hair is swept up at the back, and she’s wearing a grey dress with a neckline that scoops low. A hand cups the back of her neck briefly, and then Brienne is being tugged down so that a kiss can be brushed against her cheek. Brienne feels her face turning even redder, and her heart is thundering. She must look so foolish. “Hello. These are for you.”

She offers the bouquet, thrusting it forward a little too roughly. A petal tumbles off, and Catelyn’s smile is now approaching a grin.

“Oh, they’re gorgeous! Thank you. Come on inside, let’s get these in some water.” She beckons to Brienne, gesturing her across the threshold. Brienne ducks to avoid the frame, and wipes her feet conscientiously on the welcome mat. Catelyn bumps the door closed with a swing of her hips, and then disappears down the hallway. Brienne hovers awkwardly for a moment before following her.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” she says nervously as she enters the kitchen. Catelyn is filling up a vase with water. Brienne wants to give a routine excuse, like car trouble or traffic, but she doesn’t want to start out the evening on an untruth. “I… well, I couldn’t decide what sort of flowers to get you.”

Her date — Brienne shivers a bit — fixes her with a beatific smile.

“You’re very sweet. And you chose well, I love these so much. No one’s given me flowers in ages.”

Brienne wants to insist that they should, that she should be showered in bouquets at every opportunity, but it sounds too earnest, even in her mind, and she ends up coughing instead. Catelyn smiles, arranging the flowers just so. She looks serene and well rested. It’s good to see, after what things had been like on the last tour.

“And you shouldn’t apologise, Brienne, I’m the one who’s running late. I still have to fix my makeup.” She pats Brienne’s arm as she sweeps out of the kitchen and into the living room, pausing just long enough to depose the vase onto the mantle place. Brienne, following close behind as she always does, spots a picture of her late husband surrounded by a sea of little red and brown heads before Catelyn moves on. The Stark house is simple but large, and breathes of wealth and style. This is her first time in it, in all their months of acquaintance.

“You have a beautiful home,” Brienne says, fumbling for things to say as they walk. When Catelyn starts up the staircase, she pauses at the bottom, but is soon gestured up.

“Thank you, dear. You’ll have to pardon the mess on the upper floor. Rickon has quite a bit to clean up when he gets back. I’m not sure what he was doing, but it involved putting a toy at each door to stand sentry.” She sweeps down the hallway, where there are indeed dolls and stuffed animals and trucks guarding every door. “He was very excited to meet you, but Robb and Jeyne swung by to take him to the cinema a bit before you arrived.”

She disappears into the room at the end of the hallway, which Brienne assumes to be her bedroom. Out of habit, she stands just outside it, hands clasped behind her back, eyes making note of her surroundings. The house feels more like a home up here, with all the clutter and toys and gentle chaos. She can see band posters and a ‘keep out!’ sign on a door that must be Arya’s, planes and trucks spilling out of a room that must be Rickon’s.

“Maybe I’ll get the chance to meet him another time,” she calls, and then winces to herself. They’ve barely started their first date, and she’s already insinuating that there might be more.

“I do hope so!” comes the answer nonetheless, and Brienne allows herself the smallest, hopeful smile. Catelyn’s face soon follows her voice; she leans in the doorway and gets Brienne’s attention with a touch of her wrist, looking slightly exasperated. “What are you doing, Brienne?”

“I… I thought I would just…”

Catelyn is already tugging her inside. “I think Shaggydog and his lieutenants can handle things here, don’t you?” She winks at the fluffy black toy dog at his post in front of Arya’s room, and Brienne blinks, blushing. “Come in, sit down. No need to stand guard outside.”

Her protests are beaten down with a firm, but playful blue stare, and Brienne is helpless to resist. She lets herself be herded to a chair in the corner of the room, and then Catelyn disappears into the ensuite bathroom, promising that she won’t be another five minutes.

Brienne bites her lip, her nervousness mounting again. Catelyn’s bedroom is large and very homey and warm. What seems to be a writing station stands in the corner directly opposite Brienne, crowded with books, reams of paper, a typewriter and a laptop. Pictures of her family abound; there is a large group photo on the wall, smaller portraits on every likely surface. Brienne notices Ned Stark again, as well as a few older ones of Catelyn, back when she still did movies, posing with various celebrities. She’s always been beautiful, and time has only made her lovelier. Her own face in the dressing table mirror looks even more freakishly out of place.

“Everyone’s out then?” Brienne blurts out, not wanting to let her thoughts go in that direction. Catelyn exits the bathroom and installs herself in front of the vanity.

“That’s right.” She brushes her cheeks with something. “Arya and Bran are both at sleepovers, and Rickon is spending the night over at Robb and Jeyne’s. Sansa’s coming over from King’s Landing for the long weekend, but her flight doesn’t come in until tomorrow morning, and Jon’s picking her up.” Catelyn catches her eye in the mirror, adopting a look that’s both stately and mischievous all at once. “No kids means no curfew.”

Brienne sputters.

“Oh, I… well I’d planned… we should be back before…”

“I’m only teasing you, dear,” Catelyn laughs. Brienne is compelled to join her, even as her cheeks burn up. She doesn’t think she’s ever seen her this cheerful. During the tour and the weeks after it, her phone had been going off constantly, and there’d been meetings and signings and panels every other day. She never let the stress show, but it was rare for her to jest like that, laugh like that. It’s amazing to see.

“Where are you taking me tonight?”

“I’m actually going to keep that to myself until we’re there, if that’s okay,” Brienne says, scratching her cheek.

“Oh… a mystery.”

Brienne grins quietly, because her good cheer is nothing if not a little infectious. It’s nothing spectacular: dinner at a nice restaurant, dancing afterwards. She’s a little skittish about the latter, but Renly had coaxed her into booking it. Months ago, standing in the grand ballroom of a hotel in the Crag as the agent got them checked in, Catelyn had mentioned to her how much she loved to dance. Brienne remembers it well, how she’d hugged herself and performed a few steps of some graceful dance in her nostalgia, gliding on the polished floor. The night had been cool but the sight left Brienne warm.

It was the same night she’d told Catelyn how she used to sing as a child. For the rest of their stay in the city Catelyn had tried at various intervals to coax her into a song. Brienne begged off shyly on each occasion, excusing herself to review safety measures for their hotel or do a sweep of the hall beyond Catelyn’s door. She knew the woman she surveilled, but not well.

Now, with the weight of months of friendship, casual brushes and sweet smiles swinging deep between them, the prospect of sharing a song with Catelyn does not seem so galling. Perhaps one day, that will happen too.

Catelyn spends a few more minutes in the chair, dabbing at her lips and eyelids. The finished effect is subtle but striking, as always. As she clears up her workspace, Catelyn’s phone rings, vibrating on the table. She only glances at the screen for a moment before she rolls her eyes and slips it back into her purse.

“The publishers,” she explains to Brienne. “I told them that I wouldn’t be available to talk for the next few days, but hope always springs eternal with them.”

“What could they want at this hour?” Brienne wonders.

“That is something that I’ll simply have to find out on Tuesday.” She slips her purse onto her arm and makes her way over to Brienne, who stands automatically. This close, the height difference between them is even more apparent, Catelyn’s heels notwithstanding. Brienne feels ungainly, until Catelyn brushes her shoulder with a small hand, and the feeling travels to her core to become butterflies.

“You’ve got some lint,” Catelyn says. She has to tilt her head back to meet Brienne’s eyes, but doesn’t seem to mind. Gentle crows’ feet dip into the corners of her eyes, and there is the barest dusting of silver at the roots of her red, red hair. She’s the prettiest woman Brienne has ever known. “You should wear lighter colours more often. They become you.”

Brienne flushes. “Thank you.” Dark colours had been standard when she worked with the company, and she’d taken the habit with her when she left. She can see herself making a change, though. She can see herself doing many things now.

Catelyn smiles, and pats her arm.

“Come, let’s go. I’m very eager for our date.”

On reflex, Brienne slips ahead, and holds the door open for Catelyn. The older woman smiles at her kindly, even as she ducks her yellow head in embarrassment.

“You know you don’t have to do that, Brienne. You aren’t my bodyguard anymore.”

“I know, I’m sorry.” Brienne bites her bottom lip. “Old habits, I suppose.”

There is a soft touch on her chin; Catelyn coaxes her to look at her once again. Her eyes are blue like polished steel and hyacinths.

“Then we must make new ones.”

Brienne smiles, and as she does, she’s not thinking of how large her lips are, the freckles on her face, or how weird the earrings in her ears must look. She nods, and lets Catelyn take her by the arm. They bypass the army of little toys, and make their way down the stairs together. The flowers are already spreading their scent throughout the family room, and it follows them out into the night, arm in arm beneath the rising moon.