For King Joffrey's twentieth name day, a hundred knights had competed in a mêlée. It had lasted four days and nights, and had not even produced a winner; a dispute between the supporters of two hedge knights ending in a drunken riot in the tourney grounds and the deaths of fifty gold cloaks in the ending of it.
This year, there was less potential for the slaughter of human beings (if infinitely more for the drowning of them), for Joffrey had decided that the only celebration he could possibly accept was a great banquet and dance on one of the small, rocky islands that dotted Blackwater Bay.
Jaime found the idea preposterous, and said so. Nevertheless, the little shit was determined to have his own way, and Cersei equally determined to let him have it, and by mid-morning of the day in question, Jaime was smirking triumphantly as he silently patrolled the deck of Cersei's pleasure barge; listening to the Lady Sansa squeal and scream about her direwolf brooch that had fallen into the water; listening to Joffrey threaten to have the Lady Sansa gutted if she continued to squeal and scream about her direwolf brooch that had fallen into the water; and listening to Arya volunteer to dive overboard and search for the direwolf brooch that had fallen into the water, if it would only stop her sister from making such a fuss.
The livid look on Arya's face as Cersei refused to allow her to do any such thing was so endearingly hilarious that Jaime had to bite his tongue to keep from laughing. He smiled at the girl as she stomped angrily away, graceful as a bowlegged deer wearing a potato sack, but the fire in her eyes only burned higher at the sight, and she passed him by without a word; leaving him to roll his eyes and attempt to ignore the knot coiling suddenly and unpleasantly in his stomach as her footsteps faded to nothing.
The feast itself was unpleasant, if not uneventful, with Joffrey choosing to spend a good portion of it pointing a crossbow at the Lady Sansa and deliberating loudly as to whether he should send either her, or her corpse, to Ramsay Bolton as a birthday greeting. On the two hundred and fiftieth repetition of this suggestion, Jaime had lost his temper and had threatened to throw the little shit's crossbow into Blackwater Bay; a justified, if unwise threat that provoked a great deal of screaming and death-threats from Joffrey and a stony-faced lecture on the Kingsguard's vows from Cersei. The latter hadn't troubled Jaime much: he would claim an apology later, in the coin of warm skin and kisses. But then the dancing had begun, and Joffrey, under the chivalric guise of asking the resident wallflower to dance, had made Arya suffer through six different sets, half of which she did not know the steps to, and when the younger Stark daughter, in a desperate bid for liberty, had deliberately trodden on the king's toes, Joffrey had dealt her such a powerful blow to the face that she had been knocked unconscious.
The silence could be heard clear across Blackwater Bay as Arya crumpled mutely to the dust. Most of it was the manifestation of a deep but polite disapproval at the king's having struck a lady. A much smaller portion of it was shock at the idea of a sheltered, almost proudly-stupid boy, who had never been to war, being strong enough to knock another person unconscious; even if the person in question was a scrawny little girl with the body of a starved war orphan.
Jaime's own silence was restraint, and resistance of the urge thundering deep within him to stride to her side and help her.
She wouldn't want it. And under the circumstances, she's probably better off unconscious.
And when the girl had finally come round, and had risen to her feet without so much as a groan passing her lips, and Joffrey had called her his 'queen of dance' and had drunk a toast in her honour, Jaime had not drunk with him; watching, waiting, for her to glance in his direction; to give some indication that she had expected him to help her.
She didn't look at him once.
After enough time had passed for the incident to fall from Joffrey's mind, Arya – mumbling that she felt ill – had asked to be taken back to the city. It had been Cersei's idea of a joke (and a punishment, no doubt, for Jaime's earlier insubordination) to declare that an entire ship could not be dispatched on account of one miniscule girl, and that Jaime should instead take her back in a rowboat. When Jaime had pointed out that two servants could easily be dispatched for the same purpose, Cersei had smiled sweetly at him and accused him of discourteousness to a woman in need. Jaime had mutinously removed his armour, dumped it at Cersei's feet, and stridden off with a word.
He didn't want to be alone with the girl. He couldn't be alone with her.
With characteristic subtlety, Arya did not even wait for the island to fade from sight before seizing hold of the second pair of oars and rowing with him. Jaime told her, in as courteous a tone as he could muster, that her illness made exercise both unnecessary and inadvisable. The girl had glared at him with steel in her grey eyes, before declaring 'You're not very smart, are you?' and he had lapsed into silence after that, feeling like an idiot.
One night; years ago, but only days after she'd finally been let out of the cell that she had occupied since Littlefinger had discovered her living under Father's nose at Harrenhal, Jaime had found Arya alone in the practice yard; using a stick to hit a straw man. Cersei often called her 'little animal,' and Jaime had not been able to quarrel with the truth of that assertion as he had stood silently observing her; watching the alien grace in the litheness of her scrawny form and the small signs of skill in the amateurish whacking and grunting and poking with which she seemed to tear the air in half. Her anger was almost tangible; hatred bleeding out of every strike she made, and he had found his lips curling into a smirk at the absurdity of it: this skinny little insect, Ned Stark's daughter, alone in a practice yard, practicing. For what, exactly? In all likelihood she'd be shipped off and married the moment she flowered, and there wasn't a man in Westeros who would take her without the promise that she would cease to be who she was.
Thoroughly confused by the turn his thoughts had taken, Jaime had scoffed reassuringly at himself in the dark, causing the little animal to turn rapidly around and look for the source of the noise.
Her glare could have melted steel.
Jaime had stared at her for a moment; unsure of having heard correctly.
'Fuck off,' she had repeated; swiping at the empty air with her stick and clearing wishing it was his head, 'I'm practicing.'
'Practicing for what?' Jaime had chortled.
'For the day I kill you,' the girl had snarled.
Jaime had bitten on his teeth to stop himself from laughing, and had dropped into a low bow.
'Ser Knight,' he had said, and had walked away chuckling quietly to himself.
How very, very singular.
After that night, he regularly found himself searching for her, simply because anything she did was always bound to be more entertaining than the average mummer's farce. Most often, he would find her slumping mutinously amongst the other high born girls of two or three-and-ten that Myrcella had invited to tea; wilfully destroying every cushion or handkerchief that came her way and glaring at her embarrassedly-blushing sister while her needle stabbed hard at the material, as though it were really the straw man that she attacked every night in the practice yard.
Sometimes, Jaime would find her practising when he returned from night duty to the white sword tower. He reported it to no one – though he probably should have.
'Do you never sleep?' he once asked her.
'No,' the little girl snapped; slashing at the straw man.
'Why not?' Jaime drawled.
'There's things in my head,' she said.
'That makes two of us,' Jaime replied.
And before he could wince, or smirk, or do so much as wonder why the fuck he had said such a thing, the little girl had stopped her exercises – if you could call them that – and had turned to face him; her large grey eyes glinting murderously in the moonlight.
'What have you got in your head that keeps you awake?' she snarled, 'my brother? My father?'
Jaime tried, again, to smirk at her, and found that he couldn't.
'Aerys burning people alive,' he told her; shrugging; 'that's what I've got in my head.'
His words made the little girl's face change.
He didn't stay long enough to observe how.
On the day of the riots that followed Princess Myrcella's departure to Dorne, Jaime went back for the little girl.
Everyone present had agreed that she wasn't important enough to be saved. They had her elder sister in custody, after all. Why risk more men trying to save a little brat that Robb Stark would probably be thrilled to be rid of in any case?
When Jaime strode off to the palace gates, Cersei screamed after him; telling him to stay where he was. Joffrey screamed after him too; threatening to have his head on a spike if he disobeyed him.
The only person who didn't try to stop him was Tyrion. The fact spoke volumes.
As he pushed and sawed his way through the rioting masses, Jaime asked himself what he was doing, and why. Seeking atonement, perhaps, for the little girl's brat of a brother? Hedging his own bets for the day that he dropped dead?
Or was it because she was a child, with things in her head that didn't belong there, and that he, an adult suffering from the same sickness, had formed some absurd protective instinct towards her that made him want to save her from more memory; more nightmare; more things?
In that moment, he didn't know or care. He was the Kingslayer. He didn't need a reason to do what he wanted.
He found Arya stripped down to her shift in a stable; her gown a torn shadow in the dirt. She stood motionless and staring at the corpse of a man with his intestines hanging out of his stomach. In her hand, she held a blood-stained iron railing. She was trembling.
When Jaime spoke her name, her head jerked violently in his direction; a flash of cold, wolf-like yellow illuminating her grey eyes.
Then she fainted.
It happened so quickly that Jaime did not even have time to lunge for her as she crashed abruptly and brutally to the floor, as though all the strength had left her body in a single, dejected wave of emptiness.
Jaime crouched beside her and gently turned her over onto her back as the sounds of rioting and looting and raping continued heavy and grotesque in his ears. A bruise was forming on her cheekbone (a gift, no doubt, from the corpse on the floor) and as Jaime softly framed her face with his fingers, checking that the bastard hadn't broken any of her bones, her childish features suddenly arrested him, and made him stare.
Even in unconsciousness, her face bore a look of angry wariness; of hostility; of war; as though the imagined wrongs committed against her family were real, and strapped to her back like bricks.
As for the unimagined wrongs, their legacy was everywhere; in the lines at the corners of her mouth and eyes; at her forehead; at her throat; as though all her grieving and all her hating had boiled up from inside her and tattooed her skin.
It was like seeing the inside of himself on the outside of her.
Jaime felt his hand move of its own accord and smooth her hair from her eyes. She shifted slightly, as though somebody had tickled her nose in her sleep, and he put one arm around her waist and the other beneath her knees; lifting her.
What happened next was a blur; a conflagration of hearing, and moving, and seeing, and realising, in hesitant and agonising steps that made his senses spin and his stomach wrench within him.
He lifted Arya from the ground. A scream of anger, running footsteps and a song of unkempt steel sounded in his ears. He turned instinctively towards the noise. And suddenly he was face-to-face with a man, dirty, wild-eyed and bare-chested; a man with a dagger protruding from his chest.
The dagger, Valyrian steel with a golden lion's head for a hilt, was Jaime's own. Arya, still clutched in his arms, was the one holding it; her arm strong, stretched out, and complete as it clutched the hilt; the blade buried deep in the man's flesh.
Jaime was dimly conscious of the absence, at his hip, of the dagger's weight, as he and Arya watched the man fall; blood pouring from the man's chest and stuttering from his mouth like half-uttered curses.
Arya's body was bony and light – too light, for a girl of three-and-ten – but her hand, still clutching the dagger, remained perfectly steady; even as her other arm trembled and wound slowly about Jaime's shoulders; clutching at his armour until her knuckles turned white. An unconscious action, apparently, because the moment the bastard died, she began to struggle and argue like a two-year-old.
'Put me down!' she demanded; kicking like a drowning man.
'You're not strong enough to walk,' Jaime told her; tightening his grip on her.
'Let me go!' Arya loudly insisted; her shout transforming into an undignified yelp as Jaime promptly let go of her and watched with no small satisfaction as she landed on her rump in the dirt.
She made no attempt to comment on his reaction, or even to get up; fearful, no doubt, that she would simply fall over again and prove him right, and for a while, the two of them simply remained where they were; Jaime glaring in annoyance at Arya; Arya staring, white-faced, at the corpse, with Jaime's dagger still clutched in her hand.
It occurred to him, at some point, that he ought to thank her for saving his life.
'Thank you,' Jaime grudgingly muttered.
Arya looked nonchalantly up at him from her place on the floor, and shrugged.
'I'm going to kill you,' she declared, 'and no one else.'
When he heard her footsteps in the sept, he recognised them. The sound made him afraid.
For every one of the four years that he had known her, she would be in the practice yard at this hour, and nowhere else; stabbing amateurishly at her straw man. And yet tonight she was here – here where he was, standing vigil over his father's body; breathing in the old bastard's smell as he rotted away in the heat.
Jaime had stood there for five days and nights, only leaving Father's side when Tommen; his nephew, his son, had sprinted away during the funeral, unable to bear the stink. The sweetness in the boy's eyes had reminded him of Cersei; Cersei as she was before Robert, before Father, before the world. He had clung to the thought like a talisman ever since he had noticed it; letting it fill his thoughts and take him out of the heat, the smell, the days that he had left.
He had thought of it when Cersei had come to him last night – or was it the night before? – dressed as a servant girl; looking very beautiful and asking him to be her Hand. He had thought of it when he had refused her, and his twin had stalked away from him; calling herself a fool for loving him. He had thought of it for almost every moment since then. And yet he did not think of it now, with the girl before him. It trickled from his mind like the blood that maesters took to purge the afflicted of their illness.
Arya made no attempt to conceal her identity; standing before him in the breeches and the dirty shirt that she seemed to acquire daily no matter how many times Cersei had them confiscated. She was reed-thin and boyish, a birdlike child, and yet she was a woman, ready to be wedded and bedded to whichever bastard Cersei chose to ply her to. She was not plagued by the same crowd of suitors that had besieged her sister at five-and-ten, but then Sansa was the heir to Winterfell, and a beauty – a bore, but a beauty – and Arya, though possessing a certain fairness of face on the rare occasions that she took the trouble to wash it, had almost nothing to mark her out as a noblewoman, or even a woman, come to that; nothing barring her small, pathetic beginnings of breasts that probably wouldn't need restraining until she was five-and-forty.
'He stinks,' Arya commented; gazing down at Father as though remarking the weather.
'I'll mention it to the septons the moment they arrive,' Jaime replied; too exhausted and too hungry for Cersei to entertain the girl's bullshit; 'they haven't noticed at all.'
'He's smiling,' Arya disapprovingly continued.
'He's rotting,' Jaime corrected.
And he was.
The smell of death was getting worse. So was the heat. The air seemed to shimmer with it, like the drops of sweat beading on the skin of Jaime's face and the skin beneath his armour, as though a fever were burning him up from within.
He resisted the temptation to wipe his forehead and watched as the girl stepped closer to the corpse. She reached out for a moment, as though to touch Father's face, but her hand faltered at the last minute and came to rest on the edge of the open sarcophagus. He could see her sweat on the wood, on her face, in her dark hair; her eyes grey and strange as she beheld the Lord of Casterly Rock in death.
'It would have amused him,' Arya said, half to herself, 'forcing us all to breathe in his stench.'
'Even you?' Jaime snapped.
'Especially me,' Arya replied; still looking down at Father; absorbed enough by what she saw not to heed the jealousy in Jaime's voice, or the shame that marked his silence afterwards; the knowledge that he wanted her to turn her eyes on him and spit at him.
She looked suddenly and intently up at him, as though she had heard his thoughts. He watched her grey eyes sweep over his pale face, exhausted eyes and the fragile iron of his demeanour. He watched her see right through him.
Then her gaze intensified, and he realised, with a surge of anger and exasperation, that she wasn't hurt, or even irritated by him.
She was worried about him.
'Lannister, have you –'
'Arya,' Jaime snapped, 'if you tell me that I need to sleep, I swear I'll –'
'You need to sleep,' she cheerfully told him.
'Are you unfamiliar with the concept of a vigil, little girl?' Jaime seethed.
'Whose idea was this?' Arya demanded; ignoring him.
'It was my idea,' Jaime replied, and Arya laughed out loud; her chuckling echoing through the sept like obscene shouts of joy.
'It was Cersei's idea, wasn't it?' the girl demanded.
'You watch your fucking mouth when you speak of her,' Jaime growled, and he meant it.
Arya responded by rolling her eyes at him. The motion seemed to crown her slender form in candlelight; making light dance in her hair, and arms, and knees.
The heat was making his hair stick to his forehead. He could feel each individual bead of sweat forming, and breaking, and pulsing across the heat of his skull.
The ground was beginning to sway beneath his feet. He blinked, hard, and it steadied.
'How am I supposed to kill you if you die from exhaustion?' Arya was demanding; dramatically throwing up her hands.
'Careful,' Jaime smirked at her; 'you might make me think that you care.'
Arya's face fell. So did the candlelight; dropping to her feet, and then beneath them, and then up to her face again. She looked flushed, and hurt.
'I promise you, I don't,' she snarled.
That satisfied him immensely. It even made his spinning head seem worth it.
'If you are here to kill me,' Jaime drawled, 'try not to get any blood on Father. He smells bad enough already.'
Arya's face erupted suddenly into a whirlpool of candlelight and darkness; the heat was crashing over him and filling his mouth like a deadly, boiling wave of exhaustion and anger and grief, and he was swaying before he could stop himself; his knees giving way beneath him; his arms clutching at the edge of the sarcophagus for support; and faster than he would have believed possible, she was there; her body pressing against his to keep him on his feet; her hands, callused and surprisingly strong, clutching at his fingers and pulling the weight of his body upwards; so that he wouldn't collapse in front of his father; so that he would stay upright.
The shock of her skin meeting his was like being struck in the stomach with a fist made of burning ice. It pulled him from the wave, and gave him air. He could feel the heat of her body radiating through her clothing, through his armour, through his skin, and on her face he could see her feeling it too.
It made her look as frightened as he felt.
She tried to pull her hands away. He locked his fingers with hers, and stopped her. Her eyes flickered upwards to his, and they were burning burning burning, with anger, with fear, with anger, and when she tried again to step back, he let her; remembering the last time they had been so close together; three years ago, when the news of the Red Wedding had reached King's Landing, and he had found her destroying her chambers with a chair; the glass of the mirror, the glass of the window, like a shimmering blanket on the floor, waiting, praying for blood.
She had screamed at him – for her family, for her father, for her brother – and he had let her. He had tried to touch her shoulder. She had hit him. He had let her. And afterwards, she had sat brooding in the window seat with no tears falling, her eyes flickering, every now and then, to where he sat on the floor, observing him; but not asking him to leave.
Eventually, she had come to sit next to him. He had put his hand on her shoulder. She had let him. He had put his arm around her shoulder. She had let him. Then, she had cried, and he had let her; holding her close until her tears dried up.
He told her about Aerys that night. Somehow, it had seemed like the right thing to say. She had sat silent as a wraith as he spoke; the grey in her eyes seeming to come alive with threads of molten silver.
'You're…not such a bastard, really,' she had said when he had finished, 'even if you are the stupidest person in the world.'
And they had sat there for a long while, the pair of them. The adult and the child with things in their heads; brought together by the act of stepping back.
She was stepping rapidly back from him now; pulling out of his touch; her cheeks and eyes aflame, and angry, and afraid, as though something was different – and it was – but it didn't matter; it shouldn't matter. And as she backed further away, the painful shock of ice and fire that her skin had awakened in him began to fade, and he was weakening again without it; disappearing once more into the wave of heat; and he tried; he forced himself; he butchered himself; not to show it; not to show her that he wanted to breathe; to hold her close and feel her burn against him.
'You can't go a week without sleep,' Arya said.
'I must,' Jaime replied.
'Says who?' she demanded.
He didn't reply.
'Is that how it works?' Arya spat, 'she speaks, and you obey?'
'Fuck off, little girl,' Jaime said, 'you're making my head ache.'
She stared at him for a moment more, her eyes angry and afraid. Then she stepped down from the dais and left him, and he could feel the heat of the night coming over him once again; the dizziness; the nausea; the hunger. He wanted to run after Arya and kill her. He wanted her dead before he saw her again. Because burning skin, violent eyes, agony in separation, clarity in passion – he knew what that meant, and he didn't want any part of it. She was just a child, after all. Just a girl with things in her head.
He left the sept. He stormed to Cersei's rooms and fucked her till she screamed, and for every moment of it, he did not think once of his twin.
The shame came afterwards. Then the hatred. Then the wish that he had never gone back for her. That he had let the mob have her. That he had let her die.
He avoided her after that.
She noticed. She said nothing.
Jaime had only just started to remove his doublet in worry when the surface of the water was broken with barely a splash, and Arya appeared at the side; treading water and dropping the sparkling bloody brooch into the boat.
'Found it!' she proudly announced; ignoring his proffered hand and hauling herself back into the boat.
She collapsed unceremoniously into her place opposite him and made absolutely no attempt to put her dress on again; wringing waterfalls out of her dark hair as she watched him avoid her eyes. Seawater cascaded between her fingers and over her white shoulders to pool on the floor and trickle across her already-sodden shift; turning it the colour and texture of her skin that rippled with goosebumps in the wind; her nipples growing hard and erect as Jaime's cock was growing at the sight of her, and he determined to concentrate on rowing and on nothing else, forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards, and she was blowing a vagrant strand of hair out of her face and leaning backwards in a manner so utterly unconscious of the discomfort she was causing that Jaime felt rather tempted to take hold of her dress and plonk it on top of her head if she would only stop whatever in seven hells she was doing to him, forwards, backwards, forwards, backwards. Arya stretched out a hand and touched the surface of the water with her fingertips; her arm a lovely line of muscle and bone that stretched out from the boat to the sea. He wanted to break her arm and make her scream. He wanted to make her stop.
'Put your dress back on,' Jaime growled; rather more viciously than he had intended, because the look that she shot him in return was positively venomous.
The silence between them was like glass, to be shattered with a look, or a word. Fury raged in her grey eyes, and was slowly and silently overcome by hurt and resentment as she stared at him; a proud, glorious, half-naked woman; a child with things in her head.
'Why don't you talk to me anymore?' Arya softly asked.
Rage hit him like a firestorm. Didn't she have eyes? Couldn't she see?
Her eyes were locking with his in a challenge that he could not ignore; anger was boiling in the pit of his stomach and desire in every pore of his skin; and in his mind it only took an instant before he was across the space between them and on top of her; his tongue thrusting into her mouth and his hands grasping at her shoulders, her arms, her waist. In his mind, she didn't even try to stop him; her mouth soft and yielding and savage, lips and teeth both; seeking out his tongue and sucking on it while her hands clasped the back of his neck and the heat crushed his body to hers and sent yearning ripping through him as he pulled away from her gnashing lips and bit her neck; the sound of her moaning like a kind of surrender. In his mind, he moved lower; his tongue grazing her collarbone while she writhed and sighed and yanked her hips upwards to meet his. In his mind, he was biting her nipples until they hurt and sucking them until they throbbed. In his mind, he was tearing her shift and licking her cunt; nipping at her nub with his teeth and slipping a finger inside her, then two, then three and fucking her hard with his fingers until she screamed blue murder.
In his mind, he was moving slowly inside her and kissing her softly; kissing her wrists, her ankles, her eyelids, her nose, and making love to her so beautifully that she would finally understand that he loved her. That he always had.
In reality, he only saw her youth in greater clarity: how she was just a child, in spite of what she had seen. A child with things in her head.
'Put your dress back on,' Jaime repeated, not unkindly; leaning forward to hand it to her.
Arya lunged rapidly forward to snatch it before he could. Their foreheads almost banged together in the attempt. Jaime growled in annoyance and slammed the oars down in frustration; passing a weary hand over his eyes and seriously debating whether or not he should simply throw the girl overboard and be done with it. Instead, he lowered his hand, and found her dripping wet and beautiful and looking at him – really looking at him – and her eyes were like a thousand worlds as she leaned forward, touched his face and kissed him.
Everything disappeared but for her; but for her lips that nudged tentatively at his, softer than a whisper; but for the whimper that growled up from her throat as he coaxed her mouth open with his tongue; but for her hands that stroked his cheeks and ran into his hair as he kissed her, slowly and deliberately; but for her tiny, intoxicating mouth that whispered his name as he trailed his mouth along her jaw; making her arch her neck beneath him and sigh as his lips stroked her skin.
An instinct took hold of him, then. A knowledge. A certainty. If he allowed this to continue, she would be his forever. She would never leave him, and he would never leave her. He could taste it on her mouth; he could feel it in his arms encircling her waist; he could hear it in the memory of the months and months of deafening silence that had followed their meeting in the sept, and what he had felt there; what he knew she had felt there, with him.
She was just a child. A child with things in her head. He had no right to…this…thing between them…if they allowed it…if he allowed it…if they went together to that place… choice would be a forgotten thing; a meaningless thing. He could not take choice from her when she was too young to know what it meant. She was just a child. A child with things in her head.
Arya's fingers were burning up the back of his neck, and her shocked, gasping kisses growing more desperate as she felt his cock grow harder against her. Jaime kissed her one more time, softly; branding the shape of her lips into his mind; resisting the urge to plunge his tongue into her mouth once more and tear the bodice of her shift.
Jaime pulled back from her, and held her gently at arm's length until she understood.
She stared at him.
He did his best to ignore the naked hurt and fire in her grey eyes as he once again took up the oars; his heart dancing and throbbing painfully; as though she were still in his arms.
'Please put your dress back on, Arya,' Jaime said; 'it's cold out.'