If the world went according to plan, then the night that Brienne met a Lannister, it would've been Jaime. They would have both been in the exact wrong place at the exact wrong time. They would've become odd companions. He would've suffered a grievous injury. She would've stuck by him. Things would unfold, their friendship, their careers, eventually their lives spilling one into the other.
But Brienne missed her bus. Jaime decided to finish what he was working on in the office. Instead of fortuitous collision, Brienne walked to the next bus stop to catch a later bus. It wouldn't arrive for an hour. The bar behind had a single light on. It was open, but apparently blessedly quiet.
She stepped inside. The place didn't reek of smoke as she expected. Instead there was a hint of wood polish and soft breeze from a lazy turning fan. Classical music was playing, something violin heavy and slow. There was no one behind the bar or customers crowding the tables. The lone occupant was very small man, seated at a booth with a laptop open in front of him. He looked haggard and harassed in the cold light of the machine, giving her a narrow glare.
“Um, I’m sorry I thought the bar was open.”
“So did I,” he shrugged. “And yet.”
They stared at each other for a long moment. Finally he sighed.
“If you want something, you’ll have to mix it yourself. My entire staff was hired out from under me. Again.”
She frowned, glancing around the bar. The decor was much more upscale than she’d expect for this part of town with some kind of brocade fabric covering the barstools and paintings that looked like they might be worth something to someone who knew about these things. It didn't look like a place where she might be ambushed and murdered for what was in her duffel bag.
“I can pay,” she offered.
“Don't bother. Just make one of whatever you're making for yourself. There’s fresh bread somewhere in the kitchen too if you want something to eat,” he rested his chin on his palm. She wondered if he was drunk. He was listing a little to the left even as he typed.
After a last hesitation, she headed behind the bar. Everything was sensibly enough laid out. There were fancier ingredients than she was used to, but drinks were drinks. She wasn't one to go out, but she could make a competent whiskey sour for herself at home.
“Any preferences?” she asked him.
“Something strong,” he clicked something on the laptop.
She made them both whiskey heavy sours and located the bread in the small kitchen in the back.
“Do you mind if grab some of this butter?” she asked, eying the rose shaped pats set in the fridge.
There was a tray, so she loaded it up and brought it to his booth, setting down his drink and taking the other for herself. He grunted a thanks, and kept his attention on his laptop. So she pulled out a paperback and read while she ate. The whiskey was good, the bread was better, and she was ready to chalk it all up to an odd night out.
“Can you make any other drinks?” he asked once he’d emptied the first.
“Martinis,” she considered, putting her finger in the book. “My father liked them occasionally.”
“You’re reading Proust. For a class?”
“I’m working my way through the classics. It passes the time on the bus.”
“From where to where if you don’t mind me asking?”
“Work to home,” she frowned.
“Do you like what you do?”
“It pays the bills,” she said neutrally.
“You didn't dip into the cash box while you were back there. Or take anything. You even asked about butter instead of assuming.”
“I’m not thief!” she sat up straighter. “Why would you-”
“Because the world is an unkind place more often than not. I’m sure you know that.”
She bit back an angry retort. He wasn't saying it to be cruel, she determined. Just making a point to which they could both agree,
“My father wants me run back home and fail,” Tyrion gestured around the bar. “He has enough money to bribe away my staff. I can pay you a generous salary to be my bartender if you’ll sign a contract promising to stay for a year.”
“He’s a little insane.”
Brienne jumped out of her skin. Another man had appeared seemingly out of thin air. He had a ragged look about him even though all of his clothes were in perfect repair.
“Bronn, this is my new bartender.”
“I am absolutely not,” Brienne crossed her arms over her chest. “I have a job already. And I don’t even know how to mix drinks. Or like bars.”
“Small issues at best,” her presumptuous companion waved it all away. “You clearly don’t like your current job much. YouTube can teach you how to mix drinks and I don’t care if you aren't the fastest gin slinger in the West. I need someone that won’t leave because more money gets waved under their nose.”
“If I say yes to you, that’s exactly what I’m doing,” she pointed out.
“Ah, but the difference is that you’ll like working here.”
“I really doubt that.”
Bronn pulls up a chair, not too close to her. There was enough room for her to get out and away if she had too.
“You just might though,” he was chewing on a toothpick. She thought that was something people only did on TV. “It’s dead quiet here. If you’re like this one, you can just read when you’re not working. Be good to have someone that doesn't look like they’ll fall to pieces if someone starts a fight.”
“I’m no bouncer,” she protested.
“But you know how to fight,” Bronn said without hesitation. As if he could see the ribbons from martial arts competitions hung neatly in a row in her tiny living room by staring into her eyes.
“You've got torn knuckles. Wary eyes. You probably favor your right side, but you’re not lazy enough to let anyone get the drop on you on your left.”
“Bronn is a connoisseur of ass kicking,” the bar owner offered with a lazy wink. “So. What’s it do be?”
“I don’t even know your name. You don’t know mine.”
“Brienne Tarth,” he spun the laptop around. It displayed her locked down Facebook page with the profile picture of her at a competition mid-kick. Her father had taken it. “The cameras have facial recognition software. The insurance company insisted when I decided to hang the paintings. From what I can tell you had a stellar academic record, but had to drop out for family reasons and you can’t afford to go back.”
“That’s none of your business,” she clenched her fists. “I’m going. Thank you for the drink.”
“Brienne,” he raised her hand and she couldn't say why, but she stopped. “We just met, I’m a strange man making a strange offer. You should leave. But, I think you and I have a lot in common. I need good help. You need a way out of a rut that life has handed you. Think about it.”
She left. She didn't even say goodnight. The last image of him, exhausted in the glow of the laptop light stayed with her. It stayed with her as she did her job, diligently totaling up inventories. It followed her to practice where she taught as well as learned these days. It followed her home again, where she sat in her sweatpants on the same bed she’d slept in as a girl. The house was hers alone now, echoing with the silences of grief.
She should have been caught up in an adventure now. She knew it somehow, in her bones. This person that she was meant to be that had never quite crystallized. But maybe adventure wasn't always a quest. Maybe it was a lonely man in his lovely bar, who thought she was the answer to a question she hadn't heard asked yet.
He was alone again a week later when she walked in. This time it was late afternoon and she could see the gold lettering floating in the window. The Lion’s Tale had a three star rating on Yelp that seemed mostly aimed at it’s inconsistent openings and closings. There were no stickers on the door to indicate reviews or credit cards taken, just pristine glass and a brass handle.
The owner was seated at the bar this time, laptop still open. There was a couple in one of the tables by the windows. They looked like they were too in love to notice that the bar was barely open.
“You’re Tyrion Lannister,” she opened with, coming to a stop beside him.
“I imagine that was an easy enough Google search,” he smiled brightly at her. He had a boyish look to him in the daylight, despite the bags under his eyes.
“It was a lot to catch up on,” she stood, feeling awkward looming over him. For his part, Tyrion seemed not to notice or care. “Why do you even own a bar?”
“That’s a question I get with surprising frequency. It’s a place where I can drink as much as I like and no one can kick me out. What’s not to enjoy?”
“Sticky floors. Taxes. The risks of running any small business?”
“I like businesses,” he shrugged. “I suspect if you give it a chance, you might like bartending.”
“I don’t like people.”
“Let me like them for you then. I can host. Just make drinks. Heat up appetizers. You can read your classics when things are slow.”
She raised an eyebrow, “Are things ever not slow?”
“You’d be surprised.”
She really would be. The couple didn't even have drinks. She considered her options and turned her back on Tyrion, heading to their table,
“Can I get you anything?”
The man wanted a scotch, the woman asked for something Brienne had never heard of. She got behind the bar. There’s a small well thumbed book ‘1001 Cocktails’ sitting neatly by the sink. There was a recipe on page 125 for what the woman wants. She followed it and the results look fine. No one complains. They leave a tip on the way out and Tyrion told her to pocket it.
“You can clean the glasses like this,” Tyrion leaned over the bar, showed her how the water would flow up when she pressed the lip of the glass down. Where to set them to dry. She made him a whiskey sour. She went to the kitchen and found chicken wings in the fridge with the heating directions on them from a catering company. It had a sticker on it shaped like a lumpy wolf.
They ate the wings together. Tyrion had strong straight teeth and he was impressively able to separate all the meat from the bone and get virtually no sauce on his fingers.
“I teach on Thursday nights,” she dropped a bone onto the plate. Her hands were slathered in sauce, of course. “And the last bus runs at 1am so I need to leave then.”
“Bronn could drive you home.”
“1am,” she repeated.
“Yes, he does have that effect on women,” Tyrion sighed. “All right for weekdays, but Fridays and Saturdays we don’t close until 2. I’ll pay for your cab.”
She nodded, even though she couldn't recall the last time she was up until 2am let alone working.
He handed her a small stack of papers that turn out to be a contract. She had never signed a contract for employment before. Let alone one that includes an NDA about him and all his dealings. There’s even a non-compete clause.
“I’m going to be a bartender, not your financial manager.”
“Of course, I’m my own financial manager,” he tapped on his mousepad, but she was starting to suspect he was good at using the machine as a prop. “But I told you, my family keeps hiring away my staff. If you sign that, then you’ll have some serious legal issues if you go the same way.”
“I’m good to my word,” she frowned.
“Sure, so are a lot of people I’m sure. But I don’t know you really and frankly, it’s beginning to hurt my ego that I’m a lousy judge of character.”
The salary was listed at the bottom along with a bulleted list of benefits.
“...you don’t want me to run drugs or something do you?”
“Alcohol only,” he tilted his head. “Why?”
“This is more than I've ever made. And I know it’s not a typical salary for this kind of job. Especially before tips.”
“I believe in paying a fair wage. Late hours, drunk patrons, you’ll earn it.”
She signed. She never told him that she’d resigned from her other job that morning. It had felt like a daring leap walking into her manager’s office and handing over her letter of resignation. A risk, a freefall. For a man that gossip rags had only nasty things to say and a bar with fine art on the walls.
“What made your mind up?” He asked, taking the contract back to sign the bottom. It occurred to her that maybe he hadn't been so sure. That the confidence and knowingness in his look that first night had been partially bravado.
“You’ll think it’s silly.”
“Maybe,” he allowed. “But I promise not to laugh.”
She nodded and after a deep breath she pointed to the portrait that hung directly across from the bar itself. In the past, Brienne hadn't been much moved by art. She liked museums because they were quiet and people were looking at the walls instead of other people, but she didn't frequent them.
So she had been surprised by how taken she was by the lady in the gilded frame. The style was impressionistic, the woman painted as if she were submerged in water with her features delicately blurred. She was a little heavyset and her nose was large, hooking off to the left. But the artist had clearly cared for their subject. Her expression was quietly joyful and very fond, her blue dress a match to her eyes. Her hair was rendered painstakingly in a long fall across one shoulder. Her gaze was to the viewer, her mouth slightly open as though she were just about to speak.
“Why her?” Tyrion asked, his voice pitched low.
“I liked her. She looks happy. Calm,” Brienne’s hands wound around each other. She felt exposed and vulnerable. When she looked at Tyrion, she was surprised that he looked like maybe he felt the same. “I thought I’d like to look at something like that painting while I worked instead of concrete walls.”
“I should hope so,” he closed his laptop. “When can you start?”