‘Right, you little shit,’ said Sandor. ‘This is it.’
His opponent remained unmoved. Glacial. Dangerous.
Sandor narrowed his eyes. ‘Don’t give me that. I know you. But you are not getting me this time.’
There was a slight movement and he reached forward. ‘No. Not happening.’
His opponent gave a small, uncomplicated sound and stared ahead before swiping a hand out towards him.
‘Don’t you dare,’ he said. ‘Don’t you bloody dare.’
Too late. The whole pile of exquisitely-balanced, brightly-coloured wooden blocks came toppling down in a clatter.
‘Shite,’ said Sandor, sighing and sitting up. ‘That was going to be my record, you wee bastard.’ He picked up Aoife and plonked her on his knee. ‘You do it on purpose.’
The little girl jabbed out a fist and gripped at his short beard. ‘I don’t know why I fucking bother,’ he said, knowing exactly why he did. Because one-year-old Aoife was besotted with her Uncle Sandor and he was incapable of refusing when she pointed at her building blocks and said a garbled thing that clearly meant ‘again.’ Even though every time he had got higher than he had balanced them all before, she would mercilessly destroy his work.
The doorbell went, several times. He got up with a sigh, his niece tucked under his arm, walked towards the two shadows visible behind the front door.
‘What up, mofo,’ said Arya, when he opened it. ‘I mean, Uncle Mofo.’
‘Hello, babies,’ said Sansa, with a wide beam and weighed down with homeware bags. She kissed them both on the cheek before they all went into the kitchen.
‘How’s she been?’ said Arya, putting her arms out.
‘Demonic,’ said Sandor, handing Aoife over. ‘She’s like a little dictator.’
‘You don’t have to do everything she asks, you know.’
‘He can’t help it,’ said Sansa merrily. ‘He’s Aoife’s slave.’
‘Shut it,’ he said, giving her a mock-glare. ‘How did you get on?’ He hardly needed to ask, seeing as there were now six shopping bags piled up by the new dining room table.
‘Awesomely,’ said Sansa. ‘I got everything on our list. And quite a few other things.’
‘Your place is basically going to be candle-central,’ said Arya. ‘Like a weird shrine.’
‘And fish slice central,’ said Sansa. ‘Don’t forget the fish slice.’
Sandor and Sansa had moved into their new flat two weeks ago. Homeowners, Sansa had breathed, near-orgasmically, just before he’d given her an actual orgasm atop their glistening new kitchen counter. For old times’ sake, and all that.
Manchester. The city had felt like peanuts after London, and the first six months had passed quickly. The atmosphere was different, energetic but with a touch of Northern pragmatism that he liked. The contrast of old and new felt more stark here, the canal network and old mill buildings up alongside the gleaming new flats. He’d sourced a few good drinking holes, went to the odd gig, and Bronn had put him in touch with an old mate, Salladhor (Sal for short), who played football with him on Sundays and regaled him with tales of his conquests of the night before.
‘I love our new home,’ Sansa whispered to him later on that night, as they listened to Aoife burbling next door. They’d all read the wee one a story, acting out the parts (Sandor was the Gruffalo, obviously). ‘Arya’s well impressed.’
‘Aye,’ said Sandor, putting his nose in her hair. ‘It’s grand.’ It was, and yet he knew there was something missing. He’d woken up after two nights in this new place, sweating, his mind bright and hallucinatory, and his sleep hadn’t settled since, the same thought swirling round and round in his brain, a thought he hardly dared utter.
He’d have to tell her. But he’d no idea how.
‘It’s so cool that you guys came up,’ said Sansa, at the train station the next afternoon, carrying Arya’s bags.
‘Had to try out a train trip with the bug eventually,’ said her sister, the pushchair in front of her. ‘I’m just praying to fuck that she doesn’t have a meltdown like she did on the way up.’
‘She won’t,’ said Sansa. ‘I had words. She’s promised that she is going to be a Zen Queen.’
‘You do know she can’t talk yet, don’t you?’
‘Aoife and Auntie Sansa have a telepathic connection,’ she said, airily. ‘Here’s your carriage.’
They stopped at the door. ‘Sorry Pod couldn’t come,’ said Arya. ‘He’s the moneyman in the family now.’
‘Not for long, though. Soon you’ll be raking it in. Are you looking forward to it?’
Arya took a deep breath as Aoife kicked her shoe against the frame of the buggy. ‘Yeah. I mean – it’s going to be weird being away from her. I know it’s not the whole week but . . . I’ve got pretty used to having her all up in my face the whole time.’
Arya had struggled when Aoife was born, and the difficulties didn’t just go away. Sansa had been there for a great deal of babysitting and reassurance, and her parents had postponed some of their global trips in order to help. But there seemed to have been a change in the last few months: her sister seemed to have become more chilled-out, taking her to a music class and baby yoga, sending Sansa photos of the two of them in the park with mud daubed on their faces.
‘You’re going to be amazing,’ Sansa said.
‘You too, sis. Hope the new job is OK.’
‘Thank you.’ She’d worked for Olenna Tyrell’s Northern Powerhouse for half a year in a fairly lowly role, but had impressed enough people to be promoted, and tomorrow was starting in a new office, a department that had just opened to work on European trade with the north. Rather brilliantly, Meera’s ex-boyfriend Jon was there, too, alongside a new boss who sounded quite terrifying.
Arya was checking her phone. ‘Still no word from Bran. What’s that about?’
Their little brother was in his second year studying English Literature student in Manchester, and had said he’d be over at some point this weekend, before going utterly quiet.
‘Oh, you know him,’ said Sansa. ‘Probably got his nose in three books and pining over Jojen.’
Arya sighed. ‘I miss him.’
Jojen was studying at the New School in Manhattan for a year, and regularly posted up his work, which recently consisted of images of locals superimposed with the packaging of well-known foodstuffs. ‘I know you do.’
Sansa helped Arya onto the train and put her bags on the luggage rack. Arya turned back with a deep breath. Her eyes were glistening. ‘It’s like I just get used to one thing and something new happens,’ she said.
‘We are going to be boss-arse bitches,’ said Sansa, conjuring the words of ultimate boss-arse bitch Ygritte, as she gave her sister a warm, crushing hug. ‘I love you.’
It was as Arya settled down in her seat with Aoife that Sansa's phone buzzed, and she saw Arya picking up hers, too. They both read their message, for it was the same one, and looked at each other through the window with big open-mouthed grins before the train pulled away.
The Stark family. It just kept getting bigger.
Jojen & Bran
where u been at? Was worried
just with R and the others
the three eyed dudes?
Whats happening in Manc-land
so much rain
the sky misses you as much as me
(teardrop emoji) (umbrella emoji)
how is NYC today?
winter sun and plane trails and a homeless bro singing this little light of mine
going to take pics of street corners all the way up 5th ave today
thats my genius artist xxxxx
theyre all for u xxxxxxx
Hey gonna be uncles again
Sweet mad handsome babies
Not as much as ours are gonna be
‘Well, here goes fucking nothing.’
Arya and Pod were standing in front of an imposing building, all gleaming opaque glass and slanted angles that made it look oddly distorted. The sign for The House of Black and White was so tiny you could easily miss it.
Pod put his arm around her waist and kissed her on the cheek. He was going into work late so that he could walk her here today. ‘It will be brilliant.’
She took a deep breath and looked at him. ‘I kind of miss her already.’ Aoife had given the pair of them a wide-eyed, accusatory look when they’d deposited her at the new nursery.
‘She’ll be fine. I’ll send you a message at lunchtime when I pick her up.’ Another kiss, this time on the lips, as he made her look at him. If those loving, chocolate-box eyes of his didn’t give her confidence, then nothing would.
‘Right. Let’s rock this bitch,’ she said.
She had applied for the internship with zero expectations. She was a 22-year-old mother who’d never had a job. And yet here she stood, on the strength of her degree portfolio alone, in the hushed foyer next to a huge tank of monochrome fish.
‘Arya Stark?’ A small woman, hair in a savage bob, wearing luminous leg warmers and daggers in her eyes, was standing there, arms folded.
‘Yup. That’s me.’
The woman turned without saying another word, took a few steps, before looking back. ‘You coming or what?’ Northern accent.
Arya followed, and the woman talked as she walked, both very fast. ‘Under no circumstances call the boss by his name. Don’t call him anything. Only address him if he addresses you. Don’t offer ideas unless he asks. You’ll be making the tea and doing dogsbody work until anyone, ie me, tells you otherwise. You are not doing shit unless I tell you to. You will not breathe unless I tell you to.’
Fuck, thought Arya.
They stopped outside a door and the woman turned. Arya almost walked into her. ‘Name’s Kate Waife,’ she said. ‘Everyone calls me Waife.’
‘How was the new boss?’ They were in bed, Sansa in one of his T-shirts, the sight just as pleasurable as it first was a few years ago.
Sansa pulled the duvet up. ‘She’s coming tomorrow now. Flight delay in Saudi Arabia. She sounds pretty fearsome to be honest.’
‘Nothing you can’t handle.’
‘Hmm.’ She rolled onto her side and slung an arm over him. ‘It’s nice about Robb and Margaery, isn’t it?’
‘Aye,’ he said. ‘Very nice.’ Now was the time to say something. Exactly now. He looked up at the gloom of the ceiling.
‘Their baby is going to be so perfect. Probably annoyingly perfect.’
‘You saying it’ll be better than Aoife?’
‘No. Or at least Aoife will have them in a fight.’ She lightly scratched his side in a way that made him shiver. ‘Do you think Arya’s OK? I texted her but she didn’t get back yet.’
‘She’ll be grand.’
‘Hope the nursery’s alright for the little Miss.’
‘Aye. Me too.’ It was now or never. ‘Hey.’ He put a hand in her hair.
‘Mmm?’ The word drifted. She was beginning to fall asleep.
He swallowed. ‘What do you reckon the nurseries are like round here?’
‘Mm –’ this time, the sound didn’t drift. Sansa lifted her head and looked at him. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, lightly, unreadably. ‘Have you been thinking about it?’
‘Aye. A bit.’
She remained gazing at him, as if looking for something in there. ‘I thought –’
He’d told her before of his fear of being around smaller children, after his little sister’s death. ‘Aoife’s helped me out. I mean, she’s got the same bloody name as my sister and I seem to be doing OK with her. . .’
She touched his nose with her forefinger. ‘You’re amazing with her.’
He shrugged. Swallowed again. Wanted to tell her that he’d thought of nothing but babies for almost two weeks, the thought of her pregnant, that beautiful pale belly swelling, of the new little thing they’d make together, grey eyes and red hair or blue eyes and black hair. Names.
Sansa took a breath. ‘It’s just – I’m just starting this new job.’
His heart grew heavy. ‘Aye. I know.’
‘I just – I need to get a bit of a handle on it. I don’t think it would be right to get . . .’
She couldn’t even say the word pregnant. ‘Aye. I know,’ he said again. Looked away. The ridiculous irony of it, of her talking about babies only a year ago and him being too afraid.
She put a hand on his cheek, gently brought his gaze back to hers, but it wasn’t enough to dissolve the awkwardness in the room. ‘Don’t stop talking about it. It’s nice.’
He was old, and only getting older. He’d be nearing bloody fifty by the time anything happened if he was lucky. ‘OK,’ he said.
He reached over and turned the light out, and listened to her quiet breaths and intermittent eye-blinks for the next hour, knowing she was just as awake in the dark as he was.
Cheers for the love! It makes me WHOLE.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘Hey,’ said Doreah, Sansa’s colleague, coming to her desk with a peppermint and liquorice tea. ‘The big bad has arrived, apparently. Fix up, look sharp.’
‘Ooo,’ said Sansa, sitting up straighter and wishing her heart wasn’t beating so fast.
Dany Targaryen was, by all accounts, a force to be reckoned with. Though there had been some grumblings in various departments about her arrival, she seemed like a good appointment to Sansa, who’d done plenty of furtive online research. Dany had grown up in Oman, worked in a number of ambassadorial roles in both the Middle East and continental Europe before setting up her own independent company, Stormborn Associates, which made infrastructural investments in developing countries. She looked consistently fabulous in all photos, like a white-blonde Jackie Kennedy, and had been on the panel for one series of Dragon’s Den. It was considered quite a coup for Dame Olenna to have secured her services. Sansa basically wanted to be Dany.
She felt so tangled up about Sandor. It melted her heart that he could now come out and say that he wanted a baby, when a year ago the idea terrified him. But to say it now, when she’d literally just moved up a gear – it didn’t seem entirely fair.
The glass doors at the other end of the room opened and a small woman walked in, to be greeted by Jon, Sansa’s immediate line manager. She was wearing a powder blue suit and Gucci belt that somehow looked both timeless and completely now. A step behind her was a handsome man with dark hair and a beard, in a suit and a T-shirt.
‘Who’s that?’ whispered Sansa to Doreah.
‘Daario Naharis,’ said Doreah, quietly. ‘AKA Sexy As Fuck. He’s her PA.’ Dany was currently introducing him to Jon, one hand lightly on her PA's arm, which she was possibly stroking. ‘And maybe other things.’
Dario Nara . . . she would have to write that down at a later date. For now, Sansa was standing up, smoothing her skirt down and putting her hand out to shake Dany’s hand as Jon introduced her.
‘This is Sansa Stark-Clegane,’ Jon said. ‘Working particularly on devolution and local growth.’
Though she was probably half a foot taller than Dany, Sansa somehow felt very young and very tiny. ‘Hi,’ she said, trying to look incredibly empowered. ‘It’s such a pleasure.’
Dany held her hand in her own and gazed at her with penetratingly blue – no wait, where they violet? – eyes, assessing, incisive. Then she gave a cool, fabulous smile. ‘Lovely to meet you, Sansa. Really looking forward to it.’
‘Yes, me too, totally, utterly. Absolutely,’ Sansa said. ‘I loved you on Dragon’s Den.’ She gave a small thumbs-up and put her hands down again just as quickly.
Jon glanced at her quizzically before they moved off. Daar-whatever-his-name-was passed her with an amused look, and winked.
‘Hot. As. Fuck,’ Doreah breathed without really moving her mouth.
Sansa sat down again, feeling flushed and idiotic and trying to ignore the fact that the PA’s wink had had a tiny bit to do with it.
‘Right, so we’re going to be building a shelter today,’ said Sandor to the group of teenagers standing in a semi-circle. ‘If there’s time, we’ll do some fire-making as well.’
Blackley Forest was a nature reserve in the north of Manchester, surrounded by fairly rough urban areas. There were small stretches of proper forest, good enough for what he needed to show the eight unruly, mostly bored-looking kids.
He picked up a pre-prepared branch, medium-sized. ‘This is what we’re after. Good size, strong enough. Tear any twigs off. Hey,’ he said to a snotty-nosed kid with dirty blonde hair. ‘I said no phones.’ The kid looked at him. Sandor kept glaring until he put the phone away.
‘Why are we even doing this?’ a girl said. She had a cast on one wrist. A Frey. They were everywhere. Bred like fucking rabbits. He remembered a couple from Lannister’s school in Bristol.
‘Because it’s this or weeks of detention,’ said Sandor. ‘And your school decided you’d be better off doing this.’
‘I’d sooner do detention,’ the girl muttered. ‘Least then I’d be fucking inside.’
He ignored the swearing, and tried very hard not to do it himself. ‘Fine,’ he said, waving a hand. ‘Be my guest. It’s not my problem. Just remember that one day,’ he said, ‘probably sooner than you think, there’s going to be some sort of zombie apocalypse and you’re going to be running scared to a forest like this, and if you don’t know how to look after yourself, they’re going to bloody eat you alive.’
‘Awesome,’ whispered Olly (short for Olive, apparently), a smaller girl who reminded him of Arya and barely spoke. The Frey girl rolled her eyes.
When they’d first moved up here, Sandor had taken another job working with kids with behavioural difficulties – the recruitment agency were desperately grateful – until a chance conversation with the deputy head led to him developing outdoor activities. Now he was starting out on his own, with a Forest Club for the same sort of kids. Arya had done him a website and everything, and Sansa had beamed with pride after he’d come back muddy and knackered from the first day (and given him a congratulatory blowjob so good he could still remember how it felt).
‘Happy to let your school know that you begged for detention,’ he said to the Frey kid, and raised his eyebrows. She made a sucking sound through her teeth as he instructed them to collect some branches, but didn’t say anything else.
He watched them drift into the woods, half of them automatically pulling out their phones before he barked at them to put them away. ‘Little bastards,’ he muttered to himself.
‘Bloody hell,’ said Edd, who’d been standing nervously at the edge of the circle.
‘That was quite a good start,’ said Sandor. ‘You should have seen the lot I had two weeks ago.’
Edd’s face fell further, if that were possible.
Arya looked up with a sigh. ‘Yeah?’
Kate – Waife – was looking at her from the desk across the room. ‘Tea. Now.’
‘Fuck’s sake,’ Arya said, under her breath.
‘Nothing.’ She went to one flight down to the kitchen and got a cup out. Two days in, and she wondered why she had bothered. All she had literally done was put things in envelopes and make tea for the rudest bitch she’d ever met. What was the point? They were paying for Aoife to be in nursery for this. She hadn’t even met the boss, though once she thought she’d seen him: a man with long hair, wafting across a corridor, before Waife had shut the door in her face.
He’d come from a long corridor opposite the kitchen. Arya filled the cup up with Waife’s specific order (lapsang souchong left to brew for three minutes, two dashes of milk, three-quarters of a teaspoon of sugar) and headed in that direction. It was darker down here, deliberately so, low strips of light tucked into high corners. There were two small plinths outside a door, with abstract marble sculptures on them. A tiny sign on the door saying –
‘Where the fuck do you think you’re going?’ Waife was suddenly there, in front of her. How did she do that?
She took a step closer, her eyes narrowed. ‘Doesn’t look like nothing.’
‘I’ve come here to draw,’ Arya said, wondering where all of her guts had gone. Why was this woman so terrifying? ‘I want to learn.’
Waife leant right up to her and lowered her voice. ‘You’ll do as I say or you’ll fuck off,’ she said. ‘Which is it?’
Arya thought very hard about punching her in the face and then stamping on her, before looking her in the eye. ‘I’ll do as you say,’ she said and turned to go back to their office.
The kids had all come back – Sandor bollocking the two of them who’d been in the process of lighting a joint behind a silver birch tree – and were now working in three groups to construct triangular shelters.
‘What’s wrong with your leg?’ said the snotty one to Edd. Lommy, he’d said his name was.
Edd still limped, his upper body tilting to the side on each step. ‘The real one or the pretend one?’ he said.
Lommy looked confused.
Edd rolled up his canvas trouser leg to reveal the prosthetic underneath.
The kids all stopped to look. One of them whistled. ‘Gross,’ said the Frey girl, loudly.
‘How did you get that?’ said Lommy.
‘Got the old one blown up in Afghanistan,’ Edd said.
‘Cool,’ whispered Olly.
‘Not really,’ he said quietly, straightening.
After the class had finished – with several new shelters now found off the path, along with a tossed Mars Bar wrapper that Sandor hadn’t spotted – Sandor and Edd finished off with a pint at an unromantic chain pub next to a roundabout.
‘Christ,’ said Edd. ‘They’re harder to work with than Afghan grunts.’
He’d had a fucking tough time, Sandor’s old pal. Came back from his last tour with the bottom of his leg missing and that was the end of his army career. Even with wee Missy as devoted as she could have been and coming up from London all the time, he struggled, and ended up back on his folks’ farm in gloomiest Lancashire. Until one day not long ago, Sandor had come calling and offered him a job.
‘They’re difficult fuckers, but they usually get better.’ Sandor had seen it enough times. Stick them in the woods, give them something to work on, and they calmed down, at least for a while. Sitting in a classroom didn’t suit everyone – he remembered it too well himself. ‘Anyway, we’ll have extra help for the next lot.’ They were doing a half-term course, and Sansa had suggested he ask Jojen’s friend Wylla to come and do some art stuff. Plus Rickon and Lyanna were coming to help out as work experience, though he was sure they’d be harder work than some of the kids.
‘Yep.’ Edd stared stonily into his pint.
‘Cheer up, pal,’ Sandor said. Ever since Missy had gone overseas, he’d taken his hangdog look to a new level. However much Sandor told him not to worry, he did nothing but. He made Sandor seem like a fucking sunshiney comedian.
Edd looked up. ‘Sorry. Don’t fire me.’
‘I’m not going to fire you, you daft fuck.’ Sandor drained his glass. ‘Do me a favour. Call her tonight, will you?’
Jojen & Arya
Bro I MISS U
Miss u always galdem xxx
How’s my babygirl?
Also the loudest
All she does is shit and sleep but now she also plays xylophone along to Pod’s electro playlist #proud
Future-thinking music genius
Put her in a band with Robin
He’s gone all emo now
(row of horror face emojis)
Oh yeah and I swear shes saying ‘dada’
Or it might be jabba
If Aoife’s first word is an early 20th century avant-garde mvt I will piss my pants in happiness
What u up to? Hows Noo Yawk???
an exquisite hot mess
today I’m gonna capture smells of East Village and put them in boxes
Hows the job?
Basically theres a horrible bitchfuck there who is my nemesis
Shes kind of a bully I guess
I will vanquish her
I have to deal with it I guess
Makes me just wanna be a stayathome mum forever
Not really I guess
I will literally end that witch
Hahaha this is making me feel better
I will cut her face off & put it on my own face & walk around pretending to be her
(row of heart emojis)
No one makes my girl feel shit
Hey how was Bran when you saw him?
Didn’t see him the fucker didn’t come
Yeah. Bro 2 blew us out
U guys not talking?
Yeah course, just feel like he’s been a bit…
Bit distant mebbe
It’s you guys!
Have you met his new friends?
Nope. Manc student heads not my type
Want me to check on him or anyfing?
I’m sure it’s nothing
Love u too
Big angry/sad hugzzzz
Go get your smells weirdo
‘What?’ Sansa turned from her computer to find Dany’s PA perched lightly on the edge of her desk. ‘Oh. Hi. Um, Dareeo.’
He gave a completely un-insulted smile. ‘Daario,’ he said, in a wry, velvety voice. ‘Emphasis on the first part.’ He pointed at Sansa’s colleague, who was flashing him a massive grin and flicking her hair over her shoulder. ‘That’s Doreah. I’m Daario. Though I can see how we might get confused.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said. ‘Daario.’
He smiled again, a smile as light as a summer breeze. God, he was quite horribly handsome. Glossy chestnut hair flowing to behind his ears and a trim beard. Spring-green eyes. She should feel extremely chagrinned about him invading her space with the desk-sitting, but he seemed to do it in a way that wasn’t obtrusive, and it allowed her a glimpse of his excellent green and pink-striped socks.
‘Dany wondered if you might be free to chat tomorrow,’ he said, ‘Is 2pm OK?’
‘Oh. Yes. Totally. 2pm is fabulous.’ Why was she so ruffled? Literally just the thought of being summoned made her blab.
Daario was watching her with a warm, feline gaze. ‘Wonderful. She’ll see you then.’ He got off the desk, seemed to cast the faintest of glances over at the photo of Sandor (sweaty and mud-streaked after his London Sunday football team had won 7-2 one rainy morning), and smiled again before moving off down the corridor in a way that somehow combined swaggering with floating.
Sansa turned back to her computer, glancing only once at Doreah, who was fanning herself and miming a blowjob. ‘Stop it,’ she hissed, wondering why Daario hadn’t just emailed or phoned her with the appointment, and wishing her neck didn’t feel so warm.
PS Sansa's problems with Daario's name are purely because I have NEVER been able to spell it and always have to look it up, haha.
‘She’s so glamorous. And she’s really aware of her own power, you know? But she does it in this really warm way, she sort of invites you into the circle. She makes me feel like my ideas are actually worth something.’
Sansa and Sandor were sitting on the sofa, not really watching a detective drama on his laptop and eating strawberry and white chocolate ice cream. Sansa had her foot in Sandor’s lap and Bowie was lying on Sandor’s foot, making occasional grumbly, doggy snoring sounds.
Sandor licked his spoon. ‘You sound like you fancy her.’
‘I don’t fancy her. Don’t be silly.’
‘I don’t mind.’ He grinned. ‘What does she look like again?’
Sansa picked up her phone and found a picture of Dany Targaryen to show him.
‘Yep,’ he said. ‘That image can keep me going for a bit.’ He put his dessert down on the table and sat back, his hands clasped behind his head, closing his eyes.
She shoved him, a hand in his chest. ‘Perv.’
He hummed and kept his eyes closed, a smile spreading on his face, making the scars crease.
She sat back next to him, tapping her phone against her chin. ‘I don’t think she likes Jon. They keep having tense meetings in the office.’
Doreah and Sansa had not-very-clandestinely watched them – there was a lot of glass in this place that didn’t really hide anything. Jon had become even more solemn since he and Meera had broken up, six months ago. He was keen on expanding their work into Scotland, but Dany kept insisting that they had to solidify what they were doing in this country first. They kept having frosty meetings, his hands on his hips, her arms folded. Daario had seen the two of them eavesdropping and winked. He was always winking.
‘What’s their deal, then?’ Sansa had said to Doreah, after he’d walked past and winked one day. ‘Dany and him are together, right?’
‘Sort of. It’s kind of open.’
‘How do you know?’
‘I have my ways. Ways that involve expensive Pinot Grigio and frank questioning and quite a lot of flirting.’ Doreah licked the tip of her forefinger and tapped the air, making a fizzling-hot sss sound.
Open. That was terribly modern. Now, in their lovely homey flat, Sansa looked over at Sandor, who still had his eyes closed. ‘What are you thinking about?’
‘Nothing,’ said Sandor. ‘Nothing at all. Definitely not you and your boss in a naked mudfight.’
She hit him.
Bathtime was Aoife’s favourite thing. She loved the bubbles and was currently emitting little shrieks of joy as Pod finished off a story about her toy plastic dragon and her wolf, bouncing each of them towards her.
Arya sat on the loo seat, watching them. Life was so fucking simple when you were a baby. Bath. Food. Wolf.
Pod touched the nose of each toy to Aoife’s nose, and she squeaked two syllables.
Pod and Arya looked at each other. ‘Was that a word?’ Arya said.
‘Dragon?’ said Pod.
‘Sounded like dada again to me,’ she said, trying to ignore the tiny droplet of hurt because it wasn’t mama.
‘I don’t know,’ Pod said, as he lifted her out. Arya wrapped a green fluffy towel around their clean, plump-bellied baby. She still had bubbles in her dark patch of hair. He had bubbles in his hair. She wasn’t sure who was cuter.
‘Maybe it was badass,’ she said. ‘Like I am not being at the moment.’
The internship was definitely not turning out the way she’d hoped. Part of her was draining away with every hour she spent there, not doing anything useful and earning almost nothing for the privilege. Waife had got her where she wanted, as her bloody slave, and clearly got a total kick out of her passive-aggressive-mostly-aggressive bullshit. Someone had told Arya that Waife always had a game with herself to see how many days she could break interns. She was straight-up evil.
Pod looked up from rubbing Aoife’s scalp. ‘You haven’t told me much about it.’
She couldn’t bear to. After so much time whining that she wasn’t doing anything with her life, she couldn’t admit to him that she wanted to hide at home. Pod gazed openly at her, their daughter on his lap. She swallowed. ‘I think I’m being bullied.’
His eyebrows pulled together. ‘Arya. That’s –' he looked like he fancied getting his old fencing sword out to defend her. 'You need to complain. Or just stop. You don’t have to go.’
‘I’m not going to stop. Not yet. I need it for my CV if nothing else. I just wish I was fucking doing something.’
‘You need to speak to the boss.’
‘I haven’t even met him. I’m not totally sure what his name is.’ On the company website, there was a small graphic that drifted through several names interchangeably, and it wasn’t really clear who was in charge.
‘You have your ways,’ he said. ‘Remember how we got together?’ He didn’t mean the first time they had sex. He meant after that, when they had fallen out, and she’d drawn themselves as elaborate graphic novel characters and dropped the art off at Ilyn’s house.
Aoife clapped her hands. ‘An-dor,’ she said, rather clearly.
They looked at her, and at each other.
‘Ahhh,’ said Sansa in the kitchen, looking at her phone, and clapping her hand to her chest.
Sandor, deftly chopping red onions, looked over.
‘Arya says Aoife’s been saying her first word,’ she said. ‘Guess what it is?’
‘No. It is not kill.’ She beamed beatifically. ‘It is Sandor.’
He stopped chopping, glanced over. ‘You sure about that?’
‘That’s what Arya says.’
He felt his heart collapse a little. God damn that bloody wee peach. He kept chopping and didn’t admit to his wife that he’d been secretly repeating his name to his niece at every available opportunity.
Sansa had sidled over. Put a finger to the side of his eye. ‘Baby, are you crying?’
‘Nope,’ he said. ‘Onions.’ Christ, he was a mess. She wasn’t even his own child. Could men get broody? He’d never imagined it in all this time and now it was all-consuming.
Sansa was still close to him, watching him more quietly. ‘You’re thinking about it.’
‘About what?’ He separated a couple of garlic cloves from the bulb.
She gave a small sigh of frustration. ‘I do want children. You know I do.’ Her voice became quiet, subdued. ‘I just think it’s unfair to ask me now.’
‘I didn’t ask you.’
‘You did. I know you did.’ She sighed. ‘It’s just – Sandor, I didn’t know I’d be in a job I loved so much. I mean, they have killer maternity leave pay, but I’ve literally just started. And it feels like really important work. I didn’t think I’d care so much about the north, but I really do.’
He put the knife down. ‘I can look after it. Him. Her. My job’s pretty free and easy, after all. I’m my own boss.’
‘I know you can. And you’ll be amazing. But I’d still have to carry it for nine months, and breastfeed it, and I’d want to do it all properly, not dash back to work after a month.’
‘Fine.’ He picked up the knife again. ‘Forget it.’
‘No. Not forget it.’ She put a hand on his arm, lightly stroked it. ‘Just – hold that thought.’
‘Right,’ said Arya under her breath. She had waited until Waife had gone out for lunch – managing to get out of having to fetch it herself – and then slid out of her chair. Now she was in the low-lit corridor, the two sculptures either side of the door. ALL MEN MUST DRAW was engraved on the plinth underneath one. ALL MEN MUST SKETCH underneath the other.
‘Bit sexist,’ she whispered to herself, staying very still, listening for any movement inside. She swore she could hear the strains of some classical music, very faintly.
Quietly, she pulled her fineliner drawing pen (as yet completely unused in this building) from her pocket and scribbled something on the thin card envelope she was holding. Kneeling down, she slid the envelope underneath the door.
And legged it.
Jojen & Robin
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
Hello good sir!
Mate! How’s it going bro
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
Quite good thanks! I’m currently working on a triple album, not that anyone listens to albums anymore, but I’m hoping to bring them back! (electric guitar emoji) (piano emoji) (rock sign emoji)
U r a legend
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
How is the Big Apple? I’m so jealous! (apple emoji) (Statue of Liberty emoji) (yellow taxi emoji) (hot dog emoji)
Today I’m gonna have a smoke then go to the Met and sit in front of Goya until I puke
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
You are the coolest man in the universe, Jojen! I literally bow before you! (I am literally bowing now)
Get up, Sir Robin, you embarrass me
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
Hey, anyway, I just wanted to say that Bran sent me quite an odd message.
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
Yeah, last night. Actually at 3.33am.
What did it say
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
Hang on I will copy it
All animals except humans live in a continual present. Humans live with the consciousness of continuous time. I live with something else entirely.
That’s what he said ^^
(Shrugging shoulders emoji)
I wasn’t totally sure it was for me because Bran never texts me.
Maybe it’s a quote?
Gotta bounce bro
ROBIN OF THE VALE:
May the gods go with you, awesome Jojen!
(knight emoji) (art easel emoji) (edvard munch scream emoji)
And u x
Arya ignored Waife, tapping another boring figure into her boring spreadsheet, which she had been doing for the last two extremely boring hours.
‘Hey. I’m talking to you.’
She stopped typing. ‘What?’
‘I need some post taking down the road.’
‘You said I had to finish this.’
‘You’ll have to stay late if you haven’t finished.’
‘I have to pick up my daughter.’
Waife made a small, snorting noise. ‘I still can’t believe you’ve got a daughter. Missed the sex ed classes at school, did you?’
Arya took a deep breath and tried to remember the counting that Sandor had impatiently instructed her to do in their old counselling sessions. Wished she didn’t feel so hurt.
The office door opened and the air seemed to change. Everyone sat up rather straighter and looked more focused, even Waife, as a man came in. Not tall, but with an eerie grace. He had long, deep brown hair down to his shoulders, a streak of white-blonde on one side, and was immaculately dressed in a dark maroon shirt and perfectly-pressed trousers.
‘What can I get you, Jaqen?’ said Waife, suddenly polished and efficient.
He didn’t say anything for a moment, letting his eyes settle on each employee. He had the same eyes as the cat in next door’s flat, Arya thought: lazy and sharp at once.
‘Who did this?’ He held up the A4 envelope. You could just see what Arya had written on it: All WOMEN must draw too, you know
Waife looked suspiciously at Arya. ‘No one.’
‘It was put under my door.’ A Mediterranean accent, maybe Portuguese.
Nothing for it. ‘Me,’ said Arya. ‘I did.’
Waife looked furious.
There was a long pause as he fixed his sage-green eyes on hers. She waited for the inevitable firing. There was a minuscule twitch at the edge of one eye. ‘Come with me,’ he said.
Jaqen H’ghar’s office felt like a cross between a Japanese Zen garden and a sex dungeon. It was gloweringly lit, with more sculptures and weirdly angular plants placed at precise intervals on slate tiles. A tiny fountain trickled in one corner. There was an ancient coin, framed. And, covering most of one wall, were portraits, done in Picasso-like lines. Maybe they were by Picasso.
Jaqen was sitting in his posh leather chair looking at Arya’s portfolio. She sat on the other side of his huge stone desk, scratching her palm nervously. He’d been gazing inscrutably at the pages for the last ten minutes. There was some moody string quartet music playing in the background.
‘There is some diverting work here,’ he said, closing it and placing it on the desk in front of him. ‘Most of it is terrible, of course.’
The fleeting sense of pride immediately fizzled and Arya wondered why she had bothered.
His look was so hard to read – almost amused, but not quite, and like he might kill her at any second. There was a pair of strange, curved looking swords hanging on the wall that she didn’t doubt he knew how to use.
He gazed at her without blinking. He gave the impression that he could gaze without blinking for some time. ‘We only use black and white here.’
‘That’s missing out quite a lot,’ she said, feeling petulant.
He remained unruffled. ‘There are many shades between black and white,’ he said. ‘Nothing else is necessary. And it is our house style. What our reputation is built on.’ More unblinking gazing. The fountain continued trickling, musically. ‘I will give you several tasks. Complete these tasks and I shall consider you for a different position here.’
‘I’ll do it,’ said Arya, hoping the tasks weren’t going to include jumping through fire or pits of snakes, like they sounded.
Jojen & Bran
Hey bb cakes xxx
‘Hello, ladies.’ Daario was by Doreah’s desk. Today he sported a perfectly-fitting mid-blue suit and multi-coloured checked tie that on anyone else would have looked like a retired golfer, but on him looked irritatingly fashionable. He was cradling a reusable coffee cup.
Doreah sat up and flashed him a ridiculously flirty smile. ‘Hello, you,’ she said.
Sansa glanced at him, gave a reserved smile, and carried on with her work. ‘Hello.’ He was just a handsome man. That was all. She had been in the company of many handsome men. Including her husband. Her husband, who was the most handsome, at least to her, and also the most awesome. She would carry on with her work because that was she was paid to do here, not spin around on her office chair flicking her hair as Doreah was doing.
‘So,’ Daario said. ‘Dany would like your opinion on good post-work restaurants.’ He dropped his voice confidingly. ‘Meaning I would like your opinion on good post-work restaurants, which I can then pass off as my own.’ Wink.
Doreah gave a glossy titter. ‘Well, you’ve come to the right place. Sansa and I are an encyclopedia of what is shit-hot right now in Manchester.’
‘Wonderful,’ he said, and sat on the corner of Doreah’s desk. ‘Tell me everything.’
Jojen & Bran
Hey hey xxx
‘Fucking perfect weather,’ said Sandor, standing with Edd inside their classroom hut, usually used for primary schools, in a nature reserve a mile east of the city centre. The tiny site was a mix of urban marshes, woods, bog and mossland, all especially sodden today as they waited for the kids to come.
Edd’s sigh folded in with the sound of the rain as they watched it piss it down. ‘Yep.’
Sandor glanced over. ‘Did you speak to Missy, then?’
‘She’s fine,’ he said, in the same manner as he might have said she's dead. The lass was doing a year of working in the Middle East, mostly places that were perfectly – well, decently – safe, and you could tell from Edd’s face that he expected her to get kidnapped, or blown up, or kidnapped and blown up at any second.
‘Aye. As I keep telling you. She’s fine.’
Edd gave a quiet, mild hum of dissent.
‘She's not going to fuck off with some Arabic prince, either.’
Edd didn’t deny it. ‘Why wouldn’t she?’
‘You know why, you dumb prick. Because for some fucking unknown reason, she’s very attached to you.’ The rain lashed down harder. ‘Christ,’ said Sandor. ‘This is going to get messy today.’ He glanced at his watch. Rickon and Lyanna were supposed to be arriving soon, too.
Behind them, the door crashed open, and a massive golf umbrella collapsed to reveal a head of bright green hair. ‘Oi oi, lads,’ said Wylla, standing there in torn fishnet tights under denim shorts and hot pink wellies, flashing them a big grin. ‘Art teacher reporting for duty.’
Jojen & Bran
Where u at babe?
U missed our Facetime sesh x
Arya sighed. She’d spent the last three days at the House of Black and White sitting at a desk outside Jaqen’s office in the corridor – the fucking corridor – trying to understand the cryptic demands he kept giving her. Lines that are not lines. When the line ends, so does the world. Draw with the mind, not with the pen.
‘I can’t do what you’re asking.’ Because none of it makes any fucking sense, she thought.
‘Fine,’ he said, leaning back in his chair. ‘Go back to your life of not drawing. It is of no importance to me.’
She chewed on her cheek.
‘I know that this is what you want to do,’ he said, lightly. Everything was so light – she bet anything he had a book of Zen Buddhist quotes underneath his desk that he occasionally memorised for these exact moments. ‘I sense it.’
‘I don’t get how any of this is useful for your clients,’ she said. Their clients were obscure fashion companies, corporate brands, arts organisations.
‘The clients do not know what they want. Their minds are small, unimaginative. It is down to us to bring them something miraculous. It must be original. Every line you make must never have been made before. That is what we do at the House of Black and White.’ He nodded at the page, and then out to the corridor. ‘Again.’
Jojen & Bran
Missing u xxx
Sansa was pressing the button to her floor in the lift when a hand caught the door and Daario slid in.
‘Just in time,’ he said, and stood next to her. The door shut and the lift began heaving itself upwards. Floor 1, 2, 3.
For some reason, her mind went entirely blank. She was in a very small space – these new buildings didn’t always see fit to make their lifts capacious – with a very attractive man, and that was fine and normal and he was Dany’s PA and polyamorous lover and she should really be more professional. Floor 10, 11, 12.
‘Nice lunch?’ he said.
‘Mmm,’ she said. ‘It was fine.’
God, he smelt good. Cinammon-y and lemony, the scent that she imagined wafted from Italian groves. He looked a bit Italian. She, on the other hand, smelt of prawn mayonnaise sandwich.
‘I’ll have to get your tips,’ he said. ‘I’m still trying to work out where to go to avoid all the usual chain places. Dany and I are also not fans of unnecessary packaging.’
Was that a euphemism? It probably wasn’t a euphemism. It was hard to tell when everything he said was delivered in the same warmly wry tone.
‘Are you Italian?’ she blurted.
He gave her a curious, amused look. ‘No. Are you?’
‘No,’ she said, rather faintly, and willed the lift to arrive. 34, 35.
‘Thanks for recommendation, by the way,’ he said. She looked at him. ‘Dany would love to have a work dinner tomorrow, if you’re free? All very informal. Just a few of us. And on the company card, of course.’
Tuesday nights were usually curry nights with Sandor. Almost without fail. He would order four poppadoms and demolish them in about four seconds, then look sad that there weren’t any more.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I shall be free.’
Jojen & Bran
OK am starting to get a bit offended now
Where ARE u?????
‘You are never going to impress him,’ said Waife.
I am, thought Arya. She was staying late, having phoned Saint Sexy Archangel Pod to pick up Aoife. She was crouched over her desk in the corridor, wrist aching from hours of gripping her fucking pen. She wished that she could just whack stuff onto the computer software that designs would eventually be made on anyway, but knew Jaqen would be disappointed. Your pen is a weapon. Think of it as a sword.
Waife was standing next to her, her arms folded, looking at her work. ‘There is no fucking way,’ she said. ‘I have been here four years and it’s taken me that long to get here.’
Arya wondered if there was the faintest sense of panic in her voice. ‘Better go do some work, then,’ she said, not looking up. See the line before it manifests on the page.
Waife kicked the desk leg. Arya managed to keep her line utterly straight. Waife muttered something under her breath and stalked away.
‘Think of your paper as an enemy you are lovingly killing,’ Arya whispered, still drawing.
‘It was cool,’ said Lyanna. ‘Survivalist skills are definitely the way forward, what with populists, fascists and climate crisis deniers taking over the world and us all facing impending disaster.’
‘Amazing,’ said Sansa, beaming at Sandor.
She was grilling Rickon and Lyanna about their first day of work experience with Sandor, the two of them side by side on the sofa with hot chocolates. Not that there was any point in asking Rickon anything – the boy barely spoke. When Lyanna did, she was concise and disconcertingly mature, though rather morose about the state of the planet. Fair enough.
The pair of them had done well. You’d have been hard pushed to separate Rickon from the kids not long ago, but Lyanna was obviously a good influence on him, and he unfussily got on with all the menial tasks he’d given them, even if he did then hide behind a tree smoking.
‘Well, I’m proud of you all,’ Sansa said. ‘Way better doing this than some boring office admin somewhere.’
‘Yup,’ said Lyanna. ‘Thanks again for letting us stay.’
‘It is our absolute pleasure,’ she said. Our first guests, she’d gushed to Sandor, merrily, before placing another scented candle next to the spare bed's side table.
Later on, Sansa got into bed next to him, smelling of coconut. With Their First Guests under the roof, he couldn’t slide into the bath behind her like he often did (they’d got an extra large bath fitted when they moved for the express purpose). Instead, he slid a hand over her warm, smooth hip and put his nose in her hair.
‘Hey,’ she said. ‘How was Wylla? You didn’t mention her yet.’
He moved his nose away. When Sansa had suggested Wylla come and do woodland art workshops, he hadn’t said no, because that would have meant giving a reason, and that would have meant saying that he had a feeling about her. An uncomfortable feeling. There’d been the look she’d flashed him when he’d collected Robin from North London that time. The undeniable fact that she’d attempted to play footsie with him under the table in the train carriage on the way to Robin’s mad show. But he hadn’t dared bring that up, so instead he’d said yes.
‘She was sound, actually.' He hadn’t been entirely sure what to expect, but Wylla came prepared, had ordered a shiteload of materials and had different activities planned for each day that the kids could dip in and out of. He was impressed, and the punk-style wildness she exuded seemed to impress most of the kids.
‘I told you it would be a good idea,’ Sansa said, her ear on his chest.
‘I have to miss curry tomorrow night.’
He shifted to look at her, as if she’d sworn in church. Not that he gave a fuck about swearing in church. ‘Seriously?’ He’d assumed that they’d take Rickon and Lyanna along to their favoured Bangladeshi restaurant.
‘It’s a work thing. Dany’s invitation. I wouldn’t normally but I think it’s quite a select group. It could be good for me.’
The tiniest pause, in which he tried not to resent her ambition. Swatted that thought away. ‘Who’s going?’
‘Dany, Jon, Doreah, me . . . maybe some others, I’m not sure,’ she said.
Who was he kidding. It was just curry. ‘Aye. ‘Course. Whatever you need to do to get into her knickers.’
She dug fingers into his ribs and he shifted away, grinning, before they settled back into position, her hand smoothing over his belly absent-mindedly.
‘Hey. Listen to that,’ he said.
They both stilled. From the neighbouring room, there was the low murmur of voices, a young male one more than the female, who seemed to only interject occasionally. ‘You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,’ he said. ‘He’s like a bloody monk most of the time.’
‘Ahh,’ said Sansa. ‘That’s adorable. Lyanna has brought him out of his shell.’
‘Watch him shrink right back into it tomorrow morning,’ Sandor said, leaning over and turning out the light.
Jojen & Bran
Bran, please pick up your fuckin phone
Just miss talking to u
Her phone buzzed. Pod. Hello kitten, how u doing? xxx
Shit. It was insanely late. Her hand had cramped. She texted back. Im coming rn so sorry ilu xxxxxxxxxx
She packed up her stuff, turned the light off, and left the corridor.
It was strange, being here when it was so quiet. She tiptoed through the office to collect her bag and turn everything off as they were supposed to. She was probably the only person left in this creepy goddamned building apart from the porters down in reception.
On Waife’s desk were some drawings, really cool geometric shapes that twisted and shifted. Some were more curved, and some angular, as angry-looking as she always was.
‘Bollocks,’ said Arya. They were good.
Waife’s computer was still on, a stupid screensaver of a ninja. Arya tapped a key on the keyboard so she could turn it off for her, because she was, after all, Waife’s slave and everything, so –
Wait. There were several tabs up on the computer, a few clients’ websites, mundane stuff. But the last tab was a Pinterest board of tattoos, and tattoos that looked exactly like the stuff on the sketchpad on the desk. The tattooist was from Berlin, a guy with a very distinct style. Waife was copying them. Plagiarising.
Every line you make must never have been made before.
‘Busted,’ she said.
Hey everyone, sorry for the hiatus in new chapters past this one - I am long-term sick and trying to get better... x
Sorry for the hiatus on this, suffering from long-term illness, wooooo. But this one just needed a quick edit. HOPE YOU LIKE IT x
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘Morning, boss.’ Arya stood at Jaqen’s office door with a cup of tea. She’d guessed at what he might like. Earl grey, slice of lemon.
Jaqen looked up from his desk with a very subtle sheen of surprise. Partly because she wasn’t really supposed to open his door without knocking and waiting.
Arya put the tea on his desk. She’d seen Waife heading this way earlier, holding some pages, before coming back with an extremely smug look on her face.
‘I do not drink tea in this way,’ Jaqen said, uncritically. He glanced behind her at the small bamboo tray and the little teapot and tiny jade green cups. ‘I prefer the traditional tea ceremony.’
Of course he fucking does, she thought, trying not to laugh. ‘’Kay. My bad.’ She picked the tea up again.
Jaqen was staring at some papers, and Arya recognised Waife’s curving, intertwining lines.
‘So I’ve been working on stuff,’ she said. ‘Like you asked.’
He didn’t look up. ‘Good.’
‘Can I ask you something?’
‘A girl may ask.’ He did that sometimes, went all cryptic and third-persony. Maybe it was a Brazilian thing.
‘What happens if someone copies something?’
A glance up. ‘Copies?’
‘Yeah. Lifts someone else’s designs. Here. Pretends they’re original.’
Jaqen sat back, settled his jade-green Japanese tea ceremony eyes on her. ‘They will be fired,’ he said, impassively.
‘Interesting,’ said Arya, and slurped from the tea.
‘Ladies.’ Daario was sauntering up to their desks.
Doreah was applying another layer of her Russian Red lipstick and twirled round on her office chair. ‘Hello, daar-ling.’
It was not quite the end of the day, but Dany had said she was treating them to drinks before dinner. They were all going out to a frankly fabulous restaurant: she and Doreah, Jon and Dany. And Daario, currently standing with his hands in the pockets of his camel-coloured chinos and no socks.
‘Are we ready?’ he said.
‘As ever,’ said Doreah, and looked at Sansa.
‘Absolutely,’ said Sansa, standing up. ‘Born ready.’
‘You bitch,’ said Waife, her face in Arya’s face at the end of the day. ‘You absolute fucking bitch. You are going down.’
When Waife had been called to Jaqen’s office, she’d looked pleased, rolled back her shoulders and given Arya one of her most smug, evil looks. When she returned, she’d come straight for Arya and pushed her against a wall.
‘Nope,’ said Arya, partly wishing she had her old fencing rapier. ‘You are, mate.’
‘I’ve worked my arse off to be here.’ Waife looked like she would spontaneously combust with rage.
‘Spoilt it though, didn’t you?’
‘You fucking –’
‘This behaviour is not appropriate,’ said a calm voice from the doorway.
Realising it was Jaqen, Waife stilled, her eyes not leaving Arya’s. Slowly, she leaned away from her, before turning to her desk to pick up her things. She glanced towards Jaqen. ‘You’re a pretentious, faux-enigmatic cunt and all.’ She stalked past him and slammed the door.
Arya could swear that the whole office breathed a small, subtle sigh of relief. Maybe it hadn’t been she alone who had been tormented by Waife.
‘Ms. Stark,’ said Jaqen. ‘My office, please.’
A long, exhausting day. Ollie had disappeared for some of it, and Sandor had left Edd (mostly) in charge of the others, scouted the entire woods and eventually spotted her huddling under a tree with a penknife absent-mindedly held to her arm. He’d sat down next to her, heard about her shite home life – all that counselling at Tywin’s school really had come in useful – and gently taken the penknife away.
They returned to find that Wylla had got the whole lot making collages using loads of woodland materials, Edd standing slightly helplessly by, with Rickon and Lyanna cleaning the hut.
‘You’re good with them,’ he said to Wylla, helping her pack up all her stuff at the end of the day.
‘Cheers, big man,’ she said, wiping her hands on her denim shorts. ‘I was just like them once. Maybe I still am.’ She slung him a dirty grin and Sandor felt that same uncomfortable itch he kept getting. He gave an ambiguous grunt.
She hung an easy arm over Edd’s shoulders. ‘Right,’ she said. ‘Who’s up for a pint or five?’
Edd, a little alarmed, looked at him. With curry night abandoned, Sandor didn’t have much else to do. Rickon and Lyanna had asked to go to a gig of some band they were into, so he’d be home alone with the dog otherwise.
‘One,’ he said. ‘Not five.’
‘And I said ‘from now on, sweetheart, I’ll be the one calling the shots. You can work in my new office, or you can die in your old one.’
Dany was finishing off her chateaubriand – she very much liked red meat, as long as it was of the sustainable variety – and filling them all in on some rather mercenary-sounding office politics.
The restaurant on Deansgate was very heavy on the red meat, Sansa thought, trying her very best to get through her steak and wishing she’d ordered the sea bass. Still, it was all going swimmingly: she’d perfectly well held her own during the work chat in their cosy corner booth, and had made everyone laugh with her story about puking down her wedding dress.
Jon and Dany seemed, frankly, rather close. She kept leaning in confidingly, a light hand on his arm, and Jon would give a demure smile that just broke out of his seriousness.
Sansa glanced as subtly as she could over at Daario. He was smiling at something Doreah was gushing about and sipping from his pinot noir, and seemed unruffled by the pair of them. Or did he? Once or twice she could have sworn he looked at Jon and Dany with the slightest hint of stoniness. It was hard to tell when his eau de Daario was lightness, charm and guile. He was wearing a devastatingly good bottle-green shirt. Sansa sometimes wished that Sandor would wear shirts as fabulously-fitting as that. It would blow her mind. She thought guiltily, not for the first time this evening, of the missed curry night, of him gloomily shovelling takeaway bhajis into his face whilst surfing historical documentaries on TV.
Daario suddenly looked over. She straightened, flashed a smile, and was very thankful for her phone buzzing at that moment so that she could look distracted.
Sandor. Taking the gang for pie. Hope all’s well x
All’s well baby xxx
She discreetly tucked her phone away again. Fine. He was staying out after all. She was allowed to relax and have an awesomely fabulous time and absolutely say yes to the third generous glass of wine that Daario was pouring her.
‘So then we went to his office and I thought ‘great, he’s going to fucking fire me too for blabbing or something because maybe he doesn’t like a grass, he’s always going on about demanding total loyalty, but actually he poured me a cup of tea – which took about ten minutes because he has this whole wanky tea ceremony thing where you have to keep swilling the water in the pot for no reason – and told me he was promoting me to Waife’s job which basically means shit-tons of drawing and I’ll actually finally get to design stuff on software like it’s the 21st century or something though obviously still only in black and white, yawn, and he wants me to go to four days a week if I want to and he says they’re pretty flexible with childcare stuff and so I said yes and then I realised I should probably come and ask you but I really wanna do it even if Jaqen is a total weirdo.’ She took a breath. ‘Does green tea have caffeine in it? I had shitloads.’
Pod, sitting on the sofa with Aoife wriggling on his lap, smiled at Arya. ‘My hero,’ he said. ‘And you don’t have to ask me.’ He leant in and kissed her.
‘My friend!’ A hefty hand clapped him on the back and Sal sat down next to them. ‘It is always a pleasure to see you here. And with comrades, I see.’
Sandor had taken Edd and Wylla to one of his favoured pubs, the rather self-explanatory Pie and Ale, which had wooden floors, craft beer and sports on TVs in the corners. He’d tucked into his usual, steak and whisky; Edd had gone for a Moroccan-flavoured pie, doubtless only chosen as a way of being gastronomically closer to Missy (although it was still 1,000 miles short).
Sandor introduced them all. Sal (short for Salladhor) was a one-time naval man who now made his money occasionally captaining yachts for stupid rich people. He was a big character: big in appetite, voice, and love of the ladies. Right now, he was delighting in Wylla’s excellent football knowledge, taking big belly laughs at her jokes. Delighting in more than that, clearly. She was pretty – Sandor couldn’t deny it. A snarky, flexible sort of face, thick eyeliner and piercings. Christ. She was even younger than his wife.
‘That was a fucking excellent pie,’ Wylla said, scraping her plate for the last remnants of her vegan chickpea chilli number. ‘Only thing to follow that is more beer.’ She stood up. ‘My shout. Who’s in?’ She sauntered to the bar.
Sal blew a long, low whistle. ‘That woman is dynamite.’
Sandor took a large gulp of his craft ale.
Sal elbowed him. ‘I know you are married to a divine goddess, but you can still admit it, old fellow.’ Sandor fixed his eyes on the large plasma screen on the other side of the room. ‘No? Tell him, my friend.’ He turned to Edd, who blinked back into focus, his mind clearly having been 4,000 miles away. ‘Oh, forget it. You two and your uxoriousness. It is sickening. Beautiful, but sickening.’
‘She’s 22, Sal, for god’s sake,’ said Sandor, putting down his pint glass.
Sal beamed and spread his hands upon his wide belly. ‘Wonderful!’ He got up and joined Wylla at the bar.
Sandor watched the football, watched Wylla pushing Sal’s shoulder and laughing, the two of them downing a shot of something. A wee while later they came back over.
‘Yo,’ said Wylla. ‘Me and Sal are going to a drag bar. Who’s in?’ Edd looked nervously at Sandor. Sandor shook his head. ‘Suit yourself.’ She winked at him.
‘Well, someone got lucky.’ Daario nodded towards the bar.
Dinner had ended rather oddly. Dany said that she needed to talk to Jon, taking his arm and hailing them a cab, not even looking at Daario. Daario had nodded graciously and then stared at the road long after the taxi had disappeared. The silence had been broken by Doreah suggesting cocktails for the three of them at a place round the corner, insisting that if Daario hadn’t yet tried a Plum Cobbler then tonight was the night.
Now, though, Doreah was by the beer pumps, stroking the chest of a large, olive-skinned and rather fierce-looking man clad mostly in leather.
‘Wow,’ shouted Sansa, in their booth. She was feeling a little looser after her second Tokyo Drift cocktail (gin, plum sake, lemon, honey, egg white). ‘That man is very leathery.’
Daario smiled and picked up his glass of Hummingbird (gin, raspberries, lime, elderflower). ‘In more ways than one.’
They clinked glasses and she giggled, in a fabulous, fabulously drunk way. She really was more than a little drunk. Pre-dinner kir royales and wine and dessert wine and cocktails were probably a little much for a Tuesday night. Probably.
It was fine to be out with this sexy, lovely-smelling man. He was simply very confident in himself and his open relationship with a very powerful woman, and he wasn’t scared to show it. That was absolutely acceptable, and so was the bottle-green-shirted arm he had confidently slung over the back of the booth behind her. They were sitting just below a speaker, and the music was ridiculously loud; they kept having to lean in to have a hope of hearing each other.
‘So . . .’ she said, putting her glass very deliberately down and turning to face him. Assertive, confiding Sansa, yelling in his ear. ‘You and Dany.’
He raised an eyebrow. ‘Me and Dany what?’ He dipped his head down close to hear her again.
‘What gives there?’
‘We both give,’ he said, before the slightest, less merry look into the middle distance. ‘Sometimes.’
‘But seriously, I mean, do you really like . . .’ she leant towards him. ‘Both play around?’
‘Sometimes,’ he said.
‘And that’s fine?’
‘Sometimes.’ His smile seemed a little discomfited. Like he didn’t mean it. Perhaps it wasn’t so free and easy-breezy after all.
‘You’ve suddenly become very monosyllabic,’ she said. ‘Or mono-wordy.’ She glanced back over to the bar, where Doreah was currently licking the bicep of the tanned, multi-leathery man. ‘Oh wow, Doreah.’
He was watching her. ‘You’re very spectacular, aren’t you?’
‘Me?’ She tossed her hair over her shoulder without meaning to. ‘Hmm. No. I mean, yes. Sometimes.’
‘You’ve seemed quite shy in the office. I didn’t quite believe it. Dany keeps going on about your potential.’
Sansa gazed at him, her heart fluttering both with the spectacular thing and the fact that Dany actually liked her. ‘Does she? Tell me literally everything.’
An amused look. ‘I don’t really want to talk about Dany right now.’ His eyes flickered over her hair. ‘Your hair is just exquisite, you know.’
‘A weekly hair mask,’ she said, instantly. ‘Boom.’
‘Same,’ he said, and held his glass up again.
‘Ha,’ said Sansa, clinking. ‘You hilarious person.’
‘I try.’ He grinned. ‘I do, though. Use a mask. Got to keep it in shape somehow.’
Sansa touched his hair, a glossy lock that swept down to behind his ear. ‘Your hair is very good, you know. Sort of annoyingly good.’
He seemed to go rather still, though that charmed and charming smile remained in place. ‘Thank you.’
From the speaker above their heads, the tune changed, music throbbing like a far-too-excited heart.
She appeared to still be stroking his hair. ‘I should absolutely stop doing that right now,’ she said, and managed to, a little belatedly. She looked at her glass, now empty. When had she finished that?
‘I don’t mind,’ he said. Smiled. And then the hand that was behind her on the back of the seat was touching her hair, and it seemed bad to ask him to stop when she’d just done the same to him. Oh God. He was now touching her earlobe, and her jaw, and her chin, each touch so swift and subtle that she hadn’t quite registered it before it had gone onto the next one, and she wondered very much if he was just doing this because he was annoyed about Dany and Jon, and there it was, his face, and his lips, placed on hers, and she thought oh God, I’m kissing him and it's nice and I’m drunk and it isn’t Sandor and –
She pulled away. ‘I really mustn’t do that.’
He touched her hair again. ‘Completely up to you.’
‘You mustn’t do that.’ Dany was her boss.
‘I can do what I like,’ he said, breezily, and she swore, through her cocktail haze, that there was something a little defiant in his eyes, something suggesting that kissing her was somehow an act of retaliation.
‘I’m going to go now,’ she said, and stood up. Her head swooned. Horror, terror, guilt.
‘Let me get you a cab.’ He spoke so lightly, as if they hadn’t just done the worst thing that they could possibly do.
‘Nope. No, I’m fine. I can do it.’ She turned around once, on the spot, and left.
Jojen & Arya
Sorry its late
Omg have to tell u about my slamdunk today
No is cool
I fuckin took that workbitch DOWN MUTHAFUCKAAA
Have u talked 2 Bran?
Can’t get hold of him
Have you guys had a fight?
A lovers tiff?
He’s got these new mates, at uni, some society thing
He’s been saying some weird shit
Now he’s just sorta gone
Bit freaked out tbh
That doesn’t sound like him
Shit am crying
Call me rn dipshit we’ll sort this
Sandor was in bed, the sidelight left on. He rolled over with the blurry, bear-ish sort of sound he always made when disturbed from sleep. ‘Hey.’ A nose to her skin. ‘Christ. You smell of about seven different types of booze.’
‘Yeah, maybe,’ she said. Carefully. Lightly. ‘How was your night?’
‘Aye, fine.’ He exhaled, pulled her into him. ‘Heavy on the pies. You?’
‘Yeah? You impress the boss?’
‘Mmm,’ she said.
'Good lass,' he said in nothing more than a murmur, and she listened to him gently fall asleep again, flooded with a guilt so expansive it hurt.
Uxoriousness = excessive love of one's wife. I learnt this lovely word from The English Patient :)
Sorry for the delay! Shall try and keep this one going again now.
To recap: Arya has vanquished Waife and has taken her job at the House of Black and White, working for Jaqen. Jojen (over in NYC) is freaking out about Bran, who he can't get hold of. Sansa had a big work night out and drunkenly, briefly, kissed Daario, Dany's PA, before putting a stop to it.
*DRAWS BACK THEATRE CURTAIN*
The weather wasn’t much better in the woods this morning. Sandor stretched as the kettle fogged up the window of the classroom hut, his shoulder clicking. He had to get that seen to. Jesus, he was an old man. He’d said as much to Sansa this morning, his usual grumble, but she’d been odd – looking up at him from the table, clutching her cup of tea, then scarpering quickly. He’d send her a message in a bit.
The door slammed behind him. ‘Morning.’ Wylla looked pale, valiant, a slash of blue lipstick, her eyes extra dark.
Sandor gave a faint grunt in reply and pulled another mug over for her. ‘How was your night?’ He wished he didn’t sound so disapproving. Wylla and Sal had buggered off arm in arm, she giving a throaty cackle of laughter at something he said.
‘My night was hilarious.’ She leant dramatically back against the wooden counter and pulled her gum out of her mouth. Pop. ‘I didn’t fuck him, if that’s what you’re thinking.’
He sat down with his coffee, left hers on the counter. ‘None of my business.’
She brought her mug over and sat at the table opposite him. ‘Not my type.’ She stretched. ‘I like them a bit more enigmatic.' Was that her boot tapping against his leg? ‘Surly.’ It definitely was. ‘Scarred.’
He gave her a level look. ‘Stop it.’
She flashed a devilish grin. ‘Stop what?’
‘What you’re doing.’
‘What am I doing?’
He sat back, folded his arms. ‘I’m married.’
‘To beautiful Sansa, I know. She’s a stone cold fox.’
He tried not to imagine green and amber hair entwined. Failed. ‘Then just stop. Leave me alone.’
‘Alright, big man. No worries. Jesus, someone’s got hang-ups.’ She picked up her coffee, raised her eyebrows and rolled her eyes at the same time. ‘Maybe I’ll try Mr Eeyore instead.’
‘You’ll leave him alone and all,’ Sandor said. ‘The man’s fragile.’
‘I’m joking. Christ, you’re such a grump.’ She yawned and rolled her shoulders back, turning her head at the sound of teenage voices outside. ‘Right. Let’s art up these pesky little motherfuckers.’
‘Hey. You’re home early.’ Sandor, as he was working with kids, was often home at 4pm. ‘And perfect timing.’ He lowered his voice to a sultry grumble. ‘I’ve just made a massive pot of tea and got the Jaffas out.’ He smiled at Sansa, the sort of smile she’d grown completely used to, had clearly been taking for granted, the most sweet, kind, dark, gorgeous smile any human could have.
‘Hey,’ she said, in not more than a croak, sliding her bag off her shoulder. Bowie rubbed himself against her ankles, snuffled.
Sandor glanced over. ‘You OK? Going down with something?’
She swallowed. ‘Maybe.’ The way she felt was worse than having ‘flu combined with the norovirus. She’d spent the entire day staring numbly at her computer screen, avoiding everyone’s gaze. Dany had come by to say hello and she’d mumbled something in a garbled fashion and legged it to the loo. She was the worst person in the entire universe. She was worse than the worst person in the universe. She had kissed someone else.
Sandor was now in front of her, cupping her cheek with his hand and tipping her chin up to look at her. She felt the tears beginning to form. All day she’d been telling herself it had been nothing, that no one ever needed to know.
He was scanning her face, eyebrows drawing towards each other. He smelt of his pine forest shower gel. ‘What’s up? What’s wrong?’
She blinked, felt the first tears roll out. ‘Something terrible.’ Her voice was hardly there at all.
He was still holding her cheek. Both of her cheeks. ‘Tell me what’s happened.’ His concern was making everything so much worse. He was thinking that something terrible had happened to her when it had happened to him.
She let out a sob. Breathed in a huge, horrible breath. Felt like she was coming apart at the seams.
‘OK, let’s sit down,’ Sandor said. ‘Come on.’ He took her hand, led her to the sofa in the living room. An arm around her shoulder. She sat forward, gently shrugged him off. Bowie sat on her feet with a huff, looked up at her.
Sandor’s hand touched her back, came away. A pause. ‘What have I done?’
‘Nothing.’ She turned to look at him, there in a clean grey T-shirt. The ends of his hair were still wet. ‘You’ve done nothing. You’re perfect.’ Another ugly sob. She was the worst of all people.
‘Are you going to tell me?’ he said. ‘Or am I going to have to get the dog to slobber you into coughing up?’ A gentle smile.
She started crying properly, the heel of her hand at her mouth. The terror at what was to come. She couldn't tell him. She had to.
‘Is it work?’
‘Sort of.’ She turned her hand over, tried to catch the tears spilling profusely down her jawline. ‘It happened at work.’
He was nodding, sagely. ‘Who do you need me to kill?’
Me, she thought, and looking at him, his deadpan expression only just holding firm, the spark in his eyes. She knew she mustn’t hide it any longer. It would only make it worse, in the long run. ‘I kissed someone. At work. I mean, after work. At the dinner thing. Well, after that. I’m so sorry.’
She watched his face change. For a fleeting moment, his half-smile held, before his eyebrows lowered, and his grey eyes lost their light, a fraction at a time. His lips closed and drily clicked as they opened again. ‘Are you serious?’ he said, very quietly.
She drew in a jagged breath. Nodded.
He looked at his knees. Moved his upper body away from her. A long moment of stillness. ‘Who?’
‘No one. No one important.’
He breathed in through his nose and she wondered at how calm he was. ‘Who?’ he said again, a little more pressingly.
‘A guy. He’s . . . he’s Dany’s PA.’
‘Do you like him?’ His voice was dark, peaty.
‘No. Not like that. Sandor – it was a mistake. I regretted it as soon as it happened. I’m sorry. I’m a million times sorry. I wish I’d never even gone to the –’
‘Did he kiss you or did you kiss him?’
She wanted to lie. Didn’t. ‘Sort of – simultaneous.’ Her lungs were glued together. ‘I stopped it.’ Not soon enough, she thought. Not before it had begun.
He gazed at the carpet, before giving a small nod. Stood up. Bowie whined, thinking it was time for his walk. 'I need a minute,’ he said.
She watched him look out of the window at the dull Manchester sky, before he turned and left the living room, closing the door.
He looked him up. Daario Naharis. Not hard to find. Seeing photos of the cunt’s slick, handsome face made him want to punch walls, punch himself for not looking like him.
His stomach was coiled barbed wire. There was something inevitable about it somehow, feelings he hadn’t had for years, since before they got married, the easy insecurity that she would go off with someone else.
And yet it was so much worse, because in the two and a half years they’d been married, he’d had nothing but unshakeable confidence in the pair of them. She’d given him that. They were a unit, the two of them and Bowie. A unit he’d imagined growing.
Now all he could see was the two of them in some store cupboard, grappling with each other, that man’s hand up her skirt.
There was a tiny knock on the door. ‘Sandor?’
He didn’t answer.
Arya & Sansa
Need yr supa sista big help
Can it wait?
whats with the frown
nope not really
Somethings up with Bran
How do you mean?
Is he ok?
JJ hasn’t been able to get hold of him for days
not answering calls or texts
have u texted him?
Not since when you were here
Have u told M&D?
Thought id try u seeing as ur both in Manchester
Can u go look for him? Go to his rooms?
Check hes not dead in a ditch or the canal?
OK yes. Ill go rn
U ok tho?
It can wait
I’ll stay in touch x
Safe sis thank uuuu xxxxxx
Sandor had been in their bedroom for an hour. She stood outside the closed door, and carefully put her ear to the wood. There was no sound from inside. She spoke quietly, her forehead resting against one panel. ‘Sandor?’
No answer. This never happened. The silent treatment. If they ever argued – which was almost never, except about who should have the last Jaffa Cake, and no matter how much he wanted it, he always gave it to her – it was always dealt with, really quickly, and soon they were back to snogging happily and groping each other up against a wall.
She had really, truly, ruined everything. ‘Sandor. I have to go out.’ She put her palm on the door handle, opened it carefully.
He was lying on top of the duvet on his back, hands on his stomach, staring at the ceiling. Usually he'd be sprawled diagonally, with at least one arm shoved behind his head. His laptop was next to his hip, closed.
‘I have to go out,’ she said again, standing in the doorway.
He didn’t look at her. ‘OK.’ Bowie sloped past her, jumped on the bed next to him.
‘Something’s up with Bran. He’s gone a bit awol. Not just with me and Arya but with Jojen, too, which is the weird thing.’ She felt strange, formal, her words sounding forced. ‘I’m going to take the car.’
‘OK.’ In normal circumstances, he would pick up the car keys immediately and come with her. He was part of the clan. But he simply lay there. Bowie turned round twice and sat down by his leg with a heavy sigh.
‘OK,’ she said quietly, almost to herself. She pushed herself off the doorframe, turned.
‘Is it because of the baby thing?’
She turned back. ‘The what?’
He was looking at her now. An unreadable expression on his face.
Of course that’s what he thought. He would have brooded over Daario, guessed that he was younger, thought she needed a younger man she could have a baby with when she was more ready, had spent the last hour stirring his thoughts up until they gnawed at each other.
‘No, Sandor. No. Of course not,’ she said. ‘It just – I’d had too much to drink, and I know that’s not an excuse and I promise it wasn’t for very long, at all, but – it just happened. I wish it hadn’t. I promise.’ She took a step towards him. ‘I’m sorry, I have to go.’
Sandor looked at her for a moment longer, before turning his head back to face the ceiling.
Arya & Jojen
Never fear, SupaSansa to the rescue!
shes gonna go by Bran’s & pull him out of the well like Lassie or some shit
tell her thanks x
There’ll be an explanation, promise!
(10 heart emojis)
Stark women rule
Aint that the goddamn truth
(strong arm emoji) (fist-bump emoji) (crown emoji)
Bran’s second-year house was in Rusholme, a mecca of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian restaurants. Sandor was always usually very happy to drop in on her brother, because it meant an obligatory diversion afterwards to a curry house. Now, Sansa parked up on Bran’s street, a treeless road of redbrick terraces, alone. She turned the car off, sat for a moment listening to her heart.
Nothing like this had ever happened. OK, there had been the appearance of Melisandre and her poor son, but in that case, Sandor had been completely innocent. Sansa, in retrospect, had been totally unfair and blanked Sandor for a couple of days, And in this case, she was wholly guilty. She pulled the mirror down, stared at her red eyes and blotchy cheeks. If only she hadn’t gone to the cocktail bar. If only she hadn’t drunk so much. If only she hadn’t touched his hair.
Her phone vibrated on the seat next to her. It would be him. It would be him, telling her that it was OK, that he had just needed a few moments alone to absorb it and now he had forgiven her, and was hopping on the bus to join her at Bran’s.
She picked it up.
U there yet??
Sansa texted her back. Took a deep breath and looked out at Bran’s bedroom window. The curtains were shut. ‘Come on, Sansa,’ she told herself. Some people still needed her.
Arya & Sandor
Sandor is online
I know your there dipshit
U might as well talk to me
wasn’t so hard was it
What do you want?
Is Sansa OK?
Why are you asking?
Cos she sounded a bit weird just now
Are u with her?
Where u at?
Riiiight well did you see her?
Jesus its like fuckin talking to a fuckin brick wall
FORGET IT NUMBSKULL
I have babies to feed & graphic design companies to run & boyfriends to lick
‘Oh. Hey.’ A guy who wasn’t one of Bran’s housemates was standing there, looking like he’d been very, very asleep. It had taken three separate rings of the doorbell and several attempts at phoning Bran before anyone answered.
‘Hey. I’m looking for my brother. Bran? Is he in?’
The student blinked, extremely slowly. Maybe he was on something. ‘Bran,’ he said, and a slow, beatific smile spread across his face. ‘Bran is here.’
There was something about him that made Sansa feel uneasy. He was clearly really high. His eyes seemed glassy. ‘OK,’ she said. ‘Can I come in, then?’
The whole house smelt odd, she thought, following him into the gloomy corridor and up the stairs. She couldn’t quite place it. Weed, almost definitely, but not just weed.
The student stopped outside Bran’s bedroom, made a peculiar, sweeping gesture of his hand. ‘He's in here.’
Sansa knocked. ‘Bran?’ There was some music playing in there. Maybe he couldn’t hear. Without looking at the creepy student, she opened the door.
It was very dark inside. Bran was sitting cross-legged on a cushion on the floor by his bed, his hands on his knees.
‘I was knocking for ages,’ she said. The weird, doomy electronica made the room throb. 'Bran?'
He turned his head slowly towards her. ‘Sansa,’ he said, and it was as if he’d been expecting her. He didn’t move.
‘You didn’t come to see Arya and Aoife when they came up.’ She was feeling more and more unsettled. The bass from his speakers was hurting her chest. ‘And Jojen’s been trying to get hold of you for ages. He’s been really worried.’
Bran made a small, non-committal hum.
She was losing her patience with her younger brother. She should be with Sandor now, trying to make him forgive her. ‘Bran,’ she said, marching to the small table and turning the music off on his phone. ‘What are you doing? Why are you being so weird?’ She threw open the curtains, and light flooded the room.
Bran flinched, but still didn’t move. He gazed up at Sansa, and she suddenly felt alarmed, sick. His eyes were almost opaque. Huge pupils. He was looking at her, but at the same time he didn’t seem to be looking at her at all.
‘Are you stoned?’ she said. She’d seen him stoned before, but never like this.
He smiled. ‘I’m beyond that.’
‘What have you been doing to yourself?’
‘A mixture of things.’ He was speaking so calmly, but it just didn’t seem like him.
‘A mixture of things like what?' She began to notice all the posters on his wall that hadn't been there before. A lot of tribal images, indigenous art. Native Americans or Mexican maybe. Surreal posters featuring men with wings, plants, suns, huge black birds. 'What have you been taking?’
‘He’s the best of all of us.’ The student who had let her in was standing in the doorway. ‘The Three-Eyed Society was child's play before Bran came along. He’s got vision. It’s fucking mind-blowing, the stuff he sees.’
‘It’s true, Sansa,’ Bran said. ‘I can see through time.’
‘Come and stay with me tonight,’ she said, crouching down to him, trying to get him to really look at her. ‘Bran. You’re – whatever you’ve been taking. You’re not right.’ She realised how thin he looked. ‘Are you eating?’
‘I don’t need to eat,’ he said. Blinked, slowly. 'I don't need anything.' It was as if he was talking in his sleep, in a dream. ‘You should go now.’
She knelt down on the floor properly, folded her arms. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’
‘I’ve got to go back.’
She felt bewildered, blank. She didn’t recognise this boy. ‘Back where?’
‘Back inside myself,’ he said, and closed his eyes.
Dusk. Sandor stood in the local park, watching the clouds draw over the far blocks of flats whilst Bowie did his business. He wished everything could be as simple as the dog’s life – food, water, watching Blue Planet (Bowie really liked nature programmes), shitting. No envy, no self-doubt, no arguments, no marriage.
No Sansa. His insides felt like liquid cement. She’d gone out with the excuse of seeing Bran, and hadn’t come back by the time he’d dragged himself up off the couch to take the dog out. In the end, he’d walked miles, pulling a reluctant Bowie along, trying to walk off his thoughts. But the thoughts kept coming, as heavy as a great tolling fucking bell. She kissed someone else. It was nothing – she said as much. But she kissed someone else.
That was it, probably. He’d had a good innings, he told himself as he headed back home – five and a half years with her. Jesus, who was he fucking kidding. He pictured the tear rolling down her cheek as they stood in front of each other, saying their vows on the best fucking day of his life. And of the tear rolling down her cheek earlier on tonight.
The lights were all off as he opened the front door, undoing Bowie’s lead. ‘Go on, you fucker,’ he said, straightening. She still wasn’t back then. Probably she’d gone off to that cunt’s place. Probably she was with him right now. Fucking him.
His phone buzzed.
Sansa & Sandor
I came home but you weren't there
Am taking Bran to M&Ds
He’s being really weird
I think he’s in a really serious mess with some drugs
It's pretty upsetting
I talked to them and they said to bring him home
I’m going to stay over, maybe see how it is for a night or two
Is it OK to take the car?
Are u there?
Sandor aka SEXY HUSBANDMAN:
That sounds a bit worrying
Yeah, I am worried. He’s acting really out of it
I wouldn’t go if it wasn’t serious, I absolutely promise
Hope you don’t mind?
Sandor aka SEXY HUSBANDMAN:
‘Thank you, Doctor Seaworth. It’s really good of you to come out.’
Sansa hovered by the kitchen door, clutching a cup of tea as her mum walked their family GP to the front door.
‘Not a problem,’ Doctor Seaworth said. He was the same as he’d ever been, salt and pepper beard, Geordie accent, slightly fanciable. He’d been doctor to every Stark for years. But he’d never had to come to the house before. ‘Give me a call if you need anything at all,’ he said. ‘Good luck, now.’
After Cat shut the door, she paused, her hand still on the handle. And then she turned, saw Sansa. ‘Right,’ she said to her, and though her mum smiled, it was obvious how shaken she was.
Sansa followed her into the living room.
Ned was sitting next to Bran, who had the same glazed, monkish expression he’d had all the way down in the car from Manchester. Sansa had listened out in the corridor as he calmly explained to Doctor Seaworth how he and his friends – if you could call them that ¬– had been experimenting with various combinations of mescaline, LSD and weed, in what sounded like alarmingly high doses. And he’d talked just as impassively as he’d done to Sansa, about visions, time, the future. Doctor Seaworth had written a lot of notes.
‘So the mental health crisis team will come round tomorrow morning,’ Cat said.
‘It’s really kind of you, but I don’t need any help,’ said Bran, detachedly.
‘You do, son,’ said Ned. Both of their parents looked ashen. Arya had always been the wild child, and Bran the bookish, philosophical one who did everything he was told.
‘I’ve been fine.’ Bran didn’t seem to think anything was wrong. It was as if someone else had possessed him entirely. ‘I’m just – I’m a different person now. But I’m fine.’
‘I’m going to make us some lunch,’ said Cat. ‘You’re going to try and eat a little something.’ She got up, and Sansa saw the glisten in her eyes. He’d lost so much weight.
Sansa hadn’t slept well. She had texted work and told them it was a family emergency – she’d not even taken a sick day off since she’d been there. Texted Sandor with updates, and while he’d replied, it just wasn’t right between them. He was being curt in his messages. No kisses.
He hated her.
‘Alright, so have you all got enough kindling?’
This morning the forest school kids had been working on starting fires, the flint and steel method. Bit of a risk, doing stuff like this, but Sandor always found that the more responsibility you gave these kids, the better they responded. Lyanna had been put with Lommy – one of his misdemeanours at school had been an arson attempt – which soon sorted him out. The lass was only two years older than him, but she didn’t take any shit.
‘Don’t forget to get all the grass and bark into the middle,’ Sandor said to them all. The Frey girl was pissing about as usual, but he couldn’t be arsed to bawl her out.
Instead he watched Ollie press her bundle into a compact shape, Wylla helping her – the two of them seemed to get on well. ‘Roll them up a bit in your hands,’ he said.
‘Gotcha, boss,’ said Wylla. Winked.
The last day with this lot. If he focused on work, it was OK. If he focused on the kids and their needs, his head wasn’t filled for every waking second with Sansa. She’d been in Bristol for two nights now, said she’d be up tomorrow, or maybe Sunday. It sounded like her brother had really fucked himself up – he hadn’t seen that one coming – but he still couldn’t help wondering if she was using his problems as an excuse for not coming back.
‘Person coming,’ said Ollie, nodding.
There was a rustle. Edd was already looking beyond him as if he’d seen a ghost. Sandor turned to see Missy in a bright yellow raincoat, lifting her hand and smiling sweetly at Edd, giving him the smallest wave.
Edd stood, swiftly walked over to her at the edge of the group. He’d have walked past zombies and hell-hounds with just as much single-mindedness. Missy put her arms around his neck. ‘What are you doing here?’ Edd said, a voice like charred coal. All the kids had stopped to look.
‘Surprising you, obviously,’ she said. ‘Thought I’d come back a few days early.’ A smile. ‘Surprise.’
Lommy gave a lewd wolf-whistle as they kissed.
‘Shut it,’ said Sandor.
The two of them drew apart. Edd looked pained, relieved, as if the end of the world he’d been expecting had been put off for a few days. There was the faintest patch of colour in his pale face.
Wylla was grinning at them, and back at Sandor, a spark of curiosity in her eyes.
‘Sorry,’ mouthed Missy.
Sandor smiled at her, shook his head. It was nice to see the lass back. ‘Alright,’ he said, turning to his teenage rabble. ‘Show’s over, you miserable lot. Grab your charred cloth and your bundles. Let’s get these fires started.’
‘This is so fucked up,’ said Arya in her parents’ kitchen, leaning down to fetch Aoife’s sock, which had slid off her foot for the thousandth time that day. She handed it to Pod.
Sansa was sitting next to them at the dining table. ‘I know.’
Saturday. The mental health team had been and gone. It was actually all pretty scary. Arya lowered her voice. Bran and their mum and dad were in the next room. ‘He is so fucked up.’
Sansa sighed. ‘I know.’
‘I don’t know what the fuck to tell Jojen.’ Aoife wriggled her sock off again and Pod picked it up with a saintly smile. He had way more patience with Sockgate than she ever did. ‘I mean, seriously, what am I gonna say?’
‘You’ll just have tell him the truth,’ said Sansa. She sounded tired.
Arya looked at her sister. Red eyes, no make-up, hair looking really quite shit for once. ‘Seriously, what the hell is up with you? I know it’s not just Bran.’
‘It’s nothing.’ Her voice was jaded and weird.
‘Yeah. Right. It’s not though, is it? It’s actually the opposite. I.e., something.’
Sansa put her hands around her mug. Looked at Arya like she was going to cry quite soon. ‘It’s not important right now.’
‘Andor,’ said Aoife, quite distinctly.
Her sister made a sort of garbled sob.
‘I’m going to take this one out to the garden,’ said Pod, ever-sensitive. He put his hands under Aoife’s shoulders and hefted her up into his arms. She punched his cheek and he grinned at her. ‘Let’s go and find worms.’ She writhed, gurgled at him, and her sock fell off.
Once they’d left, Arya sat properly in front of Sansa. ‘Come on, sis. There’s no escape. Spill.’
Sansa stared at the table. ‘If I tell you, you’re never going to think of me in the same way again.’
‘I . . .’ she stopped. Gazed at the red leaf-patterned tablecloth. ‘I kissed someone else.’
Arya tried not to show her extreme, massive shock. ‘OK. Wow. OK. What happened?’ As Sansa told her, Arya felt oddly serene. Hearing Sansa confess a pretty big mistake made her feel like she was the big sister for once.
‘So now we’re hardly talking, even on text,’ Sansa said, and looked exhausted. ‘I feel so shit. So evil.’
Sansa shook her head. ‘Stop saying wow.’
‘Don’t.’ She swallowed dryly. ‘Please.’
‘Don’t what? I’m not judging you.’
‘No. To be honest, it just makes you like the rest of us.’ Arya grinned.
‘It’s really not funny.’ Sansa rubbed her middle fingers over her forehead, shivered.
‘I know it’s not.’ Arya straightened, stopped grinning. ‘I’m sorry, sis.’ Sandor would be feeling utterly, completely crapsticks right now. He had the self-esteem, where Sansa was concerned, of a small gnat. Or at least, he used to, and it wouldn’t take much for him to spiral into a black hole of doom. He was probably dragging Bowie round the parks for miles and moodily watching nature programmes on TV, telling himself he was the worst shit in the seven continents. Or was it six continents? She could never remember. ‘So what are you going to do now?’
‘I’ve just got to go face him. I know what he’ll be thinking, and all I want is for him to –’
Arya’s phone buzzed. ‘Shit. That’s Jojen.’ She looked at Sansa.
Sansa blinked, and the practical, older sister was there again. ‘Want me to talk to him?’
Arya stood up. ‘No, it’s cool.’ She was basically the stable, sensible rock in the family now. ‘I’ll do it.’
‘Rickon says something’s up with Bran,’ said Lyanna. It was the end of the day, and the pair of them had finished their tidy-up and were getting ready to go.
‘Yeah,’ said Sandor. ‘Not sure what exactly.’
‘Drugs,’ said Lyanna, never one to mince words. ‘Delusions.’
‘Aye.’ It sounded fucking messed up, from all the messages Sansa had been sending. She didn’t talk about anything else, just updates on her brother. She didn’t say Please forgive me, Sandor, I’d do anything, I want you to kill Daario whats-his-face, slaughter him violently, I love you so –
‘Guess we’ll find out when we go back tomorrow,’ Lyanna said.
‘Sorry I can’t take you.’ With Sansa having taken the car to Bristol, Sandor had bought the two of them extortionate train tickets instead. He dug his hand into his jeans pocket for his phone. ‘I’ll ring you a cab to get to the station.’
‘Nah, it’s cool,’ said Rickon, shrugging his rucksack over one shoulder. ‘We’ve worked it out. Getting the bus.’
Sandor glanced at him, surprised. It was the longest sentence he’d ever heard from his youngest brother-in-law. ‘Alright. No worries. Thanks for all your help ¬– you’ve been grand. Both of you.’
Lyanna nodded unfussily. ‘And you can write us references?’
It didn’t seem completely out of the question that this kid would be running the country one day. ‘Aye, I said I would.’
He watched them go, and started the rest of the clear up, bringing all the tools into the hut, where Wylla was cleaning the central table of all the paint the kids had been throwing around. She glanced at him, and he nodded back. They’d actually worked out a good balance this week between them – maybe he’d have her over again.
He’d let Edd get off at lunchtime. The man had not let go of Missy’s hand as he’d shown her round the forest classroom, and introduced a few of the kids with a rare smile on his face.
There was a cough by the door. Ollie was standing there, looking like she’d forgotten something.
‘Thought you’d gone,’ Sandor said.
Wylla turned round. ‘Hey, kiddo.’ She had a fleck of blue paint on her cheek.
‘I just wanted to say, um.’ Ollie was picking at the wood of the doorframe. ‘Thanks for everything. It’s been really cool. I want to do it again.’
There was a flicker of empathy in his heart for this troubled wee girl. ‘Come back any time you like,’ he said. ‘There’s always room for you. Maybe you can be my intern one of these days.’
‘I really liked the art,’ she said, looking at Wylla and scratching her nose.
‘Well, you’re badass at it,’ Wylla said, holding her hand up for a high-five. Instead, Ollie, after a moment’s hesitation, came in and hugged her, tightly. Wylla looked taken aback for a split second, before hugging her back properly. ‘Total badass,’ she said, and looked tender, suddenly. Almost vulnerable herself.
‘OK, cheers, bye,’ said Ollie, suddenly detaching herself and dashing out of the hut.
They both looked at the empty doorway. ‘Amazing,’ said Wylla.
‘That’s a breakthrough,’ Sandor said. ‘She’s had a tough time.’ He’d heard all about it – the abusive dad, the dead mum, the bullying brothers. ‘A hug is pretty bloody impressive for her.’
‘Jesus.’ Wylla looked teary, folded her arms. ‘That’s so nice.’
‘Aye. It is.’ He didn’t tell her that it didn’t mean all the kids’ problems were solved, that it was often two steps forward, several steps back, that self-harmers didn’t just get better after making a few collages. It wasn’t the time. ‘You did great. Thanks for mucking in.’
‘My pleasure, big man.’ She put the heel of her hand to her eye. She had a large smudge of turquoise paint on her wrist. ‘Oh my days. Getting all sentimental in my old age.’
He crossed his arms, looked at the floor. Tried to ignore that seeing a softer side of her only made her more – more – no. He wasn’t going to think it.
‘Is anything wrong?’ she said. ‘You’ve been a bit weird the last couple of days. More grouchy.’ She was recovering her arch self, raising an eyebrow. ‘Which is, you know, saying something.’
She grinned, that flash of the devil in her. Today she was wearing a shiny silver vest-top that seemed to catch every damned hint of light.
‘Seriously, though.’ She shut the lid on her last box and stood in front of him. Waited. ‘What’s up?’
He looked past her. She felt too close. ‘I don’t want to talk about it.’
‘Sure.’ An easy, offhand shrug, though her green eyes were still fixed on him. ‘We don’t have to talk.’
A dull weight in his stomach. The air seemed to crackle.
‘You’ve got paint on you,’ he said.
She didn’t move. Kept looking. ‘’Kay.’
And there it was. Two steps, and he was kissing her. Holding her around the waist, pushing her up against the counter. Her hands around his shoulders, on his arse. A moment of blankness, mouth against mouth, she biting his bottom lip, before he pulled away, took a step backwards.
He put a hand to his forehead. ‘Fuck.’
‘If you like,’ she said, and grinned, watchful.
He looked at her. His heart was thumping so hard it felt like it would appear in front of him. Panic, and horror. Sansa had kissed that handsome cunt. She had kissed him. And now he was no better. Wylla was looking at him, that vest-top showing off the tattoo on her chest, the ferns and feathers. He could feel his world tipping, feel a force pulling him deeper into an abyss, the point of no return. All he had to do was stop, now.
All he had to do was stop.
THANKS EVERYONE LOVE YOU BYE *flees*
Arya & Jojen
How u doing today
Huh? Wait what?
Am literally outside your door rn
And there he was, unfolding himself out of an Uber outside her parents’ house, in black as usual, skinny jeans, sunglasses, an unlit fag in his mouth ready to go. A Jojen-apparition in suburban Bristol.
She met him at the top of the driveway. Hugged her best friend, hard.
‘Hello, mate,’ he said, kissing her on the cheek.
‘How in the fuck did you get here so quickly?’
‘Time travel.’ He smelt of cigarettes and coffee. ‘Or a last-minute ticket on American Airlines.’
‘How much did that cost?’
Jojen shrugged. ‘Every penny I had.’ He looked behind her to the house, pushing his shades up into his hair, which had grown longer. ‘Plus a bit more. I decided that freaking out on another continent wasn’t cool.’ Back at her. ‘Is everybody in?’
‘Mum and Dad are. Pod’s taken Aoife to her Monkey Music class. Sansa drove back up this morning. Um, Jojen –’
He looked at her.
She didn’t know how to put it into words, how eerie Bran had become. Those drugs had seriously fucked with his entire system. He seemed to be on a permanent trip. ‘He’s not the same. At the moment.’
Jojen looked tired, pale, but there was a sharp valiance underneath it all. Nothing much ever fazed him. ‘OK,’ he said, tucking his fag behind his ear. He put his arm round her and they walked back to the house.
Their coffee machine was gurgling as she came in. She rolled her shoulders back, wiped out after the three-hour journey, and rather more from the double dose of worrying about Bran and her own horrible life.
‘Oh.’ Sandor was suddenly there in the kitchen doorway, a towel wrapped round his waist, dripping. ‘Hey.’
‘Hey,’ she said. Bolstered herself. Gave a weak, careful smile.
He gave an equally weak, careful smile back and went to the coffee machine. Got an espresso cup. Half-turned. ‘Want one?’
‘Yes, please.’ She leant against the counter as he made their little espressos.
‘Journey OK?’ he said.
Usually, she’d happily drag that towel off him, reveal his amazing bottom, hug herself tight against him – there was something especially nice about one of them being entirely clothed and the other not – and make him need a shower all over again. Now neither of them was even daring to make eye contact. ‘Long,’ she said. ‘But fine.’
‘And your brother?’
‘Not fine. But at least there’s help. Mum and Dad aren’t letting him go anywhere for a while. He might have to miss the rest of the year at uni.’
He nodded, put the cream back in the fridge. The spoons in the sink. Picked up a cloth. Clearly doing everything he could not to look at her.
She would have to be first. ‘Sandor,’ she said, and put her hand on his damp arm.
He stilled, looked down at it. When he looked up at her, there wasn’t hate in his grey eyes, or even resentment, really. It was something more open than that. She felt a very faint sense of relief. Maybe he had worked through it and was ready to forgive her. It was really going to be OK.
‘Can we talk, please?’ she said.
‘We don’t have to,’ he said, rather quickly. He didn’t much enjoy confrontation.
‘We do.’ She was going to be the strong one. She was going to take responsibility for her actions. She picked up his hand and they went to the living room, where the remains of at least one takeaway curry lay on the coffee table.
They sat down on the sofa, her hand still around his.
‘I want to say,’ she said, and summoned courage from her stomach. ‘I just need you to know –’
‘Sansa, you don’t have to.’ He shook his head. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘It does matter. I mean, it didn’t, not the actual thing, the event, but it does matter. I did something incredibly wrong and –’
‘No. Stop.’ Sandor took his hand from hers, and leant his elbows on his thighs. His hair dripped onto his towel. ‘Honestly.’ Put one hand on his forehead. The clock seemed to be ticking very loudly. ‘Fuck.’
This wasn’t quite the reaction she’d anticipated. She started to feel a chest-tightening panic. He was going to split up with her. ‘What is it?’
He took in a big breath. ‘I have to tell you something.’
Perhaps not. ‘OK.’ She sat up, ready to help. ‘Anything.’
He was shaking his head again. His shoulders curved in, as they did when his five-a-side team had lost, which they did with impressive regularity. ‘I’m no better than you,’ he said, to his feet.
Her mind went a little blank. ‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean, I’m no better.’ The words were dry, spare. He swallowed. ‘I’m worse.’
‘You’re far better than me.’ He always had been, however much he insisted otherwise.
‘No.’ He was looking at the floor, at his knees, anywhere but her.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m just going to change,’ he said abruptly, and stood up.
‘You don’t have to get dressed. I do know what you look like under there.’
He didn’t smile at her weak attempt at a joke. ‘No. I’ll just get some clothes on,’ he said, and left the room.
There he was, the love of his life, sitting in the garden, facing away from him. The single crutch he sometimes used lying in the grass.
Bran. His Bran, his four-year-long love, his concrete-poetry-loving, psychogeography-loving destiny. There had been a vast, plastic-choked ocean between them for far too long.
Jojen reached his side, bent down in front of him.
Bran gazed at him. His exquisite brown eyes, his perfect eyebrows. ‘Hello,’ he said.
If he was honest, Jojen was expecting a bit more of a welcome than that. ‘Hello,’ he said back, and leant up to kiss him.
The kiss seemed to be received by Bran, but not exactly returned. Not quite.
Fuck, thought Jojen. He could already see that Arya hadn’t been exaggerating. Bran had always been extremely unruffled, but there was something oddly distanced about his manner. ‘So I flew overnight,’ he said, to fill the silence that really shouldn’t have been there.
‘I know,’ Bran said.
‘Stupid middle seat, between two people who definitely eat a lot of cheeseburgers.’ He grinned.
Bran gave a tiny smile.
‘I’ve missed you like fuck,’ said Jojen, feeling slightly like he wanted to cry.
‘I know,’ Bran said, just as enigmatically. It was as if he’d become a stylised, polished resemblance of Bran. An oil-painted version.
Patience. He just needed patience and strength. ‘What have you been doing to yourself?’ Jojen said, gently, putting his palm on top of Bran’s pale, smooth hand.
‘Exploring time,’ Bran said. Blinked.
‘OK,’ said Jojen. His boyfriend had always been interested in the power of the mind, in a metaphysical sense. He got up, dragged a garden chair next to Bran and sat down again, taking his cigarette from behind his ear and his lighter from his pocket. Blinked away his jet lag. ‘Go on, then,’ he said. ‘Tell me all about it.’
‘Sandor? Can I come in?’
He’d spent far too long pulling his jeans on, staring at his bare feet, heart jack-hammering. Feeling fucking horrendous.
His wife, his beautiful wife, was outside the door, because they had suddenly got to a point where she felt that she had to ask bloody permission to come into their own bedroom.
He opened the door. She was wearing that green short-sleeved top he liked so much, the colour throwing extra flames into her hair. Green, he thought, and felt an impending sense of dread.
Sansa came in, sat down on the bed, eyeing all the clothes from the last three days that he’d – unusually for him – left scattered all over the floor. Looked up at him. ‘Please can we talk now?’
He sat next to her, not quite touching. A man being led to the gallows.
‘So what did you mean?’ she said gently. ‘About being worse than me? Which is obviously not possible.’ A slight, tentative smile in her voice.
How could he dare? He kept his eyes fixed on the carpet, felt Sansa realise what he must mean. He heard the rhythm of her breath change. Her weight shift. ‘Sandor?’
He put his fingers to his temple.
‘Oh,’ she said, the word light, grave. ‘You mean. . .?'
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, and looked up at her wide, sad, mint-blue eyes. ‘It was a reaction. A bad one.’ He lowered his head again. Saw the flash of Wylla’s hair, the glitter of her top.
‘That’s OK,’ she said, and he knew she didn’t mean it, and that they both felt the ridiculous irony of it not being OK, even though she’d made the mistake first. Two wrongs don’t make a right and all that fucking shite. ‘Can I ask who it was?’ She spoke so delicately.
His heart shrank, became tiny. He swallowed, the click in his throat loud enough for her to hear. ‘Wylla.’
He couldn’t hear her breathing. Dared look at her again.
‘Oh,’ she said again, and put her hands in her lap, a polite gesture, as if they didn’t know each other. ‘Wylla,’ she said, and her disappointment was so fucking elegant. Her eyes betraying the insecure thoughts he’d felt only three days ago.
It was like holding up a mirror. He’d wanted to hurt her by doing it and now that he had, he only wanted to hurt himself.
‘Do you . . . she’s very pretty,’ she said. ‘And cool.’
He shook his head. ‘I don’t give a damn about her.’ Her gaze became even more hurt. ‘I mean –’
‘You wanted me to know how it felt. I get it.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘It just – it just happened.’ The same words she had said.
‘A kiss?’ she said, carefully.
The abyss. The tipping point. ‘Aye,’ he said. Remembering the bone at the top of Wylla’s shoulder, the small scar. ‘Sansa. I’m sorry. More than sorry.’ He felt dangerously out of control, felt his life spinning away ahead of him, the walls of their flat collapsing, opening outwards.
She was nodding, but he could feel everything in her pulsing, fluttering. ‘OK,’ she said.
The door creaked, and Bowie came in, sat at their feet, with his big bloody walk-me eyes.
They both sat on the bed, looking at him.
Cheers all! Hope you like the DRAMA, WOOOOO.
PS I have horrific anxiety amongst other things at the moment so if there was any chance of it being relatively sweetness and light in the comments that would be amaze. Am not fishing for compliments, I just can't bear the idea of actually making anyone genuinely upset! IT'S JUST A SILLY STORY YAAAAY.
This chapter could definitely be entitled 'Cake.'
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
‘So today has been pretty mental,’ Arya said, closing her front door. ‘Like, properly mental.’ She chucked her keys in the bowl by the door. ‘Where are you guys at?’
‘Living room,’ called Pod.
‘Jaqen is a straight-up mental case,’ she said, pulling off one black and pink trainer. ‘He’s hysterical. Today he asked the whole of our office to just work on designs for the letter ‘V’, and first he made us hum it. Like a load of Buddhist monks.’ She kicked off her other trainer. ‘And not just once, but loads of times. It was hilarious. But that’s not the proper news,’ she said, heading down the corridor of their tiny flat. ‘You won’t believe what stupid fucking dumbarse Sandor has –’
She stopped at the living room door. The entire living room floor was covered in Arya’s old magazines, and there were face paints everywhere. ‘Look at you two,’ she said.
Pod, sitting on the floor, barefooted, had a face smeared in various colours. Aoife, just in her nappy, was liberally covered in gunk, and had polka dots all over her face. She held up her palms at her mother, fingers splayed, and squeaked.
Arya’s heart grew to twice its size. She would kill for these two humans. She would kill invincible dragons and ice-kings. Literally slay them.
‘She was a butterfly,’ said Pod. ‘About five minutes ago.’
‘And that,’ said Arya, sitting down on the floor next to them, ‘is why the House of Black and White is missing a trick. Colour rules.’ She leant over, kissed Pod, doubtless getting purple paint on her mouth. ‘You look pretty modern art,’ she said.
‘I asked for a tiger,’ said Pod. ‘But Aoife wanted to go free-form. I probably shouldn’t have fed her cake.’ He gave a wide purple, green and brown beam.
‘That’s my awesome badass,’ Arya said, pulling Aoife onto her lap. It’s not like they didn’t have to do a clothes wash every single damned day anyway. Her daughter said something that might have been yeah. She’d been starting to say something that might have been yeah a lot. Arya blew a raspberry at her.
‘So what’s Sandor done?’ said Pod, gathering some of the paints over into a pile.
‘You won’t even believe it.’ She breathed in Aoife’s scalp, that smell of slightly old milk and apples. ‘He did a revenge snog.’
Pod looked at her. ‘Really?’
‘Yeah.’ For a second, Arya felt the wrenching feeling in her stomach at what she had done, what Pod had forgiven her for. ‘Do you mind if we go up? Maybe Friday night?’ Aoife swiped her hand along Arya’s jeans. ‘I think they could both do with a talking to.’
‘Sure,’ said Pod. ‘I’ll borrow Uncle Ilyn’s car.’ He undid the lid of some red paint, held it up to Aoife, who jammed a finger in and wiped it on Arya’s nose with extreme focus. He smiled one of his beautiful, perfect Pod-smiles. ‘Your turn.’
‘Oh, babe. That’s crappy.’
It was so nice to see Missy. She was an effortless ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark few days. They’d met for lunch at Teacup Kitchen, because chips and dips followed by Lemonlicious cake and tea was distinctly necessary right now.
As was Missy. ‘It’ll sort itself out,’ she said. A sympathetic smile. ‘You guys are basically my OTP.’
Sansa stirred her rosebud tea, thinking of the motif on Margaery’s increasingly successful make-up brand, Rose and Thorn. Margaery wouldn’t have kissed someone else, causing Robb to kiss someone else in turn, causing both of them to be unable to talk to each other properly without her crying and he storming out to take their reluctant, non-existent dog for a walk.
‘I just feel awful,’ she said to Missy. ‘Awful for what I did – but then more awful for what he did. I know I’ve got no right, but still.’ She put her spoon down, watched the pale rosebuds circle in the water. ‘It still hurts.’
Sandor, kissing Wylla. She understood exactly what it had been like for him, once he’d told her. He’d said, dismissively, that it had happened at the end of the workday; she’d spent hours wondering whether it had been in the hut, or outside in the forest. Wylla, all sassy and badass and tattooed and wild-spirited. Wylla, the artist. Wylla, aged 22.
‘’Course it hurts,’ said Missy.
Had he planned it? Brewed over it for several days, made a move? No, that didn’t seem right. Had Wylla pounced on him? She had tried to broach it, as if just casually interested, and he had clammed up even more and done some angry washing-up.
She wondered whether it had been a single kiss, or several. She couldn’t imagine it, but then she couldn’t have imagined kissing Daario either, until it had happened. But I was drunk, she thought, absent-mindedly eyeing Missy’s half-eaten poached pear and ginger loaf. He’d been sober.
‘You can finish it for me,’ said Missy, pushing her plate over.
‘No, I can’t,’ said Sansa, who’d eaten cake at least twice a day for the last five days.
Missy put one hand on her stomach. ‘I’m stuffed. You have to.’
Sansa pulled the plate in front of her, took a forkful. ‘I didn’t think I could ever be the sort of person who would ever mess up like this,’ she said, trying to ignore the voice in her head that said that was Arya’s job. ‘I’ve always been the perfect one.’ Her voice cracked a little.
‘It’s a cliché, babe,’ said Missy, pouring herself more Tippy Earl Grey. ‘But it’s got to be said. No one’s perfect.’
‘You are, though.’ With her glorious, lovely radiance, her colossal brain, her sweet openness.
‘Totally not.’ Missy raised her eyebrows at Sansa as she poured a swirl of milk into her cup. ‘You haven’t seen me freaking out on my own in the toilet before meeting some new client whose words I’ve got to magically translate.’
Sansa sighed, tried to think of something else other than her disaster-life for two seconds. ‘I bet Edd’s glad to have you back.’ Edd would definitely never ever do a retaliation-kiss.
‘Yeah.’ Missy beamed, beatifically. ‘He’s a worrier, but he’s my worrier.’
Sansa returned a more despondent smile. Everyone else was perfect. Arya, Pod and Aoife. Jojen, jetting over from New York to see her brother. Even Rickon was surprisingly unrebellious these days, what with Lyanna keeping him on track.
Missy put a hand on hers. ‘You’ll sort it, hon. I know you will. You’ve just got talk it out. Properly.’
Sansa’s phone buzzed. Her heart gave a small lurch as she saw who had messaged her.
Sansa, I’d love a word. 4pm?
‘Oh God,’ she said. She’d wondered if Daario would have ever mentioned their kiss to Dany, and now she knew. She was being summoned.
‘Impressive,’ said Meera in their family kitchen, opening a cupboard to fetch a glass. ‘I swear you have never baked a single thing.’
Jojen was in his mum’s ‘Super Chef’ apron, the dark techno-jazz trio Dawn of Midi was blasting from the portable speaker, and the whole kitchen was covered in sugar, flour, and mixing bowls. ‘You’re forgetting the hash cakes,’ he said.
‘How could I ever,’ his sister said.
This cake was definitely lacking all illicit substances, unless you counted all the food colouring and the liberal amount of vanilla essence he’d accidentally poured in. He’d thought about asking Pod to make something, but dramatic times required dramatic gestures, and concocting a modern art cake was the only way to do it.
Meera came and looked at his handiwork. ‘You’re never short of ambition, brother, are you?’ She had returned from the Cairngorms – where she was working on a salmon conservation project – when she heard that her brother had come back from America.
He leant down and sliced into the red-dyed part of his cake carefully. ‘Nope.’
‘Are you taking this over there today?’ Her voice was softer. She’d heard all about the strangeness of Bran; however much Jojen had tried to recount it with his usual, devil-may-care levity, you couldn’t hide much from Meera.
‘Yup.’ It had been tough, the last few days. Jojen had stayed up several nights reading Hunter S. Thompson’s freewheeling account of being on mescaline in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, reading Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception. Reading Heidegger. Kant.
He had listened for hours, attentively and without judgement, as Bran talked about the flow of time, about presentism and eternalism, but he knew in his heart that it was horribly wrong. There’d been an old dude from the Bristol gay scene who’d fried his mind on a bad acid trip in the eighties and had never quite been the same since. As Jojen watched Bran, he wondered how much of his enthusiasm for all this shit was simply the aftermath of being dangerously fucked out of his mind.
‘So what is this thing going to be?’ said Meera, leaning against the counter next to him, and eating a discarded bit of blue cake.
Jojen straightened, assessed his construction. ‘A Piet Mondrian cake,’ he said. ‘Obviously.’
‘Obviously,’ said Meera, and lightly put her hand on his arm. ‘He’ll love it.’
‘Well, you are a fucking prize idiot.’
He had to tell someone. He couldn’t keep barging around feeling like fucking shite, not having a proper conversation with Sansa, the pair of them dancing around each other in the flat, sharing the same bed and not touching. Taking the dog for endless walks because it was a quiet week. Still imagining her with that smooth cunt Naharis, because they worked on the same floor every day. Feeling the worst streak of guilt possible. He’d gone and stayed with Sal for two nights, got royally pissed, felt even worse.
‘Seriously. You marry the best-looking woman in Christendom and then you have some half-baked grapple with someone else?’
Hot, Wylla had breathed, grinning, before he’d stumbled away from her.
He swapped his phone to the other side, watched Bowie take a shit under an oak tree in the park. ‘It’s not like I’m fucking proud of myself.’
‘Jesus Christ. Some people. You had the chance to be the big fella, and you bloody well fucked it.’
Wylla had texted him. Nice working with ya, big man ;) He’d deleted it.
‘Some friend you are.’ Sandor sighed. Whistled for the dog to come back.
‘You were the fucking counsellor, you dickhead,’ said Bronn, on the other end of the phone. ‘Now go and buy the lass some flowers, chocolates, maybe a car. And say you’re fucking sorry.’
Dany gestured to a plate in front of them on her huge desk. It was probably the first time Sansa had been offered them from an actual millionaire.
‘Um, I’m OK,’ said Sansa, who’d already eaten a cake and a half today. She eyed the plate again, and leant towards it. ‘Maybe just a small one.’
She was terrified. Dany was an ice-queen; it was rather hard to tell what she was thinking, but right now Sansa was fairly sure that she was thinking you kissed my lover/PA and you’re going to live to regret it.
‘So, Sansa,’ she said, with a cool smile that almost, but not quite, reached her eyes. ‘You’ve had a tumultuous few days.’
‘Have I?’ Sansa tried not to quake.
‘Clearly. You’ve been very quiet in morning meetings and I’m afraid your report contained rather a lot of spelling mistakes. And structural errors. Is there anything wrong?’ Her voice softened a little. ‘Perhaps at home?’
Sansa stopped chewing her millionaire’s shortbread.
‘Daario told me what happened between you two.’ Dany was still smiling her violet ice-smile.
This was it. She was going to be fired from the job she loved. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, feeling everything break. ‘It was completely out of order. I had drunk too much wine, and champagne, and cocktails, and of course that is zero excuse, but –’ ¬She looked at Dany, rather desperately. ‘I just want to say how much I love this job. It’s my dream job. Dream career. I love the responsibility and if you’d just give me another ch–’
‘I’m not going to fire you, Sansa.’ Dany looked, if anything, rather amused.
An unruffled, perfectly poised shrug. ‘Of course not,’ said Dany. ‘You’re a real asset. That’s perfectly transparent. I simply thought we should talk about it, because it’s quite obvious that while I’m fine with you and Daario having your little moment, you’re not.’
Sansa’s head felt fuzzy. ‘You’re fine with it?’
‘Daario and I have an understanding,’ Dany said, casually. ‘We’re adults.’ Sansa had seen Jon and Dany leave together for the last two evenings running, Jon looking a little guilty. ‘But of course I realise that different people have different sorts of relationships,’ Dany leant back with an incisive look. ‘It’s Sandor, your husband, is that correct?’
Sandor. Just hearing his name made the feeling of him flood her mind – the warm smell of him in bed in the morning, how he drenched her toast in three layers of butter, his sofa-hugs. ‘Yes,’ said Sansa.
‘Do you love him?’
‘More than anything.’
Dany settled back in her chair, and looked out of the window at the neighbouring gleaming offices. ‘You know, I was born in a storm. I’ve always liked them since – the thunder, lightning on the horizon. My father told me an expression that’s always stayed with me. “The Devil whispers, "you cannot withstand the storm.” I replied, “I am the storm.”’ She smiled another fierce, rather queenly smile. ‘This is your first storm, Sansa. Own it.’
‘Hello, Jojen,’ said Cat at the front door. She was putting her handbag over her shoulder and picking up her car keys.
Jojen was just stubbing his fag out. ‘Hi, Mrs. S.’
‘Goodness, what have you got there?’ she said, looking at the tin balanced on one arm.
‘Present,’ Jojen said. ‘You off out?’
‘Only briefly.’ She smiled the smile of a mum who was desperately worried about her son but was rallying well. ‘Just making the most of you being here so I can run some errands. Help yourself to anything. Oh, and a friend from university arrived half an hour ago.’
‘OK.’ He felt a bit nonplussed. ‘Catch you in a bit.’
He watched her get into her car before closing the front door.
Bran was in the garden, as he had been every time Jojen had come this week. He would stare at an azalea bush for ages, hardly blinking. But today there was someone else with him, sitting cross-legged in the grass.
‘Hey,’ Jojen said.
The guy turned round. He was wiry, with dull, longish blonde hair and a tattoo of a crow on his forearm. He looked faintly familiar.
‘Hello,’ said Bran, and his eyes drifted to his visitor. ‘This is Raven. He founded the Three-Eyed Society.’
‘Right,’ said Jojen, his heart sinking. Raven. Or ‘R’, as Bran would refer to him on texts.
‘This is Jojen,’ Bran said.
‘Oh, yeah?’ said Raven, leaning back on his hands. ‘Heard loads about you.’ A lazy, watchful smile.
Heard enough about you, Jojen thought. He lowered himself down to Bran’s level, dropped his voice. Smiled. ‘Do you think he should be here?’
Bran’s eyes were like glazed earthenware pots. ‘I invited him.’
Jojen was fairly sure that if Cat had known who he was, she wouldn’t have let him in. ‘OK.’ He held out his tin. ‘Brought you a cake.’
There was the faintest sneer of a laugh from Raven.
Jojen felt rather a lot like hitting this smug little fuck. ‘Can we have some time, please?’ he said to him. ‘Alone.’
Raven looked at Bran.
‘You can go to my room,’ said Bran. ‘I’ll see you shortly.’ There was something peculiarly regal about this version of Bran. As if he expected people to do his bidding.
The guy shrugged and rose in no great hurry. ‘Looking forward to trying your little cake,’ he said, and ambled off, scratching his neck.
Once the back door had shut, Jojen crouched in front of his boyfriend. Tried to sound cheerful. ‘Wanna see what I’ve made for you?’
‘OK,’ said Bran, diffidently.
Suddenly, Jojen didn’t want to show him his daft Mondrian cake at all. He quietly put the tin to one side. ‘Why did you invite him down?’
‘Because Raven showed me the way. To enlightenment.’
Jojen dropped his head, took in a deep breath. Where was his darling, the boy who liked watching documentaries on astronomy but also RuPaul’s DragRace? Who loved ee cummings but also gorging on Haribos?
‘Bran.’ He put a hand on his boyfriend’s knee. ‘You shouldn’t be hanging around with him any more. Not with any of them. Babe, they’ve fucked with you. They’ve fucked with your mind. Don’t you see how serious it is? You’ve been visited by a mental health team for the past four days in a row.’
‘I keep trying to tell you,’ said Bran. ‘Once you’ve done it, there’s no other way. This real world seems very two-dimensional. Rather drab.’ He looked past Jojen to the azalea. ‘You should do it too.’
‘No, thanks. Weed and booze only these days, as you well know.’ Plus gallons of coffee and smokes. Jojen attempted to dredge up some humour from somewhere. ‘Art is my drug.’
Bran’s eyes settled on him. ‘What about your green dreams?’
There’d been plenty of those, as a teenager. ‘Too much weed,’ Jojen said.He’d actually been pretty economical of late. ‘Simple as that. They’re weren’t real. I’m worried about you.’ Please be Bran again, he thought.
‘You’re asking me to stop seeing what I can see. I’m not going to do that.’ Bran folded his hands in his lap. ‘I can see through time.’
‘Yeah?’ Jojen was beginning to feel rather panicky, wild. ‘What do you see there? Do you see us?’ Bran gave him a blank look. ‘Bran. Babe. I love you. Those fuckwits don’t love you. That twat doesn’t.’
‘We’re not together,’ Bran said.
Jojen thought he’d misheard. ‘What?’
There was a small moment of pause, in which a blackbird shot across the lawn, firing off its warning call. ‘We’re not together,’ said Bran, and his face was perfectly, exquisitely expressionless as he looked at Jojen. ‘In the future.’
And, just like that, Jojen felt his heart fold up on itself, and fold up again, over and over, until it was nothing at all.
Last chapter coming very soon!
‘What up, dickhead.’
Sandor came in with the Bowie, showing no surprise at Arya and his niece being in his flat on a Friday evening. She wasn’t sure who looked more hangdog out of the pair of them.
‘Alright,’ he said, putting his keys down and unhooking the dog’s lead.
Normally he’d retort back. They had developed a pretty creative wealth of mutual insults. Tonight, you could definitely sketch Sandor in black and white.
He looked around.
‘Sansa’s met Pod for coffee.’ Arya had given them strict instructions not to come back until she’d texted. She was going to sort this out.
He nodded, and came and sat down next to them. Looked like he was made of rainclouds.
‘Baby therapy.’ She dumped Aoife on his lap.
Sandor put his arms around her and closed his eyes. Aoife, more used to being hoisted above her uncle’s head or swung from side to side than enveloped in his massive arms, wriggled with impressive strength. Sandor just kept hugging her.
‘Jesus,’ Arya said. ‘You’re a fucking mess.’
He sighed. ‘Well, wouldn’t you be?’
‘Fair dos. I was, if you remember.’ The worst moment of her life. Not having slept with Gendry, but telling Pod at Aunt Lysa’s wedding. His face. It thickened her stomach to think of it. ‘I did much worse than you.’
Another heavy, end-of-the-universe sigh.
Arya brought both of her legs up, crossed them underneath her. ‘Sansa fucked up. You fucked up. That was fucking stupid, by the way. The revenge thing.’
He didn’t look at her. ‘I know.’
She did feel bad for him. Trying to destroy everything rather than face fear. He was just like her, really. ‘We all fuck up,’ she said, trying to sound kinder. ‘Then we say sorry. Then we forgive each other. Circle of life and all that shit. If no one ever said sorry or forgave anyone else, humans wouldn’t even exist. Probably.’
Aoife drooled merrily onto Sandor’s shoulder. He took one of her hands in his massive one.
‘Pod forgave me,’ she said. ‘It took him some time, and I don’t bloody blame him, but – it took him to be the strong one. And I know he doesn’t regret it. We got over it. Simple as that.’
He nodded, very faintly. Clearly completely unconvinced.
‘I know how you feel,’ she said, and he finally looked at her. ‘I do. I know what it’s like, being in Sansa’s shadow. I know you don’t always think that much of yourself. And I know how easy it is to self-destruct.’
He dropped his chin to his chest. Sighed again. Aoife tipped her head at him, echoed his sigh and grabbed a handful of beard. ‘Last week, all I thought was, “why did she do it?”’ he said, mostly to Aoife. ‘And I just reckoned it was her way of telling me she wants out.’ His voice was scratchy, sad. ‘So I guess, I don’t know, I just figured, deep down, that it wouldn’t matter what I did, because it wouldn’t be long before she was off out of this.’
‘You’re such a dick.’
Sandor looked over. ‘Thanks for that.’
‘She’s crazy about you,’ she said. ‘She got drunk, she did a stupid thing, and yeah, it sounds like there’s some shit for you both to deal with underneath it all, but seriously. You’re going to give up, just like that?’
Aoife gave a delighted howl and kicked Sandor in the stomach. He hardly noticed.
‘Do you love her?’ Arya said.
‘Of course I fucking love her.’
‘Then you’ve just got to forgive her, you big dumb shit. Be the strong one.’
Aoife pulled her upper body back, clearly extremely piqued at still not being hurled around by her uncle, and headbutted Sandor’s nose.
‘Ow,’ he said.
‘Andor,’ she said. There was a bubble of lurid green snot glooping dangerously from one nostril.
He looked at her. Breathed a tiny laugh. ‘Is that right?’ he said to his niece.
‘Andor andor andor,’ Aoife said. Turned to her mummy for reassurance.
‘That’s him,’ said Arya. ‘Your big dumb Uncle Sandor.’
He passed her daughter back over. ‘Since when did you become so fucking wise?’
Arya shrugged, holding Aoife by both hands and letting her balance her stout, potato-pie feet on her thighs. ‘It was always going to happen eventually.’
And she thought again of her incredible, forgiving, superhero boyfriend, the father of this ridiculous little girl, and knew what she would do next.
‘Jesus Christ,’ said Arya, looking at her phone on Saturday morning in Sansa’s kitchen. Pod looked up from his coffee. Aoife bashed her spoon gleefully against their little dining table.
‘What?’ Sansa felt exhausted after a restless night in bed. Sandor had stayed with Sal again. Three nights in a row. He’d texted that he would be back this morning.
‘What is wrong with this fucking family right now?’ Arya said. ‘Bran’s broken up with Jojen.’
‘Oh my God,’ said Sansa. ‘No way. That’s impossible.’
Arya showed Sansa her phone screen, and Jojen’s message.
Bran doesn’t want me anymore.
He's left me.
‘Oh my God,’ Sansa said.
‘We’d better get down there,’ Arya said to Pod. ‘Jojen will be a total fucking mess.’
‘Sure,’ said Pod. ‘I’ll pack the car up.’ Pod, who was grace and charm and affability. Pod, who had taken Arya back after she had slept with Gendry. Who would do anything for her.
‘You two are going to sort it out,’ said Arya to her sister, taking Aoife’s porridge spoon off her and licking it.
‘Yes,’ said Sansa. ‘OK.’
‘Today.’ She had become alarmingly assertive of late.
‘Seriously. You two are total fucking muppets.’
‘Uckin,' said Aoife, and they all looked at her.
‘Whoops,’ said Arya. ‘I’d better stop saying that in front of her.’
He climbed the stairs to their flat, legs like lead. He’d got a hangover the size of a concrete block in his head and the fry-up hadn’t helped. He’d decided to make himself scarce last night while Arya’s lot were here. Start afresh in the morning.
Sansa was washing the dishes, the radio on.
‘Hi,’ he said.
‘Hi,’ she said. Dried her hands. Turned the radio off. She was wearing her ruby-red tracksuit bottoms, the ones he’d once pulled off whilst she was on the balcony, with no one able to see the bad things he’d subsequently done to her. ‘Shall we do this?’ she said. ‘Properly?’
‘Aye.’ He was tired of avoiding it all. Arya had texted him this morning saying SORT IT OUT TODAY OR I WILL END U BITCH
They made some tea. Both of them, he rather formally getting the milk from the fridge, handing over a spoon. Sat down at the table.
‘OK,’ she said. She’d put her hair up, the fine strands of copper-gold fraying out. Weekend-Sansa had always been his favourite Sansa.
A moment that felt like years. He didn’t know how to start without ruining it all.
Sansa straightened, took in a galvanizing breath. ‘OK,’ she said again. Of course she would go first. Because he was a fucking useless piece of crap. ‘I feel like such a hypocrite.’ She leant both arms on the table, her shoulders curving in. ‘Dany at work said a kiss was just a kiss. And that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you, about what happened last week.’ A small, discomfited look at him. ‘But at the same time, I find that harder to deal with when it comes to you and – and Wylla.’
Just hearing that lass’s name dug a fork into his stomach.
‘I know that sounds awful,’ she said. ‘I know I’m not allowed to think that.’
‘Yes, you are. There aren’t rules.’ Fuck it. Cut to the chase. ‘Fuck, Sansa. I don’t want to lose you.’
‘You’re not going to lose me. I don’t want to be lost.’ A tiny, half-hopeless smile.
He put his forearm out on the table, his hand not too far from hers. ‘I know I’m not allowed to say this either –’ he stopped, swallowed. ‘You were pissed, that night, but . . . there’s plenty of other times you’ve been pissed and not done anything like that. So I thought – even if you weren’t that bothered about him particularly, there must have been a reason.’
She put her chin to her chest for a moment. ‘I think. . . I guess I did feel a little resentful underneath it all, when you said about wanting a baby.’ She spoke quickly. ‘Please don’t get me wrong, I want babies. I want to have a baby with you.’
A tiny, plangent little pain in his chest at hearing her say that.
‘It just felt like bad timing,’ she said, smoothing her hair back with both hands, and looking at him again. ‘I felt like you suddenly decided that you wanted one, so I had to give you one, no matter where I was at.’
‘That’s not true.’
She didn't look like she believed him. She was probably right. ‘But I know that – because you’re older – you don’t want to leave it too long and be some ancient dad.’ A carefully, faintly sly smile.
‘Thanks.’ A carefully, faintly wry smile back. ‘Aye, there is that.’ The small, shared moment of their old selves, she taking the mickey, he pretending to be more offended than he was. Their smiles both faded at the same time. He looked at her, properly, her pale skin, those perfect bloody lips. ‘I know I’m not everything you could want – I know he’s a handsome cunt.’
She shook her head, and took his hand between both of hers on the table. ‘Sandor, you are everything. Honestly. You’re a handsome c – you’re handsome.’ A smile. ‘You’re the most handsome.’
‘You are to me. Anyway, it’s not about that. Not just that. You’re my partner. In everything. I couldn’t have done anything without you.’
‘That’s not true. You did it all on your own.’
‘But with you by my side, telling me I could do it.’
She was still holding his hand. Looking at him, with those fine china-blue eyes. The most beautiful fucking woman in Christendom, he heard Bronn say again. ‘I should have been better,’ he said. Sighed. ‘I should have just taken it on the chin. I responded in the worst fucking possible way.’
‘You shouldn’t have to understand.’ He placed his other hand on top of hers. Their four hands, layered. ‘I’m sorry. I fucked up. You didn't deserve what I – how I reacted.’
‘We both did. I’m sorry.’ She looked at him, tucked her bottom lip in just slightly with her tooth. ‘We are both shitbags.’
‘Horrible fucking shitbags.’ Sandor pulled her up, kept pulling until she was sitting on his lap, where she should have been all along. She rested one arm on his shoulder, the other hand touching his cheek. He felt something in him release, a lightening in his chest, his stomach. He held her, never wanted to let her go. It didn’t matter. None of this bollocks mattered. He just wanted to go back to how they were before.
‘Sandor,' she said into his ear. 'I can’t really breathe.’
‘Sorry.’ He loosed his grip, just a little.
She looked beautifully knackered. ‘I love you so much. I wish none of this had happened.’
‘Me too.' He wished to all the gods that he would never think about it again, what she did. What he did. 'I love you, too.’
She put her hands on either side of his beard. Scratched him there, gently, just as she knew he liked. 'Can I kiss you now, please?’
‘Aye, he said. ‘You can do more than that if you like.’
‘He’ll change his mind,’ said Arya, lying next to Jojen in his parents’ back garden, like they used to do aged 16. Except they weren’t smoking weed, as Jojen had suddenly gone right off it. ‘He has to.’
Jojen stared up at the clouds. ‘I don’t think so.’ Bran’s mind had changed, and there was no longer a place for Jojen in it.
The melancholy was beyond imagination. The only other time he’d been dumped – as casually as you like, by Tommen – had felt raw as fuck at the time, but that was laughable in comparison.
Jojen had always hoped that if anything devastating happened to him, he’d be able to channel his despair into his work, like the early 17th-century portraitists did in England. Or like Pollock, Blake, Gaugin. But he’d spent most of yesterday night watching Love Island whilst weeping on his mum’s shoulder and shovelling peanut butter into his gob.
Everything hurt. Every bone, every cell, every thought.
‘I’ll talk to him,’ Arya said. ‘He just needs to fucking snap out of it.’
‘Don’t think it’s quite that simple.’ He’d tried to talk to him. Gone back this morning, too, but Bran just said the same thing. That he’d seen the future, and that Jojen wasn’t in it. For a moment he’d thought that Bran was seeing Raven, but it didn’t seem to be like that. Bran wasn’t seeing anyone – anyone but time.
‘My fucking brother, man,’ said Arya. ‘I don’t know what to say. This family’s gone a bit inside out.’ She leant up on her elbow and passed over the salted caramel ice cream tub. ‘Eat the rest of this before I explode.’
Jojen took it. If he wasn’t careful, he was going to get quite – OK, not fat, but a modicum less skinny. And what did that matter?
‘Are you going to be OK?’ Arya said, more softly.
Jojen scraped the spoon round at the bottom of the tub. ‘Not sure.’
‘You will be. I know you will. You’re Jojen.’
‘Mmm,’ he said, feeling very un-Jojen. He looked up at the sky again, thought about Magritte’s clouds, wished his life was a surrealist painting and not this horrible realist shithole.
Arya picked up her phone and checked the time. ‘I need to bounce. Sorry. Gotta pick the bug up from Mum and Dad’s before Pod gets home.'
Jojen shook his head. ‘It was nice. Like old times.’
‘I’m always here for you. You know that.’ She put her DMs on. ‘I will keep talking to him. It’s so out of order.’
Jojen drew in a deep, deeply melancholy breath.
‘Want cheering up?’ Arya said.
Arya grinned, looked nervous, and grinned again. ‘OK, so –’
Jojen listened to his dearest friend as she told him her plan, and a tiny piece of his heart seemed to grow back. ‘That’s my girl,’ he said, and kissed her on the forehead.
‘I can’t do it anymore,’ she said. ‘I really, actually, need a rest now.’
Sandor, behind her in the bath, made a small, humming noise. ‘Don’t worry about that. I’m going to need to lie down for a bloody week.’
After their make-up kiss at the dining table, they’d had make-up sex (also at, or rather on, the dining table). They’d also had make-up sex on the kitchen floor (thankfully cleaned after Aoife had done her worst), cleaned up in the bathroom before ruining that by having make-up sex against the bathroom wall, taken a short respite on the sofa in the living room, and had make-up sex on that, too.
They’d never really had to have make-up sex before. It was amazingly energetic, frenzied, passionate, angry, slow, shouty, sweaty, giggle-inducing. But more than anything, Sansa just felt a wave of relief (amongst the waves of orgasm). The fear that they would not be able to get past this had built up for days.
Please let us be OK now, she thought, and leant her head back against his semi-wet chest. It was so quiet now, apart from the muted noise of traffic on the main roads further away, and the sporadic drip of the tap into their mountain of bubbles. Sandor ran his hand along her arm, along her breastplate.
‘I’ve taken you for granted,’ she said.
‘No, you haven’t.’
‘I have.’ She looked at their knees, hers inside his. ‘I’ve been so focused on my career, and you’ve been there all the way. You came to London with me, now here. You’ve given so much.’ The tap dripped again. ‘It’s only fair that I do, too.’
‘How do you mean?’
Outside the bathroom door, she could hear Bowie shifting his weight, moping at being shut out. ‘You know how I mean.’
‘No.’ His finger traced around one breast, then the other. ‘It’s OK. I knew what I was getting into. I’m proud of everything you’ve done.’ He moved his head, so that his soggy beard was against her forehead. ‘You do what you need to do.' His hand slid down into the soapy water. Between her legs. 'I'll always be here.'
His finger began to find its way inside her. She sighed, pushed herself against him. ‘You said you needed a rest.’
His voice, low and sweet, in her ear. Where it should always be. ‘Maybe just one last round,’ he said.
Aoife was wailing.
‘I know you’re hot,’ said Arya, putting the cardigan back on. ‘But I promise, it’ll be for two minutes, tops.’
Another blood-curdling shriek as the door clicked and Pod put his house keys on the table.
‘Save me,’ said Arya. ‘She’s been bitching out all afternoon.’
‘Hello,’ said Pod, kissing Arya first, and then their daughter.
‘Please can you change her?’ she said. He looked knackered, having carted them up and down the middle of the country over 24 hours and just dropped Uncle Ilyn's car back, and she felt terrible for asking. ‘She keeps giving me death-glares.’
‘Sure.’ He took her. ‘Come on, then, crumpet,’ he said, more softly.
She tiptoed after him, her lightest cat-steps down the corridor, and curled herself carefully round the doorframe just as Pod set Aoife down on her changing mat. He was talking to her quietly, something about her fat legs.
His words stopped as he took off her cardigan and saw the first words that Arya had painted onto a plain white babygrow.
DADDY I HAVE
He paused, before putting his hands under her shoulders and lifting her up to look at her back. ‘What’s your question?’ he said gently to himself, puzzled.
Arya put her thumb knuckle in her mouth.
He laid her down again. ‘OK . . .’ he said, just as quietly, and began unbuttoning the babygrow.
Aoife kicked his thigh, hard, and wriggled, now just in her nappy. Pod’s hands stopped moving as he saw the writing on the stickers on her waistband.
WILL YOU MARRY MUMMY?
Pod knelt there, gazing at it.
Fuck, Arya thought. Fuck fuck fuck.
Pod turned round and saw Arya in the doorway. They looked at each other for a long moment, and he smiled his widest, sweetest, purest smile yet.
Next up in the not-distant future! PODRYA WEDDINGGGGG (spoiler: it is going to be at Bristol Zoo, ROARRR SQUAWK etc)