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Festival Weekend

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The Morris Dancers were out.

Nobody was quite sure why they were here. Didn’t they usually confine their Morris-ing to the month of May? It was a bit like dancing around a Maypole; one of those ancient rituals to celebrate the spring. So what on earth they were doing shaking their sticks and ringing their bells during the August bank holiday weekend was anybody’s guess.

Naturally, Sandor hated them.

‘Look at them,’ he said, glaring, his huge arms crossed. ‘Prancing about, waving their hankies like damsels in distress. I’ll show them distress. Their stupid sticks won’t save them from me.’

Sansa rubbed his back and leaned her head fondly against him. He was just grumpy because of prospect of only being able to go to the toilet in a Portaloo for the next forty-eight hours. They weren’t designed for men his size. He’d had a go in one earlier and come out swearing and gesticulating and threatening to shit in the woods like a bear.

‘You know they paid money for those costumes?’ Sandor went on. ‘Who the fuck do they think they are? It’s 2019, you wankers. Everyone’s got Netflix. No one wants to see this shit.’

‘I think you’d look very handsome in one of those costumes,’ said Sansa, mostly just to wind him up. When he scowled down at her she smiled sweetly.

‘You are no fit judge of handsomeness,’ he informed her. ‘And you’d change your tune if I actually did it. You know where I’m from, the Morris Dancers black up? I’m not kidding. They throw around words like ancient tradition and pagan rituals, but it’s horseshit and everyone knows it. Morris Dancing should be banned.’

‘That’s a bit extreme,’ said Meera, appearing at their side wearing an itchy-looking dress she’d just purchased from a market stall spangled with dreamcatchers. ‘My dad’s a Morris Dancer.’

‘Of course he is,’ said Sandor, rolling his eyes. ‘Does he black up?’

‘No,’ said Meera. ‘And he uses bones instead of sticks. He says no one understands the old ways any more – though in fairness, that’s his answer to everything. He kept shouting it while he was trying to set up his wireless printer.’

Sansa laughed. All Morris Dancers aside, she was in a very good mood, because today was shaping up to be delightful. It was a warm, sunny day with a gentle breeze. It had hardly rained all week, and the grass was damp enough that her wellies didn’t look stupid, but not so muddy that you couldn’t put up a tent. She was wearing her new yellow sundress and Sandor kept hinting that he’d like to shag her in it. Well, he wasn’t hinting so much as practically begging, but she was hardly inclined to say no. She’d never had festival sex before. Perhaps they could sneak off into the woods and do it up against a tree.

They had shagged in all manner of other places. So far, being Sandor’s girlfriend involved even more shagging than they’d been doing already; probably because now they didn’t have to worry about hiding just how much they liked each other. He still came round to her house from time to time, but more often than not Sansa ended up at his place, where, in addition to shagging, they ordered takeaways and watched Netflix and cuddled his dog.

It was extremely gratifying having a grown-up boyfriend who owned his own semi-detached house, rather than having to deal with the inevitable squalor of a boys’ student home. Sandor had done the place up himself so it looked all sleek and modern and bachelor pad-esque, and Sansa was having fun covertly bringing in girlfriendly touches, like fluffy blankets and scented candles and numerous framed photographs of herself. She had even snuck a ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ sign into his bathroom and, when he vocalised his extreme disgust, had managed to convincingly assume a deeply wounded air for almost half an hour before she collapsed into giggles and Sandor threw the sign out of the window.

He was just… she just liked him so much. He took her out to dinner on date night almost every week. He brought her ice cream and a hot water bottle when she got cramps. He gave her piggyback rides when she was wearing impractical shoes and her feet were hurting. He had invited her to Dungeons and Dragons night with his friends, who had all good-naturedly demanded to know what the hell she was doing with a big grumpy bastard like him, and it had actually been a lot of fun. And when the stress of her end of year exams had finally ended, Sandor had booked a long weekend at a beautiful country hotel, where they had spent their time eating fancy food, exploring the grounds, swimming in the pool, and having enthusiastic and athletic sex in the comfort of their bedroom, which was blessed with both a four-poster bed and a giant bathtub. Sansa didn’t exactly have the budget to reciprocate such movie-worthy levels of romance, so she had been making a concerted effort to reward Sandor in blowjobs.

Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t complaining.

Anyway.

The local festival wasn’t exactly Glastonbury, and they couldn’t forget it, because Margaery had been to Glastonbury this year and wouldn’t stop reminding them. The festival had been set up in a couple of fields about an hour’s bus ride from the city centre, and as this was its first year, it had only cost them thirty quid each for the entire weekend. There were street food vans, market stalls, and bands aplenty, although the line-up was far from impressive and seemed to consist mostly of local musicians and cover bands, plus Pat Sharp doing an array of disappointing DJ sets. This must be why they’d drafted in the Morris men for a spot of unseasonal capering. Scanning a flyer for anyone whose music she might recognise, Sansa was at a total loss.

‘Does anybody know who any of these people are?’ she asked. 

‘Sea Bitch is Theon’s band,’ said Jeyne, flopping down onto the picnic blanket beside them with a rainbow-coloured slushie in hand. ‘We have to go and see them, I promised we would.’

‘I think Arya knows the Flaming Quentyns,’ said Meera. ‘And I’ve seen Bloodraven and quite liked him, but to be fair I was pretty stoned.’

‘I saw Hootie and the Blackfish in the nineties,’ offered Jaime. ‘I didn’t know they were still around.’ He had arrived hand in hand with Brienne, who was working on the festival security team and had evidently been forced to take a lunch break.

‘The Blackfish?’ said Jeyne, brows raised. ‘That sounds racist.’

‘Oh, no, it’s not,’ Jaime reassured her, but then his face broke into a frown. ‘I mean… well, it certainly didn’t seem racist in 1994.’

‘The year Apartheid ended?’ said Jeyne, raising her eyebrows. ‘No, I suppose you thought racism was over and done with back then, didn’t you?’

‘Don’t worry about her,’ said Brienne, squeezing her bewildered boyfriend’s hand. ‘She’s reading all about something called Postcolonial Theory and she’s been doing this to everyone. You enjoy your offensive band in peace.’

Jaime exhaled, clearly giving up on his argument as Brienne’s eyes sparkled with amusement. Something about him seemed to bring out a playfulness in her that none of the girls had ever witnessed previously. Sansa supposed it was probably because she didn’t feel like she had to be the sensible one for once, and it was incredibly sweet to watch. The two of them sat down together, and Jaime handed Brienne a bottle of water, a falafel wrap, and a frozen yogurt, and kissed her on the cheek. Sansa sighed happily at this display of boyfriendly care and turned her eyes on Sandor, making them as big and beseeching as she could.

‘What now?’ he said. ‘You literally just ate a massive fucking portion of paella.’

‘But now I want churros,’ said Sansa. ‘And a slushie. If you buy the one in the giant cup, I can get free refills.’

She smiled at him, tracing her fingers lightly along his thigh and biting her lip.

‘Fuck sake,’ said Sandor, getting to his feet and stomping off to the churro van. Sansa cheerfully watched him leave. Her boyfriend was the tallest, buffest, sexiest guy here, and he kept bringing her delicious treats. She was definitely going to have some festival sex.

‘Smile, ladies and Jaime!’ cooed Margaery, arriving in a dramatic cloud of vape smoke, and striking a pose and angling her phone high for a group selfie. She was wearing a pair of shorts so short they essentially amounted to high-waisted knickers, with a gauzy white kaftan over the top. She also had on a dramatically large sunhat, of the sort worn by evil-but-glamorous stepmothers in old films. This was a distinct relief. Margaery had been known to crack out a Native American-style headdress during past festival seasons, and it was doubtful that Jeyne’s vocal cords would have been able to survive the inevitably futile attempts to convince her to ditch it.

‘Not too bad a turnout, I suppose,’ said Margaery, surveying the fields around them, which were densely populated with a vibrant cross-section of British summer life. Harried mums putting sun cream on wailing toddlers; red-faced men in football shirts roaring with laughter over cans of cheap lager; tween girls in crop tops singing Justin Bieber songs off-key; ageing rocker couples with gravity-defying hair and identical skinny jeans; and of course, large groups of students in assorted amusing costumes and varying degrees of inebriation.

‘There are an awful lot of children, though,’ Margaery went on. ‘It seems so provincial, but that must just be because I can’t help comparing it to Glasto. I was hoping to flash one of the bands, but I’m not sure I can in good conscience.’

‘I will absolutely come and escort you out if you do that,’ said Brienne. ‘And the same goes for the lot of you if I catch you drinking, smoking or snorting any illicit substances you’ve smuggled in.’

‘We know, you’ve told us about fifty times,’ said Jeyne. ‘Don’t worry; you won’t catch us.’

‘Not what I meant.’

‘I don’t see why you’re being so strict,’ said Margaery. ‘Tyrell’s Gin had a whole tent at Glasto. My good friend Stormzy loved it.’

‘And if Tyrell’s Gin had a tent here, then you and your good friend Pat Sharp could both drink it to your hearts’ content,’ said Brienne. ‘But when I suggested it, you laughed for a full five minutes and then told me it didn’t fit into the brand’s vision. So you’ll just have to buy your booze from the vendors like the rest of the peasants.’

‘Ugh, fine,’ said Margaery. ‘But you have officially killed my vibe. Meera, here’s my phone. I need you to take a series of photos while I very slowly walk away from you, or else my day will be ruined.’

‘That’s an awful lot of responsibility,’ remarked Asha’s voice.

Sansa turned to greet her, and blinked at the sight of her. Not only was she wearing a floaty black maxi dress instead of her usual ‘what if Joan Jett was a pirate who shopped exclusively at boot sales’ chic, but she was also accompanied by a long-haired bloke attired only in a pair of ratty jeans. Despite being both shirtless and shoeless, he was so pale and slender that he gave the impression of not having been outdoors for about a decade. Ominously, there was a guitar slung across his back.

‘Hello,’ said Sansa politely. ‘Are you from one of the bands?’

‘If you are, you’ve lost your wristband,’ said Brienne sternly.

‘Ah, nothing like that,’ said the newcomer languidly. ‘Name’s Qarl. I’m a business associate of this filthy bitch.’

He inclined his head towards Asha, who waggled her eyebrows in response, and the two of them settled down on the grass. Qarl’s accent sounded Northern Irish which, given Asha’s extreme political leanings, only raised further questions.

‘Are you planning on conducting any business here?’ said Brienne, her pale eyebrows contracting in deepest suspicion.

‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ said Qarl. ‘Here, it’s all about the art.’

He slid his guitar around to the front of his chest, and began to pick out the opening chords to Stairway to Heaven. His eyes were closed but his aptitude with the guitar wasn’t quite enough for the melody to survive this roadblock unscathed. Sansa, Jeyne, Meera and Brienne eyed each other, each of them silently overflowing with judgement, but none of them quite outspoken enough to say what they were all thinking. That would usually be Asha’s role, but as she had brought this bloke along and was currently grinning at him widely despite his cardinal sin of bringing a guitar to a music festival, there was a decent chance she had been overtaken by some sort of pod person.

‘Funny,’ said Margaery in a stage-whisper, having returned from her odyssey of posing. ‘He’s really the sort of chap I’d have pictured Meera with, not Asha.’

‘Wow,’ said Meera, her eyebrows raised.

‘Well, you know what I mean,’ said Margaery. ‘He looks all... chakra-y.’

‘What on earth are you talking about?’ said Asha. ‘Qarl is my good friend and business associate, and I won’t hear a word against him. Unless it’s in reference to the fact that he’s from Derry and therefore might as well be English.’

‘We’re all just children of the earth, babe,’ said Qarl, without even opening his eyes.

‘How you made it out of Ireland in one piece is beyond me,’ said Asha, shaking her head.

‘I wouldn’t say I’m in one piece. My body’s here, but my soul’s still living in Derry.’

‘You’re so deep,’ said Asha.

Sansa looked at her, puzzled. Asha’s face was in full shit-stirring mode. Her brows were raised, her eyes smug, her mouth desperately trying to suppress a grin. There was no way on earth she was able to take Qarl seriously, any more than the rest of them could. But why would she have invited him along with her for the entire weekend just to mock him? She wasn’t cruel.

‘Is he a good shag?’ Margaery mouthed at Asha, nodding toward Qarl.

Leering, Asha made a series of obscene hand gestures in response, only about half of which Sansa understood. That would explain it then. Well, apart from...

‘What’s the maxi dress for?’ said Brienne, neatly voicing Sansa's next thought. ‘You’d better not have half-a-dozen hip flasks strapped to your legs under there.’

‘Would I compromise your integrity like that, Brie?’ said Asha. ‘I’m on my best behaviour. Anyway, the outfit is purely for strategic purposes. Portaloos are practically chemical warfare and I won't countenance using one. A woman in a maxi dress pisses where she pleases.’

‘That’s your best behaviour?’ said Jeyne, revolted. ‘Treating the world as your toilet?’

‘Not the world,’ said Asha, grinning. ‘Just England. Anyway, you’ll all be learning the wisdom of my ways soon enough. Look, here comes Arya, now. She’s going to regret wearing those little dungarees by the end of the weekend, I can tell you.’

Sansa scanned the crowds for her sister and let out an involuntary squeal of excitement, because Arya wasn’t alone. She was accompanied by the Engineering department’s resident muscular blue-eyed dreamboat, Mr Gendry Waters.

Chapter Text

Only a very select number of the group had had the privilege of being introduced to the handsome boy Arya insisted was ‘just a mate’ despite the fact that she texted him almost constantly, and Sansa wasn’t one of them. Asha had hung out with him a handful of times, and maintained that he definitely fancied Arya, but she was frustratingly unhelpful when Sansa probed her for information about him. ‘He seems all right. He’s just a bloke. Looks like he’s got a big dick but probably doesn’t know how to wield it yet. They’ll muddle through it together. Here, are you cooking dinner tonight? I wouldn’t turn down a bit of pasta.’

Brienne had met him on those occasions when she was working the door on whichever grimy little hole-in-the-wall pub he and Arya were descending upon for the night, but like Asha, she was disinclined to indulge Sansa’s curiosity. ‘I’m sure you’ll meet him eventually,’ she had said. ‘Don’t worry. I don’t think Arya’s in any danger of getting her heart broken. You really ought to stop bothering her about him all the time, you know. You’re going to make her stop hanging out with him out of pure stubbornness.’

None of the others had met him, and Sansa had turned to her friend Mya for inspiration, since she happened to be his sister, but even this line of enquiry transpired to be a dead end. ‘He’s only my half-brother, Sansa. I didn’t even know he existed until a couple of years ago, so it’s not like I can sneak into his room and read his PornHub search history. As far as I can tell, he’s not interested in anything that’s not powered by an engine. If your sister’s a cyborg, she’s in luck.’

Arya was definitely not a cyborg, because there was no logical reason for her to get all cagey and defensive whenever anyone mentioned Gendry’s name, yet she did it every time without fail. But now here they were, and they looked so cute together! Arya was wearing a red-orange crop top under her little denim dungarees, with her trusty Doc Martens on her feet and her hair in two French plaits. She looked even tinier than usual next to Gendry, who appeared to be taller than Brienne (although gratifyingly, not as huge as Sandor). He wore a navy t-shirt, faded jeans, boots, and a deeply awkward expression, which could not have been helped by the way Jeyne and Margaery were openly leering. And who could blame them? Gendry was buff. His arms were gigantic, his huge hands stuffed in his pockets. His colouring was the same as Mya’s; his eyes were bright blue, his skin was tanned, and his wild thatch of hair was jet black.

Delightedly eager to greet him, Sansa opened her mouth wide, only to end up with a churro unceremoniously rammed into it.

Sandor had returned. ‘Stop bloody gawping,’ he grumbled, settling down beside her. ‘The poor kid’s not a steak dinner. I’m gone for five minutes – fetching food for you, might I add, your highness – and now I come back to see you’ve moved on entirely.’

‘I have not!’ said Sansa, her indignation hampered by a combination of laughter and fried dough. ‘And I wasn’t gawping. I only gawp at you. I was just…’

‘Getting ready to play matchmaker?’ said Sandor. ‘Don’t deny it. You’ve been thinking about it for months. You keep trying to get the dog to make friends with that bloody cat next door, and I know you’re pretending it’s that lad and your sister.’

'Oh, is that what those Instagram stories are about?' said Jeyne. 

‘A thrilling new hobby,’ said Asha. ‘Had any luck with it?’

‘Not really. The cat keeps hissing.’

‘Do you do little voices for them?’ asked Meera.

‘Sometimes,’ Sansa admitted. Determinedly, she looked up and beamed as the human versions of her little game settled down to join them. ‘Hi! I’m Arya’s sister Sansa, and this is my boyfriend Sandor. It’s nice to finally meet you, Gendry! We’ve all heard so much about you.’

‘No you haven’t,’ said Arya at once, her cheeks going red. She glared at Gendry. ‘She’s just saying that to be polite. I never talk about you unless I absolutely have to. And even then sometimes I won’t.’

‘OK?’ said Gendry. He glanced around at the group out of the corners of his eyes, with the careful air of a soldier in enemy territory trying to ascertain if he should strike or flee. Perhaps he had never been near this many girls before. Arya was always saying that her classes were a sausage fest.

‘So you study Engineering with Arya?’ said Jaime, clearly aiming for ‘friendly conversation between men’, but landing on ‘uncle making small talk at Christmas’. ‘How’s that going?’

‘Fine,’ said Gendry.

‘Any funny stories?’ said Jaime.

‘Not really.’

‘You never ask to hear any of my funny stories,’ Arya accused Jaime. ‘Why do you want to hear his?’

‘He probably thinks you can’t be funny because you’re a woman,’ suggested Asha, rolling out a fag on her knee.

‘What?’ spluttered Jaime. ‘I – never in my life have I ever said anything to suggest – the very idea –’

He turned to Brienne for support. She just shook her head at him, suppressing a grin.

‘You’ve got to stop taking my friends seriously when they accuse you of being problematic,’ she told him. ‘Save that for the office.’

‘But it’s never happened in the office,’ said Jaime, looking genuinely hurt. ‘I’ve worked very hard to make everyone in my team feel respected. Pia even requested a transfer to my department for that very reason.’

Poor Jaime. Sansa gave him a comforting smile while Brienne squeezed his hand. It was strange. The man looked like a model. Today, for instance, he was wearing a white v-neck t-shirt, jeans, and aviator sunglasses in such a manner that all other men who had turned up to the festival in a similar outfit must have felt very discouraged and experienced a crippling urge to go home and change. Jaime was handsome, charming, successful and kind; he could put up with an endless volley of abuse levelled at the police force and his role in it (and indeed had, whenever Asha went off on one of her anarchist rants), but any slight against his personal morality had him deeply wounded and desperate to defend himself. As endearing as this sincerity was, it had rendered him a monumentally easy target for Asha, Arya, and Jeyne’s needling.

‘If you’re so unproblematic,’ said Arya, ‘then why don’t you want to hear about the time we staged our own Robot Wars tournament? Syrio the duelling robot was the rightful champion. He had a glove slap feature and everything.’

‘The Bull won fair and square,’ said Gendry.

‘He was a giant metal bull with a huge hammer,’ said Arya, prodding Gendry in the chest. ‘He weighed a quarter of a ton. Yeah, he was good at smashing shit up, but he had no finesse.’

‘I’ve told you, finesse has no place in Robot Wars. Smashing shit up is the entire point.’

‘Dickhead,’ muttered Arya.

‘Bit of a sore loser, aren’t you, Grotbags?’ said Sandor, looking vastly amused.

‘Syrio didn’t lose,’ snapped Arya. ‘It was a temporary setback. I’m rebuilding him with a shield. And a bigger bloody sword.’

‘Good luck,’ said Gendry, shrugging. Arya shot him a venomous glare and gave him a shove, but he just smiled to himself. Sansa’s heart could hardly take it. They were so cute! After polishing off the last of her churros, she carefully angled her phone so that it looked like she was taking a selfie, but actually took a series of pictures of Arya and Gendry as they awkwardly stole glances at one another.

‘You’re a menace,’ whispered Sandor. ‘Stick to the cat and dog.’

‘So, Gendry,’ said Margaery, bestowing a glittering smile upon him. ‘What sort of engineering work are you looking to get into? I’ve got a few contacts at Boeing I could put you in touch with.’

‘Once again, what the hell?’ demanded Arya. ‘You’ve never offered to hook me up with a job.’

‘Well, that’s because I assumed you’d have some sort of secret laboratory where you built monstrous creations aimed at toppling the government,’ said Margaery. ‘Would you rather build planes instead?’

‘…No.’

‘Exactly. Gendry?’

‘Dunno,’ Gendry muttered. ‘Boeing don’t make bikes.’

‘What do you ride?’ asked Sandor, perking up a bit.

‘Just a Kawasaki at the moment,’ said Gendry. ‘But I’m fixing up an old Triumph in my garage.’

‘Nice,’ said Sandor. ‘Got a Vincent Black Shadow myself.’

Gendry nodded approvingly, and the two of them immediately fell into an incomprehensible conversation about motorbikes which no one else in the group could hope to break into. It all sounded very manly – Jaime was looking a bit put out that he didn’t have anything to contribute. The only other bloke here was Qarl, and he presumably didn’t want to be aligned with him. It was only a matter of time until he started playing Wonderwall.

‘What are everyone’s sleeping arrangements tonight, then?’ asked Asha.

‘No sleep for me,’ said Brienne. ‘I’m working the whole weekend.’

‘With designated naps in my hotel room,’ said Jaime firmly. Brienne rolled her eyes, but she was smiling.

‘Oh, are you staying at that little B&B?’ asked Margaery cheerfully. ‘I’ve got the peacock suite.’

‘Didn’t want to dirty your tent with non-Glastonbury soil?’ said Meera.

‘It’s a yurt, and my brother borrowed it to go to Reading. Why I am not at Reading with him is one of life’s greatest mysteries. I hope you all appreciate the sacrifices I make for you, ladies.’ 

‘Every day,’ said Jeyne sarcastically.

‘Jeyne and I are using my two-man tent,’ said Meera.

‘Me and Sandor are sharing too,’ said Sansa.

‘And Qarl is generously making room for me in his one-man,’ said Asha. ‘It’s going to be a tight squeeze, ladies.’

‘What?’ said Arya, frowning. ‘I thought you were sharing a tent with me.’

‘Oh, have you got one? I suppose I could always crawl in with you when the post-coital glow starts to feel a bit sticky.’

‘No, I haven’t bloody got one,’ said Arya. ‘You said you’d buy one. You said it would stand you in good stead for your future years as a hobo.’

‘I told you I’d buy something, and you fecking believed me?’ said Asha. ‘Jesus, Arya, how pissed was I when we had this conversation? I don’t even remember it.’

‘But you promised,’ said Arya. She was looking very upset. As her big sister, Sansa felt duty-bound to step in.

‘Why don’t you share with us?’ she offered. ‘Sandor’s tent technically sleeps four.’

‘What?’ hissed Sandor, snapping out of motorbike fantasy land to glare at her. 

‘We could all have a cuddle,’ Sansa went on brightly, to the horror of her boyfriend and sister both. ‘Arya could be the extra-little spoon.’

‘Why are you doing this?’ demanded Sandor in a strained whisper, as Arya pretended to vomit. 

‘Sisterly love,’ said Sansa, doing her best to radiate innocence and good will. The two of them were just such easy targets. They had far more in common than they'd ever admit. 

‘You can keep your sisterly love to yourself,’ declared Arya. ‘It’s bad enough sleeping with a wall between us when you and your stupid boyfriend are slobbering all over each other. I’m not sharing your sodding tent.’

‘Well, you’re not sharing ours either,’ said Jeyne, as Sandor visibly slumped with relief. ‘You do krav maga moves in your sleep.’

‘Coward,’ muttered Arya. ‘Like I’d share with you anyway.’

‘Why don’t you just share my suite?’ said Margaery, rolling her eyes. ‘There, problem solved.’

‘It is not,’ said Arya. ‘I didn’t come to a festival to stay in a hotel like some stupid snobby fainting princess. No offence,’ she added as an afterthought.

‘None taken, darling.’

‘Come on, lads, we can make this work,’ said Asha. ‘I’ve got a plan. Qarl, how gentlemanly are you feeling?’

‘Not remotely, babe,’ said Qarl.

‘Thought so,’ said Asha. ‘All right, this little misunderstanding was technically my fault, so I’ll take one for the team. Arya, when we’re all turning in for the night, you wait outside for half an hour while I shag Qarl, then I’ll crawl out and sleep on the grass, and you can go and kip in there with him.’

‘In your post-coital stickiness?’ said Arya, aghast with vivid disgust. ‘Why the actual fuck would you shag him first?’

‘Part of the agreement,’ said Asha, shrugging. ‘No pussy, no tent. I don’t reckon he particularly cares whose pussy he gets, though. Hey, we’re all friends here – you can shag Qarl, and that way it’s your own stickiness you’ll be wrangling. You all right with that, Qarl?’

At long last, Qarl opened his eyes. He peered blearily around at the group of horrified people before him, before focusing on Arya.

‘Sure,’ he said. ‘She’s cute.’

Appalled, Sansa couldn’t help darting a glance at Gendry, who looked utterly stricken by this unsavoury turn of events.

‘I won’t look so cute when I shove my boot up your arse,’ snapped Arya. ‘You look like you cut your weed with your mum's potpourri. Shut those eyes again before I poke them out of your stupid head.’

‘She’s almost as kinky as you, babe,’ Qarl mumbled to Asha, but he did as he was told and zoned out of the conversation once more, to everyone’s distinct relief. Arya had raised her fists, ready to strike, but Gendry instantly restrained her with a gentle, reflexive ease that suggested he’d prevented dozens of fights in this manner before. Sansa supposed it was par for the course when you hung out with Arya that much. However, while Gendry may have been keen to keep the peace, he was looking at Qarl with an expression on his face of intense dislike.

‘What the hell did you suggest that for?’ said Sandor, glaring at Asha. 

‘In my defence, I thought it would be funny,’ said Asha. ‘Sorry, Arya. Bit too far. I didn’t think he’d go for it, but the man is off his tits. On completely legal substances!’ She gave Jaime and Brienne a wink and a thumbs up. Collectively, they let out a long-suffering sigh.

‘Fine,’ said Arya, wrenching her wrists out of Gendry’s grip and folding her arms with a glare. ‘I’ll sleep outside like a dickhead. I hope you’re all happy.’

‘Why don’t you just sleep in my tent?’ said Gendry. Everyone in the group looked at him, and his ears went red. Sansa clutched Sandor’s knee delightedly, and knew he was rolling his eyes.

‘Pfft,’ said Arya. She stared down at the ground and tore out fistfuls of grass, her cheeks going up in flames. ‘Like I’d want to. You’re all big and stupid and gross. You probably snore.’

‘Oh my God,’ muttered Jeyne, covering her eyes rather than watch.

‘I’ll sleep outside,’ said Gendry. He spoke very quietly through gritted teeth, and Sansa could tell he hated to discuss this in front of such an avid audience. ‘You take the tent. OK?’

‘No!’ said Arya. ‘It’s your tent. I’m not taking it. I’ve slept outside plenty of times.’

‘Not at a festival. You could get assaulted. Or, you know… pissed on.’

‘So could you, so I don’t know why you’re so keen to sleep outside,’ Arya retorted. ‘Unless you secretly want to get pissed on. That’s disgusting, Gendry.’

‘I didn’t exactly plan this, did I, knobhead?’ said Gendry. ‘You’re having the sodding tent, and that's the end of it.’

‘I bloody well am not.’ 

Judging from the stubborn set of each of their jaws, they had a long way to go before they resolved the matter. But before Gendry could argue, Asha glanced down at her phone and spluttered out an ‘Oh, shit!’

‘What’s up?’ said Brienne.

‘For reasons best known to himself,’ said Asha, ‘my absolute shitehawk of a brother has decided to invite half our fecking family tree to come and watch him perform. Most of them ignored him because they all think he’s a tosser, and rightfully so.’

‘Hey!’ said Jeyne. ‘He’s an artist. They probably just don’t understand him.’

‘One of my uncles, however,’ said Asha, ignoring this interruption, ‘has decided to sail over to sunny England to show his support. Brie, I apologise in advance for whatever the fuck he’s going to do, because it’s not going to be pretty.’

Chapter Text

The girls had been told a fair few stories about the Greyjoy family, ranging from the bizarre to the straight-up illegal. All things considered, Asha reflected, it was a miracle she’d turned out as well-adjusted as she was. A bit of home brewing here, a bit of weed there, the occasional spot of light theft – only off rich dickheads who deserved it, naturally – but when you got down to it, she was essentially an upstanding member of society. She was getting a degree and everything.

Her uncles, on the other hand…

‘Ooh, who's coming?' said Margaery. 'Is it the tantric sex cult-leader uncle with the eyepatch?’ 

‘Uncle Eury the one-eyed fury?’ Asha snorted. ‘He’s off on some trip to Indonesia. Reckons he can wrestle a komodo dragon and win, and who am I to try and talk him out of it? He pushed my dad off the Boyne Viaduct.’

‘Oh,’ said Margaery, looking disappointed. Hopefully she’d only been wanting a selfie or possibly some tantric sex, but there was a decent chance she was contemplating joining Uncle Eury’s cult. It was the sort of thing rich people seemed to do a hell of a lot.

‘Is it the druid uncle who lives in a hut on the beach and bathes in the sea and has a pet seagull?’ asked Meera.

‘No, that’s Uncle Aer with the dirty hair,’ said Asha. ‘And don’t let him hear you call Fergus a pet. He’s a familiar, apparently. I’d like to make him familiar with my boot. He’s always stealing my chips.’

‘Is it the respected history professor uncle who works at Trinity College?’ asked Sansa, clearly in the mood for a bit of networking.

‘No, that’s Uncle Rod the grumpy sod. And I’ll be lucky if he leaves his office to come to my graduation, so I think he’ll be giving the local festival a miss. If it weren’t for the fact that his trousers occasionally change, I’d worry he was superglued to his chair.’

‘Well, which one is it then?’ said Margaery impatiently.

‘Oh God,’ said Brienne, her head in her hands. ‘Is it the bodybuilder who lives on a houseboat and spends all his time writing angry letters to The Sun about how immigration is ruining society, despite the fact that he's got a mail order Thai bride?’

‘Uncle Vic the racist prick?’ said Asha gleefully. ‘You’re damn right it is. The latest is that the Thai bride made him buy her a pet monkey, and he’s obviously regretting it, because he immediately declared it his enemy and keeps trying to dump it in the canal.’

‘That’s awful!’ said Sansa.

‘Yeah, well, it would be if I had any confidence whatsoever in him being able to actually catch the monkey. The Thai bride is abetting it as well, so it’s two against one. Poor Uncle Vic doesn’t stand a chance. He never was a bright spark.’

‘Do we have to keep calling her the Thai bride?’ said Jeyne. ‘What’s her name?’

‘Don’t ask me, I’ve never met her,’ said Asha. ‘Uncle Vic refuses to introduce her to anyone. He always just calls her Woman.’

‘Where did he even get a pet monkey?’ said Arya, blatantly hoping to snaffle one up herself.

‘Certainly not the black market,’ said Asha, winking ostentatiously at Jaime. She got to her feet. ‘Right. I’d better track the old bastard down and see what he’s planning. You coming, Brie? Chances are he’s snuck in through the woods and hasn’t got a ticket. If we’re lucky you can boot him out as soon as we see him.’

‘Why are you siding with me in this scenario?’ said Brienne.

She was right to be suspicious. It wasn’t often that Asha chose The Man over her own flesh and blood. If she was completely honest, Asha was getting involved because she always found it extremely entertaining when Uncle Vic lost his temper. She doubted anything that might happen today could top that Christmas when he’d found out his second wife had been shagging Uncle Eury and had gone after them both with an axe. That was probably for the best, to be honest; she doubted any of the girls would’ve found it as funny as she had. But it had all turned out all right in the end, hadn’t it? Uncle Eury had fucked off to Peru until things calmed down a bit, the wife had filed for divorce and moved back to Donegal, and once Uncle Vic was out of prison he’d tried to ritualistically set fire to his wedding ring to cleanse himself of evils. Eventually he’d realised gold doesn’t burn, and had instead chosen to ritualistically sell it to cash4gold.com.

Asha chose not divulge any of this information to Brienne, deeming it largely irrelevant.

‘He’s a massive bellend,’ she said instead. ‘Whatever you do, don’t laugh at him, unless you want him to flip his shit. Oh, and fair warning, Brie – that stab vest might come in handy. There’s a decent chance he’s got a blade on him.’

Brienne and her gentleman love both leapt to their feet at once. As the three of them began to make their way across the fields, Asha realised that Arya and Gendry were also accompanying them.

‘He won’t have the monkey with him, you know,’ she told them.

‘You don’t know that for certain,’ Arya retorted. Asha did in fact know, but she let it slide.

‘So Brienne,’ she said loudly, giving Arya a nudge to make sure she was paying attention. ‘What’s it like being in a loving and fulfilling relationship with a bloke you’d previously been good friends with? Can it truly be as magical as it appears?’

‘Shut. Up,’ hissed Arya, punching her in the arm. Brienne gave Asha a very severe look and refused to respond, but Asha could tell she was trying not to smile. Undeterred, she continued, this time nudging Gendry.

‘And you, DI Lannister. After months of pining for your lady fair, unaware that beneath her general cantankerous temperament, there lay a tender heart that beats for you alone, how does it feel now you get to dick her down on a regular basis?’

‘For God’s sake,’ said Jaime. ‘Were you raised in a barn?’

But Asha wasn’t listening; she was looking slyly at Gendry, whose cheeks had gone red, and who kept darting glances at Arya out of the corner of his eye. Really, if she had been smart, Asha would have been looking at Arya too, and then she wouldn’t have been taken by quite so much surprise when she was shoved hard in the shoulder.

‘What?’ she complained. ‘I’m just making idle conversation.’

‘You’ll be making idle conversation with my fist in a minute,’ Arya declared, before she found herself restrained once more by Gendry’s lovely big arms, and was therefore drawn into a scuffle with him instead. Asha observed them with great interest. It wasn’t every day you got to see a fight so obviously brimming with sexual tension. At one point Arya actually bit Gendry on the shoulder, and he went all bug-eyed and frantically scrabbled to hold her away from what was certain to be a bit of an awkward stiffy.

Poor lad. Uphill struggle didn’t even begin to describe it. Trying to get Arya into bed had to be more like scaling a mountain in a blizzard with no shoes on, while you were trying to wrangle an enraged and particularly vicious badger.

Ah, well. Judging from his reaction to the bite, Gendry was probably into it. He’d stuck around for this long, hadn’t he?

Victarion Greyjoy was not an inconspicuous man, and was therefore pretty easy to track down even in a festival. He was six foot five and unpleasantly jacked due to an obsession with weightlifting and a cocktail of dodgy steroids, and he was perpetually attired in t-shirts with slogans like BEAST MODE and NO PAIN NO GAIN. Today’s was DON’T NEED A PERMIT FOR THESE GUNS, with two helpful arrows pointing at his bulging biceps. They found him exactly where Asha had expected he'd be: trying to barge his way into the backstage area on the basis of being Theon’s uncle. Theon, incidentally, was cowering behind several security guards.

‘Uncle Vic!’ Asha greeted him cheerfully. ‘How’s it hanging? What brings you to the inferior side of the Irish Sea?’

‘I sailed over in the Iron Victory,’ said Uncle Vic, evidently as literally-minded as ever.

‘Oh yes, I forgot your houseboat had such an edgy name. And how’s your lovely wife?’

‘None of your business,’ said Uncle Vic, glaring. ‘You stay away from her. I don’t want you spreading any of your godless women’s libber ideas. When’s the last time you went to church?’

‘Sunday, of course,’ said Asha. ‘Wouldn’t miss my weekly communion with Our Lady of Peace, now would I?’

‘Are you being sarcastic with me?’ said Uncle Vic, his voice lowering dangerously. Asha was largely unconcerned. Had any other relative asked such a question, it would have been rhetorical, and a prelude to a world of trouble. Uncle Vic was just too thick to tell.

‘Wouldn’t dream of it,’ she said airily.

‘All right,’ said Uncle Vic, though he looked deeply suspicious. ‘Would you get your brother now?’

‘Why the blatant favouritism?’ Asha complained, but she waved Theon over. ‘Come here, you coward. What’s the problem?’

Theon edged closer, looking nervous. He was wearing a floaty black shirt he’d undoubtedly paid a ridiculous amount of money for just because it had a designer label, paired with tight jeans and heavy eyeliner. No wonder he was never out of his overdraft. Jeyne was practically going to wet herself when she saw him.

‘Hi, Uncle Vic,’ said Theon, doing his best to smile.

‘Some greeting that is,’ said Uncle Vic, glaring down at him like an eagle with a trapped mouse in its talons. ‘You invited me here, you soft git. I sailed over to show a bit of support, just like you wanted. This is the thanks I get?’

‘It’s not my fault,’ Theon protested. ‘Security say I can’t bring anyone –’

‘If I was a pretty young lass you’d have me backstage in a second,’ said Uncle Vic. ‘But your own flesh and blood can feck off, is that right? You haven’t even shaken my hand.’

Theon reluctantly extended a hand for Uncle Vic’s patented ‘Look how manly I am’ handshake, also known as The Bonecrusher. Asha watched her brother’s face contort with agony and shook her head, but was swiftly distracted by the bizarre scarring on her uncle’s right arm.

‘What the hell happened to you?’ she said, craning her neck to get a good luck. ‘Jesus, Uncle Vic, is that supposed to be a fecking tattoo?’

‘Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,’ snapped Uncle Vic.

‘It looks infected,’ Asha observed. ‘Where’d you get it done, a Bangkok back alley?’

Uncle Vic ground his teeth but said nothing, and Asha knew she’d got it in one.

‘What is it?’ asked Theon, squinting.

‘It’s a fecking dragon, you scrawny shite,’ snarled Uncle Vic. ‘Are you blind?’

‘A dragon,’ said Asha. ‘So it is! Well, I’m sure it will be lovely when all the pus clears up.’

‘Your handshake was limper than usual.’ Uncle Vic was glaring at Theon, clearly intent on changing the subject. ‘When’s the last time you went to the gym?’

‘Um… last month?’ said Theon, who was cradling his crushed hand, presumably quite concerned about whether he’d still be able to play guitar by the time he got onstage.

‘I thought as much,’ said Uncle Vic ominously.

‘Where’s your monkey?’ said Arya, materialising beside them and folding her arms. ‘We know you’ve got one and we want to see it.’

‘Don’t interrupt a man when he’s doing business,’ said Uncle Vic, frowning at her.

‘What business might that be?’ said Brienne, stepping forward. ‘I’ll need to see a permit for it, whatever it is.’

‘What the fuck are you supposed to be?’ said Uncle Vic, his lip curling.

‘Oi!’ said Asha. ‘She’s a mate of mine, so don’t be a dick.’

Uncle Vic had very traditional ideas about women and wasn’t shy about making it known. This would be why he was on wife number three. Asha was sure it was only a matter of time until the Thai bride made off with both the monkey and the boat, and left Uncle Vic out on his arse. He'd probably try to nick himself a new houseboat, get involved in a low-octane boat chase with the coppers, and end up in prison again. At least it would get him out of the way for a bit. 

‘Keeping company with coppers, are ye?’ said Uncle Vic, glaring at Asha and Theon. ‘Thought my brother raised you better than that.’

‘Bouncers aren’t coppers,’ said Theon.

‘I am, though,’ said Jaime, stepping forward. ‘So I hope you’re going to cooperate.’

‘Permit, please,’ said Brienne. ‘And I’ll take a look at your ticket while you’re at it.’

Muttering curses under his breath about ‘unnatural she-beasts and their feminine boy-pets’, Uncle Vic reached into his pocket and, miraculously, produced a legitimate festival ticket.

‘Pay for that yourself, did you?’ said Asha, raising her eyebrows.

Uncle Vic’s eye twitched, and she knew it was only a matter of time before the roid rage kicked in. Never paying a penny for anything you could scrounge off someone else wasn’t just a hobby; it was the Greyjoy way of life. Only Theon had succumbed to the relentless pressures of capitalism by becoming what could only be termed a fashion victim, and was therefore the subject of relentless mockery at family dinners. Predictably, therefore, Uncle Vic did not in fact have a business permit, and was sternly informed by Brienne that if he attempted to conduct any business on festival grounds, he would be unceremoniously ejected from the premises. 

‘And if your business is related to illegal substances,’ said Jaime, ‘then you and I ought to have a bit of a chat. What was it you were hoping to do?’

‘Come back when you’ve got a warrant, copper,’ said Uncle Vic. His huge hands balled into fists at his sides.

‘It won’t be drugs,’ Theon assured Jaime. ‘Not the fun kind, anyway. He’s not into that shit. His body’s a temple. Isn’t that right, Uncle Vic?’

‘My wife worships it every day,’ declared Uncle Vic.

‘That’s not what I’ve heard,’ said Asha. She wasn’t kidding. ‘Uncle Vic the racist prick’ was the watered-down version of the family nickname. It was what Asha and Theon tended to call him, largely because there were some things you just didn’t like to think about. The fact of the matter was that Uncle Vic’s little Christmas axe-wielding incident had kicked off immediately after Uncle Eury had referred to him as ‘Roidhead Vic with his tiny dick’.

He’d been a bit sensitive about the subject ever since.

‘What did you say?’ snarled Uncle Vic.

‘Just my little joke, Uncle Vic,’ said Asha, trying to back away as inconspicuously as possible. ‘Surely you’re not taking it seriously?’

‘What have I told you,’ growled Uncle Vic, ‘about making jokes about my wife?’

‘I admit, you did tell me not to, but you know me, Uncle Vic. Always a comedian. Perhaps you should take a few deep breaths. The veins on your neck are throbbing an awful lot.’

‘Asha,’ said Brienne through gritted teeth. ‘Zip it.’

‘Nobody,’ said Uncle Vic, his eye twitching, ‘makes jokes about my wife.’

‘Speaking of your wife,’ said Arya loudly, ‘has she got the monkey?’

‘Arya,’ said Gendry, trying to drag her away by her wrist. ‘Not the time.’

‘Well, when is the time?’ demanded Arya. ‘Who else do you know who’s got a monkey? He obviously hasn’t got it with him, so if we just find out where the houseboat is, we can nip over and meet it. Right, Uncle Vic?’

‘Oh, no,’ mumbled Theon, edging his way behind Brienne.

‘Who the fuck are you to call me Uncle, you filthy little Protestant?’ bellowed Uncle Vic, rounding on Arya in a burst of righteous Catholic fury.

‘What did you just call her?’ said Gendry, stepping up at once to defend the honour of his lady love. Not that Arya needed much defending; she was standing her ground and staring Uncle Vic down, probably trying to size up how to kick him in the nuts when the target was allegedly so small. Gendry was looking unreasonably upset at Uncle Vic’s words, and Asha thought she knew why.

‘Gendry,’ she hissed. ‘He’s not calling her a hooker. It’s a religious thing.’

Unfortunately it was a bit too late for this information to be helpful, because now Uncle Vic had turned on Gendry instead. Asha really should have seen this coming. Uncle Vic was the sort of bloke who believed that any other blokes approaching his stature were issuing him some sort of Gladiators-esque challenge. Jaime was too lean (and frankly, a bit too girly-looking) to be on his radar, but Gendry was just buff enough to pose a threat. 

‘You need to learn to control your woman, pal,’ Uncle Vic said, advancing on Gendry, milking his two inch height advantage for all it was worth.

‘I’m not his woman,’ Arya declared at once. Bit churlish really, considering how the poor lad was sticking his neck out for her. Thankfully, no one paid her any attention apart from Brienne, who silently drew Arya behind her like a watchful mother bear.

‘That right?’ said Uncle Vic. His face was awfully red, and much closer to Gendry’s than could possibly have been comfortable. ‘No girlfriend? Are you a virgin?’

‘Jesus wept, Uncle Vic, you’re forty-three,’ said Asha. ‘Would you stop bullying the nineteen-year-old?’

‘Good thing you’ve got all these women to defend you,’ sneered Uncle Vic, not taking his eyes off Gendry, who had gone very red in the face. ‘How much do you bench press?’

‘What?’ Gendry frowned. ‘I dunno. About three hundred pounds. Who cares?’

‘You care, if you’ve got any self-respect,’ said Uncle Vic. He paused. ‘What’s that in kilograms?’

Nobody replied, which only enraged him further.

‘What is it?' he demanded. 'You’re all so fecking smart, aren’t you, all going to university together for your degrees in advanced shite. Not one of you can tell me what three hundred pounds is in bastard fecking kilograms?’

‘We’re not enabling your little competition,’ said Brienne. ‘And I think we’d all appreciate it if you’d step back from our friend here.’

‘You know what I bench press?’ said Uncle Vic. ‘Two hundred kilograms, that’s what. And if one of you wee gobshites would do the fecking maths, then we’d see who’s the bigger man.’

‘No maths needed,’ said Arya, sticking her head out from behind Brienne at the worst possible moment to make an arsey comment. ‘Three hundred is more than two hundred, so Gendry is stronger. What are you going to do next, whip out your dick to compare measurements?’

Asha’s eyes met Theon’s in horror.

‘RIGHT!’ roared Uncle Vic, almost certainly spraying poor Gendry with spit. ‘You, me, that picnic table. Arm wrestle me right here, right now.’

‘Mr Greyjoy, I’m going to ask you again to step away,’ said Brienne sternly. ‘Gendry, you absolutely do not have to do this.’

‘But think of the memories you’ll make if you do,’ Asha pointed out.

‘Asha,’ said Jaime. ‘I’m begging you. For once in your life, could you please stop talking?’

But he was trying to silence the wrong girl. Asha’s opinion didn’t mean much here; Gendry’s eyes had slid over to Arya, as they so often did, waiting to find out if the manlier and therefore more attractive option in her books would be to stand and fight or to walk away.

‘Do it, Gendry!’ she screeched, punching the air. ‘Do it for the monkey!’

‘Jesus Christ,’ Theon groaned, backing rapidly away from the picnic table as Gendry and Uncle Vic took their seats.

'You invited him,' said Asha. 'Incidentally, what the hell were you thinking?' 

'I only meant to invite Dad. I sent the message to the family groupchat by mistake.' 

'As if Dad would ever set foot on English soil, Theon. Besides, I don't think they'd let him in at the border after all the shit he did in the seventies.' 

'I know,' said Theon, kicking at the ground glumly. ‘Why does this shit always have to happen with our family? Why can’t we ever just have a nice day out?’

‘Nice days out are for women and children,’ growled Uncle Vic from the picnic table. ‘Greyjoys fight like men.’

‘Of course we do,’ muttered Theon. He and Asha shook their heads at one another, resigned to the inevitable carnage.

Gendry and Uncle Vic each carefully placed their right elbow down on the wood, never once breaking eye contact. Brienne and the other security guards circled them like vultures in high-vis jackets, cautiously moving closer. Two huge meaty hands met over the table and clenched tight about each other. Whipping out her phone and setting it to camera mode, Asha began to take pictures.

She didn’t get many, because the match lasted about twenty seconds.

Gendry had youth on his side; he had the moral high ground and the support of the crowds; and, of course, he was trying to impress the girl of his dreams. Crucially, he also had a perfectly healthy right arm. Uncle Vic bellowed like a wounded rhinoceros as soon as Gendry put the slightest amount of pressure on his arm, sore and scabby and infected from the tattoo as it was. For all his macho posturing (and for all that two hundred kilos actually was quite a bit more than three hundred pounds), the stupid old git folded like Marie Kondo in an origami workshop.

Unfortunately, Uncle Vic couldn’t just leave it there and slink off to lick his wounds. He never had known when to stop. Before anyone had time to react to his humiliating defeat, he pulled a switchblade out of his boot and went for his opponent with a snarl. 

He didn’t get very far. Brienne was an old hat at this sort of thing, and she dived in and rugby-tackled Uncle Vic to the ground before Gendry could get so much as a graze. 

Asha got a great shot of it. She sent it to the family groupchat.

Chapter Text

Gendry had never been to a festival before. He’d never paid more than a fiver to see a band – not because he didn’t like music, but because money had always been hard to come by. But Arya had been so keen to come here; she’d been banging on about it for months, and how cool it would be to sleep in tents and eat street food and drink smuggled booze and heckle the shittest bands. He couldn’t pretend he hadn’t been looking forward to it.

He just hadn’t realised that all of Arya’s mates and her sister would be part of their group.

It was OK. They were fine, he supposed; apart from that Qarl bloke, who was obviously a massive prick. Gendry liked Asha and Brienne, Sandor seemed decent, and the rest were all very friendly – sometimes suspiciously so. It was hard to believe Sansa could be Arya’s sister, as tall and girly as she was. She kept doing that thing he’d seen some of his mates’ girlfriends do, where she asked Sandor to do something she was perfectly capable of doing herself, and smiled and flirted and pouted until he gave in. Gendry didn’t really trust Margaery either. She looked a bit too polished and glittering to be real, and when she smiled she reminded him of the snake from The Jungle Book. And Jeyne was being very nice to him, but he’d heard Arya ranting about her way too many times to want to hear anything she had to say.

No, it was Arya he was here for.

It always had been, since their first ever class together back in September, when he’d watched her from across the room and tried fruitlessly to think of an excuse to go and talk to her. In the end, he hadn’t needed to. As their class wrapped up, she’d loudly announced that she was going to the SU bar for a pint, and anyone who wanted to hang out should come along. About a dozen people showed up, mostly blokes desperate to find any way of making friends that didn’t involve setting foot in a nightclub, a sentiment with which Gendry could fully empathise.

Arya was the centre of the conversation. She was loud and funny and excitable; quick to anger, lashing out with a punch to the arm of anyone who said something she didn’t like. She was interested in everything around her – really genuinely interested, not just putting it on to be polite. She wanted to hear about Tom's guitar playing, about Lommy’s tattoos, about Anguy’s archery. She could down a pint in twenty seconds despite being about five foot nothing. She’d been wearing a grey t-shirt with ratty jeans and trainers, with her dark brown hair twisted into a knot on top of her head and no makeup on her face. She was short and skinny and snorted like a pig when she laughed, and Gendry couldn’t take his eyes off her.

It had been hours before she’d even glanced his way, so distracted was she with the others; all funnier and more talkative and interesting than he was. He felt like some big slow lumbering ox next to them all, barely able to get a word in edgeways while they traded jokes and quips and stories, everyone getting increasingly drunk as the afternoon went on. He was debating giving up and going home, until finally the conversation turned to bikes. No one else worked in a garage. Most of them didn’t work at all. But Gendry had the Kawasaki, and the Triumph – the only thing his loser dad had ever given him that was worth a damn – and Arya wanted to go for a ride.

Their group of mates solidified as the weeks went on. While Arya seemed to like him well enough, she never bothered with him all that much at first – probably because he had absolutely fuck all to say for himself compared to the others. Ned blatantly fancied her, and Gendry knew he couldn’t compete with him. He was all rich and charming and posh. But then they all went to that Halloween party at Harwin's, where Arya got way too drunk way too fast, and Ned was too busy playing beer pong to take any notice. Gendry was the only sober one there – he didn’t mind having a couple of beers but he never wanted to be so wankered he lost control of himself. That was his dad’s job.

So Gendry was the one who caught Arya when she fell off the trampoline in the back garden, laughing hysterically; the one who cut her off and made her drink water instead of vodka; the one who held her hair back as she threw up in the loo and helped her clean herself up. And he was the one who walked her home in the early hours of the morning while all the others were passed out on the living room floor, and she had smiled at him all tired and crinkled when he dropped her off on her doorstep, and told him he was a real mate.

The months went on, and they studied together, went to gigs together, played video games together, dossed about in town together. They messaged each other almost constantly. Gendry told her more than he’d ever told anyone – about growing up in Hackney in a council flat, just him and his mum struggling to make ends meet, and how he’d started doing odd jobs for a mate of hers when he was ten just to earn enough cash to stop the electricity getting cut off. Arya told him about her parents and brothers and sister, all living together with a pack of dogs in a big house near York with huge rambling gardens; about her housemates' latest drunken antics; about how fed up she was of getting treated like a novelty in the Engineering department when she was one of the smartest ones in the class. On one stomach-churning occasion in January, she’d even confided in him that Ned had asked her out on a date. Gendry had fought through a wave of nausea to try to act unbothered, but mercifully Arya had seemed totally appalled. She had brutally rejected the offer, and then gone into a massive rant to Gendry about stupid boys trying to shag her when she obviously just wanted to be friends.

Gendry had taken the hint, and never made a move on her. It wasn’t like he’d know how to go about it even if she had seemed interested. Something as small as trying to give her his jacket when she was shivering with cold seemed to grossly violate the boundaries of platonic friendship in Arya’s world. So they were mates. Best mates, really. And he was stupidly, pointlessly, horribly in love with her.

All of her friends knew it, too. Asha was about as subtle as a brick to the face, and Sansa looked like she was picking out a hat for an imaginary wedding that would never come. Brienne mostly just looked sorry for him, and he wondered what Arya had said to them. Probably that he was a big spotty moron whose hands were always dirty, and that she saw him as a sort of adoptive brother. That would be just his luck.

~

Once that mad old bodybuilder got escorted off the premises, it was quite a good day. Arya was eventually distracted from her determination to encounter his monkey at all costs, mostly with some halloumi fries and the prospect of watching Theon Greyjoy twatting about onstage. Sea Bitch was a deeply stupid name for a band, and Gendry thought Theon looked like a bit of a joke, standing with eyes closed and arms outstretched for just a smattering of lukewarm applause – all of it interspersed with Asha’s heckling, naturally. At one point she started loudly reminiscing about the time she’d caught him using their mum’s hair removal cream on his balls.

Still, there were plenty of girls who didn’t seem to care. Jeyne was right at the front, clapping and cheering and smiling so hard she was practically glowing, and she wasn’t the only one. Theon probably was going to invite one of them backstage tonight, just like his uncle had said. He’d shagged lots of girls; you could tell from looking at him, somehow; just like you could apparently tell from looking at Gendry that he’d never even come close.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t had the option – he’d got off with a couple of drunk girls on nights out, sloppy and nervous and unsure what to do though he was. One of them had wanted to come back to his, but it hadn’t felt right. How could you want to shag someone you didn’t even know? It wouldn’t have been fair to her anyway. He would have been so resentful towards her for not being Arya; for not picking some pointless argument between kisses, and calling him a der-brain, and refusing to stop arguing even while shagging, thumping him repeatedly on the chest to emphasise a point, and then collapsing into laughter afterwards and snorting like a pig.

Gendry watched Arya dancing with her housemates as the sounds of Sea Bitch wafted through the air. She was laughing hard at Asha’s catcalls, her nose all wrinkled up, and her hair was shining in the warmth of the afternoon sun. She kept stomping her booted feet on the ground and whirling her arms through the air, not giving a fraction of a shit about what anyone else might think. His chest felt all tight just looking at her. Sometimes it was like she’d given him asthma.

They went to see the Flaming Quentyns again and Arya insisted on attempting to crowdsurf –

‘I don’t think the crowd is thick enough, you’re going to end up on your arse –’

‘It’s fine, you wimp, just give me a leg-up and I’ll be on my way –’

- and went on the carousel and the Ferris wheel –

‘This thing isn’t going fast enough. Ooh, look, you can see the canal from up here.’

‘You aren’t going to be able to see the monkey, you know.’

‘I can try. I’ve got dead good eyesight.’

- and watched a bloke calling himself The Mead-King of Ruddy Hall sing about shagging a bear –

‘D’you reckon he’s actually done it?’

‘There are no wild bears in the UK any more, so if he has, he’s got a lifetime ban from the zoo.’

- and had to physically drag Sandor away from getting into a punching match with an entire Morris Dancing troupe after one of them approached him for a bit of audience participation –

‘This is why people say England has no bloody culture, because what we’ve actually got is people like you. If you don’t stop jingling those bastard bells at me, I’m going to stick them where the sun don’t shine, you sheep-shagging, Wicker-Man-building, giant-marrow-growing racists –’

- and bought burgers from Belwas at the Halal… Is It Meat You’re Looking For? food truck –

‘Tiny girl and big boyfriend! You want some fried locusts? Extra crispy, just for you! And I tell you what, I throw in some fried worms, cos I’m feeling generous, right? You each take one end like Lady and the Tramp, and in the middle, you kiss!’

‘For the ten millionth time, Gendry is not my stupid boyfriend! And those worms actually do legit look good, so go on, hand one over. But it’s for my mouth only, and don’t you bloody forget it.’

- and finally settled down at their campsite for the evening.

The festival was small enough that they could still see and hear whatever transpired on the nearest stage from the little hill where they had pitched their tents. Regardless of the dubious quality of the music, it was nice to sit there in the grass as the sun began to set, with Arya by his side. Even if she had basically confirmed that she considered kissing him to be significantly less appealing than eating worms.

The day had been warm, and the cooling breeze felt fresh and clear on his face; a far cry from the dirt and fumes of London. He sat and pretended to pay attention to the conversation, and looked at Arya’s legs out of the corner of his eye. They were pale and slim, and he thought they were strangely graceful, though he knew she would hate it if he ever said so. There were scrapes on her knees and a green-tinted bruise on her thigh. He wondered how her skin would feel if she ever let him touch her, and kicked himself for thinking of it.

As soon as Jaime had wandered off to force Brienne to take another break, all the contraband booze materialised. Arya yanked a mini bottle of vodka from the front of her dungarees, Sandor had two hip-flasks of whisky in his jacket, and Margaery produced a small bottle of grapefruit gin from somewhere inside her gigantic hat. To everyone’s great admiration, Meera climbed a nearby tree, stuck her hand in a knothole, and dropped back down clutching a bottle of mead she’d apparently planted there weeks in advance. Finally Asha lifted up the skirt of her long dress, giving everyone an eyeful in the process, to reveal no less than eight flasks of her homebrew strapped to her legs. It was all a bit Lara Croft, if instead of guns she’d had a crippling alcohol dependency.

‘Brienne was right, then,’ said Sansa, trying to look all reproachful, ‘and you lied to her face about it.’

‘Lied my arse,’ said Asha. ‘I told her I wouldn’t compromise her integrity, and by carefully concealing from her the fact that I’ve spent the day clanking about like a walking minibar, I’m not. Don’t act all holier-than-thou just because you don’t have any on you, when we all know you’ll end up drinking half of Margaery’s. Anyway, Brie guessed half-a-dozen flasks, which was fecking lowballing it. Go big or go home, lads.’

‘None of this explains why you’re going commando,’ Jeyne pointed out.

‘It’s for pissing purposes. I wasn’t lying about that part. Have you seen me use one of those stinking Portaloos all day? No, you have not, because I’ve been going in the grass. I did a wee mid-conversation with you earlier, and you were none the wiser.’

‘Oh my God,’ said Jeyne in total disgust. ‘So you’ve basically pissed all over your flasks all day?’

‘Of course not! I can aim like a bloke. Theon taught me when we were kids, and we used to have competitions. If you’re that fussed, you can crack out the anti-bac wipes, but I guarantee they’ll come off clean as a whistle.’

Despite Asha’s confidence in her marksmanship, no one except Qarl could be tempted to sample her wares. Gendry had a nip or two of Sandor’s whisky, but stopped there, and when Qarl passed around a joint he refused it completely. No one was bothered, though; Sansa didn’t want any either, and she smiled at him and pulled a face as all the others gave it a try.

The final band to take to the stage that night was called R’hlorrence and the Machine, and as cover bands went, they were pretty decent. The singer was appropriately redheaded and ethereal, and when all the girls started quietly singing along to one of the slower songs, conversation lulled. Gendry sat and listened, feeling almost bewitched by the rise and hush of their voices. He’d never heard Arya sing before. Her voice was low and husky and almost melancholy, totally at odds with her persona as a devious little shit, and he thought it was the most beautiful sound he’d ever heard. He knew Sansa was in a choir, and it was true that her singing was clear and sweet, but it was Arya he listened for; Arya he wanted.

When the song came to a close, the girls smiled and giggled and clapped, their faces alight, and Sandor drew Sansa close and kissed her hair. Gendry couldn’t help glancing at Arya. He tried to hide the dazed, gormless expression he knew must be on his face, but judging from Arya’s darkening glare he ultimately did not succeed.

‘That was –’

‘Shut up,’ she snapped, punching him in the arm. Her cheeks were crimson.

‘She’s got a lovely voice, doesn’t she?’ said Sansa, smiling encouragingly at the two of them. ‘I keep trying to tell her we should start a sister-based band like Haim, but she completely refuses.’

‘I don’t want to be in whatever crappy band you’d be in,’ Arya declared. ‘You’d want to sing about long lost love and the baby Jesus and teardrops on your guitar, whereas I only want to sing about the Machine and the raging against thereof.’

‘I’ll be in your band,’ Asha offered generously. ‘I’m a fecking menace on the pennywhistle.’

‘First off, metal has no place for the pennywhistle,’ said Arya. ‘Secondly, all the songs you’d want to play are about beardy old men getting lost to either a cruel-hearted prostitute or Davy Jones’ locker; and thirdly, whatever band you form will rapidly get torn apart by Yoko over here.’

She gestured rudely at Qarl, who mustered up the energy to say, ‘Hey, now, I’m not about tearing people apart. I’m about bringing them together.’

‘Suck your mum, dickman,’ was Arya’s response. Gendry sniggered.

‘Gendry could be in your band, Arya,’ suggested Meera. ‘You guys are always going to the same gigs, right?’  

‘That doesn’t mean he’s got any musical ability,’ said Arya.

‘Oh no,’ said Sandor. ‘Your hypothetical band will never recover from this crushing blow.’

‘Oh yeah, and what’s your hypothetical band?’ Arya shot back. ‘Thrash-metal covers of every Bruce Springsteen song where he sings about being a lonely pilgrim on an open highway?’

Sandor opened his mouth in outrage, but Sansa was convulsing with laughter.

‘She know you too well,’ she told him. ‘Anyway, Arya, he’s right. Musical ability doesn’t matter; it’s a game.’

‘Besides, most of the singers you listen to seem to scream rather than actually sing,’ said Jeyne. ‘Why couldn’t Gendry just do that?’

‘Throat vocals actually take a lot of skill and practice,’ snapped Arya.  ‘Not that I would expect you to know that, when all you listen to is Katy Perry and the Chainsmokers –’

'Please, tell me more about how basic I am because I like fun music that actually has a tune.' 

'If you think Chainsmokers songs have tunes then I've got some bad news about your hearing ability -'

‘I could play drums,’ blurted Gendry. 'In your band, I mean. Not even just hypothetically. If you wanted.' 

Everyone's eyes swivelled to land on him. 

‘What?’ demanded Arya, glaring. ‘You never told me that.’

‘My boss at the garage where I worked down in London was in a punk band,’ muttered Gendry. ‘Drummer never turned up to rehearsals, so I used to step in.’

He fidgeted, yanking out a couple of handfuls of grass as the girls exclaimed about how cool this was. He had only said it to distract Arya from fighting with Jeyne, and now his entire head had probably gone red.

‘I thought you looked like a drummer,’ said Meera.

‘It’s the arms, isn’t it?’ said Margaery.

‘I think it’s actually something about his chin,’ said Meera thoughtfully.

‘We really could start a band between us!’ exclaimed Sansa. ‘Sandor, you should learn the bass.’

‘Nope.’

‘What manner of punk are we talking?’ enquired Asha. ‘Snotty teenage I-hate-me-mam punk? Crusty old reliving-my-youth punk? It better not have been steampunk. I won’t tolerate a man in goggles outside of the lab.’

‘Dunno,’ said Gendry. ‘I just played the drums. I was mostly in it for the money.’

‘That’s the least punk thing you could have said, but I respect your honesty,’ said Asha.

‘What was the band called?’ asked Margaery, sharp-nailed fingers poised and ready to Google whatever he said in response.

Gendry glanced at Arya. Her grey eyes flickered over him as though she was searching for something, but he couldn’t have said what it was. He sighed, resigning himself to imminent humiliation.

‘The Brotherhood without Spanners.’

Chapter Text

Gendry was stupid. He just was, that was all. Granted, he was all big and muscly and he had bright blue eyes, but that didn’t make him any less of a chump. So what if he rode a motorbike and played the drums surprisingly well and laughed at her jokes and always, always looked out for her when she was pissed? That just meant he was a good mate.

Arya was heavingly, retchingly sick of everyone trying to pair them up like they were part of a matching knife and fork set; like they were two jigsaw pieces who would be considered messy anomalies until tab A had been inserted into slot B, so they could then be neatly framed and put behind glass together until the end of their days. It was 2019, for fuck’s sake. They were students. No irreparable damage to the Stark reputation would come about as a result of her and Gendry just being mates.

She’d been so reluctant to introduce him to the girls because she’d known it would be like this. Brienne and Meera were capable of normal conversation, and Asha was entertaining enough that Arya was willing to tolerate whatever bullshit she spouted in exchange for the banter that accompanied it. But Sansa, Margaery, and Jeyne? No bloody thanks. Smiling at Gendry all cosily and asking him questions and complimenting him - or worse yet, in Sansa’s case, pointedly complimenting Arya at him, and inviting him to join in with gleeful conniving eyes.

It could have been worse. At least he didn’t seem to fancy any of them. There had been a vague worry that he might, although the notion seemed absurd in retrospect. He was just as surly and awkward with them as he was with anyone else on first introduction.

Well. Apart from with Arya. One of the first things he’d said to her had been to ask if she wanted to come for a ride on his bike.

She glowered at him. He was just so... solid, and stolid, and stoic, and other words of that ilk. He was always just sort of there. And now here she was, lying in his stupid tent with him, because Asha had cut them off mid-argument and pointed out that if they were 'just mates' as Arya claimed, there could be no possible reason that sharing a tent would present a problem for them, unless either a) Arya had suddenly become overwhelmingly concerned for her feminine modesty and would therefore never again share a tent with her brothers or cousin on camping trips, or b) they fancied each other.

Arya had been fairly spitting with rage, but there had been no coming back to that. Clearly all the others had been in agreement, judging from their smug expressions. So she and Gendry had both got into the sodding tent, and he hadn’t taken off his jeans until he was already inside his sleeping bag, wriggling around like a dog trapped under a blanket, and now he was just lying there like a big stupid moron, staring at the ceiling.

‘It didn’t mean anything, what Asha said,’ Arya said finally, after some minutes of intense glaring at him. ‘She was just talking out of her arse, like always. You know how she is.’

‘I know,’ said Gendry. He was chewing on his bottom lip.

‘And how come you never told me you could play drums, anyway?’ said Arya, taking a swig of her smuggled vodka. She was sitting cross-legged on top of her own sleeping bag, fully clothed. Asha could mock her feminine modesty all she liked, but Arya was not taking off her dungarees until Gendry had well and truly conked out for the night. Judging by the tension on his face, that was going to take a while.

‘Dunno,’ said Gendry. ‘How come you never told me you can sing?’

‘I can’t sing,’ Arya said at once on reflex. Gendry snorted and gave her a look. ‘Ugh, fine. Whatever. But I’m not just going to go around telling people about everything I’m half-decent at, am I? What a shit conversation that would be. Hi, I’m Arya, I’m a black belt in Krav Maga, my singing voice is a solid seven out of ten, and I taught myself to lick my own elbow when I was a kid because someone told me it was physically impossible.

Gendry laughed, his eyes crinkling at her. ‘Did you actually?’

‘Duh,’ said Arya, and she demonstrated. She expected him to laugh – most people did – but he just launched into a coughing fit instead. She shook her head. What a weirdo.

She watched him as his coughing subsided, her eyes taking in his five o’clock shadow, his large square hands with their bitten nails, and the rare glimpse at his eyebrows while his hair was softly falling away from his forehead. The tent was dimly illuminated by the lanterns outside, and the music was still playing; R’hlorrence and the Machine apparently felt that limiting themselves to their agreed timeslot was a fool’s errand, and had been going for about two and a half hours now. Arya was pretty happy with this arrangement, though she knew it must be a massive pain in the arse for Brienne and the other security guards. But she would much rather listen to a twelve-minute rendition of Howl than to the dubious nocturnal activities of Sansa and Sandor. It was bad enough hearing it through the bedroom wall at home; out here, with Asha and Qarl’s deviant one-man-tent sex gymnastics thrown into the mix, it would be in bloody surround sound.

Shagging. That was what it all came back to, wasn’t it? Even if you didn’t actually do it, you still couldn’t escape from overhearing it, or hearing about it, or fending off requests to partake in it, and realising that way more people wanted to partake in it with you than you may have initially assumed, and as a consequence, finding yourself thinking about it far more than was strictly necessary. No wonder the uni gave out free condoms at every opportunity – it was a bloody epidemic. Sometimes Arya felt like the only outraged earthworm in the middle of a swarm of madly copulating mayflies.

She had occasionally wondered if she was missing out on some quintessential part of the student experience; if maybe she should have said yes to Ned, or to that goth bloke with the red and white hair who’d tried to chat her up down the pub once. But it was one thing to contemplate it now, to test it out in her head months down the line; there had been no other option but vehement refusal when they’d been right in front of her, up close, and she hadn’t liked the smell of their cologne. The school-issued sex education classes she had suffered through at thirteen may have focused more on terrifying images of STD viruses and putting a condom on a banana than on the intricacies of consent and desire, but Arya knew one thing with unwavering certainty: she had to want to do it.

And the only person she had ever wanted to do it with was big stupid Gendry Waters, with his stupid handsome face.

Her sister and housemates could read her like a book. A short, poorly-written book, with lots of close-up pictures of Gendry’s stupid arms. It pissed Arya off more than she could possibly articulate that, after over six months of insisting to all and sundry that he was just a mate, her subconscious had done a screeching U-turn and ominously boomed, ‘OR IS HE?’

It was his fault. He’d tried to give her his jacket on the way home from a gig, like he thought they were in a movie or something. Maybe the namby-pamby women of London swooned to the ground when they were handed a big smelly jacket, but Arya was made of much sterner stuff than that. She hadn’t even been that cold – she was northern, for fuck’s sake. But Gendry kept asking if she was sure, over and over, until she’d told him that if he offered it to her one more time, she was going to poke it down a drain with a stick, so the only person who would ever again benefit from its warmth would be Pennywise the clown.

Gendry had laughed at her the way he did sometimes, all spluttery and wide-eyed, like he was so surprised by her; and after months and months of painstakingly not taking any notice of it, the fact of his handsomeness had slapped her full in the face. She didn’t know why, because he’d just looked the same as always; all thick-haired and square-jawed, like he could lift a barn with one hand. Her stomach twisted strangely at the thought. And then, as though he’d read her mind and felt like he owed her a compliment in return, he’d blurted out that she was pretty.

Arya knew exactly what she’d looked like that night, and pretty wasn’t it. Her face was all pink, shiny with sweat because of how she’d been leaping around. Her eyeliner was smudged, her hair had half fallen out of the aggressive backcombing she’d given it, and her armpits were hairier than usual because she’d been feeling a bit punk. So she’d shoved Gendry and called him a twat, and bolted home to spare them both the indignity of him stubbornly insisting that he’d meant it.

And yet he had meant it. She knew he had. Arya may have had absolutely sod all experience with blokes outside of the occasional and much regretted sixth form snogging session, but somehow now her lady-senses had kicked in. OK, that was a revolting way of putting it – and not remotely accurate either, given the very unladylike turn her thoughts about Gendry had started to take. An animal instinct, then. She could sense him when he was looking at her, even when her back was turned, almost as if she were attuned to him. His eyes would land heavily on her chest and legs, and then he would drag them away as soon as he thought she was looking, although they would slide helplessly back sooner or later. Usually sooner.

Gendry Waters liked her. Really liked her. She’d have to be pretty bloody thick not to have picked up on it. And if he wanted to shag her, and she wanted to shag him…

Well, why the fuck not?

Just this once. They didn’t have to tell anyone. In fact, she was going to insist that they didn't, because the reactions would be bloody unbearable. But why should they miss out, if it was what they both wanted? They might as well do it tonight, get it over with, and then slide comfortably back into their friendship as it should be, no longer hampered by lingering gazes or awkward compliments or fantasies of giving illicit handjobs in a dark corner of the lecture theatre.

Arya took a fortifying chug of vodka, and wriggled around until she was facing Gendry directly.

‘How many girls have you shagged?’ she asked him.

‘What?’ Gendry started coughing again, but this time Arya grew concerned he might choke. His face was going very red.

‘You heard. How many? We never talk about this stuff. I want to know.’

‘It’s not… you can’t just…’ he stammered. Arya was extremely gratified to note that he was actually squirming. ‘I don’t… three.’

Arya narrowed her eyes. ‘Margaery says blokes always add three on to their actual number.’

‘How does she know that?’ Gendry demanded, before apparently realising what he’d just said. His face went, if possible, even redder. ‘I mean, it’s not… I could’ve, if I’d… look, is this about what Asha’s uncle said?’

‘What? No, this is about me asking you a question. Who the hell cares what that arsehole said? In case you’ve forgotten, he tried to stab you.’ Arya shivered a little. The attempted assault had been over far too quickly for her to feel anything other than confusion at the time, but the ugly thought of what could have happened had repeatedly slithered into her mind over the course of the day, shocking her with how much it frightened her. She didn’t think she’d ever really feared for anyone’s life before.

‘I would’ve ground him into the dirt if Brienne hadn't got there first,’ she announced. The corner of Gendry’s mouth quirked into a smile, and Arya’s insides did a little wriggle. ‘What a knob. He was on some proper steroids. Looked like he’d had a load of cricket balls sewn into his arms.’

‘Total nutter,’ Gendry agreed. ‘Explains a lot about Asha though, being related to him. Shame we couldn’t see the monkey.’

He was trying to change the subject, but Arya was having none of it. The principal object of her desire had shifted considerably since this morning. Quite frankly, the monkey was old news compared to the stupid handsome boy who had almost gotten himself killed trying to defend her honour because someone had called her a Protestant. 

‘Anyway, I don’t care if you’ve never shagged anyone,’ she told him. ‘I haven’t either. So what?’

‘So, it’s different for girls,’ Gendry muttered. He had tensed up again, his fists clenched tight.

‘No it isn’t. Get with the times, dickhead.’ Arya took another gulp of vodka and offered it to him. He actually accepted it and drank some, which was how she knew she’d rattled him.

‘I am with the times,’ he said, frowning. ‘It’s still different. No one’s going to take the piss out of you for not doing it.’

‘Er, wrong. Asha does, all the time. And Meera joined in and tried to blame it on my chakras. I don’t know why she got on her high horse about it, when she’s the only other one out of the whole poxy lot of them who never brings anyone home after a night out. I thought she'd be on my side.’

‘What’s wrong with your chakras?’

‘Nothing!’ said Arya, with a deeply offended air. ‘Do I look like I've got a problem with my chakras?’

‘Dunno,' said Gendry. 'What’s a chakra?’

On the verge of launching into a scientific, scepticism-fuelled rant, Arya paused. She’d never tried to seduce anyone before, but this seemed as good a way as any to get the ball rolling. Or indeed, the balls. Snickering to herself, she swiped her vodka off Gendry and downed the last of it, before shuffling much closer to him than before. He was still mostly lying down, leaning back on his elbows so his biceps were all bulgy. He looked faintly alarmed, and his perturbation significantly increased when she touched a finger to the very top of his head. His hair felt thick and soft.

‘This is your crown chakra,’ she informed him. ‘Yours is chakra-tastic. Glowing like a bastard. Obviously what this means is that you’re secretly sixth in line to the throne. All that shit about being from Hackney was just an elaborate ruse.’

Gendry snorted. ‘Yeah, right,’ he muttered, but anything else he might have said was halted when Arya traced her finger lightly down his forehead until it rested between his eyebrows. He blinked. He was laying perfectly still for her, his eyes wide and watchful.

‘This is your third eye chakra. It’s for detecting monsters, obviously. Only when it has been opened via the magic of crystals will your chakra-vision be fully activated. Up until that point, you’re so blind you wouldn’t recognise Godzilla if he did an earth-shattering tap dance right in front of you.’

Gendry breathed out a shadow of a laugh. He was giving her that look again, like he wanted to kiss her, like he couldn’t believe she was there in front of him. Arya felt a thrill of power in her belly. She skated her finger down his nose, down the softness of his lips and the rasp of his stubble, until it landed lightly on his Adam’s apple. He swallowed.

‘This is your throat chakra,’ she said. ‘Also known as the snack-ra, because this is where the food goes down.’

She sniggered at her own joke, and noted that Gendry was not joining in. He was a bit busy looking genuinely pained, like he was about to go into cardiac arrest. It seemed seduction was a dangerous game to play. Arya let her finger glide down his neck, through the black curls of his chest hair and along the warm, worn softness of his t-shirt, until it settled directly over his heart, which at that precise moment in time was pounding like a freight train.

‘Arya,’ he said, sounding all strangled.

Arya realised just how close to him she was leaning. Her stomach swooped, her heart picking up the pace. She was doing it! She was trying to be sexy, and it was actually working. Maybe she should buy Gendry some chicken nuggets or something tomorrow, as a sort of thank you for being such a thoroughly deserving target on the fledgling voyage of her mighty seductive powers.

‘Yes?’ she murmured.

‘You are batshit fucking mental,’ whispered Gendry. His gaze was blazing with so much heat that there was no way to take this accusation as anything other than the utmost compliment. Arya could feel her own eyes glowing with warmth right back at him, as though the two of them were perfectly in tune.

‘This,’ she continued softly, ‘is your heart chakra. To be honest, this one is a total wanker. All it does is try to take the credit for the stuff that your actual heart is already doing. Boo, heart chakra. Get a real job.’

She slid her finger deliberately inside Gendry’s sleeping bag, and his breath hitched, cutting off his dazed laughter. His stomach was flat and hard and hot, and she traced lightly across it, no longer just using one finger, never settling in one spot. Glancing at his face, she saw that his cheeks were red, his hair all ruffled, and he was chewing hard at his bottom lip.

‘There’s two more chakras around here somewhere,’ said Arya, ‘but fuck me if I can remember what they’re called. I’m going to say this one is your gall bladder chakra, because why should your heart get all the credit? Your gall bladder is very important.’

Her fingertips danced lower and lower, past his belly button. He was breathing hard, trembling.

‘Let’s say this one here is Chakra Khan,' she said. 'It’s ruled exclusively by funk, which means yours is hardly ever activated.’

Usually Gendry would have attempted to defend himself against such a grievous insult, but his jaw was clenched tightly shut, and the power of speech seemed to have evaded him completely. Smiling like a cat who had obtained an entire ocean of cream, her heart thumping with the newness and excitement and audacity of what she was doing, Arya slipped her hand lower, grasped him through his boxers, and squeezed.

He felt thick and hard and hot. His eyes nearly popped out of his head.

‘And this,’ she whispered, ‘is your willy.’

Unable to stop herself, she broke into a fit of uncontrollable giggles, and collapsed onto Gendry’s chest in a cackling heap.

Chapter Text

‘Fuck sake,’ Gendry muttered from somewhere above her head, sounding half amused, half exasperated. ‘You’re a menace.’

‘What?’ Arya said, still sniggering. ‘There really is a chakra there.’

Under her cheek, his chest rose and fell as he let out a deep breath. He was very comfy, she decided. Usually any contact between them was limited to shoving each other, but she had to admit this wasn’t bad either. Gendry was trembling – just a little, and she could tell he was trying to hide it. She’d surprised him.

‘That’s not the point,’ he informed her. ‘You’re drunk.’

Arya pulled a face and squinted up at him. ‘No, I’m not.’

‘All right, you’re stoned, then. Who knows what was in that spliff?’

‘Come off it, I had about three puffs. Qarl’s been at it all day and he’s still alive.’

‘Qarl’s a wanker,’ said Gendry.

‘He is,’ Arya agreed. ‘But whatever. Stop trying to be a gentleman. I know that’s what you’re doing.’

He shifted awkwardly, and she rolled her eyes. Typical. She had been so tickled by her own inimitable humour that she had completely thrown off her carefully cultivated seductive air, and now he thought she was off her tits on drugs. Maybe she was a bit tipsy, but that was no reason to stop; if anything, losing her virginity this way would be less uncomfortable and more fun than doing it sober.

Still, she liked that Gendry was trying to make sure she was in full control of her faculties. He always did that, in one way or another; never preaching at her for getting pissed, but invariably there when she needed someone to hold her upright. He was all concerned and a bit winded just now, his cheeks red. He was looking at her as though he’d just pulled her to solid ground from the edge of a cliff, and was waiting for her to tell him she was all right.

She really, really wanted to shag him.

Right. Time to get back to being sexy. Gendry was a boy, wasn’t he? They were famously meant to get worked up at the drop of a hat. Arya didn’t have a hat with her, but in the interest of experimentation, she allowed one of her dungaree straps to slip off her shoulder. His eyes darted towards it and he swallowed.

Biting back a grin, she began to dance her fingers lower on his body once more.

‘It – it’s not about being a gentleman,’ said Gendry, his voice getting higher. ‘It’s just – you hated when Ned asked you out.’

‘In case you haven’t noticed, you dork, you’re not Ned,’ Arya pointed out. ‘He’s got the same name as my dad. And he’s all posh and southern. Yuck.’

‘I’m southern.’

‘Don’t remind me,’ said Arya. Her hand found his cock again, this time slipping inside his boxers and beginning to stroke. He jumped, letting out a gasp.

‘I – I didn’t think you liked me either,’ he stammered. ‘Like that, I mean.’

‘Like that?’ she said, cheerfully misinterpreting his words on purpose and repeating what she had just done with her hand. He inhaled sharply.

‘I mean – I thought you just – just wanted to be m-mates.’

‘What’s wrong with a bit of wanking off among mates?’ said Arya. ‘I bet you and the boys all do it to each other when I’m not around.’

Gendry’s head fell back and he laughed breathlessly. She watched him, avid. She was trying out different techniques with her hand – varying the speed and pressure of her strokes, swiping a thumb over the head of his cock. All of it seemed to be working exceptionally well; he was shaking, almost panting, his hips pushing helplessly up against where she gripped him. She would have been spectacularly bored doing this to anyone else, but it was different with Gendry; he who was always quiet and capable and sober and sturdy, coming so desperately undone at her touch.

‘You k-know what I m-mean,’ he groaned. Arya glared at him. Mid-handjob, and he was still as stubborn as a bloody mule. If he wasn’t too overcome by passion to try to exact some sort of explanation for her behaviour, clearly she needed to up the ante. Squeezing his cock, she leaned down and bit him on the throat.

He grunted, spasmed, and came in her hand.

She drew back, wanting to watch him, but it was already over. He was laying there, gasping like he’d just done a triathlon, trying to get his breath back and looking thoroughly embarrassed.

Arya stared at him, perplexed. It couldn’t have finished that quickly, surely? If that was how long the average male orgasm lasted, blokes got a seriously raw deal. Maybe that was why they had invented the patriarchy – because they were jealous of how much fun all the women were having. Or maybe it just hadn’t been a very good orgasm. It wasn’t like she knew what she was doing; perhaps she’d quite literally rubbed him up the wrong way. But he had got off almost immediately – surely that was a good thing? She wished he’d say something.

Settling awkwardly back down on her haunches, she withdrew her hand and tried not to look at it. It was sticky. What the hell was the etiquette when one had spunk on one’s hand? She wasn’t exactly going to lick it up like it was melted ice cream or something, for all that she had some vague idea that blokes were meant to like that sort of thing. What did Sansa and Brienne do in this situation? Arya found it impossible to imagine either of them with semen anywhere on their person – which, ultimately, was for the best.

After what felt like a thousand years, Gendry gave himself a little shake, and reached into his backpack and produced a pack of wet wipes. He handed one to Arya, and they both cleaned themselves up in total, screaming silence. Was this normal? It just seemed such a strange thing to be doing in front of another person.

They weren’t looking at one another. It was too much. She had to break the tension.

‘Well?’ she said loudly. ‘Come on then. On a scale of one to ten. How was it?’

Gendry spluttered out a laugh.

‘Twelve,’ he mumbled, grinning at her sheepishly. She couldn’t help but smile back, biting her lip. He was rosy in the face, his wide eyes suggesting he didn’t quite believe what had just happened, despite the overwhelming physical evidence to the contrary.

‘But… why’d you do it?’ he said. ‘I thought – I mean, you never seemed to be interested…’

‘Why does anyone do anything?’ said Arya, waving her hands about in a hopefully distracting manner. ‘I did it because I wanted to. Anyway, how long before this thing is ready to rock and roll again?’

She pointed at his crotch.

‘Again?’ Gendry’s face lit up. ‘Erm. Fifteen minutes?’

Arya considered this.

‘I suppose that’s not too bad,’ she said. ‘Must be crap having to wait for your own body to catch up with you, though. What do you do, put the kettle on? Or just sit there poking at it until it moves, like if you found a snake and you wanted to know if it was dead or not?’

‘Why the hell would you poke a snake?’ he said, pulling a face. ‘Even if you thought it was dead, that’s stupid.’

‘I’m just interested in the world around me! Anyway, answer the question. What do you do?’

‘I dunno,’ said Gendry. He had gone red again. ‘Nothing, really.’

‘Must be so weird, sitting around checking your watch, waiting for your knob to cooperate. Sounds like a chump’s game to me.’

‘Well, at least I can actually get myself off. What do you do, just punch stuff until the urge goes away?’

‘What the hell?’ demanded Arya. ‘I can get myself off any time, any place, dickhead. Last week I did it four times in a row.’

Too late, she realised she’d been had. 

‘Four times?’ said Gendry.

He was staring at her, more openly than he ever had before. He must have known there was no way she’d ever have admitted that if he’d asked outright. It made her feel strangely naked, and she blushed, suddenly hotly aware of his size, his strength, and how easily he could pin her down, if he wanted. While he had let himself be completely subject to her whims, it hadn’t occurred to her that she might find herself feeling exposed in a similar manner. She hadn’t even taken off her dungarees yet.

‘So?’ she said, whacking him on the chest. Her face felt far too hot. ‘What, do you think it’s unladylike or something? Everybody does it.’

‘What do you do?’ he asked. ‘You know, when you…?’

‘What do you think I do, buttface?’ Arya snapped. ‘Same as you, except I don’t need to down a bottle of Lucozade to recover after each round.’

Gendry was blinking, and a big grin was spreading across his face. She scowled at him, wishing there was a way of forcing someone to stop mentally picturing something. Why should it be such a surprise? Of course she’d bloody well got herself off. No one else was going to be able to do it, were they? It was always just her, alone in bed, on particularly restless nights. Two fingers, ten minutes imagining she was Princess Leia shagging Han Solo on the console unit in the crumbling rebel base on the ice planet of Hoth, job done. Bringing an actual bloke into the mix had always seemed a bit redundant.

Until this moron had turned up, anyway.

‘Shut up,’ she ordered, even though he hadn’t actually said anything.

‘What’s the matter?’ said Gendry. He was looking a bit cocky, like he always did on those rare occasions when he managed to make her blush. Arya could never decide if she liked it or hated it when he got like this, because it tended to make her forget what she was supposed to do with her hands and feet. She wanted to punch him, but knew from experience that it would only make him even smugger. Fisting her hands in his t-shirt, glaring with all the righteously horny wrath she could summon, Arya dragged Gendry towards her and wiped that stupidly hot expression right off his face.

With her mouth.

His hands instantly came up to cup her cheeks, stroking gently through the wisps of hair that had escaped her plaits, and she couldn’t help smiling despite herself. He kissed her slowly, his lips tentative, almost shy, as they finally became acquainted with hers after months of passing them by.

‘Your hair feels really soft,’ he whispered into her mouth. ‘Like feathers.’ 

‘Feathers?’ she said, wrinkling her nose in confusion. 

‘Yeah,’ said Gendry, seemingly feeling no need to provide further explanation, and kissing her again.

Arya had been picturing a quick, no-nonsense shag. Kissing had inevitably factored into her daydreams, but she hadn’t thought it would be like this. The way he kissed her was quiet and warm and sweet; she was cross-legged, sat so neatly, with Gendry on his side, holding himself up with impressive core strength alone, straining towards her like a plant desperately seeking out the sun. He touched her like she was a kitten or a lamb, as though he was worried that if he put the slightest bit of pressure on her, she would shatter like a china shepherdess. Nobody had ever treated her with such delicacy and care before.

Quite frankly, it was bloody unnerving.

Arya pushed him lightly to the ground, and swung a leg over to straddle him. He made a noise in his throat like he was trying to say something, but ultimately never managed to do so. Victorious, she leaned down to kiss him again, faster and harder this time. He could shove his gentle romantic caresses up his bum, because she had decided to seduce him, and she was sodding well going to get on with it.

Gendry broke away from her mouth to kiss her ear, her chin, her neck. ‘I’ve wanted this since I first saw you,’ he said breathlessly, groaning while she wriggled on top of him and bit his earlobe. ‘Fucking hell, Arya. You’re just… wow.’

Arya’s stomach somersaulted at his words. She could feel how wet she was, and she was pretty sure he was getting hard again, but his sleeping bag was still between them. Reaching down, she shoved it out of the way until she could confidently confirm that there was a sizeable erection in his boxers. She plonked herself on top of it, and Gendry jolted. His hands were big and rough and warm, and they settled gingerly on top of her thighs, fingers twitching a little.

‘You’re such a prude,’ she informed him between kisses. ‘I literally just wanked you off. You can have a grope.’

She laughed at her own terrible dirty talk, feeling almost giddy. As much as she liked having Gendry like this – especially when his thumbs began to stroke along the softness of her inner thighs – she liked herself this way too. It was strangely heartening, to know that she could dip her toes (and indeed any other sundry parts of her anatomy) into a world from which she had always felt entirely closed off, and yet still feel able to be one hundred percent Arya Stark.

That was partly down to Gendry, she supposed. He wasn’t just tolerant of her commentary; his blue eyes glowed with warmth and amusement and helpless fondness whenever she opened her mouth. He slid his hands up her thighs, her hips, across her bare waist and back and underneath her crop top, searching for a clasp that wasn’t there.

He choked, his hands fumbling.

‘You’re not –?’

‘Not what?’ said Arya, leaning down and biting his bottom lip until his hips did a little involuntary piston.

‘Not – wearing a bra,’ he stammered.

‘So? Why should I? You’re not the boss of me. Take your stupid shirt off.’

Gendry scrambled to obey, and Arya felt a dirty little grin spread across her face as her hands mapped his body. He was just – well, you couldn’t use the word ‘hunk’ without sounding like you wrote for a women’s magazine, but it really did apply in this case. Gendry was buff. He was all big and tanned and muscly, black hair curling on his chest and in his armpits, and trailing down his stomach into his boxers. He looked like he’d been hewn from tree trunks; all the other boys at uni seemed like weedy little reeds next to him. None of them were as decent as he was, either, Arya thought, something squeezing inside her chest. Correspondingly, something squeezed outside her chest when Gendry’s huge hands slipped under her top once more – at the front, this time.

He cupped her breasts gently, an expression of wonder on his face. His thumbs brushed across her nipples, pinched them lightly, and she shivered, her insides clenching. She could see his hands moving under her top, could feel his cock twitching beneath her. She couldn’t get close enough.

‘Have you got a condom?’ she asked, raking her nails down his chest and pressing herself harder against him.

‘What?’ Gendry gaped at her. ‘You mean – you want to…? With me? Now?’

‘Have you not figured that out yet?’ said Arya. She bit her way down his neck to his shoulder, revelling in the way his body thrummed beneath her. ‘Come on, knobhead, have you got one or not?’

‘Of course I bloody haven’t!’ said Gendry, looking as outraged as if she’d asked him if he’d got any heroin. ‘I thought this was a normal mates’ camping trip, not a – a –’

‘Mind-blowingly hot seduction?’ she suggested.

He shook his head at her, seemingly lost for words.

‘I suppose we could chance it,’ she said thoughtfully, ‘if we’re both clean, and if I nip to Boots in the morning…’

‘What?’ he yelped. ‘No, we can’t chance it – are you kidding? I could get you pregnant!’

‘Not for definite!’ she argued, more out of habit than from any real conviction.

‘A baby,’ said Gendry flatly. ‘A little bundle of joy, due in May. Just in time for end of year exams. We could name it after Uncle Vic.’

He had a point.

‘Ugh, fine,’ said Arya. ‘Stay there.’

Twisting around, she unzipped the tent and wriggled her way outside.

The night air felt bracingly cool, and Arya closed her eyes and took a deep breath, considering her options. Sansa and Sandor would definitely have come prepared, but she would rather stay celibate for the rest of her life than have to ask them if they had any condoms going spare. Besides, she recalled from a regrettable snooping session in Sansa’s room that all Sandor’s protective devices tended to have a big ‘XL’ on the box. Arya may not have known much about sex, but she was pretty sure that coming back with a potentially too-large condom would be a sure-fire way of killing Gendry’s boner. Margaery would have some, and she wouldn’t get all smug handing them out either, but she was off in that stupid B&B. Brienne was working, Jeyne wouldn’t share, and Meera wouldn’t have any.

It would have to be Asha.

Arya stole over to Qarl’s grubby one-man tent and slapped at it a few times in a vague approximation of a knock.

‘Asha!’ she hissed. ‘Open the tent!’

‘Shite,’ Asha’s voice muttered, and Arya sensed a flurry of movement within. ‘It’s the feckin’ Garda. Will you give us a moment, DI Dreamy? We’re just making ourselves respectable.’

‘It’s Arya!’

‘Is it? Oh, well, in that case.’ The tent unzipped, and a thick cloud of pungent smoke billowed out into the night. It was followed by Asha’s bleary-eyed head, which emerged at an extremely uncomfortable-looking angle. ‘What can I do you for?’ she enquired, her words slurring together.

‘How many condoms did you bring with you?’ Arya said without preamble.

‘A whole box of the bastards!’ said Asha amiably. ‘Qarl gets fecking tantric when he’s smoked enough, and he is loving this non-stop Florence. R’hlorrence. Whatever her name is, she’s got him harder than my Quantum Mechanics exam. Or maybe he took a pill. I don’t know. Jesus Christ, that’s nice.’

Asha’s head appeared to be rocking back and forth as she spoke, and Arya was overcome with a bone-chillingly horrible realisation.

‘Is he shagging you while we’re talking?’ she demanded.

‘Well, I wasn’t about to stop him,’ said Asha. ‘His tent, his rules. Right, babe?’

Deep within the tent, Qarl muttered an incomprehensible response. Arya tore her eyes away from whatever she might see, revolted, and focused intently on Asha’s eyebrow piercing.

‘Can I have a condom?’ 

‘Course you can,' said Asha. 'Finally going to get a good old seeing-to from Mr Waters, are you? Well, he’s a big lad, so make sure you don’t skimp on the foreplay. Cunnilingus is lovely this time of year.’

‘What? No! Gross!’ said Arya loudly, her cheeks heating up. ‘Gendry doesn’t believe I can fit a condom over my head, and he won’t shut up about it until I prove him wrong. Can I have one?’

‘Ah, you crazy kids,’ mumbled Asha. ‘You know what? Take two. You can both have a go. But I’m telling you – fuck! You’d have a lot more fun if you just shagged him instead.’

Someone’s disembodied hand emerged from the tent proffering two condoms, and Arya snatched them at once, before hightailing it back to comparative normality. Behind her, Asha’s head vanished into the smoky darkness of Qarl’s tent with the air of a sphinx retreating to its lair after granting a boon to a weary traveller.

Zipping the tent shut behind her, Arya waved the condoms triumphantly at Gendry.

‘Where’d you get those?’ he said, looking baffled. 

‘Asha was feeling generous.’

‘What, so they’re Qarl’s?’ said Gendry, his face filling with distaste.

‘He hasn’t used them, you loser,’ said Arya, throwing them at him as if they constituted a winning hand at poker, and yanking off her boots and socks. ‘Put one on. We’re going to poundtown. Hope it’s better than Poundland.’

Sniggering, she shimmied out of her dungarees, and glanced up to see him staring at her with his mouth hanging open. The condoms lay untouched on his stomach. It occurred to her that she was possibly being a bit too bolshy.

‘I mean…’ she cleared her throat. ‘We don’t have to go to poundtown, if you don’t want to. We could just… talk. About RoboCop, or something. Remember the bit where the mutant gets hit by the car?’

Gendry grabbed her by the arms, dragged her on top of him, and kissed the living daylights out of her.

‘Stop calling it poundtown, you nutjob,’ he ordered her, once they'd surfaced for air. Arya wasn’t fooled one bit; he had a massive grin on his face. She dragged his boxers down, and he kicked them off.

Asha was right; Gendry was a big lad. Perhaps the XL condoms wouldn’t have been a problem after all. He looked self-conscious, but there was no call for it; he was stupidly hot, and naked, and strainingly hard for her. She whipped off her top, and his mouth fell open once again; he gulped, seemingly searching for words, but she didn’t need to hear them. His expression was everything. Her bright yellow knickers were last to go, and good riddance to them. They were soaked through.

Gendry’s eyes fixed on the dark, wet curls between her legs, and on the flash of pink as she straddled him.

‘Your…’ he whispered. ‘It’s…’

‘It’s called a vulva,’ Arya informed him. ‘Get body positive, bitch.’

‘I am,’ he stammered. ‘I mean, I’m very positive. About it. You. I just… I’ve never met anyone like you.’

‘Good,’ she said, her voice very quiet, as his hands returned to stroke her tits.

‘Arya,’ he murmured. ‘Arya. You’re so beautiful.’

Arya was almost awed by his reaction. How many hours of her life had she spent standing next to Sansa and feeling like the ugly sister? She had always seen herself as a sort of skinny awkward goblin, only emerging from her cave to pick fights with people and snaffle the occasional packet of crisps. Looking into Gendry’s eyes, she knew that Sansa might as well have been a heavily bearded sea captain as far as he was concerned. He wanted Arya, and in the little world they inhabited within this tent, that meant that she was beautiful.

Outside, R’hlorrence were still going, though they had apparently run out of cover songs and moved onto some original material, because Arya was sure she had never heard this song about a featherbed before. She didn't need one; the ground was hard under her knees, and Gendry was hard and warm and perfect beneath her. She tore open one of the condoms, took a brief moment to ascertain which way round it needed to go, and rolled it down Gendry’s cock. Positioning herself over it, she took a deep breath.

Right. Time to relax. It would be just like inserting a tampon.

A massive, slippery, twitching tampon, with a ridiculously handsome boy attached to the other end of it.

OK, that was disgusting.

Keen to think of literally anything else, Arya leaned down to kiss Gendry again. She ran her hands over his arms and stomach, played with his chest hair and cupped his jaw. She pressed herself against his cock, letting her body feel out what it needed, how they aligned, what she was ready for. He was breathing hard, little whines escaping him whenever she came close to letting him enter her. His hands clutched her hips, and she got the impression he was having to try very hard not to just yank her downwards. Her belly somersaulted, low and hot; she reached down to hold him steady at the base so she could take him in, but his hips jerked as she touched him, and his cock stubbed awkwardly against her in exactly the wrong place.

‘Ouch!’ Arya flinched.

‘Sorry, I’m sorry!’ said Gendry, looking horrified. ‘Shit, I hurt you. I knew this would happen. I’ve got some painkillers in my backpack! Do you need ice?’

Ice? He was acting like they’d been playing with knives and she’d lost a toe. Arya shook her head. Oddly charmed by his babbling, she sat back, folded her arms, and let it play out. Eventually he seemed to get the hint.

‘You’re fine, aren’t you?’ 

‘I am.’

‘I overreacted, didn’t I?’

‘You did.’

‘Can we pretend that never happened?’

Usually Arya would have refused on principle and relentlessly mocked him for the remainder of the evening, but on this occasion she decided to be magnanimous. Mostly because his desperate concern for her welfare was sexier than it had any right to be. Smiling, she stroked his jaw and kissed him again.

This time, Gendry gripped his cock, and Arya shifted her hips until she was confident that their bodies were meeting in exactly the right place. Breathing out all the tension she was carrying in one long sigh, she closed her eyes and let herself sink down and take him in.

It didn’t hurt. There was a twinge of discomfort, a stretching sensation, but she didn’t care; she just focused on the hot, smooth, wet slide of him entering her fully, pressing against her walls until he bottomed out inside her. She took a moment purely for herself, to focus on this brand new feeling. She had never done this before. It was a little strange, but good, she thought; he was big and she was small, but their bodies seemed to suit each other.

When she opened her eyes, she saw that Gendry was trembling and sweaty, his lips pressed together tight to stopper any noise that might escape. Arya shifted her hips, and his hands stilled them at once. He reminded her of a balloon seconds away from popping, and she bit her lip, her insides squeezing again. Inevitably she ended up squeezing his cock, and he convulsed, letting out a groan.

‘What's the matter?' she said innocently. ‘It's fine - just think unsexy thoughts. Think about RoboCop! Remember the bit where he shoots that guy in the dick?’

Strangely, this didn’t work as intended. Gendry stilled, but he was gazing up at her with such overwhelming emotion on his face that it was almost too much. In need of a distraction, Arya rolled her hips again, lifting herself up and sliding back down, and he practically went cross-eyed.

‘Arya,’ he muttered. ‘You’re really warm. You feel so good.’

He pulled her down towards him and kissed her neck, her tits; kissed anywhere he could reach. His mouth was hot and wet, his breath coming in pants.

‘I really, really like you,’ he said, his eyes painfully earnest as they met hers. ‘If you were my girlfriend –’

Arya kissed him hard, bringing one of his hands up to her chest as she moved on top of him. Sensation was sparking where his cock was pressing inside her, little bursts of heat, and it was so good, so nice, but she could tell from the way he was shaking that she didn’t have long.

She licked two fingers, skated her hand down to her clit, and began to stroke herself just the way she liked.

‘Fuck!’ Gendry gasped, his hands clamping down on her, his eyes wide with panic. His cock pulsed, his entire body spasmed, and Arya watched hungrily. His face was open, naked, helpless with need, blue eyes locked on her, and desperate groans burst through his clenched teeth as he shook, coming hard inside her.

‘Sorry!’ he panted as soon as he seemed able to speak. ‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to –’

‘Shut up,’ said Arya. She was breathless, her eyes glazed; he looked so good, she hadn’t stopped touching herself for a moment. His cock hadn’t immediately deflated as she had briefly feared; he still felt hot and solid, twitching within her. She rode him determinedly, and there was nothing else in the world apart from the two of them; the feeling of her fingers on her clit, his cock inside her, his hands all over her, and his face, watching her in a daze. She didn’t even need Han Solo tonight; she was fucking the kindest, best, handsomest boy she’d ever seen, and he liked her and wanted her, he did, he did, he did –

She came with a jolt, clenching tight around his cock, a tiny moan escaping her lips before she clamped them shut. She shook hard on top of him, her body jerking violently, each wave slamming through her like a physical blow, ripping the breath from her body. Had it ever been this good before? She could barely think. It was Gendry’s fault, stupid handsome Gendry with his giant arms and his big stupid dick.

Shuddering, she collapsed on top of him, aftershocks lightly thrilling through her.

‘Oh wow,’ Gendry was mumbling, sounding like he’d just witnessed a vision of angelic glory. ‘I mean… whoa. You’re amazing. Thank you. That was…’

‘Did you just thank me?’ Arya said into his chest, her voice muffled.

‘What’s wrong with that?’ he said. ‘We just… it was…’

She peeled her body from his and watched him gesture helplessly, unable to express what being with her had meant to him. Not that he needed to say it with words. His body had been shouting it loud and clear - not just tonight, but for longer than she could remember. As her chest squeezed for the thousandth time, Arya couldn't deny that her body had been doing some shouting of its own. Until now she’d been doing a stellar job of shutting it up, but maybe it was time to let it speak. 

When Gendry cracked out the wet wipes this time around, it wasn’t awkward. It was just… close. Warm and glowy, intimate and soft and safe. She didn’t even get the chance to put on her pyjamas; he wrapped his arms around her and pulled her under his sleeping bag, entwining them together, and it felt oddly natural and right. He kept kissing her hair, almost like he couldn’t help himself.

'I like you so much,' he murmured into her forehead. 'You're perfect.' 

Biting her lip, Arya smiled into his chest and snuggled closer. He felt all smooth and hot and muscly. Admitting she was wrong had never been one of her strong points, but thankfully on this occasion she wouldn't have to do it out loud. There was no shame in it, she supposed; she'd done an experiment, gathered some extremely smutty data, and her original hypothesis had turned out to be staggeringly incorrect.

There was only one conclusion to be drawn: shagging Gendry Waters just once really wasn’t going to cut it.

Good thing they had another condom.

Chapter Text

In much the same manner that a slug might, Asha slithered out of Qarl’s tent.

She lay prone on the dewy grass, wondering vaguely what time it was, and whether her dress was covering all the bits it was supposed to. Rolling onto her back, she gazed at the pale, cloudless blue of the sky, letting the fresh breeze and the warmth of the sun revive her after several hours of hotboxing and shagging, and not very many hours at all of sleeping.

Someone’s boot nudged her, and she let out a piteous whine.

‘Oh dear,’ said Brienne, sounding amused. ‘Rough night?’

Asha mumbled something incoherent in response, holding up her hands with the grabby supplicating air of an infant.

‘Honestly,’ said Brienne, reaching down. Asha was pulled into a sitting position, and a cup of tea was deposited into her hands. It was scalding hot, but even when feeling as fragile as she currently did, that was no roadblock; she took a couple of gulps and let out a contented breath as the caffeine began to work its soothing magic.

‘Brie, you are my best and truest friend,’ she announced as soon as she was able,  ‘and every cup of tea that passes through your hands tastes like it was blessed by the baby Jesus himself.’

‘How much blessing would a baby really be capable of?’ said Brienne doubtfully.

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Asha. ‘The baby Jesus is a busy little lad. My mam says he blessed all her wedding china, and I reckon she’s right. How else would it have survived that fall off the back of a lorry?’

Brienne sighed and shook her head, but was distracted by the arrival of her beloved boyfriend, who handed her a veggie frittata to go with her coffee. Both of them looked annoyingly crisp and well-rested; Brienne in her black security gear, and Jaime all matchy in a fresh black t-shirt. He sat down beside them with a blinding smile, produced a bacon roll from a paper bag, and was just about to tuck into it when Asha let out a pathetic cough.

‘Excuse me, DI Lannister,’ she said in her best starving orphan voice. ‘I don’t suppose there are any scraps of food in that bag for little old me… are there?’

‘Seriously?’ said Jaime, looking appropriately disgusted. ‘You have absolutely no shame, do you?’

Asha coughed again, cupping her hands and stretching them towards him.

‘You can have an Oscar for that performance, but you’re not having my breakfast. You’re a bloody liability, you know that?’

‘Well, that’s not very nice,’ said Asha. ‘I hope you show more compassion when you’re dealing with our homeless brethren, out there on the mean streets.’

‘You are not even close to being homeless,’ said Brienne. ‘Homeless people don’t have access to a student house in England, their parents’ house in Ireland, and – allegedly – a large amount of gold buried at strategic points throughout the British Isles.’

‘What?’ Jaime started choking on his bacon roll.

‘Allegedly,’ Asha reminded him. ‘Good luck proving it. Can’t tax what you can’t find. And if you’re feeling too stingy to shout me a bit of your breakfast, I’ll make sure you’re left out of the scavenger hunt portion of my will.’

‘Have you really got a will made up already?’ said Jaime, looking very much appalled with her, as he so often did. ‘Oh God, it’s probably written in your own blood or something, isn’t it? And full of convoluted riddles meant exclusively to spite people.’

He was spot on about the riddles, but the blood hadn’t occurred to her.  

‘I think it’s too long to write in blood,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘Sansa drew it up for an assignment, so it’s legally binding and everything. But I suppose if I bled myself over the course of several months and mixed the blood with a stable compound to stop it congealing or flaking, I’d probably get enough eventually. Then again, if you’ve got blood ink at the ready, why waste it on your will when you might have death threats to send?’

‘Please stop talking about sending death threats,’ Brienne begged. ‘We’ve been over this. It’s not an appropriate response to being overcharged at a car boot sale.’

Asha acquiesced with grace.

‘Long night, Brie?’ she said.

‘You could hear the music, couldn’t you?’ said Brienne wearily. ‘The R’hlorrence set was scheduled to end at eleven. You know what time they finally stopped? Two in the morning, that’s when. The bloke who runs the festival was loving it, or else I would’ve made them wrap it up on time.’

‘Well, Qarl and I were having a splendid old time.’

‘Yes, I bet you were,’ Brienne snorted. ‘I came up to check on everyone and you were all coupled up in your tents.’

Asha opened her mouth to reply, but then frowned, puzzled. A memory dozing at the back of her mind began to groggily lift its head, but Meera chose that moment to lightly leap down from a nearby tree, scaring the shite out of the lot of them.

‘Jesus Christ, what were you doing up there?’ Asha complained, clutching her thumping heart. ‘Licking tree sap for sustenance?’

‘I wanted to watch the sunrise,’ Meera said, laughing. ‘It was quite comfy, so I stayed up there and had a bit of a meditate until I got hungry. Want some breakfast, Asha?’

‘From the vegan stall?’ Asha pulled a face. ‘I’m going to politely decline. I need a restorative sausage after the night’s exertions.’

‘I accidentally overheard some of your exertions, and more sausage is the last thing you need,’ said Brienne. ‘You’re as bad as Sansa.’

Cackling, Asha gave her a high-five.

Presently Margaery rocked up wearing a set of bells round her ankle as a trophy, having spent the night with the youngest and most eligible Morris Dancer. Sansa emerged from her tent soon after, looking as chipper as ever with her yawning boyfriend in tow. Sandor could be prevailed upon to buy Asha a lovely sausage sandwich with lashings of butter and brown sauce, and she broke her fast like a queen.

The music started again at ten, and predictably, Sunday morning had been reserved for the weakest acts. It all kicked off with a weedy-looking bloke calling himself Marillionaire, who cracked out a ukulele and launched into a maudlin and spectacularly white cover of Ridin’ Dirty.

‘Oh, I know him!’ said Sansa, kneeling up and squinting at the stage. ‘He followed me around the library once.’

‘What?’ barked Sandor. He glared down at the stage, presumably wondering how best to weaponise a ukulele against its owner.

‘It was ages ago,’ said Sansa, giving his shoulder a reassuring pat. ‘I kept getting worried he was going to steal the books I needed for my essay, because he was coming to all the same shelves as me and sort of lurking. But it turned out he only wanted to chat me up.’

‘Well, that’s lucky,’ said Sandor sarcastically.

‘He told me he was studying music,’ Sansa observed. ‘He’s not very good, is he?’

‘He is not,’ Asha agreed. ‘This is staggeringly low-octane for an anti-copper song.’

‘Oh, is that what it’s about?’ said Jaime, perking up. He listened with his head cocked to one side like a curious golden retriever. ‘I suppose it is, isn’t it? I think I’ve had it blasted at me a few times. That makes sense.’

‘What did you think it was about?’ said Meera, looking thoroughly mystified. ‘Is it not obvious? He literally just said something about the po-po. That’s you guys.’

‘I’ve never paid much attention to the lyrics,’ said Jaime. ‘It’s not really my sort of sound.’

Brienne pressed her lips together, carefully silent. Asha, her pointy little nose finely honed from years of shitstirring, smelled blood.

‘Oh, really?’ she said. ‘What is your sort of sound? Strictly Coldplay? Or do you indulge in a bit of Mumford and Sons when you feel like rocking out?’

‘Far too heavy for me, I’m afraid,’ said Jaime airily.

Everyone waited for him to clarify that he was joking, and offer a couple of preferred artists. He did no such thing, but continued to listen thoughtfully to the dubious charms of Marillionaire.

‘Come on, why so secretive?’ demanded Asha. ‘All right, lads, place your bets. What does DI Lannister listen to after a long day of oppressing the general populace? My money’s on Celine Dion.’

‘Jazz,’ said Sandor at once. ‘Don’t know who and I don’t want to. But he looks like a bloke who listens to jazz if I ever saw one.’

‘I’m going to say John Legend,’ said Sansa generously. ‘I like him too.’

‘Hmm,’ said Margaery, giving Jaime a critical eye. ‘Something classy, yet boring… oh, I know. Josh Groban.’

‘I’d say Moby,’ said Meera, after some consideration. ‘He used to be quite popular, didn’t he?’  

‘What the fuck?’

It was Arya, bursting forth from her tent like an alien exploding from a chest cavity. Her dungarees were askew, her French plaits mussed. She looked charmingly scruffy and, as usual, completely disgusted with what she was hearing.

‘Here I am, trying to have a lie-in, and all I can hear is you lot banging on about Coldplay and Celine Dion. Are you making the world’s blandest playlist?’

‘We might as well be,’ said Asha. She examined Arya with a frown, fuzzy memories beginning to coalesce from the night’s sweaty haze. ‘Here, did I see you last night?’

‘Er, yeah,’ said Arya, pulling a face. ‘I’ve been here all weekend, knobhead. How much have you smoked?’

‘Nothing at all!’ said Asha, nodding theatrically at Jaime and Brienne, who rolled their eyes in unison. She ignored them, racking her brains for the situation surrounding the elusive image of Arya’s face, biting her lip and haloed by festival lights.

‘I mean late last night,’ she explained. ‘Did we have some sort of encounter? It could be any number of things. Perhaps I dispensed sage wisdom about the ways of the world. Perhaps you helped me have a wee because my legs felt a bit funny.’

‘No, that was me,’ said Meera.

‘And I’m much obliged to you,’ said Asha, tipping an imaginary cap. ‘But come on, Arya, are you sure? I swore there was something…’

‘Nope,’ said Arya, plonking herself down on the grass and looking determinedly at nothing in particular. ‘What are you lot talking about?’

Her ears were going red. Asha narrowed her eyes. Oh, there was something, all right.

‘They’re trying to guess Jaime’s taste in music,’ said Brienne. ‘None of them have got it quite right.’

‘Beatles,’ said Gendry, emerging from the tent behind Arya and settling down beside her. He did not elaborate further, but instead chose to dart little glances at Arya while his ears turned red. No change there, then.

‘That’s the least insulting guess yet,’ said Jaime. ‘Everyone likes the Beatles, don’t they?’

‘I don’t,’ said Margaery. ‘Horribly old-fashioned. I’ve never understood what all the fuss was about. Anyway, it doesn’t matter what everybody likes. We want to know what you like.’

‘Well, I don’t know about the band,’ Arya declared, surveying him and looking extremely unimpressed, ‘but you look like the sort of bloke who exclusively buys Greatest Hits collections. I bet you don’t have a single album.’

‘Oh, he’s got a single album, all right,’ Brienne muttered, apparently unable to help herself.

‘Brienne!’ Jaime exclaimed, looking as betrayed as if she’d just told them all that he had a disappointingly-sized penis.

‘Look, I’m sorry!’ said Brienne. ‘But you know how weird it is. What’s the point of having a record player if you’ve only got one record?’

‘I really like the record!’

‘Oh, believe me, I know.’

‘Feck off,’ said Asha, feeling a grin that was half supervillain and half pumpkin spreading inexorably across her face. ‘Are you telling me that this man – who appears, on the outside, to be largely human, apart from his chosen career as an enemy of the people – that this man only owns one album?’

Biting her lip and shaking with silent giggles, Brienne nodded. Immediately a chorus of cackling guesses broke out.

‘Is it Susan Boyle?’

‘Michael Bublé!’

‘Is it Nickelback?’

‘I bet it’s Katie Melua.’

‘Uncle Kracker?’  

‘No, it’s got to be James Blunt.’

‘Is it a Paulo Coelho audiobook?’

‘I can’t believe you’ve done this to me,’ Jaime told Brienne darkly.

‘You did this to yourself,’ said Asha. ‘Come on, fess up. We can keep at this all day.’

‘Don’t I know it,’ said Jaime. He sighed and rubbed his jaw. ‘Fine. But – in my defence – we weren’t allowed to listen to any pop music growing up. My father said it was frivolous. If it had lyrics, it was banned – apart from Wagner, naturally.’

‘Naturally,’ Asha agreed. Jaime gave her a look.

‘I’m not very musical. Obviously. But I’d heard a couple of songs by this chap, and they sort of spoke to me, so I bought the album in secret, and I used to listen to it on my Walkman when no one else was around.’

‘It’s Jason Donovan, isn’t it?’ said Sandor. 

‘Give me some credit!’ said Jaime. He took a deep breath. ‘It’s Phil Collins. No Jacket Required.’

He winced as everyone pissed themselves laughing, even though he had to have seen it coming. Poor lamb. Brienne took his hand and gave him a look that was half apologetic, half amused, half clearly letting him know he had brought this upon himself. Shite, that was too many halves. Well, she had a very expressive face.

‘Oh, God,’ said Sandor, looking nauseous. ‘Of course it is.’

‘I’ve heard it was a very popular album,’ said Sansa brightly. ‘I’m sure lots of people like it.’

‘You wouldn’t be so sure if you’ve heard it on repeat a few times,’ said Brienne. 

‘You said you didn’t mind it!’ said Jaime, deeply wounded.

‘That was the first time round,’ she said, smiling. ‘But of course I don’t mind it. It’s your favourite.’

‘And why wouldn’t it be?’ said Asha. ‘Really, that was when music reached its pinnacle. I too have been tempted to never buy another album again after listening to Phil Collins, but I managed to pull through.’

‘Very funny,’ said Jaime, giving her what was presumably the most withering glare he could muster. It wasn’t very effective. She was famously difficult to wither.

‘Who’s Phil Collins?’ said Gendry, looking baffled.

‘You don’t know?’ said Sandor. ‘You lucky git.’

‘Ah, the innocence of youth,’ said Asha. ‘Sadly, learning the truth of these unpleasant matters is a rite of passage on the brutal road to adulthood. Like those kids in Stand By Me who discover a dead body.’

‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ muttered Jaime.

Gendry looked nonplussed.

‘He’s some bald middle-aged bloke who made shit songs in the eighties,’ explained Arya.

‘They’re not shit!’ Jaime said indignantly.

‘Oh, sorry, they were great works of art,’ said Arya, rolling her eyes.

Gendry gave her a goofy, helpless sort of grin, and when she caught his eye she had to twist her mouth into oblivion to stop herself returning it. Now that was interesting. Where was the tension? The glaring? The determined avoidance to meet each other’s eye?

‘So how did the two of you cope with sharing a tent?’ asked Asha, her curiosity resoundingly piqued. ‘I hope you were a gentleman, Gendry.’

Gendry went about as red as it was possible for a human being to go without actually catching on fire. He mumbled something incomprehensible and gave Arya a panicked glance, looking like a particularly handsome cornered rat.

‘And you, Arya,’ Asha went on. ‘I trust your girlish honour remains intact?’

‘More intact than your face will be if you keep talking,’ snapped Arya.

‘You’re always so violent,’ said Margaery, shaking her head. ‘We’re not here to judge you, Arya. We’re here to provide advice, encouragement, moral support, and – when you finally do decide to give in and shag our lovely friend Gendry here – a celebratory round of champagne.’

‘Champagne tastes like piss,’ Arya declared. ‘And if you want to offer moral support, you have to actually have morals to begin with.’

‘Shite, that’s us out,’ said Asha, nodding at Margaery. ‘We’ll have to leave it to your big sister to teach you all that women’s magazine stuff. Is he flirting with you, or does he just have gas?

‘Top ten sex positions for a giant Taurus and a tiny Scorpio,’ suggested Margaery.

Sansa giggled. ‘More than just a water balloon or a hat: how to use a condom for its intended purpose.’

Asha’s eyed went wide.

‘I knew it!’ she shouted, slamming her fists on the ground as she was finally assaulted with the missing memories from last night. She pointed at Arya accusingly. ‘I knew there was something! Condoms! I gave you fecking condoms at arse o’clock in the morning! You were hoping I’d forgotten all about it, you devious little shit!’

Arya went a bright, boiling red. For once, she appeared to be lost for words. Beside her, Gendry looked as though he would quite like to dig himself a very deep hole and hide in it for about a decade.

‘Arya!’ Sansa was looking delighted. ‘I knew you liked each other! You’re so cute together! This is the best!’

‘You’ve changed your tune, haven’t you, Grotbags?’ said Sandor, observing Arya with a distinct air of schadenfreude. ‘Thought you’d taken a vow of chastity.’

‘But in a tent, Arya, really?’ said Margaery, wrinkling her nose. ‘That’s no way to be deflowered. If I were you, Gendry, I’d book a weekend in Paris and try again.’

Gendry went pale. Evidently his bank account couldn’t hope to meet such lofty standards.

‘Don’t be so mean,’ said Meera. ‘I’m sure they both had a lovely time.’

‘Exactly,’ said Jaime. ‘It doesn’t matter where you are if you’re with the right person.’

‘And to think you thought you could keep it from us,’ said Asha, shaking her head. ‘You should’ve know it would come back to bite you in the arse. I’ve got a mind like a steel trap.’

‘Er, you obviously don’t,’ said Arya loudly, ‘or you would’ve remembered the fact that the condoms weren’t for shagging, they were for a scientific experiment. Which I made very clear to you at the time, you dick. You’re the one who was getting shagged. And you wouldn’t stop, so I had to witness it.’

‘A scientific experiment?’ said Jaime.

‘We put them on our heads,’ Gendry said quickly.

‘Bollocks,’ said Asha. ‘In the middle of the night? It couldn’t wait til morning?’

‘It couldn’t, actually!’ said Arya. There was a shrill, anxious edge to her voice. Her cheeks were still bright red, and her eyes looked bright. Sansa began to coo about triple dates, Margaery started pushing for raunchy details, and Gendry was mere moments away from screwing his eyes shut, pressing his hands over his ears, curling into a ball and rolling away down the hill until he was far, far away from their feminine jeering.

Asha let out a long breath and bit her lip. Shite. Sometimes she really didn’t know when to stop shooting her mouth off. She doubted she’d sobered up much after her night of debauchery, and – for the second day in a row – Arya had been the victim of her pissed-up decision making. When she got home, Asha decided she would amend her will to give Arya a bigger cut of the gold.

For now, though, it was time to bring in the big guns.

Asha met Brienne’s eyes and sent a telepathic plea for aid.

‘I really don’t see what the big deal is, Arya,’ Sansa was saying. ‘You like each other! There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s lovely.’

‘We do not!’ shouted Arya. ‘Sex is gross, and so is Gendry, and if this is the thanks I get for wanting to do one little scientific experiment then I might as well drop out of university altogether and live as a hermit, because clearly the world is not ready for me to be an engineer.’

‘Guys?’ said Brienne.

‘Putting a condom on your head is not a scientific experiment,’ said Meera.

‘And you obviously didn’t put it on your head,’ said Margaery. ‘Unless you did it really, really wrong.’

‘Wouldn’t put it past her,’ muttered Sandor.

‘GUYS!’ said Brienne. Everyone turned to stare at her and she blushed. ‘Look, I’m sorry to burst the sexy bubble you’ve all been…’

‘Blowing?’ suggested Asha helpfully.

‘Yes, that. Anyway, I can settle this, because – as I mentioned – when I came up to catch up with you lot late last night, I overheard a few things. Most of them were truly, truly horrible. Especially the noises coming from Asha and Qarl’s tent.’ 

Asha waggled her eyebrows. It was fair enough; BDSM wasn’t for everyone. Especially not in such a confined space. But God bless Qarl and his magical dick – he had found a way to make it work.

‘But,’ Brienne went on, ‘what was going on in Arya and Gendry’s tent was the least disturbing thing I heard all night, because they really were just putting condoms on their heads.’

‘Get wrecked, dickheads,’ said Arya, tossing a plait over her shoulder and looking insufferably smug. ‘I told you so.’

‘Oh, no!’ said Sansa plaintively. ‘But I was so excited. I was going to buy flowers.’

‘Buy them for your boyfriend,’ said Arya, flicking Sandor the Vs. ‘I don’t want them.’

‘Hey, neither do I,’ he growled.

‘Are we sure this is true?’ said Margaery, her eyes narrowed. ‘Brie, you’re not just trying to preserve Arya’s honour, are you? Because I really don’t think it’s worth preserving.’

‘Yes it is!’ said Gendry indignantly.

‘Besides, Brienne wouldn’t lie,’ said Jaime.

‘That’s true,’ Asha lied. ‘It would violate her prime directive.’

‘Even if the lie was for a selfless purpose?’ said Meera. 

‘Nope. All her wires would short-circuit and her head would explode.’

‘Will you please stop talking about me like I’m a robot?’ said Brienne. ‘I’m just telling you what I heard.’

‘With your bionic ears,’ said Meera, grinning.

Asha stretched her arms above her head, confident her work was done. Not that she’d done much of anything at all, really, but her heart was in the right place and that was what counted.

She watched Arya and Gendry glance at each other and pull the sort of face that was universally accepted to mean Whew, that was a close one. There was no way in hell those condoms had gone on either of their heads, but if they wanted to keep things secret, who was she to ruin their fun? She wondered idly how long it would be before they were discovered. It was pretty fecking difficult to hide these clandestine arrangements when one lived in student housing. Especially with Sansa and her aggressive hospitality. The second she caught a whiff of either Arya or Gendry doing the time-honoured walk of shame, she’d be at the ready with party poppers and a massive banner saying CON-SHAG-ULATIONS!

Rolling herself a fag on one knee, Asha wished them the best of it. Especially Gendry. He was going to need the patience of a saint.

Just as it seemed that the morning’s revelations had come to an end, Jeyne’s tent was wrenched open and Theon staggered out, like Athena springing forth from the skull of Zeus fully formed. Except in this case, Athena was skinny and shirtless, with a nasty little snail trail, and looking distinctly awkward at finding herself met with almost a dozen spectators.

Everyone except Brienne looked shocked. Jesus wept, what hadn't she overheard last night? 

‘Well, well, well,’ said Asha, taking a long and deeply satisfying drag on her roll-up. ‘Look what the cat dragged in.’

‘Shut up,’ said Theon, going red.

‘I will not. Had fun, have you? Well, I hope you’re proud of yourself. Toying with poor Jeyne’s emotions like this.’

‘Oh my God,’ Jeyne emerged much less rapidly, still swathed in her sleeping bag, her hair sticking up in all directions. ‘My emotions are fine, you weirdo. It’s not a big deal.’

‘It’s not?’ Theon wavered, looking oddly disappointed. ‘I thought… well. It doesn’t matter.’

‘Wait,’ said Jeyne, her eyes going wide. ‘You thought… what?’

‘Jesus Christ, there’s too many hormones flying about this morning,’ grumbled Sandor.

‘There’s about to be a few more,’ said Theon, his face pale. ‘Jeyne, we – we’ll talk later. Asha, have you checked your phone this morning?’

Asha had not. Intrigued, she rummaged around in Qarl’s tent until she found it wedged underneath his left buttock. Predictably, retrieving it did not rouse him from the depths of his slumbers.

The Greyjoy group chat was popping off.

Uncle Vic had sent a series of incoherent all-caps rants which everyone else in the family had had a hell of a job to decipher. His borderline illiteracy had evidently been exacerbated by a significant quantity of booze and a rage so all-consuming it was a miracle he hadn’t crushed his phone to bits in his big hammy fists. It was a bit like trying to read Middle English, but Asha got the gist.

‘So… the Thai Bride’s left him?’

Theon nodded. ‘She took the boat and ran. Sailed. Whatever.’

‘What about the monkey?’ interjected Arya.

‘Oh, she’ll have kept the monkey,’ said Asha. ‘She prefers it to Uncle Vic. Fair enough, really.’

‘Has she left him with anything?’ said Jaime, looking alarmed.

‘The clothes on his back, I assume,’ said Asha cheerfully.

‘And his protein powder,’ said Theon. ‘And a pile of used DVD players. That was the business opportunity he was banging on about. Wanted to flog them backstage. I didn’t have the heart to tell him most people just use Netflix nowadays.’

‘Didn’t have the balls, more like,’ said Arya.

‘Don’t talk shit about Theon’s balls,’ said Jeyne, leaping to his defence as usual.

‘Better yet, let’s not talk about them at all,’ said Asha. ‘Theon, why are you looking like you’ve just shat yourself and sat in it? From the looks of these messages, Uncle Vic drank himself under the table last night. He’s probably been banged up in a cell.’

‘I wish,’ said Theon, tense and white. He was practically wringing his hands. ‘He’s left me a load of voicemails this morning. He’s coming back here, with his DVD players. He wants me to sneak him back in through the woods.’

Through the woods! Asha was delighted. He'd probably spent the night there. Knowing him, he'd shouted at the birds for waking him up and made an unsuccessful attempt to catch a squirrel for his breakfast. Say what you like about Uncle Vic, but he definitely lived life to the full. 

‘Well, there goes my day,’ said Brienne, shaking her head and cracking out her walkie-talkie. She and Jaime got to their feet and Asha followed suit, eagerly anticipating the excitement Uncle Vic’s plot would undoubtedly bring to today's festivities.

‘You don’t want to go too, do you?’ said Gendry, eyeing Arya nervously.

‘Not today,’ she said, giving him a little grin. ‘He hasn’t got the monkey. Besides, I’d rather you didn’t get stabbed.’

Asha smiled to herself.

Coming from Arya Stark, that may as well have been a declaration of undying devotion, and from the dazed look on Gendry’s face, he knew it.