Brienne was eight when her world flipped over. Skidded across wet pavement and tumbled into a ravine, actually, but she felt the flip in her soul.
When her father asked if they could spend the holiday with his college friend Steffon, she must have nodded yes. But those were the days when they spoke in grunts; two lumbering bears trapped in a house that still felt like the missing half of their family, with all these feelings and little experience expressing them.
Brienne packed her pink overnight bag. There was a bar of soap from the last trip they took together in the bottom. She left it there.
After a car ride, and a ferry ride where her father bought her ice cream and asked Brienne in his new, soft voice to try and not spill it on her clothes, and another shorter trip staring mutely out the window, they arrived at the entrance to a huge stone house. There was a big man there to greet them, shorter and darker than her father.
“I’m so sorry, Sel. So sorry.”
She’d heard the words before, or others very close, said with the same awkward worry. It didn’t help either her or her father, but they accepted them anyway. Brienne swallowed hard, bit back the anger that was growing in her chest in place of emptiness. She could spit sorry. She was choking on sorry.
It was a fancy house, filled with fancy people, and they sat her at the end of a long table near two older blonde children. She might have had trouble telling them apart if one weren’t in a dress. They both were beautiful, like paintings of children. Brienne had the strange urge to rub at them and see if they would smear, if they would flake apart into nothing. She’d had that thought a lot lately, about a lot of things.
The girl smiled, and Brienne knew that look too. She’d seen it at school: in the lunchroom, or on the playground. But she was used to being the joke, and at least it wasn’t pity.
A dark haired boy sat down beside her, more her age but short, with eyes like the sea. He smiled and it was real at least, if a little pitying. She could swallow the pity if there was kindness too, and this boy seemed kind.
“I’m Renly.” He held out a hand, very grown-up, and Brienne wrapped it in hers. “That’s Cersei and that’s Jaime.” He indicated the two blonds staring at them with toothy grins. Brienne wasn’t sure who was Cersei and who was Jaime and decided that she didn’t care, none of this mattered anyway. “Our fathers are friends.”
“I’m here too.” It came from the chair beside the golden boy. A head peeked over the table with mismatched eyes, the same blonde hair.
“No one cares, Tyrion.” That was the girl, in a rich voice that matched the rest of her; a voice people listened to, one that counted.
“I-I do. I care.” Brienne muttered, because she did. “Why doesn’t someone get you a pillow or…or something. So I can see you?”
“Seeing it only makes things worse.” The girl.
“Shut up, Cers.” The boy chimed in. Brienne thought he might do this often, tell his sister to stop, but not nearly enough.
“Maybe he can sit on your lap….freak.” The girl whispered that word, as if it wasn’t something Brienne already knew, but she did.
She knew from the way people took a second look when they met her, the way they stumbled over whether to say “she” or “he” and how her feet didn’t fit in girl shoes. She felt it in the deep crevices of her being every time her father snuck her into the men’s department to buy pants. Brienne was different, and not in a good way.
“He could…if he wanted to.” She would be different, on her terms.
Something like astonishment crossed the boy’s face. Jaime, his name was Jaime. He gently nudged the smaller boy with an elbow. “See Tyrion, you get the nicest seat here.”
The girl snickered, and Brienne thought that maybe she didn’t match her brother so well after all, because he didn’t.
After dinner they sat on the floor by the tree, and Brienne thought it was nice. Just nice. There weren’t any chestnuts like she and Galladon would gather every year, and she missed her mother’s oyster stew and cranberry bread and she missed and missed, but that also was not new.
When it was time for bed, a man with a too-thin face told Cersei that she would share her room with Brienne. The girl shrieked, stomped her polished shoes and called her a "beastly brat.” Brienne might agree with the beastly part, but she wasn’t a brat.
“I’ll sleep on the sofa.” It was long enough, and near the fireplace so she could watch the embers until her eyes were tired. It would be nice. Just nice.
“She can stay with me.” It was the boy. His sister made a snorting sound, as if it were some cruel joke they had come up with together. But Jaime just smiled a regular smile, and no one seemed to care, so she carried her pink bag to his room.
There was one big bed; if that surprised him, he didn’t say. They took turns changing in the bathroom across the hall and then crawled in silently and turned their backs toward the middle, and it was nice.
“How old are you?” Brienne whispered it to the wall, not sure why she cared.
“Eleven.” He didn’t ask her age in return. Jaime, who was eleven, and not as much like his sister as he thought.
The next day, they went for a walk in the woods near the house. Jaime and Cersei trotting ahead holding hands as Renly trailed behind with Brienne and Tyrion. They came upon Jaime up a tree, grabbing at a dark leafed plant growing on one of the bare branches. Cersei was busy pointing and encouraging him further and further out on a limb.
“What is it?” Brienne looked up with wonder, mostly at Jaime if she was being honest.
“Mistletoe, you moron.” Cersei replied. Just then, Jaime chucked it down, a little bundle that landed at his sister’s feet and she skipped around them giggling. “It’s for kissing, but not you…” she poked at Tyrion. “…or you.” And of course, no one wanted to kiss Brienne. No kisses, that wasn’t new.
She picked up a little piece that had broken off, stared at the shiny green leaves and little white berries like pearls. Pearls like the sea, the sea that reminded her of home.
That night she watched as Cersei hung the mistletoe from the bannister and they took turns kissing in the hall, their parents all sipping port in the next room. Port that sounded like the sea.
Cersei kissed Jaime, and Renly kissed Cersei and then Jaime, and Brienne understood in some place she didn’t yet recognize that she would like to kiss Jaime, and maybe Renly or Cersei too, but kisses weren’t for her. So when they teasingly called up, as she knelt on the landing with her face poking between the rails, she replied. “No, I don’t want to kiss anyone.”
Cersei cackled, and she wasn’t very pretty at all Brienne thought, and Jaime shushed her as he always seemed to be doing, while Renly grinned a grin that wasn’t mean, exactly.
She dreamed of her mother, of her brother. Their car flipping over and over as they screamed and fell, until there was no life in their lungs and the screams stopped. Brienne woke up screaming for them, as if her lungs could take the place, and Jaime was holding her, making a different shushing sound than the one he had used all day.
She stifled her sobs and dried her tears, and still he held her; pulling knots out of her hair with gentle hands.
“Why?” She asked. Because he didn’t need to, they weren’t friends.
“You’re a big baby…” Jaime huffed with disgust and Brienne went rigid, prepared to move to the sofa even if it was dark and cold downstairs. “…but you’ve lost your mom, and I know how that feels.” There was less disgust now, it had been replaced with sadness that sounded a lot like her own. The kind that overflowed your heart, filling everything.
When he reached toward the bedside table and picked up her piece of mistletoe she didn’t complain. It was pretty, but he could keep it; he’d been the one up the tree, after all. Jaime twirled it in his fingers then held it over her head, quickly kissing the crown before pushing her toward her side of the mattress.
“Go back to bed, baby.”
There was no more kindness after that; she didn’t expect any. The next morning at breakfast he sat beside Cersei, whispering in her ear as if Brienne weren’t there.
When they were leaving, Renly’s dad asked if they would come back next year. Her father turned to Brienne for a reply. It hadn’t been awful. It was almost nice, and it wasn’t home.
Home where her mother and brother weren’t.
Brienne nodded as politely as she could manage before saying, “We’d like that.”