- Alternate Universe
Out having breakfast on one of the balconies. The storm clouds are hanging overhead but refusing to break and properly rain. It makes things hot and humid and will improve substantially after the rain breaks – it might be cold enough even for Joanna – but until such time they will spend as much time in the breeze as possible. So this morning they are eating a late breakfast on the balconies. (The first time Shireen and Joanna have not been up early, so Stannis is curious. Renly said they were probably up talking late. A touch of sadness for his brother that Stannis has never known the pleasure of being up until all hours, whispering in the dark to your best friend or lover.)
Joanna leans halfway over the balcony to see what’s going on down the cliff side, and way over there there’s a beach with people on it. “What are they doing?”
“What are who doing?”
“The people over there on the sand.”
Stannis hands Shireen the telescope he carries around with him and she leans out to look. “What do you mean? They’re just playing on the beach.”
“Yes, but what are they doing?”
“What do you mean what are they doing? They’re playing in the water, making sand castles, just enjoying the ocean.”
Jo looks confused. Margery says, “Joanna, please tell me that you’ve been to a beach before.”
“Why would I have been? I’d never been on a boat before I came here.”
“Boats and beaches aren’t the same thing. Lord Renly, we must remedy this!”
“I agree.” Shouts to someone to prepare the things for a trip to the beach, they’ll have lunch on the water. Shireen grabs Joanna’s hand and drags her off to get her outfitted for the beach. I need special clothes for this? Margery laughs and comes along to help. Between the two of them and with Lady Brienne’s help they manage to get Joanna outfitted in something a little more chill. “But what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to be swimming? Because I can’t swim.”
“That is a problem we’ll revisit later. There won’t be any swimming, likely just a picnic on the beach, enjoying the breeze off the ocean, Renly will likely pack along badmitton or some such to play on the sand, or playing in the surf if you feel particularly bold.”
“Even if you wanted to swim,” Shireen pointed out, “the water will be too cold today with the storm clouds, and you wouldn’t want to be in the open ocean in case it started to rain.”
Joanna in one of Lady Brienne’s thin shirts, tucked into her trousers and bound up with one of Margery’s belts. (No offense to Lady Brienne, but Lady Olenna would know if Margery allowed another young lady to about with just a sword belt and she would have to answer for it. Joanna just laughed.)
As it was, the women of the party were beaten to the stables only by Stannis, Lord Renly and Ser Loras both lagging behind and Margery laughed about the inability of them both to ever be anyplace on time. Joanna prepared her ride without a second thought, and failed to notice the silent conversation between Shireen and Margery on the subject, neither one outright saying that they had been expecting the wheelhouse, even for so short a ride. Before Stannis could do the impolite thing and order the house without asking, Shireen stuck out her chin and went for a horse. She didn’t know quite what to do with it and Stannis helped her while Lady Brienne went to Lady Margery, but everyone managed to be ready by the time Lord Renly and Ser Loras appeared. Joanna thought that perhaps they ought to go with the wagon full of servants they could see dashing off, but in this area Margery was the one with the experience as she pointed out that they were going to have matters prepared before they arrived.
“Renly is not one to set up his own conveniences on the beach.”
“And Stannis is not one to actually go to the beach,” Renly called out on his arrival. “I assume mine is the better alternative.”
“Today at least, Uncle Renly,” Shireen interrupted with long years of practice at circumventing both men before they could properly pick a fight. “Shall we go? With our luck we’ll make it the beach just in time for the rain to start and that would be a terrible trick to play on Jo.”
Joanna mounted up to show her agreement. “Though, someone will have to show me the way. Shireen tells me that you can’t just roam up to the water and treat anyplace with sand as a beach.”
The rest of the party mounted and joined on their way while Stannis explained. “Not around Storm’s End, you can’t. The closer you get to Dorne the more agreeable the beaches become, same for those in Highgarden. But around Storm’s End they are more cliff than sand, and what sand there is needs to be approached with caution.”
“It’s not like the Neck though, is it?”
“The only thing that will bite you here, Lady Joanna, is the rocks.” Renly chuckled.
“Unless you venture far enough out for the sharks and other creatures,” Stannis couldn’t help himself from addressing the facts. “However, Renly is correct that it is the rocks that pose a danger. There are numerous beaches on the coast of the Stormlands that seem well but could cut you to ribbons if you ventured too far away from shore.”
“And a person simply cannot remain close to shore?”
“Given half a chance the tide will happily pull you out,” Shireen warned. Which led to Joanna asking what in the world a tide was and the whole company trying so hard to answer her question in a way that made sense and all without giggles.
Joanna had seen the ocean before. Yes, it had only been recently, and her breath still caught in her chest every time she looked out one of the windows at Storm’s End, but somehow this was different. They rode down a sloping hill, patchy grass giving way to pure sand, which gave way to its own rippling line of dark blue. The horizon gave way to sky, a pale blue off somewhere in the ocean, and then the rest of the sky’s canvas was taken up by thick, grey clouds. She could smell the salt the closer they got, and every so often the wind would whip up and send the brush of biting sand across her cheek to tell Joanna this was not all a dream.
Some part of her recognized that she ought to be tending to her horse, but she dismounted without a care and started walking towards the water until her feet began to sink in the sand almost like into the sucking bogs of the Neck.
“You want to take off your shoes first,” Shireen giggled. Joanna kicked off her boots, using Shireen’s shoulder as a crutch so she didn’t have to take her eyes off the water. More prodding from Shireen got Joanna to roll up her trouser legs and then Shireen took her hand and they were off to the water at a run. Margery hesitated for a long moment at the tent the servants had set up for them, but after Shireen’s first belly laugh and kicking water at Joanna who shrieked out a laugh of her own, she joined them. (She walked to the water, and did not venture very deep as she hiked up her skirts to do it, but soon she gave way to her own giggles and up to her knees her skirt was soaked.)
Lord Renly bade Lady Brienne shuck her armor and join him at badminton, which the lady did and beat him so thoroughly Lord Renly passed his racket over to Ser Loras, who lasted only a few turns before he handed the racket over to Joanna with an, “At last you have an excuse for losing to her.”
Lady Brienne rolled her eyes, but taught Joanna the game as best as she was able, perfectly able to send the ball back to Joanna for more practice. Lord Renly forced Ser Loras back out to play, giving Lady Brienne a break. Lady Brienne knew Renly Baratheon better than anyone other than Loras, and so she knew full well why Renly preferred to have Loras out there playing, sand sticking to his skin and sweat making his hair curl. However, as few people knew Renly better than Brienne, few people knew Stannis better than Renly. So as Brienne smiled at Renly’s obvious attention on Loras, no small part of that smile was for Stannis. He had never seen his elder brother smitten before, and he was enjoying Lady Joanna’s laughter just as much as Renly was enjoying Loras’. Perhaps he should discuss matters with Stannis, some better plan than starting longing – or better concealing his longing before he got himself into trouble.
Shireen inadvertently put a stop to things by calling out that snacks were ready and Joanna collapsed beside her on the blanket atop the sand and plucked fruit from Shireen’s bowl. Shireen smacked her hand and handed her her own bowl.
To anyone outside of the Stormlands it would have been a day for avoiding the out of doors, but Joanna understood the desire to enjoy the out of doors while you could. Margery was huddled with a blanket while still trying to look regal, while Ser Loras was trying to pretend like he wasn’t chilled. Joanna didn’t laugh at either of them, for as she’d been melting last night, they must consider this quite cold. And cold it was, but such a strange, refreshing, cold. Joanna could not stay long on the blanket, curious to bury her feet back in the sand and see if this time would be the one it would not be cold beneath the surface. And standing in the surf was so strange, letting the water rush up to her shins and then as it flowed back out it took the sand beneath her feet with it and she sand deeper and deeper with every wave.
Joanna thought she might be able to stand there the rest of the day and just watch, but Lord Renly called out, “Is it time, Stannis, do you think?”
“We have a few minutes more.”
“Before it starts to rain?” Joanna asked.
“Before it starts to lightning.”
“Lightning?” She scrambled out of the water.
Shireen giggled and even Stannis bit back a smile. “Do you not have lightning in the North either?”
“Very little. Should be getting inside?”
“Soon. There will be a bit more time than that, but the servants deserve a chance to tidy up before they are at risk.”
“From the lightning.”
“It doesn’t chase you, Jo. It’s just better not to be outside, and not to be near water.”
“Let us return to Storm’s End so you can be in place to watch the storm when the lightning dances across the water.”
Joanna hated that idea with every fiber of the being, and it must have showed on her face because Lord Renly burst into laughter. “You run around with a direwolf and a little weather scares you?”
“The direwolf has a brain. He wouldn’t pop out of the sky and attack me!”
“I have a bird in my care that would say otherwise,” Stannis said.
“Is the bird well?” Joanna did not need the cloak he offered her, despite the comforting weight and leftover heat from his own body. Under normal circumstances the bracing hand to help her mount her house would have been insulting, but the cloak was heavy, somehow in a different way than Robb’s sturdy Northern cloak. She thought that it must be meant to handle a different sort of chill, and she blamed the sudden rush of heat entirely for her blush and not for the recitation Lord Stannis gave of the bird’s greatly improving health. He’d gotten attached to the little thing already, not that anyone would ever accuse him of so gentle an emotion as affection.
As good as the Baratheon sense was for these things, it wasn’t quite perfect and the sky opened when they were still several minutes away from the safety of Storm’s End. It was as thought the sky had been slit open and now was unleashing all the fury it could manage upon their heads. The people for whom this was common broke into gallops and when Joanna called out concern, Stannis pulled up alongside her and urged her along, shouting that it was better to make a break for it before things got too muddy than it was to hesitate.
They burst into the stables in a fit of group laughter, Ser Loras and his waterlogged curls being the most irritated of the party. Lord Renly all but collapsed against Shireen to stop himself from laughing at his favorite knight, while she had no such qualms about sparing his feelings. Joanna bit her lip to keep from making matters worse. Her dismount required a bit more effort than expected, thankfully only her legs soaked to the skin thanks to Lord Stannis’ cloak. But the cloak itself was heavy, though dry, and it took some doing to get herself free enough to dismount. It took her so long that she did not realize help had appeared until she turned with one foot free and found herself being unnecessarily guided to the ground by Lord Stannis’ large hands under the cloak and steady on her waist. Her borrowed shirt was thin already and the damp did no good against the heat of his hands.
Before Joanna could do more than stare at him from far too close, Renly dropped a hand to Stannis’ shoulder. “Come, brother. Let us get our guests inside and dried off before our delicate Tyrell roses and waterlogged Stark wolves make themselves ill.”
“Stags don’t get wet?” Joanna forced herself to tease.
“Stags are waterproof.”
“At the least, we wolves have clothes proper for the cold.” Joanna followed the other ladies into the keep and back to her own clothing, but kept the cloak wrapped around her shoulders, trailing around her feet like the kind of dress she never wore.
Joanna let herself be distracted by dressing with the other ladies, following Lady Brienne’s advice that draping the cloak over a chair before the great fire in Shireen’s rooms for a few minutes would be enough to dry it entirely – apparently the fabric was designed for such a thing. And she did not object when Lady Margery recommended she take out her wet braids and leave her hair loose so it might dry free of the damp and follow its own will to curl. Shireen recommended warm socks, with none of the smirking that her fellow women had employed. The concern of her advice was only Joanna’s comfort, while the other women had rather more long-term plans on their minds.
Stannis, however, was subjected to much less subtle direction and instead was followed by his little brother back to his rooms and the moment the door closed behind them Renly snapped, “I thought you weren’t going to try anything?”
“Stannis, don’t play dumb with me. I know better.”
“You didn’t used to.”
Renly bit back the ingrained urge to say something horrible in response. They were both still navigating the parameters of their reconstructed relationship and that was precisely the sort of thing the old Stannis would have said. But for Shireen, and his brother, and the pretty girl no doubt being fussed over who might soon be his good sister – and any male heirs to Storm’s End that might free Renly from noble fold declaring that he couldn’t make a girl the Warden of the East – Renly would endure.
He still gave Stannis the sharpest of his glowers though, reminding Stannis that at this moment he was being the smaller person and Renly was making the choice not to snap back. Of course, Stannis responded by rolling his eyes and going about changing his clothes to something not sopping.
“At this moment I know you said you wanted her, but couldn’t have her. Have you figured out a way around that? Did you get hit on the head while we were at the beach and now have a different personality?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.”
“I’m not, because apparently ridiculous is the order of the day when I catch you looming over a young lady with your hands on her!”
Stannis smacked his hand against the wall. “It wasn’t like that!”
“I know. Stannis, I know. It was you, which means it completely above board. But Stannis, I haven’t gone mad. You helped her down from her horse. You had your hands on her hips. You gave her your cloak. If you were a man capable of flirtation, I would have thought you were about to kiss her.”
“I was helping her down from her horse. That cloak gets heavy when its wet.”
“That… was not a denial intent to kiss.”
“I had no such intent.”
“But you had such hope.”
“I… will not deny that.”
“But you said it was too great a risk. That Robert would never give you permission and you wouldn’t subject him to her anyway.”
“It is much easier to deny desire when the object of it is not standing before you day in and day out, around every corner, looking at me like… that.”
“We are clever men, Stannis. If we put our minds to it I’m sure we could come up with a solution.”
“There is no solution while Robert sits on the Iron Throne and pines for Lyanna Stark by putting his cock in every woman that comes across his path. At this moment I am simply grateful that Lord Stark is so honorable a man he would not throw his child into the King’s path in exchange for favors as so many have done before him.”
“Do you want me to send her away? I could come up with some reason that would not hurt her friendship with Shireen. Perhaps I could claim Lady BERRY and the others were making accusations and I didn’t want her honor tainted by them.” Stannis occupied himself with the laces on his boots instead of looking at his brother. “Or is it better to be pained by her presence than by her absence?”
“Lady Joanna will leave soon enough. For all her claims to the contrary, she is a beautiful young woman of good family, beloved by the Lord and Heir of Winterfell, and some young man will manage to convince her to wed them. She will leave for her life someplace else soon enough. I need not ensure the agony of her presence for very long.”
“But you will enjoy it while you do.”