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On the Night’s Watch

Chapter Text

Monday, 8 p.m.

Detective Brienne Tarth’s luck finally ran out after she transferred from Storm’s End to King’s Landing.

Not that she had had much luck before. As the daughter of Tarth Island’s police chief, she could not have stayed at home once she’d decided, over her father’s strenuous objections, on a career in law enforcement. Or she could have, but Brienne had had no desire to work her way up the ranks under suspicion of nepotism, and much as she loved her father, she suspected he would have kept her on permanent desk duty with occasional breaks to direct traffic, lest she came into any real danger.

So Brienne had left home at twenty-two, taking little else with her but a Tarth Community College degree in criminology and a determination to attain detective rank by the time she was thirty.

The two rooms of her rented apartment on an alley off Fishmonger’s Square were so small and cramped Brienne kept instinctually hunching her shoulders, though the ceilings were not very low. All of her meager worldly possessions were still in haphazardly stacked cardboard boxes, and her tiny bedroom was graced with a stunning view of her neighbors’ laundry lines and trash cans. Brienne found herself missing Storm’s End’s perennial salty breeze, Highgarden’s mild, balmy air, its mingled scents of apple wood and exhaust fumes, with an almost physical pang.

The Highgarden Police Academy had an excellent reputation, and the city itself boasted a climate similar to Tarth’s as well as one of the lowest crime rates in the realm, and was not in the Stormlands, so close to Tarth that Brienne would have always felt like she was on an extended vacation, just playing at being a grown-up. All of that had recommended Highgarden to Brienne as a good place to learn the ropes, help keep the crime rate down and the people safe.

A good place to start climbing the greasy pole.

She had harbored no illusions about the police force’s continuing resistance to women in the ranks. A cop’s child, she had grown up with an intimate knowledge of just how authoritarian and rigid an institution the police could be. Brienne had indulged no silly notions about whether her looks would make her life in uniform more or less difficult. Her prettier female colleagues had received unwanted attention and been subjected to leers and crude jokes. The men had tended to assume female police officers existed to make coffee, and hold the hands of hysterical witnesses, and sleep with their colleagues without the expectation of either commitment or payment. Brienne had been on the receiving end of the same kinds of jokes and taunts, except in her case the men had assumed that they could say things to her without risking her ever calling them out on it, demanding they follow through on their leering suggestions.

An ugly woman couldn’t possibly be interested in sex with men, they’d assumed. It had never seemed to occur to them that an ugly woman would not be interested in sex with men who invited her to join them for a friendly after-hours beer among colleagues, joked about the contents of her smallclothes, the broad planes and crooked lines of her face, and then clapped her on the shoulder and pretended it was all just good fun, while Brienne bit her lip and swallowed her blushes and gulped her beer, telling herself it was the way of the world and she would do herself no favors if she cried or protested or punched them. However justified any of those reactions might have been. However much she’d sometimes wanted to scream and curse and knock them all into the dust.

Her colleagues, to whom the word ‘collegial’ had not applied.

All this Brienne had understood from the start, even if she had not liked it and could never get used to it. The taunts and barbs never just slid off her back. What thick skin she had was reserved for dealing with confused witnesses, traumatized victims, and difficult suspects. After a year and a half in uniform, Brienne’s first plainclothes posting with the Highgarden P.D. had been in the Child Protection Unit. There she’d learned that, whatever depravity people were capable of inflicting on those smaller and weaker than themselves, there was always worse.

Brienne had felt torn about wanting to transfer out of the C.P.U., deeply aware of how important the work was yet terrified of how often she’d cried herself to sleep or been tempted to get drunk, alone in her apartment, so as to fall asleep before the tears came. Her father had always endeavored to leave his work at the precinct, and had a collection of stomach ulcers to show for his efforts.

Uncertain if she could or even wanted to go on like that for years, Brienne hadn’t got the chance to apply for a transfer. Six months into the posting, her lieutenant had called her into his office and informed her that all of the men in her unit as well as some of the detectives from Vice and Homicide had created a betting pool: the one who managed to bed Brienne first won. Lieutenant Tarly had assured her the ringleaders would be harshly reprimanded, yet he’d seemed to think that, bottom line, it had all been Brienne’s fault. No place for women on this man’s force, and all that.

Brienne had walked out of Tarly’s office that day, her face and neck burning, understanding at last why Hyle Hunt, who’d had the desk next to hers, had been trying to ask her out for weeks despite her protests that it was against departmental regulations for colleagues to date. Why Edmund Ambrose had made a habit of starting every Monday morning asking detailed questions about her weekend, and Mark Mullendore from Vice had kept stopping by to chat with her even though they’d had almost nothing in common. Brienne had felt confused and mildly flattered in spite of herself, even as she’d wanted to shout at the top of her voice, compel them by sheer lung volume to confess why they were all going to such trouble over her. Would they have made a bet involving one of their other female colleagues, any one of whom had been prettier by far than Brienne? Brienne did not know, and tried not to eat her heart out by dwelling on it.

Quickly she’d realized that she could not stay in the C.P.U. After Tarly had put a stop to the bet, detectives and uniforms alike had still nudged each other and laughed when Brienne had passed them in the corridors. Some of the participants in the bet had become openly antagonistic toward Brienne, blaming her for the disciplinary charges Tarly had brought against them and their friends. Most hurtful of all, a couple of the women had had the gall to ask Brienne why she couldn’t have swallowed her stupid pride and gone on a date with Hyle or Mark or one of the others, and made life a little bit easier for the rest of the women at the precinct.

Brienne had put in a request for a transfer out of the C.P.U., but Tarly’d told her flat out that he would only sign the paperwork if she left Highgarden altogether and transferred to a police department in another city.

So Brienne had departed from Highgarden, barely two years out of the academy and already dragging an undeserved reputation as a troublemaker behind her like a ball and chain, and joined the Storm’s End Police Department’s Organized Crime Force. True, Brienne had been relieved to no longer have to deal almost exclusively with traumatized children and child molesters. On the other hand, Organized Crime had proved especially paperwork intensive, since its work so often revolved around tax evasion, money laundering, and illegal trafficking in weapons, addictive substances and warm bodies. Brienne had decided to become a police officer in order to do the general public some good, could not shake the idea that sitting at a desk filling out form after form, typing reams of reports, was more akin to secretarial work than actual, real police work. She had been no older than twelve when her father had taught her the equal importance of neat, up-to-date paperwork and maintaining one’s service weapon in good working order, yet Brienne’s blood had sung with joy every time she and her partner had been asked to take part in a raid or a sting operation.

Her partner had been the real reason why, even with everything which had happened later, Brienne could not help the tiny smile which tugged at her lips as she nursed a paper cup of coffee – her cups and coffee pot were somewhere in the moonscape of boxes surrounding her – and watched a King’s Landing alley cat dig through an open trash can outside her window.

Renly Baratheon had been a few years older than Brienne, and a rising star in the Storm’s End Organized Crime Force. Also handsome as a dream, and far kinder than Brienne’s experience with people, especially good-looking people, had led her to expect. Why he had been partnered with her, a relatively green officer who’d transferred from another city under a dark cloud of salacious rumor, Brienne had not known, had thanked the gods regularly for making it so, regardless of how little she’d done to deserve it.

They had been partners for three years, during which time Brienne had made detective. Her father had come to the mainland for the party Renly’d got the rest of the O.C.F. to throw in Brienne’s honor. Selwyn Tarth had used his luxuriant moustache to pretend he had not been beaming with pride, had thanked Renly solemnly for looking after his little girl, while Brienne’d cringed like a teenager, and Renly’d assured Captain Tarth suavely that Brienne protected him, Renly, far more often than he protected her out on the mean streets.

Would that that had been true. Maybe Renly would still be alive, and Brienne would be in Storm’s End still, building a case against Trant Casinos on suspicion of money laundering, rather than standing amidst the boxed-up wreckage of her life, in a grotty apartment in the middle of a city she did not know, gathering the courage and resolve she needed to report for her first shift on the King’s Landing Police Department’s Night’s Watch.

Renly had not simply died. Brienne had made a split-second decision, and as a result of it the best and kindest man she had ever known, other than her father and her brother, had been killed, and Brienne had been not so much transferred as booted out of Storm’s End. This time, at least, the reputation which preceded her was well deserved: she bore the blame for Renly’s death as surely as if she’d shot and killed him herself, and none knew it better than Brienne herself. She thought of Renly first thing every morning, and was often wracked by agonized dreams in which his blood turned cold as ice while it pumped over her hands and knees, and he lay dying in her arms, his last breaths ill spent on castigating her for her failure.

“Why didn’t you shoot him dead, Brienne?” the Renly in her dream unfailingly asked in a bitter voice the likes of which had never passed his lips in life.

He had said nothing of the sort in reality. The blood pouring from his mouth, bubbling with wasted oxygen, had prevented him from speaking. Yet Brienne knew that the angry, recriminatory, dying Renly of her dreams was right. It had been her fault. And for her sins and failures, she had got what would have seemed to anyone else a plum transfer to King’s Landing, the very hub of the realm, and as crime-ridden a city as any ambitious cop could wish to make her mark on. But the gods were not wholly unjust, and so while they’d plucked Renly like a flower for a garland, they’d also ensured that Brienne’s true worth as a police officer would finally be given its due.

The letter had been waiting for her on the stained, threadbare welcome mat left by her rented apartment’s previous tenant: Brienne had been assigned to permanent nightshift duty, known colloquially among cops as the Night’s Watch for its resemblance to that old order of flea-bitten celibate warriors of the far North.

The Night’s Watch of every police department in the Seven Kingdoms shared the dayshift officers’ desks and water coolers and interview rooms, yet existed in a parallel, twilit world where every detective was expected to take on whatever case came in, be it homicide or a domestic disturbance or a simple instance of road rage. The posting called for abandonment of all hope. None came back from it – transferring out of the Night’s Watch was well-nigh impossible. It was where embarrassing fuckups went to die, or at least live out their years till retirement in drudgery, hidden from the light of day and public scrutiny.

And now Brienne joined their ranks, which was only what she deserved after Renly, after everything. Still a part of her, a bigger part than she was entirely comfortable admitting even to herself, strained at the ropes and gnashed its teeth, wanted to throw back its head and howl in outrage at the injustice of it, which she felt like a burning brand on her skin.

She had done her best. It had not been enough, and now everyone would know it. Worst of all, Brienne would begin to believe it herself. It was only a matter of time before she became as apathetic as some officers she had known in the past, who had wound up in the Tarth, Highgarden, and Storm’s End Night’s Watches.

Brienne swallowed the last of her coffee, clenched her jaw as she carefully flattened the paper cup between her palms, so it would fit neatly into the recycling bin. She may have been consigned to the scrap heap, a twenty-eight-year-old police detective with extensive experience in such diverse departments as Child Protection and Organized Crime, but she was not done yet. She would do as she had always done in the past: soldier on, keep her paperwork in order, and her service weapon clean and well oiled. Brienne would continue to do her best. She owed her father, Renly’s memory, and herself no less than that.

As if on cue, her cell phone rang: The Maid of Tarth played on a synthesizer. Brienne fetched the phone from its charger, paused to take a deep breath and inject some false good cheer into her voice.

“Hi, Papa,” she said.

Her father’s voice sounded as it did when he conducted a briefing. “Hello, honey. Are you ready for tonight?”

Brienne closed her eyes, sighed through her nose: she had not been able to fool her father as to her moods since she’d been no taller than his knee. Not to mention, after over thirty years on the force Selwyn Tarth didn’t need anyone to spell out the implications of Brienne’s posting to the Night’s Watch to him. After Galladon’s death, he had been particularly uneasy about Brienne becoming a police officer. Now a father’s concern for her wellbeing was augmented by a veteran policeman’s intimate knowledge of what it meant when a young officer got transferred repeatedly, only to wind up on nightshift duty.

“I’m ready, Papa,” Brienne assured him, keeping her voice calm, as she had learned to do while interviewing victims of child rape and domestic violence. “Everything will be fine.”

“Hmpf.” She had convinced her father about as well as she had convinced herself.

“Call me in the morning and tell me how it went,” Selwyn started to say, but Brienne cut him off.

“There’s no need, Papa. This isn’t my first dance. We’ll talk on Sunday, as usual, and I’ll fill you in on everything then.”

The silence on the other end of the line had a dense, craggy quality, like the basalt of Tarth’s eastern cliffs, riven by centuries of waves into a soft, porous appearance, yet no less hard and unyielding for all that. Brienne hoped her father would not argue or offer advice. She loved her father dearly, but she did not need or want to hear him repeat any of his homespun wisdom just now. She could do nothing but keep her wits about her and get on with her work.

“You know best,” Selwyn Tarth conceded grudgingly. “I’m here whenever you need to talk…”

“… even if you’re on a stakeout or interrogating a mass murderer,” Brienne said, overlapping with her father, cops’ gallows humor having been a staple of their conversations since she and Galladon had been little. “I know. Thank you, Papa.”

She did not tell her father she loved him. Demonstrative outpourings made them both uneasy, and Brienne had inherited her father’s suspicion of people who routinely repeated such self-evident truths, as though needing to remind themselves. The love they shared was there, in Brienne’s voice, and Selwyn heard it.

“You’ll do fine, Brienne,” he rumbled softly, a big old bear encouraging his young. “Remember what you’ve learned on the job, keep your head down, and your eyes and ears open. Your dumbbell higher-ups cannot ask for more than that.”

Laughter bubbling up her nose like soda, Brienne snorted at her father’s enduring lack of respect for the desk jockeys who balanced budgets, wrote press releases, made shift schedules, and had long since forgotten anything they might once have known about real police work. He knew better than to reassure Brienne that she might get a transfer to another unit after a suitable period had elapsed, if her work was up to scratch. They both knew that the Night’s Watch was a professional death sentence, a live burial. Selwyn Tarth had not raised his daughter to believe in facile promises and easy assurances, and his honest words lifted Brienne’s spirits a little.

“Will do, sir,” she giggled. “I’ll talk to you on Sunday. Bye.”

After she hung up, Brienne took a moment to stand in the midst of her cardboard boxes and take several deep breaths. The sun had gone down over the capital of the Seven Kingdoms, and it was almost time for her watch to begin.

“All right,” she murmured to the dusty air in her new apartment, still strange and unlived-in, to herself, to no one in particular, for no one else was listening. Brienne stood alone. It was ridiculous, talking out loud like this, but sometimes, although it cemented her aloneness, it was also all that kept Brienne from believing she was the only person left in the whole world.

“All right. Let me go do this.”