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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.”

Chapter Text

Monday, 9:45 p.m.

Brienne had always found a police station at night an eerie place. The reception area would be crowded, regardless of the time of day or the depth of night, but that did not lend the building as a whole an air of life and bustle. It merely produced the thin, sour reek of human desperation and hurt. Like hospital waiting rooms and bus terminals, the public areas of police stations gave humanity back its true, unflattering reflection. Brienne, who was used to greeting her bathroom mirror every morning like an enemy with whom she had established a fragile truce, appreciated this uncomfortable yet straightforward fact.

Behind its public face, the milling crowd of angry, tired, frightened civilians and equally tired, overworked police officers, her new precinct would reveal a different facet of human life at night, a rarely seen dimension of police routine. It would be all empty corridors and echoing stairwells, toilets gaping hollow like haunted houses. And then, startling as the sudden burst of light and noise when one exited a fairground tunnel of fright, there would be the squad room used by the Night’s Watch.

Sitting at desks with dayshift officers’ name plates on them, given lockers in the farthest, dustiest corners of the changing rooms, the Night’s Watch had used to strike Brienne as a shifty, skulking bunch, almost as untrustworthy as the criminals they arrested. Never mind that they filled out reports and drank bad coffee and worked long hours to protect the public, just like their dayshift colleagues. The Night’s Watch was like being in the same room as a person with measles: even if you’d been inoculated, you didn’t want to stand too close to them for fear they might contaminate you. You might take away some of their bad luck in the creases of your clothes, in your hair and under your fingernails. Forensic evidence of failure and misfortune.

Now Brienne was one of them, those pasty-faced creatures burdened by their shortcomings, slogging through the nights and years in the shadowed hinterland of where real police work was seen to be done.

Brienne rolled her eyes at herself as she waited behind a young mother with a babe in arms, who was arguing with the desk sergeant about when her husband would be released from custody. It was not like Brienne to get melodramatic or buy into such clichéd shorthand for reality. Yet she could not shake the bleakness which beset her while she stood among the smallfolk crowded together in the reception area, locked out of the inner circle, unfamiliar even with the layout of the building. There was something about being assigned to the Night’s Watch which stripped the soul of all the padding it normally wore in order to endure life’s sharp, grinding, jagged edges.

Finally the young mother finished her nearly shouted conversation and stomped back to wait in her seat, her baby lost in the sleep of blissful ignorance on her shoulder. Brienne showed the desk sergeant her letter of appointment, and was directed upstairs to the squad room used by the Night’s Watch. She told herself she was imagining the look of ironic pity and wariness which flitted across the sergeant’s face as she thanked him politely and turned away.

Brienne took the stairs rather than wait for the elevator, while the desk sergeant watched her and the people who had been waiting for a long time for someone to speak to them glared holes in her back. Once she was out of the stairwell and in what she hoped was the right corridor, the night closed around her like a fist, all ancient, quietly buzzing light fixtures and the muteness of empty offices and interrogation rooms. The Night’s Watch’s squad room was at the end of the corridor, cavernous and silent behind closed double doors.

Brienne pushed open one half of the door, and was greeted by a burst of light and noise: the tipsy, boisterous laughter of men and women whose nightly routine was such a grind, any opportunity for revel had to be fervently seized and sucked dry before it got away.

A clutch of plainclothes detectives and uniformed officers stood at the far end of the large room filled with the old, beaten-up desks, metal filing cabinets, and concrete support pillars habitual to police stations across the Seven Kingdoms. One desk was distinguished by the interesting assortment of liquor and beer bottles spread across it like war booty, and there was a fug of tobacco in the air despite the smoking ban, despite it being regular nightshift working hours.

Everyone talked over one another, braying with laughter, so it took Brienne several long moments to work out that the occasion was the birth of someone’s child. A firstborn son, no less. The father was a pale man with reddish hair and a silly, unselfconsciously happy grin plastered on his face. He stood in the center of the crowd, and suffered graciously through the handshakes, the hearty claps on the shoulder, and the usual salacious jokes such an occasion brought forth. Apparently the man’s wife had got pregnant very soon after their wedding, and came from a family cursed with some truly unfortunate recessive genes. The wife had dodged her kin’s tendency toward receding chins, but the newborn might yet manifest it.

The revelers had not noticed Brienne. She lingered in the doorway, her unease at being in a new city and a new posting compounded tenfold by the prospect of introducing herself while her new colleagues were half drunk and in a jesting mood, which in Brienne’s experience could easily tip over into sheer cruelty. She looked around, clocking the emergency exit, the fire extinguishers, the handwritten sign indicating which way lay the toilets, and spotted a short corridor just by the double doors, which led to what looked like a break room followed by a series of offices.

She ducked down that corridor, shoulders hunched, and managed to pass unnoticed for once in her life.

The break room looked like every break room in every place of work everywhere: stained and chipped Formica tables, mismatched yet universally uncomfortable plastic chairs, and a coffeemaker as old as the Wall, for which the term ‘fire hazard’ was originally invented but which valiantly never broke down. A blond man was pouring coffee, his back to Brienne where she paused in the doorway. Her heart lifted with relief at the thought that at least one member of the Night’s Watch was not three sheets to the wind, or at any rate was smart enough to try and dispel the effects of alcohol with caffeine.

Brienne knocked on the doorframe, and the man half turned and cast a look of more irritation than curiosity her way.

Brienne recognized him. She had never met him, but a police detective had to have a good memory for faces, and this man’s face – proof positive that some families had all the luck in the genetic lottery – had been all over the newspapers for several weeks while Brienne had been finishing her training at the Highgarden Police Academy five years earlier.

Kingslayer. That was what the yellow press had dubbed him, melodramatically and unimaginatively, for his on-duty killing of Aerys Targaryen, the mob boss whose street name had been King.

“Yes?”

Jaime Lannister managed to make the small word convey boredom, ironic amusement at Brienne’s confusion, and a barely veiled challenge all at once. His eyes were an intense green, more emerald than spring leaves. That hadn’t been apparent in newspaper photographs, though the strong yet fine-boned features and air of habitual insolence had come across clearly enough. His suit looked expensive, handmade. Much too expensive for a detective’s salary, but then taking graft hardly would have been the man’s worst transgression.

Brienne shut her mouth with an audible click of teeth, felt blood rush to her head, saw him smirk at her blush as she took in the implications of someone like Jaime Lannister working on the Night’s Watch. The Lannisters were proverbially wealthy and politically powerful. Sufficiently so to prevent Jaime Lannister from being fired from the force or sent to jail for what he had done, it would seem, but not enough to keep him from being sent down to while away his time until retirement with the rest of the force’s washouts and misfits.

Brienne pulled herself back into the moment with an almost palpable effort. Lannister had turned while she stared and mused, and was leaning back against the counter, drinking his coffee and eyeballing her, still with that clear, silent, disinterested challenge on his startlingly handsome face. As though he habitually dared the whole world to throw his transgressions in his face.

“I’m looking for Lieutenant Bolton,” Brienne managed at last.

“I can take down your statement or you can ask one of the sots in the squad room.”

Brienne did not approve of police officers drinking on the job, but she understood the need to unwind and celebrate an event like the birth of a child, when they dealt with so much death and misery and cruelty every day. Or, in this case, every night. Yet arrogance and easy superiority positively oozed out of Lannister’s every pore, out of his pricey suit and his casual dismissal of his colleagues, the way he assumed Brienne was there as a civilian and therefore did not even merit basic politeness. And Brienne was meant to work side by side with this man? It was too much, even by the Night’s Watch’s rock-bottom standards.

She clenched her jaw and put some steel into her voice. “I need to report to Lieutenant Bolton personally. Do you know which one is his office?” She considered addressing him as ‘Detective Lannister,’ so he would know she had his measure, but decided against it. She suspected he would merely use the opportunity to bait her, and had no desire to pay him the courtesy of calling him by his rank.

Lannister arched an eyebrow at the shift in Brienne’s attitude, still managing to look thoroughly unimpressed by her and the world in general. He jerked his head to the left, already turning away from Brienne, back to the coffeemaker. “Two doors down.” He added, with heavy sarcasm: “You’ll find Bolton’s name on the door.”

Brienne lingered a moment too long, wondering for the millionth time why she was so rarely able to come up with an appropriate response to insults and putdowns before it was too late. She marched out of the break room and down the corridor, to Lieutenant Bolton’s closed door.

Roose Bolton had the palest eyes Brienne had ever seen, also thin, bloodless lips, and a very soft voice. The voice of a man at ease in his authority, a man who allowed no passions to get the better of him. Some might have called him a cold fish. Brienne knew better, decided he was simply cold, and she would be wise to tread carefully around him.

Bolton skimmed her letter of appointment, lifted his moonstone eyes to Brienne’s face at last. Let his gaze linger until she felt her cheeks heating up, feeling absurdly grateful Jaime Lannister wasn’t there to see her blush twice in such a brief time.

“So,” Bolton said, his quiet voice lending his office an atmosphere of unsettling intimacy even as it set him at a lofty distance from Brienne. “Tarth Island, Highgarden, Storm’s End, and now King’s Landing. You’ve had quite the checkered career, Detective Tarth.”

Brienne had no idea what to say to that. She had not expected a warm welcome – nobody ever got that on the Night’s Watch – but there was no polite way to respond when her new lieutenant chose to speak in barely veiled digs. So she kept her peace, and blushed under Bolton’s unwavering, reptilian scrutiny.

“Snow,” he said, making Brienne frown in confusion. Then she realized Bolton was looking over her shoulder, turned in her chair to find a young uniformed officer standing in the doorway. He had closely cropped black hair, which still managed to curl wildly around his long, painfully serious face.

“What is it?” Bolton inquired calmly.

“Call just came in, sir.”

Officer Snow’s voice tried for the roughness of experience, but still had the hint of a boyish treble. A lad doing his best in a man’s job, yet wanting none of the glory which put paid to many a misguided youth’s career on the police force. Brienne liked him instantly.

“Dead body at the south end of the Street of Silk. Probably a working girl. The area’s cordoned off, but it’s gearing up for the busiest time of night down there, and they need forensics and detectives on the scene before everything gets trampled.”

“Is Tully still celebrating?” The way Bolton emphasized the last word reminded Brienne of Jaime Lannister’s obvious distaste for such displays of humanity as getting drunk to celebrate a happy occasion. She shifted in her chair.

“Yes, sir. A bit.” Snow seemed to disapprove as well, but his disapproval was at least half for himself, for having to discuss a fellow officer’s less than professional behavior with the lieutenant.

“Then fetch me Lannister. He’ll at least be sober.”

Brienne started a little at that, looked up to find Bolton watching her closely again. Snow left, and Bolton opened a desk drawer and passed Brienne her shiny new badge, a pair of handcuffs, and a gun in a well-worn, standard-issue holster.

“The Night’s Watch has an unsavory reputation,” Bolton said while Brienne checked the safety was on, strapped the holster to her belt, and shoved the badge in her jacket pocket. He seemed to be speaking for his own benefit more than hers, telling himself a story because the sound of his voice pleased him. “But reputations are such fickle things. One builds them with care or gains them in the blink of an eye, and never seems to shake them, like ticks drunk on blood.”

He paused, watching Brienne’s reaction. She tried to keep her face still though her skin crawled at the oddly cool relish in Bolton’s voice, the pleasure he seemed to derive from the mental image his words had conjured up.

“I like my officers to do their work well, and present a professional face to the general public. We may be nighttime creatures, but that’s no reason to get sloppy. Wouldn’t you agree, Detective Tarth?”

Brienne swallowed a dry lump. “Yes, sir.”

Bolton nodded, a brief gesture which seemed to indicate that if she did her job well, there might be a place for her in the nighttime ranks he’d described. Brienne wasn’t certain whether to be comforted or disturbed at the prospect. She wished he would dismiss her, so she could start getting settled in and making the most of her situation.

She was still pondering her meager options when Jaime Lannister appeared in the corner of her eye, a flash of golden hair and a sleek suit with a grey sheen on it, like sharkskin. He didn’t spare a glance for Brienne as he addressed Bolton the way no sane man spoke to his superior officer, especially one of Bolton’s demeanor.

“You want me to take the dead girl off Tully’s hands? So kind of you to think of me when it comes to cases which will likely never be closed.”

Brienne sat in stunned silence. Bolton was apparently used to having Jaime Lannister speak to him in this manner, and took the detective’s attitude with rather more equanimity than Brienne would have done. Was that all Lannister was, Brienne wondered, just swagger and hot air, a toothless lion?

“Tully will take over some of your paperwork,” Bolton told Lannister, completely unruffled. “You should be grateful, with your backlog. The Street of Silk case is perfect for you to show your new partner the ropes, and teach her about our fair city.”

It took several seconds for Brienne to catch on. When she did, she turned from Bolton to Lannister and back to Bolton, openly gaping. She felt not the least reassured by the expression contorting Lannister’s handsome face into a comical mask of shock and outrage.

“Sir?” she squeaked rather than asked.

Bolton’s thin lips stretched into a fair approximation of a smile. The small, superior, easily amused smile of a boa constrictor after a hearty meal. “Lannister, meet Brienne Tarth, a new addition to our ranks. Detective Tarth, this is Jaime Lannister, a veteran of the Night’s Watch.” You may have heard of him, the words were loud as bells though unspoken.

“I don’t need her. I don’t need a partner at all to work the case of a dead hooker,” Lannister gritted out, each word a needle in Brienne’s flesh. She managed not to squirm or wince only with a great effort of will.

“You seem to be laboring under the misapprehension that you have a choice in the matter.” Bolton was definitely enjoying himself, his eyes locked with Lannister’s. Brienne might as well not have existed. “You and Tarth are partners as long as I say you are partners, and I do not foresee a change coming any time soon.”

Lannister barked a brief, sharp laugh which did made Brienne wince. What would be his preferred method of trying to get under her skin, she wondered, wrestling with a rising panic despite ample past experience dealing with the likes of Jaime Lannister. Salacious jokes? Innuendo? Barely veiled insults?

Brienne remembered her father telling her she would be fine in her new posting if only she did her job well and kept her head down. How little Selwyn Tarth knew. The thought was a traitorous stab to Brienne’s gut, yet she could not shake how true it appeared, a clanging echo in her head, impossible to ignore.

“Well,” Lannister drawled in a manner which was very nearly obscene, though he was still looking at Bolton and ignoring Brienne completely. “You do find ways to amuse yourself, Lieutenant.”

No love lost there, and now Brienne was caught between them as between two raging fires.

Jaime Lannister swiveled his gaze to Brienne where she sat frozen in her chair. His cold, green eyes went right through her and out the back of her skull, bullet-hard.

“Come on then, partner,” he said, still with that disgustingly knowing drawl, placing such hard emphasis on the last word it came out as pardner, almost a curse, an imprecation. Two minutes into the partnership, and already he thought to sport with Brienne, who meant only to do her job and do it well, and had no more desire to be partnered with Lannister than he did with her. Not that this would have occurred to him, the arrogant sod.

Brienne rose from her chair, squeezing the armrests so they squeaked, nodded to Bolton as politely as she could, and followed Lannister as he strode out of Bolton’s office, still squeezing her fists and clenching her teeth. Wondering how in seven hells she would make it through one night working a case with this man, let alone the gods only knew how many nights and months and years to come.

Chapter Text

Monday, 10:30 p.m.

Jaime leaned against the back wall of the elevator, right where the poster announcing the charity boxing event to benefit the Police Widows and Orphans Fund three nights hence hung, and scrolled through newspaper articles on his phone. He ignored the woman who stood beside him, maintaining a careful distance, staring fixedly as the glowing red numbers above the elevator door counted down to the lobby. Jaime was used to people standing in that wary, elbows-cocked way in his vicinity, like they thought the Kingslayer taint was contagious.

A quick search for ‘Brienne Tarth’ on the Westerosnet filled in the blanks left by Jaime’s initial scan of his new partner.

It was just like Bolton’s desiccated sense of humor to pair Jaime up with a woman, for in Bolton’s bigoted Northern worldview there was no greater insult. And not just any woman: a bloody ugly one, too. Her nose was broad like a Dothraki’s, and her legs were long and thick as tree trunks. She had buckteeth and more freckles than the sky had stars. And eyes of a blue which the sky would blush to see. Those were pretty nice, Jaime had to admit. She was also huge, taller and broader than Jaime, and he was no slouch.

He read from his phone: a woman from a family of cops, so she’d joined the force too like a good daddy’s girl. But she’d fucked up. If the online press archives were to be trusted, she’d let her previous partner in the Stormlands die, despite having had a clean shot at the guy who’d done it. Quite apart from the barely implied insult which being partnered with a female was supposed to convey, that alone made Jaime feel all kinds of reassured.

He sneered as the elevator door opened on the perennially crowded lobby, put his sleek phone into his jacket pocket.

“Come on, Legs, keep up.”

Jaime started for the parking lot without looking back. She could either follow him or hitch a ride with one of the uniforms. Jaime would be thrice-damned if he ‘showed the ropes’ to someone who’d been a police officer for several years already, and managed to get herself transferred more times than a blow-up doll got passed around an Ironborn ship.

He got into his shitty unmarked car which, like all such in the K.L.P.D.’s motor pool, would be identified as an unmarked cop car by anyone with two healthy eyes in their head. Speaking of eyes…

Jaime glanced up as Brienne Tarth clambered into the passenger seat with all the poise and grace of an aurochs, a scowl like summer storm clouds over the clear blue of her eyes. She was still fumbling with the seat adjuster, her knees up around her ears, when Jaime snapped on his seatbelt and peeled out of the precinct parking lot. Brienne released the lever so abruptly her seat shot back as far as it would go, making her head snap back on her long neck. She said nothing as she reached for her own seatbelt, though she did favor Jaime with a glare. He smirked with just the corner of his mouth, and raced to catch the blinking green light.

The precinct lay midway between the Great Sept of Baelor and the Street of Steel. As the crow flew, it was not a very great distance to the Street of Silk, but in the traffic bottlenecks which were a fact of life in King’s Landing as constant as herpes, Jaime had to slow down to a crawl past that first green light. He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, knowing it would take them a good twenty minutes to get to the crime scene. Big Brienne was staring fixedly out of her window, watching some of the glitzier streets of the metropolis slide by. So intent was she on the view outside and on ignoring him, Jaime was free to examine her at his leisure, and she never even noticed.

She was the startling-looking one, with her cow eyes and a cow’s intelligent expression permanently affixed to her ugly face, yet he’d seen the startled look of recognition and immediate judgment she’d given him in the break room, cheap and easy as instant coffee. Thanks to the zealousness of the realm’s press, Jaime’s face had graced every three-star rag from Dorne to the Wall for weeks. Five years later, he still got accosted by strangers from time to time. Hey, aren’t you that guy…? It had put paid to Jaime ever working undercover.

Kingslayer. Stupid fucking nickname. Had Aerys Targaryen been a true king rather than a raving lunatic, things might have been different, the moniker justified. Might have been, could have been. Games for children and fools.

Jaime made a face at himself in the rearview mirror, while Tarth gazed in fascination at the streets which turned meaner and dirtier the closer they got to the Street of Silk’s cheap south end.

Tyrion would have had a laugh to hear about Jaime’s new partner, had his little brother not been shut up in one of those picturesque rural rehab facilities which banned the use of cell phones. Jaime had lost count of which one of Tyrion’s rehab stays this was, and what it was for: alcohol, sex, cocaine, gambling, hatred of their father. Tyrion had been in one form of therapy or another for all of those, on and off, since his seventeenth nameday. He’d go into rehab to placate their father, who footed the bill, then went back to his old ways to annoy their father, and so it went, round and round the rosie, year in and year out.

Tywin Lannister held fast to the belief that his children did nothing but spend his money and fritter away the gifts the gods had given them. Jaime supposed it was easier for the old man to think that than having to reckon with their adult choices. Like Jaime choosing to work for the P.D., stubbornly refusing to quit even after the Aerys scandal. Like Tyrion’s addictions or Cersei’s focus on running Lannister Enterprises, her all-too-brief marriage and failure to produce children, though she’d had some eggs frozen years earlier, always hedging her bets.

A pang of the old jealousy, the old hurt passed through Jaime, shivered down his limbs, dry ice on his skin. That pain and jealousy were always there at the thought that at least he hadn’t been the only one fooled. Cersei had forged Father’s signature to get a prescription for birth control when she and Jaime’d started fucking at fifteen, and apparently insisted all of the others use condoms too. Jaime would have bet good money the main attraction of his sister’s current main squeeze, the olive-skinned, sloe-eyed Taena, was that there existed not even the theoretical possibility she might get Cersei pregnant. That, and Taena doted on Cersei’s every whim, which Jaime and other men had proved, one by one, unable or unwilling to do to Cersei’s exacting standards.

Jaime squeezed the steering wheel as he made a left turn onto the Street of Sisters, getting closer to the Street of Silk, wishing the steering wheel would squeak with pain, a chicken having its neck wrung. Big Brienne finally faced forward, tracking their progress through the windshield, allowing Jaime to take in her profile.

He may never have had a woman other than Cersei, but he had learned to read people on the job. Brienne Tarth probably thought she presented a neutral, professional front to the world, smooth and clean and free of places where grappling hooks might sink in, but she revealed all kinds of tells to Jaime’s discerning eye. The lack of jewelry other than a simple watch, the constant defensive set of her shoulders, always on the verge of hunching, the cheap pantsuit which should have looked crisp and professional but came across as merely bland, an unconvincing camouflage, intended to allow her to blend in to the point of disappearing. As if she ever could, with her height and face and eyes. Her insecurities were laid out plain as day.

Had he been a younger man or more invested in other people’s reactions to him, Jaime could have amused himself to no end by baiting her. As it was, all he wanted was to try and close this case, and present it to Bolton tied up in a neat, bloody bow. All in the hope that it might grease the wheels of Jaime’s request to have Big Brienne assigned to someone else, so he could go back to working alone, unwanted by any of the other unpartnered Night’s Watch detectives, left in peace.

Fat chance of that, Jaime thought glumly as he parked at the curb and turned off the engine. A dead streetwalker in that part of the city was like a bisexual Dornishman – one on almost every corner.

Officer Jon Snow had given him an odd look when Jaime’d asked what color the victim’s hair was. It was neither here nor there to Jaime whether Ygritte could take care of herself as well as she always claimed she could, but she’d been useful to him on many a past occasion. That was the only reason Jaime had felt relieved to hear the victim was a brunette, not a redhead.

A huddle of people stood as near to the body, partly visible under a pile of dirty cardboard and other trash, as the police tape would let them. Jon Snow was there, helping control the crowd: the usual assortment of hookers, junkies, and pushers of flesh and opiates. They were not the worst kind of witnesses, but they were the most frustrating, in Jaime’s experience. It wasn’t so much that they failed to notice things. As creatures of the night, they learned quickly to pay no mind to anyone’s business but their own. Out on the streets, you played the game or you wound up dead. Simple, really.

Jaime looked over at Brienne Tarth. She was staring past the onlookers and uniforms, at a fleshy, pale leg in a torn fishnet stocking protruding from under an old packing box. Brienne’s mouth was open.

Jaime snapped his fingers under her nose. She jumped in her seat as far as her seatbelt would let her.

“You ever worked a homicide before?” he asked, ignoring her glare.

She worried her plump lower lip with her protuberant teeth in a truly childish gesture. Finally she shook her head. “Child Protection Unit and Organized Crime,” she admitted.

She met Jaime’s skeptical look with those astonishing eyes of hers. Eyes like that in a face like hers – it seemed a waste.

“I’ve dealt with dead bodies,” she said firmly. “Bodies in pain, too.”

Jaime lifted an eyebrow. “Uh huh. That must be why you were gaping a second ago. Just remember: if you feel sick, aim your vomit away from the crime scene or the forensics folks will eat you alive, Legs.”

He’d opened his door and had one foot on the pavement when she spoke up behind him, an edge of anger in her voice. “My name is Brienne. Brienne Tarth. Not Legs.”

Jaime looked back over his shoulder. “Sure thing.” He slid out of the car, shut the door. Saw her sit unmoving, still buckled in, scowling at the dashboard. She wasn’t going to make him argue with her about getting out of the car like a bloody five-year-old, was she?

Brienne unbuckled her seatbelt and got out of the car, head thrust low and forward like a provoked bull, a look of equal parts anger and stubbornness on her broad, plain, pink-cheeked face. Her freckles were dark brown smudges under the yellow streetlights.

Jaime approached the body, pleased to see the coroner on the scene was Pia Rivers. Unlike some of her colleagues, Pia was competent, if a bit of a flirt, and never acted as though the police were there solely to destroy physical evidence and mess up the crime scene. She moved around the pile of cardboard and dead flesh with practiced agility in her blue bodysuit, snapping photographs, the city night lit up by rhythmic starbursts of her camera’s flash.

Jaime fetched a pair of blue paper covers for his shoes from a box on the pavement, balanced on one leg then the other to pull them on. He spotted a ginger uniform standing nearby, idly ogling Pia’s behind while she leaned over the corpse for a close-up of the dead woman’s face.

“Hey, you,” Jaime snapped, and the ginger jerked to attention. “You want to make yourself useful and fill me in?”

“Yessir,” the ginger said obsequiously, flipped open his notebook. “ID in the victim’s purse belongs to a Lollys Stokeworth, local address. She was found by someone’s dog. The dog’s owner’s being treated for shock, a bit hard to believe seeing as he too lives locally.” The officer indicated the rubbernecking locals with a dismissive wave of his notebook. “None of this lot saw anything, or so they claim. We’re taking statements, but it’s slim pickings so far.”

Jaime nodded, ignored the ginger as he finished pulling on the shoe covers. A few paces away, Big Brienne sat on the curb as she pulled on hers, apparently ignorant of the inadvisability of touching the pavement in an area rife with the sex and drug trades. Jaime would not have risked the seat of his nice tailored suit that way, but then her polyester suit had probably cost all of five stags and would sustain dragon fire, like asbestos.

The ginger still lingered just by Jaime’s elbow in a way which put Jaime uncomfortably in mind of the Lyseni butler who had been in his father’s employ for a part of Jaime’s childhood. Jaime lifted an inquiring eyebrow at the uniform, whom he vaguely recognized from other crime scenes now that he was actually paying attention to the man’s face. Something Connington.

“Funny how it’s always somebody’s bloody dog what finds a stiff, eh sir?” Connington brayed with what he must have thought was bonhomie. Jaime hoped, for his sake, he did not intend to clap Jaime on the shoulder. “If we banned people from owning mutts, we’d halve the crime rate.”

Jaime caught sight of Brienne over Connington’s shoulder. With her ass off the pavement and both blue-covered feet on the ground, she towered over the uniformed officer. She stared at the back of Connington’s head with an appalled expression.

Jaime understood just how she felt. He detected a distinct itch across his knuckles, reminded himself why it might look bad if he were to punch out a uniform in plain view of other police, the coroner, and the general public.

“You’ve got a problem, Officer Connington,” Jaime said. “You think you’re funny. You’re not.”

Connington’s shit-eating grin wilted. He shuffled sideways to get out of Jaime’s way. Jaime caught what seemed almost like an admiring look from Brienne, decided it must be a trick of the light. They walked up to Pia and the dead body, careful to avoid the yellow plastic evidence markers forensics had placed next to seemingly random bits of garbage on the pavement.

Pia put on a brilliant smile when she saw Jaime. She’d dropped numerous hints that he could take her out any time he liked, but Jaime had always brushed her off gently. A friendly, curvy brunette, she had no shortage of beaus and was unlikely to pine. After a couple of years, Pia had got the hint, and now only smiled at Jaime out of habit.

“Detective Lannister. Who’s your new partner?”

Jaime made the introductions, watched as the tall ugly woman and the short pretty one exchanged nods and pleasant smiles, Pia’s considerably wider than Brienne’s shy grin. The contrast would have been comical but for the corpse lying at their feet.

Her work with the camera done, Pia moved cardboard away from the victim’s head and torso. The deceased had been a blowsy woman of indeterminate age, large not as Brienne was large, all muscle and length of bone, but soft with excess fat and large breasts boiling over her tight top. Bruises festooned her doughy face, neck, upper arms, and thighs. Fresh bruises, day-old ones, ancient ones in every shade from palest jaundice yellow to the freshest, greasy-looking purple-black. Her body had seen frequent rough use. There were traces of dried blood high on her inner thighs.

“I’ll have to open her up to be sure, of course, but she’s been dead for just a couple of hours. Probably raped, too,” Pia explained, professionally crisp. She indicated the burst blood vessels in the dead woman’s filmy eyes. “Petechial hemorrhaging. She was strangled, manually from the look of those fresh bruises on her neck. These ones, see? She wasn’t killed here. My guess is the killer hoped to keep her hidden till morning, when the garbage men would have scooped her up and taken her to the dump.”

Pia paused, her professional mask slipping for a moment while she gave the dead woman a sympathetic look. “Her ID says she was 33. She looks so much older, doesn’t she?”

Jaime nodded, listened to Brienne take deep breaths beside him, in through her mouth, out through the nose. Her training had kicked in, she was unconsciously keeping herself in hand so as not to get nauseous. Jaime had probably seen more dead bodies than his new partner, but she hadn’t lied about having some experience.

He squatted, peered more closely at the dead woman’s swollen, battered face. Her name had rung no bells.

“Shit,” Jaime muttered. “I knew her. By sight, at least. She worked this stretch of the street, all right.”

Pia and Brienne were giving him very different looks: Pia’s was one of mildly curious detachment, Brienne’s one of barely suppressed revulsion. She’d taken a flying leap into the assumption that he had known the dead woman in her professional capacity, and was judging him. It was always so easy for everyone to judge him. Jaime experienced a momentary savage desire to leer and pretend Big Brienne was right, she had him in a nutshell, that he was the kind of cop who fucked whores and walked away without paying.

Better that than Big Brienne getting a whiff of the truth, the little voice in his head whispered, the one which had cautioned him through long years of keeping his relationship with Cersei a secret.

Jaime shook off the impulse and the little voice, and stood, scanning the street, the onlookers crowded together behind the police tape, the herd instinct at work. He spotted two more faces he recognized without names to attach to them: two of Ygritte’s friends, standing a little to the side, not quite with the main mass of onlookers. Jaime headed towards them. He heard Brienne stomp after him a moment later, ignored her. Let her think what she liked. He wouldn’t be partnered with her for long anyway.

“Evening, ladies,” Jaime greeted the two streetwalkers. He figured he’d err on the side of politeness to start with. “Ygritte’s not with you?”

The girls exchanged a look which would do them no credit in a game of poker, faced him again, shook their heads.

Jaime’s smile grew a fraction wider. “Right. Her friend Lollys is lying dead over there, on Ygritte’s patch, and Ygritte’s not here.”

He pulled out two dragons. The girls’ eyes glittered almost as brightly as the yellow metal. They watched the coins without blinking, like underfed children looking through a pastry shop window.

“Poor soft-headed cow,” one of them murmured, never taking her eyes off the coins.

Brienne made a noise like a strangled goose’s honk behind Jaime. “It could happen to any one of you,” she said, sounding more concerned than outraged.

Jaime would have laughed, had he not needed to keep the two prostitutes’ attention on him and his money. An idealist! It figured he would get one of those for a partner.

“Not what I mean,” the first girl said, darting a glance at Brienne, then back at the shiny money.

“Risk of the job, that,” the other girl chimed in. They couldn’t have been older than twenty under their smudged makeup. “Lollys was always going off with the weird ones. Ones the rest of us wouldn’t do. Normal johns didn’t want her, so she did the weird ones. Stupid bitch.” She sounded sad in a general sort of way, as though a kitten had taken on a speeding car and been squashed through no fault of its own, save lack of brains and experience.

Jaime waved the coins slowly in front of them, a conjuror hypnotizing a pair of snakes. “Any particular weird johns you can think of?”

Their headshakes seemed genuine this time around. “Lollys shared this patch with Ygritte and a couple of the guys. We’re farther down the street.”

Farther down. Where the trade got even meaner and rougher, and even the weird johns paid less. No wonder these girls had the combined look of old hags and neglected children.

Jaime nodded. “I get it. Ygritte’s gone, didn’t tell you where she was going. You’re not her nannies, after all.” He held out the coins at last, one each, kept a tight hold on the money until he had the girls’ full attention. “When you see her, you tell Ygritte I’ll be back tomorrow night. If she’s not here then, I’m going to go to her place with Social Services, and she can explain her absence to me while they haul off her kid to foster care. And if she suddenly decides to move house, I’ll put an APB out on her. You got all that?”

They nodded, completely in earnest now, and Jaime let them take the money and scamper away on their high heels. He turned just in time to spot Big Brienne dart a dubious look between him and the departing streetwalkers.

Suddenly Jaime was sick of her, her judgment, her weighted looks.

“Let me guess,” he sneered. “You’ve never twisted any arms for information. No, you’re just a pristine blue flower, aren’t you?”

She gave him a look so blank it was nearly vacant. Nearly, but for how hooded her eyes were, which let Jaime know she was working hard not to say something truly unpleasant.

“This Ygritte. She’s your informant?” Brienne said slowly.

“My, Legs, you are a detective.”

She winced at his venomous tone. Jaime strode back to Pia and the body, fuming, cruelly relishing the idea of the big, stupid woman constantly having to trail after him.

Connington was there, leaning over the dead body, trying to peek down Lollys Stokeworth’s cleavage in what he must have thought was an unobtrusive manner while chatting to Pia, who would not look at him and gave only monosyllabic answers as she scribbled on a clipboard. Not that that put Connington off.

“Do you always try to get dates like this, or can’t you get your courage up without a ‘stiff’ around?” Jaime demanded in a tone which made it clear to Connington that he had long overstayed his welcome. Pia hid a grin behind her clipboard.

Connington beat a hasty retreat, casting one last longing look, whether at Pia or the dead woman it was difficult to tell. He also spared a glance of barely disguised hostility for Jaime, who let it go, focused on reminding Pia to send a preliminary report first thing tomorrow.

That still left dozens of onlookers who needed to be questioned. At least compiling reams of contact information and seemingly nothing useful regarding the actual case made the time fly, and spared Jaime having to be in his partner’s company. Hours later, Jaime was speaking to Jon Snow about having the rubberneckers’ statements compiled by uniforms sent to him at the precinct when Brienne approached, looking tired and mutinous.

Jaime took pity on her.

“Do you have a car?” he asked. Brienne shook her head. “I’ll drop you back at the precinct. More buses stop there than here.”

“I know that,” Brienne gritted out. “It’s a police car, not your own, and I’m your partner. You’re not doing me a favor, Lannister.”

She managed to make his name sound like that vile nickname the press had gifted him. Jaime grinned so his gums showed, tired, too tired and bored to fight with her, and headed for the car.

They drove back in a silence like a humid summer afternoon, dense and cloying. Jaime slid into an empty spot in the precinct parking lot, and they sat still a moment, staring out of the windshield at the night limping ever closer to a grey and dull city morning, the imminent first light of day as clear as ditchwater.

“It’s not about you, you know,” Jaime said. He did not know why he even bothered explaining things to her, stubborn cow that she was, but he did it anyway. “Bolton didn’t assign you to me so I can show you the ropes. He’s been trying to get rid of me for years, ever since I arrived on the Night’s Watch. You come complete with a reputation to rival my own, what with your previous partner dying and you moving around so much. Bolton’s hoping we’ll fuck up something big enough that he can turf me out, and you as well probably. You have no friends here, Brienne Tarth.”

She said nothing for several moments which stretched so long and thin Jaime finally turned his head to look at her.

Big Brienne stared back at him, open-mouthed, her cheeks suffused with a pink more intense than that of embarrassment or frustration. Anger. The dead partner was a sore spot.

“Right,” she said slowly, in her bovine way. “Because everything is just about you. Because you have so many friends.”

They stared at each other in silence, the stillness practically twanging between them.

Brienne unbuckled her seatbelt, went to open her door, stopped with her hand on the handle, and looked back at Jaime. “When we close this case, you can request to have me partnered with someone else,” she said stiffly. “Or not. Do as you please, it’s nothing to me either way.”

Jaime grinned, strained, weary. “We will never close this case. A dead prostitute in that part of the city? We’ll be stuck together for a long time, Legs.”

She shrugged angrily, like brushing off a horsefly. Had she been a horse, she’d have whinnied. “Like I said, it’s nothing to me. And stop calling me Legs.”

“Whatever you say, pardner.”

They could have continued like that for hours, Jaime suspected, tossing barbed words back and forth till they were both flayed and bleeding. Brienne snorted in exasperation, then she was out of the car and striding toward the bus stop across the street from the precinct, her broad back rigid as a board, her hands fisted at her sides. It began to drizzle, plastering her short, pale blond hair to her head, her cheap suit to her back and shoulders, and Jaime wondered whether, were she to turn around, she would prove to be even uglier when wet.

Chapter Text

Tuesday, 10 p.m.

Before moonrise yet after the streetlights had been turned on, Jaime pulled into the precinct parking lot, just in time to see his new partner step off the number 24 bus and head for the main entrance.

There was no other movement in the parking lot. With a cop’s habitual alertness to her surroundings, Brienne glanced over and spotted Jaime getting out of his car.

Jaime saw her determined stride falter for a second before she turned her head away from him, faced the precinct, and marched on. She had seen him in one of his good suits – not the same one he’d worn last night, of course – getting out of his shiny, red, vintage car, and taken another one of her wild leaps into Assumption Land. Not that she would say anything, of course. She would just glare at Jaime in silent judgment for the rest of the night.

Jaime ground his teeth as he made his way into the precinct. He would have to sit Big Brienne down and explain some things to her, and soon. Not that he cared about her opinion of him, big, dumb, gaping country bumpkin that she was. But if Jaime had to be saddled with her for the foreseeable future, he did not relish the prospect of her eyes burning a hole in the back of his head every night, all night.

His irritation grew when he arrived at the Night’s Watch’s squad room to find Brienne at his desk. Rather, at dayshift Detective Franklyn Flowers’ desk, which Jaime used during the nightshift. At least she wasn’t also sitting in his chair, but had fetched one of the bum-numbing plastic affairs from the break room and placed it catty-corner to the chair Jaime and Flowers called their own, though never within each other’s hearing. Brienne was perched on it like an adult on a kiddy chair, methodically scanning the statements uniforms had collected the previous night.

Jaime knew he ought to join her, go through statements, follow up with Pia. Didn’t want to deal with the silent accusations in Big Brienne’s blue eyes just yet, so he headed into the break room to get coffee.

Edmure Tully was there, still going on about his son’s birth, talking some rapt female uniform’s ear off. Jaime’s thoughts turned again, inevitable as the evening tide in Blackwater Bay, to how careful Cersei had always been, even when they’d been fifteen and barely able to keep their hands off each other. In addition to the Pill, she’d always made sure Jaime used a condom or pulled out before he could finish. It had never occurred to him till years later, when he would no longer visit his sister’s penthouse even when she had deigned to ask him over, to wonder why Cersei hadn’t simply told him to have a vasectomy. But then, she had never intended to make Jaime her one and only.

Jaime poured hours-old coffee and drank it down like penance, an unsweetened, tepid sludge. His mouth twisted with the taste, the bitterness of memory, of his own unrelenting stupidity and naivety. For all that he’d learned how to make Cersei come already at thirteen, he’d allowed himself to remain a child, gullible and trusting, for far too long. He knew better now, but it still galled him to remember.

“She was so brave, my Roslin,” Tully nattered on, bleating like a goat. “She only cried a little, around the third hour, just before the baby came. I’d never seen her cry before except, well.” He blushed, but he also smirked. “On our wedding night. She cried a little then, too.”

“She must have been overwhelmed by the sight of your rampant manhood,” Jaime quipped, unable and unwilling to restrain himself.

Tully rounded on him, bright red under his ginger hair and squeezing his fists, looking utterly ridiculous. Jaime ignored him, dumped his cup in the sink, and strode out of the break room. The uniform muttered ‘asshole’ just loudly enough that Jaime would hear. Water off a duck’s back to him, who had been called Kingslayer often enough.

Brienne looked up when Jaime approached his desk – their desk, gods help him – her eyes clear of all recrimination, clouded only by the facts of the Stokeworth murder.

“There you are,” she said, focused and immersed in the case at hand, oblivious to whatever she might have told Jaime out in the parking lot. “I just finished going through the witness statements from last night. Nobody saw anything, she wasn’t robbed, and the coroner’s report confirms that Lollys Stokeworth was strangled manually, face to face. She’d had sex, and she bled. Difficult to tell if it was rape since her friends mentioned she took on some weird trade. Oh, and this is interesting: there was no semen. Whoever she was with used a condom.”

Brienne looked at Jaime expectantly. He looked back at her while he mulled over the implications.

The clever and well-dressed rapist wore a condom this season, everybody knew that, what with diseases and forensics advancing hand in hand all the time. But in that part of the city, chances were far higher that whoever the condom-wearer had been, had been a customer, and probably a regular. Working girls like Lollys tended to have a steady client base whose kinks they knew, with whom they were comfortable. Lollys might not even have realized what was happening when her killer had started choking her, if that had been a regular part of their arrangement. Or maybe it had been a genuine accident: the killer had tried to hide her body in order to conceal his misdeed but also as a sign of shame. Remorse: that nebulous concept which got those who caused harm to others reduced sentences if they faked it convincingly enough in front of a judge.

Jaime’s mind flashed back to Aerys Targaryen lying in a pool of blood and gasoline. Jaime had left him there, what had been left of Aerys’ face bare to the world and astonished at his own mortality, and gone outside to wait for an ambulance with Rhaella Targaryen shaking and weeping on his arm, Jaime’s smoking gun still in his other hand. The District Attorney had been adamant that Jaime’s lack of remorse, both then and later during the investigation, would bury him if the case went to court. The Targaryen syndicate had trotted out the most expensive legal team money could hire to make the K.L.P.D. and everyone in the Seven Kingdoms look like trigger-happy maniacs. It hadn’t come to a trial, of course. Tywin Lannister had donated generously to the D.A.’s reelection campaign, and Jaime had been quietly shuffled off to the Night’s Watch, his career and life swept under the carpet.

Jaime pulled himself back to the moment, to Brienne still looking at him, waiting for his reaction. Acting the way a partner should.

“So he was probably a regular,” Jaime said. “Lollys knew him, which means Ygritte must know him too. Get your jacket.”

They parked their police car a few blocks away from where Lollys had been dumped like a sack of rancid garbage, and took a roundabout route through back alleys stinking of cat piss, semen, and rotting takeaway. Jaime knew these streets, and Brienne followed, quiet and alert, without any of her silent objections.

They stood in the mouth of an alley facing a stretch of pavement still cordoned off with police tape and guarded by a lone uniformed officer. None other than Jon Snow.

Ygritte was there, skinny and trying valiantly to spill out of a too-small top and too-short skirt, and she was talking to Snow. Rather, she was talking, and smiling, and pulling faces, wrinkling her pug nose and twirling her long red hair, while Snow kept trying to look anywhere but at her, and blushed impressively.

Jaime smirked to see it. Ygritte’s brazenness had helped her through years on the street, but she seemed only somewhat inspired by a desire to embarrass the young policeman. Too bad Jaime and Brienne would have to break up her attempts at genuine flirtation.

Ygritte started when she saw Jaime approach, but Snow grabbed her arm, gently and firmly, and held her fast. She was cursing in a low tone when Jaime came up, Brienne in tow, calling Snow names and wriggling, yet not really trying to get away. She would have used the pointed tips of her stripper boots on Snow’s shins, had getting away really been her intention.

“Hello, Ygritte,” Jaime said pleasantly.

“I know nothing,” she muttered to the pavement.

Jaime smiled. “Well now, if you had waited for me to ask you a question, I might actually believe you. It’s all right, Snow, you can let her go now.”

Snow looked reluctant to obey but did so anyway, walked some yards away and watched the passing traffic with great interest: alert but not intruding.

Ygritte trailed him with her eyes before she turned back to Jaime, spotted Brienne over Jaime’s shoulder, frowned. “Who’s this?”

Jaime jerked his head back at Brienne without taking his eyes off Ygritte. “My new partner, Detective Brienne Tarth. She thinks Lollys’ killer was one of her regulars, and you can identify him.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Brienne start at that, indulged in momentary pleasure at putting her on the spot. A simple diversion so Ygritte would understand she had no option but to cooperate.

Ygritte seemed about to bolt, but Brienne circled swiftly around the two of them, blocking Ygritte’s possible escape route with her bulk and arms held akimbo. Ygritte looked between her and Jaime, scowled, then slumped, defeat etched into the curved line of her shoulders and neck.

“What’s it matter?” she said mutinously. “Lollys ain’t important enough to you lot. You’ll never arrest him.”

“We will,” Brienne said before Jaime could put it more eloquently. “She is important.”

Ygritte regarded Brienne over her shoulder for a long moment. She seemed about to say something, shook her head mulishly.

Jaime stepped closer, invading Ygritte’s personal space, in for the kill. “Listen to me, Ygritte. If you think I won’t haul your carroty ass in for obstruction of justice, and sic Social Services on you as well…”

“I heard what you said,” Ygritte shot back. “I take good care of my kid, you have no right.”

She spat on the pavement between Jaime’s shoes. Not on them, though. He almost had her. Jaime waited, let the silence become dense and heavy. Brienne squirmed behind Ygritte, feeling it too, letting Jaime take the lead in this.

“It was that ginger cunt,” red-haired Ygritte said at last, to the gob of her spit on the pavement. She looked up at Jaime, eyes blazing, chin jutting defiantly. “That police cunt what was here yesterday. He came looking for Lollys before his shift. That’s why I took off.”

Brienne made a small noise. Her eyes met Jaime’s over Ygritte’s furiously bowed head. Brienne gaped for only a moment before her jaw set stubbornly, her nostrils flared. She watched Jaime as though he were the one Ygritte had fingered for the murder, all set to argue with him if he tried to protect a fellow officer.

I might surprise you yet, Big Brienne, Jaime thought. He ignored his partner, addressed Ygritte: “If we charge him, will you testify?”

Ygritte seemed about to laugh in his face or scream at him. Or both. But she shut her mouth and nodded, sharp as a knife slash. Her hands twisted together, the tendons in her thin forearms standing up like taut rope. Lollys had been her friend, after all.

Jaime and Brienne left Ygritte in Snow’s care with instructions to get her to the precinct discreetly, take down her statement, and offer her and her daughter police protection once Bolton signed off on it. Jaime suspected they would need to have Connington under arrest for that to happen: the instinct of mutual aid and protection ran deep among cops, even the worst of them. He didn’t look it, but Connington was obviously one of the worst: he’d worked his own crime scene, for the Seven’s sake, and even tried to feel out, in his ham-fisted way, whether the coroner and senior detective on the case were likely to suspect him.

Jaime called the precinct from the car, found out Connington was just coming on shift. He instructed the desk sergeant to keep Connington occupied until they got there, hoping to arrest the man quietly in the locker room or break room, and hustle him down to the holding cells without the whole precinct getting up in arms about it.

No such luck. Connington was leaving the precinct just as Jaime pulled up.

Jaime parked in front, no time for going round to the parking lot and playing this subtly. Connington spotted them getting out of the car. Something about their faces or body language must have tipped him off, for he lingered a moment, tense as a cat poised to spring, and then took off down the street.

Jaime swore under his breath, his muscles already bunching and straining to follow. He needn’t have bothered.

Brienne stopped the fleeing Connington.

Jaime had never before seen anyone go from standing still to running full tilt in the space of so few fractions of a second. He had certainly never seen anyone of Brienne’s size move with such speed and agility, even if the pounding of her big feet on the pavement echoed against the precinct’s monolithic front.

Connington fled in a panic, arms flailing, breaths loud and ragged, while Brienne kept her arms tucked in, close to her body, as she sprinted after him. Jaime was too astonished at the sight to follow. In spite of his disdain for the woman, Jaime had to admire Brienne’s economy of movement, how she conserved her strength.

She was on Connington in a matter of moments, tackled him from behind so he fell on his face and she landed on top of him, sparing herself any serious injury yet efficiently driving the breath out of his lungs, jabbing her knee in his kidney. Connington whimpered while Brienne got up on her knees, one on the ground and the other pressed into the small of his back, handcuffed him, and read him his rights. Stood, hauling him up by his handcuffed wrists and the scruff of his neck, and saw Jaime watching from beside the car.

“Thanks for your help,” she called out sarcastically.

Connington was weeping, claiming he’d never meant to hurt Lollys, they’d just been playing one of their games and things had got out of hand. He rather spoiled the penitent sinner effect by calling Brienne ‘sow’ and ‘ugly bitch’ in a thin, whiny sob.

Brienne switched focus from Jaime to the man in her custody, rolled her eyes, and frogmarched Connington to the main door of the precinct, where a passel of cops and civilians stood watching. Nobody cheered or clapped, as they might have done for an ordinary collar.

They had just left Connington with the custody sergeant, other police fluttering around them like bats at the spectacle of a fellow officer being placed under arrest, when Jaime noticed Brienne examine her clothes with a frown. She’d torn the sleeve of her cheap jacket on the pavement when she’d tackled Connington, and the skin on the ball of her hand was red and angry-looking. Like her face.

“Fudge,” she muttered to her hand.

Jaime couldn’t help it: he laughed out loud. “Are you serious? Did you seriously just say ‘fudge’? I’m partnered with a five-year-old! A bloody big five-year-old, but still.”

She glared at him in stony silence, an expression Jaime had never fully appreciated before. He smiled in what he hoped was a placating fashion.

“There’s a first-aid kit in the break room. Go put some antiseptic cream on your hand, and meet me downstairs at the side entrance.”

Brienne frowned, but Jaime walked away before she could start pestering him with questions and objections.

Once they met up, he led the way to a nearby bar. Brienne followed, still frowning but silent. She spoke only once, to point out they should be taking Connington’s statement. Jaime waved this away.

“Let him wait, soften him up a bit. Besides, we deserve a drink to celebrate.” And I need to set the record straight with you about one or two things, Legs. Jaime could tell Brienne wanted to refuse and head back to the precinct right away, but she consented to sit down at the bar and order a beer, because it would have been rude not to when her partner asked her out for a friendly drink between colleagues, even though they were still on duty.

It was not yet midnight, and a workday, so the bar was only half full. They sat in silence, Jaime completely at ease while Brienne sat hunched, elbows perched on the sharp edge of the bar, staring down the neck of her beer bottle as though it were a gun barrel. How could she have run as she had, Jaime wondered, like a particularly agile aurochs, all contained energy and oddly graceful force, and sit there now, like an overgrown child who’d just been dealt a scolding?

“So,” Jaime drawled deliberately. “What shall we talk about? I suppose I could ask how you decided to become a cop, but it’s obvious. Your father’s a cop, and you fit the requirements for a certain type of female police officer.”

Brienne frowned at his reflection in the mirror behind the bar.

“The three B’s,” Jaime explained pleasantly. “Butch, By-the-book, and B.o.r.i.n.g.”

He smiled sweetly, and she turned the exact shade of red he had expected.

“Well how did someone like you become a cop?” Brienne flung back at him, no doubt thinking it a very clever comeback.

Hook, line, sinker.

“Oh, the usual,” Jaime said, still glib but working up to what he wanted to drill into his stubborn partner’s head. “I was getting bored with the good life, and it was a way to spite my family. My, uh, girlfriend at the time thought it exciting to sleep with a cop, till she realized it’s all long, erratic hours and shit pay.”

He paused for effect, watched Brienne closely, could see the words she wanted to say etched on her ruffled brow, her clenched lips.

“Shit pay, unless you’re corrupt, of course. That’s what you were thinking, isn’t it, Legs?”

She put down her beer and twisted around on her bar stool till she was facing Jaime squarely, her face aflame, her strong jaw showing the same angry defiance Ygritte’s had shown earlier.

“Well what do you expect?” Brienne demanded. “You dress well and you drive that car. What other logical conclusion is there?”

Jaime grinned, kept his voice pleasantly soft. “That I’m a flatfoot with taste and a trust fund. Or I used to have a trust fund. My father lost patience with my career choices a few years back and cut me off. Decided I couldn’t go against his wishes and keep spending my patrimony too.”

He hadn’t meant to tell her that much. The words left a familiar, unpleasant aftertaste in Jaime’s mouth. I’ll be telling her about Cersei next. Or Aerys.

Brienne was watching him with an uncertain, tentative expression. Despite how Jaime chose to taunt her, she hadn’t made detective just because of how pretty her eyes were. She hadn’t missed the sincerity or the bitterness in his voice.

Jaime hurried on. “The suits and the car are all that’s left. So I take good care of what I’ve got, unlike you, who wouldn’t know natural wool from polyester if it came up and bit you on that crooked nose of yours.”

Just as he’d hoped, Brienne’s expression, already halfway to sympathetic, took a sharp left into shuttered hostility. Before she could muster some sort of ham-fisted retort, their cell phones rang as one. Jaime was unsurprised to see it was Bolton calling them.

“Two nights as partners, and you arrest a fellow officer in full view of the entire precinct.”

Bolton eyed them coldly where they stood side by side in front of his desk. He hadn’t offered them to sit down, a cheap trick but effective on the likes of Brienne, who was tense and nearly fidgeting next to Jaime. Jaime stood at ease.

“One almost shudders to think what you might do next,” Bolton continued in his quasi-conversational way, talking over or at one, much as Jaime’s father had been wont to do, back when he and Jaime had still been on speaking terms.

Bolton picked up a slim file from his desk, held it out.

Jaime did not move, returned Bolton’s gaze, unflinching.

Two heartbeats passed, then Brienne reached out jerkily and accepted the folder, flipped it open and scanned the police report inside. Her mouth shaped a silent O of concern and sympathy. Soft-hearted, silly girl. Jaime wondered how old she was. She must have been almost thirty, at least ten years younger than himself, yet her emotions were those of a much younger woman, her face a clear pane of glass through which the contents of her heart showed clearly.

Jaime realized with a small start, invisible to anyone else, that he had hoped to close the Stokeworth case so he could be rid of her. And now here they were, about to be handed another bullshit case, yet Jaime felt a surprising lack of resentment towards Big Brienne for playing right into Bolton’s hands.

Bolton talked over their silence. “Tully should take this case, but he has a… personal connection to it. He will interrogate your suspect in the Stokeworth murder instead, take care of all the relevant paperwork.”

“Wonderful,” Jaime quipped. “I love this new fashion for Edmure Tully closing cases we worked hard to solve.”

It did not escape him that Brienne twitched a little at his oblique acknowledgement of her as his partner. She would read something into such a minor detail.

“You’d think Tully was the one who’s just had a baby, not his wife, the way you’re coddling him,” Jaime pursued for form and honor’s sake, not because he expected it would do him or Brienne any good to protest.

The corner of Bolton’s mouth lifted, his lips thinning into nonexistence, lending him an even more lizard-like look than usual. He and Jaime stared at each other, two men who had taken each other’s measure a long time ago, for whom challenge and counterchallenge was the only means of communication. The power rested squarely with Bolton. Jaime resented it, but he knew better than to fight every battle as though it would be his last.

“What have we been graced with this time, Brienne?” Jaime asked, not moving his gaze from Bolton’s pale pebble eyes.

“Edmure Tully’s niece has gone missing,” Brienne said quietly.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 6:30 a.m.

Sansa Stark was a teenage girl. Many people would undoubtedly have called her a normal, ordinary teenage girl, but Brienne knew no such simple creature existed in the world.

Sansa Stark was sixteen and already a high-school senior, having skipped two grades. Contrary to what usually happened to gifted children in public schools, she was popular and a candidate for prom queen, even though she did not belong to any cliques. If anything, the report cards sent over by a school secretary indignant over being woken at sunup indicated that the one thing standing in Sansa’s way was a certain shyness, which had her mostly keeping company with her best friend, a girl two years her senior. She did not mix much with the other students, but she was well liked.

Whether that made her fellow students more or less likely to know something about why this seemingly well-adjusted girl who did not fit into any high-risk categories had gone missing, Brienne could not decide yet. She studied Sansa Stark’s yearbook picture, taken a few months earlier: a lovely, red-haired, blue-eyed girl with a heart-melting smile, all innocence and enthusiasm and hope. Someone to whom the world should belong.

It was half an hour past the end of Brienne’s official shift, but the clock on a case of such delicacy and urgency did not stop. Any disappearance of a minor was routinely classified as a possible child abduction until proven otherwise, and a missing teenager from a good home was a higher priority than a dead prostitute.

Though her heart went out to the missing girl, Brienne bridled a bit at the world’s and Lieutenant Bolton’s knee-jerk assumption that, in the grand scheme of things, Sansa Stark was more important than Lollys Stokeworth.

Small consolation that there was as yet no evidence Sansa Stark had been abducted, that she hadn’t simply discovered teenage rebellion at long last and run off for a few days at the seaside with some boy or girl, or hopped on a bus to go visit her late father’s family up North.

At least Edmure Tully had got a confession out of Officer Ronnet Connington, who still claimed Lollys’ death had been an accident, one of their usual sex games gone too far. The forensic evidence was inconclusive, and as a police officer Connington merited a measure of preferential treatment from his soon to be former colleagues. So his lawyer was cutting a deal with the District Attorney even as Brienne sat at Detective Franklyn Flowers’ desk, reviewing Sansa Stark’s school records and waiting for Jaime Lannister to return from the toilet so they could go talk to the missing girl’s family.

The squad room was filling up with detectives who used it during the dayshift. They did not recognize Brienne but knew she was from the Night’s Watch, and gave her peculiar, distasteful looks as they passed, as though she were a beggar on a street corner, someone willfully overlooked unless they placed themselves squarely in people’s way. A pariah.

Loath to wait for Detective Flowers to show up and demand that she vacate his desk, Brienne gathered Sansa Stark’s slim but growing file, put on her jacket, and went to wait for Jaime in the corridor outside the squad room.

Jaime Lannister.

Brienne should have been focusing all of her tired, slightly overcaffeinated brain’s capacities on the new case. She couldn’t help her thoughts drifting to her new partner instead, while she leaned against the wall outside the toilets and briefly rested her eyes. There was a feeling in her stomach like she got when she ate very spicy food, an acidy bite. It was stupid, she knew that logically, but thinking of anyone other than Renly as her partner felt like a betrayal of Renly’s memory.

Brienne remembered a lecture her father regularly delivered to Tarth P.D.’s rookies. She had heard him rehearse it so many times at home, she knew it by heart: “The relationship you will have with your partner will be one of the closest relationships of your lives, like the one you might have with your spouse or siblings. It will also be unique. It does not matter whether you like your partner. What matters is that you trust them completely, because when you’re faced with someone desperate enough to raise their hand or weapon against you, your partner will be the only person you can rely on.”

There was an addendum to that lecture Selwyn Tarth dusted off and trotted out in one-on-one conversations whenever someone’s partner retired or transferred out or died. Or, more rarely, quit or got fired. Then he talked about the grief one felt at the loss of an important relationship, albeit a relationship not sanctified by bonds of marriage or blood, and how that grief could only be indulged in private but was nothing to be ashamed of. Selwyn Tarth did not treat his officers like they were his children, but he did like to play the benevolent boss, lofty and stern but also kind and understanding.

Brienne wiped her nose on the back of her hand and thought about Renly, who had always been kind and patient to witnesses and victims of crime, while using his charm and affability to seduce suspects into a false sense of security. Brienne had always played bad cop in their partnership, unsettling suspects with her size and scowl, then Renly would dive in like quicksilver and catch them out in their lies. And high five Brienne afterward, while she’d blushed and ducked her head even as she’d relished those brief moments of contact and comradeship.

Renly had had his faults, but he’d been a good man and a good partner. Jaime Lannister… was something else entirely.

Brienne suspected he was not a good man, and was fairly certain he was not a nice one either, but if her father had taught her anything, he had taught her that personal differences were no obstacle to a decent partnership, provided good will and trust were present. But could she trust – dared she trust – a man who had gunned down an unarmed suspect and endangered a bystander’s life while doing it? Whom apparently nobody else on the Night’s Watch wanted for a partner, considering Brienne had barely got through the door before Bolton had paired them up? If what Lannister had told her was true, it was only a matter of time before some slip-up landed them both back in uniform, or got them fired without benefits or pension.

Brienne clenched her jaw stubbornly. Jaime Lannister could do what he liked in his off hours. For as long as Brienne had to be his partner, she would make sure he toed the line, because she had no intention of giving up the one job she loved and had seen herself doing since she’d been a little girl. She didn’t care how handsome and arrogant and used to getting his way Lannister was. He had done good work on the Stokeworth case, but if he so much as thought about circumventing proper procedure or doing anything iffy, Brienne would be on that like an Iron Islander of old on a gold cache. And they would find Sansa Stark alive and well. This Brienne vowed silently as the door to the men’s room finally opened to disgorge her partner, looking somewhat hollow-eyed after a long night, yet bright and sharp as a finely honed blade.

He lifted an eyebrow when he spotted Brienne waiting for him. She scowled and led the way to the parking lot, the Stark file under her arm. It was not yet seven a.m. They would catch Sansa Stark’s mother and younger sister at home before the sister left for school.

Jaime drove while Brienne watched the streets pass outside her window and fidgeted with the torn sleeve of her jacket. She really needed to get a good city map and a street directory, but in the meantime watching and memorizing the routes Jaime took to get them places would have to serve as Brienne’s guide to the unspoken yet clear divisions between the neighborhoods and historic quarters of King’s Landing.

The Stark family lived in a quiet, affluent, middle-class neighborhood between the Iron Gate and the Red Keep, within easy walking distance of the well-tended promenade along the shore of Blackwater Bay, where the city walls had once stood. Sansa’s father had died some years earlier, but his life insurance policy and his wife’s interior design business kept the family relatively well-off, although theirs was by no means the biggest or fanciest house on their street.

“You speak with the mother, I’ll take the younger sister,” Brienne said when Jaime parked in the Starks’ driveway. He looked at her, and she shrugged. “I know how to talk to kids.”

He smirked, throwing the faint lines around his mouth and eyes into sharper relief. Brienne guessed him to be around forty, though he didn’t look it except when he was tired, like now.

“I’ll bet you do,” he said with his nonsensical need to make everything an insinuation or a barely veiled insult.

Brienne turned away so he wouldn’t see her roll her eyes as she got out of the car. You don’t have to like your partner, she repeated to herself. You just have to get along and be able to trust each other. Despite her best efforts, even her inner voice sounded like it was grinding its teeth.

Sitting at the kitchen table across from Edmure’s older sister, Catelyn Stark née Tully, Brienne formed a decent impression of what Sansa Stark could hope to grow up to be. If they found her on time. Brienne shook off that thought, every cop’s fear and professional hazard, and focused on the routine questions Jaime and she were posing to the red-haired woman, her innate grace and poise chipped away, her face lined with worry and lack of sleep, her blue eyes puffy.

Brienne hated this part of the job, it always felt like she was interrogating the missing person’s nearest and dearest when she should have been out there doing ‘real’ police work. But then, missing children often went missing due to actions taken by their relatives or family friends. Brienne knew better than to trust her gut instinct alone in such cases, but even so she wasn’t getting a bad vibe from Sansa’s mother.

“When did you see your daughter last?”

Catelyn Stark made a visible effort to pull herself together, and answer crisply and concisely. “Yesterday at breakfast. Sansa had school, then she was going to go downtown for an internship interview. She was supposed to call me after the interview, but I never…” She broke off, unable to continue.

“We will need the contact information for the company where she interviewed,” Brienne said, gentle, professional.

Mrs. Stark nodded, terribly distracted, her eyes darting to the kitchen door in a way which tugged at Brienne’s heart. Looking for her daughter, who kept not appearing as she always did, wanting breakfast, looking for her pencil case or hairbrush, exasperating and precious.

“We’ll also need a full inventory of what your daughter was wearing and whatever personal possessions she had with her when she left yesterday,” Jaime chimed in.

Brienne restrained the impulse to glare at him. His tone suggested he had already written off Sansa Stark as lost, dead.

Mrs. Stark seemed not to notice. She was nodding, wiping her nose on a balled-up tissue, reciting the items in her daughter’s outfit in a shaky voice. Jaime scribbled it all down in his notebook, and Brienne excused herself to go upstairs and talk to Sansa’s sister.

Arya Stark was just a year younger than Sansa, yet looked completely different from Sansa and their mother. She took after their father, a solemn, kindly-looking man hugging his two girls in a photograph Brienne had spotted on the Starks’ fridge.

Arya sat hunched on the edge of her bed and tapped the tip of her field hockey stick rhythmically on the floor, avoiding Brienne’s eye, her answers to Brienne’s questions consisting of shrugs and monosyllables. She wasn’t hiding anything, Brienne suspected. She had simply raised the drawbridge and barricaded herself inside high mental walls as a defense against the horrible situation.

Casting about for a way to breach those walls, but gently, Brienne scanned the contents of Arya’s room. Maybe Brienne could talk about her netball successes when she’d been in high school, that might draw the girl out, even if Arya’s choice of wall decorations suggested she preferred hockey and soccer. Or hockey and soccer players.

Then Brienne spotted it: while the floor of Arya’s room was littered with dirty clothes, comic books, and sports equipment, a waitress uniform, neatly pressed and covered in transparent plastic, hung from a hook on the door. Had the door stood open, the uniform would have been invisible from anywhere inside the room.

“My dad made me get a part-time job when I was your age too,” Brienne said conversationally. She nodded at the uniform when Arya looked up with a suspicious frown: she knew the grownup was trying to pull a fast one on her. “I mowed lawns at first, but later I waitressed as well.”

Arya mulled this over, her lips moving like she was sucking on a pebble. “I hate it,” she muttered at last.

Brienne breathed more easily: the drawbridge was not down, but the boiling oil and flaming arrows hadn’t come out either. “I didn’t care for it either. The only good thing about it was the money.”

Arya snorted. “It sucks, and the people there suck too. I never get any good tips.”

“You should talk to the manager, ask them to give you a better section.”

Arya shook her head. “It’s not that. I drop stuff.” She looked at Brienne sharply. “Who in seven hells can carry four plates at the same time, anyway?” she demanded, small and bristly like a hedgehog, obviously repeating an argument she had trotted out unsuccessfully for her mother and the restaurant manager on many a past occasion, probably throwing in the imprecation she wouldn’t have dared use with the others.

“You just have to practice,” Brienne told her. Arya’s mouth twisted angrily. Brienne hurried on. “You play field hockey, so you have good balance. It’s not hard, you just need a little time and patience.”

“As if,” Arya groused.

Brienne cocked her head at the girl. “Do you have any unbreakable plates in the house?”

Arya’s eyes glittered. She couldn’t resist a challenge.

She returned less than two minutes later, preceded by the sound of her feet pounding up the stairs and Mrs. Stark, sounding positively shrill, calling after her not to run inside the house. Arya raced into the room, deaf to her mother’s command, bearing a stack of paper plates and a bowl of grapes.

“Best I could find,” she panted. “Your partner is fighting with my Mom.”

Brienne winced inwardly. She’d better make this quick before Jaime Lannister proved once and for all what an infant he could be, and got into a hair-pulling contest with Mrs. Stark. Brienne relieved Arya of the fruit and stacked plates, arranged bunches of grapes on five of the plates.

“Plastic or metal is better, ‘cause it’s heavier,” Brienne explained as she lined up three of the plates on her left hand and lower arm, then picked up the remaining two plates carefully with her right hand, acutely aware that it had been years since she’d last handled so many plates, and if she embarrassed herself now Arya Stark would tell her nothing.

Brienne straightened and demonstrated how to move, and bend, and place full plates on tables. The grapes slid around a bit, but none fell off, and Brienne felt a rare sense of accomplishment at the awe and envy on Arya’s face.

She deposited the last plate on Arya’s lap, eliciting a crooked grin from the girl. “See? Practice. Just don’t take on more plates than you can manage or they will fire you.”

“Be worth it just to see their faces.” Arya started eating the grapes.

Brienne sat beside her on the bed, confident that now the girl would not resent the presumption.

“Listen, Arya, I really need your help. Your sister could be in a lot of trouble if we don’t find her soon. Do you know anything about where Sansa might be or with whom? Maybe someone she met in school or online? Someone your mother doesn’t know?”

Arya rolled a grape between her fingers, still avoiding Brienne’s eye, but something was on the tip of her tongue, Brienne could almost see it. She dove into the breach.

“If it’s a secret, I’ll try and keep it from your Mom, but I need to know,” she said gently.

Arya took a deep breath, held it, made her decision. “Mom makes me and Sansa share a computer. Which is stupid, like it would be such an expense to get another one! Whatever. I know what Sansa does online, it’s all totally vanilla. But there’s this guy… I don’t know who he is, but Sansa texts him all the time. She never lets her phone out of her sight, so I guess it’s a pretty big secret.”

“How do you know it’s a guy if she keeps such close guard on her phone?”

Arya made a face, a true younger sister. “Sansa always talks about everything, but she never talks about him. I don’t think she’s even told Margaery. Her BFF,” she hastened to explain, making the acronym sound like a word too disgusting to pronounce.

Brienne nodded thoughtfully. “Thank you, Arya. That’s a big help.”

Arya looked up at Brienne, her eyes suddenly pearly with tears. “You’ll find her, right?” she asked, a little girl’s quaver. She snorted liquidly, wiped her nose on her sleeve. “I mean, she’s so stupid and annoying, but…”

“I’ll do my best. I promise.”

Arya nodded briskly, trying to shake off her sorrow and fear, and stuffed her mouth full of grapes. Brienne gave her what she hoped was a reassuring smile and reminded her she’d be late for school, prompting Arya to revert back to normal adolescent behavior, rolling her eyes and trying to retort with her mouth full.

Brienne left Arya’s room smiling in spite of the gravity of the situation. Catelyn Stark’s voice drifted up the stairs like a swarm of wasps.

“What are you insinuating?” she demanded, the edge in her voice lent to it by rising anger rather than hysteria. “Sansa would never run away from home. She’s a normal, happy girl.”

“Teenage girls have secrets,” Jaime Lannister drawled infuriatingly. “Secrets they sometimes keep from their mothers. Did you two fight yesterday? You didn’t really like the idea of her taking an internship when she’s only sixteen, did you? All those greasy business types jostling each other to get closer to your daughter. Or maybe you didn’t care what she did with her free time so long as she was out of your hair…”

Oh gods. Brienne hurried down the stairs, not caring how thunderous her footsteps sounded.

Relieved at finding no broken crockery on the kitchen floor and Catelyn Stark only staring at Jaime like she wanted to throttle him but not actually indulging that desire, Brienne made their excuses, assured Mrs. Stark they’d be in touch soon, and practically dragged Jaime out of the Stark house by his sleeve.

“Let up, Legs,” he snapped once they were outside and he’d managed to wrench his sleeve out of Brienne’s fist. “This suit cost more than you earn in a month.”

“What is wrong with you?” Brienne demanded, feeling more than a little like a tragic heroine lamenting her fate to the unresponsive and indifferent gods. “Her daughter is missing, and you’re accusing her of neglect? Have you noticed the way they live? If the Stark girls are not well loved and cared for, nobody is.”

“Yeah, well, I didn’t like her,” Jaime muttered darkly. “Judgmental bloody woman, she recognized me from the papers, kept giving me this look like she thought I’d taken her daughter myself.”

Brienne gaped. “Aren’t you used to people reacting to you that way by now?”

The look with which Jaime fixed her speared Brienne through with equal parts shame and trepidation.

“No, Legs,” he replied, every word a crystal with very sharp edges. “I am not used to it. Just like you’ll never get used to people assuming you let your old partner die, ‘cause you couldn’t be bothered to use your service weapon as intended.”

Brienne started violently. Damn him, had he been reading up on her in the Stormlands press?

He strode past her, got behind the wheel like he had half a mind to drive off and leave her there. Brienne shoved the uncomfortable realization that she might have hurt Jaime’s feelings aside, and hurried after him rather than test his mood by arguing or trying to explain herself.

Their next stop was Sansa’s school, where they interviewed the principal, several teachers, and Sansa’s best friend.

Margaery Tyrell was two years older and every bit as lovely as Sansa, but in a more sophisticated, grownup way. Or at least a way trying very hard to come across as grownup. She wore designer clothes and high heels, and carried herself with a poise obviously modeled on the way women like Catelyn Stark comported themselves, carefully copied rather than gifted by years of experience.

“No,” Margaery insisted when Brienne mentioned Arya’s theory about Sansa’s secret male friend. “Sansa and I tell each other everything. If she had a boyfriend and was going to meet him, she would tell me.”

“Maybe she didn’t tell you everything.” Jaime favored the girl with a charming smile which was just a tad too slick. “Surely there are things you keep secret from her, Margaery.”

Was he… Good gods, he wasn’t flirting with the girl, was he?

Brienne restrained herself from glaring at Jaime or, better yet, dragging him away by the ear rather than his sleeve this time. Reminded herself that a little gentle flirtation could go a long way toward getting some witnesses to open up, if you knew how to do it right. Brienne didn’t, but it did not surprise her that Jaime did.

Margaery fixed Jaime with the look a young queen might give to an inept court jester, then she turned pointedly away from him and addressed Brienne. “I would know,” she insisted. “Sansa would tell me. If someone’s taken her…”

She paused, and Jaime made a face behind Margaery’s back. Brienne wanted to hug the girl, so distraught did she seem despite her aloof demeanor.

“Please find her and bring her back safe,” Margaery pleaded with Brienne. “Please. Sansa is very important to me.”

“I’ll bet you ten dragons those girls were more than just good friends, and that’s why the Stark girl never told Little Miss Tyrell over there about the guy she’s been texting,” Jaime said as they walked away, leaving Margaery to return to class, dabbing at her eyes with a lace-edged handkerchief. He still sounded annoyed about getting burned by a teenager.

Brienne examined the idea, shook her head. “I don’t think so,” she said. “Maybe Margaery would like them to be more than friends, but I didn’t get a sense from Mrs. Stark or Arya that Sansa thought of Margaery that way.”

Jaime harrumphed, and Brienne made herself not grimace or make a sharp remark for what felt like the tenth time that morning, still acutely aware of their little altercation in front of the Stark home. Let him think what he liked. Brienne would have bet a hundred dragons Jaime Lannister had no idea what it was like to desire someone who didn’t instantly prostrate themselves at his gorgeous, well-shod feet, his for the asking.

“Anyway,” Brienne added briskly, “whether Margaery Tyrell felt like a woman scorned or not, that doesn’t help us figure out what happened to Sansa.”

“Unless Margaery was so distracted by jealousy she got someone to kidnap Sansa for her,” Jaime mused out loud. “Some high school loser desperate for a pretty girl’s attention, whose parents own a weekend home where Margaery could keep Sansa. If I can’t have you, and all that nonsense.”

Brienne stopped in her tracks and stared at her partner. He looked back without mockery, for once.

“You don’t think she’s run away.” Brienne’s words came haltingly. “You think this is a kidnapping.”

“Everything points to that. And no, I don’t think Margaery Tyrell really had anything to do with it. But you said it yourself: by all accounts, Sansa Stark was well-adjusted, fairly happy, and well on her way to gentle world domination. Not exactly the kind of girl who’d run away to meet some mystery boyfriend just to spite her mother, and take nothing with her but her lunch money and her teddy bear.”

He didn’t just try to provoke Catelyn Stark because her reaction to his face and name injured his pride, Brienne thought feverishly. He provoked her to see what she might reveal about Sansa, to get clues. Like good police are supposed to do.

“We have to tell Lieutenant Bolton,” Brienne insisted. “We need more detectives on the case, we need uniforms…” She paused as despair rushed in on her. “In most child abductions by strangers the victim dies within the first 72 hours.”

“I know the statistics, Legs. We’ll call Bolton from the car.”

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 12 p.m.

Bolton was unamused at being woken from a sound sleep only to hear that, instead of this being a simple missing person case, the Stark girl had most likely been kidnapped. He flat-out refused to assign the case more manpower, citing budgetary reasons, and suggested thinly that Jaime and Brienne should try doing their jobs instead.

“Bloody leech,” Jaime snarled as he scrolled through his contacts list, driving one-handed. “Good thing I called my buddy Addam at Raven Communications before we left the precinct. He might be able to pinpoint the last location of Sansa Stark’s phone for us.”

Brienne looked at him.

Jaime turned his head away from the street for a long leer in her direction. Though her hand crept toward the dashboard as he spent several seconds driving blind, Brienne had to concede that calling this Addam person had been excellent thinking on Jaime’s part. All the more so since they hadn’t searched Sansa’s room, and would have to go back some time when Mrs. Stark was less likely to start a wrestling match with Jaime. Perhaps Sansa’s phone would obviate the need for that, if they were successful in retrieving it.

Brienne did not go so far as to tell Jaime any of this, there would have been no living with him otherwise. But she was certainly feeling more positive about their partnership as Jaime finished his conversation with the cell phone provider and drove on past the precinct, heading toward the Blackwater Rush.

The Rush widened as it neared the sea, making its course past the old heart of King’s Landing fast yet shallow. It had once skirted mudflats, a stinking harbor, and a great fish market washing up against the huddled huts of smallfolk too poor to live within the old city walls, their wattle and daub homes clinging to those walls like flimsy barnacles to the hulk of a rotting ship. The city walls had been pulled down as the city had grown and sieges ceased to be the preferred method of urban warfare, allowing the area between the city proper and the river to be bulldozed, rebuilt, and landscaped in accordance with modern ideas of what the neighborhoods alongside a great river should look like.

None but the wealthiest lived there now, in villas ensconced in dense, exotic shrubbery tended by armies of gardeners, far enough from the river itself to have no contact with the foot traffic along the riverside promenade, yet sufficiently close to enjoy the view and the breeze across the swiftly flowing water. The once appropriately named Mud Gate had been preserved, like all former city gates, shorn of its walls, surrounded instead by a public park, a monument to ages long past and unlamented. Both riverbanks had been tamed and covered in miles of walking and bicycle paths, with benches at convenient intervals and streetlights every fifty yards.

Even so, there were many places along that long promenade where two people might meet for an illicit tryst or an exchange of information, sex for hire or the purchase of controlled substances, hidden by a slight curve in the river or an overhanging willow tree, a moored pleasure boat or an ice cream stand boarded up for the off season. In the unofficial geography of King’s Landing, the one not featured in any tourist guide, the area around the river, especially its left bank by the Old City, served as a no man’s land where the desperate, the criminal, the furtive, and the merely private passed each other in mutually agreed-upon ignorance, pursuing their business and pleasures independently of one another.

It was essentially a more picturesque version of the Street of Silk, Brienne thought as she and Jaime Lannister made their way from their parked car to the spot on the riverbank where Sansa Stark’s phone had last emitted its steady, invisible electronic pulse. Except no teenage girl would meet a secret boyfriend on the Street of Silk, Brienne amended, no matter how persuasive said secret boyfriend might be. At least, this was what Brienne fervently hoped.

On the other hand, the spot they were looking for was ideally suited to a tryst: there was a bench under a weeping willow with low-hanging branches for privacy, and a curve in the riverbank would have shielded the bench’s occupants from anyone far enough away that the sound of their footsteps didn’t give them away. A rowboat was tied to a convenient bollard, bobbing merrily on the Rush’s incessant headlong flight into the open arms of Blackwater Bay. At noon on a workday, there was nobody else around. The only sounds were the burble of water and the rustle of leaves. Idyllic. Not the sort of place one could easily imagine as the site of violence, but Brienne had learned to regard every location as a potential crime scene. A few years on the job, and no place or situation looked innocent any more.

“Oh, seven hells,” Jaime muttered, to himself more than to her.

He stood at the water’s edge, peering sourly at something beneath the surface. Brienne joined him, watching her step on the neatly trimmed grass slick with river spray, and saw something in an utterly unnatural shade of pink winking up at them from the bottom of the river, where it had sunk and ceased to emit its electronic signature. Despite the river’s name, the water was very clear, a testament to the success of the royal government’s environmental policy. The pink phone was easy to spot even at a distance of about ten yards from the riverbank.

“It’s quite far,” Brienne said. “Did she throw it or did she drop it when she was snatched?”

“Or did her abductor throw it, hoping it would be swept out to sea?” Jaime supplied. “All questions for the maesters unless we can get the thrice-damned thing out and get it to work.”

He headed for the bollard, had his hands on the rowboat’s knotted rope by the time Brienne realized what he was about.

“You can’t do that.”

Jaime stopped tugging on the rope, pivoted with exaggerated slowness, and lifted that slap-worthy eyebrow. “I’ll put it back after we retrieve the phone, Legs. Relax.”

Brienne swallowed her objection to that infuriating nickname, focused on the task at hand. “That boat is private property. The situation does not fall within the parameters of an emergency which would justify our commandeering it.”

Jaime’s mouth worked silently, the phrase ‘swallowed the rulebook’ written plain across the sardonic twist of his lips, but he wisely did not say it. He grinned instead, without a grain of amusement. “What do you propose we do, then? Call in divers? Bolton will fucking love that…”

Brienne scoffed. “Of course not. I’ll wade in and get the phone. You can stay close to the riverbank and be ready to dive in after me in case I slip and get swept away on the current.”

That being settled, she sat on the bench and started removing her shoes. When Jaime spoke, something about his voice made her look up: an unfamiliar quality of hesitation which, in anyone else, Brienne would have labeled as shamefacedness.

“The water’s not very deep, but it’s swift and cold,” Jaime informed her.

Brienne peeled off her socks, stood up barefoot to take off her jacket. It was early spring, and the concrete of the promenade path under her feet was indeed cold. “I’m an islander. The currents around Tarth can get quite treacherous. I can swim fine.”

“I can’t.”

She looked at him sharply: he was staring across the river, his profile unmoving, like something engraved on a coin.

“You only have to be ready in case I slip…” Brienne began, annoyed and wanting to get this over with. He could take off his nice suit if he was worried about the water damaging it, he didn’t need to be so difficult all the time.

“No.” Jaime took a deep breath and looked at her, defiant as a child caught out in some naughtiness. “I can’t swim. At all.”

It was swiftly becoming a habit with Brienne to gape at her partner in disbelief. “What do you mean, you can’t swim? All cops have to know how, they test you at the academy before you’re sworn in…”

“Yeah, well, I don’t. I was sworn in without it.”

Brienne started to tell him to knock it off because the joke wasn’t funny and they didn’t have time to monkey around, when it hit her. Tywin Lannister’s money had obviously bought his son all kinds of exemptions, up to and including not being held to the same standards as the rest of the force. That, and getting away with killing people in the line of duty with only a slap on the wrist. The thought must have shown on her face, because Jaime turned red with fury, green eyes flashing. Brienne would not have been shocked if he used her saying anything to him just then as an excuse to throw a punch, so she merely folded her jacket and placed it on top of her shoes and socks on the bench, moving jerkily and avoiding her partner’s eye, keeping all her disgust tightly sealed behind her clenched teeth.

She hesitated for a long moment, certain that he would jape about her appearance, but then she got a grip on herself: Jaime Lannister’s insults would hurt her a lot less than if she waded into the cold river fully dressed, and got pneumonia before she could dry off and change. So Brienne took off her belt with the gun and handcuffs, unbuttoned her shirt and unzipped her slacks, and pulled them off as quickly as she could, looking only at the growing pile of her clothes on the bench and not at Lannister.

Brienne was just contemplating whether to go whole hog and take off her smallclothes too, rubbing the goose bumps from her arms absently and shifting her bare feet on the cold concrete, when she noticed Lannister doing something out of the corner of her eye.

He had draped his expensive jacket over the bollard, apparently unaware that it was greasy with several coatings of tar, and was just throwing his silk shirt over that when Brienne looked at him. He was nicely toned, his chest and stomach dusted with hair shading between gold and silver in the noon sunlight. He looked better than good, and he knew it if the way he half twisted away from Brienne as he lifted his foot and took off his shoe, flexing the muscles in his abdomen and stretching his arms, was any indication.

Lannister took off his other shoe, placed both neatly on the grass next to his gun. He straightened, looked straight at Brienne, and smirked as he undid his trousers and pulled them down in one swift move a male stripper would have envied.

“What are you doing?” Brienne squeaked in wholly ludicrous terror. Her knees knocked together because of the cold, nothing more.

“Seems only fair, seeing as you’re gracing me with the sight of all your muscles and other bits, pardner.” Lannister raked his eyes up and down the length of her, from ankles to collarbones, insolent and at ease in his beauty. He wriggled a thumb under the waistband of his smallclothes – boxer shorts, thank the gods, though not very long or commodious ones – and snapped the elastic against his hipbone. “Wanna go skinny dipping with me, Brienne?”

It took all of Brienne’s willpower to neither run away nor tip him headfirst into the shallow river. She confined herself to making her fists relax by her sides and looking Lannister in the eye.

You are not going anywhere,” Brienne managed, hating him for how her voice shook. “If you slip and fall in, I might not be able to pull you out before the current carried you off. I’m going in alone. And not… skinny dipping,” she hastened to add, tripping over the words, her own tongue betraying her.

“Suit yourself.”

He left his smallclothes on and sat cross-legged on the grassy riverbank, right at the water’s edge, looking as comfortable as if it were a sauna bench rather than cold, wet dirt. “In you go, then. I’ll be watching you very carefully while you get wet,” Lannister drawled, doing an excellent job of pretending he was enjoying this.

Her nerve endings protesting the sudden exposure to the cold, Brienne focused on the sensation of icy needles in her flesh as the river lapped up her calves, the shifting pebbles under her feet, the angle and speed of the current against her legs, while in the back of her mind she called Jaime Lannister every nasty name in existence, and started to draft her official request to be assigned another partner just as soon as this case wrapped up.

She was in nearly up to her breastbone by the time she reached the wavering spot of pink lodged on the pebbly bottom. The water was very clear, but the current and sunlight reflecting off the water made the exact distance and position of the phone difficult to gauge. Brienne realized she would not be able to reach it without diving under completely. She considered trying to grasp the phone with her toes, realized she could barely feel her feet, the water was so cold. She might just kick the phone to a spot where the current would snatch it up and bear it away.

No use dawdling and risking hypothermia. She took a lungful of air, estimated the distance to the phone, and dove.

Brienne couldn’t help it: when she emerged, shivering from head to toe but with plenty of air still in her lungs and the square casing of Sansa Stark’s phone a slick sliver of ice in her clenched fist, she turned to the near riverbank, lifted both hands above her head, and whooped. Saw her partner rise to his feet, grin brilliantly, and mime applause. Brienne forgot for one triumphant moment that Jaime Lannister was an arrogant, overbearing asshole in boxer shorts, and she was so cold he was bound to see her nipples clearly through her white bra even at a distance of ten yards.

Brienne could only guess at the texture of the Rush’s bottom as she waded back, shivers coursing through her limbs and making her teeth chatter. She was concentrating so hard on not losing her footing and squinting against the reflected sunlight, she did not even notice the men who’d appeared behind Jaime until she was halfway out of the water and reaching up to pass Sansa’s phone into Jaime’s outstretched hand.

There were three of them, dressed in army surplus jackets and dirt-encrusted jeans. Junkies, petty criminals, or just opportunist jokers who had spotted a nearly naked man and woman sporting by the Blackwater Rush in broad daylight. Brienne scrapped the latter option when she saw the switchblades held by two of them, the length of motorcycle chain stretched menacingly between the third one’s scarred fists. The men were between her and her gun, hidden under her clothes on the bench, while Jaime’s gun was on the grass by his shoes, closer by yet too far away to reach in time.

Jaime noticed her staring over his shoulder, dropped into a half crouch, and turned only as far as he needed to take in the situation. Then he turned back, took the pink phone in one hand, grasped Brienne’s wrist with his free hand and pulled her all the way out of the river. They stood very close, gripping wrists and staring into each other’s eyes, for all the world like a pair of silly lovers about to be assaulted by hooligans and make the back page of the evening newspaper. Telling them Jaime and she were cops would likely only inspire these hoodlums to torture them longer.

Jaime smiled softly at Brienne, as though to say it would be all right, when it so obviously wouldn’t. Then he let go of her hand and fell back on the grass, arms and legs twitching, gurgling hideously, deep in his throat. Spasms shook him like a rat held fast in a cat’s jaws, his eyes open and unseeing.

Brienne stared at him in horror for only a moment before she realized the three men were almost upon them but had stopped in their tracks, their rapacious smiles frozen into rictus grimaces, one switchblade now held at a dangerous angle to its wielder, the other switchblade and the chain hanging from limp fists.

Forgetting that she was so cold her hands and feet might as well have been made of wood, Brienne vaulted over Jaime’s supine, twitching body. She slammed her left shoulder into the arm holding one switchblade, driving the point into its owner’s abdomen. The wounded man screamed and stumbled into his friend with the motorcycle chain, sending them both sprawling in a tangle of limbs.

Brienne turned to the third man, who was the farthest away from her, poised on the balls of his feet. The trio had relied on their being large and armed, and there being three of them, but they were slow and clumsy. Brienne would have gone for the third man’s solar plexus and felled him with one well-aimed punch, probably risking nothing more serious than some superficial cuts to her arm, but the man with the chain had shoved his injured friend aside and was clambering to his feet closer to Brienne, the chain swinging from his hand in a slowly widening arc.

Her back prickling with malaise when she turned it on the third man, Brienne jumped the one with the chain before he could swing it at her head. He went down, Brienne’s thighs clamped around his middle, her forearm pressed against his windpipe. He turned blue within seconds and stopped struggling, letting go of the chain. The man with the switchblade stuck in his stomach was curled up in a ball around his wound, keening softly. And the third man…?

The thwack of wood on bone sounded like a hollow, sickening thunderclap behind Brienne, followed closely by an ululating scream. She lifted herself off the man she had been choking, flipped him onto his stomach, and pressed his crossed wrists against the small of his back with her knee before she looked over her shoulder.

Jaime had ‘recovered’ from his faked seizure, grabbed an oar from the moored boat, and hit the third man with it. The man lay on the grass, clutching his head, his weapon on the concrete footpath several feet away. He wept in pain while Jaime brandished the oar over him.

Jaime caught Brienne’s eye, grinned ferally, flushed and bright-eyed, his blood up with the thrill of battle. He bent down to retrieve his handcuffs from his belt on the grass, the pink phone lying next to it, while keeping an eye on the man he’d hit. Jaime tossed his handcuffs to Brienne, who used them to cuff the right hand of the man she’d half-choked to his stabbed friend’s ankle, then stood and walked to the bench to fetch her own handcuffs.

It was only when her legs gave way so she collapsed onto the hard bench that Brienne realized the time she had spent in the frigid water was rapidly winning out over the adrenaline high. She did not dare pick up her gun and train it on their wannabe attackers: her hands shook too much. Fortunately Jaime was covering all three men with his gun and calling for backup on his cell phone, looking like a hero from an antique tapestry, some warrior prince from sagas of the First Men, dressed in boxer shorts rather than animal pelts. Brienne sprawled awkwardly on the bench, watching him, trying to breathe deeply and force her stiff hands to rub some sensation into her arms and thighs.

Jaime finished giving orders over the phone and snapped it shut, looked over at Brienne. “You look like a drowned rat,” he said cheerfully.

“Shut the fuck up,” Brienne groaned between chattering teeth. “Just… shut up.”

Jaime eyed her with something remarkably like concern, snorted. “So, there are signs of normal intelligent life in that noggin of yours, even if you can’t keep up that blue streak for very long. There’s hope for this partnership yet.”

Brienne was so cold, so cold, and the adrenaline was an ebbing tide, leaving her scoured and empty. She found it difficult to think, nearly impossible to speak.

“Hey, Brienne, stay with me,” Jaime barked. “Uniforms are coming with lots of lovely, warm blankets for you. Put your clothes on while we wait. And stay with me.”

“Can’t go… anywhere,” Brienne managed, pulling the first thing which came to hand – her jacket with its torn sleeve – over her chilled torso, clutching the garment to her like a lifeline. “That was… good… thinking.”

She nodded at the man clutching his head on the ground, the fight gone out of him. Jaime kept the gun trained on him and his handcuffed friends.

“Didn’t want the paperwork I’d get for shooting a thug armed only with a cold weapon,” Jaime replied glibly.

Even in her weakened, cold-addled state, Brienne could tell he’d heard what she hadn’t quite managed to say: that she understood he wasn’t just a trigger-happy jerk, and she was glad of it, and glad that he’d been there with her.

“Well done yourself,” Jaime added.

Brienne tried to smile, but her teeth were chattering too much and her face felt stiff. “Thanks… partner.”

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 4 p.m.

Jaime’s expensive, handmade jacket was ruined. He had known it would be before he’d draped it over that greasy, tarry bollard, but it had been worth it to see the horror on Big Brienne’s face when Jaime’d kept right on undressing.

It had served her right, giving him shit for not knowing how to swim. Which she wouldn’t have known about if she hadn’t insisted on their both getting into the Blackwater Rush, when she’d proved perfectly capable of retrieving the Stark girl’s phone on her own, hadn’t needed to swim an inch or hold on to anything in order to do it. With her long, sturdy legs, it would have taken all of the Narrow Sea rushing in on Brienne before she’d have lost her footing.

It wasn’t his fault, Jaime thought mulishly while he stood in front of Bolton’s desk again, Brienne still a little pale-lipped beside him, the ends of her straw bale of hair sticking out every which way after she’d dried it under a hand dryer in the women’s toilet.

Cersei had dared Jaime to jump into the deep end of the family pool when they’d been six, and just starting swimming lessons. When Jaime’d hesitated, Cersei had called him a coward, and he’d jumped in before he could do something foolish like cry or push his sister into the pool.

He could still feel it, like a cold, clammy hand pressed against his windpipe: panic closing his throat while green water alive with sharp chlorine bubbles filled his nose. So many years later, Jaime still had no notion how he’d reached the surface again or found the ladder bolted to the pool wall in time. Cersei certainly hadn’t done anything to help him. Jaime’d never gone near a body of water bigger than a bathtub after that, and had not been above using his father’s money and influence to get out of having to learn to swim at the police academy. Which Brienne had figured out and judged him the worse for it. Again.

“You two haven’t wasted any time establishing a pattern.”

Bolton was not happy about being dragged out of bed before his shift to deal with the two of them. His pale gaze swung between Jaime and Brienne, pendulum-slow, in a way which was meant to be unsettling and succeeded, at least with Brienne. Jaime had long experience of Bolton’s little mindfucks.

“You’ve been partners for less than forty-eight hours, and already a second complaint of police brutality has been raised against you.”

Brienne started violently. “Second? Sir…”

Bolton performed that near-smile of his which Jaime would have tolerated a lot better had it not reminded him of his father’s attempts at smiling.

“Ronnet Connington’s lawyer thinks it will help his case if he claims you manhandled him during the arrest, Detective Tarth. Since half the precinct saw it happen, it won’t stick. I wish I could say the same of the man whose skull you broke with that oar, Lannister.” Bolton fixed Jaime with his pin-sharp gaze, but Jaime was no fragile butterfly to shrink before it.

Jaime shrugged. “He had a switchblade. Hitting him with an oar seemed preferable to taking the time to get my gun. Next time I’ll make sure I and the man about to assault me and my partner are equally matched before I crack him around the ear.”

“Indeed,” Bolton countered. “The reason why you were both in your smallclothes, since only one of you went into the river, is a topic for a whole other conversation, possibly with Internal Affairs present.”

Brienne twitched. Jaime remained unfazed. He’d spent so much time being grilled by Internal Affairs after the Aerys business, it had started to seem like they were dating, only without sex. It would be that Brienne lived in fear of I.A., despite undoubtedly having extensive experience with them after her previous partner’s death.

“Do you have any good news?” Bolton asked acidly.

Jaime let Brienne field that one. She was practically pawing the ground in her eagerness to tell Bolton something positive.

“Tech Department’s working on Sansa Stark’s phone. They should be able to pull data off her SIM card, see whom she talked to, whom she texted. Might give us a lead on the mystery boyfriend.”

Brienne paused, chewing her lower lip in such a childish way Jaime nearly laughed to see it from his big, strapping partner.

“Lannister made the right decision, sir,” Brienne told Bolton, finally and unexpectedly. “That man might have fled or he might have attacked. We couldn’t take any chances.” And she jutted out her stubborn lower lip.

Jaime gained a new appreciation for the expression ‘knocked down with a feather.’ Not that he thought Brienne’s opinion of him as such had changed. She was simply doing what any police officer would have done: standing up for her partner. If things keep progressing this way, I’ll still be saddled with her come the next century!

Bolton seemed nearly shocked by Brienne standing up for Jaime, and gave her a long, assessing look before he told them both to go get some sleep and try not to beat up anyone on the way. It was easily the first smart thing anyone had said in the last hour, so far as Jaime was concerned. The first full day and night since Sansa Stark’s disappearance may have been nearly over, but he and Brienne had been up and working for eighteen hours straight. They needed to go home, shower, and doss down for an hour or two before they continued their investigation.

They walked down the corridor toward the squad room in silence.

“Do you want a lift home?”

Brienne stopped in her tracks. Her broad features were fixed in that studiously blank expression she must have perfected over long years of taunts and jeers from the other children back on her little island, but her eyes were so wide they seemed to go from one end of the corridor to the other and outshine the ancient light fixtures.

Jaime had absolutely no idea why he’d offered. He did not want to spend any more time with her than he absolutely had to. Eighteen hours straight was as much as anybody should have been expected to take. But Brienne had stood up for him just now, and there had been something about the way she’d moved at the river. She’d tackled their attackers barehanded and triumphed, and done it with the same focus and economy of movement Jaime had glimpsed when she’d caught the fleeing Ronnet Connington, like a lioness taking down a gazelle. It had been… impressive, yes. Jaime admitted as much, though only grudgingly and not out loud. Impressive for a young, healthy woman with more muscle mass than Jaime himself had. Yes. Like that.

“You might not be going my way,” Brienne said shyly.

Jaime nearly laughed in her face. She was acting as if he’d asked her out on a date, darting her blue gaze at him and away then back at him, and all but shuffling her big feet. She was ugly as sin, had no breasts to speak of, didn’t shave her legs, and at rest she had all the grace and suppleness of an old oak tree. Water droplets had caught in the hairs on her legs and arms and glittered in the sun on the riverbank, her hair was still a mess and smelled faintly of the Rush, and she thought this was, what? A gesture of kindness? A peace offering?

“It’s what partners do for each other,” Jaime explained as to a small and stupid child, as though straining his words through a colander. “You know, get coffee in the morning, give each other a lift from time to time. Don’t make a big deal out of it.”

He could practically hear the rusty gears turning laboriously inside Brienne’s thick skull while she watched him, measured and assessed him.

“I only told the truth,” she said at last. “Just now.”

Jaime grinned. “I would have kept quiet in your place. But you did it, pardner, so now I am honor-bound to do something for you in return. A Lannister always pays his debts. Family motto.”

Brienne rolled her eyes, disbelieving. Who wouldn’t have thought the same? Anyone who didn’t know Tywin Lannister’s obsession with his family’s long and glorious history. Thinking that Jaime only japed evidently made it easier for her to nod in somewhat grudging acquiescence, and then they were in the squad room, and Edmure Tully barreled towards them with thunder and lightning playing across his face. With his reddish whiskers and bloodshot eyes, he looked like a particularly bad-tempered carp. It was hours before his shift, but he’d been interrogating Ronnet Connington the previous night, had heard his niece was missing, and been due to bring his wife and baby son home from the hospital that morning. He overflowed with energy and righteousness.

“I want you off my niece’s case, Lannister,” Tully snarled. “You’re not fit to arrest two-stag whores, let alone investigate a child kidnapping.”

Edmure Tully was a soft ninny. He had looked down on Jaime since Tully’d arrived on the Night’s Watch after some unpleasantness with a raid he had organized – and botched – on an underground nightclub called The Mill. Tully had apparently missed the ‘Welcome to the Night’s Watch! All us fuckups were created equal’ memo.

Jaime was tired, would have liked nothing better than to punch Tully in his spittle-flecked gob. A nice, relaxing suspension without pay would have done him a world of good.

“And how goes your latest case, Tully?” Jaime asked glibly, smiling so hard his cheeks hurt. “Difficult? Made you work hard? Oh that’s right: we were the ones who arrested Connington, and all you had to do was tickle him till he sang. Your competence is simply astounding.”

Tully bristled, and Jaime flexed his right hand.

Brienne would have none of it, of course. Meddlesome woman.

Moving far more smoothly than Jaime had seen her do when she wasn’t handing someone their ass on a plate, she slid into the narrow empty space between Edmure and Jaime, faced the former while keeping watch on her partner out of the corner of her eye, and stuck out her big, freckly hand. “I don’t believe we’ve met,” she said pleasantly. “I’m Detective Brienne Tarth, Lannister’s new partner.”

She stood there, broad and solid as a mountain, her hand both a challenge and a white flag. Finally Tully gave in and shook her hand, muttering unconvincing pleasantries.

“I assure you we are doing everything we can to find Sansa,” Brienne said smoothly, still shaking Tully’s hand. Not bad for someone as slow on the uptake as she could sometimes be, Jaime had to give her that much. If she was shaking Tully’s hand, he was less likely to use it to start a fight with Jaime. And then find it stuck far, far up his own backside, if Jaime could only get a few good hits in.

“Has anyone taken your statement?” Brienne added.

“I haven’t seen Sansa since last week,” Tully muttered, trying discreetly to pull his hand out of Brienne’s and failing miserably. “Dunno what I might tell you.”

Brienne smiled: an unexpectedly endearing expression despite her prominent teeth. The smile made her eyes sparkle. “You never know what might prove useful. You know how it is.”

Tully couldn’t resist the sly little nod of deference to his seniority and experience. Not to mention his overinflated ego. Jaime watched him wriggle like a very pleased, very hooked fish as Brienne maneuvered him toward one of the interview rooms, chatting softly about just wanting to ask him a few questions, and how it wouldn’t take long, he must be eager to go home to his wife and baby…

If she kept jumping to his defense like this, Jaime would feel obligated to drive her home every day (or night, as it were) for the rest of their working lives. And have to start wearing a paper bag on his head at work, ‘cause he’d become known as That Guy Whose Partner Is Always Defending Him, Formerly Known As Kingslayer. He’d have to sit Brienne down again and explain the blindingly bloody obvious to her, or they’d both become a laughingstock and prove that you could sink even lower than being assigned to the Night’s Watch. As much as the prospect did not appeal, Jaime also found himself wanting to applaud how unexpectedly skilled his big, ugly partner had proved to be at defusing certain types of situations.

Leave it to Tully to ruin Brienne’s good efforts. They were almost out of the squad room when Tully looked back over his shoulder, narrowed his eyes at Jaime in what he must have thought was a formidable manner, and announced in a carrying voice: “You still shouldn’t be working this case, Lannister. You will never know how much I despise you.” Tully paused, sucking on the word as though it were a lemon drop, before he spat it out with relish. “Kingslayer.”

Brienne’s hand appeared on Tully’s shoulder. She spun him around on his heel so fast he squeaked with sudden motion sickness, practically lifting him off the floor. Brienne was taller and broader, and when she brought her brightly flushed face close to Edmure’s he cowered, his knees knocking together visibly.

“That is a fellow police officer you are addressing, Detective Tully,” Brienne said in the voice of a truly terrifying schoolmarm. “We are all invested in finding your niece. All of us. Name calling is not helpful.”

Tully stared up at her, blinking and agape, looking more like a fish than ever. He shut his mouth, his teeth clicking, and went on staring up at Brienne, who glared at him a moment longer before she straightened, and stepped back, and held the door open, murmuring about those questions she needed to ask him. Tully went through the door, aftershocks quaking down his back and legs. Brienne let the door swing shut behind them without looking back at Jaime.

Jaime made his fist relax with a great effort of will. Silence reigned in the squad room, except for a ringing phone on someone’s desk. At least the officers who had witnessed the scene were all from the dayshift. Even so, uniforms would be singing ‘Jaime and Brienne sittin’ in a tree’ before the day was out, Jaime would wager.

He grinned at the assembled detectives and strode out, as though being insulted by colleagues and having his partner defend his honor like she was a knight and he a blushing maiden in a cliché-ridden song were all regular occurrences. Jaime wondered if investing in industrial-strength paper bags might not be a sound use of his meager funds. I need to have that chat with Brienne, and fast, he thought as he walked down to the Tech Department.

Podrick Payne was slight and pale as a plant grown in a dark room. The analogy was especially apt considering he spent his working life in a windowless office lit by the kind of sodium lights which would make the temporary residents of a morgue look even more haggard. Surrounded by computer parts, circuit boards, tangled skeins of cables, and all kinds of arcane equipment, young Podrick might have been building a spaceship or a nuclear reactor from scratch, for all anyone at the precinct knew. Nobody asked too many questions about what he got up to, since the kid had magic in his hands: if an object had once been used to store electronic data, Pod could be relied upon to salvage at least some of it.

He held up Sansa Stark’s pink phone in its transparent evidence bag. It never ceased to amaze Jaime how objects of everyday use, imbued by their owners’ invisible, vital presence, became just pieces of junk no one wanted or people even feared might bring them bad luck, once those same objects became material evidence in a criminal investigation.

“It’s interesting,” Pod said in the same vague, thoughtlessly superior tone in which a pyromancer of old might have discussed lighting a fire by rubbing two sticks together. “She used a fairly sophisticated encryption program for some of the data stored on here. It was easy to crack but, you know: she tried.”

Jaime gave the kid a crooked smile. He really hoped they found Sansa Stark alive, just so he would have the pleasure of telling her the K.L.P.D.’s unsung tech whiz thought her attempts at data security were cute.

Pod handed Jaime a stack of printouts several inches thick: call log, transcriptions of text messages, photographs. Jaime leafed through it quickly. Good gods, teenage girls took a lot of photographs of random shit like flowers and their own faces!

Two words on the top sheet snagged Jaime’s attention. “Who in seven hells is Alayne Stone?”

“Not sure,” Pod mused out loud, every inch the expert unwilling to commit to a judgment without more data. “The name recurs on 56% of all text messages Ms. Stark sent and received recently. Did she ever use a pseudonym?”

“She’s sixteen,” Jaime said incredulously. “She might have a boyfriend she didn’t want people to know about, but she’d be more likely to invent a fake name for him. When you were sixteen, Pod, would you have gone to all this trouble just to keep some school crush a secret?”

Pod blushed beet-red, which looked dark brown under the unforgiving overhead lights, and shuffled his feet, and wrung his hands, and avoided Jaime’s eye. Of course: the kid probably hadn’t dared so much as talk to anyone in high school, let alone leave incriminating evidence like written messages about his secret objects of desire lying around.

Jaime could just about imagine his younger self inventing a fake girlfriend so he could have communicated with Cersei more easily. He could imagine Cersei inventing herself an alter ego for Jaime to use even more easily. But Cersei had always been adamant about their not writing each other letters or talking dirty on the phone. Even at fifteen, she’d had a sneak’s instincts.

Pod’s voice broke through Jaime’s sour reverie. “There were sound files as well,” the kid mumbled, desperate to get the conversation back to a topic he could handle.

A topic they could both handle, Jaime thought ruefully. Although at Sansa Stark’s age he’d spent many a stolen afternoon and evening fucking his sister instead of doing homework, Cersei’s small hand often clamped over his mouth lest the maid or Tyrion or their father heard them, Jaime really didn’t know anything about teenage girls.

“I couldn’t retrieve those files, but I did get a playlist,” Pod added apologetically, pointing at several sheets of paper stapled together near the top of the stack.

Jaime eyed the kid ironically. It would be that someone so good at what they did would feel like a failure over something like that. Brienne and he would get along like a house on fire.

The thought of his ugly, horsey, dauntlessly right-thinking partner gave Jaime pause: Brienne had been a teenage girl once. Jaime could hardly imagine two girls less alike than pretty, quietly confident, accomplished Sansa Stark and the bucktoothed, freckly, lumbering, awkward sixteen-year-old Brienne he pictured in his head, complete with useless braces and in no need of even a sports bra. Nevertheless, Brienne must have had her little secrets and joys and sorrows. Probably big ones, too. Her looks and personality and kids’ cruelty would have made certain of that.

Brienne looked wrung-out and annoyed as she walked into Pod’s rabbit hutch, through the door with the ‘Tech Department’ plate. Despite her mood, she introduced herself nicely to Pod, who stared up at her height in awe and managed to string together two sentences, before he relapsed into shuffling in place and talking to the mess of cables and circuit boards on his desk.

Big Brienne might have an inkling of what was going through Sansa Stark’s head before she vanished, Jaime thought, watching her converse with Podrick. She won’t want to talk in terms of ‘maybe’ and ‘probably.’ Like as not, she’ll accuse me of going on conjecture and gut instinct so I can dodge paperwork. I’ll have to dig a bit, make her drop her guard.

Jaime had no desire to know about Brienne’s personal history, it was all for this thrice-damned, dragon-blasted case! Yet he had to level with himself, there was one thing about her past he did want to know: how she had let her old partner in Storm’s End die. Jaime was particularly keen to hear all about that, so he’d know how to protect himself if ever he found himself in a similar situation with Brienne by his side.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 5 p.m.

“I got nothing remotely useful from Tully,” Brienne told Jaime when he unlocked the passenger-side door from inside his car. She eyed its shiny red exterior with austere misgiving, like she feared she might turn into a wanton the moment her capacious ass touched the leather-upholstered seat.

“He hasn’t seen Sansa in several days, had no idea she even had an interview for an internship.” Brienne chewed over the words for a long moment before adding: “Tully really doesn’t like you.”

Jaime merely grinned and waved the printouts Pod had given him. “From Sansa Stark’s phone.”

Brienne’s eyes, heavy-lidded with lack of sleep, lit up with dark blue sparks. She leaned into the car, her knee on the passenger seat, grasping after the printouts, but Jaime held them out of her reach. After a few seconds of straining to get at them, she remembered that she was practically climbing over Jaime in her haste, and withdrew sulkily.

“Ease up, pardner,” Jaime laughed. “An hour’s sleep, a shower, maybe some food, and then we can go through these with a fine-tooth comb. Now shut that door gently, please. This car is vintage. You know what that means? Means it’s as old as the Andals, though you’d never tell from how it purrs.”

He stroked the dashboard with proprietary, slightly salacious pride. He knew he was meant to be easing his skittish partner into telling him important things about herself, but he couldn’t resist making her a little uncomfortable. It was just so damned easy and no less sweet for all that.

“I know what ‘vintage’ means,” Brienne muttered as she eased her broad rump onto the passenger seat and shut the door so gingerly it produced only a faint ‘snick,’ making Jaime grin. “As if I could damage it. The way you drive, I’m surprised you haven’t totaled it by now.”

“Who says I haven’t?” Jaime teased. “Qyburn, my mechanic, is Pod’s equal when it comes to bringing dead machines back to life.”

Brienne was feeling under her seat for the adjustment lever. This time Jaime waited until she’d pushed her seat back and put on her seatbelt before he inserted the key into the ignition. The engine turned over, smooth as butter, and they slid into the afternoon traffic like a fish into deep water, borne along on the pulse of the city.

Brienne was not quite slumped in her seat, fatigue evident in every line of her large body. Jaime glanced at her out of the corner of his eye, saying nothing. Now they were finally alone in relative privacy and he should have been making his opening gambit, he found himself uncertain how to begin. Words came to him easily most of the time, but banter was one thing. Attempting sincere conversation was something else entirely. That’s what I get for only ever having a relationship with my sister, he thought wryly. I have no clue how to talk to women who are not suspects or witnesses.

Unbidden, a fresh, recent memory shimmered into vivid life before his eyes, awash in bright sunlight: Brienne, drenched in river water, rising from the ground where she’d handcuffed Danger Man #1’s wrist to Danger Man #2’s ankle. Brienne, all long, taut muscle, slumped on the bench, wracked by shivers, her white smallclothes clinging to her so Jaime could see everything: her broad torso and thick waist so solid and flushed with cold, nipples red and hard as though they’d just been thoroughly sucked, an untrimmed wilderness of blond hair turned a darker shade by the water. Though there had been a layer of fabric between his eyes and her most private flesh, Jaime could see them before his mind’s eye, clear as a summer’s day: beads of water caught in her bush, as they’d been in the hairs on her arms, legs, head. Drops of river water like dew, like pearls, glistening.

Jaime shifted uncomfortably in his seat, downshifted as rush hour traffic condensed around his car. Wouldn’t that have been an original opening: Hey pardner, you know thinking of you wet from the Blackwater Rush is making me hard over here? Tell me how you let your old partner die.

“It’s been twenty-four hours,” Brienne said so quietly Jaime could barely hear her over the muffled city noises outside and the rumble of the engine. He frowned at her briefly, but she was staring at her lap, her big, pale, freckly hands twined into a knot on her knees, like two mating animals. “Since Sansa went missing. She might be dead already.”

“Stop,” Jaime snapped, startling Brienne into looking up and turning to face him. Jaime kept his eyes on the road, his voice level and clear. “You need to sleep an hour or two. I need to sleep an hour or two. We won’t find her any faster if we’re muzzy-headed with lack of sleep and worn out with nerves.”

He glanced over, saw the awareness that he had the right of it paint Brienne’s eyes a robin’s egg blue. Saw her jaw set stubbornly. She would have argued out of sheer pigheaded instinct, so Jaime kept talking.

“When we meet up at the precinct later today, we’ll make an inventory of everything that was on her phone, see what that tells us. Two heads are better than one, and all that.” He smiled. “I’ll even let you type up the inventory.”

Brienne snorted, drifting slowly away from her white-knuckled desire to solve this case by sheer willpower and pushing herself too hard. “Don’t do me any favors, Lannister.”

“You? I’m doing myself a favor. I bet you can touch type.”

She said nothing. Jaime didn’t even have to turn his head to know she was giving him a ‘you mean you can’t?’ look.

“I bet you took a course at the academy,” Jaime pursued. “That course is probably still offered because of you, because you seduced the higher-ups into the false belief there might be other recruits interested in learning secretarial skills.”

He could practically hear Brienne’s nostrils flaring. “And the only thing standing between you and the full-blown cliché of a burnout is the fact that I have yet to see you smoke. Or maybe you’re trying to quit smoking.”

They were both tired and on edge. Jaime disregarded that in favor of making like the Targaryens and fighting fire with fire. “You coming on to me, Legs? I’m not surprised. Goody two-shoes like you always go for men like me. Only there are no other men like me.”

Brienne’s silence had the texture of basalt: it was black and hard and rough. It filled up the car.

“Maybe I’m a lesbian,” she said in a tone which was meant to sound provoking, but came out defensive, almost plaintive. She must have been called a dyke more times in her life than she’d been called Brienne.

Jaime gave the possibility brief, serious consideration. “You’re not,” he said with absolute conviction. “You don’t look at women.”

“Neither do you.”

The black silence rushed back in and congealed into a tight, hard cocoon around Jaime. He had to say something, anything. He’d only ever looked at one woman with any special interest. He certainly did not go through life wondering what hulking big policewomen with a little girl’s taste in smallclothes hid under all that pristine white cotton.

You looked at her, the little voice in his head leered.

Did not. Just her eyes. She does have astonishing eyes.

“So maybe we’re both gay,” Jaime said, a poor simulacrum of his usual provoking leer.

“It wouldn’t make any difference if we were,” Brienne replied miserably. So miserably Jaime took advantage of a red light to look at her properly.

She was staring at her knees with an expression of such intense sadness and pain, Jaime felt the overwhelming urge to pinch her or clap his hands sharply under her nose or tickle her. Anything to get her to break out of her funk.

“They’ll make your life the seventh hell at work for being partnered with me,” Brienne told her knees. “And mine because you’re so pretty.”

Not ‘good-looking’ or ‘handsome’: pretty. Jaime half smiled at her casual use of the word. Hearing it from anyone else, he’d have suggested they throw down before the other person assumed they could give him lip with impunity. Coming from Brienne, it was nothing but the truth, with its own weight and substance.

The realization hit Jaime like a wet towel: she thought their colleagues would tease her because of Jaime’s looks, not his reputation. His face, not the business with Aerys. The notion was… unusual.

“But mostly they’ll just give you grief because of me,” Brienne reiterated. She mimicked someone else talking, someone who had likely sounded more offhand yet knowingly cruel than bitter. “That big ugly bitch. Poor you. How do you stand having to look at her, day in and day out.”

Years of jeers and taunts were packed into her voice and her words, worn thin with fatigue, and Jaime suddenly, unaccountably felt like taking on everyone who had ever spoken to her thus at once. Including himself. Had the steering wheel been a solid wall, Jaime would have punched it: a straight-on, knuckle-shattering blow. The leather-covered steering wheel would not have given him much satisfaction.

“If anyone at the precinct says something like that to you, you tell me. I’ll sort them out,” he said darkly.

Brienne looked at him, and it seemed a miracle her eyes were shiny only with their own inner light, not with tears. “You were mad that I defended you today,” she said with a tiny, sorrowful smile.

“Was not.”

“You were. I could tell. You thought I was making you look weak.”

Gods be merciful! This was why Jaime hated having partners: Arthur Dayne from Organized Crime had always tried to read Jaime’s mind too. Too bad Dayne hadn’t lived long enough to look into his crystal ball, and help Jaime through the aftermath of the Aerys debacle.

Jaime could think of nothing convincing to say in response to Brienne’s words, which were, after all, the simple truth. Fortunately the light changed, and he peeled off into traffic again.

This was not going at all as Jaime had intended. He had thought to caution her that he was the guy known to all and sundry as the bloody Kingslayer, and didn’t need her trailing him like a wet nurse in case the other children were mean to him. Instead Brienne had allowed him a glimpse at the open, weeping wounds she hid under her scowl and cheap suits, and Jaime found himself feeling unsettled and angry.

Jaime hated uncertainties. He had gone into police work thinking the line between black and white would be thin and clear. It had blurred and spread into a field of grey, like a watercolor left out in the rain, long before what had happened with Aerys. At the very least, Jaime hadn’t expected having to deal with this shades of grey shit with his partner, if he already had to have one again. Arthur Dayne had been much easier to handle: a big, bluff Dornishman who had loved life and taken nothing too seriously except his duty to protect the public, or so he’d claimed. In truth, he’d taken far too many things very seriously. Dayne would have known how to get through to Big Brienne, had he not died of too much booze and too many stomach ulcers just over five years earlier. Literally dropped dead on the job mere weeks before he would have had to witness Jaime get saddled with the name ‘Kingslayer’ and transfer to the ass end of the force.

The best Jaime could give Brienne was to scrap his attempts to charm or annoy the truth out of her, and just ask.

“I need to ask you something,” he said as they neared Brienne’s apartment building on the cheaper side of Fishmonger’s Square. He tried to keep his voice gentle but firm, unyielding. Demanding a response in kind. “I understand if you don’t want to talk about it, but it’s important. How did your old partner die?”

She started breathing very fast, very loudly. “I thought you read all about it in the papers.”

“I read what they chose to write. Now I’m asking you. How did your partner die?”

“Renly,” Brienne gritted out, her voice tight, small, defiant. “His name was Renly. Renly Baratheon. He’s the best man I know… knew.”

The hurt in her voice, in her eyes, on her stubbornly pouting lips and between her clenched teeth: this particular wound was so fresh it hadn’t even scabbed over yet. It had only been a handful of weeks since the event, she was still having difficulty picking the right tense when speaking of this Renly Baratheon. Just as they were insisting on talking about Sansa Stark in the present, conspirators keeping other possibilities at bay – although, as Brienne had pointed out and they both knew, after twenty-four hours the girl might be dead already.

Jaime pushed that thought away. One ordinary human disaster at a time. Brienne’s pain mattered more and was worse at that exact moment than the two of them and everyone who worked with them agreeing tacitly to keep the Stark girl alive in their words, if not always in their thoughts. Brienne’s pain was worse because she’d cared for her dead partner, poor cow. Maybe even loved him, if the soft pink blush in her cheeks, the hitch in her breathing were anything to go on.

“The papers hinted pretty strongly it was your fault,” Jaime prompted as gently as he could, given the unavoidable, sharp, blue-ice edge to the words. A person could choke on strong hints dropped by the press. They hadn’t even bothered with hints after Aerys: they’d come for Jaime with knives drawn and sharp.

Brienne’s response was instantaneous: for once, she did not gape or stumble over her words at all.

“It was my fault. They taught us at the academy: shoot to kill if you have to, but if you don’t have to, shoot the brachial nerve. The suspect drops his weapon, and you don’t take a human life.”

She broke off, and Jaime let her. He had been taught the same load of tripe at the police academy in King’s Landing. Given that they taught this garbage all over the Seven Kingdoms, it was a wonder cops weren’t dropping like flies from Dorne to the Wall. When it was between your weapon and someone else’s, you made sure yours fired first and hit its target square, and dealt with the guilt later. Couldn’t feel guilty if you were dead.

“I always thought,” Brienne said, softly, so softly, so sadly. “I was certain I’d never be in that situation, that I could kill if I had to, but I’d never have to. So when that man had Renly in an armlock with a gun to his temple, I did what they’d taught us. I shot him in the right shoulder, and he went down, and he dropped the gun. Renly smiled at me, said it was a good shot. And that man, Shadow his street name was, he picked up the gun with his left hand and shot Renly through the throat.”

She stared out of her window, her voice almost a corporeal presence in the car. “I didn’t even know Shadow was ambidextrous until I saw it in his file later on.”

Jaime had pulled up in front of her apartment building while she was telling her tale. He switched off the engine, and they sat in a silence punctuated by the ticking of the cooling engine.

“It wasn’t your fault,” Jaime said. “You did what you thought was best. You miscalculated. That’s it.”

Brienne stared at him, eyes dark blue smudges against the yellow sunlight outside. Is that what happened with Aerys Targaryen? her eyes seemed to ask. Did you ‘miscalculate’?

“He was my partner,” Brienne insisted, voice trembling and about to break, as though the word explained everything. Which, of course, it did, to people like them. “We weren’t even friends, not really, but he was my partner, and he was a good man, and he always treated me like a person, not like a walking joke.”

She bit her lip in that childish way she did, closing her eyes. Jaime hoped she wouldn’t cry, he wouldn’t have known how to handle that.

A walking joke. Which was how Jaime had treated her. Despite everything his life had become, Jaime did not find shame a familiar or comfortable feeling. With Brienne’s looks and temper, her childhood and youth must have been awful, and her time in the police force scarcely better. Being partnered with this marvelous Renly must have been the first time Brienne had understood that basic respect was not a privilege she had to do without or a luxury which could be revoked on a whim. Something she could expect, she could and should demand.

It had always been easy for Jaime to get respect, for he had taken it as his due, and it had come to him, simple as calling a trained songbird to perch on his finger. He’d had to do something as drastic as killing the so-called King to lose it. Maybe he’d never had people’s respect to begin with, not really, not in any way which mattered, which hadn’t been bought with his father’s money and family name, or bluffed with Jaime’s charm and quick tongue and ability to do effective police work.

The desire to spill the truth about himself and Cersei at Brienne’s big feet surged through Jaime, a sudden jolt in his flesh and down his nerve endings, like a lightning strike. To be free of the burden of secrecy and judged for himself, for once.

Jaime bit his tongue to force the mad impulse to subside.

“Hmm,” he mumbled around the sharp pain in his mouth. If somebody held a gun to my head, would she go for the shoulder again? He bit his tongue harder to prevent that thought from escaping as well.

“It was your fault, but it also wasn’t.” Jaime sounded to his own ears as though he’d received a dental anesthetic which hadn’t worn off yet. “Ain’t that the fucking truth?” That field of grey on which they lived and worked could seem as endless as the Dothraki Sea sometimes, with only a thin line of black along one horizon, white along the other.

Brienne did not quite nod, though Jaime could tell from the tilt of her head, the way the shadow of her brow fell across her nose and cheek, the angular set of her neck and shoulders, that she wanted to, wanted to agree with him, hated letting herself off the hook like that.

“Can I ask you about something else I saw in the papers?” Jaime asked with a slow smile, before he could give in to his sudden bout of insanity, blab about Cersei, and ruin the moment. Brienne looked at him sideways, wary and expecting a jape. “The bear.”

She stared a moment, and then she snorted, and rolled her eyes and her shoulders, and settled more comfortably in her seat.

“I was giving chase after a burglar along the Old City walls, where the Highgarden zoo is, and the guy knocked me down into an open air cage. It wasn’t a bear really, just a bear cub. It cuffed me with its paw, there was a bruise.” Brienne shook her head at the memory. “It was just lonely, it wanted its mother.”

“So,” Jaime drawled, baiting her now, drawing her out, making her stare at him beadily even as she chewed the inside of her mouth, wanting in spite of herself to echo his smile with one of her own. “The bear cub decided you were its mother.”

“It would have decided you were its mother, had you been there. The whole thing got blown out of proportion. The talk at the precinct had me battling a fully grown black bear barehanded and…”

She broke off, shifty-eyed with sudden reluctance. Jaime leaned in to make sure he caught whatever she mumbled next.

“And?” he prompted.

Brienne looked away, swallowed.

“And naked after it tore off my uniform.”

Jaime laughed, not to make her flinch, just to make her scowl at him.

“So you weren’t actually naked?” he teased.

The scowl deepened. Was she remembering the events down by the river? Jaime couldn’t risk his thoughts and blood flow getting out of hand again if he indulged that curiosity, so he hurried on.

“Come on, Brienne, do you really think if that were the version I’d read about, I wouldn’t have given you shit about it already?”

A unique logic, but after just two days in Jaime’s company Brienne recognized its validity.

“No,” she said with fake ponderousness, as though explaining to a small child why rocks and pancakes didn’t fly. “I wasn’t naked. And before you ask, I wasn’t going to shoot it or mace it. The bear cub didn’t have sharp claws, she barely had teeth, she was just heavy and stronger than she looked. Her name was Lily.”

“So I guess you know what you’re naming your firstborn, then.”

Brienne rolled her eyes so Jaime was absolutely certain she felt not even a smidgen of anger or genuine exasperation.

“I am going to get some sleep,” she announced with great dignity. “If you have no more questions for me, that is.”

No, but you must have some for me, now that I’ve made you spill your guts to me.

“Not right now. I’ll see you later. A teenage girl’s thoughts and creative spelling are waiting for us to slog through them.”

“You jest at your own peril, Lannister,” Brienne cautioned as she opened the car door and started to climb out, looking for a second like a hermit crab, all of its limbs sticking out of its too-small home. She huffed and puffed as she negotiated her way out of the car, her backside the last to leave while Jaime watched. “Sansa Stark skipped two grades. She’s smart, and teenage girls think about a lot of things.”

“You’ll be my guide in Teen Girl Land, then. We’ll figure it out,” Jaime replied, to encourage himself as much as her.

Brienne nodded and headed into her building, head held high even as her shoulders slumped, her pale blond hair bleached almost white by the slanting afternoon sun.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 7 p.m.

Barely an hour after she’d been dropped off at her apartment, showered, brushed her teeth, and decided not to attempt stitching up her torn jacket sleeve, however crookedly, until she was better rested, Brienne realized that she would not fall asleep. She only had time for an hour’s nap and needed it badly, but it was impossible. She lay on her bed without sheets or pillowslip – all her bedding was still packed away in the mess of boxes littering her new apartment – under a scratchy blanket she’d grabbed from the third box she’d opened at random upon arrival, and stared out of her bedroom window, where afternoon shadows lengthened rapidly toward evening, like rubber bands stretched taut and thin.

To her great shame, Brienne’s first thought upon conceding defeat to wakefulness was not for Sansa Stark, even though at least twenty-five hours had elapsed since the girl’s disappearance.

Her first thought was for Jaime Lannister, and Renly, and Lily the bear cub.

Brienne did not know what to make of Jaime Lannister. He acted like he couldn’t have cared less about cases, procedure or anything else work-related, yet he went on working in a squad which was the bum end of the police force out of, what? Pride, stubbornness, a desire to do good which he would be loath to admit? He was touchy like a young boy, yet had a poise, a cool insouciance born of his age and, Brienne imagined, hearing the word ‘Kingslayer’ spoken behind his back and sometimes to his face. She had imagined he couldn’t have cared less about that either, and had been proved wrong. It had made her uncomfortable to think Jaime Lannister had feelings similar to hers.

He called Brienne names, and sneered at at least half the things she said and did. She might have filed a harassment suit against him, but the police force did not look kindly on officers who could not resolve personality conflicts on their own. Anyway, Brienne had been called worse in her time, and Lannister had proved competent and quick-thinking at the river. He had not twisted the knife when she’d dropped her guard, angry and tired and anxious about this new case, and revealed how bad she’d had it at previous postings. And he’d been genuinely kind about Renly. He had not asked her about it out of morbid curiosity, rather a need for trust. They might never like each other, but they had to trust each other.

Could she trust him, if he asked her about Renly yet did not seem willing to discuss what had happened with ‘King’ Targaryen? Brienne did not want to have to ask, it was the kind of information Jaime should have been ready and willing to offer on his own. Yet why should he, when they had only known each other for two days and were still feeling each other out?

That was maybe not the most fortunate turn of phrase. Not when thinking about a man as uncannily handsome – and aware of it – as Jaime Lannister. Who had looked like more than half a god standing on the bank of the Blackwater Rush in his smallclothes, all long limbs and golden skin. Looking right at her where she’d sat, shivering and nearly naked from her time in the river.

Brienne blushed and pulled the blanket over her head. Whatever secrets Jaime Lannister was hiding Brienne could handle, provided he was willing to share them with her, not let them creep up and sink icy, pointed little teeth in at the most inopportune moment. He would tell her or not, but the truth would out. The truth would always out, one way or another.

She hadn’t told Jaime the whole truth. There were things he didn’t need to know, which were in no way relevant to their partnership: the hidden things she carried under her ribs like gallstones. Brienne imagined everyone, Jaime included, must have the like weighing them down. The like, though probably not the same as Brienne’s.

She had told Jaime that the bear cub had given her a nasty bruise. She had omitted that the bruise had been more in the nature of a contusion, and had made sitting in her patrol car painful for several days. Or that when Renly had died, Brienne had gone to the zoo after work every day for a week because sitting next to the bear enclosure had been the only time and place she could allow herself to cry. Even though none of the bears in the Storm’s End zoo had been Lily or able to tell Brienne apart from any other visitor.

She had had to stop going when management informed her she was disturbing the other visitors.

It was too early to tell if Jaime Lannister could be the kind of partner to her Renly had been, but maybe his being different was no bad thing. Wrenching, uncomfortable, something to adjust to, but not bad in and of itself. Brienne had considered Renly a friend, had even been a little in love with him at first, but she doubted he had ever seen her as a true friend. Brienne had certainly never been someone Renly could trust unconditionally, not with things which went beyond work, not with all of himself.

“I couldn’t risk anyone knowing,” he had told Brienne the night she had gone to pick him up after a tip-off from an informant, and Renly’s nearly naked boyfriend had come to the door for a goodbye kiss and a disdainful look at Brienne. “You know what those assholes at work are like. It wasn’t personal, Brienne.”

But it was, Brienne had thought, feeling a completely unwarranted urge to cry while she’d huddled in the passenger seat and looked out of the window at the streets of Storm’s End, slick with briny rain blown in from Shipbreaker Bay. I would have trusted you with something like that. I would have trusted you with anything, once.

Brienne rolled onto her back, scowling at the ceiling. No. Renly was dead. It was too late as well as ridiculous to dissemble and tell herself that speaking her heart’s truth, if only to herself, was disloyal or traitorous to Renly’s memory. Brienne had never been able to even fantasize about Renly, not really. She had known even before that night, known in her bones and gut that he never would have looked at her like she had once wanted him to, even had he been as heterosexual as his brother Robert, who had sown children up and down the Stormlands and declared bankruptcy to avoid paying all that child support.

Renly had been kind and nice to Brienne, had never complained about being partnered with her, never made her feel stupid or inadequate, and so she had come to depend on him. He had been a solid, constant presence in her life, nothing more. Though the thought still felt vaguely treasonous, the truth was that Renly had been nice to everyone, to waiters and forensics and witnesses and even suspects. ‘Nice’ had been his way.

After the night when she had discovered his big secret, Brienne had never trusted him again. Not because it had made her heart hurt more than she should have allowed. Because he should have been able to tell her, to believe that she would have guarded his reputation with her life.

I didn’t tell Jaime Lannister everything, but I might. I will, if he trusts me with his secrets. It’s dangerous, trusting someone who doesn’t trust you back. I’m not sure I know how to do it any more, but I can either trust Jaime or not. There’s no such thing as half trust.

There were other ways to find out more about the Targaryen incident, until Jaime was ready to tell her his side of it. Brienne had had enough bad experiences with the press not to reach for her cell phone and go on the Westerosnet for information. She would pay a visit to the Police Archive before she met Jaime to go through the contents of Sansa Stark’s phone. Official case notes and incident reports did not always contain all of the truth, but they could offer a decent simulacrum of it.

Brienne rode the number 24 bus through the waning rush hour, bus windows open to let in the cool, polluted, humid evening air. She arrived at the precinct feeling flushed, sweaty and crumpled as a used paper tissue. Tugging on her wrinkled jacket and trying to smooth down her freshly washed hair as it fluffed up around her head, Brienne ran into Pia Rivers from the coroner’s office in the perennially crowded entrance hall.

“Detective Tarth,” the slight, pretty woman greeted her with a broad smile. Brienne noticed that one of Pia’s front teeth was chipped. That took nothing away from the brilliance of her smile. “How are you enjoying the humidity in our fair city?”

“Is that what it is?” Brienne kept running and running her palms over her fluffy hair with no visible result. “I thought it was something in the water. My hair never used to get this bad on Tarth or in Storm’s End.”

Pia laughed, a high, girlish sound, tossed her curly brown hair demonstratively. “How do you think I get this delightful effect? Not with the kind of hair products I can afford.”

Brienne relaxed fractionally. Beautiful women like Pia made her nervous, Brienne could always feel their judgmental, superior eyes on her, whether they were actually facing her or not. But there was no malicious teasing in Pia that Brienne could see, as there had been none on Catelyn Stark or young Margaery Tyrell’s faces. When those women looked at Brienne, they saw a competent professional on whom they relied to set things which had been knocked askew right again. Not a freak, a natural phenomenon more befitting of being neatly labeled in a natural history museum than working cases of kidnapping and murder.

“Have you heard about the Stokeworth case?” Brienne asked Pia as they waited for the elevator. She could not keep the disgust out of her voice. “They’re charging Connington with manslaughter.”

Pia looked shamefaced. “It’s because of my report. Lollys Stokeworth took on so much rough trade, it was impossible to tell whether he’d raped her or not. And he admitted the two of them regularly played asphyxiation games, so…”

Brienne laid a hand on Pia’s shoulder, nearly covering the fragile scapula with her large hand. “No, Pia. Your report was fine. Connington makes us all look bad, so Lieutenant Bolton and the D.A.’s office offered him a deal. He’ll probably plead guilty and get ten, fifteen years, tops. There was nothing you could have done better.”

Pia glanced up at Brienne, her eyes very big and her face terribly young, a woman doing what was still widely considered a man’s job and always being judged harshly for it, regardless of the quality of her work. She offered Brienne a shy, close-mouthed smile, and Brienne smiled back.

“You going up to your squad room?” Pia asked once they were in the elevator, back to her brisk, cheerful self. “Isn’t it early for you night birds?”

“No, I need whichever floor the Police Archive is on. I need to… look up something about a case,” Brienne finished lamely, certain that Pia would see right through her subterfuge.

Pia noticed nothing of the sort. She pulled a face like she was tasting something unpleasantly tart.

“Watch out for the guy who works there. He hits on anything in a skirt. Or not a skirt, but you know,” Pia amended with a wry look at Brienne’s slacks and her own tight jeans. “Some of these guys, you just can’t win with them. If you won’t go out with them, you’re a frigid, carpet-munching bitch. If you do go out with them, you’re a whore anyone can have for the asking, they think they ought to just tie your hands to the front door and let all comers have at you.”

The bitter intensity in Pia’s voice astonished Brienne. Bad experiences and a lifetime’s observation of how people behaved fueled that bitterness, which Brienne recognized in herself, though hers was of a slightly different flavor. Unlike pretty Pia, Brienne had never been desired for herself, only as a convenient and supposedly available warm body. She remembered how shamelessly Ronnet Connington had hovered around Lollys Stokeworth’s crime scene, ogling with equal brazenness the woman he had used and killed, and the living woman to whom he might have done serious harm had Pia been less savvy about the likes of him. It struck Brienne that it might be even worse for Pia, to be flattered and wooed with no more good will behind it than had lurked behind the crude, back-slapping jokes Brienne had used to choke down with her beer while out for a drink with colleagues at her previous postings.

At least Jaime isn’t like that, she thought with something approaching relief, the thought and how reassuring Brienne found it startling her in equal measure. Even when he’s an ass to me, he isn’t an ass in that way.

“I’ll keep a beady eye on this guy in the archive,” she assured Pia. “And tell you all the tricks he tried to pull when next I see you.”

Pia looked all the way up at Brienne’s face. “We should get coffee some time.”

Novelty upon novelty. Brienne had never been asked to hang out outside of work by women colleagues before. “We should,” she agreed as the elevator arrived at her floor. “We will, just as soon as the Stark case wraps up, deal?”

Pia smiled and nodded, and waved Brienne goodbye as the elevator door slid shut between them.

The Police Archive was housed in a cavernous, windowless room, supposedly climate controlled, though to Brienne it smelled exactly the same as every library everywhere: dusty and too hot and stacked ceiling-high with old, yellowing paper. It was a bigger and even bleaker version of the room two floors down, where young Podrick Payne worked his magic on broken electronics, searching for potential evidence like sifting for gold in a stream.

No good magic could possibly be wrought in this room. Brienne knew this with a leaden, gut-punched certainty as soon as she saw the man reading a newspaper behind the information counter, the man Pia had warned her about.

“Well, well, well, so cafeteria gossip was right.” Hyle Hunt grinned at Brienne’s confusion and mounting horror. “Your errant path finally brought you to King’s Landing, eh, Brienne?”

He had always been overly familiar with her. When they had worked together in Highgarden, he had called her Brienne from the start, never Tarth or Officer. Brienne had bridled at it, learned to let it go and even accept it because Hyle had also smiled at her, and sometimes reached up to tuck errant strands of hair back behind her ear, brushing the tip of her earlobe with his fingers. He had asked her out on numerous occasions, and she had always declined even though she’d been greatly tempted to accept, for she’d thought he had a kind and rather handsome face. But Brienne had never been on the receiving end of men’s amorous intentions before, and so had found it extremely difficult to relax and let her guard down around Hyle Hunt, however much a part of her had wanted it.

The small, spiky doubt always nagging at her stomach had only become more acute, laced with Brienne’s confusion when other men at the precinct had followed Hyle’s example in being attentive to her. She had assumed they were doing it as a jest because they had noticed Hyle’s behavior. Brienne had been devastated to learn the bet on which one of them could bed her first had been Hyle’s doing. He had seemed to her, maybe not the best of the bunch, but certainly he had become Brienne’s favorite among her ‘gentlemen callers,’ despite her misgivings.

Hyle Hunt had made a fool of her, would have destroyed her reputation and any chance at respect had Brienne given him what he had professed to want, and she had been half tempted to give. Brienne had imagined what she would say and do if ever she saw him again, oh, a thousand times. And now here she was, staring at his utterly ordinary face, and she was sweating under her jacket, and her throat felt as tight as a vise.

“What are you doing here?” Brienne squeaked, rooted to the spot, hating how young and high her voice sounded coming out of her mouth.

Hyle leaned both elbows on the counter over which he received request slips and handed over old files, and grinned from ear to ear, like a cartoon cat.

“Tarly got me transferred out of Highgarden a few months after you left. Got me this cushy assignment right here.” He gestured at the large room, at the dust motes dancing in the artificial light, with a mixture of embitterment and proprietary pride. He always had been lazy as well as moderately ambitious. “I’m the only plainclothes officer in charge of a police archive anywhere in the Seven Kingdoms. I’m unique.”

Brienne gathered herself together like trembling fingers tightening into a fist, and leveled a cold look at Hyle. “Maybe you should have spent more time clearing your caseload than playing silly buggers,” she said. And because the wound he had left was still open and raw, and she wasn’t strong enough to resist letting him see how he had hurt her, she added: “Or laying bets on whether you could bed your colleagues.”

Hyle laughed. For a moment Brienne was reminded of Jaime with his insolent smiles and precise barbs, then pushed the thought away. Hyle Hunt was to Jaime Lannister as peasants were to kings.

“You have to give me props for trying,” Hyle said. “If you’d agreed to just one of my many invitations, we might have enjoyed ourselves, and you need never have known.”

Was that what he had hoped? To have her and not let her find out the circumstances behind his wooing? Brienne scoffed. He must have thought her an infant and a fool, must think her so still.

“I need a file,” she replied stiffly, determined not to be drawn into an argument. “Everything you have on one Aerys Targaryen, known as ‘King.’”

Hyle gave her what in a more serious man would have been a searching look. Then the corner of his lips drew up into a lopsided, knowing smile. He had all of a cat’s smugness and none of its charm.

“You’re checking up on your new partner, aren’t you? Why, Brienne, whatever happened to Miss By the Book and Stick up Her Butt I used to know?”

Honestly, police officers gossiped more than fishwives! It was like there were no crimes which needed investigating.

Brienne flushed furiously, fumbled after a request slip and a pen. “You never knew me. Now may I please have the Targaryen file?”

“No, you may not. It’s been sealed for thirty years. I was going to read it for a laugh ages ago, but even I can’t get my hands on it.”

Brienne opened her mouth, closed it, opened it again. Said nothing. The file being sealed for so long made absolutely no sense, until she remembered that the Targaryens were not only a family deeply and generationally involved in organized crime, but also a family with considerable political clout in the cities around Dragon’s Bay, formerly known as Slaver’s Bay. Aerys Targaryen had been expanding the Targaryen syndicate’s business interests in Westeros at the time of his death, and had originally arrived in King’s Landing on a Meereenese diplomatic passport. Keeping the details of his criminal activities under lock and key would have been a good way to avoid damaging trade and diplomatic relations with Meereen, Astapor and Yunkai, the so-called Targaryen Trifecta.

And what of Aerys Targaryen’s demise? Was there anything about it which had to be kept secret as well?

“I can fill you in on what I know,” Hyle chimed in, and Brienne closed her mouth. Had she not known him as she did, she might have believed he was merely trying to be helpful, a good colleague.

Hyle smiled at her dubious expression. “Precinct gossip can fill in a lot of gaps the official version leaves out. Did you know Targaryen apparently hated being called ‘King,’ didn’t think that was lofty and awe-inspiring enough? He preferred it when his underlings called him ‘The Dragon.’”

Hyle paused for effect. Brienne had to respond and allow herself to be drawn out.

“Why?” she asked tightly.

“If your partner’s former friends from Organized Crime are to be believed, because Targaryen was a fucking mad bastard who liked to carry a couple of cans of gasoline around in his car, so he could burn people alive whenever he felt like it.”

“People, what people?”

“Oh, the usual: business rivals, business rivals’ wives, business rivals’ kids. Great persuasion tactic. Nothing could ever be proved because Targaryen had the means to hire the best lawyers and a knack for intimidating witnesses. If you ask me, Lannister did the city a favor by killing him.” A startled, anxious look flitted across Hyle’s face. “You won’t tell Lannister I said so, will you?”

Brienne shook her head, mulling over what she had just learned, wondering why Hyle was helping her. Did he feel guilty over what had happened in Highgarden, what he had done to her, despite pretending otherwise? Brienne could not afford to let her guard down in front of him again. Having Jaime Lannister as her partner was proving complicated enough without retreading the old ground between her and Hyle, in the vain hope that the sharp stones with which it had been strewn before would not cut Brienne’s feet into bloody strips again.

Buoyed up on a sudden wave of inspiration, Brienne requested anything the Police Archive might have on the Stark family. The Starks seemed squeaky clean, but she figured it was worth checking.

Her instinct proved right.

After Catelyn Stark’s husband had died, an inquest had taken place, but there had not been enough evidence of wrongdoing to open a criminal investigation. It also transpired that the late Eddard Stark had incurred quite a lot of business debt before his untimely demise, debt which his wife had paid off by borrowing money from an old school friend. Brienne recognized the name, and not from newspaper reports or precinct gossip. It had cropped up once during her time in Storm’s End, a peripheral mention with relation to a failed pyramid scheme. A film company which had lost some money but chosen to cut its losses, and with its headquarters in another jurisdiction and plenty of aggrieved parties right there in Storm’s End, nothing more had come of it.

The company owner’s name rang hollowly in Brienne’s head now, as though a monarch had just died and bells reverberated across the city. A coincidence or a clue? Brienne experienced the mixed sensation of thrill and dread, adrenaline fizzing through her veins like bubbles in carbonated water even as her stomach felt suddenly loaded with stones.

“So I guess I’ll see you at the match tomorrow night?” Hyle asked when she returned the Stark file.

Brienne looked at him in blank incomprehension, her mind still buzzing, racing with possibilities related to the Stark case.

“The charity boxing event?” Hyle prompted. “You have seen the posters around the precinct?”

Now that he mentioned it, she had. Cops as amateur pugilists, all donations going to the Police Widows and Orphans Fund.

“Everyone is going to support the fighters.”

Hyle smiled so widely Brienne could see his molars. Still working through the implications of what she’d found in the Stark file, she marveled idly at how both Hyle and Jaime could grin carnivorously wide, yet what on Jaime looked provoking and self-confident and even charming, on Hyle was merely common, pushy, and reminded Brienne that he was not to be trusted.

Hyle was still smiling. “I’m taking part. Welterweight.”

Brienne nodded slowly. “Right. Then I will definitely be there. And hope you get what you deserve.”

“A kiss from you, to soothe my pains and make my bruises better? Which one of us is flattering themselves, huh, Brienne?”

Brienne gave him a scathing look and left, Hyle’s laughter filling the corridor behind her like a noxious gas. A part of her hoped sincerely that Jaime was not taking part in the boxing, as that could be awkward, while another part of her couldn’t help imagining Jaime pitted against Hyle, Jaime drawing him out, dancing out from under Hyle’s clumsy swings, Jaime felling him with a precise uppercut.

Brienne sighed at her own fancifulness: even were Jaime taking part, he’d be a light heavyweight for sure, and thus wouldn’t be pitted against Hyle.

She made haste to the Night’s Watch’s squad room, eager to tell Jaime what she’d discovered about the Starks’ connection to Petyr Baelish.

Chapter Text

Wednesday, 8:15 p.m.

When Jaime had first joined the K.L.P.D., the old hands had liked to tease the greenhorns in uniform with the claim that there existed a key to good police work, one simple rule they must always obey, and their caseload would magically clear itself, and they would advance toward the Commissioner’s comfy leather office chair by leaps and bounds. All the rookies had to do was figure out what that one rule was.

Some said: keep on top of your paperwork. Others: shoot straight and without hesitation. Others yet: don’t take the work home with you.

In Jaime’s experience, the first was good advice, if you could manage it; the second was also sound advice, but whoever made it their guiding light wound up without a job or a pension, more than likely with a manslaughter charge or three; the third was utter tripe. Police officers took the work home with them because the work entered their bloodstream and changed them, became a part of them which they could no longer cut out or drain away or drown in booze or sex or playing happy families. Jaime had taken his work to excruciating family dinners, and to bed with Cersei, and then to his solitary bed, with Honor curled up and purring beside him on short winter days.

There was no single rule or magical key to good police work. There was, however, one sound principle which rarely led Jaime astray: always follow the money.

So when Brienne swooped down on him, still smelling of decades’ worth of dust accumulated in the Police Archive, flushed and bright-eyed with the thrill of discovery, it actually pained Jaime not to be able to respond as she obviously wanted him to, so eager was she to tell him about her big discovery: Eddard Stark’s death under suspicious circumstances, the Starks’ debts, Catelyn Stark’s old school chum stepping in to help them out with a generous loan.

“M’lady Stark claims it was more of a gift, really, no strings attached, no expectations of repayment.” Jaime held up the contact information Catelyn Stark had sent over, the name and business address of the man Sansa Stark had visited on the day of her disappearance, to see about a possible internship with his film production company.

“Openhanded man, this Petyr Baelish,” Jaime added sarcastically.

Brienne’s face fell when she realized Jaime already knew about the extent of Baelish’s involvement with the Stark family.

“Relax, Legs, you can’t expect to get all the glory. This is a collaborative effort,” Jaime teased. “That’s why people have partners on the force.”

“You didn’t, for a long time,” Brienne retorted and bit her lip, her eyes widening.

Jaime watched her confusion, undecided between letting her believe she’d hurt his feelings and teasing her some more. He settled for a shrug, reached behind him to pull his jacket off the back of his chair. Brienne had found him in the cafeteria because the dayshift was not yet over, and Detective Flowers had proved singularly unreasonable about giving up his desk when Jaime had pointed out that he and his partner were working a child kidnapping and needed the work space. So Jaime had gone to the cafeteria, drunk some terrible coffee, and called Baelish’s office to arrange a short-notice interview. He had just hung up when Brienne found him.

“Come on, Baelish said he’d meet us at his office – which, you may be interested to learn, is within walking distance of where we found the phone.”

And so it was. The street on which Mockingbird Productions stood cheek by jowl with other corporate offices had once been called the Muddy Way, but had been renamed Sunrise Way in the previous century, at the same time the city walls had been torn down and the area around the Mud Gate relandscaped into a bucolic urban idyll. Now the Way, as it was colloquially known, was lined with high-rises, all gleaming chrome and blue glass exteriors which reflected the sunlight in the morning, so the whole street looked like a row of giant heads stood shoulder to shoulder, all wearing enormous mirrored sunglasses.

In the early evening, the street had a quieter, almost menacing air, its offices mostly empty, its blank windows, dull blue and lifeless in shadow, reflecting the streetlights and giving nothing away, lending the arrow-straight street the look of a long prison wall.

Mockingbird Productions was a moderately successful company, which meant that it did not occupy an office building of its own. It laid claim to the top three floors of one of the medium-sized high-rises on the Sunrise Way. In the lobby, a quick flash of Jaime and Brienne’s badges won them the security guard’s willing cooperation. He confirmed that Sansa Stark’s departure from her interview had been logged at around the time she would have had to leave the building in order to get to the riverbank in time to be snatched, and have her phone fall in the water and cease transmitting its electronic signature, which had in turn been logged by the cell phone company’s computers. During the smooth, soundless ride in a glass-walled elevator, Jaime noticed Brienne studiously not looking at the street far below them, smirked to think that his strapping partner was as nervous about heights as he was about water. Then Jaime was shaking Petyr Baelish’s cool, dry hand, and being waved into a comfortable armchair next to the one occupied by Brienne.

With his neat goatee and designer hipster glasses without lenses, Petyr Baelish did not look like the sort of man who’d be satisfied with a few floors in a shared office building – not even the biggest building on the Way – even if they were the top floors. His office looked like a bachelor pad from a lads’ magazine spread, all tubular steel and black leather furniture, and a large female nude on the wall not taken up by full length windows or the door leading into the outer office.

Jaime didn’t go to the movies often, and raked his brains for any titles he might know, which Baelish had produced. Nothing came to him.

“In the interests of full disclosure,” Baelish began before they’d asked him anything – that and his choice of phrase set Jaime’s antennae twitching. “I wish to make clear that while Mockingbird Productions caters to the adult market, we stay strictly within the confines of the law. My actors are all over the legal age of consent, and everything they are asked to perform is simulated.” He offered Jaime and Brienne a tiny, colorless smile, like a sliver of whalebone.

No wonder I don’t know any of his films, Jaime thought. Cersei was always my porn.

“You mean pornography?” Brienne gaped at Baelish, oblivious to how Jaime started next to her, uncomfortably convinced for one, stupid moment she’d read his mind. Even though her question was obvious and logical, if gauchely put.

Baelish favored her with a patronizing look. “Adult entertainment, please. Here.” He proffered a couple of creamy, gold-lettered calling cards. Baelish’s name over that of the company and its motto: We Make Dreams Come True.

“How apt,” Jaime drawled. “You named a soft-porn production house after a bird which mimics other birds’ songs. Surely that’s false advertising: you don’t really make dreams come true, do you?”

“As soon as our queen’s government wises up to the profits to be derived from hard-core films, Detective, I will rename my company Bulldog Productions: True to a Fault,” Baelish fired back.

The two men grinned at each other, two fencers recognizing and acknowledging each other’s skill, each still intent on winning.

“I am a respectable businessman,” Baelish pursued. “I deliver the product my customers expect for their money. No more, and certainly no less.”

No genuinely respectable businessman would call himself that. He’s giving us a sales pitch.

“Why would you offer an underage girl an internship in a p… adult entertainment company?” Brienne demanded, for a moment more outraged at the prospect of Sansa Stark fetching coffee for naked, surgically enhanced ‘actresses’ than the reality of the girl’s disappearance. Jaime found it sort of touching, especially since Brienne did not forget to do her job and ask the necessary questions, even while her cheeks flushed bright pink and she all but glared at Baelish.

Baelish remained unruffled. “Sansa contacted me, as a matter of fact. I am a close friend of her mother’s, have been since we were in school together. When Sansa sent me an email asking for a chance to interview, I assumed Cat knew and approved. I decided to indulge the girl, see if she had what it takes to get started in the movie business. It became clear within the first five minutes of our meeting that her mother had no idea what kind of films I produce. Sansa had lied to her, you see. She wasn’t interested in an internship at all.”

Jaime let Brienne ask the obvious question: why had she really interviewed, then?

Baelish sighed, avuncular and deeply saddened by the harsh realities of the world. “A girl from Sansa’s school went missing some months ago. Jeyne something, or maybe Jayne. I misremember the last name. Child from a broken home, very sad and vulnerable, from what Sansa told me. Apparently a… very specific type of film surfaced online, starring this girl.” He paused, as though picking the right words out of a bowl with long, slender tongs. “I believe the street term is ‘snuff film’?”

Brienne inhaled sharply, while Jaime tried to keep his face blank. You faker, he thought at Baelish’s smug, ferrety face. You mummer. I may not know your films, but I know a wannabe actor when I see one.

Baelish spread his hands, the very soul of honesty, no more capable of dissembling than Florian the Fool. “Someone at Sansa’s school found the film, and it made the rounds of everyone’s cell phones. Naturally I assured Sansa that my company is not involved in the production of such films or anything which goes against the law, nor do I know anyone who makes such filth. Speaking from a purely professional standpoint, using minors in this industry is very bad for business. Adult entertainment is a niche market, one ridden with enough legal problems as it is. And as for these ‘snuff films,’” he described air quotes with his fingers, “they’re street-level stuff. No self-respecting producer would touch them.”

And that’s the second time you’ve mentioned how respectable you are, even though you seem to know a lot about the profit margin and the legal ins and outs of the harder end of the porn world. Not to mention…

“What was Sansa’s reaction to your telling her all this?” Brienne was already asking, trying to keep on track, do her job. Her distaste was so evident Jaime wondered if she would go for Baelish’s throat, and he’d have to drag her away as she had done to him in Catelyn Stark’s kitchen.

“Sansa seemed convinced I could help her find out what had happened to her friend. I advised her to trust the police to do their work, and sent her home.”

“Where were you yesterday between four and six in the afternoon?” Jaime asked.

“I was here, working. My entire staff will vouch for me.”

Of course they will. You pay them, after all.

Jaime finally asked the question which had been nagging at him since he’d heard Baelish call Catelyn Stark by her nickname. “What exactly is the nature of your relationship with Cat Stark?”

Baelish’s affable look of familial concern for Sansa changed to sharp steel. The change only lasted a moment – long enough for Jaime to feel a surge of sweet triumph at catching Baelish out.

“As I said,” Baelish answered in what he must have thought was a calm voice, though it came out more icy than cool. “Catelyn and I go way back. When her husband died and she had money troubles, I was able to help her out. I consider her family practically as my own, even though work keeps me so busy I hardly ever see them. Nobody wants to see Sansa come home safe more than I do.”

He wasn’t going to give them anything else, that much was obvious. Jaime brought the interview to a close as quickly as politeness permitted, while Brienne fidgeted beside him, and Baelish watched them both with hooded eyes behind his empty, poseur’s eyeglasses, a reptile only pretending to be bored.

Jaime waited until they were out of the building and walking to their car before he spoke, quietly enough that only Brienne would hear him, although there were few other people on the street.

“He did it.”

Brienne stopped as though she’d walked into an invisible wall. Jaime jerked his head at her fiercely to keep walking, cut his eyes up to indicate Baelish might be watching them from his office window. Brienne faltered for only a moment before she resumed walking, matching her stride to Jaime’s.

“I…” She swallowed. “I didn’t want to say anything. He made my skin crawl, but that’s no proof…”

“You should trust your skin more. Sansa Stark looks exactly like her mother must have looked when Baelish was in school with Cat, and nobody gives away the kind of money he gave the Starks without expecting something big in return.”

Brienne looked horrified. “You don’t think Mrs. Stark… sold her daughter to Baelish in return for his settling her husband’s debts?”

It was not impossible: Jaime had certainly encountered worse in his career. Yet Catelyn Stark hadn’t seemed like a woman who would make that choice. She liked her pretty home and her comfortable life, but Jaime doubted she liked them so much she’d sacrifice her pretty children in exchange.

“If that were the case, why would Baelish have waited to collect? Eddard Stark died three years ago, Sansa was thirteen then, not too young for the likes of him. No, I think he saw Sansa, maybe when she came for her interview, maybe he looked her up online beforehand, and just couldn’t believe his luck. The spitting image of her mother.”

Brienne kept her head down as though watching out for widening cracks in the pavement. “Or maybe he panicked when Sansa started asking questions about the girl who went missing and the… the snuff film.”

“I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks not all of Baelish’s money comes from soft-core stuff. Or maybe it’s both: he’s protecting his business interests and getting his jollies. We’ll get a court order for the security footage from the building for the afternoon Sansa went missing. Even if Baelish was really at work as he claims, he could have had someone else grab her.”

Brienne winced, chewed her lip nearly hard enough to draw blood. Jaime let her. She’d worked Child Protection before, she knew about the kinds of things people did to kids. If she wanted to take the rapidly worsening implications of Sansa Stark’s vanishing so much to heart, there was nothing Jaime could do to stop her. They all carried the work home with them and dealt with it in different ways. Many cops, the late Arthur Dayne included, drank too much. Some used drugs or gambled. Jaime had used to fuck his sister. He guessed Brienne favored staring at blank walls and cleaning obsessively. Whatever got them through the night. Or the day, as the case may be.

“Kids abducted by strangers rarely live past the first seventy-two hours,” Brienne told the pavement miserably.

Jaime clenched his teeth – he really hadn’t needed the reminder – but then Brienne turned those amazing eyes of hers on him like searchlights, like telescopes looking for a distant, possibly mythical star.

“If Baelish is the one,” she said slowly, “and he used some thug he found on short notice and left with barely any instructions…”

Jaime took her arm as they walked, wondering what in seven hells he was doing trying to offer her comfort, marveling at the smooth length of muscle under his hand. The image of Brienne clad in wet white smallclothes flashed before his eyes. He drove it away by squeezing Brienne’s upper arm gently, to remind himself she was more muscular than most men, and as nice to look at.

It was almost enough to convince him.

“There are things we can do, besides checking Baelish’s alibi,” Jaime assured her. “We’ll go through the contents of Sansa’s phone when we get back to the precinct. But first, we’re going clubbing.”

Brienne looked at him like she expected him to throw his head back and howl at the moon shining valiantly through dense light pollution.

“Clubbing?” she repeated dully.

“Snuff films are not as low-end as Baelish would have us believe. They’re a niche market unto themselves, and niche markets cater to a picky clientele. That girl who went missing from Sansa’s school was likely well-fed and well-groomed, not your typical, dirty, scrofulous runaway. When I was in Organized Crime, we worked with Vice a lot. It was not uncommon for porn rings to recruit in certain nightclubs with a, shall we say, flexible policy about letting nubile young girls in.”

Brienne huffed and rolled her eyes, only mildly outraged. “I dealt with some of that in Storm’s End,” she conceded.

“So,” Jaime grinned up at her and finally let go of her arm, his palm and the pads of his fingers tingling. “Put your party face on, Brienne. We’re hitting the town.”

The bouncers at the clubs they visited were reluctant to admit Brienne, with her suspicious scowl and cheap pantsuit, but Jaime used his charm and a few dragons to get them inside. He didn’t want to blow their cover by flashing his badge, though he felt sorely tempted to do so when the bouncer at the third club they visited, a huge Summer Islander with more fat than muscle, asked if Brienne was Jaime’s woman, then inquired slyly if Jaime could get him Brienne’s phone number. Jaime grinned and said sure, he’d pass the man her number on their way out, which the Summer Islander was dumb enough to accept.

Once installed at the bar with a glass of fizzy water which could pass for a gin and tonic, Jaime got busy chatting up the young women who swarmed about the place like fruit flies on an overripe peach. Brienne sat on the next barstool over, pretending she didn’t know Jaime, and scanned the room for signs of trouble. A logical division of labor, given the unlikelihood of Brienne being very good at this kind of undercover work.

“Come on, you can tell me,” Jaime sweet-talked a pretty young thing with curly dark hair and heavily made-up eyes. He’d got her name easily enough: Myranda. The makeup, the pouty scowl, and the drink in her hand only served to make the rest of her look even younger than she probably was. “If you’re old enough for it, you should be shaving. Lots of guys are into that, you know.”

Brienne was in his blind spot, but her imagined eye-roll at his impersonation of a sleazoid was a palpable presence on the back of Jaime’s neck, like a cold draught. It would serve him right if he was so convincing in the role his upright partner gave him shit for it later. Jaime focused on the girl, who was giving him a skeptical look.

“If you expect a girl to shave, you should be willing to do it too,” she said.

Despite her attitude and his being old enough to be her father, Jaime could have taken Myranda home with no more effort than it would have taken him to hail a cab, had he been that way inclined. She thought she was playing tough and smart, but Jaime could see right through her. He kept his tone sweet, insinuating.

“Oh, I’m always shaved, baby. There might be money in it, too. Some friends of mine have been looking for a girl like you, to model for this photography installation they’re working on. Maybe you’ve seen them around…?” He trailed off, hoping the girl would supply a description of possible ‘runners’ for the people behind the kind of film Sansa Stark’s friend had likely died in.

Myranda was having none of it. “You a cop?”

“Do I look like a cop?”

Behind Jaime, Brienne’s snort was even louder than the clink of the ice cubes in her glass as she took a hasty gulp of her own fizzy water.

Myranda looked Jaime up and down in the slow, insolent, hubristic way of young girls, newly awakened to the power exerted by their allure, not yet wise to the perils of flirting with unknown men in nightclubs.

She relented. “No, you don’t look like a cop. And I don’t know your friends.” She took what she must have thought was a very grown-up sip of her cocktail, all pursed lips and lowered eyelashes.

Jaime smiled tightly. “You know what? That’s great. Because they are very bad men who would fuck you up something spectacular.” He showed the girl his badge. Her jaw dropped. “You’re shit at reading people, kiddo. Now get outta here before I put you over my knee, make your little bum good and red, and drive you home so you can explain to your mother where you’ve been tonight.”

Myranda vanished with a mousy squeak and a cold splash of alcohol sloshing over the rim of her glass in her hurry to get away. Jaime shook the sticky droplets of her cocktail off his hand, pinched the bridge of his nose with a sigh, and turned to catch Brienne watching him closely with an unreadable expression. Jaime had had barely an hour of sleep in over a day, and must have been more tired than he realized, given how easy Big Brienne was to read normally. Or maybe the lighting in the club was just bad.

Suddenly Jaime had enough of acting out a mummery for little girls too inexperienced to stay away from men who behaved like he had done, for whom it wouldn’t have been just an act. In some ways, Brienne was little older than those girls. It made Jaime feel as old as the hills.

“We might as well leave too,” he told Brienne. “This was a waste of time.”

On their way out, Jaime gave the Summer Islander at the door such a venomous look when the fool tried to hail him about Brienne’s phone number, the fat man fell back a step, then pretended he had never seen them leave.

“That girl,” Brienne said wonderingly as they walked to their car, parked behind some trash cans in an alley. “She really… She would have let you do anything to her.”

“If I scared her sufficiently, she might wise up and realize that acting hard to get is no protection against anything,” Jaime said. Feeling a little light-headed though he’d had nothing stronger than water with a slice of lime to drink, he added: “She couldn’t even tell I’m not the type to go places with my woman and leave with another.”

He grinned at Brienne, wondering what had got into him. She gave him a look of utter contempt and quickened her step to get to their car ahead of him, although Jaime had the keys. She must think me as bad as Petyr Baelish, barely one step above a whoremonger. The thought was too much to bear.

“It was Cersei,” Jaime blurted out.

Brienne glanced back over her shoulder, frowning in incomprehension.

Of course. Cersei’s name meant nothing to her. So Jaime hastened to explain.

“The, uh, girlfriend I told you about, the one who got bored of me being a cop? Cersei.” The words tasted like a walnut, absorbent and smoky, a numbness in his mouth. “My twin sister.”

Brienne’s eyes were very blue even in the poor light cast by a back-alley streetlamp, though the blue was being swallowed up rapidly by her startled pupils. Her face grew blank with astonishment, as pale as an oval porcelain dish under her freckles. Everything made her blush, yet Jaime’s words had made her blanch. She opened her mouth, sucked in a breath, and snapped her jaws shut without speaking.

It’s not enough that she should trust you, which is what partners need. No, you want her respect, you want her to think well of you, but not under false pretenses. The words tumbled through Jaime’s mind, making him dizzy, whirling sparks in the darkness. Out of all the people in the world, you pick her as the right candidate for your personal cheerleader. You really are an idiot, Lannister, you’re ripe for a 5150.

Brienne faced their car jerkily, poised as though she would smash in a window, hot-wire it, and drive off without him.

She looked back at Jaime. “Gods be good,” she breathed. “Even your secrets have secrets.”

Secrets within secrets. Of course. Aerys. It always comes back to Aerys.

The knowledge of what Brienne really wanted to know about him was both a comfort and a thorn, lodged deep in Jaime’s flesh and festering for a long time, now twisting to burrow deeper. Jaime clenched his teeth around the pain.

“I’ll see you tomorrow, shall I?” He squeezed the words out, dropped them on the pavement like shards of glass. He could only hope Brienne would keep her peace until he’d dropped her off at the bus stop in front of the precinct, request to be partnered with someone else after they wrapped up the Stark case, and keep this newly gained information about Jaime to herself.

Brienne’s tone was incredulous. “Tomorrow? We have all that stuff from Sansa Stark’s phone to go over tonight.”

Jaime looked up. Brienne met his gaze, her eyes nearly darting away but managing not to. Teetering at a point midway between their two faces like an acrobat on a high wire.

Brienne shoved her hands into her pockets and looked away at last. “Our regular shift’s started,” she muttered. “I need to think. But we have work to do.”

Jaime’s nose and throat burned with the deep breath of cold night air he took, realizing he hadn’t been breathing for several seconds. He licked his dry lips and nodded, reached into his pocket for his keys and approached the car slowly, giving Brienne a wide berth as he unlocked the passenger-side door for her and went around to the driver’s side. They drove back to the precinct and the file Pod had supplied them in dead silence.

Chapter Text

Thursday, 00:30 a.m.

The first thing Brienne did when they returned to the precinct after their club crawl was to escape into the women’s toilet and splash her face with cold water. Then she went into the break room, and poured herself and Jaime large coffees with lots of sugar. Then they settled down at their desk to sift through the contents of Sansa Stark’s phone while the Night’s Watch went about its business around them, a bee-like hum in the background.

Brienne ended up doing the lion’s share of typing up an inventory of the phone’s contents. Jaime hadn’t lied about his typing skills, and Brienne quickly grew tired of watching him hunt for keys and peck with his forefingers. No wonder Lieutenant Bolton gave him grief about being behind on his paperwork!

“Move over,” Brienne said brusquely.

She took the chair in front of the computer and applied all ten fingers to the task. She was midway through the first handful of printouts when she happened to glance up from the sheaf of paper spread out at her elbow, and noticed Jaime watching her type with a mixture of admiration and irony.

Brienne gave him a look. Jaime smiled, a bit raggedly.

They hadn’t spoken a word which wasn’t related to their case since his confession in the alley behind the nightclub. Brienne really did not want to get into it or even have to think about it now. He had better not start mocking me again for learning to touch type, she thought menacingly.

Jaime must have seen enough of her current dearth of patience in her face and the set of her shoulders that he dropped his gaze and his smile, and went back to dictating short notes on individual items from the phone, while Brienne typed quickly and fluently.

Sansa Stark’s phone was her life in all its complexity. The playlist Pod had managed to salvage was a mixture of pop, folk ballads, and riot grrrl songs. There were numerous pictures of Sansa, on her own, with Margaery Tyrell, with other girls, at parties, at school assembly, belting out a tune as Naerys Targaryen, complete with a white-blond wig, in a school production of The Dragonknight’s Quest. Looking just at her music and selfies, one would have been forgiven for assuming this was a moderately sociable, very popular girl without a care in the world. Her phone log, and especially the transcripts of the text messages she’d sent and received, told a different story.

Most of her phone calls had been to her mother’s cell phone, her home phone, and Margaery. Sansa might have been on good terms with just about everyone in her school and received a lot invitations to parties, but she’d kept her intimate circle small, limited – or reduced – only to those with whom she felt most comfortable.

Which made her text messages an anomaly, and therefore probably the key. She’d texted Margaery about meeting up after school, going shopping and to the movies, stupid things people had said in class, needing to call each other to talk about pressing matters. Sansa’d also texted her sister (Brienne did not even have to see Arya’s user name to know which texts were hers, as the words ‘7hells,’ ‘OK,’ and ‘stupid’ tended to feature prominently), and occasionally her mother (Catelyn Stark’s texts were always painstakingly spelled and ended in scrupulous full stops).

But in over half her texts Sansa had used her alter ego Alayne Stone, and communicated with someone who’d identified themselves only as Juggler and seemed to have inside knowledge of what went on at Mockingbird Productions. The two had used a rudimentary code, no proper nouns, always referring just to ‘that thing’ or ‘what we talked about,’ like children playing at being spies.

Brienne wondered whether Sansa Stark had been aware of the potential danger she had put herself in. This was no silly girl, her head stuffed full of nothing but pop stars and clothes. Whatever had impelled her to play detective and – as her texts suggested – make contact with one of Petyr Baelish’s employees several weeks before she’d approached Baelish in person on the pretext of an internship interview, it must have mattered a very great deal to Sansa.

Brienne stretched and rolled her head. Her chair could only be called an office chair if one were in a charitable mood, and her shoulders had gone stiff. When she looked up at the clock on the squad room wall, she saw that the hour was closer to dawn than to midnight. They’d been going through the printouts and typing for hours, and Brienne suddenly felt the fact that she hadn’t been able to sleep that afternoon in her bones. She knuckled her eyes and stopped up her ears to drive away the word ‘sleep,’ sibilant and tempting.

“There is nothing here to indicate what she talked about with this Juggler,” Brienne said, frustrated with the case, even more so with her body for wanting sleep.

“The girl who went missing from her school,” Jaime muttered. “What else would it be? Unless she was after a bit part in one of Baelish’s movies.”

Jaime looked little better than Brienne felt, his eyes red-rimmed and heavy-lidded. Neither one of them had been getting much sleep since Bolton had handed them the initial report on Sansa Stark’s disappearance.

Brienne ignored the barb about Sansa’s motivation, chalking it up to Jaime’s need to jape about everything. So nobody gets too close to the truth about him. She shoved and pushed and held that train of thought at bay. Now was not the time.

“We need to establish that girl’s name with certainty,” Brienne said. “And how well Sansa knew her. There’s nothing here explicitly mentioning a missing girl or a… a snuff film.” The phrase left a nasty, dry feeling in her mouth. “It’s all circumstantial.”

Jaime stood up. “I’ll leave a message at the front desk to send up any reports of students missing from Sansa’s school. They won’t send it until the dayshift starts, but it’s the best we can do.”

They should have been able to look it up on their office computer, but budget cuts had decimated the K.L.P.D.’s secretarial pool, so there was always a backlog of files and reports waiting to be entered into the system before the paper records were sent to the Police Archive. Even for a case going back a month or two, paper records were their only option.

Jaime watched Brienne, and she watched him back, feeling too tired to move, to speak, to think. She needed more coffee, couldn’t picture getting up to fetch it.

“Don’t know about you, but I’ve had about an hour’s sleep in the last thirty-six hours,” Jaime said at last. “Come on, we can doss down in the cells for a couple of hours.” Off Brienne’s look, he managed a tiny, stillborn smile. “I’ve had many a power nap down there, the night custody sergeant knows me. He’ll give us his best cells, as far from the drunk tank as possible. Might even scrounge together a couple of blankets if we ask nicely.”

He gestured for Brienne to get up and follow him. She did not move from her chair. Jaime Lannister expected her to always follow along behind him like a puppy. Brienne bridled at it silently, all the more so since she was starting to suspect he was actually good police and knew just how nice he looked in nothing but his boxer shorts.

“I’ll be downstairs in a minute. I just want to double-check something.”

On any other night, Jaime might have argued, commanded her to obey him. Just then, so late into the night it was that time once known as the hour of ghosts, and with his confession clogging up the air between them like a palpable, black miasma, Jaime merely shrugged and walked away, an old man’s exhausted gait dragging his proud shoulders down.

Brienne got more coffee, dumped two sugars into it, gobbled up a piece of someone’s stale nameday cake. She ate in front of the open refrigerator, with her fingers, not even bothering to hunt for plate or fork.

Thus fortified, she went back to the selfies, the call logs, the text messages. Whomever Sansa had been texting about Baelish was older, though not necessarily more mature. His grammar was solid, but the sentiments he expressed were distinctly juvenile. Sansa was the one trying to investigate a past wrong, yet Juggler was the one who used phrases like ‘set wrong to right.’ He even referred to himself as Sansa’s knight or champion several times.

Brienne paused, her muzzy brain registering that she had started thinking about Juggler as ‘he.’ The use of chivalric metaphor suggested a man, but did not hold water as actual evidence.

Male or female, Juggler’s primary motive did not seem to be monetary gain. Some of Sansa’s earliest texts followed an email exchange which wasn’t preserved on her phone, a fishing expedition which had netted Sansa this man Juggler’s dubious aid. Sansa’s texts mentioned her not having the means to pay for information. Juggler had brushed this off as inconsequential. If not money, then what?

Her champion. A self-styled knight, battling dragons for a maiden fair, one as young as Sansa, some of whose selfies and class pictures were easily available on the Westerosnet.

A sexual predator.

Could Juggler have been the one who’d taken her, maybe incited by Baelish, maybe acting on his (or her) own? The last text Sansa had sent, right around the time she would have left Mockingbird Productions, had been to Juggler, requesting that they meet face to face at once. Had Juggler been bait or had he been the one to devise this whole thing, enticing Sansa with promises of information, luring her in?

Juggler’s number was a dead end, a prepaid ‘burner’ phone, untraceable.

Brienne’s head hurt, her blood hummed with sugar and caffeine. She needed to find a clear connection with the other girl missing from Sansa’s school or something else tangible, to replace all these possibilities buzzing around her like horse flies. Brienne wanted a beer, a bed, and an aspirin, in that order.

She got more coffee and stale cake instead. Then, on a hunch born of exhausted desperation and overcaffeination, she opened up a web browser on Detective Flowers’ computer, and started looking for snuff porn.

There seemed to be much more of it than Brienne had anticipated (dreaded). She quickly discovered that much of what passed for snuff was nothing of the sort, involving usually just some bondage and one of the participants faking being choked to death with all the subtlety of an actor in a daytime mummery.

Brienne kept the sound turned off, and the screen angled away from the rest of the squad room. She looked at clip after clip, scanning the women’s faces and moving on quickly. She had seen her fair share of pornography on the job, and while it still made her stomach churn, its overall effect paled next to her memory of discovering Galladon’s dirty magazine stash under his bed when she was ten. Having Galladon catch her going through the stash. She’d used it to blackmail her brother into teaching her about gun safety, which their father had claimed Brienne was still too young to learn.

Thinking about Galladon was easier than letting her mind engage with the images dancing across her computer screen in sweaty, heaving, utterly unsexy detail. Brienne wondered if all families were secret-ridden. The worst Brienne had had to contend with in terms of difficult family relations was her father’s refusal to talk about Galladon after her brother’s death, even though Brienne knew Galladon’s death had been behind her father’s reluctance to let her join the police or leave Tarth. As if her father thought that by keeping her at home he could also keep her little, and therefore safe.

Brienne was almost certain that Sansa Stark had told her mother nothing about her playing detective, even before she’d lied about her interview with Petyr Baelish. Mrs. Stark would have put a stop to it, had she known. Brienne’s gut feeling about Catelyn Stark was good, told her that this was a solid, dependable, honest person, regardless of what Jaime thought of her.

Jaime.

Jaime Lannister, her thrice-damned partner, who had had some sort of affair with his twin sister, and felt compelled to tell Brienne about it, though it had no impact on their working together. If nothing else, it certainly put other families’ secrets in perspective.

Brienne paused the scene of real sex and simulated death she was watching, and did a Westerosnet search for Cersei Lannister.

Gods, she was beautiful! Jaime’s spitting image, only softer, feminine, but with the same challenging glint in her impossibly green eyes. All luscious golden curls, curving red lips, and skin like meringue, Cersei Lannister looked like everything Brienne could never be. She looked like everything even some of the good-looking women Brienne knew, like Pia or Ygritte, could never aspire to be. She was perfect, a goddess carved of unmelting ice, with precious stones for eyes.

Brienne chewed her lip, feeling dreadfully thirsty. She had dealt with cases of incest in the Child Protection Unit, but those had been coercive and mostly of the parent-child variety. From what Jaime had told her, his relationship with his sister had at least been consensual. Looking at Cersei Lannister’s picture and thinking of Jaime, with his smile and his eyes and his face, Brienne almost couldn’t blame them, except insofar as they were siblings.

Brienne scrolled through newspaper articles about Cersei even as she told herself to stop wasting time and get back to work, that she did not actually want to know, and why in seven hells had Jaime told her about it!

On paper, Cersei Lannister seemed like the poster child for the great strides women had made in modern society. Brienne had to wonder what Cersei might think about men who looked at her, sitting at the head of one of those long, oval tables beloved of corporate interior designers, and saw just an attractive body and a face to die for. She was CEO of Lannister Enterprises, her father’s right-hand woman, divorced and childless – a mercy, Brienne thought with a small shudder – every inch the ruthless businesswoman with a sensual streak, such as was usually to be found only in television commercials for deodorant and tampons. Stern in the streets, wildfire in the sheets, except Brienne would have bet good money Cersei Lannister never compromised and always got everything she wanted exactly as she wanted it.

Was that what had gone wrong between her and Jaime? Had Cersei wanted something Jaime hadn’t been prepared to give?

Brienne’s fingertips itched to type Cersei’s name into the Criminal Records database. Brienne balled her hands into fists and scowled at the screen, the beautiful woman smirking back at her from a tabloid photograph taken at a charity ball. Brienne was wasting precious time, and would not misuse police resources as well!

Brienne forced her hands to relax, massaged her temples. She had wanted insight into her partner’s secrets, true, but not like this. Still and all, as much as she would have preferred not knowing about Jaime’s intimate history, Brienne was oddly, unsettlingly glad he had told her. It gave her a thrill to know that he had told probably no one else. He was beginning to trust her, and might share about other things as well. Aerys Targaryen. Whatever other skeletons he had lurking in the background.

At least Jaime had been smart enough to end it, Brienne thought while she clicked through porn clips, fast-forwarded, paused to look at contorted faces, moved on. She was certain Jaime had been the one to end the affair. Cersei Lannister did not seem like the sort to ever let anyone go of her own volition.

Brienne was yet to see Jaime make or receive a phone call or a text which was not work-related. He didn’t seem to be close to his father or his sister, or to have any friends. Not that Brienne was exactly rich in friends. That part of it, at least, she could understand and accept – Jaime’s impulse to confide in her, of all people. They were partners, and maybe he had guessed that Brienne could handle hearing it, as uncomfortable as she felt at the mental image of him and his sister together, each more beautiful than the other. Uncomfortable and vaguely jealous. What did the Lannisters know of what it meant to go through life in Brienne’s skin?

Despite the inroads made by amateur porn uploaded to the Westerosnet, there was still money to be made from professionally made films, provided producers and distributors were willing to accept the fact that even the most hard-core material would be leaked online sooner rather than later. The savvy viewer needed only to know where to look.

Brienne had finally found the real stuff. At least the deaths of some of the performers in what she was watching seemed real enough to her.

She leaned closer to the screen because her eyes itched with invisible grains of sand, and tried to focus on faces, only on faces, not on whether or not she was seeing people being killed for the viewing pleasure of others.

Brienne watched and watched. Stopped only because her bladder was bursting, fetched more coffee immediately upon exiting the toilet, and kept watching. And then she saw them. Two faces she recognized in the same fifteen-minute clip.

One was a very young girl, long dark hair and eyes puffy with weeping. She was tied up, and what two men were doing to her did not seem in any way consensual.

Brienne hit pause and scrambled to get the stack of Sansa’s photographs out from under other printouts. They all had date and time stamps. A quick cross-reference with the call logs and texts confirmed that the earliest photographs must have been transferred from another phone or a camera – they predated the earliest recorded use of Sansa’s current number by a couple of months.

In several of these earliest pictures, Sansa was accompanied by the dark-haired girl, who looked healthy and reasonably happy, if a little pale. In one or two photographs they were alone, otherwise they were with a group of other girls or with Margaery. As the dates on the photographs strung themselves together, closer to the present, the dark-haired girl appeared less and less frequently, until at last she vanished altogether. A ghost, there but gone.

Brienne looked up at the frozen image of the girl between the two men, neither of whose faces could be seen, both of whom looked older and much bigger than her. One had a beard which hung down his chest, swinging rhythmically with his movements. The other had dark hair, his back to the camera. There were two more people present: a man and a woman having sex off to the side, as though whoever had arranged this hadn’t thought the three people in center frame were putting on enough of a show.

They are there as witnesses, Brienne thought, looking at the woman bending forward, facing the threesome, and the man behind her. They are stand-ins for the viewer. They make me complicit.

Brienne knew the woman, had spoken to her not two nights earlier. Rather, Jaime had spoken to her. The image was grainy, but even so Brienne recognized one of the streetwalkers Jaime had bribed into passing a message to Ygritte on the night of Lollys Stokeworth’s murder.

Brienne hit the play button, and squeezed her hands in her lap, and chewed the inside of her cheek as the man with the beard reached his climax while the other one squeezed the life from Sansa’s dark-haired friend with his bare hands. Brienne had turned the speakers off, but she could imagine the men’s thunderous groans. They deafened her, made her skull pulse. There was no doubt the girl was truly dead, her face turning purple, her tongue protruding obscenely between her blue lips. The other woman kept watching, expressionless as a doll, her long hair swinging back and forth as the man behind her reached his fill. A few seconds later, the clip ended.

Is this what happened to Sansa Stark? Is this what will happen to Sansa Stark if we don’t find her on time?

Brienne made her hands move. If she did not, she knew she would start shaking, and weeping, and possibly screaming. She started the snuff film from the beginning, and began printing stills from it.

Half an hour later, Brienne had arranged photographs from Sansa’s phone in chronological order on the floor of the break room, with call logs and texts sent and received on corresponding dates marshaled under Sansa’s photos, and printed stills from the snuff film spread above like a gruesome cake topping. There hadn’t been room for this on the floor by her desk, with people passing by constantly. A few officers had wandered into the break room and complained about not being able to get to the coffeemaker. Brienne had ignored them, and eventually they’d gone away.

“When I said I nearly shuddered to think what you two might do next, I was speaking metaphorically.” Bolton’s voice drifted in from the corridor. He did not sound amused, not even in his dry way. “It was not an open invitation for you to use the cells as a hotel, Lannister, or for Tarth to turn the break room into an art installation.”

Brienne had spent long minutes crouching on the floor. Now she turned awkwardly, still squatting, her tired, cramped muscles protesting, to see Bolton scowling down at her from the doorway. Jaime stood at the lieutenant’s elbow, golden hair sleep-messy and his nice shirt rumpled, looking better rested than he had a couple of hours earlier. He leaned against the doorframe, insolent as ever around Bolton, and blinked owlishly at the timeline Brienne had created.

Brienne hastened to explain before they could start asking her useless questions. “I found the link. Not circumstantial. Direct. At least I think it’s not circumstantial. This girl.” She snatched up one of Sansa’s photos featuring the dark-haired girl. “Is this girl.” Brienne held up a still from the snuff film next to it. “Sansa had pictures of her from before she started using this phone. She was investigating this girl’s disappearance. They killed her. The girl, not Sansa. These men. Don’t know who they are yet. But they killed her in this godsforsaken film, and Sansa saw it, and found someone at Baelish’s to help her find out what happened.”

Jaime and Bolton watched her, Jaime with understanding lighting up his face like the first blush of dawn, Bolton with profound skepticism.

Brienne flapped the two photographs like a hummingbird’s wings. “Don’t you see? How did Sansa make the connection? She must have found out about what kind of films Baelish produces, and put two and two together. This person she was texting, Juggler, he might be in on it too. Hells, he might be one of the men in this film.”

“All right.” Jaime was nodding, gears visibly turning. “All right. How do we find these men?” He squatted beside Brienne, looked at the stills she’d printed out. “There’s nothing here to tie them to Baelish. Their faces never show, do they?”

“No, but hers does.” Brienne tapped another still, the one with the clearest view of Ygritte’s friend’s face.

Brienne looked up and saw admiration on Jaime’s face. The way he was looking at her, like she had accomplished something nobody else ever had in the history of the world, surged through Brienne, right down to her toes, making her dizzy. She wobbled, nearly toppled forward from her crouch. Jaime’s hand felt wonderful on Brienne’s arm when he steadied her.

Jaime was unaware of her confusion. He was looking at his watch, speaking to Bolton. “Brienne needs to sleep for an hour or so. Permission to use one of the cells, then we’ll follow up these new leads.”

Bolton did not look happy, but then he liked to hedge his bets. “Fine,” he said as though squeezing a lemon with his teeth. “Tarth, lay off the caffeine, it’s making you act spastic. You two clean this up. The break room is not a whiteboard.”

He left, while they shared a grin, still crouching on the break room floor. Jaime helped Brienne up. She pulled away, swaying on her feet, steadied herself against the refrigerator before Jaime could touch her again. The top of her head was air, her legs were jelly.

“How much caffeine have you had?” Jaime asked in a mock conspiratorial undertone.

“Um.” Brienne tried to think back to how many cups she’d had, and how much sugar, and all that days-old cake. Her hands were shaking, and her eyelids were made of lead: a disorienting mixture of sensations. “A lot. A lot, a lot. A very great lot.”

Jaime chuckled, the sound music to Brienne’s ears. “I’ll say. You’re starting to speak in nonsense verse. Come on, attagirl.”

He wrapped his arm around Brienne’s waist. She was too tired to protest as Jaime helped her out of the break room and to the elevator.

“You’ll have a nice nap in a deluxe cell, then we’ll go find Ygritte before she retires for the day. Shake her tree, see what falls out.”

Chapter Text

Thursday, 5:45 a.m.

She had looked Cersei up on the Westerosnet.

On the list of recent searches done on the computer Jaime and Brienne shared with Franklyn Flowers, Cersei’s name stood out amidst Brienne’s digging for snuff porn, a slash of crimson in all that darkness. Had Jaime been better rested, he would have relished the dark humor of that more. As it was, all seeing his sister’s name did was remind him of his late-onset insanity in the alley behind the nightclub, and send an unpleasant thrill down his back. Even that thrill was born of long years of conditioning, always having to skulk and hide, Cersei’s voice always in his head, hurry up, be quick about it, harder, faster, get out, be careful no one sees you.

Jaime rubbed the bridge of his nose, shook his head. He had been a fool to put up with it for years, regardless of how much he’d loved her or how good her cunt had felt. Just seeing Cersei’s name in a recent search history sent a shiver of remembered pleasure through him, a strumming, vibrating anticipation. He had become conditioned to crave her just as he had learned to hide being with her. Both reactions had been induced through repetition, and only seemed instinctual.

Jaime deleted the computer’s browsing history. Once, about a year earlier, he had researched gay hookup websites for a case involving some dead twink from the suburbs, only to have Flowers lodge a complaint because Jaime’d left one of the web pages with explicit photographs open on the screen… on a day when Flowers had brought his grade-school son to work with him.

Jaime snorted with remembered annoyance. What kind of idiot brings their kid for a visit at the fucking police station anyway?

Jaime wondered if Brienne had also looked Cersei up in the Criminal Records database, stopped himself before he could check. Brienne was far too honorable for that, even if Jaime strongly suspected she’d gone to the Police Archive looking for the Targaryen file as well as digging into the Starks’ history. At least she’d turned to police records in her quest after the truth, not to tabloids or cafeteria gossip. The situation with Cersei was different. Jaime didn’t know why he was so certain, but he was: if she wanted to know about Cersei, Brienne would ask him. And if she happened to ask about Cersei’s criminal past, Jaime would take great pleasure in telling her about the time Cersei had been caught shoplifting in ninth grade and blamed her friend Melara, who’d got community service and never spoken to Cersei again.

Jaime had left Brienne to catch some sleep in the same holding cell he’d used, under the same scratchy orange police blanket, flopped out on the bunk and looking very young, her mouth slack and open in sleep before Jaime had even left the cell. He’d asked the custody sergeant to switch off the light in the cell for her, then gone over the evidence Brienne had assembled, checked it twice and thrice to make sure her reasoning had been solid, however clouded by caffeine and spread thin with fatigue, her brain aflame with what he had told her in that alley.

Brienne was right. She had to be, otherwise they had nothing. If Ygritte couldn’t lead them to her friend, who’d tell them about the snuff film in which she’d participated, if they couldn’t find the place where the film had been made and the men in it, and link them all to Baelish, then there was nothing tying Jeyne Poole’s gruesome end to Sansa Stark’s disappearance, and they had nothing. Nothing.

That had been her name. The girl’s. Jeyne Poole. The front desk sent up her file while Jaime was checking the timeline for the third time, confirming Brienne’s line of reasoning.

Jeyne’s parents had split up at the beginning of the school year, and she’d turned withdrawn, angry, avoided her friends and cut herself. The perfect target for someone experienced in picking up vulnerable young girls, making them feel pretty and special, and then putting them in front of a camera to be fucked and killed.

Sometimes Jaime really hated his choice of career. But then he’d remember the seat waiting for him on Lannister Enterprises’ board of directors, Cersei and her dimpled smile at his side, Tywin’s proprietary hands on their shoulders as they posed for the yearly fawning family portrait in the company newsletter, and then Jaime felt grateful for the shit pay, the long hours, the occasional nightmares and nightly grind of his working life.

He woke Brienne after the dayshift came on, and they drove to the Street of Silk. Ygritte had refused police protection until she could testify against Ronnet Connington, scoffing at the notion that the Crown would provide for her, put her and her daughter up in a safe house. Ygritte had insisted she worked for a living, and needed ‘nothing from nobody.’ Jaime didn’t blame her. Living in a safe house would have meant inevitable visits from Social Services, awkward questions about Ygritte’s work and who looked after her little girl while she was out night after night. Jaime had met Ygritte’s daughter Val once, figured that if a streetwalker could raise a healthy, pretty, well-behaved child like Val, it was none of Jaime’s business how she managed it.

He spotted Ygritte coming out of an alley behind a large, florid man spilling out of the shirt he’d buttoned crooked over his bulging stomach.

“At least he remembered to zip up his pants,” Jaime commented while the two detectives sat in their idling car, watching the man pat Ygritte on the cheek and depart.

The redhead swiped at her cheek, her mouth twisting with disgust as she watched the man’s back wallow away from her like a galleon. Ygritte pulled a mini water bottle out of her purse, took a swig, and spat into the gutter. She looked tired in the early morning light, ready to go home.

Jaime glanced over at Brienne, saw her trailing Ygritte’s departing john with a peculiar expression. The man was almost at the end of the street, and Brienne looked like she was ready to give chase. Jaime had once seen a cheetah in a nature documentary give a similar look to a fat, waddling gazelle.

Jaime snapped his fingers under Brienne’s nose.

She jumped. The car seat under her squeaked. “Stop doing that!”

“You cannot arrest that man, Brienne,” Jaime explained patiently, ignoring her glare. “We’re not Vice, doing their job for them will only get us into their bad books. It’s not worth it just to arrest one fat bastard looking for a cheap blowjob. Not to mention, my face is already family to the locals, as is yours. It’ll only cause trouble for Ygritte if we start busting heads on her patch when nobody asked us to.”

Brienne stared straight ahead, at the street corner which Ygritte’s john had turned a mere second earlier. Brienne’s jaw was set, and her eyes blazed.

Jaime sighed inwardly. He would have to employ more invasive tactics. Brienne was tired and worried about Sansa Stark (and burdened by what I told her), but Jaime needed her alert and sharp if they were going to get through the day.

“Use your noodle, Brienne! If I have to be both the looks and the brains in this partnership, then what do I need you for?”

She turned to him at last, nostrils flaring, spots of color blooming in her cheeks as she pinned Jaime to the spot with her eyes. Really, she does have the most astonishing eyes. Even if they were currently doing their level best to set Jaime’s head on fire by the sheer force of their gaze.

“I don’t know what you need me for.” Brienne’s voice shook with anger. “Somebody has to be slow and gape! Or maybe I’m here so you can unload your personal issues on me.”

She bit her lip, eyes gone round and terrified. Not of him, Jaime realized. Of herself for saying that. He’d told her about Cersei, and she was worried about hurting his feelings.

“I didn’t…” she started, but he cut her off.

“Yes, you meant it.” Jaime suddenly couldn’t stand to have her look at him with those eyes of hers, they made him feel not just naked, but flayed. He made his voice as thin as a blade. “I’ll try to refrain from oversharing in future.”

“No.”

Brienne’s hand appeared on his arm, so unexpected and solid and light, as though it had coalesced from thin air. Jaime stared at it: she had bigger hands than he did, pale and covered in freckles, with short, blunt nails. Yet not a man’s hands. Nobody would have mistaken them for such, despite their size.

“You can tell me… whatever you need to. I just…” She took a deep breath. “It’s just a lot to take in, and I haven’t had a chance to think about it properly. But I will. Really.” She hesitated a second, then plunged on. “Pardner.

Jaime was still staring at her hand, looked up at her anxious face. Brienne offered him a smile like a bunny rabbit, terrified yet still poking its pink, wet nose out of its hole to sniff the air for lurking dangers.

She would understand if I told her about Aerys.

Jaime opened his mouth to do just that, but Brienne took her hand off his arm and pointed at something outside their windshield. Jaime turned his head, saw that Ygritte had spotted them and was hovering on the edge of the pavement, trying to decide whether to come closer or attempt escape.

Probably remembering what had happened the last time she had tried to dodge Jaime, she scowled and came up to the car. Jaime rolled down his window, and she leaned in, for all the world like she was soliciting any old john, though her face was mutinous as her eyes darted between him and Brienne.

“You can’t be coming here so often,” Ygritte said grumpily. “People will notice.”

With her red hair, she could have been a poor cousin of Sansa Stark’s and her mother’s. Jaime grinned at her worry for keeping up appearances in her little world, jerked his head at the backseat.

“Get in, we’ll buy you breakfast, and you can do us both. I mean,” he added with a leer as Brienne tensed up beside him and Ygritte lifted a skeptical eyebrow, “you can do something for us both.”

Ygritte looked tempted to tell him where he could shove his breakfast and his jokes, but she got in the car without comment. No profit margin in alienating the cops, and there was free food in it for her.

They wound up at a greasy spoon a few blocks away, where the patrons were mostly hookers, junkies, and small-time drug pushers, a visit from the occasional pimp a bona fide step up for the establishment. Jaime in his sleek suit and even Brienne in her trousers stood out like sore thumbs, but Ygritte felt comfortable there, and Jaime and Brienne needed her cooperation.

They took a small table at the back, near the kitchen and toilets. Ygritte ordered enough food for three women her size. Jaime took coffee and some eggs. Brienne winced at the mention of coffee and ordered eggs as well. The elderly waitress, who looked like she might have been a working girl in her youth, looked at Brienne like she was deranged when she requested orange juice. Blushing, Brienne quickly switched to water.

As soon as the waitress had gone, Jaime pulled out a still of Jeyne Poole between the two men in the snuff film. It was the best one of her face, showing her youth and how much pain she’d been in.

Ygritte looked at the photo then back at Jaime, her snub nose wrinkled in a show of contempt. “I know nothing ‘bout her, and I ain’t done nothing to her.”

Jaime refrained from pointing out those were two different things or that Ygritte was being very uncooperative and a shit informant, seeing as how good Jaime had been to her over the years and was even paying for her gargantuan breakfast. He produced another printed still instead: one showing Jeyne Pool being choked to death while Ygritte’s friend and the man fucking her watched from the sidelines.

“I bet she knows everything,” Jaime said acidly, tapping the woman’s face. He’d given her a dragon to pass a message to Ygritte, yet she’d never registered on his radar enough for Jaime to remember her name.

Ygritte’s arms tensed up, like she was preparing to overturn the table and make a run for it. Jaime was already rising to cut her off when the ancient waitress returned with their cups and glasses followed a moment later by armfuls of plates, and laid out Ygritte’s meal as well as two portions of eggs on the tiny table. Under the racket of the plates and cuttlery, Jaime grabbed Ygritte’s hand under the table.

As soon as the waitress had gone away again, Jaime leaned across the table and hissed: “Stop pissing us about, Ygritte! We need to find your friend, and we need her yesterday. A young girl’s life might depend on it.”

Ygritte stared at her breakfast, her hand thin and bony and clammy in Jaime’s.

“Shae’s a stupid, greedy tart,” she said finally, in a faraway tone. “She was bragging about how she was gonna make all this money for doing a film. I told her, I said girls like us don’t get paid big money for porn. We’re too used up. But she wouldn’t listen.”

Ygritte looked up, her eyes like Brienne’s had been in the car: a scared, cautiously sniffing expression. “She wouldn’t talk about it, after, but she was high off her head for a week. So I guess they paid her what they promised.”

“Where can we find Shae?” Brienne asked urgently.

Ygritte shook her head, and Jaime squeezed her hand, not too hard, enough for it to register in the thin bones, just a warning. Ygritte didn’t even wince, used to much worse.

“Stop that!” she snapped. “I ain’t seen her since the night Lollys copped it, all right?” She was breathing raggedly through her nose.

“This girl might end up like the girl in that film, unless Shae tells us what she knows.” Brienne showed Ygritte Sansa Stark’s school photo: smile, blue sweater, fresh-faced and bursting with promises for the future.

Jaime thought this a mistake: a girl like Ygritte might find some vicious, vicarious pleasure in knowing someone like Sansa would be brought low, a spoiled rich kid getting a spoonful of reality like castor oil. Then he remembered Val, and how pretty she was, and how in ten years’ time she would be even prettier and smiling for the school yearbook rather than leering johns, if her mother had anything to do with it.

Ygritte stared at Sansa’s photograph, looked away, started playing with her fork, her food going cold, untouched. “I ain’t seen Shae,” she repeated stubbornly. “But I might be able to find her.”

Jaime exchanged a look with Brienne and let go of Ygritte’s hand, confident she wouldn’t try to run again, now that foreplay was over.

“Let me guess,” he drawled. “You want something in exchange.”

He could have just arrested her, of course, but they didn’t have time to play games, and Ygritte would clam up if they tried to force her.

Ygritte wasn’t looking at him. She was watching Brienne, a small smile giving her a dimple, making her pug nose wrinkle up.

“I want to see that curly top again, the one what was guarding the place where Lollys was. Snow. Officer Jon Snow.” She curled her tongue around Snow’s name in a positively obscene manner, which had nothing to do with what she did for a living.

Brienne made a strangled noise. Jaime laughed out loud. “You want us to set you up on a date with a cop? Listen, girl…”

“Deal.” Brienne’s voice cut clean across Jaime. He lifted his eyebrows at her, but she kept her eyes resolutely on Ygritte. “There’s a police charity event tonight, Officer Snow ought to be there. You can come as my guest. I’ll get you through the door, the rest is up to you.”

Ygritte watched Brienne warily, too wise to the ways of the world to accept a good thing come easy at face value. Then she grinned and extended her hand. Brienne shook it, a gentlewomen’s agreement, and Ygritte fell on her food ravenously, mumbling that she’d try and find Shae later that day, and let them know what she found out at the boxing match.

Brienne offered Jaime a tiny shrug while Ygritte stuffed her face. He shook his head, but he knew Brienne had made the right choice. Not that he would tell her as much, at least not yet.

The eggs they’d ordered were absolutely terrible, so Jaime sipped his equally terrible coffee and excused himself to use the toilet. When he came back, a man in greasy coveralls was leaning on the table, talking to Ygritte and Brienne.

Jaime slowed down, taking in the man’s size, estimating whether it would be better to punch his kidney or his ear if he got angry when he discovered Ygritte was having breakfast with a pair of cops.

“My shift starts in half an hour. I got ten stags and my van out back,” the man was saying.

He wasn’t talking to Ygritte. He was talking to Brienne, staring avidly at her long legs and heavy rump, her eyes and thick lips. Ygritte was red as a tomato and trying to gag herself with a paper napkin, a noise halfway between a cackle and a gargle rumbling in her throat.

Brienne was bright pink, but her knuckles were white: she was squeezing her hands into fists on her thighs. Jaime was just starting to speed up, to cut in before Coveralls tried to touch her, even though a little voice in his head whispered that Brienne could handle herself in a fight and he might quite enjoy seeing her do it.

Jaime heard Brienne clearly, though she kept her voice down. “Piss off,” she told Coveralls, her voice wavering only a little while she looked the man dead in the eye. “I’m on a break.”

Coveralls stared at her in confusion, looked like he would argue, but then he stomped off, muttering about uppity tarts. Ygritte took the napkin out of her mouth and howled with laughter so everyone in the greasy spoon turned to stare, while Brienne blushed and blushed. Nearly dunking her sleeve in Jaime’s uneaten eggs, Brienne folded her arms on the table and buried her face in them when she saw Jaime approach, grinning. He clapped her on the shoulder.

“Well done, Brienne,” he teased. “I was right when I said there was still hope for this partnership.”

“Please stop talking,” came the muffled response.

“I’m gonna tell everyone who works the Silk about this,” Ygritte announced when she managed to get her breath back. “You ever need any information, just tell people you’re that cop.”

Brienne’s expression suggested that being fêted by a bunch of streetwalkers might not have been high up on her list of life goals, but her face softened into an embarrassed smile nonetheless. She did ask Jaime if he could please not tell anyone at the precinct about the incident after they paid and left Ygritte to finish her meal.

“Hells no, Legs,” Jaime replied. “As soon as we find Sansa Stark alive and well, I’m celebrating by telling everyone, and their mothers, and their pets if they’ll listen. Did you really think for one second I wouldn’t?”

“You are a contemptible human being, Jaime Lannister,” Brienne muttered resignedly as they got into their car.

I guess this is what happens when you reveal one of your deepest, darkest secrets to someone, Jaime mused while he drove. It puts you both at ease, once the shock’s worn off. And if I’m lucky, she won’t hold it over my head.

On no solid evidence whatsoever, Jaime didn’t really believe Brienne would do that. It was hard to feel relaxed around her, knowing what she knew about him, after a lifetime of keeping secrets. Hard but also… oddly pleasant, buoyant. Like there had been a weight pressing down on him, and now that someone shared it and took a part of it on herself, Jaime could fill his lungs with air more easily, his aching ribs could expand and accommodate deep breaths. He wondered if that was how Brienne had felt after telling him about her old partner’s death. Renly Baratheon had died mere weeks earlier, whereas Jaime had carried Cersei (and Aerys) on his back for years, but still: he felt lighter.

They spent the rest of the day talking to the detective from Missing Persons who’d investigated Jeyne Poole’s disappearance and following up with the school, which confirmed that Jeyne had come up from middle school with Sansa Stark. The two girls had been close friends, but they’d drifted apart when Sansa’d skipped two grades and started spending time with Margaery Tyrell. When Brienne reinterviewed her, Margaery barely remembered Jeyne and dismissed her as just a wannabe friend to Sansa, someone Sansa had used to hang out with for lack of better options, until she’d met Margaery.

Talking to Sansa’s Computer Skills teacher, who gushed about Sansa being one of the few students to take the class seriously and even use the computer lab after regular school hours, Jaime realized that Sansa had used school computers to research Baelish. She had covered her tracks so her mother wouldn’t find out, but had then placed her trust in the wrong person. First Juggler, then Baelish.

The detectives also reinterviewed Mrs. Stark and Arya, and searched Sansa’s pink and cream room, uncovering nothing useful. Brienne insisted that she should speak with Catelyn Stark this time, and Jaime didn’t object, having no desire to spend more time with the woman than was absolutely necessary.

Sansa Stark’s tomboyish younger sister gave him the kind of look he’d been getting from girls and women since he’d turned thirteen and his voice had broken, but she wasn’t any more inclined to be helpful or polite because of it. If anything, she seemed to find Jaime’s looks and presence in her room annoying. She remembered Jeyne, but no better than she did any other of her sister’s ‘stupid friends.’

“Hey, tell Detective Tarth I can do three plates loaded with food already,” Arya called out after Jaime as he left her room. He lifted an inquiring eyebrow, but the girl turned fiercely pokerfaced.

Brienne blushed and grinned fondly when he passed on the message. Jaime was curious what the girl had meant, but not more curious than he was to find out what Brienne had got out of Catelyn Stark. When he’d met Brienne in the front hall, Jaime had glimpsed the Stark woman sobbing quietly in the kitchen, her hand pressed over her mouth lest her daughter heard her upstairs.

“She claims she didn’t know what kind of films Baelish produces or she never would have allowed Sansa to interview at Mockingbird Productions,” Brienne explained. “I am inclined to believe her.”

Jaime felt no such inclination. “What about when he offered her money after her husband’s death? She change her tune about that?”

“She insisted it was a gift from a friend. A very good, old friend.”

Jaime snorted. “Willfully blind, that’s called.”

“She trusted Baelish.”

“She chose to trust him.”

“Well you have to trust someone, I guess.”

Jaime glanced at her: Brienne was staring out of her window at the passing houses, as though completely unaware of what she’d just said. Coming from anyone else, Jaime would have suspected a barb or an opening gambit, but not from her. If she had wanted to say something, she would have said it.

She wanted to know about Aerys. She didn’t need to say it for Jaime to know. But he couldn’t tell her until he knew whether she’d flip out about Cersei, and was just delaying having herself a nice, possibly public meltdown for the sake of the case.

Brienne stayed at the charity boxing event in order to meet Ygritte and see what she’d found out, but Jaime had no interest in the spectacle, let alone in taking part in a punch-up for sport rather than necessity. The Widows and Orphans Fund could go hang, Jaime’s father had contributed enough money to it over the years to assuage any guilt his son may have felt for ducking out. Jaime told Brienne to call him as soon as Ygritte coughed up the goods, and went home.

There was nothing in his mailbox but the electricity bill, and Honor pretended not to know him when he topped up her food bowl, and changed her water and kitty litter. By the time Jaime had showered, shaved, and settled on the couch with a beer, Honor had decided, in her feline way, that he had been made to suffer enough by having her ignore him, and climbed up onto his lap, planting her front paws on his chest, wanting attention.

Once, when Honor had been about a year old, Jaime had come down with a bad chest cold. He’d lain in bed all day, feeling sorry for himself every time he’d had to drag himself to the bathroom or heat up canned soup because there had been no one there to make him chicken soup from scratch. In the middle of the night, Jaime had woken in a panic that some nightmare was smothering him, only to find Honor curled up and purring softly on his chest, right where inflamed airways troubled his breathing, trying to keep him warm and safe.

Jaime took a sip of his beer and stroked the cat’s striped back, the soft fur and thin arch of spine, so full of attitude yet so fragile under his palm. He repeated the rhythmic, mindless gesture, and Honor began to purr.

“A cat, brother?” Cersei had lifted an immaculate eyebrow, while Honor, still a kitten then, had arched her back and hissed menacingly with her baby teeth. “Are you that starved for contact with a warm body?”

It had been the last time they’d been alone together, and only the fourth or fifth time Cersei had deigned to come to his place. Certainly the only time she’d ever visited the tiny apartment Jaime had moved into after Father had cut him off.

“You do not approve, sweet sister?” Jaime had replied smoothly. “I was going to name her after you. It seemed appropriate. I cater to her every need and fulfill her every whim, and every once in a while, when the mood strikes, she lets me pet her.”

Cersei had slapped him then, a sharp crack across his left cheek, her nails leaving catlike scratch marks on his cheekbone. It hadn’t been the first time she’d struck him – just the only time Jaime had been sorely tempted to return the favor.

“I’d leave now, if I were you,” Jaime had threatened his twin, and meant every syllable. He could hear his voice shaking. “You’re making me angry.”

Cersei had looked at him with haughty contempt, but there had been nervous tension in the corners of her scarlet lips. She’d left, and Jaime hadn’t seen her since, except the one time, about a year before the night he’d met Brienne Tarth. He’d been driving to work, and seen Cersei exiting an overpriced downtown restaurant with the fragrant Taena hanging on her arm like a young girl clinging to her sugar daddy, which Jaime supposed was Cersei’s role in that relationship. The women had been flushed and a bit unsteady on their feet, whether from too much wine or a quick fuck in the ladies’ toilets, Jaime had tried not to ponder. It had pained him to think Cersei might be doing the kinds of things she had used to do with him with anyone else, but it had helped as well. It had reminded him of why he’d refused to see his sister any more, and she’d finally returned the favor, albeit after months of blowing hot and cold in the hope that Jaime would come back.

He’d always come back before.

That had all changed five years earlier, when he’d called Cersei in the small hours of a rainy night, after Internal Affairs had been grilling him about Aerys for nine hours straight. Cersei hadn’t wanted him to come to her penthouse, but Jaime had begged, he’d actually begged, and so she’d relented, power a greater thrill to her than anything else. She’d greeted Jaime wearing a red silk peignoir and let him fuck her right there, on the hallway table, the cold marble edge leaving bruises on her buttocks and the fronts of his thighs, turning their flesh to ice. She’d let Jaime fuck her, and remembered to warn him in a breathless staccato not to come inside her because they hadn’t been using a condom, and he’d obeyed. Obedience had run deep in him where Cersei had been concerned.

“You mustn’t worry,” she’d told him afterward, while he’d breathed in her scent like a man cut down from the gallows might gulp air, his head tucked under her chin. “The Commissioner won’t dare punish you. He won’t want to lose Father’s yearly contribution to that police widows charity, and the District Attorney needs Father to endorse his reelection campaign. The media will find something else to amuse them soon enough. They are mice, and you are a lion. They won’t dare touch you.”

Jaime had lifted his head from her breasts and seen it clearly, as though Cersei’s face had been a magic crystal which showed past, present, and future: Jaime had killed a man, an insane, dangerous man who’d nearly cost Jaime and several others their lives. Jaime had killed him, and still they all might have died. And Cersei could see no reason why any of that should be upsetting to Jaime.

After that night, Jaime had avoided going to her every time she’d called, though he hadn’t made a clean break until about two months later, when Cersei had informed him in an accusing tone that he’d changed, and Jaime’d realized he didn’t want this any more. He’d still desired her, of course, suspected his cock and even his heart always would, but the years had worn him down till there was nothing left of him for Cersei to use but a thin wafer of a man. She could claim she wanted more, needed more than Jaime could provide all she liked. The essence of it was that Jaime had grown tired of her moods, of always just passing through her bed. Even her brief marriage hadn’t bothered him that much, though her various other men had been harder to take. At last Jaime’s patience and his love had reached the one thing he’d never allowed himself to even contemplate with relation to Cersei: a limit.

It had been easier to avoid her after his big fight with Father, some weeks after the night of the interrogation and the marble table, when Jaime had refused to quit his job. His name, his family’s name, had been dragged through the papers, and Tywin had bought him a transfer to the Night’s Watch in the hope that Jaime would be too proud to accept it, would prefer to leave the police force than be reduced to that.

For all that Tywin had almost never called Jaime ‘son’ without reminding him he was also the Lannister heir, his father had been wrong about Jaime, had never really known him. Cersei probably never had either, which was more painful but also easier to accept. Tywin had withdrawn his money and his interest in Jaime’s life, and soon after that Cersei would no longer let him between her thighs, nor had Jaime expected or even wanted her to. So Jaime had found himself working a job he loved yet nobody thought him fit for, with no friends after Arthur Dayne’s death, no experience of dating or anything remotely resembling normal human relationships, weighed down by his secrets, poor, and alone. Free.

The word was a slice of lemon in his mouth, sour and zesty. It was a terror, but it also got Jaime’s blood flowing faster, reminded him he was alive. Five years after Aerys’ death, after Cersei and his father had cut him loose, at forty years of age, Jaime was still alive, still here. Even if nobody other than Tyrion cared very much about that small fact, and Jaime had never felt entirely comfortable talking to Tyrion about his job or about Cersei.

And then there was Brienne, big and strong and shy, quicker than she seemed and scrupulously honest, who knew some of the truth of him and still wanted to be his partner. For all Jaime knew, she might not want it once they closed the Stark case. She might just be biding her time, but Jaime doubted it. He had learned in his youth not to trust others, to always keep his secrets closer than any human being. Yet Jaime couldn’t deny, after only three days and nights of knowing her, that he felt like he had a pretty good handle on who Brienne Tarth was, what she was like, and above all, that he could trust her. Trust her with his secrets, with everything. Maybe even his life.

Chapter Text

Thursday, 8 p.m.

Jaime tended to dream in bright Technicolor, elaborate set pieces as large as life and twice as meaningful. At least he supposed his dreams were meaningful, though the most he’d been able to puzzle out from them was that he had really liked fucking Cersei, had had a complicated relationship with his father, and loved Tyrion.

One thing was certain: Jaime had never thought he’d find himself on his knees, in front of his couch, in his shitty little apartment, licking a woman who was not Cersei. And of all the other women in the world, his partner would have been the last one he’d have expected.

Brienne’s head was rolled back on her long, thick, flushed neck, her massive thighs both soft and muscular against Jaime’s cheeks, her blond bush even thicker than he remembered from when she’d been wet and shivering by the river. She tasted different from Cersei, even in his dream he was certain of that, Brienne’s scent thick in his nostrils, his mouth. Her hair was tickling his nose. Jaime suppressed the urge to sneeze, getting dizzy with the deep breaths he was taking, Brienne all he could smell and taste. She was moaning loudly enough to bring Florent, Jaime’s uptight, R’hllor-freak landlord over to raise a fuss on Jaime’s doorstep, but Jaime didn’t care, he wanted to make her moan even more loudly. The sound was a palpable vibration in Jaime’s skull, on his skin.

Brienne’s fingers on the back of his head, so light she barely brushed his hair where Cersei would have gripped and commanded, startled Jaime. Brienne breathed his name, just the once, in a tone of such need and desire Jaime couldn’t stand it any more. He had to unzip his jeans before he had the sort of accident he’d used to have before Cersei and he had figured out there were more interesting things to do than dry hump. He also needed desperately to get Brienne to say his name like that again, and again, and to stop his mind from wandering to Cersei.

Jaime pulled his mouth away reluctantly so he could lick his finger. Brienne was leaving a wet patch on his couch, but Jaime wanted her to have nothing but pleasure just then. He fumbled at his zipper with his free hand as he flicked her with his tongue and prodded at her gently with his wet finger, and she moaned again, a deep thrum of sound, and lifted herself off the couch a bit to open to him more, and his phone was ringing.

Jaime rubbed his eyes, wondering why his hand didn’t smell of Brienne when he could still taste her, thick on his lips and tongue. He had a crick in his neck because he’d dozed off with his head on the back of his couch, and Honor had wandered off when he’d stopped petting her. The yeasty aroma of spilled beer was thick on the air, making him wonder just what the fuck his brain thought it was playing at, as he fumbled for his cell phone and flipped it open, clocking only that it was full night outside his window.

“Did Ygritte come through?” Jaime mumbled, his mouth full of a cottony dryness from having slept with his mouth wide open.

A male voice, rough as macadam with years of a pack-a-day habit and even harder drinking, chuckled in his ear. “Evening to you too, Lannister.”

Jaime knew that voice: Bronn Blackwater from Vice. The man had done more sting operations posing as a pimp or down-market pornographer than Jaime had had hot meals, and looked every inch the seedy denizen of the city’s underbelly. Everybody knew Bronn was exactly the kind of cop to accept sex in exchange for not arresting working girls, took graft too, but he kept his extracurricular activities small time, so no one cared much. Jaime didn’t like him, but that didn’t erase the fact that Bronn was, not exactly good, but efficient police. One could trust him to shoot straight if things got hairy.

He really shouldn’t have used that word, Jaime decided at once. His cock had started to go soft when he’d answered his phone. It throbbed with rushing blood again at the thought of hair and the memory of his dream. Jaime felt grateful he’d put on sweatpants after his shower, and wondered why he had been wearing tight jeans in his dream.

Bronn did not wait for Jaime to respond.

“If Ygritte is the pert-cheeked little redhead who left the fight with Jon Snow on her arm, then yes, she came through. Her friend did a couple of films for a piece of work called Vargo Hoat we’ve been trying to get something on for months. We’re raiding his place tonight. If you want in on it, you better get your ass down here in the next half hour, Lannister.”

Jaime snapped upright, ignoring his hard-on, and used his best ‘a sheep does not talk like that to a Lannister’ voice.

“What do you mean, if we want in on it? We brought you the fucking information on a silver salver. It’s our case, mine and Brienne Tarth’s. You go into this Hoat’s place without us, I’ll pull every favor I’m still owed to have you directing traffic on the Rose Road by tomorrow night!”

Bronn chuckled again. Jaime wished they were having this conversation face to face, so he could make Bronn’s flat, oft-broken nose even flatter with his fist.

“Don’t get your smallclothes in a twist, Lannister. Your partner said almost the exact same thing. This ain’t a courtesy call, she’s the one who insisted we call you so you can be there. But you need to hurry, ‘cause Hoat keeps weird hours, and we…”

“Where’s Brienne?” Jaime interrupted. She’d told Bronn to make sure Jaime was there, then where in seven hells was she?

“She said something about a family emergency. Guess you’re flying solo tonight. Is it true she stripped naked to dive into Blackwater Bay after a piece of evidence?”

“She was in her smallclothes, and it was the Rush,” Jaime replied, and ended the call before Bronn could ask him what color smallclothes. Apparently Jaime’s own stripped state had not made it into the story making the rounds of the precinct, mutating by the minute.

Jaime sat with his head down, squeezing his phone between his palms, trying to ignore his cock and the thought of Brienne in white smallclothes, Brienne spread-legged and wanting him in his dream. He tried to think of Cersei, to use the remembered familiarity of her body as an antidote to whatever had got into him, but the merest flicker of a thought about Brienne grabbed him and shook him till he groaned and palmed himself through his sweatpants, desperate for relief. He didn’t have time for this, but in his head Brienne was wet in white cotton, Brienne’s eyes were blazing at him in righteous anger in their car, he saw Brienne’s myriad freckles and thick lips, and wouldn’t those feel good on his mouth, on his neck, around his cock…

Jaime was gripping himself, the drooling tip of his cock wetting the front of his sweatpants so he looked like a kid who’d had an accident, but he refused to move his hand, slip it inside the sweatpants, where it wanted to go. He slapped his other hand, the one holding his phone, against his forehead, and groaned again, this time in pain.

It’s only your stupidity which is hurting you, Lannister.

Brienne had a face which could curdle milk. She was bigger than him and knew about Cersei, and yet she’d told Jaime that she just needed to think things through, and gods, Jaime was the biggest thundering fool in history! He couldn’t even decide which would be worse – if she betrayed his trust and told others about Cersei or if she thought things through and decided he was pitiable, a truly contemptible man – and yet he was also wondering if he had time to jerk off, and if Brienne would be able to tell he’d been thinking about her when next she saw him. Jaime had only ever touched, wanted, fantasized about one woman, but it was no use: Brienne’s ugly face, her freckly skin, her eyes and horsey teeth, even the faint scent of her sweat and deodorant from when they’d been stuck in traffic that afternoon on their way back from the Stark home, filled Jaime’s head and made it impossible to think, to breathe.

Jaime stood abruptly, marched into the bathroom, stepped into the shower, and grabbed the cold water tap. At the last moment he remembered to drop his phone on the edge of the sink, before ice-cold water spewed all over him with a gurgle of old pipes, making him gasp and chasing away all thought of arousal. He got out, peeled off his soaked sweatpants and T-shirt with numb fingers, and changed into clean street clothes: jeans and a sweatshirt, he hadn’t gone off the deep end so much as to wear one of his nice suits to a raid.

He was nearly done toweling his hair dry by the time he had his chattering teeth under control sufficiently to call Brienne. The call went straight to voice mail. She’d just moved in, probably didn’t even have a landline yet, wasn’t registered with the city phone directory.

Jaime tried again: voice mail.

He would have to go over to her place and see what family emergency was keeping Brienne from a case which had kept her working all through the night, fueled by caffeine and stubbornness alone. Jaime would be thrice-damned if he went on that raid without her or let Bronn and his Vice buddies take all the credit for Jaime and Brienne’s hard work.

Jaime called Bronn to reiterate the raid had better not go forth without him and Brienne. Then he went down to the parking garage on the corner, which cost more than street parking but was a safer place to keep his car. Not that it had mattered a mummer’s damn: Jaime arrived at his parking spot to find all his windows and lights smashed in, his tires slashed, the bright red paint scratched up, and the hood so severely dented it was nearly broken right down the middle, as though cloven in two by a sword.

Jaime looked up at the security camera covering that part of the garage, and gave whatever sleeping or bought-off rent-a-cop was watching the finger. Jaime might have taken the time to have himself a nice tantrum and remind everyone that he was a cop, and they’d just allowed a cop’s property to be messed with, but the sight of his car, vandalized but not irreparably so, gave him a nasty, knotted feeling in his stomach.

He rushed out of the garage and jogged down the street like a fool until he managed to hail a cab, kept trying to call Brienne during the entire ride to her apartment. He was sweating and cursing her with every imprecation he had ever heard by the time he took the stairs two at a time and banged on her apartment door with his fist, loud enough that Florent might have heard him halfway across the city.

Jaime felt like jumping up and bashing his head against the door if it would make her answer it faster. He had just raised his fist to knock again when the door opened to reveal Brienne wearing a blue T-shirt with the picture of a cartoon walrus and ‘KISS ME BABY’ written under it, and blue pajama bottoms which were a little too short and tight on her. Apart from her red-rimmed, puffy eyes, she looked so cozy and domestic, and so good in the blue clothes, Jaime was reminded uncomfortably of his dream, and his cold shower, and his discovery in the parking garage.

“Is there something wrong with your fucking phone?” he barked, waving his own phone for emphasis.

Brienne gaped at him. It really was too much: she’d invaded Jaime’s dreams, nearly given him a heart attack with worry, and now she had the audacity to stand there and give him that clueless, open-mouthed look.

“Your phone, Legs.” Jaime squeezed the words out between his teeth, barely keeping himself in check. There had been a few occasions in his life when he’d felt like screaming at the top of his lungs, and this was rapidly becoming one of them. “I called you twenty times in the last half hour. I thought something had happened to you. What in seven hells are you playing at?”

“I… I asked Detective Blackwater to call you and tell you. I was going to leave you and Lieutenant Bolton a message later… I need time off…”

“Time off? In the middle of an investigation? What kind of emergency could possibly warrant that?”

Blood rushed to her face with blinding speed, and her eyes blazed so Jaime felt, for the second time that day, pinned to the spot by the most intense blue, wanting to wriggle like a speared butterfly.

“My father’s been injured, you, you… you insensitive man!” Brienne cried, her voice oscillating between rage and tears. “He’s in the hospital, they wouldn’t tell me anything for certain till morning, so I switched off the ringer on my phone, I couldn’t…”

She broke off and hugged herself, her head down and her breath a shudder of sound, her broad shoulders quaking. Jaime wanted to step in and offer her a hug, didn’t trust himself to touch her. Not after the dream he’d had, and the way his hands were trembling with adrenaline.

“May I come in? I need to borrow your phone,” he asked perfectly calmly. So calmly and authoritatively, Brienne looked up, eyes wet, nose shiny and red, and did not object when Jaime slipped past her.

Brienne’s apartment was even smaller than his, crowded with moving boxes, most of them open and spilling contents every which way: bedding, dishes, books, clothes. The air smelled of cardboard, dust, Dornish takeaway, and clean laundry. The smell was homey and very Brienne, at once tomboyish and feminine. Jaime spared a thought for what he might find if he asked to use her bathroom: smallclothes drying on the shower rail, fluffy blue towels? No, Brienne would rush in and collect anything embarrassing beforehand. The thought of Brienne clutching handfuls of clean, damp smallclothes, looking bewildered, struck him as amusing and vaguely reassuring rather than arousing, thank the gods.

Her phone lay on the counter separating the sitting room from the kitchen. Jaime looked up recently dialed numbers, found the one with the Tarth area code, punched it into his phone, just on the off chance the hospital on Tarth had caller ID. He ignored Brienne hovering just inside the closed front door, watching him with a mixture of apprehension and curiosity. Jaime cleared his throat as the line connected, a nightshift nurse answered.

“This is Captain Westerling with the Royal Westerlands Constabulary,” Jaime barked in the clipped tones his father used with his children and underlings, deepening his voice so he sounded at least ten years older than he was. “I understand you have a…” He drew a blank on Brienne’s father’s first name, turned to her, waggling his eyebrows and gesturing wildly with his free hand.

She stared at him in confusion while the nurse asked if he was still there. Then the copper star dropped, and Brienne whispered the name like a ham mummer.

“… Selwyn Tarth on your ward.” Jaime made sure he sounded cross and irritated and full of authority, to forestall the nurse hanging up. “I need to know his condition.”

The nurse started bleating about hospital regulations, she wasn’t allowed to give out information to anyone other than family, and then only in person. Jaime cut her off.

“Family? Listen to me carefully, young woman. I have known Selwyn Tarth since we were cadets together at the Police Academy in Storm’s End. I am more than family to him, I am his comrade.” Laying it on a bit thickly couldn’t possibly hurt. “I have come a long way to pay him a visit, only to hear he’s been taken to hospital. Now I demand you tell me what happened to my old comrade…”

The nurse started talking. Jaime made noises of skeptical assent which signaled ‘you are clearly incompetent, but I will accept what you say for the time being.’ When the nurse had told him everything she knew, he thanked her curtly and hung up, wondering why he couldn’t interrogate suspects in character as his father. It would have made Jaime’s job so much easier.

Brienne was watching him with vague horror at his shameless lies, as well as pure, wide-eyed admiration, like he was Florian the Fool come bursting through the door to call her his Jonquil.

Jaime kept it simple, like he was delivering a progress report on a case. “Your father got hit on the head during a robbery. His doctor was worried he might have a blood clot in the brain. He doesn’t, he’ll just have a sore head for a few days. They are keeping him overnight for observation, and will discharge him in the morning.”

After a mute moment, Brienne burst into tears, walked blindly past Jaime, and plopped down on her couch, her face in her hands. Her shoulders shook as she sobbed. Jaime let her sob. It wasn’t long before she started to pull herself together with a visible effort, hiccupping and snorting back tears.

Jaime saw no glasses anywhere, but there was a Tarth Island souvenir mug drying by the sink, so he filled that with tap water. Brienne drank it down like a shot of liquor, avoided his eye when she gave him back the mug.

“Is your father your only family?” Jaime asked before Brienne could start apologizing for being human and crying in front of him.

She nodded, staring at her knees, drying her wet palms absentmindedly on the upholstery of her couch.

Jaime kept his voice quiet and, he hoped, gentle. “You can, of course, take time off and go be with him. But you know what you’d say to anybody who was in your shoes: trust the local P.D. to look into it.”

Trust that, if your father is anything like you, he can take care of himself, and probably gave whomever attacked him at least as good as he got.

Trust me that I need you working this case with me, Brienne.

“If it were your father, you wouldn’t go?” Brienne asked her knees.

“If it were my father, I’d wait till I was certain he was dead, and couldn’t reach up and drag me down with him.” Jaime grinned at her startled look. “Not everybody gets along with their family, Legs.”

“What about your sister?” she asked, hesitantly and a touch defiantly.

Jaime shrugged. There was no good time to have this conversation. He could hardly put it off once she’d opened that door.

“I wouldn’t call what was between us ‘getting along.’ It was…” Jaime searched for the right word. Love? Lust? Madness? Meant to be? “It was. For a very long time, it was. It’s over now. I thought Cersei was my other half. Turns out, I was wrong. I never even see her any more, or my father since he disowned me. I only see my brother, Tyrion. You’d like him, I think.” Jaime smiled at the idea. “Tyrion would definitely like you. He has a yen for interesting people.”

Brienne looked ready to argue that she wasn’t interesting, didn’t. She chewed her lip like she was gathering the courage to say something more urgent, necessary, and possibly unpleasant.

“It was something to think about, so I wasn’t fretting about my father,” she said slowly, absorbed in the sight of her knees. “Were there… There weren’t ever any children, were there?”

Jaime grimaced at the memory of all the times he’d complained because Cersei had wielded condoms like a scepter to command him. His sister had had the right of that, at least, as much as it pained him to admit it. “No.”

Brienne nodded, still not looking at him. “It’s good, I think. That it’s over, as you say. With your sister. You can rest easy. I won’t tell anyone. And I won’t give you a hard time about it.”

Brienne looked up at Jaime at last, her face tear-stained and flushed and blooming with freckles, her eyes brilliant with so much liquid, pooled light.

“I am not going to play your guilty conscience, Jaime,” she said firmly. “And I’m not going to make your past my business. It’s your business, and your business alone. You deal with it.”

Jaime cocked his head to the side, wondering if she’d ever called him by his name before. He liked the sound of it when she said it. It didn’t sound like she was barely stopping herself from saying something worse. Sisterfucker. Kingslayer. Insensitive man.

“You’re a cop, you know,” he teased, feeling more nervous than he’d realized. “Incest is against the law.”

Brienne rolled her eyes. “You’re a cop too. You can arrest yourself, if you feel so strongly about it.”

Jaime laughed, a booming, twanging explosion of breath and sound, the accumulated tension of the past hours, days, years let out, if only for a moment. Brienne smiled in response, tentatively yet with no hint of dissembling, her horsey teeth drawing Jaime’s attention to her mouth, what he’d been thinking about not an hour earlier.

Not the time. He sat down on the couch next to Brienne, keeping distance between them.

“Listen, Brienne. It’s been two days and change since Sansa Stark went missing. We have to be in on Vice’s raid if we’re going to have a sinner’s chance in the seventh hell of finding her. But you need to understand something first.”

She watched him carefully, listening with every fiber of her being. It was an unusual experience for Jaime, to be listened to so intently and taken so seriously. He picked his words with care and precision.

“My car got vandalized tonight, between my getting home and Bronn calling me not two hours later. Same evening as your father, a veteran of the force, known to every soul on Tarth, just happens to get jumped by kids after his wallet? Cops and coincidences don’t mix.”

Brienne frowned. Not in denial: her brow clouded over with uneasy connections forming in her mind, disparate facts linking up like molecules. “You think someone who doesn’t want us working the case is behind it?”

“At the very least, someone who doesn’t want us finding Sansa Stark alive. They hit us both where they knew it would hurt, but they didn’t aim to inflict permanent damage or they could have killed your father.” Jaime gave his partner a moment to inhale sharply and close her eyes against the thought.

What does it say about me that whoever did this knew it’d hurt me if they damaged my thrice-damned car? Or was dealing with Cersei and Father’s security or trekking out to the country to Tyrion’s rehab just too much trouble? Jaime made a mental note to put in a discreet call to his father’s security chief.

“If it’s Baelish, he must have informants on the force, so we need to be extra careful from now on. But we have to be in on that raid,” Jaime insisted.

Brienne was chewing her lip again, thinking.

Jaime took a deep breath, went in for the kill. “I know you want to find her.”

“And you don’t?” Brienne’s blue eyes were upon him, intense as summer sunlight. “If you say it’s all the same to you, just another case, I name you liar, Jaime Lannister. You want to find her every bit as much as I do. You need it.”

For a moment Jaime was certain she was no longer talking about Sansa Stark or not only about her, but about the two of them, about their lives, their, what, souls? Jaime didn’t believe in souls, though he had once liked to think of Cersei as his soulmate. Was Brienne maybe talking about sex too, the possibility of it?

Jaime pushed that thought away, focused on the task at hand and the woman watching him like the world depended on his word. “Yes, I do. So are you going to go change out of that ridiculous T-shirt before Bronn Blackwater turns all our hard work into a triumph for Vice?”

Brienne blinked, glanced down at her clothes. Muttering that the pajamas had been a joke present from her father, she got up and headed into her bedroom. “Give me five minutes.”

Jaime settled back comfortably on her couch, stretched out his legs, his heels resting on a box labeled ‘various.’ Whenever Cersei had gone out, she had always needed an hour or more to get ready. There wasn’t that much time now, but Jaime was willing to sit back and wait a bit before heading into the barely controlled chaos and danger of a police raid.

Brienne was dressed and ready to go in exactly four minutes.

Chapter Text

Thursday, 10:30 p.m.

Brienne’s bulletproof vest was tight across her shoulders and under her arms. She shifted minutely, trying in vain to make the Kevlar sit more comfortably on her torso. Her leg kept jostling Jaime’s: they sat side by side in the back of a police van. Three Vice cops sat across from them, eyeing the two of them like some sort of sideshow novelty.

“Stop wriggling,” Jaime told her. “It was the biggest size they had.”

“I know,” Brienne groused, tried to sit still in the stiff vest. Her hand drifted to the butt of her gun, snug in its hip holster, for comfort and reassurance. Raids made her nervous, but in a focused, adrenaline-sharp kind of way.

“So,” one of the Vice cops piped up, “did you two really go skinny dipping in the Rush your first day as partners?”

Brienne opened her mouth and closed it, praying that Jaime would field this one. Cops: worse by far than fishwives when it came to gossip.

“Nobody swims in the Rush,” Jaime replied lightly. “We went paddling in the shallows. And we were fully dressed, just took off our shoes. Found a piece of vital evidence in our case. Also Old Valyria. It’s down there, you know.”

“And it was our second day as partners,” Brienne added in a low mutter, unable to think of anything wittier.

Jaime slid her a sideways smile. Brienne blushed, but she told herself she didn’t care, even though the three Vice cops were giving them looks which ranged from skeptical to knowingly salacious.

In rumor, I ended up naked with the bear, now this! They’ll be saying uniforms caught us having sex in the river next.

Brienne could not suppress the deepening blush, the relief that the inside of the van was fairly dark and Jaime was not facing her, or the tiny shudder of gratification the imagined gossip scenario kindled in her belly. She was starting to learn who Jaime Lannister was, quite apart from how he looked, and he couldn’t possibly have meant to indicate any flirtation or interest in Brienne. Before the conversation could proceed or Brienne could ponder where the traitorous thought had come from, the van pulled over to the curb two blocks away from the warehouse which housed Vargo Hoat’s underground studio, on the outskirts of Flea Bottom.

The area had seen better days: most of the warehouses and businesses stood rundown and boarded up. Like in the Street of Silk, the locals knew better than to ask questions or pay too much attention to what went down in the vicinity.

Thinking back on it later, Brienne’s clearest memories of the raid were the same ones as from every other raid she’d ever participated in. Officers spreading out to surround the building and block all possible escape routes, moving quietly and quickly, according to preset patterns, fulfilling specific tasks, weapons drawn and Kevlar vests on. They went in, kicking down doors, shouting “K.L.P.D.!” and commanding all and sundry to get down on the floor and put their hands on the backs of their heads. All and sundry usually did not obey, or not at once. Between one breath and the next, shouting, screaming, curses, and gunshots filled the air.

Even by those standards, the raid went badly.

Whether it was Vice’s fault for underestimating the number of people likely to be present inside the warehouse or just one of those bad turns of fortune which happened when the gods played dice with human lives, Brienne did not know. She had no time to think about it then, only to register the raid had interrupted the making of yet another movie of the kind Petyr Baelish had claimed were of no interest to him as a businessman.

In the main area of the old warehouse were a film crew, various shifty-looking hangers-on, and the ‘actors,’ one of whom looked distinctly underage. Electric cables snaked across the floor, making for treacherous footing, and some of the people at the film shoot had unnatural bulges under their jackets or in the backs of their jeans. Brienne saw a man with a distinctive beard lift a gun. Next to him stood another, seemingly unarmed man, as large as Brienne was but even broader, and heavy with fat as well as muscle, with deathly pale skin and a head like a bowling ball.

Shouts, screams, gunfire. Chaos in a bottle, a contained moment of eternity in which one lived or died by one’s senses and instincts and training, by how quickly a weapon could be raised and aimed, a trigger squeezed.

Those memories were the same ones as from every other raid in Brienne’s experience. But there were other, new, gut-wrenching moments being imprinted on her memory in rapid succession.

The sight of Jaime shooting one of the armed men: tap, tap, two to the center of mass, textbook perfect even at a distance of nearly twenty paces, with people swarming all around.

The sound of Jaime screaming.

And then the pain.

It wasn’t her pain, Brienne wasn’t the one being hurt, but she felt it nonetheless.

Brienne saw it happen with the blinding clarity of an adrenaline rush: saw Jaime shoot one of the armed men in the stomach, saw a huge, fat Dothraki and a smaller man with half a nose missing tackle Jaime from behind, his gun sliding away across the concrete floor with a rending screech. How did Brienne hear it over the cacophony? She did, though she was at least five yards away. She saw the men bring Jaime down, he struggled but he was no match for two of them. The Dothraki had a gun in his waistband, but he didn’t reach for it. Brienne saw him produce some sort of blade, a long, straight one like a chisel, swing his massive arm back, and bring the point of it down through Jaime’s right hand. The sharp tip went through flesh, sinew, and bone, and struck the concrete floor with a jarring thump. And Jaime screamed.

Brienne shot the Dothraki in the chest, twice, as she had been taught at the academy. If you can’t stop them any other way, you have to do it before they do for you. Her firearms instructor Sergeant Goodwin’s voice was clear as a bell in her head. She had a moment to wonder if he would have been proud to see Brienne finally take his advice and go for the center of mass rather than the shoulder or the leg.

The Dothraki collapsed, a hill of flesh gargling red, and Brienne shot the man with the mutilated nose the same way. He was twisting away, his side to Brienne, so her shots did not land as precisely. He was unarmed so far as she could see, but he was still holding on to Jaime’s arm and grasping after the chisel-like blade, within easy reach where the Dothraki had left it imbedded in Jaime’s hand, Jaime’s arm twitching convulsively yet seemingly unable to draw in, curl up, protect the injured hand.

The man with the mutilated nose went down without grasping the blade which had hurt Jaime. Then Brienne made a mistake. She lowered her weapon and took a step closer, for a better look at Jaime’s hand. She couldn’t see his face, his head was turned away from her.

So she did not see the huge pale man with the bowling-ball head come at her from the side. He wasn’t even in her blind spot, but so narrow was her focus on Jaime, he might as well have been.

He slammed Brienne against the wall with his full body weight. Pain lanced through Brienne’s ribs and up her back, all the breath forced out of her as though a grappling hook had dragged the air out of her lungs in one swift yank. She dropped her gun, she was certain of it, her hand gone numb in an instant after the man crunched her right arm between his bulk and her side.

Brienne slid down the wall, and the man was upon her, his weight pressing down on her stomach so she tasted the coppery tang of breathlessness in her throat, her body sending out panic flares. His sausage fingers went around her neck, and she saw that his face, looming over her like a fleshy nightmare, was distorted by a mouth filled with teeth sharpened to points.

Some prison gangs do that, Brienne thought absently, merely an observation. A mark of endurance. Her arms and legs were made of lead, her stomach felt like the Red Keep sat on it.

The hideous face lowered toward hers, and Brienne squeezed her eyes shut. I am dreaming. I am dreaming…

She did not feel sharp teeth sink into her flesh. She did not see anything. She only felt the man’s body, heavy, so heavy, twitch on top of her obscenely, the convulsion followed by a spray of sickeningly warm liquid across her face and neck. Then the man was tilting, toppling sideways, making Brienne’s left kidney feel like an iron fist was squeezing it to a pulp. Then his weight was off her, and she could breathe, though it hurt to do so.

Brienne opened her eyes to find a grizzled uniform with a scar over his left eye leaning over her, scowling and barking orders. At her. He was talking to her.

“Don’t lick your lips,” he said. “Don’t swallow. Paramedics are coming.”

Brienne glimpsed another uniform hovering by the older one’s shoulder, a very young man with dark hair and blue eyes. His gun was in his hand, and he wore the slack-jawed expression of dawning shock as he stared past Brienne at the pale man with the sharp teeth, sprawled gracelessly on his side like a felled ox, the back of his head a red cauliflower of exposed tissue and shattered bone.

“Jaime?” Brienne tried to ask, but it came out a tiny whisper. Her throat hurt. Everything hurt.

The grizzled policeman wiped her mouth and nose roughly with his sleeve, but his other hand was gentle as it cradled the back of Brienne’s head. “Don’t talk either,” he advised her. “You don’t want to get any of that one’s blood in you.”

Sounds were returning to full volume in Brienne’s head, so she knew even before two paramedics arrived and declared her one of the walking wounded that the raid was over. We won, she thought nonsensically as she was helped up to her feet and escorted out to the waiting ambulances.

Brienne gripped one of the paramedics by the arm. “I have to go with my partner,” she insisted.

The woman wrenched her arm out of Brienne’s grasp. “You’re all being taken to Blessed Baelor’s,” she said impatiently. “Now come on, get in.” She bundled Brienne into an ambulance next to a uniform bleeding profusely from a bullet graze to the temple, and they were off with a wail of sirens.

The same kind of barely organized chaos reigned in the emergency room as it always did at the precinct. Though police officers from the raid were given priority treatment, Brienne had enough time to gather her wits and get the short version of events from some of the other officers awaiting treatment. All the fatalities and most of the serious injuries had been sustained by the people found at the warehouse, but more than half a dozen police had been brought to the hospital as well. All in all, not the best conducted raid in history. At least they’d arrested everyone who’d been inside the warehouse, except for three men killed: the one Brienne learned had gone by the shiveringly apropos name Biter, the man Jaime had shot, and the Dothraki, who had been called Zollo. Whom Brienne had killed.

Brienne had never killed anyone before. She knew her conscience would eat at her later. At the moment, she was kept busy being in pain and itching for news of Jaime.

The blade had come down, and Jaime had screamed. Why the blade and not the gun? Brienne tried not to dwell on that. I could have gone for the shoulder. But I couldn’t take that risk. I wouldn’t. Not again.

Some X-rays and a visit from an attending later, Brienne was discharged with a verdict of two cracked ribs, contusions to the torso and neck, and a very nearly broken right arm.

“If your arm had got caught between you and the wall, it would have broken. It’s a good thing you wore your Kevlar. It absorbed some of the shock of impact to your ribcage,” the fresh-faced attending informed her, making her bulletproof vest sound like an airbag in a car. In truth, the experience had not been unlike a car crash, though vehicles did not usually aim to chew up someone’s face after they’d run a person over.

Brienne shuddered at the memory, then told herself not to shudder as that made her freshly bandaged ribs hurt even worse than they already did.

A harried nurse flatly refused to give Brienne any information about Jaime until Brienne said she was his partner. The woman’s expression suggested she had understood the word in the intimate rather than the police sense. Brienne let her, since it made the nurse grudgingly tell Brienne that Jaime had had emergency surgery on his hand and was in recovery. Brienne insisted on being allowed to see him. The nurse demurred. Brienne tamped down the certainty that this was not the right thing to do, and used her height, her face, and her scowl, as well as her badge, to get the nurse to relent, which she did with extreme ill grace.

Jaime was just waking from the anesthetic. The skin around his eyes was dark, his cheeks more hollow than they’d looked some three hours earlier, but his eyes were still very green, and his woozy smile when he saw Brienne sidle in, holding a hand to her aching ribs, was of an intensity which would have melted the Wall. His right hand lay on top of the covers, thickly bandaged, looking more like a block of white wood than a human limb.

“Thank goodness,” Jaime drawled, tripping over the words a bit. “You’re here to protect me. I think the matron fancies me. She upped my morphine dose so she could have her wicked way with me while I’m passed out.”

Brienne snorted, added any form of laughter to the list of things she should not be doing just then. “You’re being discharged. Is there anyone I can call for you?”

“Tyrion. No, wait. He’s in rehab.” This was news to Brienne. Jaime’s eyes were screwed shut with the effort of thinking. “Not my sister or my father. Just have them call me a cab.”

“Nonsense. I’ll take you home with me. You shouldn’t be alone right now.”

Jaime opened his eyes and smiled widely, almost but not quite his customary grin. “Not so loud, Legs,” he said in pretend shock. “People will talk.”

Arguing with him was a miracle cure: Brienne was feeling more clearheaded and focused by the moment. “Shut your doped-up mouth, Lannister. I’ll get one of the nurses to help you dress. Not,” she hastened to forestall the joke already curling his lips, “the matron, I promise.”

“Or you could help me.” She ignored this, was almost out the door. “Brienne.” He sounded much younger than his years. It stopped Brienne in her tracks to hear it.

Jaime brought his bandaged hand up to his chest when she looked back at him. “They told me what you did. Thank you.”

Brienne chewed her lip. “Is your hand going to be all right?”

Jaime glanced down at the bandages, snorted. “I should make a full recovery,” he said in a fair imitation of a surgeon’s brisk, impersonal tones. “I’ll just have a nice puckered hole right in the middle of my palm, probably need reconstructive surgery, almost definitely physical therapy.”

With their injuries, Lieutenant Bolton might pull them both off the Stark case. Brienne shook off that thought, feeling horribly selfish for even considering that Jaime should come back to work right away. He was the one more gravely injured, and he deserved time to recuperate. She left to fetch a nurse and arrange for a cab to take them back to her apartment.

Brienne held her apartment door open for Jaime, her ribs muttering balefully, two paper bags of pain medication in her other hand. His & Hers medicine, she thought wryly as she dropped the bags on the kitchen counter and turned to find Jaime sprawled on her couch, his head on the armrest, his bandaged hand cradled against his chest on the seat cushions.

“Get up.” He didn’t move, his eyes closed. “Jaime, get up. I just put fresh sheets on the bed this afternoon, you’ll be more comfortable there.”

“‘M comfy here,” he muttered, a child being told to get up for school on a Monday morning.

Brienne suppressed the urge to shake him. “You need to rest. You’ll take the bed, and I’ll sleep on the couch. Come on.”

Jaime opened one eye. “I’m not budging from this couch, Legs. Now sit down before your ribs fell you like a tree. Here.” He lifted himself to a nearly sitting position so half the couch was free. “I have something important to tell you.”

“It can wait.” Brienne was pondering whether she could lift and carry him with her ribs all busted up, and whether he’d let her without doing more damage to his hand.

“It’s about Aerys Targaryen.”

He’d fight her tooth and nail if she tried to carry him to the other room. Brienne told herself this was the only reason she chose to humor Jaime and sat down gingerly, discovering in the process that changing the position of her body was yet another thing her ribs did not enjoy much at the moment. She adamantly did not sit down because she was very tired, and yet wide awake with curiosity and the sense of something big about to happen in her tiny apartment.

No sooner was she sitting than Jaime went back to lying down, only he turned the other way so his thighs were snug against the armrest, and he laid his head in Brienne’s lap. Brienne considered lifting Jaime and commanding him to go sleep in the other room, but she was suddenly reluctant to touch him, didn’t even want to lean back lest her thighs shifted under his cheek. Jaime laid his bandaged hand on her knee, the sleeve of his sweatshirt encrusted with dried blood, and settled down comfortably, sighing like a dog at rest.

“Fire.” At first Brienne thought he might be delirious or talking in his sleep, for he remained silent for several long seconds after saying that one word. “Targaryen was obsessed with it. Wanted his underlings to call him ‘The Dragon,’ thought fire couldn’t touch him. He used it on others, but he was immune to it. Idiot.”

Jaime shifted on Brienne’s lap, so his nose and mouth rested against the dip of her inner thigh, just above her knee. Brienne sat very still.

“Was supposed to be a simple arrest. At long last, we had enough evidence to get him, maybe even make him turn Crown Witness, flip on his associates. Organized Crime needed him alive and more or less intact. Aerys wasn’t alone in his office that night. Several people were downstairs in the warehouse, and his wife was with him. He’d poured gasoline over them both, had her in an armlock, kept flicking a Zippo with his other hand, nattering about fire and rebirth. I shot him, right through the forehead. There was ammo and weapons in the warehouse, gas all over the office floor, furniture, my shoes. In hindsight, a spark from the muzzle could have done as well as that Zippo, but…” Jaime shook his head on Brienne’s thigh.

“Did you tell anyone?” she whispered, held her breath, terrified that he’d stop telling her all this if she interrupted the tortured flow of his remembrance.

Jaime chortled, a bitter, sleepy sound. “I did. Didn’t much want to, but the D.A. and Internal Affairs were very keen to know what happened. Rhaella, the wife, told them as well. Aerys used her as a punching bag, and worse. He’d doused her in gas and had his hand up her cunt when I walked in. He went for the Zippo, I went for my gun. The D.A. and the Commissioner were worried about a scandal damaging diplomatic ties to the Dragon’s Bay cities. Targaryen syndicate’s playground. Or what the press would say if it emerged they’d let the maniac run loose for years, even though his penchant for fire was well known, and then they sent a single plainclothes detective whose partner had drunk himself to death just a few weeks earlier to make a quiet arrest. It’s like they were hedging their bets in case something went wrong, so they could blame it all on me not being quite myself. Sometimes I think it was all a setup to damage my father’s reputation, but… No use thinking about it.” Even though he had obviously spent every waking moment since then thinking about it, however obliquely or unwillingly.

“So they sealed the file for thirty years and fed you to the press.” Brienne’s heart beat painfully at the injustice of it. She started stroking Jaime’s hair, a need to do something to ease the hurt. His hair was very soft under her trembling fingers.

Jaime sighed. “Kingslayer. Stupid name. Maybe if they’d called me ‘Dragonslayer’ it would have been different. She sent me a thank you card, you know. Rhaella. But I moved, so we didn’t become pen pals. Just as well.”

He was finally, unusually silent, and Brienne wondered what it must have been like for Jaime, being transferred to the Night’s Watch when everyone there, everyone he would ever meet, thought they knew all about him, and not being able to tell them the truth. Or not quite that. His pride wouldn’t allow it after he’d realized nobody cared what he had to say, that it would bring him nothing but more censure, when all he’d done was exercise his right and duty as a police officer, and save several people’s lives as well as his own.

“Feels nice,” Jaime murmured to Brienne’s thigh.

Brienne nearly stopped stroking his hair, but his breath was already whistling between his teeth and parted lips in sleep. She tried to ignore the weight of Jaime’s bandaged hand on her knee, the back of his head nearly pressed against the juncture of her legs, and stroked his hair rhythmically, soothing him as he slept, a lullaby of touch. This was definitely not the same thing as what Brienne had had with Renly, and though she was in no condition to ponder what it might be instead, the newborn certainty, the sheer awareness and promise of difference, filled her with equal parts relief and trepidation.

Not Kingslayer, Brienne whispered fervently in her mind, like she had used to do when she’d been a little girl and believed that if she wished her mother hadn’t died enough times and hard enough, it would come true. Not that. My partner. My partner Jaime. His name is Jaime.

Chapter Text

Friday, 6:00 a.m.

Brienne’s dreams were full of fire and blood, the screams of the dying and the succulent smell of frying meat. And Jaime, his eyes like wildfire and a smoking gun in his hand, a god or at least half of one among mortals, among the dying.

She woke with a crick in her neck from having slept on the couch, her head tipped back on the backrest, her ribs throbbing dully with every breath. Jaime’s head still rested in her lap, her hand having migrated from his hair to his side sometime in the night, his ribs moving with slow, deep breaths, his heart under her hand. It was just after dawn on the third day since Sansa Stark’s disappearance. The cardboard boxes littering the apartment, Jaime’s face and hair, and Brienne’s hands looked leeched of color in the thin, grey light of early morning.

Brienne squeezed Jaime’s arm gently, careful not to jostle his injured hand. “Jaime, wake up, it’s morning.” Her teeth had grown fur, and her gums were cotton wool.

Jaime muttered and sniffed, but eventually deigned to sit up, leaving Brienne’s thighs feeling oddly bereft. Brienne directed him to the bathroom, where an unused towel hung on the rack, navigated the mess of open moving boxes in search of her coffeepot and another mug while listening to Jaime splash water all over her bathroom, washing himself in the sink, one-handed.

They drank coffee standing in the kitchen. Jaime frowned over having to do everything with his left hand, carrying a heaping spoonful of sugar very carefully from the sugar bowl to his mug instead of taking two smaller spoonfuls, while Brienne shifted from foot to foot, testing which way of standing made her ribs hurt the least. She held her battered right arm close to her torso, and avoided looking Jaime in the eye.

She put her empty mug in the sink and was going to head to the bathroom for a wash when Jaime’s quiet voice stopped her. “What do you want to do?”

Brienne was transfixed by the open-ended question. Was he referring to what she now knew about his past or to their case or their injuries or or or…?

“How do you mean?”

He really shouldn’t have, but even injured, unshaven, sleep-rumpled, having used his left forefinger as a toothbrush, and with his hair in disarray, Jaime had a way of standing and moving and looking – looking at her – which unsettled Brienne deeply in a way not even Renly’s laughing blue eyes had used to do. She told herself she was in pain, muzzy with sleep and pain killers which hadn’t kicked in yet, still in shock over having killed someone and nearly getting her face chewed off the previous night, and that was why Jaime’s presence suddenly seemed to fill up her whole apartment, consume all the air, leaving her light-headed.

He rushed over here when he thought something had happened to me. He helped me when I was shaking with caffeine and fatigue, barely able to stand. He fell asleep on my lap. He is not the man I thought he was, and he’s not looking at me like I’m a joke or a burden. He trusts me.

He trusts me.

Jaime jerked his chin at Brienne’s midriff, the livid bruises on her throat. “You want to take a few days off to get better? Go see your father? Bolton will try and force me to go on sick leave anyway…”

“No.”

The tone of her voice shocked Brienne into momentary silence. She was horrified at herself for telling Jaime what he should do, when he was the one who’d nearly been maimed and wouldn’t be able to use his hand for anything, including defending himself, for a long time to come, but Jaime was looking at her with an open, expectant expression, with… Yes, it really was: trust.

Brienne swallowed the lump in her throat and soldiered on. “Today is the third day. We may be looking for a corpse already.”

She didn’t want to believe that, but she had to make herself say the words, make the possibility real. Something tangible she could face, not a demented specter riding her day and night, giggling madly and impossible to shake.

“Dead or alive, we have to find her. We need to go in, talk to that man Hoat, see what forensics have turned up at the warehouse. And if… if Bolton tries to force us to take leave, we have to fight him.”

The corner of Jaime’s lips lifted in a familiar smirk. “You hold him down, I’ll beat him with my good hand.”

He brandished his left fist like an amateur boxer, and Brienne laughed. The air in her kitchen felt simultaneously swept by a clean sea breeze and clogged with a smoky miasma.

Get a grip, Brienne.

Brienne excused herself to go wash and change, and escaped from the kitchen as quickly as her ribs would allow. Safe behind the locked bathroom door, she perched on the toilet cover, frowning at the puddles Jaime had left on the cracked floor tiles, and called her father at the hospital.

Selwyn Tarth sounded tired and cranky with embarrassment as he confirmed that some bloody kids had jumped him. He’d socked one of them in the jaw, kicked another in the balls, but they’d managed to take his wallet regardless. He was also confused because a Captain Westerling who was supposed to be visiting with Selwyn had called to ask about his condition, but he didn’t know any Westerlings.

Brienne bit her lip, torn between the childhood urge to confess and a new, deeply unfortunate urge to giggle. She opted for a noncommittal noise of shared confusion. Her father was being discharged and waiting for a taxi to take him home, and assured Brienne that all he had to deal with was a bandage on his forehead, a few days of boredom while resting at home, and his wounded pride. He asked how she was settling in, and Brienne said, choking back tears of relief and leaving out the part about her busted ribs, that she was working a big case, and getting along well with her unnamed new partner, and everything was fine.

“Hmm,” her father rumbled. “This time I almost believe you, honey.”

Jaime insisted on stopping at his apartment building so he could change out of his dirty, bloody clothes. He emerged, still pale and hollow-eyed yet looking more than half divine in one of his nice suits, with his hair combed and his self-confidence visibly returning. Brienne was absurdly grateful she’d chosen to wait in the cab.

When they got to the precinct, Brienne paid the driver while Jaime complained about having to go everywhere in their squad car while his own car sat in the parking garage, a sad, windowless wreck, as Jaime could not afford to pay Qyburn for all the necessary repairs at once. He seemed to begrudge that more than the damage done to his body, though Brienne suspected it was easier for him to vent about his precious car.

Jon Snow left the precinct after his shift just as they came up the stairs to the main entrance.

“What are you two doing here?” Jon asked, frowning at Jaime’s hand, Brienne’s slightly tilted posture. “Word around the campfire is you both got banged up bad last night.”

Jaime lifted his bandaged hand, grinned. “This? A mere scratch, I assure you. You didn’t happen to see Bolton around, did you?”

Jon shook his head. “The higher-ups are looking for someone to blame for how the raid went down. Captain Varys from Vice is looking at Bolton, Bolton is saying it was all Vice’s fault. They’ve been with the Commissioner for hours.”

Brienne breathed a mental sigh of relief – a real one might have hurt too much.

Jon dropped his voice conspiratorially. “Edmure Tully managed to get first dibs on a bunch of DVDs retrieved from the warehouse. I think he’s hoping to find his niece.” The young officer blanched under his stubble. “Not hoping. Shit. That’s not what I meant. Thinking he might find her.”

“The suspects from last night?” Brienne asked, to spare the lad embarrassment.

“Vice’s got them. They’re all lawyered up and not talking.”

Jaime thanked Jon with a grin and a clap on the shoulder with his good hand, and headed toward the main door of the precinct. Brienne lingered.

“Jon,” she began tentatively. “Um. Are you… seeing Ygritte?”

Round red spots appeared on Jon’s cheekbones, making him look like a curly-haired boy doll. He nodded curtly.

“Ygritte is nice, you know,” Brienne told him. “I would hate for there to be any… unpleasantness between you, so… You do know what she does for a living, right?”

The red spots grew, and spread, and colonized Jon’s entire cheeks. “Yes,” he muttered. “I know. I met her on her… patch, remember? It’s a lot to take in. We’re having dinner tonight.” He shrugged, a very young man still. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“Sounds good. Say hi to her for me.”

Jon offered Brienne a shy smile and, with a final nod, he left.

Brienne watched him leave. It’s a lot to take in. Tell me about it, she thought before she followed Jaime, negotiating the climb up the stairs like an obstacle course while her ribs complained. She hoped sincerely she wouldn’t have to chase any suspects for the next day or two. Even with her pain meds, sitting and walking were going to prove a challenge, let alone running.

“Oh, Detective Tarth!” Jon called out. Brienne turned at the top of the stairs. “Hyle Hunt from the archive is looking for you.”

Brienne waved in acknowledgement, concealing a grimace. She had managed to avoid seeing Hyle at the charity boxing match, had departed before his bout, as soon as she’d talked to Ygritte and left the redhead in Jon Snow’s blushing company. Avoid Bolton and Hyle, check. Whatever Hyle Hunt wanted, it could wait. Brienne suspected it was nothing but more of his japes about their shared history. Or her being partnered with Jaime. Neither of which Brienne felt like listening to.

She found Edmure Tully in a windowless room, more of a cubbyhole really, equipped with a DVD player, a TV, and a computer.

Edmure looked about as good as Brienne felt. He had dark circles around his eyes, he was furry with reddish stubble and pale around the lips. He wasn’t supposed to be involved in the case at all, Bolton had expressly forbidden it, but Brienne was not about to object to Tully reviewing the DVDs from the warehouse. She certainly did not have a burning desire to spend hours watching porn, be it snuff or ordinary. After their little chat two days ago, Edmure had seemed disinclined to make any more disparaging remarks about Jaime. So long as he did not try to muscle in on her and Jaime’s investigation, Brienne could accept his need to do something to help find Sansa, and be grateful for the help.

She knocked, leaned on the doorframe. “Anything useful?” she asked.

Edmure released a long breath. “No Sansa, thank the gods. Lots of faces which need identifying. Most of this stuff is plain porn, but some of it involves minors, and there are at least two snuff films in here, including the one with the Poole girl.”

“Anything to identify who’s financing it? Any company logos?”

Edmure shook his head resignedly. It had been too much to hope for that one of the films would be neatly labeled ‘Mockingbird Productions,’ but one clung to every hope.

Brienne considered Edmure, his slumped shoulders, his bloodshot eyes. “How are you holding up?”

“I’ll tell you,” he said slowly, rubbing his stubbly chin, watching the frozen image of a gangbang on the screen. “The first few hours, I kept thinking, ‘Wait just a little longer, the baby wakes every three hours or so, I can call Roslin and have her put him on the phone.’ And I did, I called her, and she put Hoster on the phone, and I thanked the Seven that I have a son, not a daughter. And then…”

He looked at Brienne with such haunted eyes, Brienne said it for him.

“Then you watched what they do to the boys.”

“Now I’m seriously considering homeschooling Hoster and never letting him leave the house, ever.”

Brienne gave him a sympathetic look. Edmure gestured at his neck, looking uncomfortable. It always amazed Brienne how people whose bodies were whole and intact and reasonably good to look at felt more embarrassed about someone else’s injuries or deformities than the owner of the wound or deformity felt in their own right.

“Do those hurt?”

In Brienne’s shoes, Jaime would have said something sarcastic in response, then Edmure would have called him ‘Kingslayer’ again, and things would have gone downhill fast.

Brienne merely shrugged. “Not as much as my ribs. Do you happen to know a young uniform, six feet tall, black hair, blue eyes? He participated in the raid last night.”

Edmure frowned. “Sounds like Gendry. Gendry Waters. Why do you ask?”

Brienne gestured at her neck. “He prevented the man who did this from doing much worse. With a bullet. The least I can do is find him and say thank you. Who knows, it might even help him when he has nightmares about it.” She wondered if Jaime’s thanks would help her when she inevitably dreamed about Zollo, about Biter, rather doubted it. Still, she needed to thank Officer Waters for saving her face, such as it was. And her life.

“I’ve never killed anyone on duty.” Edmure blushed. “Or off duty, of course. The worst I did was ruin a few kneecaps.”

Brienne smiled tightly. “I have. Last night. Killed one, put another in the ICU. It hasn’t really hit me yet. I’m not looking forward to when it does.”

“I heard they were armed…” Edmure trailed off until Brienne nodded, thinking about the long, thin blade, the gun the fat Dothraki had not used but had had tucked into his waistband: just enough of a technicality for Brienne to get a pass when Internal Affairs got around to interviewing her.

“And they hurt your partner. Right? They might have killed him.”

Brienne blinked. She had not expected compassion from Edmure, who by his own admission despised Jaime, then she felt ashamed. For all their differences of opinion and character, Edmure and Jaime were fellow police officers. Brienne was starting to realize one could get stuck on the Night’s Watch for all kinds of reasons, not all of which bespoke corruption, base cruelty or persistent incompetence.

She nodded in response to Edmure’s questioning look. Those men might not have outright killed Jaime, but it hadn’t been a chance Brienne could have taken. Not after Renly. She had taken a human life, and everyone who killed had their reasons. All Brienne could do was cling to her reason, and hope and pray it was the right one.

Someone touched her shoulder. She whipped around, ribs screaming, hand going instinctively for her gun, only to see Jaime grinning at her, holding up his hands in a placating gesture. Bronn Blackwater, whom Brienne had met briefly the previous night, stood beside him, his black hair greasy, a squint lending his face a permanent ironic cast. He hadn’t got so much as a scratch or a broken nail during the raid he had coordinated, which had put seven officers in the hospital, yet Brienne doubted Detective Blackwater would join them on the Night’s Watch because of it. His kind always managed to slither through, nothing stuck to them. He was a head shorter than Brienne, and smirked up at her with easy self-confidence and none of Jaime’s irritating charm.

“Well, blistering hells,” he said. “You look even taller in daylight. I like a tall woman.”

Jaime looked at Bronn like he would have enjoyed mopping the floor with his face. Edmure snickered behind Brienne. She made the hand hovering near her gun drop, loose by her side.

“Bronn here has graciously agreed to let us interview Vargo Hoat, who somehow evaded taking a bullet while he was shooting at us last night,” Jaime said with evident distaste.

“Ah.” Bronn raised a cautioning forefinger, still eyeing Brienne. “I said you could talk to him if I sit in on the interview.”

Jaime’s face and neck turned pink. “Without us, you wouldn’t have arrested him. You all would still be sitting around with your thumbs up your asses, while Hoat made his little home movies and more children died!”

“My collar, my suspect,” Bronn returned, cool as a cucumber, every bit as cool as Jaime was getting hot under the collar.

“All right!” Brienne cut in just as Jaime opened his mouth to retort. She was acutely aware that Sansa’s uncle was listening to every word. “You two can save the gorilla impersonations till after we’ve found Sansa Stark.”

Bronn sniffed, his mouth working like he would have liked to spit. “It’s been three days. Girl’s probably dead by now.”

Edmure was on his feet with a crash of overturned chair against worn linoleum. Only Brienne’s bulk blocking the doorway prevented him from lunging at Bronn, whom Jaime tugged out of the way by his sleeve, but only after he caught Brienne’s warning look, Jaime’s mouth twisting with frustration. While she calmed Edmure and assured him she and Jaime would get everything they could out of Hoat, Brienne pondered whom Jaime would have enjoyed seeing beaten and humiliated more: Edmure or Bronn. It was a tossup, she decided.

Brienne would have bet dragons to doughnuts that the beard she had seen on one of the men in the snuff film starring Jeyne Poole belonged to Vargo Hoat. The film had not shown his face, but glancing over the man’s bulk and beard as she took a seat across from him in the interview room, Brienne could have sworn it had been he. Sworn, and probably won the Circumstantial Evidence of the Year Award. Regardless, she was certain: Vargo Hoat had filmed himself having sex with an underage girl against her will, and then watched as the other man, the one with the dark hair, had strangled her.

Brienne could have sworn it, and even the worst public defender would have argued rightly that she had no evidence other than the strength of her conviction and the fact that Hoat wore his beard in the style of his native Qohor, as did many of his countrymen. The other man hadn’t been at the warehouse during the raid, so far as the police could tell – identifying him on the basis of how the back of his head looked would have been a stretch even if the net had yielded anyone fitting his general description. So Hoat and his beard were their best bet.

Vargo Hoat was distinguished also by a pronounced speech impediment, but he hadn’t spoken in the film except to grunt, and so they had nothing to tie him to Sansa’s disappearance unless they could make him talk.

Jaime sat beside Brienne, while Bronn took a chair against the far wall, arms crossed over his chest, watching the proceedings with a neutral eye.

Hoat’s eyes glimmered when he saw Jaime.

“I know you,” he crowed. “You’re the one they call the Kingthlayer! How ith that killer hand doing, Kingthlayer?” He laughed, spraying spittle over the table. Brienne resisted the urge to wipe the back of her hand where some of it landed on her pant leg, not wanting to give this man an edge. Jaime did not react to the taunt.

Brienne opened a folder, took out an image of Jeyne Poole between the two men, moments before the girl’s death. She pointed at the man with the beard. “That’s you, isn’t it, Mr. Hoat?” Brienne asked politely.

Hoat eyed her, took his time taking in her face, the bruises on her neck, the breadth of her shoulders. “Big bitch,” he said at last. “How d’you like the necklathe Biter gave you, bitch? He’d have made you even fucking uglier if he’d lived.” Hoat grinned. “Me, I’d have let you live for thure. Knock out all your teeth and uthe you from both endth. No one elthe. I’d do it jutht for me.”

Brienne’s stomach roiled, but she sat as still as a statue. She could feel Jaime tensing up beside her, nudged him with her knee under the table. He practically vibrated with tension for a long moment before he made himself relax. It was neither easy nor pleasant to be spoken to that way, but words were wind and mattered far less than the certainty that Vargo Hoat would be spending the foreseeable future behind bars. Even though Brienne knew he was fully capable of acting on his threats, if given the chance. Even though men like he positively thrived in prison, became kings and lords on the inside.

Hoat’s lawyer was advising him to refrain from comments which might be misconstrued to his detriment.

“Thut your thitting mouth!” the Qohorik spat all over his lawyer, whose eyeglasses showed signs of other recent sprayings. “I’ve been here all fucking night. Let them athk whatever they like. The Kingthlayer and hith bitch!” He laughed at the two detectives. “You have nothing on me.”

Jaime took over the interview. Was Hoat the bearded man in the film with Jeyne Poole? Who was the other man? Had he ever met Sansa Stark? Hoat made predictable comments about the uses he could find for her once he’d seen Sansa, dewy and innocent in her school picture. Did he know a Petyr Baelish? Had he ever heard of Mockingbird Productions? And so on and so forth. Hoat’s answers boiled down to ‘No comment.’ Although most were expressed as variations on ‘Bite me, Kingthlayer’ and ‘Thuck my cock, bitch.’ There was no point in trying good cop, bad cop with such a man. He would have sneered at good cop, and goaded bad cop, and given them nothing.

They had nothing. Nothing. Nothing. The word reverberated in Brienne’s head like the bells which heralded the deaths of kings. They gave up after an hour of futile back and forth, and left Hoat alone with his beleaguered lawyer. Bronn looked like he was itching to tell them he’d known they wouldn’t get anything out of Hoat, but refrained when Brienne shot him a look. They couldn’t even threaten Hoat with an accessory to murder charge, which wouldn’t have added more than a maximum three years to his sentence anyway, because Jeyne Poole’s body had not been found. Without a body or overwhelming forensic evidence, the D.A. would not move.

So it was all down to forensics. If Sansa had ever been inside Hoat’s warehouse, in which case she was almost certainly dead.

Brienne wanted another dose of her pain meds, knew she wasn’t supposed to take one for another three hours. She wanted to go to a gym, run on a treadmill, lift weights and use a punching bag, but her ribs hurt too much, and her arm was starting to hurt too as the meds wore off, washed away by stress and adrenaline. She wanted to curl up into a ball on a bed somewhere and sleep for a week.

There was no time. Nearly three full days had elapsed, and though they were most likely hunting for a frail, red-haired corpse, urgency continued to thrum in Brienne’s chest like a plucked violin string.

“That warehouse was full of evidence,” Jaime muttered as they stood in front of a large window overlooking the precinct parking lot, while detectives and uniformed police hurried past behind them. “Hairs, fibers, fluids. We just have to give forensics time.”

He did not say what they both knew: that sending Vargo Hoat away for assault with a deadly weapon, assault on a police officer, rape, and the making and distribution of pornographic material was good, but not the same thing as finding Sansa or even proving Hoat had had a hand in the death of Jeyne Poole, whose body was still missing.

“Pia is on the forensics team, isn’t she?” Brienne asked. Jaime nodded. “Do you think we can trust her?”

A look passed between them: could Pia be one of Baelish’s informants inside the investigation?

Jaime considered it. “I think so, yes. I’ve known Pia for years. I trust her.”

“We should ask her to send the results of all the DNA tests to us first, then to Vice.”

Jaime grinned, pulled out his cell phone to do just that. Brienne watched the daytime sky while he conferred with Pia. Gulls wheeled above the parking lot, knowing the sea was near, though Brienne couldn’t see it from her vantage point. She envied the birds their certainty.

Jaime shut his phone. “We should get out of here. We don’t want Bolton to catch us, and forensics will take a while longer.”

Brienne nodded, watching the seagulls. “Do you want to get something to eat?”

“We could do that. Or we could go back to my place.”

The words hung in the air, swelling and growing, until they resembled the distant echo of a clanging bell brought closer and closer on the wind. They started out small and inconsequential, and they grew until they became all Brienne could hear. There was no mistaking Jaime’s meaning even before she turned her head and looked at him.

Jaime was grinning at her, but the crinkles in the corners of his eyes were ones of nervousness.

“Come on, Legs,” he teased. “What else are you going to do? Go home to your explosion of cardboard boxes and clean your gun?”

“Don’t tease.” Brienne was shocked at how taut her voice sounded, uncertain of whether she was getting angry or about to burst into tears or something else entirely. “It’s not funny, and it’s not appropriate.”

Jaime’s smile dropped like a stone, his voice low and fervent. “I’m not teasing, Brienne. Come home with me.”

Brienne gripped the edge of the windowsill with her right hand. Her arm throbbed as she squeezed the hard plank. “Is this because of what you told me? You think you owe me a debt? Or you’re missing… her?”

“No!”

Jaime looked around, checking if anyone was looking over at his sudden outburst, then stepped closer, almost in Brienne’s personal space. She fought the urge to step back.

“No and no,” Jaime insisted, his eyes holding Brienne captive. “I’m asking because I want to. Say no if you don’t want to. Don’t say no because you think I’m that much of an asshole as to assume I could buy your silence or because you think I’m lonely. Or because it’s against departmental regulations.” Which it was, and they both knew it, and they both knew it was the least part of this thing growing, and growing, and eating up all the air between them.

Brienne managed to tear her eyes away from Jaime’s, looked down, looked out at the parking lot, the indifferent seagulls. Sansa Stark was nearly three days missing, and all they could do was wait for forensics. Brienne was torn up with resignation, anger, despair. None of it helped or mattered a whit. Couldn’t disguise a sharp throb of desire in her belly, which drowned out the ache in her ribs and arm and throat, and was not new. Recent, as her partnership with Jaime was recent, but not new.

None of it compelled her to say what she said.

“All right,” Brienne told the seagulls.

“All right, what?” Jaime’s tone was nearly sharp, nearly a challenge.

Brienne clenched her jaw and almost told him to forget it, stalked off to get a sandwich from the cafeteria and go over the Stark file one more time.

She looked back at Jaime’s clear green eyes, and realized with a feeling as of a lead weight dropping down her gullet that he really wasn’t joking or teasing or trying to prove a point.

“All right, let’s go to your place.”

Jaime exhaled, long and deep, and ran his good hand through his hair. Grinned with almost all of his usual ease and confidence. “All right, then.” The master wordsmith somewhat lost for words, for once.

They walked to the elevator side by side, not touching, looking to anyone who cared to notice like partners just stepping out for a bite to eat or a quick smoke.

Chapter Text

Friday, 1 p.m.

“Do you…?”

Brienne was driving because, even with all the good will in the world, Jaime couldn’t manage it with one hand – or so Brienne had claimed when she’d snatched the keys out of his left hand and yanked open the driver’s side door before Jaime could get to it. So he was stuck in the passenger seat, trying to figure out why Brienne liked looking out of the window so much when he drove. It did provide him with an excuse not to steal glances at her, which Jaime was annoyed to discover he rather wanted to do.

He hadn’t planned this. He hadn’t intended to ask Brienne back to his place the previous night, lying in her lap, telling her about Aerys while she’d stroked his hair, like a hero in a song taking a break from his busy questing schedule to seduce a maiden fair with his tragic backstory. Nor had Jaime planned it coming to work that morning or while restraining himself from telling that scum Vargo Hoat to watch his language. The invitation had simply tumbled out, yet once it was there, between them, Jaime realized he wouldn’t have retracted it even if he could have.

Now that Brienne had broken the silence in the car and stopped without finishing her sentence, he had a perfectly good reason to look at her.

Jaime wondered if she’d practiced keeping her mouth shut after an adolescence filled with blowjob jokes about her big, gaping mouth. If she’d learned to school her features into a blank expression when faced with recalcitrant witnesses and messy crime scenes. She still gaped sometimes. It made her look less intelligent than she was, but she wasn’t gaping now. She was tight-lipped and intent on downshifting carefully in the busy midday traffic, probably pondering that driving to a private residence for purposes of sex did not constitute proper authorized use of their unmarked police car.

“Do I…?”

Jaime stretched out the pronoun like taffy, making the syllable sound far more insinuating than it usually did. Brienne cut her eyes at him for a second, a cross between a sideways glance and an eye-roll, and upshifted as the light changed to green. Then swiftly downshifted again when the soccer mom in the SUV in front of them failed to peel off as quickly and smoothly as Brienne had anticipated. Jaime nearly snickered.

“Do you have protection at home?” Brienne kept her eyes on the soccer mom’s rear bumper, the sticker on it proclaiming confidently that in all things in life one should ask ‘What Would Azor Azai Do?’

“Why, Detective Tarth,” Jaime drawled, watched in delight as color rose up Brienne’s neck like mercury in a thermometer on a hot day. It felt almost as good as if he were teasing her and driving. “Do you mean to tell me you do not carry your own? I gained the distinct impression you were always prepared for all eventualities.”

Brienne’s nostrils flared but she kept her eyes on the road. “I do not leave home every morn… evening thinking the night might end in sex,” she said stiffly. “Before you ask, I am not on the Pill, and even if I were, I would be more concerned about disease than getting pregnant.”

“I’m clean as a whistle. I’ve only ever been with Cersei, and I gave blood more than a few times since then.”

It occurred to Jaime that volunteering such information might not be the best way to help Brienne relax. She was holding herself as though every part of her hurt, not just her ribs and neck and right arm.

Brienne did look at him then, the quickest glance, a slipstream of a look. “I’ve given blood too. And I’ve been with two men. Nothing worth telling, just… brief things. I was asking for both our sakes, not just mine.”

Jaime felt oddly, stupidly, absurdly touched by her concern. Also a bit curious and more jealous than he was entirely comfortable admitting, even to himself, at the thought of Brienne with other men. Even though neither of those men had been the dead Stormlands partner to whom she’d obviously been attached. Jaime was also a bit jealous to think Brienne wasn’t a virgin, which he’d wondered if she might be. Because of her face, at her age, when the world was full of men who’d stick their cocks into a bleeding wound if there was nothing else available?

Because she should have saved herself for wonderful, marvelous you, when you’ve done such a great job of choosing your partners with care in the past? Piss off, Lannister.

It was highly unusual for the little voice which had been Jaime’s guide in keeping his relationship with Cersei a secret to turn around and take that stance. Jaime nearly asked Brienne to tell him about the two men, and bit his tongue just in time. He was the weird one, who had not only used to fuck his own sister, but had never fucked anyone other than his sister. Brienne was the normal one, Jaime realized, for all her ugliness, her size and awkwardness. She was the one with the more socially acceptable set of experiences. The thought made Jaime laugh out loud.

They were approaching a red light. Brienne straightened up in her seat as she downshifted, her head held so high her hair brushed the car roof, her forearms rigid as she gripped the steering wheel, the pink in her cheeks shading to violent red. Lannister crimson, like the family company’s logo, Jaime thought with wry amusement as he reached over and touched the back of her right wrist with the fingertips of his left hand. Brienne squeezed the steering wheel convulsively, but Jaime didn’t take his fingers away. She’s warm. He shivered in wonderment at the feel of her skin.

“I’m not laughing at you, Brienne,” he said gently, though he still wanted to laugh. “I’m laughing at us having this conversation, and me spilling my guts like this. I assure you it is not something I tend to do with just anyone. Take the next left, there’s a pharmacy three blocks down.”

Brienne insisted on going into the pharmacy with him. Psyching herself up, though she still held her shoulders and arms like they were the sharp, square edges of a rectangle, and blushed while Jaime blithely requested a packet of condoms.

“Ribbed?” the young, pretty pharmacist asked with professional crispness.

Jaime grinned. It would have been so easy to wind Brienne up with that opening, but he took pity and said, “Plain is fine, thank you,” with the merest hint of insinuation.

The pharmacist glanced at Brienne, so Brienne was compelled to tear her eyes away from an unusually interesting display of orthopedic shoe inserts, and glance back. Jaime’s experience in such matters was somewhat limited, but he was fairly certain the look the pharmacist gave Brienne was what they called a ‘You go, girl!’ look.

Brienne blushed even more furiously as the pharmacist turned away to fetch the condoms.

Jaime reached up and brushed Brienne’s cheek with his left hand. She jerked away from his touch and turned on him, almost rearing up to fight, hands squeezed into fists by her sides. Had she been a cobra, she’d have spread her hood and showed him the iridescent pattern there. Brienne’s eyes blazed at him so Jaime nearly gaped himself, overawed by how blue they were.

He wanted to step back and placate her. Instead he stepped right up to Brienne, cupped her flushed cheek in his hand, and kissed her, just a brush of his lips on hers, which were squeezed tightly in anger and embarrassment. Jaime had to tilt his head up to kiss her, nearly went up on tiptoe to gain some advantage of height. The sensation was so unusual it sent a thrill of discovery through him. He kept his lips on Brienne’s till he’d counted one Smoking Sea, two Smoking Sea, three Smoking Sea, then he stepped back and looked at Brienne, his hand still on her cheek.

Fucked? Hells, he’d never even kissed anyone other than Cersei before.

Brienne’s eyes had drifted shut during those three long seconds. She blinked them open, and they were still blazing, but pearlescent, almost as though she were about to cry, except she wasn’t. She looked at Jaime like she would ask him where they were, and licked her lips, her face red and pink and freckly.

Jaime inhaled between his teeth, started to slide his hand to the back of Brienne’s neck, to bring her closer again for a proper, wet, Lyseni kiss, when the pharmacist cleared her throat and asked for his money.

Brienne and he broke apart, sporting matching expressions of thwarted desire, or so Jaime thought. His face certainly felt the way Brienne’s looked, though not as red. He paid, and they drove the rest of the way to his place saying nothing except when he told Brienne where to turn and Brienne grunted in response.

Jaime was fumbling his keys out of his pocket when a thought struck him. He glanced back at Brienne standing quiet, tall, and still behind him.

“By the by,” he said, “you’re not allergic to cats, are you?”

She frowned, shook her head. A good thing too: Jaime would not have wanted to risk either of them losing their nerve, or the mood tentatively growing between them vanishing while they looked for a hotel or drove to Brienne’s place, with its freshly made bed, small couch, and wilderness of haphazardly stacked moving boxes.

Jaime’s hand trembled a little as he fit his key into the lock. He had never brought anyone to his home like this before. At least the territory was one he knew.

Honor appeared in Jaime’s tiny hallway while he was closing the door. She ignored Jaime completely, came straight up to Brienne, arching her back and rubbing herself on Brienne’s calves, purring as loudly as an engine in need of oil.

Brienne’s face lit up. She squatted with a soft, pained grunt and petted Honor, drawing her large hand lightly down the cat’s back, playing Honor’s striped tail between her fingers. The cat purred more loudly, yellow eyes slit with pleasure.

“Honor, you traitorous little bitch,” Jaime exclaimed. The cat sniffed at him, stalked off with her tail held high.

“Honestly,” Jaime complained to Brienne as he shook his right arm to make his jacket sleeve slide past the mass of bandages. “I feed her, I pet her, and at the first opportunity she turns her back on me.”

Brienne looked at him as though he’d gone simple all of a sudden. “She’s not abandoning you, Jaime. She is adding me to her collection of humans. Claiming me as hers, her territory.”

“Really?” Apparently he knew as much about cats as he did about women.

“Yes, really. If she were a tom, she might have peed on me to mark me.”

Jaime was startled into laughter, not only by the mental image, but by proper Brienne having conjured it up. Brienne smiled back, ducking her head like a very young girl, showing her prominent teeth shyly.

Jaime gradually stopped laughing, bit his lower lip, and smiled a slow smile which sent another gratifying rush of blood to Brienne’s face.

“Shall we decamp to the bedroom, m’lady?” he murmured.

Brienne squared her shoulders and jutted out her lower lip stubbornly. Jaime wanted to suck on it till she shivered and leaned all of her weight on him. After the kiss at the pharmacy, he was certain Brienne’s reluctance was mostly for protection, of her heart and fragile self-esteem.

“I’ve seen her pictures,” Brienne said in a clipped tone. “If all you want is a woman who doesn’t look like Cersei, the Seven Kingdoms are full of women who fit that description.”

Jaime kept smiling, though he really wished to grab her and show her just what he wanted. “You know what, Legs, you’re absolutely right. I spent the last five years sleeping with my right hand because I couldn’t find a woman who was the opposite of Cersei in every way.” Maybe you did, the little voice whispered. Jaime ignored it. “Don’t tell me you’re afraid.”

Brienne bristled. It made her look even taller. “I’m no coward!”

Jaime tipped his head back, showing her his throat and smiling, smiling. And Brienne came to him, put her big hands on his shoulders and kissed him, a press of mulishly closed lips, his challenge answered, a gauntlet picked up. Except Jaime was done playing, already feeling the beginnings of constraint in his smallclothes. He licked Brienne’s lips, and she let him in at once, only a polite knock required. Her lips were thicker than Cersei’s, Jaime realized with a jolt of pleasure. Her teeth were also bigger. That didn’t stop Jaime from wanting to grind into her like a horny teenager, right there in his hallway.

He reached carefully behind Brienne, folded his left arm around her waist, under her bruised ribs, then reached up to cup the back of her neck and deepen the kiss.

And hit her on the ear with his bandaged hand, nearly twice its normal size, a soft white club.

Brienne winced as they broke apart. Jaime swore. His hand was a constant throbbing nuisance, the worst of the pain held at bay by medication. Nerves fired, injured flesh screamed, lancing him right through, his clumsiness and having forgotten his dominant hand was useless worse by far than the pain itself.

“This bloody thing!” He glared at his hand.

Brienne’s hand closed over the mass of bandages and flesh, almost hiding half of it from sight. Jaime looked up from her hand clasping his and saw her eyes, guileless and clear. His breath escaped him in a rush.

“I am glad you’re nothing like her, you know.”

Brienne stiffened in his arms, mortification and anger writ large across her broad, plain face. Jaime tightened his arm around her waist to keep her from slamming away from him.

“It’s a good thing, Brienne,” he soothed. “You wouldn’t want to be like her. I know I’m nobody’s bargain.”

Brienne relaxed fractionally, rolled her magnificent eyes at him. “You have some issues. But you’d be a catch if you were old, bald, fat, and toothless,” she said in a strangely rueful voice. “And you know it.”

Jaime just looked at her.

“Oh.” Her voice was very soft, her eyes intent on his face. “Maybe you don’t know it.”

She kissed him, just like that, with no fumbling or blushing. Jaime was all set to snarl that her pity was not required, only her cunt, or something equally cutting, but then he realized why he hadn’t recognized what Brienne was about. She wasn’t pitying him, blind fool in need of it though he was. She was being kind. She was being tender. So big, so heavy and ugly and strong, and yet she was being tender with him. Not wrong about everything, then. She really is nothing like Cersei.

Jaime did have to go up on tiptoe before he could wrap his right arm around Brienne’s neck, keeping his bandaged hand out of the way. He pulled Brienne as close as he could, his chest brushing the swell of tiny breasts under her jacket and shirt, the feel of his cock pressing against her making her moan into his mouth, first in surprise, then in pure, pristine, dew-moist desire.

Neither wanted to move and break their embrace a third time. Jaime attempted a sideways shuffle, vaguely intending to pull Brienne toward his bedroom without ceasing to kiss her. Ever practical, Brienne pulled away, her mouth kissed red and twisted with skepticism at the failed maneuver. She took Jaime by his right wrist, her fingers warm and pleasantly damp on his bare skin above the bandages, and let him tow her into the bedroom.

Undressing proved more of a challenge than Jaime had anticipated. It pained Brienne to lift her arms high above her head. Though she insisted she could do it, Jaime sat her down on the bed and pulled her shirt off over her head. Brienne’s hands lingered in the air by his waist like large, freckly hummingbirds until Jaime nodded his encouragement. Then she undid his trousers for him and pulled them down, resolutely not looking at his very obvious arousal inches from her face.

Jaime grinned in eager anticipation to see Brienne like this, still shy yet determined as she undid the clasp on her bra. She winced at having to reach back and do so, and sat staring at him in terrified defiance while he took in the sight of her chiseled stomach and thick waist, her broad muscular shoulders and thick neck – big as a man’s yet obviously not a man’s – festooned with bruises, her right arm black and blue, her ribs wrapped in bandages, more bruises spilling from underneath. Brienne’s blush made the freckles swirling down her neck and chest stand out, sending a steady, pulsing beat of desire through Jaime. He stood over her, cupped her cheek in his hand, and just watched her for a long moment while she looked back up at him, rigid and vulnerable and wanting, as she had been at the pharmacy.

Nothing like Cersei, Jaime thought one last time, and his heart thumped, and his cock throbbed, and he could almost hear his blood singing to have her, her, Brienne.

Her breasts were buds with pink nipples Jaime remembered from the river. She forgot to be shy and moaned very loudly while he sucked on them, kneeling on the floor between her legs, his arms around her waist, the softness and smell of her skin going straight to his lizard brain. Brienne kept running her fingers down his back and through his hair, wanting to tug and pull but not doing it, still so gentle.

Jaime broke off sucking only to get the rest of their clothes off, then he crawled over Brienne so she had to lie back or they’d have collided, forehead to forehead. He smiled when he caught Brienne glancing down his body, looking relieved to find – contrary to what he’d told that girl at the club – that he was not, in fact, shaved smooth.

It hurt too much for Brienne to lie on her back with Jaime’s weight on her, so they rolled over, getting entangled in their own legs like a pair of kittens, sending jolts of pain up Jaime’s arm whenever his hand got jostled, which he ignored with an effort of will and the ease of arousal. Jaime kept swooping in for a kiss, and Brienne laughed and reciprocated. Jaime found he didn’t want her to stop laughing, her flushed face and horsey teeth and sparkling eyes going to his head and making him giddy, so he endeavored as best he could with only one functioning hand to grab her, and tickle her, and kiss her, again and again. They bumped noses, caught lips on teeth, and tried to find a good position.

Brienne ended up on her elbows and knees with Jaime on his back under her, eating her with his eyes. Her body had presence, there was no denying its mass, all those muscles and softer flesh, all that freckly skin heating up under Jaime’s touch. He traced the length of her torso with his hand, and Brienne shivered over him. Her breaths were coming shallow and fast, her rib cage moving quickly yet seemingly not in pain. Brienne’s eyes closed, her mouth opened on a silent moan when Jaime ran his thumb over her nipple.

Brienne assured him her ribs didn’t hurt much like this, with her torso in the air, even though she was also putting weight on her bruised arm. Jaime wriggled down the mattress, Brienne’s limbs a warm picket around him, under her questioning gaze. He wanted inside her now, but he remembered to be considerate, so he took his time licking her, on his back with Brienne hovering over him, her voice gone half an octave higher than normal and uttering only monosyllables.

She was as hairy as Jaime remembered glimpsing at the river, and as loud as she’d been in his dream, even if she tasted nothing like in the dream. Jaime didn’t care about the discrepancy, he liked it all. If his nearly a day’s worth of stubble was scratching her, she didn’t let on. Brienne did not demand: she panted, and wanted, and waited for him. So Jaime explored, teased, trying things he already knew, discovering others from how Brienne twitched, and sighed, and melted into his mouth. Jaime got a crick in his neck and didn’t mind a bit, feeling covered and pleasantly overwhelmed, the long, corded muscles of Brienne’s thighs softening under his hand to a swell of generous buttocks.

In a blazing moment, Jaime saw himself get up on his knees and take Brienne from behind. She wouldn’t even have to look for a different position which wouldn’t cause her pain, her wide hips, heavy thighs and buttocks slapping against Jaime’s starved flesh while he made her moan, this big, muscular woman whose closeness and taste would undo him before long. Jaime slid his good hand down her lower back, her generous flesh, to where his mouth was pleasantly occupied, and slipped two fingers inside her. Brienne clenched, keening, rocking back against his mouth and hand, and gods, if his other hand hadn’t been fucked seven ways to Essos he’d have grabbed himself and come in two strokes right then and there. But it was Brienne who came with a high-pitched cry, a young woman’s voice crying out Jaime’s name, just his name. She nearly smothered him when she collapsed, the soft skin of her inner thigh, slick with sweat, covered Jaime’s nose and mouth.

Brienne remembered herself and lifted off him, twisted her body awkwardly to look at him, down between her legs. Jaime didn’t believe in the gods, but he couldn’t help wondering which one in their infinite wisdom had given her those eyes, really it wasn’t fair on the rest of the world that anybody should have such beautiful eyes.

He wriggled some more till he was mostly out from under her, and could press his aching cock against her leg.

“Brienne, please, I’m dying here,” Jaime panted, grinding. He could have taken her as he’d imagined, as she no doubt expected him to and wouldn’t have minded if he did, but he wanted to be able to see her face.

Brienne flinched, moved around on her elbows and knees, until she was sitting on her heels beside Jaime and could reach for him.

“Don’t even joke about that,” she muttered, and Jaime was back at the warehouse, the weight of the men holding him down, the blade crunching through his hand.

He only thought of that for a moment. Brienne’s hand was warm and large, larger than his, and stroked him slowly, so gently. Brienne’s eyes kept darting between Jaime’s face and his cock. She lowered herself gingerly till she was reclining beside him, propped up on her elbow, her body flush with Jaime’s. She watched Jaime closely and adjusted her strokes to how his breath hitched, how he rocked up into her hand, and it felt better than his hand, better than anything he’d felt in years, maybe ever?

Sentimental fool.

Brienne chewed her lip in concentration. Without letting him go, slowly she lifted herself back to a half crouch, so she could touch Jaime with her free hand, hesitant at first, then bolder. She trailed her palm over his chest, down his side to his waist, her fingers big and light, pausing to circle the odd scar or mole, to whisper over the sharp jut of hipbone.

Jaime stretched, undecided between hugging Brienne closer or trying to touch her everywhere at once, his left hand roaming her in jerky indecision. He moaned as he imagined Brienne’s mouth kissing and gently sucking everywhere she touched on his stomach and chest. He focused on Brienne’s other hand, her hand drawing him out, all her muscle and skin and hair so close, so close to him.

Jaime watched Brienne bite her lip and wanted to roll over, and kiss her, and draw her head down to his lap, but also keep kissing her. He nearly surged up to grab her and try to do all of these things at once, then he was surging for a whole other reason.

Brienne breathed his name in oddly innocent wonder, bent down with a wince of protesting ribs, and silenced herself by kissing Jaime’s throat as he came, her breath wonderfully warm on the underside of his chin. Brienne held him like a wounded bird after he was done, and laid him down tenderly, and sat back against the headboard while Jaime lay in a sweet stupor, feeling as light as when they’d put him under at the hospital. He had just enough presence of mind to reflect wryly that Brienne had remained too shy to kiss him till he could no longer watch her, till her name had been torn from him in a gasp. She would kiss him with no shame or bashfulness as soon as he recovered – Jaime would make certain of that.

Jaime opened his eyes from what felt like the lightest of dozes to find Brienne half dressed, pulling on her shirt awkwardly, trying not to move her arms or torso too much. She froze when she turned and saw Jaime watching her.

“I’ll find a cab,” she blurted out. “We should get back, but best not together.”

“Hmm,” Jaime returned. “Yes. Cops and fishwives. Same thing.”

“Yes.”

Brienne stood there, watching him, her hands twitching nervously by her sides. Jaime flung his bandaged hand above his head and returned her wavering look unflinchingly. Scratched his lower belly idly with his left hand, nearly scratching the hair there. Watched her eyes follow the gesture, dart away.

Coward. He wanted to fling the word at Brienne like a brick, said nothing when she threw him a ‘See you at the precinct’ over her shoulder and fled, a quiet snick of the lock confirming her departure. The pain in Jaime’s right hand had ebbed with the endorphins and adrenaline which had coursed through him. It rushed back now like foam on a breaking wave.

“Fuck!” Jaime exploded, surging up, his stomach a cold, sticky mess.

He thumped his pillow angrily and settled back, telling himself it didn’t matter, stupid bloody big bitch, but Brienne’s scent was thick in his nostrils, the taste of her, the feel of her nipples hardening in his mouth wouldn’t leave him in peace. He had enjoyed himself more than he would have dared imagine. Brienne had enjoyed herself too, Jaime was certain of it, yet she’d left him.

Just like Cersei, on those few occasions when she’d condescended to come to him. If they’d gone to Brienne’s apartment, would she have bundled Jaime out the door with half his clothes still in his arms as soon as she was done? Or would she have given him a chance to actually open the box of condoms, still in the pocket of his trousers where he’d dropped them on the bedroom floor?

In Brienne’s place, Cersei would have wrenched an orgasm out of him, delighting in her power over him, and always in a hurry, always afraid though she’d feigned courage. Cersei hadn’t even waited for Jaime to come sometimes. She had certainly never taken the trouble to stroke him as slowly and carefully – as caringly – or to let him take his time and just enjoy his attentive explorations of her, as Brienne had done.

Jaime was in no mood for fairness. He rolled over, his back to the door through which Brienne had vanished, thinking he might sleep for half an hour before he went back to the precinct, but the sheets were drenched in Brienne’s scents, and his cock was getting hard again.

Jaime raged against his own wakefulness, raged for sleep, but it was no use. Rather than imagine himself fucking Brienne with all that rage inside him, he got up to take another ice-cold shower and change into clean clothes so he could return to work.

At the last moment he switched direction and went into the kitchen, cursing up a storm and scaring Honor on the way, to find a plastic bag to wrap around his bandaged hand, even his righteous anger rendered absurd by his injury.

Chapter Text

Friday, 5 p.m.

Brienne walked through the main door of the precinct, holding herself very stiffly due to her ribs, but not all of her sense that everyone could see something was different about her was due to her injuries. Her bruised right arm hurt because she’d put her weight on it while kneeling on Jaime’s bed. Beard burn from his stubble itched on her face and inner thighs. She kept reaching up to rub her chin and mouth, and commanding herself sternly to put her hand down. There was a pleasant residual throb between her legs, so she knew she would swell again if she just stopped and let herself think about him.

Jaime.

Her partner.

Brienne knew that sex could simply be something to get out of the way when a woman was partnered with a man, especially a man who wasn’t like Renly in that respect. But Brienne had never had to think about such things before – in Highgarden her unit had worked as a team instead of pairing off, and with Renly… Brienne had had a crush on him in the beginning, and hadn’t believed he’d ever have gone for her either way. Then the crush had waned, morphed into what she had believed was true friendship. By the time she’d found out the truth, it had been a relief, in a way, to know Renly would never betray her trust by putting the moves on her. Even if he’d never trusted her completely, not so as to tell her the truth about himself, instead of letting her stumble across it like a fool.

Brienne gave in and rubbed her itching chin and mouth, certain that despite washing her hands twice she could still smell Jaime on her fingers.

She was still looking for excuses. Jaime Lannister had many faults, but bed-hopping was not one of them. Whatever this was, his asking her back to his place, her saying yes – whether a momentary, sincere impulse or some deeper, stronger desire which would only complicate their partnership – Brienne scolded herself for trying to write it off as the consequence of their both being tired and on pain meds, or just something to do between a man and a woman. Or both of them being too stubborn to back down from an act neither had truly wanted. Or an itch they had both needed to scratch.

Brienne had lost her virginity to a fellow student in one of her classes at Tarth Community College her senior year. He had come over to her house to study for finals, they’d had a few beers, he’d offered, she’d said yes, both of them aware that she was moving to Highgarden and entering the police academy there in barely a month’s time. For Brienne, it had been simply a physical feat to accomplish before leaving home, like a pole vault. A vestige of her childhood she had needed to shuck before she left her father’s house. She’d also briefly gone out with a man she’d met while working as a uniform in Highgarden, but after an unsatisfactory night in a cheap hotel she’d never returned his calls (one call, he hadn’t bothered with more, much to her relief and annoyance) or seen him again. Then the bet had happened, and Brienne had lost all interest in anything sensual for a long time. Even once she’d started thinking about it again, she hadn’t wanted to deal with anything more than what she could accomplish with her own fingers.

A part of her – the part which had learned to expect nothing good from men’s interest in her, no commitment, respect or genuine desire even from those with whom she did get naked – urged Brienne to consider the myriad ways in which someone like Jaime Lannister could do better than her. To act like nothing had happened, and just focus on finding Sansa Stark and being Jaime’s partner.

Another, bigger, increasingly louder part of her told her not to be a willful idiot. That Jaime was the only person less likely than Brienne herself to just want to rub up against the first warm body available, and if there was one thing he understood, it was making complicated choices and sticking by them.

Brienne had remained somewhat apart from it all, even while they’d touched and shuddered and sighed, observing and taking note from the back of her own mind, expecting at any moment for Jaime to laugh at her or push her away or say something cruel and mocking. And every time he hadn’t, she’d swooped back into her flesh, fully present in the moment, full of dizzying relief and renewed desire, only to be yanked out again by another stab of that terrible anticipation.

Brienne felt wracked by guilt over how she’d left Jaime as well as a small, mean jealousy at the thought of his beautiful sister and Brienne’s own ugliness. Despite how Jaime’s tongue had felt on her, how she would have been happy just to kiss him and maybe have him pay some more attention to her breasts. How his head had been thrown back and his long, beautiful throat exposed, and Brienne’s name in his mouth had trailed away into a long, long sigh when she’d stroked him to his fill. Brienne had kissed his throat because she hadn’t dared to kiss his lips. She had wanted him inside her so badly, as badly as she’d wanted just to lie beside Jaime and have him look at her after he came back to himself, look at her with that clarity and uncomplicated desire she’d seen on his face when she’d taken off her bra and braced herself for laughter, for cruelty. But while Jaime had dozed, she’d let her lifetime of fears and self-loathing assail her and drive her away, back into her clothes and backing away from him, a sneak, a cheat.

Jaime would be furious with her. He’d been furious then, lying on his bed, watching her like a thief caught red-handed. Brienne did not wish to make herself small and weak, but she deserved his anger. She could only hope he accepted her apology, which was the least she owed him, whether he ever wanted to touch her again or not. Whether he even wanted to remain her partner.

Brienne bit her lip painfully at the thought that he mightn’t as she approached the front desk. She inquired after Officer Gendry Waters, and was told he was one of Sergeant Dondarrion’s newbies, and would be in later for his shift. Dondarrion must have been the grizzled uniform with the scar over his eye who’d wiped her mouth clean of blood. Brienne thanked the desk sergeant for his help, took the elevator up to the Night’s Watch’s squad room.

The room swarmed with dayshift detectives, and the desk Brienne and Jaime used was not available. Brienne was going to retreat to the break room with the Stark file and go over her timeline once again while checking her phone every two minutes in case Pia called, darting fearful glances at the door in anticipation of Jaime coming back to work, when a large detective with a face as florid as a red rose, whose name Flowers fit him to a T, hailed her from his (their, Brienne thought mulishly) desk.

“You Brienne Tarth? Mail for you.”

He sounded grumpy, like it bothered him that the Night’s Watch dared to make use of the desk. Brienne thanked him politely, took the small package and the slim white envelope he handed her to the break room.

The package had been hand-delivered. Brienne was puzzled: she’d been in King’s Landing for less than a week, and if her father had sent her anything he would have used the Royal Mail. She was just about to open the package and solve the mystery when the return address on the envelope snagged her attention: internal mail from the Commissioner’s office.

Brienne held the envelope by the edges with a mounting, unreasonable feeling of dread, then tore it open like ripping a bandage off a wound, and drew out a single sheet of paper, neatly typed by some office assistant, stamped with the Commissioner’s signature. The letter offered Brienne a transfer back to the dayshift, to the Missing Persons Unit. In view of the dedication she had shown on the Stark case, etc. etc. If she accepted, the transfer was effective immediately.

There was no mention of Jaime in the letter or of Brienne being allowed to wrap up the Stark case before accepting the transfer. Brienne would have known right away this was a ploy to break up their partnership and bury the case, even had she somehow missed the small fact that disgraced detectives with under a week in a new precinct under their belt simply were not offered such cushy opportunities. Nothing was ever that easy, and nobody came back from the Night’s Watch. Nobody.

For one shameful moment, hope surged through Brienne, a foaming wave. She could get out, return to working in daylight, working in a respectable unit.

The moment ebbed and was swallowed up by desert sand even before Brienne could muster the desire to push it away, beat the temptation back. This was no long-delayed reward for her hard work or stroke of good fortune – this was a trick. Petyr Baelish must have had eyes and ears on the force, and enough leverage to have the case swept under the carpet and forgotten, while Brienne was given a reward she did not deserve, and Jaime was left to languish on the Night’s Watch, which he did not deserve.

Brienne nearly crumpled up the letter, changed her mind and folded it up neatly on the coffee-stained Formica table, and put it back in its envelope, which she slipped into an evidence bag. Better safe than sorry.

His glare snagged her attention.

Jaime had snuck up on her unnoticed, so focused had she been on pondering the implications of that letter. She hadn’t seen or heard him where he leaned against the break room door, freshly showered and neat in a suit she had not seen before, his hair brushed and gleaming under the halogen lights, his unshaven face showing no hint of what had happened between them that afternoon. No hint other than the icy look in his eyes as he took in Brienne sitting on a flimsy folding chair, wearing the same clothes as before, her skin itchy with the sense memory of his stubble, her breasts and thighs wanting him, wanting him even as he glared at her, an ugly, peppery smirk twisting his mouth.

Brienne stood, held up the letter in the evidence bag. “New development,” she said, more briskly than she felt. “Come on.”

She made sure not to touch Jaime in passing, strode to the tiny room where Edmure Tully had reviewed the porn films found in Vargo Hoat’s warehouse. The room had no windows, and was relatively soundproof, and mercifully empty.

Brienne waited, her tense back to the door until she heard it snick shut, turned to find Jaime had followed her, soundless as a cat. He leaned back against the door, arms crossed over his chest, and watched her, his silence a rime of frost around the edges of Brienne’s being.

Brienne laid the letter down on the table next to the DVD player. “I’m sorry.”

The words came out quiet, felt like they were bursting out of her chest, a flight of swallows taking off in a panicked flurry of fragile wings and tiny beaks. Jaime’s mouth tightened in fury, and Brienne hastened to explain.

“I shouldn’t have left like that. I… I wanted to stay. I wanted to wait for you to wake up… But I got scared. So I ran away. I’m sorry.”

Jaime kept watching her. Slowly, so slowly it was like observing climate change happen, centuries of ice melting and trickling off the Wall, his expression shifted and softened, just a little.

“Oh hells, Brienne.” His voice went straight to Brienne’s stomach, rueful and tired and wryly amused in that way she had come to associate with him. “You take on three armed men barehanded and in your smallclothes, yet you get scared of me, all naked and helpless in the afterglow? Are we five years old, really?”

Brienne had been drowning inside. Now that his words buoyed her back to the surface even as her panic still choked her, some of that excess water had to come out of her eyes, her nose.

“Yes,” she sniffled, wiped snot away with the ball of her hand. “I think I might be.”

Brienne couldn’t stand to meet Jaime’s eyes, hated how she sounded, like a little girl, and how she couldn’t not say what came out of her mouth next, her eyes screwed shut, her fist pressed to her lips and teeth, muffling but not stopping the words. “Please don’t hate me. Please don’t ask for someone else to be your partner.”

She felt the chill which came off Jaime – a sudden, early-spring frost, destroying tender sprouts before they could leaf and flower – even before he spoke, his words cold as winter, thin as acid. “Is that what’s worrying you, Legs? That I’ll get someone else to work your precious case with me?”

Brienne did look at him then, Jaime’s angry visage wavering before her watering eyes. She dropped her fist down by her side, clutching herself together in it.

“I’m worried you’ll get someone else so you never have to speak to me again, and I’m worried you’ll regret asking me back to your place. And you shouldn’t. Because…” She bowed her head so two fat teardrops exploded on the tips of her shoes. “Because I liked it. I really liked… everything,” Brienne whispered, miserable and full of pointless desire and certain that now he would laugh at her, now he would tell her she was an ugly idiot and had better stay out of his sight in the future.

A hand swathed in so many bandages it looked like a birch log swam into view before Brienne’s dripping eyes. It rested under her chin and slowly lifted her head. She blinked up at the ceiling, to get the excess water to spill down her cheeks, before she could stand to look down, where Jaime stood very close to her. His left index finger wavered before her face a moment as though he’d poke her in the eye, before he passed it under Brienne’s eyes, wiping the tears off the thin skin there, light as the brush of a bird’s wing in flight.

“They messed you up something spectacular, didn’t they?” Jaime said conversationally. “Whoever put these ideas into your head, that you should always run in case the man changes his mind midway through. And here I thought I was fucked up.”

Brienne gaped; she couldn’t help it. She wanted to push him away in anger, how dare he presume he knew her so well, and she wanted to lean in and kiss him, her lips still wet with tears and snot. She shut her mouth with an unpleasant click of teeth.

Jaime nodded thoughtfully, his eyes intent on Brienne’s mouth, swiped his thumb over her lips, upper then lower, wiping them dry on the back of a caress.

“If we weren’t at work,” he said, low and fervent, “and you weren’t crying, I’d be doing my damnedest to convince you otherwise.”

Brienne inhaled loudly through her clogged nose, Jaime’s thumb still so close to her mouth her lips brushed it when she spoke. “If we weren’t at work, I’d be asking you if you’ve kept… what you bought at the pharmacy.”

Jaime’s eyes blazed in a way which made Brienne’s throat constrict. His good hand slid around her, to grip the back of her neck gently, fingers twining in her short hair. She was leaning closer to kiss him when her gaze fell on the white envelope in its clear plastic bag. Brienne stopped, and Jaime frowned, followed her gaze.

“You were going to show me that,” he said thickly, still so close, his hand on her neck so warm Brienne nearly cupped his jaw and turned him back to kiss her, to swallow her whole. Even though they were at work, even though her face felt unpleasantly taut and raw with weeping, and Sansa Stark was three days missing and likely dead.

Brienne closed her eyes, took a deep breath to steady herself, got a lungful of Jaime’s shampoo for her trouble. “They’re offering me a transfer. Dayshift, Missing Persons.”

She opened her eyes, took in Jaime’s wide-eyed look, his mouth gone crooked with confusion and nascent anger. Anger directed away from her, at the unseen forces crowding in all around them like ghosts.

“They wrecked your car, they,” Brienne paused to swallow, “they had my father attacked, and now this. They are trying to bury the case, split us up. Baelish must be pulling levers, putting pressure on someone on the force. I kept the letter as evidence.”

Jaime looked like he might kiss her after all. His breath on her face was warm when he released her and took a step back, leaving Brienne wobbly and unmoored.

“Would you have taken it?” he asked tightly, holding himself together like a broken egg. “Before?”

Before he had kissed her and licked her like he had been waiting his whole life for her. Before she had taken his cock in her hand, and ached and throbbed with regret still because she had run before she could take him inside herself.

Brienne did not attempt to touch Jaime, though she badly wanted to. “On the first night, maybe. Two days ago or yesterday, no. Partners stick together. I wouldn’t…” She looked away, shamefaced. “I wouldn’t let you down like that. Not in this, at least.”

The hollow crack of Jaime’s fist against the tabletop startled her into looking up. He was glaring at the innocent white envelope with its treacherous content.

“We need to find out how Baelish is doing this, what he’s got on the Commissioner, who’s feeding him information.” Jaime’s voice thrummed with frustrated fury.

Brienne dared to come very close to him then, lay a hand on his tense shoulder. “We need to keep our heads down and avoid Bolton,” she said when Jaime looked at her. “We need to keep working the case, not waste time chasing a mole on the force. That’s all we can do, stay focused on the case. But after…” Brienne broke off, chewing her lip, still uncertain if he would want her like that again.

Jaime relaxed on a sigh. “After, there will be another case.”

“No!”

The vehemence in her voice startled them both. Brienne blinked. “No,” she said more softly. “After, we’ll talk. Or…”

Jaime smiled slowly, again sending jolts of terrible desire through Brienne. Would she react like this every time he smiled now, about anything?

“Or,” Jaime asserted, teasing and insinuating and promising. “Definitely or.”

Or. Or.

Brienne blinked again, the warm flush of certainty in being wanted, just as she was and all that she was, spreading through her while Jaime watched her, still smiling, his shoulder smooth and strong under her hand.

Either or. Alternatives. Two options to choose from.

“There was a package as well.”

The sense of foreboding Brienne had experienced while holding the Commissioner’s letter returned to her threefold as she released her hold on Jaime, snatched up the letter, and rushed back to the break room as quickly as her ribs would allow, Jaime hot on her heels, her name a worried query on his lips.

The case file and package lay untouched on the table. A few officers gossiped around the coffeemaker, cast disinterested glances Brienne’s way when she strode in, snatched up the package, and ripped open its plain brown paper wrapping, what her father called butcher’s paper, an expression he’d retained from his pre-supermarket childhood.

The box inside the paper wrapping wasn’t very big, could have contained a small bomb or something equally dangerous and destructive. Brienne tore its lid off, ignoring the impulse to double-check whether the package had been passed through a scanner upon arrival at the precinct.

Masses of red hair poured out of the box. Hanks of thick, coiling tresses spilled over Brienne’s fingers, more torn out than chopped off, the ends of several locks stained with still-fresh blood.

“Seven hells,” Jaime breathed beside Brienne.

His hand wrapped around Brienne’s wrist, tugged gently. Brienne didn’t budge, her fingers bending the cardboard box where they gripped it, the red hair cold against her skin. One of the officers by the coffeemaker let out a sharp gasp. Another uttered a blank ‘Is that…?’ but was swiftly shushed by the gasper.

“Brienne, put it down,” Jaime said softly, as though soothing a frightened horse. “Forensics will need to see it. It might not even be hers. Put it down.”

“Then whose?” Her own voice frightened her. “Mrs. Stark’s? Ygritte’s?”

Brienne met Jaime’s eyes. He nodded: they’d check up on those women as well. But they both knew they’d find Catelyn Stark alive and well, anxiously awaiting news at her kitchen table, Ygritte walking the dangerous streets she knew and with which she could cope, or snug and warm in Jon Snow’s arms. Safe.

He’s playing with us.

Chapter Text

Friday, 7:45 p.m.

“Edmure Tully is better police than you give him credit for,” Brienne insisted stubbornly. “He works every bit as hard as the rest of us. He volunteered to watch those films, even though he is not Vice, and he is not on this case, and he knew he might see his niece in one of them. And he doesn’t have a partner.” The last sentence was delivered with emphatic finality, and not for the first time.

Jaime was seriously bloody tired.

It was too much to expect a forty-year-old working his kind of job to remain sharp and alert after several days filled with too little sleep, the stress of working with a new partner, the destruction of his prized vehicle, spilling all of his secrets to the aforementioned new partner, and getting his dominant hand mangled and operated on. Not to mention an afternoon spent alternately having sex with his new partner, being exhaustingly furious with her, wanting her again, and watching her damn near fall apart.

Now Jaime was passing the time before his regular shift in a godsdamned coffee shop, because even though she had barely known her own name when he’d dragged her out of the precinct, Brienne had managed to remember that they shouldn’t be drinking on duty and vetoed returning to the bar they’d visited after arresting Ronnet Connington.

Feeling helpless and hating it with an intensity akin to heartburn, Jaime was still stuck watching as Brienne quietly fell apart and tried to persuade him he’d be well shot of her, partnered with the likes of Edmure Tully. As if Tully would have worked with Jaime even if Jaime agreed to it.

As if Jaime would have worked with anyone but the infuriating bloody woman sitting across from him, her hot chocolate untouched in its tall cup, a dark brown scum forming on its surface. Brienne had winced at the mention of the word ‘coffee,’ remembering her caffeine-induced fugue from two nights earlier, and ordered a children’s drink.

Jaime picked up his coffee cup, remembered he’d drunk it all already, put it down with a sigh.

“I do not want to be partnered with Edmure Tully,” he enunciated with far more patience than he felt. His right hand throbbed. Jaime reminded himself that at least half of all police work was waiting for stuff to happen.

A couple of phone calls had established that Catelyn Stark and Ygritte were safe as houses and in possession of all their hair. So there Jaime sat, waiting for test results to come back on the samples collected from Vargo Hoat’s warehouse, for Doc Tarly to do his thing, for Brienne to break out of her funk.

Brienne’s hands fought each other for dominance on the tabletop, large and freckly and writhing like two animals in pain. Jaime slid her cup out of the way with his finger before she knocked it over, distracted as she was. He was doing his damnedest not to stare at her hands and remember how they’d touched him just a few short hours earlier, Brienne’s fingers in his hair, on his chest, around his cock.

“What do you want, then?” Brienne’s words broke through Jaime’s reverie. At long last, an opening in the plate armor she’d pulled around herself when she’d discovered Sansa Stark’s hair had been mailed to her like a gruesome holiday souvenir. “What do you want?”

You. “To close this case. Find Sansa Stark, dead or alive.”

It had to be said, again and again, a sensitizing repetition: the fourth day since Sansa’s disappearance had just begun.

Brienne winced at the words and hid her face in her hands, rubbing like she hoped to slough off her skin with her bare palms.

“I am no good at this,” she said into her palms, compelling Jaime to lean most of the way across the table to hear her, her words distorted by flesh and misery. “You’ve had nothing but bad luck with this case and with me. I’m not good enough for this, and I’ve been a shit partner to you.”

Things were really bad if Brienne was swearing and not even catching herself doing it. Her wrists were thick and freckly, like the rest of her. Jaime resisted the urge to lean just a little closer and press his lips to them, one then the other, feel the warmth of her skin on his face like a small sun as night gathered outside the coffee shop window.

“We’ve sent the hair to forensics,” he told Brienne’s wrists, her impenetrable hands. “We’ve got that profiler I know going over the case notes now. The package wasn’t mailed, it was hand-delivered, so uniforms are checking courier services, just in case our abductor didn’t deliver it himself.”

All this Brienne knew, but Jaime paused to let the facts sink in.

“Of all the bullshit clichés we feed to civilians and the press, this one’s true: We are doing everything we can and pursuing several lines of inquiry. Ten Edmure Tullys couldn’t do more than you and I have done. You think Tully could have made the younger Stark girl open up to him, even if they are family? You think Tully would have won over a hard case like Ygritte? Look at me, Brienne.”

Jaime made his voice just a little harsher, an edge of command in it, and it did the trick. Brienne lowered her hands halfway down her face before she remembered he was telling her what to do and she wasn’t fighting him over it. Her hands wavered undecided, then lowered completely, a drawbridge going down so a parley could take place.

Jaime cocked his head at Brienne’s expression, her wide, clear, lost eyes, her mouth twisted with sorrow and self-loathing.

“You are working a case, Brienne,” he said more gently. “You do not control what the whole world does. Get over yourself.”

She blinked in startlement, opened her mouth to argue, a blush rising swiftly to her face. Gaped at Jaime for a long moment, then shut her mouth.

Self-flagellation could be a form of pride. Jaime did not consider himself the most astute connoisseur of humanity, but he knew that much, for he had experienced something similar himself: the certainty that one was not doing well enough, not living up to anyone’s standards and expectations, least of all one’s own, and the odd, prickly vanity which could be mined from that.

Brienne was breathing deeply through her nose, in and out and in. “I don’t want her to die,” she said, every word frayed and unraveling. “I don’t want her to be dead.”

“Me either. But we don’t control that, which is why my wishes are more manageable.”

Jaime held up his hand, remembered it was useless for the time being, lowered it with a grimace and lifted his left hand instead. Counted off on his fingers. Ambition had never been his strong suit, but once upon a time he’d wanted Cersei and the world’s respect. Now…

“I want to find the Stark girl, one way or another. And we will, one way or another. I want to close this case. With my partner.” He raised his eyebrows at Brienne, and she looked away, flushed pink. What else do I want, which I just might get? Your respect. You. “And I want you.”

Her eyes really were something else. So wide, still so sad and full of terror, yet they glowed. Jaime felt certain he was not exaggerating: two tiny blue suns. On a beautiful woman, they’d be wasted, lost amidst everything else. Wouldn’t stand out at all. Wouldn’t be anything special.

Jaime reached out with his left hand, thinking wryly that he was quickly getting the hang of this left-handed malarkey, and ran his thumb over Brienne’s plump lower lip, as he’d done in that tiny room at the precinct, as he’d been longing to do for what felt like ages. Did it slowly, pressing gently with the pad of his thumb, feeling her yielding flesh, her teeth underneath, her sharp, indrawn breath whistling over his fingernail.

“We said after the case was done,” Brienne whispered with Jaime’s thumb on her lip, her cheeks red as pomegranate juice, her freckles standing to attention in all that red.

“I never said I would pretend I’m not thinking about you,” Jaime replied, feeling slightly annoyed at how breathless he sounded. He really wanted to tease Brienne, see if she’d let him in and wrap her lips around his thumb the way he wanted her to wrap it around other parts of him. Forced his hand to move and cup her blazing cheek instead. “Before you give me any of that ‘departmental regulations about fraternization’ crap…”

“I wasn’t going to,” Brienne groused even as she leaned into his touch, her skin heated up, and her eyes glittered. “It’s too late now, and I wasn’t going to mention it anyway.”

She’s thinking about it too.

Jaime was still smarting a little from that afternoon, waking up to find Brienne walking out on him, then going to work still boiling with fury, and being amazed at how her apology had defused it all, like lifting the lid off a pot. Jaime wasn’t used to a woman acknowledging she had treated him unfairly. He might have enjoyed Brienne’s squirming better had she been more of a pretender. More like Cersei. But Brienne’s discomfort at having tried to sneak out on him had been exceeded only by her obvious remorse and conviction that Jaime would want nothing to do with her after she’d made one slip-up.

We’re both such children, he thought, snorted mentally at how his mind replaced the word ‘innocents’ with ‘children’ at the last moment. Jaime could think of many words to describe himself, but ‘innocent’ wasn’t one of them. Brienne, on the other hand…

Jaime caught her eye, smiled, and very deliberately dragged his teeth over his lower lip. Brienne’s cheeks instantly turned an even deeper shade of red, and her pupils blew. Jaime held her gaze, smiling, lip caught in strong teeth.

“Oh gods.” Brienne’s voice was little more than a strangled squeak of a whisper. “You’re doing this on purpose, aren’t you?”

Two days earlier he might have done this just to bait her, still convinced it mattered naught that he had paid close attention to her when they’d been nearly naked down by the river. Now, Jaime bit his lip again and hummed at Brienne’s evident arousal, his fingers caressing her cheek and the dip just below her right ear, where the skin was very thin and soft, thinking he might easily lure her to the toilets, there was always that one cubicle for the handicapped which was big enough for two people to be able to do all kinds of things in relative privacy. He’d left the condoms at home, too angry to even think about bringing them, but there were other things they could do…

Cersei had liked fucking in restaurant bathrooms. She’d relished the frisson of danger, though she’d always refused to put her dimpled knees on those hard, tiled floors.

Jaime swallowed a lump and stopped biting his lip. His face must have shown some of the tenor of his thoughts, for in Brienne’s eyes the black of blown pupils was overtaken again by clear blue. She blinked and stiffened under his hand, preparing to withdraw.

Jaime held her fast, his fingers gently pressed against her cheek, her hair. “I was thinking about luring you to the toilets with me,” he told her plainly, waited for the implication to sink in, Brienne’s predictable reaction to dawn in her cheeks. “But I decided against it. We need a bed and privacy. And time. Definitely time.”

Brienne pressed her lips together thoughtfully, nodded. A novel idea, but not unreasonable. Jaime smiled as he brushed the side of her wide nose, the corner of her lips with his fingers before he withdrew back to his side of the table.

“It seems we still have a bit of a wait,” he said cheerfully, with a glance at his watch. “How shall we pass the time?”

Brienne looked at their cups speculatively: his empty, hers full of what was fast becoming cold chocolate sludge.

“How dull,” Jaime drawled. “I have a better idea. Why don’t you tell me something about yourself?”

Brienne started, a rabbit spooked by passing headlights. “About me?”

“Sure. You know everything about me. Well, everything important. I still know so little about you. A few important things. About your previous partner. About your taste.” Jaime grinned at Brienne’s panicked glance around, though he’d spoken quietly enough. “As much as it amuses me to imagine you sprang into existence fully formed and unsullied the day we met, I suspect you have some interesting tales to tell.”

Brienne’s hands were motionless on the table between them, fingers intertwined and still. She watched her hands while she thought it over. “Even if it’s sort of work-related?”

“Even if.”

Brienne kept watching her hands, her mouth working silently. A few days ago, Jaime would have compared the sight to a cow chewing cud. Now he simply waited for Brienne to marshal her thoughts.

“When I was in the Child Protection Unit in Highgarden, I dealt with a lot of parents of missing children,” Brienne began. “I can still see their faces: their children were gone, and they didn’t know what had happened to them, whether they might be dead or injured. Then sometimes they’d hear about a body someone found, which fit their child’s description. But it turned out not to be their child. You…” She looked up at Jaime’s face with effort. “You cannot imagine their joy, this hysterical, mad joy, and then that look…” Brienne passed one of her hands in front of her face, like wiping a windowpane clean. “Guilt. They were happy because there was still hope for them, it was someone else’s child who’d died in agony. And they knew it, and they were glad of it.”

“Brienne.” He would not let her obsess about the Stark girl, if only for five minutes.

She held up her palm in front of Jaime. A shield. A wall.

“This is not about Sansa Stark,” Brienne said, her eyes on Jaime’s left shoulder, her hand wavering a little in the air between them.

Instinctively he reached out and took her hand, brought it down to rest on the tabletop, his hand nearly covering hers, for his was slightly smaller. It was awkward holding her left hand with his left, but Jaime could tell it was necessary.

Brienne was still staring fixedly at his shoulder. “I know you’d like me to tell you a secret. You deserve a secret. This might not be much of one, but…”

She closed her eyes, her hand motionless under Jaime’s.

“My mother died when I was very young. My brother died when I was fourteen. His name was Galladon, he was eighteen. He taught me everything: how to play pool, and spit, and run, and fight. He even taught me about gun safety when I was ten and our father thought I was too young. I grew up thinking all boys, all men were as wonderful as the two of them. I thought Galladon was invincible. He nearly drowned once when we were kids and got himself out of the water in time. He… He’d saved up to buy a motorcycle for his eighteenth nameday, and he had an accident. After he died, Father fretted every time I was a little late coming home from school, nearly went apoplectic when I told him I was joining the police force and leaving Tarth after college. Tarth is small, everyone knew I was the police chief’s daughter, that girl whose brother had died. So I left my father there alone and went in search of bigger things, and I found them all right. And my father still calls me every Sunday, regular as clockwork. And the first time I saw that look vanish from a parent’s face was on the night one of the officers under my father’s command came to tell us about Galladon.”

Brienne opened her eyes at last. If Jaime could have kissed away the sorrow in them just then, he’d have kissed her before the whole precinct, his family (the horrible odds of both their mothers dying young!), and everyone who had ever mocked her or called him Kingslayer, and to the seven hells with all of them. But Jaime knew better than to assume he could wipe this away with his mouth, his hands, his flesh. This was an old wound which had never healed, and bled again at the slightest touch, the mere mention of brothers and families. And yet Brienne had worked Child Protection, and dealt with Sansa Stark and her mother and sister now.

Jaime squeezed Brienne’s hand as hard as he could, hard enough that he was certain it was not comfortable for her, but she let him, just as she let a few silent, solitary tears course down her cheeks and drip down her chin. Pain could be an anchor, but she didn’t need it now. Wouldn’t need it when Jaime was there and she was not all alone. He loosened his grip on Brienne’s hand.

Jaime reached across the table and soaked up the tears off Brienne’s cheeks with his bandages, wiped away her tears for the second time in a meager handful of hours. Not much of a secret, she’d said, when telling it hurt her so. Jaime wondered if the sainted Renly had known, if anyone else on the mainland knew.

Brienne brought up her other hand to cover his where it lay with hers on the table, hand on hand on hand. She squeezed back gently, holding his good hand safe as he held her, and Jaime knew with blazing, self-evident certainty that he would gladly take her measured, terrible tears over Cersei’s (anyone’s) easy, false smiles any day, any night. Every day, every night.

They sat in silence, not quite holding hands, more holding on together, thumbs rubbing the backs of each other’s knuckles from time to time, until Jaime’s phone rang: the profiler Jaime had brought in was ready for them.

Chapter Text

Friday, 9 p.m.

Doctor Samwell Tarly was living proof that a certain type of ten-year-old boy never grew up. Chubby and unshaven, dressed in ill-fitting chinos, a flannel shirt buttoned all the way to the top, and a corduroy jacket with elbow patches, he looked just as he must have done when his well-meaning yet sartorially clueless mother had waved him goodbye in front of his elementary school years earlier. He would wear the same clothes until they wore out and became gossamer thin, replace them with an identical set, and no doubt one day be buried in them. Steel-framed glasses augmented his hazel eyes, lending him the look of a curious, benevolent owl.

Arms crossed stiffly over her chest, Brienne stared at him as though he were more akin to a poisonous toad.

She couldn’t help herself. When Jaime had repeated the profiler’s name as they’d made their way back from the coffee shop, no longer holding hands though Brienne had fervently wished they had been, once Tarly’s name had sunk in it became all Brienne could think of. Criminal psychologist, experienced profiler, bit of an oddball but knew his stuff – Jaime’s words had washed over Brienne, barely registering, while Doctor Tarly’s family name had echoed in her head, leaden circles expanding and dissolving, making her temples throb.

The three of them were in Podrick Payne’s office, amidst the wreckage of more data-storing machines than any of them recognized. Jaime had asked Pod for permission to use his office, lest the rest of the Night’s Watch clocked Doctor Tarly’s arrival. In a building full of cops, someone was bound to put two and two together, come up with four, and inform Lieutenant Bolton of Jaime and Brienne’s presence in the building, which they were still trying to avoid. After the attacks on Brienne’s father and Jaime’s car, and the attempt to bribe Brienne away from the case, with Brienne’s ribs making it unlikely she could run if the need arose and Jaime unable to shoot straight or even type with both hands, paid leave was the best they could hope for, if and when Bolton caught up with them. So they sat in Pod’s office, Brienne on Pod’s swivel chair while Jaime perched on a counter next to a thick coil of red wire and a precarious pile of keyboards, while Doctor Tarly fussed with the selection of photographs he’d drawn from the Stark file and arranged on top of various other items strewn across Pod’s desk.

Tarly half turned and caught Brienne’s belligerent stare. He smiled nervously, vaguely, like he was used to hostility and had learned not to take it personally. “Yes? Sorry?”

Brienne knew she was being terribly unfair, he was only there to help. But the need to know was stronger than her sense of propriety.

“Are you related to a Lieutenant Tarly from the Highgarden P.D.?” she demanded in a voice she sometimes used on suspects when they were about to break and tell her everything, right down to their shoe size and the last time they’d changed their smallclothes.

Doctor Tarly’s nervous smile took on what in another person would have been a slight edge. On his broad, doughy face, it was more of a slight tremor.

“My father,” he admitted. “He’s Captain Tarly now. You are acquainted with him, Detective Tarth?”

Brienne considered telling the profiler that was none of his business and he should get on with whatever he had to tell her and Jaime.

“I served under him for six months,” she muttered.

“Ah. In that case, I apologize on behalf of the Tarly family for any distress he may have caused you. My father has unresolved issues with aggression, which he tends to take out on those below him in the social pecking order, such as his officers. Or his children.” Tarly’s smile had turned rigid, making his double chins quiver. “Rest assured that whatever you think you did to draw his ire, it likely had very little to do with you or your actual actions.”

Brienne blinked. Her rudeness did not deserve such a reaction, and she felt startled, humbled, and grateful for Doctor Tarly’s kindness. He had grown up under old man Tarly’s thumb, after all. He was more deserving of hugs and chocolates than Brienne’s bile. She offered the criminal psychologist an apologetic smile, and received a similar smile in return: two survivors of Randyll Tarly recognizing and saluting each other’s battle scars.

Jaime kept glancing between them with a frown and a sulky twist to his mouth, aware that they were not telling him something. He lifted an eyebrow at Brienne. She shook her head minutely. This was really not the time to talk about the bet.

Doctor Tarly’s demeanor altered dramatically once he started talking about the conclusions he had drawn from the case notes. His round shoulders straightened, his chin went up, and his paunch went out. It became a paunch with attitude, a paunch demanding recognition, rather than just excess flesh. Tarly’s gestures became less tentative, his voice gained a rich, storytelling quality. He talked about the Stark case as though it were a gripping narrative, but there was no hint of callousness in his tone. He radiated compassion as well as equanimity regarding the realities of human behavior. Brienne found herself fascinated despite the topic at hand, leaning in eagerly so as not to miss a single word.

“What you have here,” Samwell Tarly began, sketching a stick figure in a hoop skirt on Pod’s whiteboard. He added wavy lines in black marker around the blank circle of a face: abundant hair. Brienne squeezed her hands together at the almost palpable memory of Sansa’s red tresses spilling out of the package, over her fingers, cold and dead and sticky with blood.

“What you have, is a classic case of erotic fixation. The abductor does not merely desire to possess your victim, Sansa Stark, physically. He is convinced he knows her, that a relationship already exists between them.”

Doctor Tarly tacked Sansa’s school photo up next to the stick figure. “We see the girl, but he sees the woman underneath, waiting to emerge, like a butterfly out of its chrysalis. And he believes he is the right man to coax the butterfly out more quickly.”

“So he abducted her in order to, what, make her fall in love with him?” Jaime asked, frowning.

“In layman’s terms, yes. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. He doesn’t merely want her to love him or sleep with him, though there is that as well. He wants Sansa to belong to him completely.”

Doctor Tarly paced in the cramped space in front of the whiteboard, three steps one way, three steps back, gesturing with the marker. “Consider the manner in which he took Sansa. He did not happen to see her on the street one day and bundle her into his car. This was no opportunistic crime. He targeted this specific girl, and he lured her. The text messages from Juggler almost certainly came from the abductor himself. An alias to disguise his true intentions until he’d reeled her in. The promises of help, the references to knights in shining armor, the hints at secret knowedge, and finally Sansa reciprocated with a request that they meet. It’s like a seduction.”

“He knew her,” Brienne said quietly. “Or he knew what she would be likely to respond to.”

Tarly nodded. “Girls that age, they are impressionable and malleable and romantic. And the abductor wants that, but he also wants to mold this specific girl so she suits his emotional needs. He wants her to be romantic about him and him alone.”

“What if she knew something about him?” Jaime asked. “Some crime he committed in the past. Would he still want to,” Jaime sketched air quotes with his left hand, “possess her then, or would he simply take her, take what he wanted from her, and then kill her?”

Brienne and Jaime had not entered their suspicions about Petyr Baelish into the case notes: they had no grounds to suspect him other than their instincts, and it was risky to tip their hand too soon. Baelish obviously had eyes and ears at the precinct. Once the security tapes from his office building had confirmed he’d been at work at the time of Sansa’s disappearance, they’d had no legitimate reason to pursue that line of inquiry further.

Tarly considered Jaime’s hypothetical scenario, scratching his chin with the capped marker. “It’s possible,” he conceded. “But not very probable. You see, this man, he thinks he has found the one. What she may or may not know about him doesn’t figure into that. He’s not looking for a quick thrill, he wants a lifetime of being thrilled by her. He genuinely believes they are meant to be, and will do whatever it takes to make sure she starts to believe it too.”

“Idiot,” Jaime muttered, for his own benefit more than Tarly’s.

Brienne shot him an understanding look, rummaged to the back of the case file which lay on her lap. She showed Tarly a picture of Catelyn Stark. “We have reason to believe the man who abducted Sansa Stark had a prior connection to this woman. Sansa’s mother.”

Samwell Tarly took the picture, blinked at it from behind his thick eyeglasses, then tacked it onto the whiteboard next to Sansa’s school photo and the girl stick figure. “The woman inside the girl. Obsession with one transposed onto the other. Yes. That is the connection.”

“We suspected as much from the start, and it brings us no closer to getting something tangible on this guy,” Jaime groused.

Brienne reached over and touched Jaime’s knee briefly before Sam Tarly turned around. The good doctor was doing his job, it wasn’t his fault he couldn’t conjure up solid evidence for them.

“No,” Tarly admitted good-naturedly, uncapping the black marker. “But there is something else which might help.”

Brienne was all ears, and Jaime sat up and took notice as well.

Tarly drew the stick figure of a man beneath the one representing Sansa: five lines for the body, plain circle for the head. Larger than Sansa. Baelish. Then he drew another, smaller stick figure beside Baelish: a second man.

“The hair does not fit,” Tarly murmured as he finished the second man figure, went back to the girl figure, drawing more and more coiling lines around her head, hair like black sunrays consuming the universe. “The abductor would not do something like that. He sees this girl as belonging to him. He wouldn’t mar her, damage his own property like that.”

Tarly tapped the smaller man figure with the marker. “But this other man would.” Tarly looked at Jaime and Brienne, held up his free hand in a V sign. “Two men.”

“I don’t get it.” Frustration was starting to make Jaime angry. “You said Bae… the abductor has an obsession with Sansa, surely he wouldn’t want to share her? Where does this other man fit in?”

“The abductor wouldn’t want to share her, and he is the instigator. But he is not acting alone. He probably hired this other man to help him, grab Sansa from the riverbank, after she sent the instigator that last text message demanding they meet at once. A last-minute addition to the instigator’s plan, because it was inconvenient for him to confront the girl in person or because he wanted some more time to work on her, mold her to his purpose. A personal connection between the men would suggest the girl is something for them to share, but that goes against the primary instigator’s whole psychological profile. So: theirs is a boss-underling relationship. But something has gone wrong between them. Tearing out Sansa’s hair and having it delivered here, to you as the investigating officers, is a message. The other man, let’s call him the minion, could have sent the hair to his employer, a threat that whatever promises have been made to the minion need to be fulfilled. But he didn’t. He sent the hair here, to you, which suggests that he is no longer acting on orders from his employer. He wants you, the police, to take him seriously. In his own mind, he’s not the minion, you see. He’s the mastermind, cleverer than his employer, and you should all fear him. And he still has the girl.”

“Which is… bloody horrible news,” Jaime concluded, letting out a deep breath.

Brienne was sweating. Her ribs ached, a dull throb with every heavy heartbeat.

“He sent the hair to me,” she said. “The package was addressed to me personally, less than a week after I moved to King’s Landing. It was hand-delivered.”

Tarly cocked his head slowly, considering. It made him look less like an owl, more like a thoughtful parrot.

“Then chances are the minion picked someone off the street and paid this person to deliver the package for him, and he has been keeping an eye on your investigation. He might have approached someone from your squad, perhaps in a bar, bought them a few beers, got them talking. The package was addressed to you because, no offense, Detective Tarth, the minion sees you as the weak link: female, junior, new to the city, new to the job. You have to understand, the minion wants you to be in awe of him, but at first glance he’ll be perfectly average. When he approached Sansa Stark at the riverbank, he would have had to leave his car some distance away. He needed to be able to prevent her from running away, probably told her he’d been sent by Juggler and lured her closer to his vehicle before he could grab her and bundle her inside. So he’ll be reasonably good-looking, not deformed, nothing there which would have scared her.”

Except for that little voice in the back of her head, which told her something was off, but she convinced herself it was all right, she was just being silly and overreacting, Brienne thought. Then it was too late.

Brienne felt sick. Two men. Could the minion be one of the men from the snuff film with Jeyne Poole? Had Jeyne ignored the little voice when that same man had approached her, told her she was pretty enough to be in the movies? That might give them a link to Baelish, but not if they couldn’t find the minion, and through him Sansa Stark…

“We still have nothing to connect this mystery man to the, what’d you call him, the primary instigator,” Jaime was saying.

Tarly shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. Though I can tell you, the relationship between the primary instigator and the minion has become so severely strained, it is certain the minion will lash out again. If sending you the girl’s hair doesn’t get him the respect he thinks he deserves, sooner rather than later he will do something else. He wants you to fear him. The desire for recognition is what drives him rather than a subconscious desire to be caught, but the net effect is much the same.” The psychologist glanced at the three stick figures. “He might send a finger or an ear next time, and he might do it in a way which would force him to reveal his identity. So you will know his name, and he will have made his mark.”

Jaime swore. Brienne winced. Jaime was looking at her, but she stared down at the floor, images of bloody fingers and other severed appendages dancing across the scuffed linoleum. Tarly’s voice became a quiet drone, the theoretical conclusion to an intriguing presentation.

“All human relationships are based on dominance and submission, however veiled or mild. The instigator was the dominant one in his relationship with the minion, and he wants to be dominant over Sansa Stark. But the minion is fighting him for supremacy now. Let us hope Sansa goes along with whatever the minion requires of her and doesn’t try to fight him. It is the only way she might stay alive.”

This brought Brienne back to the moment. She looked up at Tarly as though he were the sun rising after the Long Night. “You don’t think she’s already dead? It’s been approximately 75 hours since she was taken.”

“The blood on her hair was fresh enough that she must have been alive and somewhere in King’s Landing when the minion hacked it off. Granted, he may have killed her in the interim, but I do not think so. Like his employer, the minion likes to play and to feel powerful. Sansa is likely to provide him with more amusement the longer he keeps her alive.”

So he could hack away at other parts of her for days, weeks to come, and perform all manner of ghastliness on what remained, while the girl still lived. The possibility was there in Tarly’s eyes when he looked at Brienne. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help,” he said quietly.

“On the contrary, doc,” Jaime replied, hopping off the counter where he’d been sitting. “I’d offer to shake your hand, but my right’s a bit indisposed at the moment.”

Brienne could and did shake Tarly’s hand. “Yes,” she told him. “You’ve been very helpful. Thank you. And sorry. About my behavior earlier.”

Doc Tarly waved this off. “I like to pretend my father and I aren’t actually related sometimes,” he confided while Jaime opened the door and glanced out to make sure nobody saw Tarly leave. “Sadly, the pretense never lasts.”

“My father sometimes says that we are what the gods and our choices have made us,” Brienne replied.

Tarly considered this, as he would have tried to fit a new piece of evidence into one of his profiles. “Yes,” he agreed at last. “He is right, your father.”

Brienne smiled.

They escorted Tarly to the precinct’s side entrance, then made their way back to the Night’s Watch’s squad room.

“It’s interesting, don’t you think, what he said about all relationships being based on dominance and submission,” Jaime said idly, but with a glint in his eye. “I wonder how that is shaking out in this relationship.”

Brienne took a sideways step away from him. Jaime had made no move to take her arm or touch her in any way, but his laughing look told her he’d been thinking about it.

“Be quiet, please,” she tried to hiss, but it came out as more of a squeak. Her face was a furnace.

“Relax, Brienne, we’re alone in the corridor,” Jaime teased as they turned a corner and spotted Pia hovering near the squad room’s double doors, attempting to look inconspicuous and failing utterly as she peered at the Police Volleyball League’s sign-up sheet tacked to the wall.

Pia’s face went slack with relief when she spotted Jaime and Brienne. She rushed up to them, practically bouncing up and down on her chunky heels.

“Thank the Seven!” Pia breathed. “Where have you been?” She took in Jaime’s bandaged hand, the bruises around Brienne’s neck, which were turning green at the edges. “I heard you two got it bad…” Pia wavered, clutching a folder in her shaking hands.

Brienne and Jaime exchanged a look, moved as one so they stood on either side of Pia and could usher her back the way they’d come, both of them towering over the slight woman and shielding her from sight. She talked nervously while they marched her along.

“They kept us working double shifts on the evidence from that warehouse.” Pia’s words rushed out, each tripping over the one preceding it, a spring brook tumbling over stones, bursting its banks. “I ran everything through the Registered Offenders database like you asked, got several hits for sex crimes, assault, that kind of thing. Nothing for abduction. So I had an idea, ran a wider search. I found something in the Crown Employees database.”

They were in a quiet part of the precinct near the boiler room and the basement. Pia thrust the slim folder at Jaime and Brienne like she couldn’t wait to have it out of her hands. Brienne took it from her.

“Seven hells!” Brienne exclaimed. She read and reread, passed the folder to Jaime.

He practically tore it out of Brienne’s hand, glanced over its contents. “Seven hells indeed,” he drawled, his voice vibrating with suppressed emotion.

Pia just stood there, watching them helplessly, her hands fluttering by her sides, her whole body poised for flight as though she expected a hungry dragon to descend on them through the ceiling.

“You haven’t told anyone else about this, have you?” Brienne asked.

Pia burst into peals of hysterical laughter. “Oh, yeah, yeah,” she burbled, “that’s exactly what I did! Yeah, when I saw one of your perps is related to Lieutenant Bolton, I put the information up on Forensics’ bulletin board! Of course, of course I did…”

Jaime shoved the folder back at Brienne, and laid his good hand on Pia’s shoulder. She stopped twitching and trembling under his touch. He squeezed her shoulder, and Pia looked up at him, her lower lip trembling, her heavily made-up eyes those of a little girl, lost and terrified and hoping for aid from a handsome stranger.

“That was well done, Pia,” Jaime soothed, his voice even and kind, like a gentle hand stroking her hair. “You did an amazing job. Now we’re going to get you out of here. You go home, then to work tomorrow, act like nothing out of the ordinary happened. Say nothing about what you found. If you have to come back to the precinct, stay out of Bolton’s way, just to be on the safe side. All right?”

Pia swallowed, looked like she would throw herself into Jaime’s arms, a maiden in search of a shining knight. Brienne felt a shameful stab of jealousy, suppressed it immediately.

Pia pulled herself together, her eyes clearing, her shoulders squaring under Jaime’s hand. “Yes,” she mumbled. “Yes, all right. Bolton gives me the willies anyway.”

“Can’t say I blame you.” Jaime smiled. “Just thinking about him still makes me wet the bed sometimes.”

That mental image startled Brienne into laughter, as it did Pia, who giggled prettily behind her hand, visibly getting her flirtatious self back. Jaime grinned at the two women, preening just a little. He preened a little more when Brienne rolled her eyes at him.

Brienne escorted Pia out the same side entrance through which Samwell Tarly had departed, with reassurances that everything would be all right so long as Pia told no one else what she had discovered. Brienne felt bad about making Pia a promise which might prove out of Brienne and Jaime’s power to keep, but Pia was upset and needed to hear it, even if they both knew Brienne could not really guarantee her safety. After Pia was gone, Brienne made her way to the parking lot, where Jaime had gone to wait for her, taking with him the Stark file and the DNA results Pia had brought.

Brienne emerged into the dimly lit parking lot only to see two men arguing in fierce, hushed tones by her and Jaime’s unmarked car.

One was Jaime. The other was, oh hells, it was Hyle Hunt, whom Brienne had managed to avoid since Jon Snow had told her Hunt was looking for her.

Brienne lingered in the shadows, wondering if she should slip away and come back in five minutes, hoping the men would finish their altercation by then and she could leave with Jaime without attracting more unwanted attention. She turned to head back into the precinct, glanced over her shoulder to make sure things weren’t getting out of hand.

Jaime head-butted Hyle. Hard bone crunched loudly against cartilage, and Hyle crumpled like a dropped cloak.

Gods be good, is there anything else that can happen tonight! All thought of discretion evaporating from her head, Brienne broke into a sore-ribbed run toward where Hyle was curled up on the tarmac, clutching his profusely bleeding nose, while Jaime stood over him with arms akimbo, the conquering hero still spoiling for a fight.

Chapter Text

Friday, 11:30 p.m.

The bastard had it coming, Jaime thought mulishly as he sat in his kitchen, Brienne’s broad, tense back turned to him while she rummaged after ice cubes in the freezer.

Hyle Hunt, whom Jaime knew only to exchange a brief greeting when passing him in the precinct lobby, had come at Jaime in the poorly lit parking lot so fast and with such an expression on his face, his upper lip swollen and split from a recent fight, Jaime had fallen instinctively into a defensive stance and lifted his left arm to ward off a blow, forgetting his right hand was useless for anything more than landing a nice, cushioned tap as from a declawed cat’s paw. So Jaime had been in no mood for pleasantries even before Hunt had launched into a rant accusing Jaime of taking advantage of Brienne Tarth’s integrity in order to salvage his own worthless career. Jaime had considered shoving Hunt away or at least quipping that the Stark case was going to be the making of them all, for sure, but Hunt wouldn’t give him a chance to speak.

Then he’d brought up Jaime’s history and called Jaime ‘Kingslayer.’

Unlike his right hand, there had been nothing cushioning Jaime’s head. He’d head-butted Hunt with precision, breaking the man’s nose and felling him like a young buck who’d lost a duel to the herd’s dominant male during mating season. An analogy Jaime’d decided not to share with Brienne when she’d charged up to them, huffing and grimacing and waving her arms as though to shoo off a flock of sparrows.

“Are you all right?” she’d asked, and Jaime had squeezed his left fist in sudden, unthinking jealousy before he’d realized she’d been talking to him, not Hunt. He’d nodded, and Brienne had turned her attention to Hunt, who’d been groaning on the tarmac, holding his nose.

“Hyle, what in seven hells are you playing at?” Brienne had demanded with her hands on her hips, making no attempt to help Hunt get up. Despite the clear, resonant annoyance she had been directing at the other man, Jaime’s jealousy had flared up again to hear her call Hunt by his given name.

Hunt had rolled over, onto his hands and knees, spat out a gob of blood, and slowly risen. “Don’t trust him, Brienne,” he’d said, his voice sounding liquid and chunky all at once. Jaime had smirked at that, and Brienne had favored him with a murderous look.

“He’s using you,” Hunt had kept bleating. “He likes to fuck with people just because, everyone knows that.”

Jaime had been contemplating grabbing Hunt by the back of the neck and slamming the man’s face down onto his raised knee, but Brienne’s voice had stopped him. She’d sounded even more than usually exasperated: music to Jaime’s ears.

“Well, which one is it? I am either being used for a purpose or Jaime is just amusing himself, it can’t be both! You don’t know anything about it, Hyle. I’ll stick with my partner, thank you.”

Brienne had turned away, motioning for Jaime to give her the car keys, but Hunt hadn’t finished just yet.

“On your head be it,” he’d honked through a noseful of blood. “When he breaks your trust and hangs you out to dry, make sure you’ve got your smallclothes on, for they’ll all line up to fuck you before they turf you out for good.”

Her hand clamped around Jaime’s bicep, her face twisting in disgust, Brienne had only glanced over her shoulder. “It’s the only way you’d ever get to have me, Hyle.”

He’d still been standing there, in a pool of yellow sodium light, like a scorned lover in a cheap movie, bleeding down his chin and shirtfront as they’d driven away. Neither Jaime nor Brienne had said much in the car.

Brienne’s hand clapped the back of Jaime’s neck with a distinct lack of tenderness, though the improvised ice pack her other hand pressed to his forehead was more gentle. Despite the skill with which he’d delivered the blow, Jaime’s brow had started to hurt during the drive to his apartment. Brienne had made a lot of noise rattling the ice tray and banging open kitchen drawers in search of a dishcloth in which to wrap the ice cubes, while Jaime had sat by and watched. Honor had wandered in looking for a shin to rub up against, taken one look at Brienne’s tense back and jerky movements, and slipped away quietly to her favorite hiding place under the couch, proving one thing for certain: that Jaime had less good sense than a cat.

“Of all the stupid things…” Brienne muttered as Jaime brought up his good hand to take over the ice pack. Her hand on the back of his neck felt large and nicely toasty, and left him wanting to shiver away a sense of bereft disappointment when Brienne took it away.

“Hmm,” Jaime murmured as Brienne turned away. “Your old pal is stupid, and has no sense of self-preservation.”

It had never used to bother him – or at least he had never used to let people see it bothered him – when they called him ‘Kingslayer.’ Brienne’s company had had an effect on Jaime’s equanimity, in more ways than one.

She wheeled around, drawn up to her full height, eyes like blue flames, practically throwing off sparks. “Hyle Hunt was never my friend,” Brienne insisted through gritted teeth.

Jaime looked up at her face, flushed with rekindled anger and remembered shame, and how had he learned to read her blushes so well in such a short time, he wondered. “I sense there’s a story hiding behind that ‘never,’” he prompted.

Brienne’s anger deflated, leaving her large and at a loss. Her shoulders slumped, she hung her head, trying unsuccessfully to hide her face from Jaime.

“When I was in the C.P.U. in Highgarden, Hunt started a bet with a bunch of my other colleagues. They bet on who could sleep with me first.”

She glanced at Jaime from under a heavy brow, eyes large and wary, the big, ugly woman who’d merited nothing better in those men’s eyes than to be made the butt of a cruel joke. Jaime knew he was not a particularly good man, but he never would have done that to her.

“None of them got that far, in case you’re wondering,” Brienne muttered.

When she’d told him about her brother’s death, she’d told it like a story, oft repeated, polished and with the worst of it sanded off by time, and still she’d cried in the telling. Yet that was an old hurt, unhealed but old. This… this was newer, and still as fresh as if it had happened yesterday. Too fresh for her to prod the wound into weeping again with very many words.

Jaime lowered the ice pack, narrowed his eyes. “You said Doc Tarly’s father is in Highgarden.”

“He was my lieutenant. Our lieutenant. He blamed me. It’s why I transferred to Storm’s End.”

Jaime smiled tightly. “Right. Well, Hyle Hunt is a dead man the next time I see him. Remind me not to go to Highgarden for my next vacation, or I’ll create something which will give the press cause to come up with a whole new name for me.”

Brienne started shaking her head during this speech, slowly and emphatically. “You leave Hyle Hunt alone, Jaime. I don’t need you to defend me. I’ve let it go. It’s not worth it.”

“Like I didn’t need you to defend me in front of Bolton and Edmure Tully? Give me a break. You have obviously not let it go, it’s still hurting you…”

“You already head-butted him, there is no need…”

“… he’s lucky I didn’t kick all his teeth in, talking to you like that after what he did. There is every need, Brienne. I feel a powerful need to crack some skulls over this.”

Brienne made a face, stepped closer, and took Jaime’s face in her hands. He was so startled by this new development, he gaped up at her with an expression which must have closely resembled her own gaping moments.

“Jaime,” she said in a tone which sent warmth coursing through Jaime’s veins. “If Hunt lodges a complaint, with your track record, you could be suspended or fired. That would be a crying shame, and you know it. He probably won’t say anything because I was the only witness, but he will if you throw down with him again. And honestly,” Brienne continued, a toothy smile dawning on her face, “as incredibly… maybe not the smartest thing you ever did as that was, the memory of you hitting him will keep me warm on long winter nights. I should have done that years ago, and didn’t. Thank you.”

“Why, Brienne,” Jaime managed to drawl even though what he really wanted was to stretch and bask like a cat being scratched under the chin. He couldn’t decide what felt best: the warmth of Brienne’s praise, her closeness or her reference to having something of Jaime’s to keep her warm on cold nights. “Are you telling me you would lie that Hunt tripped and broke his nose on the pavement, if there were an inquiry?”

Brienne squirmed. “I would not lie under oath,” came the firm reply. “But I would… strongly imply that, in that badly lit parking lot, it looked like he’d tripped and broken his nose on the pavement, yes.”

Jaime grinned, wrapped his left arm, still holding the ice pack, around Brienne’s waist to draw her closer, and she let him, her arms going around his shoulders, her fingers teasing shyly at the hair on the nape of his neck. Even the thought that he was keeping some interesting company of late, if Hyle Hunt had a thing for Brienne, which there was little doubt in Jaime’s mind he did, could not spoil Jaime’s mood. Folk wisdom was right, for once: the quickest way to cement a woman’s affection really was the warm, beating heart of someone who had done her an injustice in the past. Or, failing that, his broken, bleeding nose.

Brienne’s neck with its garland of bruises was too close to resist: Jaime nipped at it gently, choosing a patch of unblemished, freckly skin. She shivered in the circle of his arm.

“I think,” Jaime murmured to her rapidly flushing skin, “given the day we’ve had, that we should go to bed.”

Brienne stiffened, and Jaime tightened his arm around her.

“Not like that, Legs. Just to catch a little shuteye before we figure out what to do about Bolton and whichever one of his relatives left their DNA all over Vargo Hoat’s warehouse.”

“I hate it when you call me ‘Legs,’” Brienne muttered to the hair on the top of Jaime’s head, which she was busily nuzzling, not helping Jaime’s resolve to wait till the Stark case was closed before they could bed down properly. “It’s so demeaning.”

She couldn’t see his face, so Jaime allowed himself a grimace. What would she say to Big Brienne, then?

“Oh? More demeaning than being adopted as a mother figure by a bear?” Brienne smacked his arm – his good, left arm, he didn’t fail to notice. “Ouch! Help, help, I’m a battered partner!”

“Shut up.” She kissed his temple quickly, clearly torn between keeping to the safety of kissing his hair and hazarding a kiss to his bare skin.

Jaime steeled himself against temptation and pulled back just far enough to see Brienne’s face. “I solemnly vow I won’t call you that, unless I happen to forget myself, of course, if you consent to spend the night here, and not insist on sleeping head to toe or any such nonsense.”

Brienne rolled her eyes. “I may have a hard time trusting people, but I wouldn’t go that far.” She glanced away, still endearingly shy with him. “I mean, I do trust you,” she told Jaime’s fridge in a voice like a rabbit, ready to bolt at the first sniff of trouble.

Jaime nudged her chin lightly with his forehead till she glanced at him sideways, not quite turning her head. “I trust you too, pardner.”

It came as a shock to Jaime as he watched her eyelids drift shut, watched her huff a small laugh, that she wasn’t there, in his apartment, in his arms, because of his looks or his glib humor or his prowess with his tongue. Or even his fearful reputation, which attracted a certain type of woman who read tabloids, and tended to favor animal prints and loud makeup, and would occasionally hit on Jaime while he attempted to work.

Brienne was there because he had trusted her with his secrets, the utterly unpretty truth of himself, and she had taken it, taken it all, and she still wanted him. Not still. Wanted him, plain and simple, just as he was. As he wanted her: noble, brave, injured, sad, ugly, dedicated, warm. What price that she wasn’t Cersei, then?

Thank the gods she’s not. Even though there aren’t any gods.

Jaime tried to stay mindful of the fact that this new, slowly dawning ease between them did not give him blanket permission to ravish Brienne as he found himself wanting to do when she stripped down to her shirt and smallclothes before sleep, revealing her long legs, thick thighs awash in freckles, wide hips, and muscular calves. Jaime turned his back on her and rummaged one-handed for something to sleep in, cursing his good health for sending blood rushing where it shouldn’t.

It took him a while to change. Though he could sense Brienne starting to offer help several times, she always bit her tongue, and kept her peace, and protected his pride. Jaime put on a clean T-shirt and boxer shorts. Brienne had handled his cock and let him taste her all over, she could damned well endure the sight of his bare ass and rethink her position on sex in the middle of an investigation, which was fast going to the seventh hell in a handcart. By the time he was done changing his clothes, Jaime felt calm enough about the prospect of sharing a bed with Brienne to face her and not worry she might beg off if confronted by how impatient he was to have her.

He was very impatient, despite their agreement to wait, despite how bloody tired he was, and how much his hand hurt, and how the whole day had gone from strange to truly fucked up in a hurry.

“For the record, Your Honor,” Jaime teased as he lifted the covers under which Brienne already lay and slid in beside her, wondering if she’d clocked the fact that the sheets were the same ones on which they’d nearly fucked that afternoon. “I don’t normally wear so many clothes to sleep, but I would hate for you to realize you can’t keep your hands to yourself just when I enter the REM phase.”

Brienne scowled, though a treacherous smile tugged at her lips. “Very funny. You are not that irresistible.”

“Oh, aren’t I? Would you like to put that claim to the test?”

She blushed, of course, seemed to be barely restraining herself from clutching the covers to her chest. “No, Jaime, I want to sleep.”

“Fine. I’ll let you get away with impugning my masculine charms, just this once.”

They settled down, and Brienne switched off the bedside lamp. The mattress under Jaime dipped toward Brienne’s superior weight, her body so close to him in the dark making him acutely aware of all that skin, the smooth and the hairy, within easy reach, the blood coursing under it just waiting to rush and warm her up at his touch.

Truth be told, as Jaime lay still listening to Brienne’s steady breathing and keeping his hands, the bandaged and the whole, to himself, he really was exhausted. And a bit nervous. He hoped Brienne would not freak if she woke to find him hard in the morning. Jaime had never shared a bed with a woman all the night through, not since he and Cersei had occasionally dared each other to stay all night while they’d still had rooms in the same wing of their father’s mansion. After one morning when the maid had nearly caught Jaime sneaking out of Cersei’s room, Cersei had vetoed it forever, had never even let him stay all night when he’d used to come to her penthouse years later.

So Jaime was used to waking up with a lonely hard-on and no hope of relief save what he could manage himself. As much as the thought of easing down Brienne’s smallclothes in the morning so she woke, sliding a finger along her slit till she drew closer and opened her massive thighs to him, was more than pleasant, Jaime commanded himself sternly to behave. There was basic trust and the memory of that afternoon between them now, but Brienne had a lifetime of skittishness to work through, and Jaime had to confess, however reluctantly, that he knew nothing about how to handle a woman, though evidently he knew a thing or two about how to make them moan his name in ecstasy.

Women aside, he was learning pretty quickly about Brienne, but he had to at least try to be careful with her.

There is such a thing as a one night stand, you know, the treacherous little voice in his head whispered. Apparently it had abandoned its customary position of urging Jaime to caution, and taken on the part of Stranger’s advocate instead.

Jaime was well aware that there were such things, but he had not been looking to check off a box labeled ‘fuck new partner’ when he’d brought Brienne home with him that afternoon, and he certainly wasn’t looking to do so now. Nor, he surmised, did one night stands involve sharing a bed with someone without actually fucking them. Nothing about Jaime’s life and temper made him well-suited to casual affairs, and Brienne was the same, albeit for different reasons.

Besides, he may have had just a taste of her, Jaime thought with a grin, but he wanted…

He wanted, wanted so much, and suspected he might never get enough of her. So he had to try to be careful and serious about this. Brienne deserved no less from him.

And they were partners, so while they’d have to sneak around and keep their being together a secret from everyone at work, Jaime had no intention of doing so all the time. He hadn’t taken Brienne for a quick fuck in that coffee shop’s restroom, though they’d both been ready for it. He certainly wasn’t going to fall back on old, deeply ingrained habits of secrecy from his years with Cersei, hedging himself in with barbed and wounding furtiveness. If they had to travel somewhere outside King’s Landing in order to hold hands or kiss without being seen by anyone who knew them, then by the gods Jaime would make sure Brienne and he quested to every distant and little-visited corner of the Seven Kingdoms on their vacations and days off.

Whatever it took. One step at a time.

Fortified by this resolution, Jaime slept and dreamed.

A repetition of the dream in which Brienne was spread-legged and wanton on his couch would have been nice. Instead Jaime was back at that thrice-damned warehouse, being held down by hands of iron, the weight of two men twisting his arms and shoulders till he felt wrenched apart, bone and flesh torn asunder.

Jaime panted and writhed to get away. Couldn’t: the men’s hands were like boulders, stone giants holding him fast. A blade flashed, not a pointy tip ready to drive itself into Jaime’s palm, but a wickedly curved blade of the kind the Dothraki of old had called an arakh. One only saw such blades in historical films now.

The blade did not look like a film prop: it glinted blue where the light struck it, blue as Brienne’s eyes, except there was nothing benevolent or kind about its edge.

The arakh flashed through the air, came down to chop off Jaime’s hand.

Jaime was silent, for he could not seem to make his tongue work, but he didn’t need to scream: Brienne was screaming on his behalf, screaming and shouting, angry and loud enough to bring the roof down on all their heads. Her voice was augmented by echoes until it became a roar which filled the world, uprooting trees, razing cities.

Jaime’s eyes cracked open to the pitch dark of sudden wakefulness. Even in his muzzy, shivering state, he knew that there was no true pitch blackness in a big-city night, awash in streetlights and headlights, neon and sodium as it was. He heard rather than saw Brienne writhe and breathe in distress beside him. She lay on Jaime’s left, even as he shook off the leaden weight of nightmare it was easy for him to reach over and shake her shoulder with his bandaged hand, a blunt paw rocking her awake.

“Brienne, wake up. Wake up, you’re having a nightmare.”

She inhaled loudly, a high-pitched sound halfway between a whine and a sob, and let it out, panting as though she’d just run for her life.

“It hurts.” Her voice was very small.

“What hurts?”

“My ribs. I must have lain awkwardly. Gave myself odd dreams.”

Odd? “Come here.”

Jaime couldn’t see her very clearly, but he could picture the skeptical look on Brienne’s sleep-muzzy, nightmare-heavy face well enough.

He slapped his left palm on his chest, over his heart. “Right here. Come on. I’ll just keep talking if you get stubborn, and you won’t get any sleep.”

Her snorted response sounded almost completely awake, familiar enough to chase away the last vestiges of Jaime’s dream from the corners of his eyes. Brienne breathed almost normally as she rolled over, closer to Jaime, grunting as her ribs pressed against the mattress, and laid her head shyly on his chest, a comforting weight. She was so big Jaime’s foot brushed her bare shin as they lay like that. He wrapped his left arm around Brienne so he could stroke her short hair, remembering vaguely how good and safe it had felt when she’d let him lie on her lap the night after his injury and stroked his hair till he’d fallen asleep, her thigh under his cheek a startling pillow, soft and smooth yet corded with muscle.

“I dreamt that we found Sansa Stark,” Brienne murmured, surprising Jaime not in the slightest. “She was being held captive in a cave by a… a dragon.”

She paused, waiting for Jaime to mock her or get angry. He did neither.

“It snapped its jaws at us and breathed fire. And you… uh…”

“Don’t tell me I pulled a flaming sword out of my back pocket and slew it?” Jaime teased.

“No.” Brienne sounded like she thought that was a ridiculous notion, even by the standards of dream logic. “You took your gun out of your holster, and you shot it. And Sansa smiled at us.”

That did not sound like a very distressing dream, all things considered. Jaime knew he was being ridiculous, but it was the middle of the night, and he couldn’t be bothered to stop the grin spreading across his face.

“Ser Jaime Lannister the Dragonslayer and his faithful squire,” he intoned solemnly. “Maidens rescued by the bushel.”

Squire,” Brienne complained with no real ire. “I’ll pinch you.”

Jaime slid his hand down her arm, fumbled for her hand, held squashed between the two of them, they were pressed so close together, comfort in the dark. He lifted Brienne’s hand and laid it on his stomach, close to his hipbone. “Pinch away,” he yawned, calm and sleep returning to him hand in hand.

Brienne’s warm palm curved around Jaime’s side, snug against the well-defined muscles under his T-shirt, finger pads gently pressing, still not daring to touch him as she wanted. Or too sleepy and therefore unwilling to do a shoddy job of touching him. Her voice was fond and just as sleepy as Jaime felt. “Don’t let me fall asleep like this. I’ll be heavy on you.”

Jaime made a noncommittal noise, though his eyes were already closed. He slept deeply and dreamed no more.

When both their phones started ringing just before 4 a.m., dawn not even beginning to leech the night from the city skyline to the east, Brienne still slept on Jaime’s chest. The left side of his chest as well as his left shoulder had gone numb, but Jaime did not mind in the least. Brienne jerked awake and rolled off him at once when their phones started shrilling, side by side on Jaime’s kitchen counter where Brienne had plugged them in to charge.

Honor had climbed up on the bed, as was her wont, after they’d gone back to sleep, and lay tucked up against Jaime’s other side, away from Brienne. Accepting, welcoming enough, but a cat still. She meowed in protest at the noise, the shifting of the mattress as the man and woman began to move in response to the ringing phones.

Bolton’s office number showed on both screens.

Chapter Text

Saturday, 5 a.m.

“We cannot blackmail the lieutenant, Jaime,” Brienne said while the copy machine emitted its rhythmic electronic whine, accompanied by flashes of green light.

Jaime sniffed. “I never used that word, did I? We need a classier word, something with vim and pizzazz. ‘Blackmail’ is so tawdry, don’t you think?”

Brienne glanced at him, then back at the machine spewing out copies of the DNA report Pia had given them. If that look was anything to go on, after they’d been woken from a pleasant sleep by summons to present themselves in Lieutenant Bolton’s office by nightshift’s end, given the reality of what they would have to bring up in conversation with Bolton, Jaime’s verbal somersaults were the last thing Brienne wanted to deal with.

Be honest, Brienne, Jaime smirked inside. You’re just sore because you didn’t get to sleep longer with your head pillowed on my chest. Or wake to the temptation of not waiting till we closed this case to let me in.

Out loud, Jaime sighed theatrically. “Of course we can blackmail Bolton. We’re all out of options, not to mention other leads. I know Bolton well enough to tell you that he will think nothing of busting us both back to uniform and inventing disciplinary charges to keep us busy with Internal Affairs for months, before he’d allow the truth about what kind of people he’s related to to get out. Or who knows,” Jaime added darkly. “Accidents can also be arranged to happen.”

Brienne’s eyes widened in startlement. She looked tired and still underslept. Her hair was a bird’s nest, her shirt rumpled from having been slept in, yet her eyes never lost any of their intense luster.

Sapphires, Jaime thought idly, pleased with the simile. Blue like the finest sapphires.

Brienne shaped the words like they were chunks of hot, molten glass in her mouth. “You mean…?”

Jaime shrugged. “Nothing I can prove. There have been plenty of rumors over the years. When Bolton was up for Night’s Watch lieutenant ten odd years ago, his main competitor got his head chopped off in a freak accident involving a lawnmower. A lawnmower, Brienne. Considering the Boltons used to skin their enemies alive, back North…”

“That was centuries ago, Jaime!”

“You know what they say about tried and tested methods, and old habits,” Jaime insisted.

Brienne shuddered at the thought, reached down to the copy machine’s tray. She tapped the copies together neatly on top of the machine, fetched the original out, and laid it carefully on top, like a sacred relic on a velvet cushion.

“Either way,” Jaime commented, “our reckoning is upon us. Either this scheme works and we close the case, or we both get fucked in highly unpleasant ways.”

Brienne managed to combine a sideways look with an eye-roll, eliciting a crooked smile from Jaime.

The first thing they’d done after they’d stumbled out of Jaime’s bedroom and seen that Bolton had finally decided to force them into a confrontation, had been to call Pia, strongly suggesting she take a few days off from work and get out of town. It had taken the sleepy Pia a little time to figure out what Brienne had been hinting at, but once the implications of a summons from Bolton had sunk in, she’d woken up right quick and remembered she had an aunt in Harrenhal she hadn’t seen in ages, who would be delighted at a short-notice visit from Pia.

With Pia taken care of, Jaime and Brienne had splashed their faces with cold water, tossed down a couple of coffees and their respective pain meds, and changed each other’s bandages. Brienne had made a sympathetic, assessing moue at the sight of Jaime’s wound before applying a new bandage quickly and gently, yet without handling him like he was a daffodil which might break in her hands. Jaime had done his level best to tickle Brienne’s waist and sides and pretend he would undo her bra while he’d helped change the bandages around her ribs. Brienne had squirmed and scolded, pink and adamantly not laughing. Finally they’d got dressed and made their way to the nearest non-stop copy center, finding it empty save for the clerk nodding off behind the register.

They’d just finished paying when Ygritte walked in with a sleepy-eyed Jon Snow and an alert Gendry Waters in tow. Jaime found it amusing that, while Brienne and Snow looked like they’d been dragged halfway through a hedge and would not be properly awake for hours, Ygritte was as sharp and bright-eyed as ever, as were Waters and Jaime, more comfortable with a nocturnal life cycle after having worked the nightshift for a while.

At least Snow has the good excuse of this being his night off, and having been balls-deep inside Ygritte before we called, Jaime thought, a touch sourly. Snow was certainly getting for free what Ygritte’s johns paid for, but he got even more than that: he got Ygritte or at least as much of her as the red-haired woman was willing to give.

Jaime checked his watch: it was only about twelve hours since Brienne had made him come with little more than her hand and eyes, the closeness of her skin and the taste of her lingering in his mouth. Jaime was having serious trouble contemplating their coming confrontation with Bolton or anything else having to do with the Stark case. His mind kept drifting to Brienne asleep on his chest, Brienne a solid, palpable presence in his bed, Brienne smiling down at him over his head-butting that asshole Hunt, Brienne getting dressed and undressed in front of him as though it were no big deal since, even not counting that afternoon, Jaime had seen her wet in her smallclothes practically on the first day of their acquaintance, Brienne stroking his cock and kissing his throat, Brienne flushed and bright-eyed and slack-jawed with pleasure after he’d made her come, Brienne, Brienne, Brienne…

Ygritte punched him on the shoulder. His right shoulder. A pang shot through his freshly bandaged hand. Jaime winced, but Ygritte was oblivious.

“I was gonna give you a right talking to,” she leered up at him, all wrinkled nose and smug smile. “We barely got to sleep when you woke us. Looking at you now, Lannister, I pity you. You got woken up and you didn’t even get any sugar, now did you?”

She glanced from Jaime to Brienne, who’d taken Waters aside and was speaking to him very earnestly about something Jaime couldn’t hear. Ygritte looked back at Jaime, waggling her eyebrows, nodding her head in Brienne’s direction, and pulling faces like a twelve-year-old.

Jaime favored the redhead with a patronizing smile. “Euphemisms are not well-suited to women in your profession, Ygritte.”

Ygritte could think what she liked: if Jaime tried to deny anything, she would only tease more.

Jaime foresaw years of being teased for working with Brienne. He could handle it, even if he also expected he’d be compelled to deal out a few more head-butts, as and when circumstances warranted.

Before Ygritte could open her big mouth again, Jon Snow proved how well matched they were by stepping in and handing Jaime the morning edition of the King’s Landing Post, the ink so fresh it left a black, greasy residue on Snow’s palm. “Page three,” Snow said quietly.

It was only a few paragraphs, but it was there: an article in the middle of the page speculated on the possible connection between a recently discovered pornography ring which may have even used minors, and the disappearance of two teenage girls from an affluent part of the city. Better and better: Jeyne Poole and Sansa Stark were identified by name.

A leak on the force was possible, though Jaime doubted it: it was not in Bolton’s interest to have the tale spread. Jaime would have bet a month’s salary this was Baelish utilizing his connections in the media, trying to use the newspapers to gain leverage over his rogue accomplice. If what Doc Tarly had said was correct, the accomplice – the minion, as Sam had called him – would respond by lashing out again. A finger, an ear, a nipple, her nose… There were so many parts on a young girl’s body which could be removed without costing her her life.

As much as he would have liked to spare Brienne this, Jaime beckoned her over as soon as he saw her conversation with Waters end, showed her the article. She was strong enough to bear it, and it was necessary information. Still, Jaime would have liked to spare her.

She blanched under her freckles as she read, drawing all the correct conclusions. Clever Brienne, Jaime thought fondly as he watched her read, remembering the only other time something had shocked her so badly as to drain all color from her face: when he’d told her about Cersei, what, two days ago? It felt like longer.

“You remember what Doc Tarly said, about the instigator and the minion fighting for dominance?” Jaime asked when Brienne lowered the newspaper, biting her lip and breathing heavily. She nodded. “‘Blackmail’ is an ugly word. So is ‘torture.’ So is ‘mutilation.’”

Yet again, again and again, Jaime found his thoughts, his blood flow, his very breathing seized and held hostage by the brilliant, open, cascading blue of her eyes.

Brienne nodded once more, trying to convince herself she was ready. “Let’s go see Bolton,” she murmured.

They gave Snow, Waters, and Ygritte a couple of copies each, sealed in plain envelopes, to be distributed for safekeeping among reliable police officers of their acquaintance and those of Ygritte’s colleagues she genuinely trusted. The more people were entrusted with a secret, the more likely it was to get out, but Jaime was more concerned about Bolton burying the truth than the truth getting out too soon. The old leech had to be convinced that Brienne and Jaime’s safety really wasn’t something Bolton could trifle with before they could try to leverage their dangerous knowledge into help with the Stark case.

From the copy center, Jaime and Brienne drove to the King’s Landing branch of the Iron Bank of Braavos, famous for its discretion and doors-always-open policy. Jaime had an account with them for his salary deposits and living expenses, ever since his father had cut him off and continuing to bank with Lion Bank, the banking branch of Lannister Enterprises, had ceased to seem like a good idea. A crisply awake, soberly dressed, professionally nondescript bank official arranged for a safe deposit box right away, in which Jaime laid the original DNA report.

When Jaime and Brienne arrived at the precinct at last, early morning was turning the city streets a thin, washed-out grey. The very early risers, the very late night owls, and stray cats were the only other creatures abroad at that hour.

“What were you talking to Waters about so intently?” Jaime inquired as Brienne fidgeted beside him while they waited for the elevator.

She ducked her head, her eyes haunted. “He shot that man, the one they called Biter. I was thanking him. I think I made him uncomfortable.”

The first time Jaime had used his weapon outside a firing range had been during his days in uniform. Confronted with an armed burglar, Jaime had shot the man in the stomach, center of mass, textbook shot. The first time he’d taken a life had been during a hostage situation. Jaime could still see the man he’d killed, name of Sandor Clegane, hideous burn scars covering half his face, and hear the terrified screech of the young girl Clegane had tried to abduct out of some delusional need to protect her from her adoptive parents. Jaime had known then that killing Clegane like a mad dog had been the right choice, knew it still. The memory had still kept him up nights. He’d never forgotten Clegane’s name or the man’s face.

“It was probably Waters’ first time killing someone,” Jaime told Brienne once they were in the elevator. “He’s still in shock. When he snaps out of it, he’ll remember you thanking him. He’ll never tell you, but it will help him cope.”

Jaime wondered if he should tell her what else was on his mind, decided he wasn’t so craven as to speak up for young Waters and not acknowledge what Brienne had done for him, Jaime. He’d been high on pain killers when he’d thanked her at the hospital, and the point bore repeating.

“When it hits you that you killed one of those bastards at the warehouse, just remember: this,” he put his bandaged hand level with Brienne’s eyes, “could have been my neck. Or my head. It may well be that it’s only thanks to you I still draw breath. Remember that.”

Brienne watched him, shocked denial that she should take any credit for saving Jaime’s life and a profound, touched tenderness warring on her plain face. She was blushing by the time the tenderness won out. She nodded, tried to smile, and looked away, blushing even more warmly.

Jaime felt like doing some blushing himself by then. Mercifully the elevator door opened, and they headed for Bolton’s office, past members of the Night’s Watch yawning in the dawn light, gathering their things to go home, bats returning to their cave.

“Ready for this?” Jaime asked facetiously.

“Gods, no,” Brienne breathed. “Let’s do it anyway.”

Jaime raised his good hand to knock. “If things go south, I can always fake another seizure.”

This made Brienne almost laugh, though it came out as more of a snort. “Don’t overdo it.”

Roose Bolton’s pale, river-pebble eyes fixed on them without any of his usual dry, knowing amusement.

“My most elusive detectives,” Bolton said, a twitch of his lizard lips. “You two look very… domestic.” He eyed Brienne’s rumpled shirt and mussed-up hair, the circles under both their eyes.

Jaime wondered if centuries of flaying people alive had led Bolton’s ancestors to dabble in blood magic, allowing him to read their minds and memories. Jaime grinned in response. “We do have a case to work.” He paused deliberately before adding, “Sir.”

Bolton leaned back in his chair, steepling his fingers in a way which reminded Jaime of his father’s favorite pontificating pose. “Ah yes, the child kidnapping which is now over three days old. Making it almost certainly a homicide, except you do not even have a body. Have you anything, in fact?”

Bolton hadn’t offered them a seat, not that Jaime had expected as much. He prepared to take special pleasure in telling Bolton exactly what they had from an advantage of height, while Brienne fumbled through an explanation about forensics and the warehouse raid and pursuing several avenues of inquiry. Cop speak for ‘we have nothing,’ and both Brienne and Bolton knew it.

Bolton looked from Brienne to Jaime, jerked his hairless chin at Jaime’s waist. “You cannot use your right hand, yet you still wear your gun, and on your right hip, I might add.”

Jaime lifted his bandaged hand, glanced at it in mock surprise. “I still have it here, though,” he taunted. “Almost as good as new.”

Brienne cleared her throat. Jaime ignored her.

Bolton, in turn, ignored Jaime. His eyes swiveled back to Brienne, a mill wheel rolling closer to crush them. “And you can barely stand up straight with those broken ribs.”

“Cracked, sir,” Brienne muttered.

“You should both be on sick leave. Not to mention, I believe you received a transfer, Detective Tarth.”

Brienne jerked up to her full height, though her voice remained scrupulously polite. Jaime admired her for it.

“An offer of transfer, sir, which I do not intend to accept.”

“And why should you, when your talents are so admirably well suited to the Night’s Watch?” Bolton replied coolly. “Cutting corners, evading your superiors, botching investigations, allowing information about an ongoing investigation to be leaked to the press…”

Jaime didn’t need to turn his head to know that Brienne was radiating bright red and about to sputter in outraged denial, on Jaime’s behalf even more than her own. He’d had enough of this stupid game anyway, reached into his left jacket pocket, and brought out a folded copy of Pia’s report.

“Uncovering vital new evidence,” Jaime drawled in a bored tone as he shook out the sheet of paper and prepared to read out loud. “Let’s see: DNA analysis results, blah blah, hair and semen found on the floor of Vargo Hoat’s warehouse, blah blah blah… Here it is.”

Jaime cleared his throat very loudly. “A search of the Registered Offenders database found a match with one Ramsay Snow, current address unknown. A search of the Crown Employees database turned up a partial DNA match with the profile of one Roose Bolton, currently Lieutenant with the King’s Landing Police Department, address in…”

Jaime looked up with a slow, insolent smile. “Well, I imagine you know where you live. Sir.”

Jaime had to give it to the man: he might just have read out a grocery list, for all the emotion Bolton displayed. Not that Jaime had expected Bolton to blush and fumble like Brienne. But for a slight tremor in Bolton’s left eyelid, Jaime might have doubted the likelihood of his first ever blackmail attempt ending in success.

That telltale twitch was all Jaime needed. They had the old leech, now to reel him in and get him to cough up the information they needed.

“While it may amuse and astonish you to discover every family tree occasionally bears an… unsatisfactory apple, Detective Lannister, I fail to perceive how this helps you solve the Stark case.”

Jaime was about to give an equally verbose and provoking answer, but Brienne’s quiet, fierce voice beat him to it.

“Ramsay Snow is the missing link. Jeyne Poole, Vargo Hoat, Sansa Stark, Petyr Baelish.”

She hesitated for only a fraction of a moment before mentioning Baelish’s name. Bolton lifted his eyebrows at that, which was all the confirmation Jaime required. Brava, pardner.

Brienne showed Bolton one of the stills from the snuff film: Jeyne Poole being choked by the man who’d had his back to the camera, only his dark hair and almost hairless body partly visible. Her tone was clipped: a cop confirming basic facts with a recalcitrant witness. “Does this man look like Ramsay Snow? Where can we find him?”

Bolton tapped his fingertips together once, twice. “Dragging my name through the muck won’t help you solve the Stark case.”

Until his father had disowned him, Jaime had spent more hours of his life than he cared to remember listening to Tywin Lannister go on at great length about family and duty and legacy. More cumulative hours than I spent inside Cersei, probably. Jaime had never got the chance or had the courage to say as much to his father, so he said what was in his heart now to his lieutenant.

“With all due respect, fuck your name, Bolton. We care about finding Sansa Stark alive. Your, I’m guessing son’s from his date of birth and degree of DNA match, activities will leak out sooner or later. Everybody knows cops gossip worse than fishwives. Tell us where we can find Ramsay Snow, then you can see about covering your back. Just make sure no lawnmowers happen to Brienne or me. Otherwise the press might get wind of how you persuaded the Commissioner to offer Brienne a transfer in order to bury this whole case.”

Brienne started violently, but Jaime only had eyes for Bolton. Two tiny, round spots of color appeared high on the man’s pale, smooth cheeks, like the painted-on pink rouge on a porcelain doll’s face.

Jaime tamped down the visceral triumph which surged up inside him. He hadn’t been certain, not completely, not until just now. The attack on Brienne’s father and Jaime’s car getting vandalized could have been instigated by Bolton or Baelish. It fit both men’s personalities to arrange something so underhanded and indirect, which would hit him and Brienne where it hurt. (Bugger my car! It would hurt if something were to happen to Brienne. Jaime pushed that thought away.)

Brienne being offered a transfer – it made more sense for Bolton to have arranged that than for Baelish to have pulled strings from a distance to sabotage their investigation that way. Jaime hadn’t actually made provisions to leak the DNA report to the press, beyond giving copies to Jon Snow, Gendry Waters, and Ygritte. He hadn’t mentioned the possibility that Bolton was behind her transfer to Brienne because he’d wanted to be sure, and now he was.

“With your track record and reputation, Lannister, who’d believe you?” Bolton inquired with every semblance of calm. “You should really learn not to overplay your…” He glanced at Jaime’s bandaged hand pointedly, then back up at Jaime’s face. “Position.

Jaime grinned, brandished the mass of bandages and wounded flesh. “Too late. My position will be just fine. As will your career, maybe, if you tell us what we need to know. Nobody needs to believe me.” Jaime turned to Brienne. “They need to believe Brienne, and they will. Her track record may not be pristine, but it’s far and away better than mine.”

Her cheeks were pink, and her eyes shone. Brienne held Jaime’s gaze, nodded silently, and faced Bolton, holding up the still from the snuff film again.

“Ramsay Snow? Where can we find him?”

Bolton watched the still with an expression which was almost blank. What wasn’t blank about it looked to Jaime curiously like the disappointed disgust he had so often glimpsed on his own father’s face.

“That boy has been nothing but a nuisance since the day I begot him on his bitch of a mother, which is why I never gave him my name,” Bolton murmured, still in that detached, dry tone. “His amusements are his own, but at least he kept them somewhat discreet before. I thought he knew better than to commit them to film.”

Bolton’s eyes still gave nothing away when he looked up at Jaime and Brienne. “I have not seen or heard from Ramsay since an unpleasantness of his I had to clean up some years back. I choose not to acquaint myself with the details of his activities. I will tell you this: Petyr Baelish is a clever man, but like all his kind he revels too much in his cleverness. He has been dabbling at the wrong end of the adult entertainment spectrum for nearly as long as I have been out of uniform. And he likes to keep mementoes of his exploits close by. I will have Judge Pycelle sign an arrest warrant and a search warrant for Baelish’s business premises. Any connection you establish between Baelish and Ramsay bypasses me. Is that understood?”

Brienne had fed him Baelish’s name, and the old leech had seized on it, deflecting the issue of his son’s role in Sansa Stark’s disappearance. But nabbing Baelish would be no mean feat, and could lead them to Ramsay Snow. So Jaime nodded in agreement. Brienne clearly wanted to argue, but followed Jaime’s lead with a tiny nod of her own.

She could barely contain herself until they were out of Bolton’s office and walking down the corridor.

“We’re not just going to let him get away with this, are we?” Brienne hissed. “He has known his son is a violent criminal, a, a rapist and a murderer, for years, and now…”

Jaime cut her off. “Of course we’re not going to bury Bolton’s dirty little secret for him, and keep your bloody voice down, will you? We need Bolton to get us those warrants, since it may have slipped your mind in the heat of the moment that we have precisely zero other options. Let’s see what we can wring out of Baelish. Then I’ll sit down and pick which journalist to leak Pia’s report to.”

Brienne demurred stubbornly. “It’s circumstantial. The report doesn’t prove Bolton was involved in what happened to Jeyne or Sansa…”

“Because he probably wasn’t, I do believe the old leech that much. This isn’t about facts any more, Brienne, it’s about reputations, and Bolton’s won’t be worth a mummer’s fart by the time the papers are done with him. Believe me, I know.”

Brienne’s hand on Jaime’s arm was light as a snowflake, yet it stopped him in his tracks. “You are not like Bolton. Or his son,” Brienne insisted fervently. “You must remember that.”

Jaime caressed her cheek with his finger: a dangerous indulgence while they were at work, but he felt like doing it. “I’m no innocent, but I do draw the line at abducting, raping, and killing little girls. Whether the world is improved by dethroning Roose Bolton from his place of power on the force or not, on my head be it.”

Brienne squeezed his bicep. Jaime wondered, not for the first time, at her strength and how effortlessly she acted with gentleness despite it. “On our heads, Jaime. Partners, remember?”

Jaime couldn’t help thinking back to his words in the elevator. If Brienne had never transferred to King’s Landing or if she’d gone back to Tarth to take care of her father, Jaime would have been working the Stark case alone, he’d have been all alone in that warehouse.

Not alone. There were swarms of police there. No need to be dramatic.

Alone. Without her to have my back.

He patted the fingers which squeezed his arm with his bandaged paw, smiled. It was not what he would have chosen for her, but Brienne was a grown woman and she had made her choice. The least Jaime could do was respond in equal measure, quite apart from how warm Brienne’s adamant support made him feel.

“As you say, m’lady. Partners.”

Chapter Text

Saturday, 9 a.m.

Watching uniforms turn Petyr Baelish’s place of business upside down was not unlike watching black ants swarm over a branch of just the right length and shape and number of leaves to be of use camouflaging the entrance to their nest, Brienne thought.

Though they seemed at first glance to move around aimlessly and cross each other’s paths more often than was strictly necessary, the officers who had accompanied Jaime and Brienne went about their assigned tasks with precision, focus, and economy of movement. Like circus artists highly skilled in the performance of seemingly mundane tasks, they looked through binders, filing cabinets, desk drawers, and supply closets, checked furniture and walls for hidden compartments, light fixtures and electrical sockets for hidden cameras, all with an odd grace, almost a choreography. Anything which might prove even remotely useful in implicating Baelish in Sansa Stark’s disappearance was considered, turned over, shaken out, prodded, and abandoned or bagged and tagged, a waltz of potential evidence being assembled.

Jaime knew many of the uniforms by name and seemed at ease with them, while they exchanged wary looks behind his back. Brienne suspected Jaime was well aware of their ambivalence. She’d deferred to Jaime in coordinating the search while she’d stood at Jaime’s elbow, watching the other officers’ faces, consigning visages and name tags to memory. Brienne wouldn’t be the new transfer to the K.L.P.D. forever: she needed to start finding her feet, distinguish potential allies from certified jackasses, not rely on Jaime to always mediate between her and the uniforms.

Jaime had cracked a joke before dismissing everyone to their tasks, something about rattling the cage to see what song the mockingbird started singing. It hadn’t been one of Jaime’s best, but the uniforms had laughed anyway.

They’ll go for a beer after their shift and talk about that Kingslayer, how he isn’t all bad, Brienne couldn’t help thinking. A little stuck-up, maybe, but not bad. Yet if Jaime’s name ever becomes the subject of cafeteria gossip again, they will all nod sagely and pretend he never fooled them for a moment.

Everyone present at the search supposedly served the same cause, but the gap between uniformed police and plainclothes detectives seemed sometimes to Brienne as wide and unbridgeable as the one between the kings and peasants of old. Many crossed that bridge in one direction; some even went or were forced back to uniform, yet it was as though the bridge and all recollection of the other side were expunged from memory after the crossing. Brienne could remember the events from her days in uniform well enough (the first time she’d fired her gun on duty, Lily the bear, the second and, she’d been convinced, last time she’d got naked with someone), but she could no longer look at the world through a uniform’s eyes. Advancing through the ranks had changed her, as had every place where she had served. And now here she was, in the middle of a pornographer’s office suite, supervising a search with her partner, her lover, her friend.

Shameful as the sensation was, devoid of all objectivity or pretense at fairness, Brienne’s right hand positively itched to slap handcuffs on Petyr Baelish’s skinny wrists.

The warrants had come through just before eight a.m., enabling Jaime, Brienne, and their uniformed retinue to arrive at Mockingbird Productions just in time for the start of a regular workday. Brienne had served the search warrant to Baelish’s flustered office assistant, who’d stuttered about parts of the office being private and tried to prevent officers from going everywhere by fluttering her manicured hands at them before retreating back to her desk, where a uniform watched her like a hawk.

The air was alive with the clang of metal file drawers being pulled open, the rustle of paper, the careless, dull thump of objects which did not yield anything promising for the investigation being replaced none too carefully. Brienne leaned back against a wall next to Jaime, keeping out of the uniforms’ way, and thought that she might try to call her father later. Selwyn Tarth would grumble that one piddly blow to the head did not make him an invalid and Brienne didn’t need to check up on him, but she could already hear the pleased, touched undertone in his voice.

Baelish arrived for another hard day of peddling smut while the search was in full swing. He stepped off the elevator, his suit cut to lend some illusory breadth of shoulder to his slight physique, his goatee neatly trimmed, his aviator sunglasses making it impossible to see Baelish’s eyes. Their opaque lenses were fixed on Jaime and Brienne where they stood leaning against the wall outside Baelish’s private office with the floor to ceiling windows and the large female nude on the wall, which half a dozen uniforms were tearing apart.

Baelish trotted out a wafer-thin smile, not bothering to remove his shades. “I presume you have a search warrant?”

Jaime fanned himself with the relevant document, grinned broadly. “Brienne will do the honors for the other one.”

Brienne pulled the arrest warrant out of her jacket pocket for Baelish to see. She still had to say the charges out loud for everything to be official. While Jaime could hardly be expected to snap handcuffs on Baelish one-handed, Brienne suspected his leaving the arrest warrant to her was Jaime’s way of saying that she had let the Stark case get to her, but it was all right: Jaime would not judge Brienne’s need to see the case through.

“Petyr Baelish, you are under arrest for abduction of a minor, conspiracy to commit the abduction of a minor, unlawful imprisonment of a minor, and distributing illegal video material,” Brienne recited by rote, then read him his rights.

Baelish inclined his head so his face was in shadow, and Brienne finally caught a glimpse of his eyes. She longed to snatch the sunglasses off his face, so he’d have to look her in the eye.

“This is highly irregular,” Baelish said, unperturbed. “An arrest performed by two officers who are clearly in no physical condition to be on active duty? My lawyer will eat you both alive.”

“He might need some prunes to go with that,” Jaime drawled. “I’m tough as old boots, and Brienne’s all muscle and sinew.”

Brienne blushed, couldn’t help her eyes drifting to Jaime. Must he joke even now? Jaime gave her a brilliant smile, and she turned her gaze quickly back to Baelish.

Baelish was looking between them speculatively. Before he could say anything, Brienne ushered him into his office, where two uniforms had wrestled the large nude off the wall to reveal… a patch of blank wall.

Jaime stopped dead in his tracks beside Brienne, who gaped at the wall over Baelish’s head. Bolton had told them Baelish liked to keep souvenirs of his exploits close by. There was nowhere else he could have hidden a safe or other secret compartment in his office, which was all tubular furniture and two glass walls. The uniforms had even cut open the leather cushions on the chairs and couch. Stuffing dragged on the floor like dead men’s hair grown long in the grave, but no hidden treasures had been uncovered.

“Inflicting damage on private property is not part of a regular search process.”

Never mind handcuffs: Baelish sounded so thrice-damned cool and sure of himself, Brienne’s hand itched to slap him. She squeezed her hands into fists, down by her sides.

Jaime couldn’t squeeze his dominant hand into a fist, but that didn’t stop him from hitting something. He strode up to the patch of wall formerly covered by the painting, and started knocking on it experimentally.

Brienne glanced at Baelish. His cool mask hadn’t so much slipped as gone a bit crooked. The skin on his temples was bunched like a crumpled napkin because he’d narrowed his eyes behind his shades, and he looked like he was chewing the inside of his mouth.

A section of the wall Jaime was testing sounded different from the rest. “Get a hand drill,” Jaime commanded without turning around. Two uniforms got stuck in the door briefly in their haste to obey.

The smirk Jaime turned on Baelish would have drawn Brienne’s brows together in a scowl only a few days earlier. Now, it was all she could do not to beam at Jaime like a green girl. Mentally she shook her head at her own folly, but it did no good. It warmed her chest and the pit of her stomach to see Jaime like this after the few days they’d just had, so easy in his self-confidence, so smug in triumph, despite his injury and lack of sleep and everything else which had happened.

For her part, Brienne was tired, hungry, and still underslept. Woven through all that, sneaking its way past the constant, dull pain of her cracked ribs knitting back together, the bone-tiredness which made her knees and pelvis feel far older than their twenty-eight years, her urgent desire for more breakfast, was another need. Brienne had managed to ignore it for several hours, while she and Jaime had fought their duel of wills with Bolton, waited for the warrants to come through while wolfing down a sandwich each, and organized the uniforms who’d accompanied them to Baelish’s. Now their goal was finally within reach, that need had risen to the surface and seized Brienne like a giant’s fist, an almost physical compulsion.

Jaime.

Jaime, her stomach growled as though it would eat him.

Jaime, her thighs grasped blindly to hold him.

Jaime, her breasts wanted, wanted, wanted him, pebbling and distracting under her clothes.

Jaime, her heart whispered, still frightened, still small, though it wanted to swell up. If only Brienne would let it.

Her heart had joined her brain and other parts of her in blithely ignoring the small fact that she had only known Jaime for a few days, even though it felt like longer. An unspecified time longer, a week, a month, a geologic age. How long did it take to know someone? To learn about them, evidently not that long. But to really know them…

Brienne took a deep, steadying breath as Jaime addressed Baelish. “If you’re going to hide something behind a painting and a fake section of wall, you should make sure the plaster under the painting is of a different shade from the rest of the wall. Otherwise it’s obvious the painting is moved often.”

Baelish’s mouth twisted, but he said nothing while the uniforms piled back into the office and started drilling into the wall where Jaime indicated. Brienne handcuffed the porn producer while Jaime asked archly whether Baelish wouldn’t like to open the safe for them, save everyone a lot of trouble and having to shake plaster dust out of their clothes. Baelish predictably declined and was led away while uniforms removed the compartment shielding his wall safe from sight.

The safe had an electronic lock with more blinking lights than a busy city crossing. Jaime heaved a long-suffering sigh as he dialed a number on his cell phone.

“Podrick! A fine morning to you. What do you know about safes? The electronic kind, of course, if it were the old-fashioned kind I’d need a stick of dynamite, not you.” Jaime listened, sighed. “Of course we won’t attempt to blow it open, Podrick, we need whatever’s inside intact.”

Jaime looked at Brienne, then slowly lifted his eyes up to the ceiling.

“How soon can you get here? Can you make it twenty minutes instead? If you get here in twenty, I’ll get you the name of that new lad from the mailroom, the sight of whom always makes you blush.” Jaime barely paused for breath. “Of course you’re not interested in him. Relationships between coworkers are frowned upon according to the King’s Landing Public Employees’ Code of Conduct. Everybody knows that. Tell you what, I’ll get you his name and his phone number if you get here in fifteen.”

Jaime hung up, cutting Podrick off in the middle of an outraged squawk. Brienne looked at Jaime inquiringly.

Jaime shrugged. “Lad’s a computer genius, can’t figure out how to get someone’s number. Or his name, and yet we all supposedly work for the police.”

Thinking of Jaime’s distinct lack of experience in that area, Brienne wondered if she would regret asking the obvious. “And you will procure this information for Pod by…?”

“The simple way. By asking, and making sure Mr. Mailroom knows it is for Podrick. Just in case Pod can’t get up the nerve to actually call.”

Brienne couldn’t help the smile which tugged at her cheeks. “You’re terrible. Podrick will be so embarrassed.”

“What can I say, making people blush is a special skill of mine.”

Jaime was smiling at her in that knowing way. Brienne had to look away. This is neither the time, nor the place, nor the… the… Brienne glanced at her watch, silently begged Podrick to get there fast. Someone would notice, they were surrounded by cops, and Brienne was barely keeping her body in check as it was. She found the unfamiliar sensation of her body not obeying her completely, asserting its own will instead, jittery and desirous despite pain and lack of sleep, both disturbing and oddly comforting.

Sansa Stark is still missing. Get a grip, Brienne.

Once he arrived (sixteen minutes, red-cheeked with the exertion), it took Podrick all of five minutes to open the safe. Jaime clapped the lad on the shoulder, said he’d try to wrangle him a dinner date with Mr. Mailroom as well as his name and phone number. Blushing and muttering, Pod departed.

In addition to cash and piles of arcane papers, the safe was full of DVDs, all neatly labeled with dates and names. Some were even in Mockingbird Productions slipcases. None bore Sansa’s name.

Brienne swallowed the lump of hot coal in her throat, reminded herself chances had been slim that they would find such hard evidence, especially if Samwell Tarly was right, and relations between Baelish and his violent minion had soured since the kidnapping. Brienne glanced at Jaime, recognized the frustrated irritation he barely held in check. She wanted to take his hand, reminded herself of where they were.

“Come on, Jaime,” she said quietly. “Baelish will be all lawyered-up by now. At least we have something to start with.”

She held up a slipcase bearing the name of Jeyne Poole. Jaime’s eyes glittered. It was only a tenuous link to Sansa Stark, but even that was more than they’d had when they’d stepped into Bolton’s office earlier that morning.

Interrogating Baelish proved every bit as frustrating as interrogating Vargo Hoat had been, though the frustration was of a different flavor. Where Hoat had been all crude bluster and violent arrogance, a man unafraid of yet another sojourn in prison, Baelish was all cold disdain and absolute certainty in his own inviolability. If he did go to prison, he would survive by making himself indispensable to the other prisoners, the man through whose hands all information and contraband passed, who kept a cut of everything, and collected favors the way little boys collected plastic toy knights from cereal boxes.

Baelish did not bother with insults. He simply replied to every question with ‘No comment.’ His expression barely flickered when they brought in a TV and DVD player, and played the DVD found in the safe: Jeyne Poole’s death.

Jaime paused the film while Brienne stared at the girl’s contorted face. She had to order herself to look from the TV screen to Baelish’s blank, shuttered expression.

“An odd thing for a ‘respectable businessman’ to keep in his safe,” Jaime said, not even bothering with air quotes around the phrase Baelish had used the first time they’d interviewed him.

Jaime indicated Ramsay Snow, his back to the camera, his hands around Jeyne’s slender neck. “Can you identify this man?”

“No comment.”

Brienne brought out a mug shot of Snow taken when he’d been remanded to juvie at thirteen for beating up a kid in his class. Snow had worn steel-capped boots – the other lad had required dentures and facial reconstructive surgery. The incident had proved the last occasion until that week when Ramsay Snow had pinged on the authorities’ radar. Whatever else he was, he was not stupid.

Brienne held up the mug shot for Baelish’s inspection, careful to keep the distaste off her face.

“No comment.”

The only flicker of reaction they got from Baelish was when they asked about his connection to Catelyn Stark.

“She is an old friend. I would never do anything to hurt Cat,” Baelish insisted with more fervor than he’d shown at any point till then – which wasn’t much, but it snagged Brienne’s attention anyway. “If I knew where the girl is, I would do something about it. Anything to end Cat’s agony.”

Brienne frowned. If I knew where the girl is, I would do something about it.

Jaime was about to ask another question, but Brienne laid a hand on his arm, consulted her watch, rattled off the time for the tape, and suspended the interview. Frowning, Jaime followed her outside.

“He said he doesn’t know where Sansa is,” Brienne began.

Jaime raised an eyebrow. “If you asked him his birth date, he’d say ‘no comment,’ Brienne.”

Brienne shook her head emphatically. “You’re not listening. He said ‘no comment’ to everything, except when we asked about Catelyn Stark. Then he hastened to say he doesn’t know where Sansa is. What if he really doesn’t? What if Ramsay Snow never told him where he’s keeping Sansa?”

“How exactly does that help us?”

“I’m not sure,” Brienne mused out loud. “But there’s something…”

She looked up from her shoes, into Jaime’s eyes. They were tired but focused, patiently waiting for Brienne to show him a way out of this dark cave.

It wasn’t regular police procedure. Brienne suggested it anyway.

“I think we should bring in Catelyn Stark, let her confront Baelish. This was never about money, and it’s not about pornography either, not really. It’s personal for him. You heard what Doctor Tarly said. It’s the mother he really wants, not the daughter.”

Jaime adopted a speculative expression, which looked remarkably like his bored and annoyed expression. Brienne feared he’d scold her for trying to bypass regulations, but then a slow smile wiped away some of Jaime’s exhaustion, lent a renewed spark to his green eyes. He smiled at Brienne, nodding in agreement, and she felt warm right down to her toes. She knew it was silly, but she wriggled her toes inside her shoes, enjoying the almost palpable sensation of Jaime’s smile on her skin.

Catelyn Stark had aged ten years in the two days since Brienne had last seen her, but she strode through the door of the precinct in a whirlwind of red hair and nervous energy, a red priestess come to wreak vengeance on those who had wronged her. She’d left Arya in the care of Edmure Tully and his wife, and come alone. The pale skin of her face looked like thin, cracked leather from weeping and lack of sleep, but her blue eyes blazed like chips of Northern ice.

Jaime brought Mrs. Stark a cup of coffee, which remained untouched while Brienne briefly outlined what they could prove: about Ramsay Snow, about Jeyne Poole, about Petyr Baelish. Brienne skipped the part about Sansa’s hair, and just as well. Catelyn Stark looked like she would cry once or twice but restrained herself, formidable even in her exhausted panic.

Brienne stayed with her while Jaime got rid of Baelish’s lawyer under the pretense that Baelish was being transferred to the central city lockup. Jaime texted Brienne when he had Baelish alone.

Petyr Baelish barely looked up at the opening door of the disused interrogation room where Jaime watched him. He sported a look of tired boredom, resembling a man waiting for a delayed flight more than someone who’d kept hard-working police up nights trying to piece this blasted case together.

He scrambled to his feet when Catelyn Stark entered. “Cat!” Baelish exclaimed.

With a shudder of relief, Brienne knew she was right about him. Baelish’s face was that of a porcelain doll come to sudden life, joy and trepidation clashing, neither sitting easy on his features.

Catelyn Stark was having none of it.

“Where is she, Petyr? What have you done with her?” Her voice trembled like a wine glass flicked with a knife tip, but it did not break. Catelyn Stark was letting herself be angry at last, all the terror she had dragged behind her like a ball and chain for several days finally condensed and drawn up, a spear point. Baelish backed up a step when she advanced into the room, lifted his hands, placating, almost wheedling, plucked out of his element.

“Cat, I would never do anything to hurt you.”

That’s not what she asked, Brienne wanted to say, bit her lip to stop the words from coming out. Also, bullcrap.

“I’ll be right back,” Jaime murmured to Brienne, slipped out before she could so much as draw breath.

Catelyn Stark was still nearly towering over Baelish, though her voice had taken on a pleading tone. Baelish kept reassuring her he’d never harm her when Jaime returned with a thick phonebook under his arm.

He offered the phonebook to Catelyn Stark.

“Old cops’ trick, somewhat fallen by the wayside in these enlightened times,” Jaime said with a thin smile. “If you hit the suspect with a phonebook, it doesn’t leave easily identifiable bruises like if you were to hit him with your fist or your foot, and you don’t risk broken bones or torn skin.”

Brienne opened her mouth, but no sound came out.

Catelyn Stark stared at Jaime as though he’d taken leave of his senses and was the most revolting person in the Seven Kingdoms, to boot.

She squeezed her lips in a white line and seized the phonebook out of Jaime’s outstretched hand like a morning star she was about to twirl above her head.

Jaime had Brienne by the sleeve, was tugging her out of the room and closing the door behind them, and Brienne still hadn’t spoken. The corridor was empty, the camera in the interrogation room switched off.

Brienne slumped against the wall, muffled thumps, yells, and cries just barely audible from the soundproofed room.

Jaime leaned against the wall beside her, his left hand in his pocket, his right hanging heavy by his side, a dead weight.

“I’m sorry, Brienne,” he murmured. “I know you don’t like it, but we don’t have time to play pissing games with Baelish, and I think this is the least we can do for Catelyn Stark. It might be the only thing we can do for her at this point.”

Brienne could think of at least half a dozen reasons against doing what Jaime had done and she had allowed. Outraged exclamations crowded the back of her throat, but all she let out was a defeated sigh, her chin dropping to rest on her chest.

“I know. I know,” she said softly.

It was not right or just or correct according to the laws of gods or the Crown, that they should allow a suspect in their custody to get his ass handed to him with the aid of a phonebook. Yet thinking about Jeyne Poole and Sansa Stark, the only reasonable conclusion Brienne could draw was that if the gods had made humankind for love, they had also made them all for violence and pain and mutual damage. It was not just, and it was not good. But it was.

Unbidden, Brienne’s dream from the previous night came back to her. She had told Jaime about Sansa Stark being held captive by a dragon and about Jaime slaying the dragon. She had held back the end of the dream, in which Renly had again bled and died in front of Brienne with bitter reproaches on his lips, while the two men Brienne had shot at the warehouse had gurgled red, bubbling blood beside him. Brienne had been trying to break away, fight her way back to wakefulness when Jaime had shaken her awake and offered her to rest her head on his chest like an innocent girl in a song, lying in a summer meadow with her sweetheart.

Jaime’s heartbeat had been thunderous yet soothing under Brienne’s ear, his chest a surprisingly comfortable pillow, hairy and smooth and so alive. Brienne hadn’t wanted to spoil the moment by revealing her guilt to Jaime: lingering guilt for Renly’s death, even for the man she’d shot dead. Most of all, guilt that in her dreams Renly no longer died in her arms, but lay at a distance from her, almost a stranger.

Jaime’s lips brushed her cheek, his stubble scratching her but also caressing, waking her up, keeping her anchored. Brienne roused herself, turned her head, and pressed her lips to Jaime’s ear, the part of him nearest to her. She let him rest his head on her shoulder and leaned her weary head against his, a solid wall at their backs, the silence in the corridor now underscored by a man’s quiet weeping and a woman’s heavy breathing coming from inside the interrogation room.

Brienne separated herself from Jaime, two tangled branches torn apart by a sudden wind, when Catelyn Stark came out, disheveled and breathless and red-eyed, the phonebook resembling a cabbage and still clutched in her white-knuckled hand. Her voice was as bleak as winter, as steady as stone.

“He says this Ramsay Snow was in some of his films, and Pet… he hired Snow to kidnap Sansa, but he doesn’t know where they are. Snow wouldn’t tell him.”

Catelyn Stark’s throat worked silently, her eyes closed with the effort of keeping calm. She drew strength from deep inside herself and continued. “He believes this Snow is dangerous, and he told me a name. A man who knows Snow, he might be able to tell you where Snow is.”

Dangerous. Brienne wanted to scream. Indulging in a brief bout of hysteria suddenly struck her as not at all out of place, given the circumstances. Dangerous. A man who makes a routine of raping and killing young girls. The film which had cost Jeyne Poole her life hadn’t been the only one found in Baelish’s safe to star Bolton’s son.

“What was the name?” Jaime prompted Mrs. Stark gently, as gently as Brienne had only ever seen him act when he and Brienne were alone, and even then only sometimes.

Catelyn Stark opened her eyes. The name meant nothing to her, but it filled her gaze, her whole being with a desperate, grasping, clutching hope, until she nearly overflowed with it. The hope of a parent whose child might be in agony, but not dead yet.

“Connington.” She enunciated every syllable with exaggerated care, an oracle proclaiming the will of the gods. “Ronnet Connington.”

Chapter Text

Saturday, 12 p.m.

Petyr Baelish’s face was swollen as though he’d spent time in a particularly sadistic dentist’s chair. He held a hand to his side as he sat somewhat crookedly in his chair, in yet another interrogation room, one which saw regular use and had the camera and tape recorder to prove it.

Brienne recognized the gesture: Baelish had cracked ribs. None of the visible signs of the beating he’d received indicated the use of anything recognizable as a limb or shoe or chair. Catelyn Stark had done an admirable job of only using the phonebook, as much as she must have wanted to tear Baelish’s hair out and throttle him with her bare hands.

A leaden ball still sat in Brienne’s stomach at the thought that she’d stood by and watched while Jaime’d enabled a suspect in police custody – effectively under police protection – to be physically assaulted. She prayed they found Sansa Stark alive. It would not wash out what Jaime had done and Brienne had allowed him to do, but it would be something.

It would be something.

“You have the right to have your lawyer present,” Brienne reminded Baelish after they’d stated their names, the date, and time of day for the tape.

It was noon on the fourth day since Sansa’s disappearance, and Brienne remembered deep, dreamless, night-long sleep only as a fond memory. She would have chalked up the afternoon she’d spent naked with Jaime as but a fever dream, but for the fact that his presence by her side as they sat facing Baelish left her with a palpable heat imprint on her skin. Brienne did not move, did not turn to look at Jaime, yet every inch of her skin, every hair on her head, every time her heart squeezed and relaxed in her chest reminded her that he was right there.

Of course he is right there, fool. He’s your partner, where else would he be? Brienne told herself this again and again, knew it was too late for caution, and in the silent privacy of her mind she did not care a whit.

Baelish shook his head, avoiding Brienne’s eye.

“For the tape, the suspect has waived his right to have a lawyer present,” she recited by rote.

“Tell us about Sansa Stark,” Jaime supplied.

Baelish’s words flowed freely at last, his voice quieter than it had ever been before. His self-confidence had been shattered, and in its place there remained a curious hollowness. The first time Catelyn Stark had cracked him across the face with the phonebook, she must have opened up a gap, a rent in his self, and Petyr Baelish’s persona, the visage he presented to the world, had fallen through. To his shock, he’d discovered that nothing much was left once his public persona was gone.

The man who talked about how Sansa Stark had sent an email to his production house fishing for information about snuff films and Jeyne Poole, was but a pale shadow of the man who had brazened his way through the interview in his office and even his own arrest. The snick of handcuffs around his wrists had not accomplished that, neither had the unmasking of his shadier business pursuits. Only Catelyn Stark could have reduced Baelish to the barest, thinnest core of himself.

He talked about how he had assumed the identity of Juggler, a fictional production assistant at Mockingbird Productions, in order to draw the girl out, find out what she knew. And more: to play a game, because he had found it amusing and Petyr Baelish was deathly afraid of boredom, and because it had been a link, however tenuous, to Sansa’s mother.

Then he had seen Sansa in the flesh. He had driven past her school one day, not having seen the girl in a couple of years, and been struck by her budding resemblance to her mother.

What had he intended to do with the girl?

The Summer Islands. Of course. Tourist paradise, tax haven, no extradition treaty. A grown man could marry a reluctant or drugged teenage girl there just like in old Westeros, and nobody would have batted an eyelid.

His sole mistake, so far as Baelish was concerned, was choosing Ramsay Snow to execute the abduction. He had known of Snow’s predilections for young girls and violence, had used those predilections for some of the films which had not been listed on Mockingbird Productions’ tax returns, but Baelish had felt confident he could control Ramsay, that Ramsay was just a tool to be used, a blunt instrument and as dense.

“He was supposed to bring Sansa’s phone to me, not toss it in the river,” Baelish insisted, as though disputing a point in a tennis match. “I told him to follow my orders to the letter, and he stopped answering my phone calls after that.”

Baelish looked from Brienne to Jaime, eager, almost desperate for them to see his point of view. A scorned lover could not have been more self-righteous. His face went rigid. “I didn’t know what Snow would do. It wasn’t supposed to turn out like this. I didn’t know.”

Jaime had shown Baelish a picture of Sansa’s bloodstained hair, and all Baelish could think about was that he’d been outsmarted by a man he clearly considered beneath his contempt. Brienne refrained from asking Baelish about the attack on her father or the vandalizing of Jaime’s car – they had no proof other than their hunches, and there was plenty of time in which to charge Baelish with assault, destruction of private property, and interfering with a police investigation. Sansa Stark could not wait.

Brienne found only minor consolation in the certainty that, however good Baelish’s lawyer might be, the man’s utter lack of remorse or even understanding of what an enormity he had caused to happen, would doom him in court. Prison time was far less than Petyr Baelish deserved.

Baelish was escorted to city lockup rather than keeping him in the cells at the precinct, just in case Edmure Tully decided to finish what his sister had started. Brienne still could not shake the absolute conviction that she should have intervened when Jaime’d walked into the room with a phonebook under his arm, and the equally absolute certainty that she wouldn’t have minded being in Catelyn Stark’s shoes just then, just for five minutes. Only Brienne wouldn’t have bothered with phonebooks. The two thoughts clashed and grappled, and made Brienne’s stomach roil even as they cleared her head.

Jaime glanced up at her as they headed out to their car. “Catelyn Stark is an interior designer, isn’t she?”

He knew she was. Brienne just looked at him.

Jaime shrugged nonchalantly. “I was just thinking, she missed her vocation.”

He was going to draw her out one way or the other. With anyone else, Brienne would have kept quiet and ignored them while she brooded. She didn’t want to act like that, not with Jaime. So she sighed and took the bait. “You’re not suggesting Mrs. Stark should have been an old-school police officer, are you?”

“Hells, no! I’m suggesting she should have been a nightclub bouncer. Or a boxer. Did you see what she did to him? Granted, Baelish isn’t very big…”

Brienne fought the smile which wanted out, lost. “Jaime, stop talking,” she said, nowhere near as harshly as she should have done, seeing as he was trying to get her to laugh off a clear case of police brutality and negligence. “Give me the keys. Your hand must still hurt, and I want to drive.”

Jaime looked like he would argue, but he thought better of it and tossed Brienne the keys over their car. Brienne almost failed to catch them – his aim was off when throwing with his left hand.

The prison where Ronnet Connington was being held pending trial was in Rosby, a ninety-minute drive from King’s Landing. Brienne obeyed the speed limit, downshifted whenever a larger vehicle appeared in her lane rather than speed up to overtake it, and generally drove Jaime to distraction.

“We should have set off on horseback, the way this is going,” he complained. “Look, you could have overtaken that semi twice now!”

“Please be quiet.”

“We’ll be a week getting there and back. You drive like my Aunt Genna’s husband!”

“I don’t even know what that means. Anyway, you are no fit judge of this, since you drive like a lunatic in downtown rush hour.”

Jaime wasn’t listening, too busy indicating the same semi with the Seaworth Organic Farms logo coming up ahead of their car. He reached for the gear shift with his left hand.

“Don’t…” Brienne slapped the back of his hand lightly, a sound like cracking leather. “… touch that, please.”

Jaime cupped his left hand in his bandaged right, brought them up to his chest, and stared at Brienne with huge, round eyes. His lower lip trembled.

Brienne glanced at him, back at the road, then back for a closer peer at Jaime. She hadn’t hurt him, had she?

Jaime’s lips wobbled then stretched in a wicked grin, green eyes glittering with amusement rather than tears.

Brienne exhaled loudly through her nose, dragged her eyes back to the road. “You… are… so annoying… and irresponsible,” she gritted out, absolutely refusing to smile. “I am driving, for the Seven’s sake!”

Jaime chuckled, lifted the back of his left hand in front of her face, though not so it blocked her view of the road. “Kiss it better?”

Brienne squeezed her lips together, trying to make them recede back over her teeth and away from the back of his hand, the slim wrist and knuckles dusted with golden hair, but she knew she was only prolonging the inevitable and fooling herself as well. She gave the back of Jaime’s hand a quick peck, more a press of thinned lips with teeth behind them than a proper kiss. Her lips smacked against Jaime’s skin regardless, and Brienne’s face and neck heated up. Jaime chuckled again and withdrew his hand.

“Now stop distracting me while I’m driving.”

“You wanted to drive, Brienne, don’t blame me if you’re in need of guidance. Look, there’s that semi again! Fourth time the charm?”

And so it continued all the way to Rosby. Bickering with Jaime made the two hours it took them to get there go by faster without either of them getting sleepy, and helped take Brienne’s mind off Petyr Baelish and Catelyn Stark and Sansa. By the time she pulled into the visitors’ parking lot at Rosby Crown Penitentiary, she was in as good a mood as she could be, under the circumstances.

“I think you should let me be bad cop,” she told Jaime as they took off their seatbelts. “Baelish said Connington arrested Ramsay Snow once for attacking a prostitute and let him off with a warning. Clearly they bonded over their shared taste for rough sex and beating up women. If you play bad cop and I try to be the nice one, Connington will just clam up. If I press him, he’ll turn to you for support against me, he won’t be able to help himself.”

Jaime considered. “Well, well. I think in future we can dispense with Doc Tarly altogether. We’ll just have you draw up psych profiles.”

Brienne bridled, her face ablaze, an angry exclamation on her lips. Jaime caught her hand in his.

“That’s a compliment, Brienne,” he soothed. “I am agreeing with you. We must work on your not assuming everything I say is a jape.” He thought a moment. “Especially those times when it isn’t.”

Brienne closed her eyes. “Sorry. I’ll try.” She looked at Jaime and smiled, a tiny white flag. “I don’t assume that, not all the time. And thank you.”

Jaime returned her smile and squeezed her hand, let it go. It left Brienne feeling stupidly bereft – a feeling Jaime shared if the nervy way he pushed his hair back and straightened his jacket was anything to go on.

Because he claimed to feel remorse for the allegedly accidental death of Lollys Stokeworth and was a former police officer, Ronnet Connington stood a good chance of meriting special consideration from the court and receiving a reduced sentence: from a charge of homicide down to manslaughter. He was being held in a special wing at Rosby, one reserved for inmates at risk from other prisoners: rape victims, known snitches, the odd child molester, and former police officers. It made for a colorful crew with whom to do his time, but it kept Connington safe from the worst hardened criminals in gen pop could dish out to an ex cop.

After less than a week inside, Connington did not look good. His red hair was lank, and his skin had an unhealthy, green-tinged pallor. Too little time out in the exercise yard, too many hours left alone with his thoughts. Or his fantasies.

Connington eyed Brienne with undisguised hostility, his eyes lingering on her necklace of bruises as she took a seat across from him in a tiny interview room. Jaime remained standing, seemingly at ease as he slouched against the wall. A guard waited outside, ready to take Connington back at interview’s end or to intervene, if need be.

Brienne showed Ronnet Connington the most recent photograph of Ramsay Snow on file, taken just before he’d been released from juvie. Snow must have had the Stranger’s own luck to be able to evade the law for as long as he had since then, nearly ten years. Or maybe he had other friends like Connington, police officers with a taste for rough trade.

“Do you recognize this man?” Brienne asked for the sake of the tape. It was obvious from Connington’s face that he did.

He put on a show of ignoring the photograph and resumed staring at Brienne balefully. He hadn’t forgotten she’d been the one to arrest him, and was still taking it as a personal insult. “Why should I tell you anything?”

“Because it’s in your best interest to do so,” Jaime commented, his tone casual and not unkind. “You know how this works, Connington.”

“Also because your situation might become a lot more unpleasant if you don’t,” Brienne insisted.

Connington’s oily eyes rolled from Brienne to Jaime, calculating so obviously he might as well have been thinking out loud: get the man on his side, the two of them against Brienne. He twisted around in his chair so Brienne faced his profile, all but turning his back on her, and appealed to Jaime.

“I need a sentence reduction,” he said. “My lawyer’s saying I could get ten years! I can’t be in a place like this that long. If I tell you what I know, can you help me out?”

“Lollys Stokeworth needs her life back,” Brienne snapped. “Can you give her that?”

She hadn’t intended to say it; the words and the sentiment came out regardless. From the evil look Connington gave her, the outburst wasn’t doing Brienne’s bad cop routine any harm.

“That was an accident,” Connington said to Jaime, not to Brienne. “I explained it at the time.”

That must be why you kept quiet when you were sent to canvas for witnesses at Lollys’ crime scene. That must be why you ran. Brienne bit her lip, squeezed her hands into fists under the table.

Jaime made a sympathetic, noncommittal noise. “How about you answer my partner’s question first, then we’ll see what we can do for you, friend.” He offered Connington a patently fake smile, but Connington didn’t seem to notice. He grinned, like he and Jaime were buddies, like they understood each other.

Connington finally deigned to face Brienne again, glanced at the photograph. “His name is Ramsay Snow. I picked him up once for roughing up a working girl. It was no big deal, the girl was used to it, so I let him off with a warning. We…”

Stupid as he was, Connington knew that admitting to a close relationship with the likes of Ramsay Snow wasn’t going to do his case any good. He glanced at Jaime again.

“You can trust us,” Jaime said softly. “We’re all on the same side.”

“We got to be sort of friends. Ramsay sometimes did these movies, with girls, you know. He’d show them to me, the movies, I mean. He has this garage in the city where he takes the girls sometimes…”

Connington was still speaking mostly to Jaime, but Brienne was on him like a hawk. “Where in the city?”

Connington’s expression was scathing. “Does she have to be here?” he asked Jaime plaintively.

Brienne could see from the set of Jaime’s shoulders, the way he leaned back against the wall, looking relaxed yet poised on the balls of his feet, that he gladly would have smashed Connington’s face against the tabletop. Jaime’s smile was thinner than before, yet remained firmly in place.

“Two officers of the Crown have to be present to make this admissible in court. You know that, Ronnet.” Jaime’s mouth worked like he would have liked to spit after saying the man’s name. Connington remained oblivious.

“It’s in Flea Bottom,” he told Jaime. “I don’t remember the name of the street, Ramsay never took me there during the day. One of those alleys they have down there, ones what look like walk-in closets for rats.”

Connington grinned at his own witticism. Jaime did not.

“Oh yeah,” Connington said, all but snapping his fingers as though he suddenly remembered something, or maybe he really was that stupid. “Ramsay always used to leave the key in a cookshop nearby, on the corner down the street from the row of garages where he keeps his stuff. A Lyseni place, you know, all the girls who work there have dark hair and these accents. What’s it called? The…” His brow wrinkled. “The Tears of Lys? The Spears of Lys? Something like that.”

Brienne glanced at Jaime. They were unlikely to get anything more out of Connington – given that they didn’t even have a recent address for Ramsay Snow, finding that garage was their new best bet. Brienne doubted Connington was smart enough to come up with such an elaborate lie on the spot.

“So, how much of a sentence reduction do you think I’ll get?” Connington was asking Jaime.

Jaime’s smile was a rapier blade. “My best guess? None. You’ll be lucky if you get ten years as a protected prisoner for strangling a woman to death and shedding a few crocodile tears in court. You should be in gen pop, getting your teeth smashed in every night and learning just how a woman like Lollys Stokeworth could feel. Let’s go, Brienne.”

Connington turned as red as his hair, shot to his feet. He opened his mouth to shout at Jaime, but Brienne was again faster. On her feet, she towered over Connington.

“Sit down or I will make you!” she snarled, her voice shaking with fury and weariness. Her hands trembled to carry out the threat if he demurred.

Connington and Brienne faced off for a long moment. Slowly he sat down, never taking his eyes off Brienne.

Specifically off her bruised neck.

“It feels good when you choke them, doesn’t it?” he sneered. “Huh, Kingslayer? Sowfucker, more like.”

Connington’s gimlet eyes bore into Brienne. He spat on the tabletop. Like Ygritte had done with Jaime, he had enough sense of self-preservation not to spit at Brienne directly. The gob exploded on the flat surface, a drop of spittle landed on the back of Brienne’s hand.

Jaime took a step closer with murder on his face, but Brienne forestalled him with a gesture. She lifted her hand to wipe it on her other sleeve, and feinted like she’d swing a backhanded blow at Connington, who flinched and cowered in his chair.

Slowly Brienne lowered her hand before preceding Jaime out of the room.

“Thrice-damned cameras,” Jaime muttered as they left the prison. He was still flushed with anger. “I wouldn’t have minded taking a swing at him myself. Do you think we could arrange to have him assigned to Vargo Hoat as a cellmate?”

“If we wrap up this case, maybe the Commissioner will make us flavor of the month and start taking our suggestions seriously,” Brienne replied after some thought, fishing the car keys and her cell phone out of her pockets. “Though I doubt it. I’ll arrange for uniforms to start scouring Flea Bottom for garages and Lyseni cookshops. Do you think you can drive us back?”

“I don’t need to think.” Jaime reached for the keys. Brienne quirked a smile, and he lifted his forefinger in admonition. “Say one word and I shall tickle you, right here in front of this prison.”

Brienne bit her lip. She wanted to state, as a point of honor, that she could easily escape getting tickled by a man with only one good hand, and settled for handing him the keys with a face-saving huff.

Chapter Text

Saturday, 5:30 p.m.

With Jaime driving, the trip back from Rosby lasted a hair under ninety minutes, even with traffic coming into King’s Landing and Brienne deciding unilaterally that she would be in charge of the gear shift. She insisted Jaime might be all right to drive, but he couldn’t change gears safely with his bandaged hand.

Jaime fixed his eyes on Brienne and lifted both hands off the steering wheel for several long seconds while she turned redder, and redder, and uttered his name in a teakettle whistle which never quite rose to scream pitch. Jaime grinned, and grinned, and finally put his hands back on the steering wheel, turned to face the road again.

Brienne waited till they’d overtaken a tourist bus with Winterfell plates before she flicked Jaime’s ear with her fingers, nowhere near as hard as she could have done and no more than half as hard as she wanted, Jaime was certain. He kept rubbing his ear ostentatiously until they stopped at a gas station, and he got out to stretch while Brienne filled up their tank.

“Does your ear hurt?” Brienne asked, quiet and contrite, her eyes firmly engaged on the gas pump’s small screen with its rapidly flickering numbers.

Jaime considered playing the invalid and giving her a hard time, to amuse himself but also to keep Brienne’s mind off what the rest of their day might bring. He took pity because she was hunching like a hedgehog and looked so miserable he realized he really didn’t want her starting away from him like a startled foal every time he cracked a joke.

He walked up very close to Brienne, deliberately invading her personal space. When Brienne half turned to look at him, still hunched, eyes wary and so blue, Jaime wrapped his arms around her waist, below her bruised ribs, and kissed her.

“We’re at a gas station on the Rosby Road,” he murmured against Brienne’s lips as she stiffened in anticipation of getting caught. “I am not japing, and I do not usually go around kissing people at gas stations.”

When his lips next met Brienne’s, her mouth was open and willing. She was already moaning a little when Jaime flicked her with his tongue, teasing, reminding her of their afternoon in his apartment. Brienne clutched at him, hands grabbing at his jacket, his shirt under it, his hair, returning Jaime’s challenge with interest as she kissed him eagerly, forgetting to be bashful or self-conscious. Jaime pressed her gently back against the metal body of the pump, cold, hard, and uncomfortable though it was, reveling in Brienne letting him do it although she was bigger and heavier than he, as she breathed heavily through her nose and kept kissing him.

Jaime kissed down Brienne’s neck, as far as the garland of bruises, around to the other side, sucking gently on unblemished skin, and back up to take her earlobe in his mouth. Brienne’s gasp sounded startled more than aroused, as though it had never occurred to her someone might want to suck on her ear, and probably no one else ever had. The thought filled Jaime with equal parts smug satisfaction and anger at the sheer crying shame of it. Brienne gripped his shoulder and hair, and stuttered his name breathlessly, so Jaime wished he could turn the gas pump into a bed and magic away their clothes, only Brienne under him and all around him. He knew the very thought of stopping at a motel along the way was folly but indulged in it just the same, until the pump emitted its electronic ping to announce that their tank was full.

They separated with simultaneous frustrated groans.

The tank wasn’t the only thing which had filled up in a hurry. Brienne blushed violent crimson when she spotted Jaime’s predicament. He let her go inside and pay while he walked up and down behind their car, running his fingers through his hair, breathing in gasoline fumes, and willing the cold air to chase his arousal away.

They drove the rest of the way in near silence, carefully not letting their hands touch as Jaime drove and Brienne shifted gears, though all Jaime could think about was how she would only need to move her hand a little to the left, slip it in his lap and unzip him and… He could pull over, twist around in his seat, and discover if his left hand was worth anything much on its own. Jaime could almost see Brienne filling up her half of the car, her limbs splayed, her freckles standing out in a sea of blushes, her head thrown back in pleasure with Jaime’s hand between her legs…

Jaime pushed these thoughts away with gritted teeth, never felt so relieved to see the Red Keep and Great Sept on their high hills loom ever closer, taking up more and more of their windshield.

I’ve finally gone insane. I am underslept, stressed out, semi-high on pain meds, and have had nothing but my right hand for several years. We’ll probably be looking at a young girl’s mutilated corpse before the end of the day, and all I can think about is how good Brienne’s mouth feels, how her eyes sparkle when she lets herself go, how big and warm she is, how tight she was around my fingers…

Jaime pulled up into the precinct parking lot, and Brienne looked at him, frowning at his expression. “Are you all right?”

“I’m a little tired.” And I want you. I can’t stop thinking about you. A part of me would derail this whole investigation in a heartbeat if it meant I could fuck you right now.

He had used to get like that about Cersei, frantic till he could spread her thighs. Then he would be more or less fine until the next time she couldn’t be bothered to see him, make time for him. Jaime wondered if his current fervor would evaporate when he finally bedded Brienne the way he wanted to, in all the ways his starved mind and flesh kept conjuring up. Was he like that, to lose interest once he’d had a woman other than Cersei?

Brienne favored him with one of her rare unselfconscious, toothy smiles. “I’ll bring you some of K.L.’s finest’s finest coffee,” she joked gently. “And a map of Flea Bottom.”

Brienne got out of the car and headed into the precinct in her swift, long stride, with hardly any hint of rolling hips or swaying thighs, and Jaime cursed himself for a thundering great fool. He’d had her already, wanted her no less when she’d smiled at him just now, or when she’d restrained herself from slapping him for driving without hands, or when she’d held herself like an automaton while telling him about the bet in Highgarden. Or when she’d cried or slept in his bed or feigned she would smack Ronnet Connington against the wall or petted Honor or or or…

She’ll always bother. She’ll always make time. And she can’t lie. Only a lackwit like Hyle Hunt would bet on a night when he could have had nights and days without number, and she so gentle and strong, and with those eyes, and all of her…

Jaime was barely done shaking off his lyrical mood before Brienne returned with two paper cups of coffee and an old map, folded wrong many times and held together with clear tape turning brown at the edges. Jaime smiled broadly when she handed him his coffee.

“I feel better already,” he quipped, pretended he was relishing the aroma of the city’s absolute worst coffee. Brienne lifted her eyebrows in mild amusement, sipped her own coffee, and unfolded the map while suppressing a grimace, trying to flip the map right side up on her lap without upsetting her cup.

As conventional wisdom would have it, Flea Bottom had started out as a slum and gone downhill from there. Many an urban beautification project had come a cropper tackling the area, the teeth of money and election promises broken on the locals’ hard-bitten pride.

The residents of Flea Bottom turned out to be very fond of the tangy, spicy cuisine of south Essos. Almost as fond as they were of garages. There were over two dozen Lyseni, Myrish, and Volantene cookshops in the area, most located near one or more dank, narrow alleys which could indeed pass for a rat’s walk-in closet. Many were also situated within easy walking distance of rows upon rows of garages festooned with so many chains and padlocks keeping their contents safe, one might have been forgiven for assuming every local resident was a millionaire.

Jaime couldn’t help his mind wandering to his beautiful red car, still sitting wrecked in the parking garage near his apartment building, under a tarpaulin, like a murder victim under one of the blue blankets the coroner’s office used.

Driving through Flea Bottom with the map of the area spread on Brienne’s lap, checking out the most promising locations, planning where to position police officers disguised as beggars, panhandlers or aimless street folk, Jaime noticed that some of the garages were disused, the chains on their doors rusted fast with rain and pollution, but many others saw frequent use. There was no trash blown by the wind against their doors, no evidence that the homeless dossed down there. Some were even open to reveal auto repair shops, private garages, and what looked like at least one chop shop. Brienne did not so much as twitch to rush in and arrest the latter’s owners, not when she and Jaime were busy trying to narrow down the number of locations where Ramsay Snow might have been keeping Sansa Stark captive.

Bolton was unlikely to give them enough uniformed police to cover the whole area, so pairs of officers would have to patrol two or more locations and points in between. There was no guarantee Ramsay Snow would even visit his garage that night, except insofar as he was unlikely to stray too far from his victim. Whether he’d got wind of Petyr Baelish’s arrest or not, Snow had every reason to stay close to Sansa, to play with her or figure out which of her body parts to take next as an object lesson in respect.

There was also no guarantee Snow’s garage near a Lyseni (or Myrish, or Volantene) cookshop existed at all. Ronnet Connington would have sworn up and down he’d been whelped by a rose bush if he’d thought it would help him get a sentence reduction. The best Jaime and Brienne could do was space out the available officers as economically as possible, and try to cast a wide yet tight net.

In the end, they only managed to scrounge together a dozen uniforms, Jon Snow and his partner Grenn among them. Dressed in rags or cheap street bravo chic, officers paired off across a large swath of Flea Bottom as night thickened over the city. Jaime and Brienne sat in their unmarked car in an alley wide enough to let a car in, and waited.

And waited.

Jaime hated stakeouts with a wild and fiery passion. Time seemed to stretch like taffy. A stakeout could only end one of two ways: in a day or night completely wasted, or in moments of action so precipitate no amount of focus and preparation could ever ready Jaime for them. The whole business was unpleasant and more than a little frustrating.

The only thing which made this stakeout bearable was Brienne. On their first night as partners, Jaime had felt her silence as a weight, a void which sucked up all the air in the car and left him wanting to provoke a reaction, any reaction out of her. Now Jaime found that her silence had texture and presence. It was not just one thing at all times, but it remained always a dependable solid he could lean on.

He trusted Brienne to be alert in moments when his concentration wandered, and to rest when Jaime was on point, poised and ready. Though the night was quiet and dark and they had all the privacy in the world in their little alley, Jaime’s thoughts only strayed to Brienne’s mouth, Brienne’s taste, Brienne’s head on his chest in passing moments, a pleasant thrill of the mind, not a quake of Jaime’s flesh he could barely control. He enjoyed even the measured cadence of those thoughts, their swift, shying passage, as though Brienne had infected him with her person, her humors.

The car radio crackled: pairs of officers on patrol reporting in. They’d all seen teenage Ramsay Snow’s photograph, which Podrick had fed into an age progression program so it reflected the man’s current age. The streets of Flea Bottom were not the best lit in the city, but they weren’t the teeming warren of cutpurses and cutthroats they had once been either. Enough light to see by and enough people around, and they’d only had one false alarm so far.

Two officers fresh out of the academy, names of Rast and Pypar, had spotted a dark-haired man of Snow’s height and build exiting a Lyseni café. Jaime took the key out of the ignition as soon as he heard Rast swear and report the man had met a woman with two small children outside the cookshop and walked away with them, holding one child’s hand and a big bag of takeaway.

“Wouldn’t mind some of that takeaway myself,” Jaime grumbled.

Brienne’s smile was audible. “Lyseni food always makes me want to drink liters of water. Where would we pee?”

“Why Brienne, don’t tell me you’ve never relieved yourself in the grand outdoors!”

“Not in a city, I haven’t,” Brienne pointed out after a brief pause, her tone suggesting she still had lingering doubts about Jaime’s sanity.

Jaime made the obvious segue: with his right hand out of commission, he couldn’t be expected to shoot Ramsay Snow, but maybe Jaime could piss on him or scare Snow with just his cock in his hand. Brienne begged him to shut up, and after a while he did. And the hours dragged on.

Not long after 1 a.m., the radio crackled with what Jaime was certain would have sounded like real urgency even to a brain better rested than his.

Grenn was breathless, as though he’d been running. “Come in, sir, ma’am? We see him. We bloody see him.” His sibilants came through as static, but there was no denying the young officer’s excitement. “He’s going into that Myrish place on the corner of the Street of Sisters and Stinkalley.”

Myrish, not Lyseni. Jaime made a mental note to add ‘arrant bloody incompetence’ to the list of reasons he would present, when called upon to give testimony in the Stokeworth case, as to why Ronnet Connington did not merit special consideration, however many tears of false remorse he might shed.

Brienne was leaning forward in the passenger seat, her arms and shoulders tense, her neck corded as she stared at the radio, willing it to speak again.

Jon Snow’s measured tones came through next, clipped with suppressed excitement. “The suspect got some food and a set of keys from the owner, and is leaving the restaurant. I repeat, Ramsay Snow is leaving the restaurant.”

Brienne grabbed the radio before Jaime could get there. “Follow, but keep your distance,” she barked. “We need him to open the garage or it’ll all be circumstantial.”

Jaime could tell Brienne hated having to wait. She wanted to have the uniforms jump Ramsay Snow right then and there, and hope that Sansa Stark miraculously materialized before them once her tormentor had been neutralized. Brienne summoned the other patrols to the area where Grenn and Jon were tailing their quarry, hunters in a forest of tenements and lampposts. All responded with their locations and ETAs.

All save Rast and Pypar, who’d thought they’d seen Ramsay Snow earlier and now didn’t know where they were.

“Rookies,” Jaime sneered, his neck and back hurting with tension. He rolled his shoulders. “They’d get lost at a departmental picnic.”

He had barely finished the thought when Jon Snow radioed in, sounding like he was probing a sore tooth with his tongue. “Uh, ma’am, sir? We lost him. We tailed him to an alley, but he isn’t here.”

Brienne’s eyes looked ready to pop clean out of her head. Jaime snatched the radio out of her hand before she crushed it.

“Location?” Jaime barked into the radio.

Jon and Grenn finally located a street sign which revealed they were in Hogsalley, midway between the Myrish café where they’d picked up Ramsay Snow’s trail and the nameless alley where Brienne and Jaime sat in their car. Jaime closed his eyes and visualized the map he’d spent all day studying with Brienne. He didn’t need to switch on the overhead light in the car lest it attracted attention: the layout of the surrounding area was clear in his head.

A strip of garages lay between the café and their alley with no name or street sign. Whether from habit or some rodent’s instinct, Ramsay Snow was evading pursuit by weaving through back alleys.

Jaime ordered all patrols to head toward those garages but keep their distance still, since their quarry was such a wary beast. A risky move, everything staked on one flip of the coin, but what other choice did they have?

Jaime had the car door open and one foot on the pavement when he realized Brienne had not moved, still staring at the radio, motionless as a boulder.

“Brienne,” Jaime said. She snapped her eyes up at him. He could see their blue gleam even in the darkness of the alley. “It’s all right.”

Brienne inhaled sharply, a hiss as of steam being sucked back into a boiling kettle, and Jaime knew everything she would say. It was not all right. Nothing was all right. They were about to screw up this case big time and cost a young girl her life, and all because they were both too focused on getting naked together again, in spite of regulations, their individual histories, and common sense. Nothing was all right.

Jaime folded himself back into the car. “It’s all right,” he repeated. “We’re going to get him.”

He wanted to touch Brienne’s arm for reassurance, suspected she was wound so tight she would flinch, and then they would waste time on anger and apologies. Jaime watched Brienne’s shoulders relax, not slump, just lose some of that terrible, mountain-bearing tension, watched her draw herself together and focus on him, her eyes still shining, her lower lip trembling before she shut her mouth and stuck out her chin, determined and mulish as ever, as he was learning she could be. She nodded, a brief, sharp nod of recognition and gratitude and readiness, and Jaime realized he had been watching her lips and eyes, and yet the thought of kissing her had not even occurred to him. He’d just prioritized duty over pleasure without so much as thinking about it. Jaime would have laughed at himself, but Brienne was already halfway out of the car, so he scrambled to catch up with her instead.

Cautiously they leaned around a street corner to see a man of average height and build, with dark hair and pale skin and no distinguishing characteristics, pause in front of one in a row of garages, a perfectly ordinary looking garage with a door of corrugated iron, the red paint flaking off it, secured by a single shiny padlock. Snow balanced a paper takeaway bag in the crook of his left arm while he fumbled the key into the padlock. Jaime was certain he could hear the lock snick even over the constant, rushing susurrus of the city night.

Ramsay Snow took the padlock off the door, replaced the keys in his pocket and the takeaway bag in his right hand, and opened the garage door.

Brienne burst around the corner with a grunt, her weapon in hand, commands for Snow to drop what he was holding and put his hands in the air torn from her lips like a battle cry. Jaime stayed behind the corner, cursing his right hand: he would be useless if shots were fired and a liability to boot.

So Jaime heard rather than saw other voices follow Brienne’s lead a split second later, calling out for Snow to drop everything and show his hands.

Then Jaime heard a gunshot. A single gunshot.

He was around the corner in a trice, searching frantically for Brienne, all protocol, all experience and common sense tossed aside. Jaime spotted Brienne at once, taller than all the others, her pale hair looking almost golden under the yellow streetlights, the gun in her hand lowered, pointed at the pavement.

Ramsay Snow lay before her, half in, half out of his garage door, bleeding from a textbook wound to the right shoulder, a wicked looking switchblade shining dull, deadly blue close to his right hand. His chest rose and fell in ragged rhythm.

Jon Snow had been the one to shoot him. Snow shot Snow, and red did flow, Jaime’s mind rhymed nonsensically, even though the blood looked almost black in the artificial light.

“Gods damn it,” Jaime heard from off to the side, reluctant to take his eyes off Brienne and Snow. He recognized Rast’s voice. “We’re too late!”

“Bolton didn’t say…” Pypar began, broke off when he noticed Jaime staring at them.

The two rookies were sweaty and red-faced from running. Both had their guns out, seemed torn between holstering them or using them on the neutralized Ramsay Snow, regardless of witnesses.

So, Jaime thought with flat detachment. Bolton found some minions of his own. Shoot his wayward bastard son, make it look like an accident or a justifiable kill, and Rast and Pypar get to become detectives in record time. Or a date with a lawnmower.

Jaime was still idly musing when Jon Snow barreled up to the two rookies, barked at them to put their guns away before they shot someone by accident. Rast seemed ready to argue but Pypar nudged him, and they obeyed. Meanwhile several officers surrounded Ramsay Snow, all guns trained on their quarry. The switchblade was kicked out of reach, someone was radioing for an ambulance, Brienne was reciting Ramsay Snow his rights, her voice like the mechanical click of a windup doll.

Brienne looked up when she was done, away from the bleeding man grunting obscenely in pain on the pavement, her mouth open in speechless shock, her eyes very wide when they met Jaime’s. So many stakeouts ended this way: for hours nothing happened, and when it finally did it was over in less than a heartbeat, a coin toss of life and death under the indifferent stars and moon. And every time was like the first time, the gut-piercing, soul-punching realization that here one stood, still alive, knowing neither the how nor the why of it.

Jaime had tasted that sensation the first time he’d used his service weapon in the line of duty, the first time he’d taken a life, the night he’d killed Aerys and helped the hysterical Rhaella Targaryen up from where she’d crouched on the floor, knees sticky with her husband’s blood, trembling and reeking of gasoline. Jaime knew Brienne had known those moments too, when her brother had died, when her old partner had died, when she’d shot to kill in Vargo Hoat’s warehouse. Jaime saw those moments ranged up behind Brienne’s eyes like ghosts preparing to rush her all at once, as she saw Jaime’s ghosts in his face.

Ghosts and something else: the simple fact that Brienne was alive, she was still alive, unharmed, standing tall and unbroken on the battlefield, and Jaime was the same, more or less. They faced each other across an expanse of pavement, while police officers swarmed around them and wailing sirens approached.

Brienne shut her mouth and set her jaw. Jaime nodded, started toward her. She did not wait for him, and he did not blame her.

Holstering her weapon, Brienne stepped across the threshold of Ramsay Snow’s dark garage. Two heartbeats later, Jaime followed her inside.

Chapter Text

Sunday, 1:45 a.m.

On first stepping into Ramsay Snow’s garage, Jaime took a moment to reflect that he had been wrong: there was such a thing as true, pitch darkness in the city.

A city night was permeated by streetlights, lamps burning behind windows, neon shop signs, stoplights, lit cigarettes, sparkling jewels, shiny PVC. It was almost impossible to see the stars, and even the full moon was usually a shadow of itself, a face hidden behind a thick white veil of light pollution. But inside Ramsay Snow’s garage, true darkness reigned.

Sound echoed in the cavernous space. Water dripped thunderously somewhere to Jaime’s right. He stood just inside the door while police officers swarmed behind him, around the wounded Snow, radioing for backup and an ambulance, doing their jobs. Jaime was doing his job too, yet it felt like a dream, like he was descending into one of the dimmer hells, one where shadows had substance and claws and sharp teeth, and cold water lapped around a dead soul’s ankles.

A bright light appeared ahead, blinding Jaime. When he lowered his bandaged hand from in front of his face and blinked a few times, he realized it was only Brienne’s pocket flashlight, its beam cutting the darkness like cloth. Brienne swept it back and forth slowly, a blade of light. The narrow beam illuminated more the farther it reached, revealing that the garage was smaller than it had appeared at first, and cluttered with objects. Some were just shapes under tarpaulins, others gleamed or seemed to absorb the light, metal dull and blood-red with rust. Chains hung from the ceiling. Brienne’s shoulder brushed against one: the echo picked up the dull metallic clinks, made them sound like cookware crashing in a chrome room.

Brienne started away from the rattling chain, walked straight into another. She stood still, elbows out and shoulders hunched, until the chains stopped swaying and their noise subsided. Jaime stayed just inside the door. Forensics would be all over this place like red ants, and Jaime had no desire to ruin some precious bit of evidence. Or overlook something important while he blundered around in the dark like a blind aurochs.

He didn’t see the girl. He heard her, and so did Brienne.

Once the amplified clinking of the chains had receded inside that dark cave of brick and metal, a woman’s soft moans became audible. A girl, not a woman, Jaime reminded himself. She did not sound conscious, yet something in her lizard brain had stirred at the reverberating clangor of metal chains. Instinct or learned behavior? Did the noise bring her around a bit or had she learned in only a few days, here in the dark, that the sound of metal boded nothing well? Jaime indulged in speculation for a long moment, quietly bracing himself, while Brienne’s flashlight sought out and found Sansa Stark. He heard Brienne take a sharp, booming breath at what they both saw.

Jaime made no noise. Not because he had seen worse, which he had but also nothing quite like this, for there was no comparing or ranking horrors by degree. He made no noise because it would have done neither Brienne nor Sansa Stark any good for Jaime to scream or shout. Or even breathe loudly through his mouth. He shut his mouth with a snick of teeth as Brienne forced herself to approach the girl, extend her free, trembling hand and, gently like a butterfly landing, place two fingers on Sansa’s throat. They already knew the girl was alive, but their training kicked in when a body would have been too overwhelmed to function.

Brienne’s fingers confirmed that Sansa still lived; Brienne’s shoulders relaxed just a little.

There were manacles around the girl’s wrists, connected to the wall behind her by more chains. A metal bar screwed into two iron rings around her ankles kept her legs apart. That wasn’t even the worst of it.

While Brienne crouched over Sansa, mute and frozen, Jaime pondered the wall behind the girl by the slanting light from Brienne’s flashlight. The wall was splashed with all manner of stains which would tell detailed tales to forensics. Jaime could puzzle them out well enough on his own. He wondered how many girls had slumped in chains where Sansa Stark slumped. Then Jaime wondered how likely he would be to end up as Ronnet Connington’s cellmate if he were to kill another suspect in the line of duty.

Jaime heard more than one ambulance pull up outside, called to Brienne quietly. She did not seem to hear him until he called her name again, more loudly, so his voice echoed, making Sansa moan again. Brienne turned to face him just as paramedics bustled in carrying portable lights, filling the garage with bright white and shaded blue, casting all objects and the three people inside into startling, gruesome perspective, like cadavers lent a parody of life.

Jaime considered dragging Brienne bodily away, but she moved out of the paramedics’ way and came to stand beside Jaime on her own. He brushed her right hand with his left. She was still holding the flashlight, now pointed at the floor, so they stood in a motionless pool of faint yellow light amidst all that white and blue.

Brienne started a little at his touch. When she turned to face him, Jaime knew he couldn’t have killed Ramsay Snow even had he been alone with the man, here in the dark. What would Brienne have said when Jaime told her, and he’d have had to tell her? How would she have looked at him? Maybe she would have lied to protect him from the consequences of his choices, but Jaime wouldn’t have wanted her to, wouldn’t have been able to bear it. Of all the things he had done and borne, that would have been too much. The one thing that would break him as on a rack: Brienne sacrificing her integrity for him, Brienne averting her clear gaze from him.

Brienne insisted on being the one to drive to the hospital, and Jaime let her. He did not attempt to distract her with more jokes and teasing as he had done on the Rosby Road, just sat quietly beside her, both of them submersed in their own private silences, which were of almost the same quality and texture. But while Brienne fretted about Sansa Stark, Jaime fretted about Brienne.

Catelyn Stark arrived some twenty minutes after Brienne’s call, wearing jeans under her nightgown and a winter coat on top, her hair flying, her brother and other daughter in tow. The attending informed them that Sansa’s injuries were still being treated, they would have a prognosis very soon, chances of survival were very good.

Jaime didn’t want to think about Sansa Stark any longer and he couldn’t keep glancing at Brienne, armored in a tense silence which left him out in the cold, so he thought about what an eerie place a hospital at night was. Nobody was there who didn’t have to be, either because they were working the nightshift like he and Brienne, or because someone they cared for was there, dying or as near as didn’t make much difference. It struck Jaime that he and Brienne were interlopers. There was no need for them to still be there, except Jaime knew Brienne wouldn’t leave until she heard something concrete about Sansa’s condition. Jaime stayed because he wanted to know too, but mostly he stayed for her, Brienne.

He wandered away in search of a vending machine, came back with a paper cup of the second worst coffee in existence, right after the stuff the coffeemaker in their break room at work spewed, only to find the same doctor from before talking to Catelyn and Edmure Tully. Brienne was scrunched up in her chair, trying not to eavesdrop on what she must have considered a private, family moment, yet obviously needing to hear what was being said. Arya Stark clutched her mother’s hand like the little girl she’d been not that long ago.

Jaime came closer, his footsteps silent on the scuffed linoleum, and heard mention of severe dehydration, internal injuries, blood tests, skin grafts, and suchlike. The medical jargon dressed up rape and torture as something manageable, something to be handled with disposable gloves, and bandaged, and given time to knit back together and mend on its own. The upshot was that Sansa Stark was far from all right and, Jaime suspected, might never be all right again. But she was alive, and would remain so for the foreseeable future, in her body at least. Her mind may have retreated so deep inside during her ordeal that she might never come out again. Her torn-out hair would grow back, her lacerations and contusions would heal. The wounds on her soul might never close. But she was alive.

The doctor made polite noncommittal noises, nodded to the Starks and Tullys, and left. Catelyn Stark remained motionless in the wake of the doctor’s departure, her eyes unfocused.

They landed on Jaime, focused so sharply he nearly took a step back. One never knew with people in shock, she might try to punch him or claw his eyes out. Jaime really didn’t feel like ending this thrice-damned night by beating off a woman beset by grief.

Catelyn Stark threw her arms around Jaime, hugged him so tightly she squeezed the breath out of him. His bad coffee wound up all over the floor and her coat, not that she noticed.

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” she whispered in Jaime’s ear, her tears smearing his stubble-rough cheek, his blush-warm ear.

Jaime had no idea what to say. It’s nothing? You’re welcome? All in a night’s work? He stood as stiffly as a marble statue and patted Catelyn Stark’s back, the same gesture he had used to deploy when young Honor had used to sink her claws into his arm while kneading his skin with her little paws, unaware that she’d been causing Jaime pain and embarrassment. Over Catelyn Stark’s shoulder, Jaime saw Edmure Tully leaning against the wall with his face hidden in the crook of his arm, the lower half of his face red and wet. He clutched Arya to his side, her face buried in his chest, neither of them willing to be seen by others while they cried, immune to intrusion as they clung together.

Brienne sat alone in her rickety hospital chair, staring at her hands, palms up in her lap, as though she had never seen them before. She looked like Jaime felt: deflated with relief, scoured clean of purpose. Catelyn Stark and her family were riding a tidal wave of adrenaline and would continue to do so for a while yet. Brienne and Jaime were on the other side already, had been washed up by that wave, exhausted and spent. Jaime might have smiled at his choice of phrase, but the Stark woman released him at last, and he managed to bite back the smile lest she saw it and created something which would embarrass Brienne even more than him, Jaime.

Family members only were allowed in Sansa’s room for a quick glimpse of her where she lay, heavily sedated and insensate, enjoying a last reprieve before she would have to return to consciousness and memory. So when they found themselves alone in the corridor but for a sour-faced porter mopping up Jaime’s spilled coffee, Jaime took the chair next to Brienne’s. The damned thing was even more uncomfortable than it looked, but Jaime was so tired he could have happily slept for twelve hours right then and there.

He could have, but there was still Brienne, so he made an effort to rouse himself and rally his forces. He gave her what felt like a strained sliver of a smile.

Brienne’s face was bewildered, bleak, lost. “He flayed so much of her skin, Jaime,” she whispered, a dry wind soughing through bare branches. “He flayed her alive, and he…”

“Shh,” Jaime soothed, brought his good hand up to stroke Brienne’s hot, dry forehead, her cheek. “I know. I know. Brienne, there are no miracles, except in dreams. If it had been a simple matter of slaying a dragon, that would have been easy.” If I could, I would make it all go away for her, give her back what’s lost. And you as well. Except I wouldn’t, not all of it, only your pain. Otherwise you would have stayed in Storm’s End, you would have stayed in Highgarden or on Tarth, you wouldn’t be here. “We found her alive, Brienne. It may not be a cause for celebration, but we found her alive. Think on that.”

Brienne laid her head on Jaime’s shoulder, suddenly and smoothly as though her neck could no longer support it. “I am so tired,” she whispered, a more full-bodied sound, no longer the parched sigh of desert wind. “So tired. I could sleep for a week.”

She snorted. It was a tiny, pitiful snort, but it was something close to normal. “Except we can’t, because we have an interrogation to conduct, and Bolton to face…”

“Bolton is finished,” Jaime interrupted her.

They almost certainly wouldn’t be able to prove that Bolton had got to Rast and Pypar, tried to have a couple of rookies tie up his loose ends with a well-placed bullet. The attack on Brienne’s father, vandalizing Jaime’s car, arranging for Brienne to be offered a transfer, feeding Ramsay Snow information about their investigation – none of that might be traced directly back to Bolton. Baelish could have arranged most of it, despite his denial, and Ramsay Snow contrived the rest on his own. Jaime believed the old leech had had nothing to do with his son’s extracurricular activities. But none of it would matter a mummer’s damn in the end.

Jaime kept talking for Brienne’s benefit. “We won’t even need to leak Pia’s report. Everybody knows hospital staff gossip even more than cops do. The presence of an abductor-rapist and his victim at the same hospital is bound to come out sooner rather than later.” Jaime rubbed his bristly cheek on Brienne’s soft hair. “As soon as the press gets hold of Ramsay Snow, they’ll pull him apart like a loaf of bread, and Bolton alongside him. We’ll have a new lieutenant making our lives interesting before Snow comes out of recovery.”

Brienne lifted her head from Jaime’s shoulder and looked at him, a little light starting to come back into her eyes, turning them from opaque blue river pebbles to sapphires again. The sight lent strength of conviction to Jaime’s smile.

“As for interrogating the bastard, he won’t be up for it for at least a day, and he can talk or not. The evidence will speak for him. Seven hells, the D.A. might charge him with Jeyne Poole’s murder, even without a body, if forensics find any trace of her in that garage to match the evidence from the warehouse.”

Brienne still said nothing, but color came back to her freckly cheeks. She blinked, and her eyes shone.

Eyes bright as daylight. She could command armies with those eyes.

“So,” Jaime teased, the habit so deeply ingrained it came to him easily, even tired as he was. “That offer of transfer to Missing Persons probably still stands. You’re really not going to go back to the bright and shining light of day?”

Brienne inclined her head a bit as she studied Jaime. He saw her consider whether to be insulted or get angry, expressions flickering and passing across her face before she settled on mild exasperation.

“Too blinding,” she replied at last. “I think… I think I prefer the bright and shining streetlights.”

“Why, Detective Tarth,” Jaime drawled, feeling more comfortable and self-confident by the second. “That was almost poetic and a little bit seedy.”

Brienne rolled her eyes. “I would hate to disappoint.”

“Impossible.” Jaime wanted it to come out teasing, but it didn’t. As Brienne looked at him and he looked back at her, he had to admit that it was better this way. “Ask me, then.”

Brienne frowned. “Ask you what?”

“Ask me back to your place, to get some sleep.”

Jaime wondered if he should say ‘please,’ but he didn’t want to beg and it was too late anyway: she was already considering it. He’d wanted to demand, but it had come out as a question, an unusually timid one.

Come on, Brienne. So I’m no picnic. So I’ve got more baggage than the lockers at King’s Landing Central. You’ve got almost as much. I can handle the politics if you can handle the carnage. Partners and partners. I know you want to. I want to. Ask me. Ask me. Just… please ask me.

He watched Brienne close her eyes, and chew her lip, and breathe deeply through her nose.

She opened her eyes at last. Jaime had never been a believer, in people, religions or causes, but he would have snapped off a salute and marched anywhere under her banner just then. She visibly screwed up her courage and drew herself up, shoulders stiff, hands clasped in her lap.

“Would you like to come back to my place?” Brienne asked, polite to a fault yet still timid, still shy, certain of imminent defeat and humiliation. “I mean,” she hastened to add, “I mean, your place is so much nicer. You have nice furniture and a cat. I live out of cardboard boxes still. But if you want to…”

Jaime imitated the way she’d tilted her head while thinking. “I was high on morphine at the time, but I seem to remember you mentioned something about a freshly made bed two nights ago?”

Brienne nodded slowly, a blush invading her face, unstoppable as the evening tide.

“And you haven’t been home to sleep in it yet.” A statement, not a question.

She shook her head, a small gesture but unhesitant.

Jaime smiled. “If I were a superstitious man, I’d say that’s very apt symbolism. But I’m just a tired flatfoot, so I’ll say only: I would love to, m’lady.”

Brienne blushed a deeper shade of pink, fought valiantly and in vain to keep her smile in check. The sight warmed Jaime like a campfire had been lit in his belly.

Chapter Text

Sunday, 4:30 a.m.

Brienne had never done this before.

She had never shared a bed with a man for more than a single night. She had certainly never slept beside a man with whom her history was already as complicated as her history with Jaime. The prospect made her nervous, a tentative feeling in her stomach, but it was not the nervousness of dread and fearful anxiety, which Brienne knew all too well. This was different, a shy, peeking, lip-biting, hopeful nerviness, an anticipation she still did not quite dare allow herself to indulge.

Brienne brought Jaime to her apartment in the early hours of Sunday morning. Darkness lay heavy upon the city, only the most persistent night owls still out and about. Brienne offered Jaime one of her T-shirts to sleep in, but he grinned and told her they were way past pajamas, she was lucky he was even keeping his smallclothes on, and that only because he was too tired to take them off. Brienne blushed and turned away as Jaime began to strip, shyness seizing her again although he had seen her already and she him. She stripped off her clothes as quickly as she could while her right arm protested and her ribs muttered mutinously, and pulled on an old T-shirt which hit the tops of her thighs.

When she turned to face the bed, Jaime’s gaze burned into her. His eyelids were at half-mast, and Brienne’s head swam with exhaustion. Even so, Jaime’s look – running up her legs and lingering where the tops of her thighs met her hips and the hard planes of her lower stomach, and a triangle of blue cotton did not quite hide the private hair he had already seen, and touched, and nuzzled – his look sent a renewed rush of blood to Brienne’s face, made her head spin and her nipples harden. Jaime’s gaze brushed them briefly before he went back to contemplating Brienne’s legs and hips and loins. Brienne longed to rub her breasts, to quiet them down. Or maybe get Jaime to touch them, though that would have had the opposite effect.

Jaime had climbed into bed first, as easy in her bedroom as though they had done this many times before. Brienne experienced a tiny stab of resentment at his casual comfort in what was supposed to be her private space. True, she had slipped into his bed easily enough the previous night, but that had been a form of camouflage, a spooked animal going to ground. Yet some of Brienne’s lingering fears lifted to see Jaime lie there, propped up on one elbow, the covers slipping down to reveal the planes and shallow dips of his chest and collarbones and shoulders, taking his sweet time while he examined her, a renewed curiosity in him despite the two times they had shared a bed already.

Finally Jaime’s eyes reached Brienne’s. He bit his lip as he smiled, his eyebrows arched knowingly, and Brienne wanted to climb into bed, and kiss him, and take him inside herself right away, and to the seven hells with sleep.

“Blue is a good color on you,” Jaime drawled, green eyes a-twinkle.

Gods, how Brienne resented him for making her feel like this, even as she fought with every fiber of her being not to launch herself at Jaime, regardless of their injuries and exhaustion and the memory of a girl lying in a hospital bed, missing patches of skin, her scalp a mess of wounds, her face swollen with bruises.

Jaime moved the covers from the empty half of the bed with his bandaged hand, patted the mattress, a dull thump. “Come here,” he said, his voice low, thick as melted chocolate. “I am getting all sorts of ideas, and they all require us to be far better rested than we currently are.”

Brienne tried to take deep breaths as she got into bed and switched off her bedside lamp. They lay facing each other in the dark, both of them breathing heavily as though they’d just run several miles. Brienne could not believe they would fall asleep. Once her eyes adjusted to the dark, she became aware of the intent way Jaime was staring at her face so as to prevent his eyes from wandering down her body. It was all too much, they would never get any sleep like this.

Brienne was asleep before she registered her body relaxing, despite her arousal, despite everything. Her sleep was as deep as an old well and dreamless, for which Brienne was grateful.

Now it was early afternoon, judging from the light in her bedroom. Brienne lay on her side, facing away from Jaime, as she’d found herself when she’d woken, and watched the pale shadows recede from her bedroom, stretch long fingers into the living room. The still unfamiliar walls and doorway and glimpse of box-strewn living room reminded her how new all this was, this apartment, this city, this man breathing quietly in his sleep behind her.

Brienne had not expected working in King’s Landing to bring her anything but the usual jeers and mockery, yet some of her colleagues had proved pleasant enough company, and Pia Rivers’ suggestion of a chat over coffee filled Brienne with more hope than she dared admit, even to herself. She thought about precinct gossip and regulations and sneaking around, and decided she could weather it all, even consider it worth her while.

If only Jaime wanted her. If only he would go on wanting her. Partners, in more ways than one.

The boy to whom she had lost her virginity had never seen Brienne’s bed, nor she his – the deed had been done in her father’s living room, been highly uncomfortable and abruptly over, followed by the boy’s swift departure. No more than Brienne had expected. The man she had briefly dated in Highgarden had been snoring blissfully when she’d snuck out of the cheap hotel of his choice.

Jaime’s face came to her then, his expression when he’d caught Brienne sneaking out on him.

Brienne grimaced where she lay, resisted the urge to pull the covers over her head lest that woke Jaime. Brienne wanted him to wake, but she also wanted to delay the moment a bit longer. Jaime had wanted her in broad daylight, wanted her still, otherwise why would he have insisted on coming back to her place, Brienne reminded herself sternly. She had been a fool for running away from him, was a fool for not simply rolling over and waking him. They’d slept for over ten hours, yet Brienne remained motionless, willing the blush of her remembered embarrassment and shame to recede.

“Your breathing has changed.”

Brienne inhaled sharply so as not to scream and produced a high-pitched squeak. She twisted around, her ribs protesting, and looked over her shoulder at Jaime, his eyelids still weighed down with sleep but his eyes glittering in a way she recognized, green and intent on her. Brienne had a moment’s thought that if she slid closer to him without rolling over, and pressed her backside against him, she would find him already hard, though it was not morning. Hard for her. Her cheeks heated up, and Jaime smiled to see it. He stretched out his good hand and stroked Brienne’s bare arm, up to her shoulder, slipping his long fingers under the short sleeve of her T-shirt to caress, not demanding or gripping, not deliberately arousing. Brienne’s eyes drifted shut nonetheless.

“Brienne.” Her name sounded good when he said it like that, sugar crystals on his tongue.

Brienne’s eyes snapped open. “Oh no,” she breathed. “We don’t have any protection. Again.”

The box of condoms from the pharmacy, still in Jaime’s apartment, loomed before her like a mountain she could not possibly hope to scale. Brienne marveled at how ridiculous that made her feel: so desolate over so small a thing!

Jaime inclined his head on his pillow to give her an arch look. “How little you think of me,” he teased softly. “Remember I needed to piss before we left Baelor’s? There was a vending machine in the men’s room.”

He pushed back the covers and got out of bed, bent to retrieve his trousers from the floor and a fresh box of condoms from his pocket, seemingly oblivious to the sight with which he presented Brienne: long, muscular back, even longer legs, narrow hips in black boxer shorts. Brienne had not felt so hot since the last heat wave of summer.

Jaime turned, brandishing the small, brightly colored box. His smile told Brienne he had known exactly what looking at him bent over like that would do to her.

Irritation mingling with blind, grasping desire swept through Brienne. She pushed herself up to a sitting position, pulled her T-shirt off over her head defiantly. Felt Jaime’s eyes on her like a wave washing over her goose-pimpled skin. Her midriff was still wrapped in bandages, her ribs and neck were sore and bruised, and her nipples were hard and wanting. Jaime looked at it all, then back up to her pink face, his nostrils flaring as he strode up to the bed.

He dragged the covers off Brienne, wrestling them into a ball under his injured arm and pushing them nearly off the bed. The box of condoms got dropped somewhere in the mess of sheets as Brienne let her hands wrap around Jaime’s shoulders and under his armpits, and drew him down to her.

Jaime had three days’ worth of stubble, and while the sensation was novel and unusual and just past the boundary between interesting and plain scratchy, Brienne would not have stopped kissing him had he been as hairy as a bear and not washed in months. She was as hungry for Jaime as he was for her, and tired of pretending otherwise or banishing the thought from her head because of the Stark case, because of departmental regulations, because of Jaime’s sister and Brienne’s own bad experiences, because of the world. What had the world to do with it? If Jon Snow and Ygritte could try and make it work, the worst Jaime and Brienne would have to contend with was keeping a semi-secret relationship going while working in a building full of cops, keen observers of human behavior all. Not that anyone was likely to care, beyond the usual japes. Brienne needed merely to prevent Jaime from head-butting anyone else, watch out lest his pride and her fear tripped them up, and they might stand a solid chance.

Jaime was stroking her throat with his good hand, fingertips light and careful on her bruised flesh, fascinated by the length of her neck. Noises which Brienne normally considered the height of embarrassment filled her bedroom and did not embarrass her at all. Jaime was propped up on his elbow, rubbing his thigh between her legs, his cock pressed to her side. Brienne wrapped her leg around his hip and rubbed back, wanting him, also wanting him not to have to wait. Jaime groaned, his hips jerking against Brienne. Other than their fingers on each other’s skin, they touched only with their hips and loins and mouths.

“I want…” Brienne muttered into Jaime’s mouth, broke off with a wet gasp. “You can… lie down. I want to feel your weight on me.”

Jaime bowed his beautiful head, dark bags under his eyes, unshaven, injured, yet still as godlike as any man Brienne had ever seen. She had a long second to tremble at the thought that he’d come to his senses at last and couldn’t stand the sight of her ugly face any more.

Shame on me, she thought sternly. I can trust him. I need to trust him.

His forehead resting on Brienne’s breastbone, Jaime spoke as though addressing her chest cavity, her lungs and heart and bruised ribs. “Believe me,” his voice shivered through Brienne, “nothing would make me happier right now, but I don’t think your ribs could take it.”

“Oh my ribs, my thrice-damned ribs,” Brienne lamented, feeling foolish, but it struck her as a real loss, the knowledge that Jaime was right and she couldn’t push herself too hard.

Jaime looked up, from her breasts to her eyes. “Now Brienne, I realize you are impatient, but there’s no need for such language.”

Brienne’s mouth grew dry as she gaped, until she realized he was teasing her as usual and flicked his ear with her fingertips. Jaime laughed and rolled off her, hooked his bandaged hand around Brienne’s waist, pulling her after him. They lay on their sides, facing each other again. Brienne wriggled a bit until she found a comfortable position for her ribs and Jaime could keep his right hand from getting squashed between them.

Brienne took Jaime’s face in her hands, stroked his stubbly cheeks with her thumbs till he closed his eyes and licked his lips, and kissed him as she had wanted to do in his kitchen after she’d made him an ice pack and he’d asked if she’d lie for him. Anything, Brienne whispered silently, knowing it was a stupid thing to promise even in her most private thoughts, also knowing Jaime would not ask it of her, would not let her if she ever tried to do something truly foolish. Anything, and she kissed him, sucking gently, lips and tongue and teeth shy yet eager.

Brienne suppressed a shiver as Jaime rolled her nipples between questing fingers both strong and light, explored her, gliding just over her bandages only to come down on her waist and claim naked skin, finding nothing wanting in her muscles, her breadth and heaviness. Jaime dragged her smallclothes down. Brienne lifted her hips off the mattress to help him without breaking their kiss, opened her thighs so he could touch her as he had done before, in his bed, though she wanted more now, had wanted more then, and would not run from what they both wanted this time.

Brienne broke off the kiss and arched into Jaime’s touch, wanting this and everything. Jaime was kissing her throat carefully, avoiding bruises, and stroking her so she sounded like a stringed woman, an instrument which produced only moans and squealing sighs. Brienne wanted to rock against Jaime’s hand and let him take care of her, but she also wanted to make this good for him, acutely aware of a sense of obligation mingling with her desire for him, lending it a special urgency. She’d run from him last time, but not again.

So she made herself damp down the way her hips were already rolling, dancing with his hand, pushed Jaime onto his back and straddled him. He looked comical, hard and tenting his boxer shorts, wetting them in one spot. Quickly Brienne slipped her hand under the waistband lest she burst out laughing, felt rather than heard Jaime sigh with relief even as his stomach muscles tensed up when she began to stroke. Brienne’s left hand, looking bigger and clumsier than ever against the planes of his torso, the still golden, silver-threaded hair on his chest and stomach, hovered between them until Brienne dared to do what she wanted.

Lightly like catching a feather on the breeze, Brienne took Jaime’s nipple between her finger and thumb. She didn’t look at Jaime’s face, but his moan and renewed tensing of his stomach muscles, his eager thrust into her other hand told Brienne she was doing this right. So she allowed her mouth to follow her fingers. Jaime’s chest hair tickled her more than his stubble had done. His hand on her shoulder, her head, trembling and warm, startled her so she nearly bit down. Brienne closed her eyes and focused on using her mouth and tongue and occasionally her teeth, just a little, her own stomach contracting as she listened to Jaime, his breath stirring the hair on her forehead, certain that the sight of her, intent on stroking him and suckling on him as he had done to her, was almost too much for him.

Brienne had just started nuzzling the hair under his nipple, lipping her way down, telling herself that if she went slowly, she could take Jaime in her mouth and it wouldn’t matter she’d never done that before, when Jaime’s bandaged hand caught her under the armpit and dragged her back up, until she was kneeling astride him, her hand stilled on his cock and her face inches from his. Brienne thought she’d done something wrong, she was doing everything wrong, except there was no mistaking the hooded look in Jaime’s eyes, the flush spreading from his chest to his hairline, the beads of sweat on his upper lip, caught in the stubble there. Brienne licked her lips, wanting to lick that sweat off, feel the sharp bristles and soft mouth under her tongue.

“I’m not going to last much longer if you use your mouth, Brienne.” Jaime’s voice was clipped, as though breathing had become a challenge. “Hells, I might not make it if you keep biting your lip like that.”

Brienne stopped biting her lower lip at once. Jaime managed a ragged smile, his voice still breathless as he stroked his bandaged hand down her side and brought up his good hand to cup her cheek, reminding her with a shiver of what could have been. “And I want inside you,” Jaime added softly. “Now, not later.”

“Yes.” A part of her still thought she should be terrified, she should know this was all a huge joke at her expense. Brienne closed her eyes because the look and feel and closeness of Jaime was just too much for a moment. Only then could she say it again, a certainty to rout the great host of her fears and put them to panicked flight. “Yes.”

Smallclothes were discarded, a condom extracted from its box and wrapping and wrestled into place with some fumbling and many giggles, his as well as hers. Brienne had one last moment to consider herself, big and broad and muscular, ugly and bruised, feeling huge yet not really dwarfing Jaime as she hovered over him. He sat up, leaning back against the headboard, beautiful and golden as a sunset made flesh, raking Brienne with his eyes like she was the best sight any man had ever beheld, his left hand squeezing her hip, tiny tugs of his wrist urging her to come down, lower. So she did, slowly, both of them panting and wanting to make it last.

Brienne closed her eyes and let herself just rock against Jaime, and pant, and feel. She felt light yet dense, compact, all of her muscles, tendons, bones moving with ease, a rolling rise and fall. Graceful, for once.

Jaime’s breath on her lips, her chest brushing his made Brienne open her eyes. The look on Jaime’s face, so close to her, was like nothing she had seen before, and Brienne nearly froze, climbed off and ran, wrestling with a moment of blind panic. Jaime’s eyes held her in place, sweeping up her body, bulky and solid yet so light as she knelt astride him, taking her in from where they were joined, up her muscular stomach, her bandaged ribs, her breasts, her bruised neck, to her face.

Brienne made herself stop biting her lip when she saw Jaime’s nostrils flare and remembered what he’d said. Her fingers were full of Jaime’s soft hair. His mouth found her collarbone, her throat, his body rising to meet hers, her name a benediction on his lips. Brienne clenched around him, their three good hands going everywhere they could reach, to stroke and squeeze and rub, while Jaime’s bandaged hand rested on the small of Brienne’s back, anchoring her, keeping her steady on their shared course.

Jaime. Jaime.

“Jaime.”

Brienne’s bruised throat ached as her head fell back, a harsh counterpoint to her pleasure, her fingers slipping down from Jaime’s hair to clutch at his shoulders, her body gripping his.

Jaime’s hand squeezed her hip as he let his body take what it wanted, all thought for making it last gone, and Brienne did not mind at all. She opened her eyes just in time to see Jaime’s head roll back, his throat exposed, offered up to her again, his eyes screwed shut. Though Jaime could not see her, Brienne’s name was in his mouth, on his tongue, flung out into the air, only her name and his pleasure left to him.

They slumped against each other, limp yet trying to cling together, mutual intentness giving way to sated, laboring breaths. Brienne kissed Jaime’s cheek, his temple and hair and finally, her heart squeezing and skipping, his mouth, before she climbed off him with a sigh. The effort to lift her body and lower herself slowly to lie beside him seemed almost too much, while her ribs pulsed very gently, awash in endorphins and adrenaline.

Hormones, nothing. Brienne felt washed clean, pleasantly swollen, happy. She knew if she touched herself right away, she’d come again so fast, she could feel it, but she forbore, better to wait and see what Jaime would say, how he would act.

Jaime slid down the headboard till he was lying beside her, slim and a hair shorter than Brienne, his injured arm thrown back behind his head, his face both sharp and relaxed as he came back to himself from behind closed eyes, sweat drying on his skin. He focused his gaze on Brienne and slipped her a crooked smile, which made her swallow and blink, like a hand between her legs.

“This might be an odd thing to hear just now,” Jaime said, taking deep breaths, “but I cannot wait for you to meet Tyrion.”

Brienne frowned, thinking back. “Your brother in rehab?”

“My only brother. I doubt anyone else in my family will bother about you, but you’ll meet Tyrion eventually. He’s good people, you’ll like him. He’ll like you.”

Brienne accepted this as offered, content not to question a good thing for once, reflecting that it was likely no cause for complaint if she never met any of Jaime’s other relatives. Jaime did not care for many people, but it seemed she was one of the few he did care for. Again Brienne told herself sternly not to get carried away so soon, but she knew it was too late, it had been too late since she’d let Jaime fall asleep on her lap after his injury, since she’d heard about his sister and accepted his past for what it was, since she’d first realized he was better police than he pretended to be and far better than anyone else believed him to be.

Brienne’s father would have to hear about Jaime at some point. Brienne wondered how she would break the news that the man most famous for the nickname gifted him by the tabloids was her new partner as well as…

As well as.

Brienne’s phone rang: The Maid of Tarth played shrilly on a synthesizer.

Jaime frowned at her phone where it sat on the nightstand, closer to him than to Brienne. He reached for it.

“No!” Brienne exclaimed, clocking that it was Sunday and the afternoon had grown late while they’d caressed each other. “Don’t touch that bloody phone!”

“Really, Brienne, language.” Jaime raised an eyebrow at the caller ID. “Hmm, maybe I should answer this,” he teased infuriatingly.

“Give it to me, Jaime.”

“Oh I’ll give it to you all right…” Jaime leered, held the phone as far from Brienne’s grasping hand as he could.

Brienne snorted and climbed over Jaime, grateful for once his other hand was out of commission or he might have used it to pinch or tickle her, wrestled her still ringing phone out of Jaime’s hand, and escaped into the kitchen with it.

She was blushing right down to her toes when she returned: she had never been naked in this apartment before, outside her bathroom and bedroom, and had not got around to putting up curtains in the living room yet.

“My father sends his regards. He told me to tell you that you had better stick to the straight and narrow while we are partners or…”

Jaime had disposed of the condom in Brienne’s absence and now leaned back against the pillows, idly scratching his chest. “So you told him you’ve been partnered with the bloody Kingslayer, have you? Is Tarth Island’s police chief worried I’ll start shooting people left and right just to taint your career?” Jaime was smiling, but his smile had a bitter edge.

“Yes. Sort of. Not in so many words.” Brienne shuffled her feet, feeling somehow more naked than when Jaime had been inside her. “I’m sorry, he worries too much. I promise I’ll tell him about us,” she gestured at the air between her and Jaime, still saturated with their sighs, the smell of them both, “next time he calls.”

Jaime’s expression turned compassionate, a whip-quick change from his earlier hurt, offended annoyance. “Of course he worries about you, Brienne. He’s your father and he cares. Tell him when you’re ready. Whenever he finds out, I expect he’ll come down here to dangle me upside down off a tall building and lecture me about protecting your honor. No need to rush on my account.”

Brienne scowled. “I’ll tell him next time,” she said firmly. “Then he will know, and it’ll be one less person we need hide from.” Even though they both knew they couldn’t possibly keep their private relationship a secret for very long, nor did Brienne want to force Jaime into it, after what his relationship with his sister must have been like.

Cersei. Brienne had to get used to saying the woman’s name, if only in her thoughts. Cersei existed, even as just a tiny figure in the background of a tapestry. Brienne could not afford to pretend otherwise.

Brienne lay down beside Jaime again, and he put his arm around her, easily as though this had not been practically their first time. They lay in companionable silence, naked but for their bandages and completely relaxed, anticipating a possible repeat performance. I’ll give it to you all right.

“Will you do something for me?” Brienne asked.

“Yes, I will go down on you again,” Jaime replied at once, always quick on his feet and with his tongue.

Brienne sputtered. “That’s not… I mean, you can…” She paused for a deep breath. “Will you please learn to swim when your hand gets better?”

Jaime was silent: whatever he had expected her to ask, that was not it. Brienne took this as a small triumph – she had managed to surprise him.

“All right,” Jaime said. “If you will teach me.”

She huffed. “Jaime, they have swimming classes at every public pool.”

“Brienne, if you think I’m going to take lessons with a bunch of children and hydrophobic housewives, you’ve got another thing coming. I’d rather learn from you. You said yourself you’re an islander, you must swim like a fish.”

Brienne waited for a jape. A great big fish. A whale, which wasn’t even a fish.

No jape came, and she was ashamed of herself again. I’d rather learn from you. I trust you.

Brienne rolled to her side, so she was facing Jaime’s profile and could stroke his face, scratchy and smooth under her finger pads. “If you like. I will teach you, gladly.”

Jaime smiled as he’d done in the car on the way to Rosby, the smile which made Brienne feel undressed and caressed, only now she knew she was not imagining the intent behind it. As Jaime kissed her mouth and started to kiss down her body, Brienne couldn’t help still worrying a little.

They would have to speak to Internal Affairs about the events at Vargo Hoat’s warehouse, then there would be sick leave, physical therapy, getting cleared for active duty by departmental shrinks. The gods alone knew who would replace Lieutenant Bolton – whoever it was would probably go on making her and Jaime’s lives complicated. Brienne wanted Jaime in every way she could imagine, but she also wanted him to go on respecting her, wanted to be able to face him in bed, at work, in their car. That, at least, was Brienne’s smallest worry, the flimsiest, the one she was most certain was foolish as well as groundless. It still left Sansa Stark, Ramsay Snow, Brienne’s father, Jaime’s family. It was a lot, almost too much.

Brienne arched and sighed, her nerve endings telling her what to do. She was content to obey while Jaime suckled on her, one breast then the other, his stubble scratching and tickling Brienne’s sensitive skin.

“Why can I only suck one at a time?” he murmured ruefully, his breath cooling Brienne’s damp skin, a whispered promise of touch.

Brienne uttered a tiny laugh, unwilling to move her body away from Jaime’s mouth even a little, even by accident. “Because… you would look odd with two mouths,” she teased.

Jaime didn’t look up. “You mean you wouldn’t care for me if I had two mouths?”

Brienne’s blush was hot and unstoppable, robbing her of the ability to think of a reply or move either closer or away. Jaime kissed her nipple, and she nearly whimpered, wanting him, besieged by her fears, too much, too much.

“It’s all right, Brienne.” Jaime looked up at last, his bandaged hand stroking her hip, his eyes wide and dark with terror and desire, a combination Brienne recognized. “Me too. Me too.”

Brienne closed her eyes and sighed, stroking Jaime’s hair. The night was just beginning to fall. Regardless of the time of day or night, in a thousand places in King’s Landing, in Storm’s End and Highgarden and on Tarth, people were suffering, dying, inflicting pain and harm. Sansa Stark and Ramsay Snow lay in the same hospital, both drugged to the gills and receiving the same quality of care. Come the morning, Jaime and Brienne would argue with Snow’s attending about being allowed to question him, while Sansa perhaps remained sedated, free of the knowledge of what had been done to her for just a little while longer.

Brienne couldn’t stop it all or fix it all or make any of it better, and that knowledge rankled, would always be a suppurating pain in her heart. But there were other certainties, equally weighty and important: Jaime’s presence in Brienne’s apartment, in her bedroom, with her. His mouth spelling out on her skin things she already guessed but still needed to be told, still wanted to hear and feel. Jaime’s name on Brienne’s lips and her hands on him what she gave back, step forth and engage, step forth and be recognized, a natural call and response.