Present day King’s Landing, four hundred and fifty-five days after Lannisport
Jaime finds himself standing in an office he had hoped never to set foot in ever again. There is a pink glass rose paperweight upon the desk. He hates that fucking paperweight. And on the other side of the desk sits a tiny, white-haired woman that he also never wishes to see or speak to ever again. His superior. The appeals to what he had previously enjoyed about his work fall upon deaf ears. So too, does a substantial pay rise. Not even the threat of a falsified psychological evaluation that would be a permanent black mark against his name, and prevent him from ever acquiring a job in the civilian sector - nothing sways him. He is determined; he will not return to active service. At the age of thirty-eight he is retired from this most dangerous of occupations. If not happily retired - he has not had a reason for happiness in all of these four hundred and fifty-five days - he is bull-headedly, stubbornly retired. Out of disgust. Out of exhaustion. Out of grief.
The woman, like an ugly grey cormorant, ignores him, ignores his protests, and continues on blithely, explaining his next assignment. He doesn't care. He doesn't care about any of it.
He is done with a life of shadows and deceit.
All he wants is to return to his ancestral estate and there be left alone to lick his wounds. To be left alone to the crippling grief and guilt and fury that wakes him screaming and pleading, night after night. If only he had been faster. Stronger. He could have been in time. The water - he could have - he could have saved -
He shies away from the thought like a child away from a hot stove after being burnt on the finger.
The woman in front of him is still speaking, though he can't make out the words. His head is ringing. He nods, though to what he isn't precisely certain. And then the glass doors slide open to reveal a young man, early twenties and straight out of university if Jaime has to guess, with blue eyes and close cropped dark brown hair. He handles his wheelchair with the assurance of a person long accustomed to it.
His superior smirks. "Lannister, meet our new quartermaster. Q will brief you on your gadgets."
Fuck, Jaime thinks.
He waits until he's descended a ridiculous amount of storeys in the lift down to the research labs, attempting without success to find a way of untangling himself from this situation, to drawl his question. "I never caught your name, Q. Seems a bit unfair, seeing as you know mine."
The younger man looks at him with solemn eyes. "Bran Stark."
Stark? Bran Stark? He reels. He can see the resemblance now, and it's a dagger to the heart. The hair is darker, but the structure of the face is the same. "I - knew - your sister." He speaks before being aware of having spoken.
Bran Stark's stoicism shatters like a mirror. "Which one?" he chokes. "My sisters have been missing for years."
"Sansa." Her name burns his throat, smoke and salt and tears and a lagoon at midday. "I knew Sansa."
"When? How? Where?"
"Four hundred and eighty days ago. On a train to Braavos."
If Bran Stark finds Jaime’s precision in the matter strange, he does not let it show. Instead, his eyes narrow as he focuses instead on another aspect of Jaime’s reply. "You said you knew her?"
"What does that mean, Lannister? I haven't heard anything about her whereabouts for years. Not since the death of our parents, and you're telling me you've seen her? That she's alive?"
"She - she's not."
"I'm not." She died in front of me. She was dead when they lifted her from the water. I tried - I couldn't - I tried -
"Then who has been using her Winterfell trust fund for the past months?"
Meereen, forty days before Lannisport
"Take your hand away from your ear, Snow," Jaime hisses.
"What?" His - well, partner is putting things generously: as Jaime is fast learning, the man is utterly and truly a hapless moron of the first order - fellow agent replies, bending his head, making it vividly obvious to anyone with a mind that he is wearing an earpiece.
"Take your hand away from your ear," Jaime repeats, clipping his vowels coldly. "Now, Snow!"
"What?" Snow shouts.
Jaime only has time to swear silently before their quarry spots Snow blatantly not cheering on the cobra fight as everyone else around him is. Jaime inches closer, his plan shot to hell. The man he is tracking - young, bald, and wearing a dark leather jacket - spots Snow, draws a pistol, fires into the air, and in the chaos of the screaming crowd, sprints off.
Jaime pursues, taking vicious satisfaction in punctuating every footfall with a variation of fuck-fuck-fuck-damn you-fuck you Jon Snow-fuck-fuck-fuck. He's in good shape, but the man he is currently pursuing is fast, with a penchant for leaping over walls as if they were hurdles at a primary school athletics competition, barely knee-height. Jaime does not possess either the same skill or fascination, and so must go around the walls like any other person might. This, of course, has the consequence of making him lose ground. Coming up to a building site in full swing, he swears to himself again, commandeers a digger, floors it, getting the machine painfully up to the ridiculous speed of thirty miles an hour, and leaving a cloud of red dust in his wake. All too soon, the digger proves useless in the pursuit of a man through a half-built concrete skeleton, so Jaime launches himself from the driving seat and continues his chase on foot up through the building.
He had not envisaged ending his afternoon on the top of a crane trading blows with a man who works as bomber-in-residence for a terrorist organisation, but needs must.
King’s Landing, the present day.
Jaime watches, bemused, as Bran Stark downs cups of coffee like vodka shots and his hands fly over the keys, blue text appearing in great swathes upon the clear glass screens. This continues for some time, until, in the manner of great scientists, Bran Stark suddenly cries out, “Eureka! I have it.”
“What, exactly?” Jaime queries, pushing himself off the edge of the table he has been leaning against, and coming closer so he, too, can read the screens, not that the long lines of code mean anything to him.
“There - I managed to trace the provenance of the Winterfell trust funds. They’re being topped up by a shadow fund.” His eyes widen. “A shadow fund set up in the event of my parents’ death - no - in the event of their assassination.” Jaime watches the younger man’s fists clench. “It wasn’t an accident. We all thought it was an accident, but it wasn’t. Someone wanted them dead.”
“Can you trace the account?”
“Can fish swim?” Bran Stark responds dryly. And then, a moment later, he continues, tapping at his keyboard. “It’s registered to a company. Mockingbird. I don’t know it.”
“Oh, I do,” Jaime growls. “It’s a corporation, a front for money laundering.”
“Far worse. It’s run by a man named Petyr Baelish, alias Littlefinger, alias private banker to the world’s terrorists.”
“No, I’m not.”
“Fuck. He was my mother’s best friend.”
“So that’s why she was so spooked by him in Braavos.” It all makes sense to Jaime now. It all makes sense.
“I don’t follow.”
“The mission your sister accompanied me on; it was to trap Petyr Baelish. I thought the way he looked at her was the way he looked at women in general, I thought she was tense because she was outside her comfort zone.”
“My mother refused to see it, but from the time Sansa was eleven or twelve, she made very sure to never be in the same room as him. And never alone.”
On a train to Braavos, twenty-five days before Lannisport
When he is told that his government is sending a diplomat to accompany him on this mission; a woman, a companion, posing as his fiancée to give his cover story a veneer of the ordinary, he nods impassively, but inwardly sighs in frustration. He has no time for some stickler for the rules questioning his every move, and wonders how dowdy the diplomat is going to be - someone young, bland, whose only redeeming feature is the ability to speak a ridiculous amount of languages, the ability to nagivate society as a hostess, in all likelihood. Jaime can see it already. Not only will he have to contend with this man Baelish, private banker to the world’s terrorists and notorious poker player, but he’ll be bored out of his mind by his companion, clutching her pearls at every sentence that comes out of his mouth.
So he finds himself on a train, in the first class dining carriage of an evening, waiting for this diplomat to show up. He entertains himself - the menu takes him all of five seconds to peruse - by thinking how flat her shoes are going to be. Sensible pleather lace-ups, he concludes, after discarding stilettos, loafers and boots in quick succession. Even a dowdy diplomat in knitted granny cardigans wouldn’t wear wellies in a dining carriage - at least he hopes not.
“I’m the money.” The seat opposite him is suddenly taken by the diplomat he has been waiting for. He blinks, freezing, forcing his features into pleasant neutrality, and looks up from his menu.
“Every penny of it,” he replies with a vague approximation of his usual, suave drawl, resisting the sudden urge to down his whisky. He’d been right about the diplomat being young, but utterly wrong about the rest of it.
She’s sharp, he can see that instantly. In her sunset eyes there’s a gleam of wicked intelligence, and he finds himself intrigued in spite of his reservations. She’s absolutely beautiful, as well: pale skin, glorious red hair, balletic, elegant. The kind of woman who can elevate a boring, monochrome office dress code with exquisite tailoring and luxurious materials to something nothing short of mesmerising.
They order their food, they dine, they speak about gambling, she mocks his plan, that wicked glint in her eyes making him want to hang the rest of the world and ravish her where she sits, and he can’t remember the last time he’s had this much fun. He’s never met a woman before who hasn’t been able to keep up with him, who takes his quips as a challenge instead of a deterrent, and he finds himself equal parts stunned, bewildered, aroused, and determined not to let her get the best of him.
“And you’re good at reading people?”
“I am,” he replies offhandedly, setting the bottle of wine back down again. Their words might be carefully modulated, but they can’t take their eyes off each other, and he settles into this intensely restrained foreplay with a smirk and a curl of his tongue.
“And what have you concluded?” She says, a well-mannered challenge that tells him she’s enjoying this as much as he is.
“About you, my lady?”
She hums, and he takes her invitation. “Your beauty is a problem. You worry you won’t be taken seriously.”
“Which one can say about of any attractive woman with half a brain,” she rebuts, almost dismissively, as though to say surely you can do better than that, Mr Lannister.
“True,” he admits. “But in this case the sharp tailoring, the unconcealed intelligence, the… slightly prickly demeanour. Some men might find that intimidating.”
“But not you, Mr Lannister.”
“No, not me.” He considers her, the controlled, even gaze she casts upon him. “It could be ascribed simply to arrogance, but not you.” He pauses. “You don’t want men to come near you, and if you have to endure being called an ice queen or worse, then that is a price you are willing to pay. Unless I am much mistaken, and I don’t believe I am, you were badly hurt.”
Her fingers tremble around the stem of her wine glass, her only sign of disquiet.
Because he is Jaime Lannister, he can’t resist. What an intriguing, amusing puzzle of a woman she is. In a gentler tone, he continues: “Who was he?”
“A fool, a spoilt boy,” she replies sharply. “And you are many things, Mr Lannister, but you are not a fool. The secret service is a young man’s game, and yet, here you are.” She pauses, and he senses she is going to repay the favour in the form of her own analysis of him. He finds himself deeply curious about what she will say. “From the cut of your suit, you were given the finest education, and you naturally think everyone dresses like that. You’re comfortable, but at the same time you wear the garment with such disdain. You consider yourself your own man, and have done so for a long time. The question is why? Normally I would have said issues with authority, teenage rebellion, that kind of prosaic thing - but in this case, considering who your parents were, such powerful and public figures, and how they died in that helicopter crash, I’m going to go with isolation from your peers. I imagine your guardian, subsequently, was either distant or overly controlling and protective or both, and you have ever chafed against that.”
He smirks, but remains silent, marvelling despite himself at the elegant, incisive turns of her mind. He should feel humiliated at being stripped bare. Instead he finds himself entertained, and more sexually frustrated now than at the beginning of the meal, and he’ll be damned if he doesn’t find that incredibly bewildering, even confounding. He doesn’t understand it.
“Now,” she continues, “having just met you I would not go so far as calling you a cold-hearted bastard - ”
“No, of course not,” he interjects mildly.
“But it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine,” she continues, certainty dripping like honey from her tongue. “You think of women as disposable pleasures rather than meaningful pursuits. So as charming as you are, Mr Lannister, I will be keeping my eyes on our government’s money and off your perfectly formed arse.”
“You noticed?” It is all he can manage to say. He’s never been so turned around before.
And there’s that damned, dangerous, alluring glint in her eyes again. “Even diplomats have imagination. Good night, Mr Lannister.” She stands, and reflexively, he stands too. His mother might have died when he was thirteen but he does remember the manners she taught him.
“Good night, my lady.”
She smiles blandly in response, and then glides down the carriage, unruffled. He is left staring after her in amazement.
He cannot lie to himself.
She might be confounding and infuriating and beautiful and clever and dangerous - he’s a spy, he damn well knows the signs, but he thinks the lady might be dangerous in a way he has never known another woman to be. She’s not dangerous to his job. She is dangerous to him.
More than anything else, more than dangerous, she is unforgettable.
King’s Landing, the present day
“So,” Jaime asks, reeling. “What now? What do we do? Where do we go?”
“The only place we can go,” Bran Stark replies evenly. “Winterfell.”
Braavos, twenty-four days before Lannisport
She is angry with him, that much is obvious, just having taken him to task with flashing eyes for what she views as his recklessness. And so he finds he has no rebuttal as she closes the lift doors on him with a curt, “Take the next one. There isn’t enough space for both me and your ego.”
On the train north to Winterfell, the present day
Jaime hates aeroplanes and Bran Stark cannot abide cars, so the two men take the scenic, two-day sleeper train up to Winterfell, having booked first class cabins so they can be comfortable, and hold their discussions privately. Jaime watches as the other man deploys from a hidden compartment in his wheelchair a little flying robot, that Jaime quickly learns is a device of Bran Stark’s own invention, to sweep the stateroom free of bugs and any other tracking or listening devices their erstwhile boss might have slipped into luggage or even the train carriage itself.
As the skyscrapers of the capital give way first to leafy suburbs and then to flat, open countryside, to quiet green fields in the light of the sun, Jaime settles back in the upholstered armchair to consider his companion with a sharp, even gaze.
“Why work for the intelligence services? What drew you towards the career of being Q?”
“The last time I saw my parents, I was fourteen years old. It was a Saturday, and my parents and Robb were driving to his sports game in time for the warm up, that kind of thing. The plan was for Sansa to drive us younger ones - me, Arya, Rickon, later, just for the match itself. My parents and Robb never turned up to the match, and their car was later found upside down in a ditch off the side of the road. Sansa tried to hold the family together after the funeral, with the help of our maternal great-uncle, Brynden. But Arya was the first to disappear. She was meant to get on a plane with Sansa back to King’s Landing for their studies, but she never got on the flight. To this day I’ve not had word of her. I stayed at Winterfell with my little brother Rickon and Brynden. And then came the fire. A gas explosion, the authorities later said. But Winterfell wasn’t run on gas; you don’t need to, not when the castle is built on hot springs, not when since it’s earliest inhabitation it has benefitted from a system of engineering wherein the steam and heat from the springs is piped through the walls to heat the structure. So that was the first… discrepancy. I don’t know how I survived. I shouldn’t have. I’ve been in a wheelchair since the age of seven. I should not be alive. My youngest brother died in the fire, and I assume my uncle too. I remember waking in a hospital bed. There was a calendar on the wall. For a date three months after what I remember from before the fire, and with a big picture of Highgarden in bloom. And at my bedside sat a little old lady I had never met before, but whom both of us know as the person in charge of the secret service, the person in whose office we met this morning. Or as she introduced herself to me then: Olenna Tyrell.”
“She’s a Tyrell?” Jaime snarls.
“I thought you knew.”
“No. No, I didn’t know. My father hated the Tyrells.” Jaime continues distantly, staring out of the windows. He snorts. “He called them jumped up farmers, who had the audacity to believe they could compete with House Lannister for government contracts.”
“My father thought similarly lowly of that family - but I thought it best to bide my time,” Bran replies evenly, with a grave, severe sort of determination. “To learn what skills I could to find my family in time. And the secret service was the best opportunity I had to try and find out what happened to them.”