Brienne sighs for the dozenth time that night, shrugging her shoulders so the cheap, scratchy polyester rubs against the itchy spot on her back. “Anything?” she mutters.
Inside her ear, Pod says, “No signs of either Targaryen or Mopatis.”
“They have to be here,” Brienne says desperately. It’s been a long day, and if her intel is wrong, she will have ended up serving all these rich corporate bastards ridiculous, gluten-free, vegan canapes for nothing.
“I’ve got facial recognition on everyone in this room. No hits. Well, two drug dealers, but—”
“Ugh. We’re not KLPD; leave them.”
Before she can complain to her tech any further, she sees one of the caterers push a cart, a large, five-tiered cake with pure white frosting teetering on it. The only thing that distinguishes it from a wedding cake is the cake topper, a seven-pointed silver snowflake. The crowd parts, ooh and aahs abound.
“Hey, Bri?” Pod says.
Brienne knows. She’s intimately acquainted with the menu at this point, and that cake isn’t on it. It makes no sense for either Daenerys Targaryen or Illyrio Mopatis to arrange that cake, but… who knows?
Brienne looks at the sea of people in front of her and heaves a sigh. It’s not like she has any other leads. Hoisting a big tray of finger food, she begins wading through the crowd, elbowing the guests left and right. They stop her, taking some food, asking her to bring them drinks, and she’s slow. Too slow. But she can’t blow her cover.
The cart reaches the bottom of the stage.
She’s still stuck in the middle of the crowd.
The lights go out, one by one, leaving a single ray of spotlight aimed at the cake. Haunting sept music starts playing, and wispy mists fill the room.
The top of the cake falls off. The Stranger emerges, a hunched figure in a tattered hood and even more tattered robes. He straightens, and just before the robe falls back into place, Brienne sees a flash of rippling muscles.
“Turns out the party organizer booked some entertainment last minute,” Pod explains, somehow managing to sound contrite even through the shitty, tinny sound quality of the earpiece.
“Yeah, I gathered,” Brienne mutters. Someone takes a piece of ham-wrapped melon from her tray. She ignores them, her eyes still on the stripper. “Background check.”
The Stranger lifts one finger, slowly, slowly, as if choosing a guest whose life he will take. The music rises to a crescendo.
The beat drops.
“GIVE IT UP FOR STRANGERRRRR DANGERRRRR!”
The Stranger turns around. Whips off his swishing robe with what Brienne thinks is a ridiculous amount of drama. The fabric seems to be suspended in midair, tattered edges and all, before it reveals the man underneath.
The crowd gasps, Brienne included.
The stripper, clad in nothing but leather strips, buckles, and a pair of undoubtedly rippable pants, is an exceedingly beautiful one.
A beautiful, ripped, oiled, dead man.
Jaime’s a dead man.
Literally. He’s supposed to be dead. A fighter jet had been caught in bad weather over Pentos, crashing into a seaside villa where Jarrod Westerling had been staying on a soul-searching trip, or so they’d told the public. Jaime had been compromised, a mission had gone sideways, and well. Kill two birds with one stone, or rather, kill one Jarrod with one freak accident.
He did regret not being able to meet her again, or spend hours and hours in bed doing unholy things with her, but hey. That’s just how it is in his line of work.
Except now she’s seen him and their eyes had met for the briefest second and she absolutely knows it’s him and not some doppelganger.
If Jaime had been allowed to choose how to re-meet his erstwhile girlfriend, let’s just say that it wouldn’t be at a corporate Sevenmas party where he’s trying to clean up the mess of his death, masquerading as a stripper dressed as the Stranger, while she’s inexplicably serving canapes.
Canapes! She was a forensic accountant. A wealthy one. There’s no shortage of embezzlement in this capitalistic world, so what in the Seven Hells is going on?
In his ear, Tyrion says, “Middle row, blonde giant. Doesn’t think you’re a real stripper.”
Through clenched teeth, Jaime hisses, “Yeah, no kidding.”
“I told you your twerk still sucks. But did you listen to me?”
“It's not the dance,” Jaime says. “We’ve met. Run facial recognition.”
Jaime keeps dancing. The ladies—and three men—at the frontmost row are waving stag bills at him. He winks at them, continues dancing, lowers himself so they can tuck the money in his waistband and cop a feel.
He steadfastly ignores his ex. Widow? Widow friend?
“Brienne Tarth,” Tyrion says, his voice crackling through the comms. “Sometimes goes by Berry Tailor. WIA.”
“She wasn’t WIA last time,” Jaime says through gritted teeth, but something in his chest unclenches. Westeros Intelligence Agency and the Kingsguard are—while not exactly friendly with each other—technically working for the same side. Not ideal, but at least she’s not secretly in the mob or anything. He tosses a kiss at her. She scrunches her nose.
Tyrion chuckles. “She’s been WIA for three years, I don’t know what to tell—oh hello, there. When you said you’d met—”
“Okay, that's enough.”
“Nope. No. We're not doing this. Also, I'm your brother.”
“Who says I'm looking at your photos?”
Jaime’s mouth runs dry. He knows exactly the photo Tyrion means. It’s not… indecent, not exactly, but still.
“Is that your shirt? Gods, it looks too small on her, doesn’t—”
“That’s me—shit.” Frantic typing noises, and then, “You’ve got company.”
And that's when the armed men storm the hall.
The men are trained well. Professionals. They’re calm and ruthless. One drunk guy who’d refused to lie down on the floor got kneecapped, and after that example no one else has tried anything.
Stranger Danger or Jarrod or whatever his name is, because he sure as hell hadn’t been a stripper the last time she’d seen him alive, makes faces at her from his lying-down position next to his cake of lies.
She mouths back, what?
And he mouths back something that can either be we can take them or whew cat ache him. The first is insane. The second means he’s had a stroke.
Stroke it is.
Then, he starts making military hand signals, right about the time Pod says in her ear, “Bri, the—ahem—exotic dancer? He's Kingsguard.”
Well. That makes sense. Sort of. She doesn't know what kind of life she's living anymore, but… okay.
So, her first—and only—boyfriend, whom she’d dated for an intense two months before he’d died early this year, turned out to be alive and a Kingsguard agent and is about to break his stripper cover, and she’s now going to kill some people with him.
Might as well, after the year she’s had.
He didn’t know she could move like that. Berry—no, Brienne—is a killing machine, disposing of one armed man after another as if they were made of styrofoam. The white uniform shirt she’s wearing strains against the muscles of her arms and shoulders, and he’s surprised—and if he’s being honest, disappointed—that she hasn’t popped the seams of her sleeves.
“Oh, come on,” Jaime exclaims in dismay as someone runs at him with a machete, blocking the glorious view he has of his ex-girlfriend-widow-person. Jaime ducks under the swing of the blade and knocks the guy down with an uppercut. “I’m watching a show, here.”
As if punishing him, the universe sends a couple more men careening his way, then a guy with a submachine gun, then a guy with… nunchucks? The enemies have no thematic consistency, but they’re all pretty good fighters. They don’t hold a candle to him, though, and considering they’re swarming him instead of her, they clearly think he’s the weaker target.
Jaime would be offended, but he’s feeling kind of weak-kneed after catching a glimpse of what Brienne can do with a champagne glass, so.
“Seven!” Brienne roars.
Jaime frowns. “Not the time to be competitive,” he calls out to her, then empties a mag into yet another goober. “Eight.”
“I’m not being competitive, I’m”—icepick through the eye—“keeping count. Eight.”
“Sure. Bet you’re also not mad I made you think I was dead,” Jaime says, tossing a dagger into the forehead of the guy she’s got in a chokehold. “Nine.”
She looks down at the hilt of the dagger, then to Jaime. “I held him still for you,” she says, her nose wrinkled in that very cute way that means he’s offended her.
He grins. “But I thought this wasn’t a competition?”
She bares her teeth. Pulls out the dagger, spraying blood across her white shirt, her face, her hair. Throws it in Jaime’s general direction, landing in the chest of someone sneaking up behind him. And then she says, “Nine. And no, I didn’t even know you were supposed to be dead.”
That was a lie. She’d cried over his death for a week. Not that he’ll ever find out about that, now that she knows that he’s a dick on top of being Kingsguard. She can’t believe she’d once thought he could be the one. This damn smarmy, shit-talking, smart-ass, shiny, oiled, hot man.
“Twelve,” he says, and at this point they’ve dropped all pretense of professionalism, because he’s obviously gloating. Even his abs seem to glint mischievously, which makes no sense, which means the stroke he’s had is contagious. As if making the moves on some woman at a bar, he says, “So, what brings you here?”
“WIA business,” she snaps, then bites off the pin of a grenade and lobs it at two goons. “Fourteen. You?”
Jaime—that’s his name, apparently: Jaime Lannister, who also happens to be the son of disgraced ex-PM Tywin Lannister—actually looks sheepish. “You know that fighter jet—”
Brienne’s mouth falls open, then closed again. She elbows a goon in the nose. “You didn’t get crushed by the jet!” she exclaims, fending off the now angered goon half-heartedly. “You flew the Valyrian Dragon.”
The public knows that it’s a Westerosi fighter jet that had crashed in Pentos, but they don’t know that it’s not any old jet. Brienne does. That’s what Illyrio Mopatis is supposed to be selling to Daenerys Targaryen tonight: salvaged parts of the state-of-the-art prototype, which—if successfully reverse-engineered—could help her greatly with her own civil war in Meereen.
But even with all that intel, she still hadn’t figured out the truth about her boyfriend and his death. She’d wondered if someone had been targeting her, but it’d been a hunch, nothing more, and her superiors had dismissed her pleas. Everyone new thinks someone’s after them, they’d told her. Never mind that she’d been with the WIA for two years already by then. The Kingsguard had done their homework, had made it so seamless even the WIA had suspected nothing.
Jaime gives her a winning smile—she refuses to look at anything below his neck, and it’s easy when his teeth glow like nighttime snow—as he’s sword-fighting what looks to be an honest-to-goodness ninja. “That’s my girl—ex. So smart.”
No, she’s dumb. So dumb. She opens her mouth. Closes it again. Knees the goon who’s still trying to get at her. She has so many questions, feels like she could scream at him, but the first thing that escapes her is, “You can’t even twerk properly.”
Jaime winces, then, “Oh, shut up.”
His eyes widen. “No, I’m talking to—shut up!”
Brienne rolls her eyes. She doesn’t have time for this. They have a fight to win and a wrecked jet to reacquire. She disarms her goon, kills him with his own baseball bat, grabs yet another grenade off of his belt, then throws it at the rest of his cohorts. “Nineteen.”
There’s a lull in the wave of bad guys after forty-seven: twenty-six hers, twenty-one his, and he has no excuse except that he’s only halfway invested in the fight and she’s very, very mad. In fact, it’s him that she’s mad at, which kind of hurts, even though he knows he deserves it, but also: holy hells, she’s glorious when she’s mad.
That’s also probably why he’s only halfway invested in the fight. The other half of him is cheering for her muscles to finally win against the seams holding her sooty, bloodstained shirt together. She’s already popped two buttons something like five minutes ago, so he knows there’s hope in this world.
“Get a mop and clean your drool off the floor,” Tyrion says. “Mopatis and Targaryen are headed to the roof.”
Jaime groans. “I thought you said they’re not here.”
“They’ve been here all along,” a different voice—younger, nervous—cuts in. “They blended in with the party-goers. I found—um—paper trail linking them to a Faceless base two days ago, so—”
“Got it, Pod,” Brienne says from next to Jaime. Jaime remembers a Pod, some time ago. Tyrion’s friend? Well, whatever. She asks, “And the men we fought?”
“Red Stannis’ men,” Tyrion says. Stannis Baratheon has never been happy about his brother’s unearned success as Prime Minister. “You know, sometimes I wonder if our family is the most dysfunctional one in the world, but you really can’t beat the Baratheons.”
“The roof, you say?” Jaime asks. He looks at his ex-widow. She looks at him. For once, there’s no competition or ire between them, only a tangible sort of agreement. They're both in it, now. Jaime feels a little dizzy, looking at her like this. Her eyes, wide and blue, hold a certain sort of determination that can only belong to an operative like him.
How could he have believed her to be harmless?
How could she have thought the same of him?
A loud, heavy slam jolts them back to the present. The double doors of the party hall are closed shut, and—rolling quietly through a straight path from the doors to Jaime’s foot—is a little glass canister. Inside, acid green swishes like soda in a shaken can. Outside, a digital clock blinks like the Sevenmas decorative lights around them.
For what feels like the entire Long Night, they simply stand there and watch the clock count down.
1:58. Timed charge. No visible seams, no visible wires outside the canister.
1:57. No immediate way to detach the clock—and possibly triggering mechanism—from the canister without spilling the liquid inside, whose fumes will immediately catch fire from the dozens of little votive candles on the little tables.
1:56. Wildfire doesn’t explode so much as immolate, so much as flood. This whole building will go down, millions of gold dragons will be lost, and more importantly, hundreds of people will—in one clean burn—lose their jobs, their livelihoods.
Brienne fucking hates these corporate types, but she knows they’re not likely to give their janitors a good severance package either.
So, she has to try. With nothing but a utility knife Jaime had given her for their monthversary, which had sounded like a fake milestone then and now feels like a different lifetime. Maybe it is, for him.
Her own voice sounds like someone else’s when she breaks the silence: “Pod, Tyrion, find a way for Jaime to get to the roof.”
Jaime whirls around to face her, something deadly in his eyes. “Belay that,” he says, his voice weirdly calm. How could she ever have thought of him as nothing but a librarian? Like this, in fetish gear that had seemed ridiculous mere moments ago, swathed in grime and blood and sweat, he could very well be the Stranger himself. He says, his eyes on her but his words not for her, “Find us a way to defuse this thing.”
“I can handle it,” she lies, unconvincingly.
“Yeah? They teach you how to die at the WIA?”
She opens her mouth to argue back, because it’s him who’d died on her, died and lied and then swanned back in like a vision, but the clock blinks on quietly and she loses what will there is to win, to compete.
So she says, “Just go get your fucking jet,” and it sounds harsher than she intended.
“And let you claim all the credit for the bomb? You WIAs are all the same—” And he launches into a tirade so clearly designed to rile her up, to make her snap and say fine, except she can’t catch a single word, only that somehow it feels like him, like home, like something she’d lost and found again and could not keep.
They’d argued the first time they’d met, too. It also had felt pointless, continuing for the rest of the day until they’d ended up in bed. But this time, it’s life or death. Literally. Her head is spinning and every blink of the countdown is imprinted behind her eyelids, the time trickling both too slowly and too quickly. So it spills out of her, the truth: “I’m not mourning you again!”
Jaime stops. “But you said…” he begins, and falters, his face falling in a way that makes her want to cup it and kiss him. She’d done so before. They’d been different people.
She doesn’t kiss him this time. Instead, she says, “I lied.” She doesn’t know what else to say. Apologise? He’d lied to her first. That’s simply what people in their line of work do to those they hold the dearest, apparently.
“I’d love to turn off all comms and let you two get it all out of your system, but need I remind you there’s a bomb in front of you?” Tyrion says in both their comms. In front of them, the timer blinks down from 00:34 to 00:33.
“Shut up,” Jaime says, as Brienne says, “You got anything?”
“On your right,” Tyrion says, and that’s when floodlights fill the hall from the right-side glass walls.
They run. Brienne picks up a grenade launcher from under a dead goon, hoists it onto her shoulder, and—precision be damned, really—pulls the trigger. Behind them, the tiniest sound of shattering glass, then a wave of heat so potent and so quick. Jaime doesn’t turn back, doesn’t dare to. Brienne doesn’t, either.
Five paces away. Tyrion or Pod says something in the comms, but he can’t hear it, can’t discern the words, and it can wait, surely?
Four. Her buttons have all given way, and he’s treated to a strip of sweaty skin between her sports bra and her waistband, the rippling muscles of her abdomen, washed pale by the floodlights. Not a bad thing to see, if it’s to be their last.
Three. He yells, “I’m sorry!”
Two. She yells back, “What?”
One. He takes her hand, tangles his slippery fingers with hers. Feels the calluses that he’d never noticed before, the calluses of a fighter. “I killed Jarrod to protect Berry!”
And, with green flames licking at their heels and fireworks erupting in the sky around them, they jump.
It’s too loud to talk, with all the fireworks around them and the chopper over them, so Brienne simply clutches the rope ladder and her dead-not-dead-ex-boyfriend for a while, feeling the warmth of his body in this winter night, the oddly arousing smell of blood and gunpowder sticking to his skin. His apology replays in her head, like an audio version of an after-image.
There’s much to say, but this is neither the place nor time.
They watch the fireworks. Before them, the Red Keep collapses under its own weight—wildfire can apparently melt steel beams—and the chopper takes them away just as KLPD and fire trucks arrive. They fly away from the city, and somewhere over the Kingsgate, Jaime produces a carabiner from a pocket and clips one of the many straps wrapped around his torso onto the ladder.
He catches her gaze and gives her a saucy grin. “It’s not only there to look pretty, you know,” he says, loud enough for her to hear over the beating winds. “It lets me do this, too.”
He cups her face with both hands. Her eyelids flutter closed.
The kiss… doesn’t happen.
Brienne opens her eyes again, frowning, “What are you—”
“You’re a marvel,” he declares. “Do you know that?”
And before she can answer, he kisses her.
The comms crackle to life. “If you two are quite done, Pod and I have two empty seats in the back.”
Brienne splutters in indignation. Jaime kisses her again.
“I’ll take that as a no. Well, might as well. Pod, brief them. Their mouths may be busy but their ears aren’t.”
“Uh… right. Right. We got intel that Mopatis and Targaryen struck a deal. The transaction happens tomorrow—”
“Pod,” Brienne says. “It can wait.”
“Yes, boss.” And then, “Happy Sevenmas.”