She wouldn’t do this again. Brienne had promised herself even as she sent the text message.
Need to talk. Best Westeros, Pennytree, Thursday, 7 p.m., if you can meet me.
Now the message sat there, unanswered, and she regretted ever sending it. His number had been programmed into her phone for months, taunting her every time the trail of breadcrumbs she was following yielded a dead end. Who knew there were so many missing girls with auburn hair and blue eyes?
Brienne had followed Sansa’s trail to Rosby, Maidenpool, Crackclaw Point, and into the Riverlands. With her striking hair and pretty face, Sansa would stand out even if Arya managed to blend in. Brienne had checked every hostel and shelter between Riverrun and King’s Landing, wandered school campuses all over the Crownlands, and spent too many nights in the shadows in clubs and bars watching the girls come and go.
In every town, she flashed their photos, listened to anyone who thought they’d seen something. Most were just looking for reward money or had seen someone else. She wasn’t even sure the Stark girls would come with her if she found them. Why would they? Their parents were dead, their brothers scattered to the four winds, and they had no reason to trust a woman they’d never met.
After months driving the highways and backroads of Westeros, Brienne had no idea where the Stark girls were. She'd set out looking for Dontos Hollard, their drunken drama teacher, who’d disappeared at the same time, but that trail had gone cold when his body turned up in Blackwater Bay. Whoever had helped the girls disappear from the gilded cage of their King’s Landing prep school had known what they were doing. She refused to believe that Hollard had acted alone.
Empty road stretched out ahead of her, the ancient River Road a tree-lined rut beside the blacktop. Miles ahead that track would meet up with the old Kingsroad, rolling thousands of miles north all the way to the ruins of the Wall. She didn’t mind the countryside, but she found no peace in the undulating hills and woodlands. Here Brienne was alone with her thoughts. Alone with her failures, and the guilt that gnawed at her. If she failed to find the girls, she’d fail Jaime. She’d fail Catelyn again, as she’d failed Renly. Two dead clients and two lost girls. No one would ever hire a bodyguard with her record. She would have to slink home to her father and admit that she’d been wrong to leave the island in the first place.
She’d thought more than once about driving back to King’s Landing, to Jaime, and confessing her failure. Would he comfort her? Let her cry on his shoulder? That was what men wanted, wasn’t it, soft, helpless women who needed their protection? No, that wasn’t her, and that certainly wasn’t him.
Brienne shifted in her seat and wished again that the sleek crimson Shadowcat Jaime had given her wasn’t so small. Nor so recognizable. She and Jaime had been carjacked in this very car on their way south less than a year ago. Perhaps that was why Jaime had given it to her, unwilling to stand the sight of either Brienne or the cursed car for another moment.
Brienne turned on the radio to drown out her own thoughts. She missed Podrick singing along in the passenger seat and leaving junk food wrappers all over the floor. She even missed Hyle. Not his fumbling attempts to get into Brienne’s bed, but his company and the loyalty his guilt bought her. He would knock some sense into her, if he was here. Jaime had sent her after the Stark girls to get rid of her. He didn’t care about them or her.
But Hyle wasn’t here and she wasn’t about to call him. She’d sent Hyle and Podrick off to the Vale following one lead, while she went to Hollow Hill following another. Cell signal was notoriously spotty in the Mountains of the Moon. She wouldn’t worry until she hadn’t heard from them for a few more days. By then she’d be able to pull herself back together.
Brienne exited the highway at Pennytree, passed the old fortress with its modern re-creation of the ancient stockade, and found the familiar blue sign marking the Best Westeros motel, a cheap chain found everywhere. She could afford better, but she hated using the money Jaime direct-deposited in her checking account every month. He’d called it “gas money” when she reluctantly agreed to take it. She was hundreds of miles away by the time she realized his “gas money” was more than she’d ever earned as a bodyguard. Jaime’s gold dragons piled up in her account while Brienne used as few of them as she could.
The motel’s name was incongruous with the reality: a poorly-lit restaurant and bar, and functional, outdated rooms that would never look clean now matter how well-scrubbed. The carpet and bedding would light up with all manner of horrific stains under blacklight, but Brienne accepted her key and took her duffel bag up to her room anyway. She needed a shower and a change of clothes before she could bear to face the restaurant and its lack of broad shoulders and piercing green eyes.
The showerhead was too low, the water pressure abysmal, and her shampoo had leaked all over her toiletry bag, leaving a cracked yellow cake of soap the only option for washing her hair, but Brienne still felt miles better as she dried herself with the scratchy towel. A button-down flannel shirt and a bandana loosely knotted around her throat hid most of her scrapes and bruises, but nothing could hide her swollen lip or her black eye.
People would stare. They always did. She was used to being conspicuous. At least tonight she could pretend her injuries drew their attention, not the novelty of a woman so massive and plain. A quiet meal, nothing too challenging to eat with her lip still sore, and then she’d sleep. No need to rush away in the morning as she’d done so many times. She was out of leads, out of ideas. Perhaps just this once she would drink enough to chase away the nightmares. She had a bottle of the Ibbenese vodka her father used to drink, untouched since Hyle joined them. Without him sniffing around her, inventing reasons to come to her door late at night, she could afford to let go just this once.
The stairwell stank of piss, an unpromising start to her evening, but the lobby smelled of fried food and cheap beer. Her stomach rumbled. Breakfast had been at least ten hours ago, with nothing but coffee since. She paused in the doorway separating lobby from restaurant, quickly scanning the customers for potential trouble.
Families passing through. Truckers doing the same. A few locals watching sports or drowning their sorrows in pints of beer. And a man in a white T-shirt, his grey-flecked beard the only part of his face visible under the ballcap pulled low over his eyes, playing with his phone.
He’d come. Jaime Lannister was sitting in a back booth of a crappy restaurant in the heart of the Riverlands, trying desperately not to stand out and failing miserably. Yet Brienne couldn’t move.
Hyle was right. He’d teased her from the start about her penchant for pretty boys, but his comments had grown sharper and more bitter over time. The last night they’d traveled together, he’d stayed up with her in the bar well after Podrick went back to his room. When Hyle finally stood, he’d held out his hand. “Come upstairs, let me give you what you need. Your white knight never will.” There was nothing cruel in his voice, not that time, but there was no love either. Hyle was just as mercenary in his affections now as he had been when they first met years ago at Highgarden.
The denial had sprung to her lips automatically. “Jaime isn’t mine.”
Hyle’s smile had been frustrated. He’d put in the time, there was no denying that. But his heart would never be in it. He’d sighed. “But you’re still his. Damned fool.”
Brienne was his. She couldn’t deny the way her heart pounded just seeing Jaime.
She was merely Catelyn Stark’s bodyguard when they first met, in the actual dungeons of Riverrun. The castle was still in Mrs. Stark’s family, and Robb Stark had found it amusing to capture Jaime Lannister and hold him until his father was finally willing to negotiate. Jaime, after lengthy interrogation under the influence of not enough food and too much wine, was to be returned to King’s Landing, where Brienne would withdraw the girls from their school and return them to their mother.
The plan had fallen apart when they were carjacked, and gotten worse after they escaped as they wandered lost in the forests and fields of the Riverlands long enough for Jaime’s injured hand to get horribly infected. By the time they were rescued and returned to civilization, he wasn’t her prisoner anymore. What he was, she couldn’t say.
They’d had no contact since she left King’s Landing, and in his absence her imagination had colored their history, layered meaning onto every glance, every touch. He didn’t think of her, not the way she dreamed of him. But he was here.
Jaime looked so different from the prideful, angry man she’d first met, malnourished, hair so matted and dirty that he’d begged her to hack it all off. She’d left the beard to shield his identity, not that it mattered in the end. He looked different even from the sarcastic but dutiful man she’d left in King’s Landing, clean-shaven and dressed in a dark suit, gold and ruby cufflinks winking at his wrists. He adjusted his ballcap, giving her a brief glimpse of his hair, grown in thick and golden, a few threads of silver at the temples. He’d grown back his beard too, clipped close to his sharp jaw. So familiar, but different enough to make her wary.
Jaime Lannister might have a desk job now, but he’d spent long years in the Special Forces and then the Secret Service. Had he come to Pennytree to escape the confines of his office or to see her? Or did this play into his family’s schemes somehow? She’d never really understood the shifting alliances and generations-long feuds between the Starks, the Lannisters, and the Baratheons. That was all above her pay grade, but they treated it like war instead of business.
The uncertainty was killing her. Brienne wanted to run, to maintain her illusions about him just a little longer. At the same time, she wanted to give him every piece of herself, knowing he could break her utterly with no more than a handful of words.
Brienne approached his table, scanning the faces around them again from force of habit, trying to decide if he’d come alone, and slid into the other side of the booth. “You came.”
Jaime was still messing with his phone. “I was on my way to Riverrun to meet up with Daven. Besides, you never call. Figured it had to be something—” He finally looked up, and Brienne watched a riot of emotions flicker across his face. “You’re hurt.”
She snatched up a menu to avoid looking at him, but the words blurred. Damn it, crying was the worst thing she could do. Brienne bit her swollen lip viciously, willing away the tears. She tasted blood. “It’s nothing. Bar fight.” Her voice was still a little hoarse. Nothing to be done about that.
“Right.” Jaime’s disbelieving drawl made her flush. If he was smirking too, that arrogant grin that shouldn’t look so good on him, she’d be lost.
But he wasn’t. His gaze traveled over her face, seeing right past the unruly blonde hair hanging loose to disguise the worst of the damage, and his expression showed nothing but concern. “A bar fight? Threw down with some frat boys over football, did you?”
“Bikers,” she mumbled. The Cave was the headquarters of the Brotherhood Without Banners, not that she’d known that when she walked in. And when some of them started aggressively propositioning a couple of girls who’d had the misfortune to wander in asking for directions, she’d had no choice but to intervene. The worst part was, just for a moment, she’d thought they might be Sansa and Arya, but they weren’t.
Jaime barked a harsh laugh. “What were you doing in a fucking biker bar?”
“I got a tip,” she muttered. “Said the Hound had her.” Sandor Clegane was once Joffrey Baratheon’s bodyguard, which meant he’d spent a lot of time with Sansa.
“The Hound? Rumor has it he’s dead. You didn’t see him, did you?”
Brienne shook her head. “Just a guy who’d stolen his helmet.” The Hound had worn a custom-painted motorcycle helmet, easily recognized. The man who wore it now certainly didn’t mind trading on the Hound’s brutal reputation.
Jaime watched her for longer than was comfortable. A skinny dark-haired waitress came up to take their order, staring avidly at Jaime the whole time. That was nothing new. Women always stared at Jaime. Brienne’s stomach churned with acid, and her lip was throbbing again. She ordered soup, while Jaime ordered a patty melt with fries and a chocolate shake.
Jaime drummed his fingers restlessly on the scarred wooden table as the waitress walked away. His right hand was marked with dark, sunken patches of skin where infected wounds had nearly cost him the entire hand. They should’ve just handed over the car, but no, Jaime Lannister wouldn’t negotiate with thugs.
“How is it healing?” she asked, gesturing toward his hand.
He grimaced. “It’s as good as it’ll ever be. Can’t shoot for shit with that hand anymore. Can’t write. Might as well have cut the damn thing off.”
“Jaime,” she chided. She’d spent hours picking gravel out of his wounds, washing and dressing and splinting his fingers after their captors had stomped his hand and left the wounds to fester for two days before they managed to escape. Somehow it had never occurred to the men who’d taken them that double-dipping on grand theft auto and a kidnap-for-ransom scheme required them to keep Jaime alive.
He glared down at his hand, flexing it and watching the scars pull. “You said you needed to talk," he grumbled. "I thought you’d found something.”
“I'm sorry.” A paltry offering. She knew what he would assume when she made contact, and she’d done it anyway.
“All these months, you just disappeared. I kept thinking you'd check in, but you never did. If you don’t have the Stark girls, why’d you call, Brienne?” There was nothing of the calculating, cutting Jaime Lannister she’d once known in him now, his gaze earnest and confusion lacing his voice.
She could just tell Jaime she'd missed him, tell him she was lonely and tired and felt more like a failure with each passing day. But if he mocked her, or worse, if he agreed that she'd failed, she didn't think she could take it. “I shouldn’t have. Just … forget it. Sorry I wasted your time.” Brienne wrenched herself out of the booth, pain lancing through her ribs at the sudden movement, and barreled through the restaurant, her face burning. She heard him calling her name but didn’t stop until she was safely inside her room again.