The fluorometer room is dark and cold. The big gray bulk of the fluorometer looms before her, almost as tall as she is and taking up the entire table next to the desk Brienne is currently occupying, keying the last parameters into the machine’s attached computer.
The fluttering in her stomach has only increased as she prepared to run her key experiment, testing for the ability of her antisense interfering RNA to disrupt the Spring Sickness genome’s secondary structure. She’s spent the last week meticulously designing her probes, testing variables from GC content to length to complementarity with its target sequence. It’s still a preliminary experiment, narrowing down the parameters of her design, but she’s harbored her hypotheses about targeting efficiency of short hairpin RNAs since before she started her graduate work, and she can finally put them to the test.
It’s time to get some answers.
On her first day in the Stark Lab, Dr. Stark had introduced Brienne to the lab members, shown her around the lab space-- not quite the dark dungeon Jaime had made it out to be, as it was clear that each person in the lab had taken the time to run faerie lights over their benches, or at least install those fake-sun lamps throughout the windowless space in order to reduce the gloom-- and then taken her back to her office to tell her about the current work being done in the lab. As each slide of the informal presentation slipped past Brienne felt her shoulders creeping up closer to her ears, waiting to be told which she’d be working on and what she’d be doing. She only hoped it would be something compatible with her skill set and comfort zone. The viral pathogenesis study is interesting but animal work not Brienne’s style-- molecules in a test tube are more her speed, cell culture work at the absolute maximum. She could only hope wherever she got assigned wouldn’t be too uncomfortable.
But then Dr. Stark reached the end of the slides and asked Brienne what she wanted to do. And it caught Brienne completely off guard. She had expected Dr. Stark to at the very least imply what she wanted Brienne to work on-- what we really need is or this project hasn’t been moving as quickly as I’d like or something like that. But she hadn’t. The PI smiled and asked about Brienne’s interests.
She might not have had a ready answer if Jaime hadn’t prodded her about her scientific goals at the duck pond. She probably would have stalled a bit before making her best guess as to what Dr. Stark might want of her. But Jaime had unknowingly primed her, so instead of attempting to intuit what would be best for someone else, she’d considered her own wants and needs.
It took a little bit of dancing to find a way to fit the experiments into the overall scheme of the Stark lab, but she channeled her inner Jaime and fought for it. She warmed up to the hypothesis as she spoke, realizing that her pre-Renly RNA work actually put her in quite a good spot to align her interests with those of the Stark lab. And what if she was right, and propagation of the Spring Sickness virus could be controlled or modified via antisense RNA?
Catelyn had smiled again and asked her what she needed to get started.
And now here she is with two uninterrupted days of fluorometer time, ready to test the basic principle. If this experiment turns up negative, her long-held theories go down with it, but at least they’ll do so quickly and she can move on to the next hypothesis. If it comes out positive though….
She loads her 96-well sample plate into the Oathkeeper and she’s pretty sure she programmed the right settings, though the user interface on the connected computer leaves a little to be desired. Holding her breath, she clicks “run.”
Boy howdy she sure had run last week, hadn’t she?
She tries to push the thought aside as he bulky machine hums to life and the “time remaining” window pops up on the monitor. She could wander off for the two and a half hours it’ll run, but she likes watching the data come in real-time, at least at the beginning when the most obvious changes happen. The fluorescence curves already look clean, but it’s too early to start interpreting them.
Yes, that’s why she’s slouched in the fluorimeter room staring at slowly-appearing lines of data. Because she likes data. Not because with the experiment running she has nothing left to distract her from… everything… and that being alone in the dark matches her mood.
It’s Thursday afternoon. She spent the morning calibrating the Oathkeeper and optimizing the plate reader parameters to make sure she’d get as clean a run as possible with the day’s experiment. But ordinarily, she’d be sitting down with her Crownlands breakfast tea-- maybe with a little honey if she was feeling particularly indulgent-- across the table from Jaime with whatever milkshake masquerading as a coffee drink he’d ordered. He’d probably be trying to convince her that high-throughput candidate screens are a more efficient strategy than careful designs using evidence from basic research, while licking whipped cream off his straw.
Brienne groans and slumps over to bang her forehead on the desk a few times.
She pulls out her phone and jabs her headphones into the port, huffing through her nose as she scrolls through her music. She just needs something for her wandering mind to latch onto that isn’t every godsdamned detail of her last conversation with Jaime.
Except the playlist she wants isn’t there-- she had one titled rainy days full of quiet, contemplative stuff. Scrolling down a little further she sees a playlist she doesn’t recognize: SAD BASTARD MUSIC FOR BORING REPTEITIVE PREP WORK
She should have done a better job of not letting him play around on her phone during their coffee time. Gods, she’s going to be scrubbing his influence from her life for months, isn’t she?
As if he has any room to complain about her music preferences-- okay, yes, this playlist did tend toward the mopey if he had to put it that way, but sometimes that’s necessary.
She renames the playlist, then sets it to shuffle and proceeds to skip the first three songs that come on before settling on the fourth. A flowing song in waltz time with strings and guitar and dreamlike vocals with largely unintelligible lyrics. That feels right.
Settling back in the room’s only desk chair, she idly swipes around her phone for further distractions. There’s been a red dot on the text messages icon for almost a week, and it’s made the skin across her shoulders prickle every time it catches her eye.
She knows Jaime texted her. She doesn’t know exactly what he said, but it can’t be good and she just hasn’t been ready to face it. She shoves the phone back in her hoodie’s pouch. The creeping data curves on the monitor are moving just slowly enough that they can’t hold her attention and she stifles a groan.
If this were still the good old days of two months ago Jaime would at this moment be tempting her with half his slice of lemon poundcake, or trying to talk her into at least getting a tea latte-- something she couldn’t just make herself at home. He’d complain about investors, or his siblings, or worse, when his siblings are investors. She would snark back about how that’s the price he has to pay for leaving the lab bench. Maybe he would ask her to proofread an abstract, or offer to get her in touch with one of his many specialized contacts for advice or reagents or whatever she needed.
He has the most irritating way of bringing out the best in her, even when she can’t find it herself. She’ll miss that. But it’s her own fault for getting dependent on him in the first place.
It shouldn’t have hurt her that Jaime was clearly done with her. She’d known it for ages-- well, suspected it at least-- and the disastrous evening at the pub had just put the final nail in her coffin. It was expected, and they had basically nothing in common except for coincidentally working in the same academic department at the same university. And that hardly counts for anything because Brienne has that in common with the likes of Roose Bolton for fuck’s sake, so she and Jaime shouldn’t have even been friends in the first place. So, see? There’s no reason she should be moping like this.
She’s got a shiny cutting-edge fluorometer and a PI who allows her the freedom to test her own theories and a sad bastard music playlist. Everything should be coming up Brienne.
But she’s not at the campus coffee shop with Jaime right now, which is not fine.
No matter how much she tries to logically argue herself into being fine.
There’s still not enough data on the screen to be able to analyze yet, but Brienne needs to focus on something. Otherwise, between the stress of the red dot and the leaden-gut feeling of what must surely lie behind it-- not to mention the years of work and thought that have gone into the little plastic plate being assayed-- she risks crying all over the fancy fluorometer. If she can just focus on the experiment….
This experiment she was doing instead of going to her accustomed meetup with Jaime.
The meetup he didn’t care if she went to.
… That is what he’d said, isn’t it?
It occurs to her that her gut reaction at the pub had been a very familiar feeling-- something she’d learned young, and that had become as instinctive as breathing. Running away at the first hint of derision had been protective for a long time. But maybe… what if those old instincts are wrong?
What if they’re holding her back?
While working through the pile of background reading Dr. Stark had given her that first week Brienne had come upon an assertion about viral genome translation in one of the papers that didn’t quite make sense to her. She traced the citation to an older paper, but it turned out to be on the related but distinctly different topic of post-translational modification of viral proteins. So where did that first paper get its information?
Baratheon Lab Brienne would have kept her head down, inferring that since other labs were working from the same assumptions it must just be common knowledge that she’d failed to pick up out of cluelessness or incompetence. She’d have let it eat away at her, bothering her every time someone mentioned viral protein production, never letting her uncertainty come out.
Jaime had always seemed a little disappointed in Baratheon Lab Brienne.
Hells, looking back on it, Brienne was disappointed in Baratheon Lab Brienne.
So instead of stewing she got up and knocked on the frame of Catelyn’s open office door and asked. The PI heard her out but then explained that the paper described what was almost certainly the most likely mechanism for translation, and that it wasn’t a terribly crucial detail anyway. But then one of the grad students-- Theon, Brienne now knows-- trotted over from his desk, having been lured by the siren song of a protein production discussion. And it turned out, to Brienne’s mild surprise, that he’d been having the same problem with the same paper’s conclusions.
It wasn’t super relevant to the specific work she’d be doing, and it did get her stuck in a conversation with a structural biologist, but it was a victory all the same. She’d gotten together the courage to question an assumption and it had gone well for her.
Maybe it’s time to do the same with her own assumptions.
She sits up straight in her chair, pulling up her long-avoided text messages. There’s three, all from about five minutes after her flight from the pub.
Could u txt me when u get this?
But i know u like txt better
Okay, not as apocalyptic as she’d built them up to be in her head, but she can still see a dark hint of we need to talk about them. And the good news is that since she hadn’t opened the messages, replying now is technically doing as he asked.
But having resolved to reply leaves her with the problem of how to reply.
I need to ask you a question, she types, but hesitates before sending it. No, that’s ominous. A terrible way to have a straightforward conversation without freaking anyone out. Hey Jaime gets similarly deleted as too formal. Boy a tea latte would sure hit the spot right now hits the jaunty tone that characterized so much of their text messages before but it also feels like a lie.
She takes a deep breath. What if she stopped trying to think three steps ahead trying to avoid any awkwardness and just went for honesty? What if she asked for the information she needed?
Would you prefer it if we didn’t hang out
anymore? I was getting that idea, but then
I thought maybe I’m wrong. Just want to
She types and erases about fifteen versions of “it’s okay if you don’t” and edits where she initially finished the last sentence with so I don’t bother you. It’s a struggle against instinct to leave those bits out, but she feels a weird pride as she taps send. It feels like growth.
… which is almost immediately replaced with a bone-deep sense of now what?
Fortunately she’s not left to ponder it very long, as a reply comes in within seconds:
I mean no I dont want u to not hang
out with me
I mean lets hang out. Pls!
I thout u were mad at me so i didnt want
to bothr u
Oh. She begins to tap out a reply, deleting every impulse to apologize or take blame onto herself or deflect the conversation toward easier topics. She’s still typing her followup when his replies start streaming in.
I kno i fked up im so sorry
I will by u all the nachos u ever want
I don’t know about mad but I did kind
of feel hurt.
Brienne can’t help chuckling a little as her response appears below his. This at least feels normal: her typing out entire paragraphs while he sends a rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness barrage.
It wasn’t the nacho thing. Not really. I just
had gotten the idea that you didn’t want
me around and maybe hadn’t figured out
how to tell me. Or I hadn’t gotten your
Hints. Or something.
Thats so far from
Lol its no where near true
Her instinct is to capitulate immediately. Act as though his apology reset everything back to how it used to be. But she knows that kind of half-reconciliation/half-ignorance resolution isn’t really what she wants. Plus the vehemence implied by the number of Os he put in “no” feels quietly encouraging. She steels herself and begins to type.
We missed a lot of coffee Thursdays,
and then I suspect you got me a job on
the other side of the medical complex, and
then… well you did say who cares when I
was worried about working on the
Oathkeeper when we should be getting
coffee. And it seems like you spend a lot
of your time giving me advice that I fight
you over, which seems like not much
fun for you.
He literally types and sends an ellipses. But it is a rather loud ellipses if she’s honest with herself. She watches the little talk balloon appear and disappear below her words as he types, deletes, waits, types again.
Ok first i didnt get u teh job
I just told cat u were a free agent
Teh job offer was from her
Trust me shed never let me tell her
what to do
U got it bc your great
He pauses after that. She stares at the words for a long moment, the gears slowly turning in her head and something that feels like hope bubbling up into her chest.
N i know who cares was a bad way to say it
But i just wanted to give u persimmon to
say duck it and take as much Oathkeeper
time as u wanted
N not hold back bc u thought u should
Rly autocorrect? U had no problem w
everything els but u think i really meant
to say persimmon duck?
A strangled laugh bursts from her throat in the darkness of the fluorometer room as she feels the anxiety rush out of her. Leaving aside the persimmon duck business, it’s a relief to have some clarity on the situation.
But then the momentary relief recedes and she’s left with some much larger questions. And he’s still typing.
I didnt talk to cat to get rid of u
I did it so u could stay here and not go
back to CIT or fking dorne
Part of her screams to read just a little more into his words. To take just one more tiny step in logic. To stop being deliberately obtuse, you walnut. The evidence is starting to pile up but she can’t quite bring herself to consider what might really be going on. It still feels too dangerous. So she falls back to their accustomed tone, stalling for time.
I really didn’t want to find a new place to
live, so thanks for that.
And then, after another long pause he replies:
No no no
I mean ur welcome but
Hold on a sec
Brienne can’t help but feel a bit disappointed. Yes, she’s relieved of the responsibility of a reply but at the same time she’s left without any answers for who knows how long. It seemed like they were making progress-- incremental, but progress nonetheless-- and now before she could work up the courage to push it further, the conversation has veered back into confusing territory. And of course some more-important part of his life has come up right in the middle, leaving her hanging.
She stares at her phone for a few minutes, until her foot starts to bounce with increasing agitation as the time elapses. Her data curves look promising but it’s still too early and they’re progressing so godsdamned slowly she wants to scream.
Five minutes pass, then ten, while Brienne tries to find an outlet for the increasingly oppressive feeling of anticipation. She may not be the most socially adept person in the world but it’s obvious that the conversation with Jaime had been getting close to the heart of the matter. It was building to something, she could feel it. And the screaming voice in her head does seem to be making some very compelling arguments….
She’s tapping her fingers against the keyboard when the door clicks open behind her, spilling light into the room. She whirls around just as it closes again, but Jaime has already slipped through the crack.
Of course he knew exactly where to find her. He’d signed her up for the machine time.
She stares at him as he presses his back against the door with his hands tucked behind him where he pushed it shut. His head is ducked but he’s looking at her from under the hair that’s flopped forward over his brow. At first she can’t see his eyes-- the brief moment where the door was open blew her darkvision and she has to adjust again.
As soon as she does-- as soon as she meets his eyes, sees the startlingly obvious heat there-- she shoots out of her chair and stumbles back against the bulk of the humming fluorometer. By the time her brain catches up she realizes how odd it is that they’re both backed as far away from each other as possible, when the energy in the room is the precise opposite.
“So you weren’t trying to get rid of me.” She doesn’t bother phrasing it as a question.
“No.” His voice comes out lower than she’s heard it. It’s not quite angry-- she’s heard him angry-- but there’s an intensity that unsettles her.
But it’s definitely the nicest unsettled she’s ever felt.
It jars loose the last bits of her old instincts, the fear and doubt dislodged as a new feeling rushes in to fill the space, heating her from the inside out. She continues, certainty growing with each word, “And you weren’t trying to avoid me because my feelings were awkward for you.”
“Absolutely not.” He’s advancing on her now. The room is too small to allow it but she could swear he’s practically prowling. He stops less than a meter away from her, considering her for a long moment. “And you?”
He ducks his head in a gesture that might look like bashfulness on anyone else, peering up at her through his eyelashes and the lock of hair falling across his forehead. “You weren’t fed up with the way I manage to say everything with the worst possible words?”
She shakes her head mutely, and watches the corner of his mouth quirk upward as he brings a hand up to rest on her hip, encroaching further into her personal space.
“Or for taking up all your time?” His fingers slide under the hem of her hoodie, his warm palm flattening against her skin. He leans in closer and her back hits the side of the Oathkeeper. “Or for being totally unable to hide how I feel about you?”
She sputters with outrage, breaking the mood entirely. “What the hell do you mean unable to hide? If you hadn’t hidden it so well I wouldn’t have--”
But then his lips are on hers and she sets aside the argument-- which she will win-- for the moment and just gives in. He’s kissing her urgently and she has no trouble keeping up, pouring every microliter of pent-up energy from the last couple years. This is not how she expected this conversation to go when she texted him, but she is definitely not complaining.
A thought meanders through her mind and it makes her head jerk backwards, thumping against the plastic body of the fluorometer. Jaime reflexively pursues her lips, going a bit up on his toes, before he realizes she’s pulled back for a reason and falls back on his heels with a questioning-- and just a little nervous-- look in his eyes.
“We can’t do this,” she says, her voice coming out substantially lower and rougher than she’d expected.
His face falls, but he pulls his hands away and begins to take a step back. “Of course, I’m sorry,” he babbles, “I know we can’t get carried away. I’m always too--”
Without thinking Brienne brings him up short with a finger hooked in his belt loop and the hope returns to his eyes. These new instincts of hers seem to be working out pretty well so far. “No, I mean we can’t do this here.”
He stops trying to back away but he also keeps as much distance between them as possible. “You’re right, of course you’re right,” he babbles, looking more flustered than she’s ever seen him. “Anyone could come in--”
Brienne pushes herself away from the still-whirring machine at her back, stepping into his space. Part of her brain worries that she’s looming, but if anything Jaime looks even more interested, his pupils fully dilated in a way that only fuels her newfound confidence. “No Jaime.” She leans in, her mouth close to his ear and she feels him shudder. Oh this is intriguing data indeed. “I meant I will not continue to make out with you right there against a brand-new, in-use Oathkeeper fluorometer. Not when there’s a perfectly functional chair right here.” Turning their bodies just enough Brienne drops back into the room’s only chair, pulling Jaime down with her and grinning as his eyes go wide. Straddling her hips, he’s finally got the height advantage, but the look on his face is anything but in-control, which only encourages her to continue pressing the issue. So to speak.
Even astride her lap he’s still treating her like she might be breakable, so she hooks a hand around the back of his shoulder to urge him down, to rest his full weight on her. He lets out an audible sigh once he realizes what she wants, melting down enough to rest his forehead against hers.
“As to whether anyone could come in--” she runs a hand up his chest and around the back of his neck. “Someone recently booked two entire days of fluorometer time on my behalf.” Confusion creeps into his gaze until she begins to put pressure on his neck, bringing his face down beside hers so she can whisper directly into his ear. “I’ve got the Oathkeeper booked for another three hours and this experiment will take at least two.”
He pulls back enough to grin down at her, threading his fingers through the hair behind her ears. “Sounds like a smart guy to me.”
She can’t let him get away with that, so she pulls him back down kiss that smartass grin right off his face.
It doesn’t take long.
Long moments later as he moves to nibble at her throat her eyes flutter open and she catches a glimpse of the incoming data displayed on the monitor. “Brienne?” he murmurs, his lips still brushing softly against her skin. “Are you watching FRET data while I’m kissing you?”
When she doesn’t answer-- between comparing the data curves that sure as hell look like they confirm her hypothesis and whatever he’s doing to her neck there’s not much processing power left for word formation— he pulls back to look her in the eyes, one eyebrow raised in challenge.
“Maybe a little,” she admits, hoping she hasn’t ruined the moment. “It’s an important experiment--”
He interrupts her with a growl as his eyes darken. “That’s the sexiest godsdamn thing I’ve ever heard.”
“Oh really?” she says, dropping her voice and slipping her hand around his waist to tug at where his shirt is tucked into his pants, scraping her nails lightly against the newly-exposed flesh. “You want to hear about my data analysis spreadsheet?”
He lets out the most amazing sound, some kind of rumbling whimper, as his hand tightens in her hair, and she knows right away that she’s going to do everything in her power to get him to make that noise again and again. “Oh,” he groans, his head tipping back and his eyes falling shut, “I’m not at all sure I could handle that.”
She presses her lips to his exposed throat and he can probably feel her smile. “We’ll have to save it for next time.”
And oh yes, there will be a next time.
But for now she brings his face back down so they can go back to kissing. It’s slow and sweet and-- Brienne has never in her life had an opportunity to use this word but here we are-- languid. She is content to explore this new territory, both metaphorically and physically. In the back of her mind she almost wishes for a lab notebook and a pen to record data from this new set of experiments-- what makes him melt against her or tense, gasping, in her arms; the staggering variety of fascinating sounds she can get out of him; all the things she can do to make him shut up for once in his life, and all with their clothes still on. But there’s time for data interpretation later. Perhaps it’s time for both of them to set aside the analysis for a moment and just enjoy each other.
After all, they have at least two more hours. And someone had recently told her it’s important to take as much time as she wants.