Actions

Work Header

Questions of Science and Progress

Chapter Text

There is nothing on earth Brienne Tarth hates more than poster sessions.

Ever since she started the PhD program at University of the Stormlands she’s done everything in her power to avoid attending them, let alone presenting at them. Of course it doesn’t thrill her that five years of work can fit on a 1m x 1.5m sheet of paper, but that doesn’t hold a candle to the awkward misery of having to show off said sheet of paper at the Bitterbridge Molecular Biology Foundation poster session. She, like the 50 or so other presenters in the session, is expected to stand next to her poster for upwards of two hours while increasingly-drunk professors and students wander by, either ignoring her and her work completely, or, very occasionally, stopping to read the details of her research off the poster while attempting to ignore her presence mere feet away.

And that’s before taking into account the fact that her research is probably the least interesting at the entire conference. She loves what she is doing, so much that she’s put up with Dr. Tarly’s suboptimal advisorial skills-- teasing out the details until she knows exactly when and how these molecules interact is so satisfying to her, and she is damn good at the experiments-- but it’s definitely basic research. The foundational stuff that isn’t flashy in the least, but upon which all the big work sits. Nothing that would win any prizes or cure diseases. It suits Brienne, who has spent so much of her life trying to minimize the space she takes up, physically or otherwise. Sticking to basic research allows her to avoid attracting too much attention, which is prone to mutating into judgement rather quickly in her experience. This way she can go about her life, quietly and diligently performing her experiments, contributing to her field in whatever small way she can and letting others grasp at glory.

Hyle, who isn’t presenting, the bastard, had offered to bring her a beer to help with both the socializing and making the time go by faster. Brienne isn’t entirely sure why these sessions invariably happen in the evenings after a day of conference talks and invariably have either mediocre wine or a cash bar-- as if attempted socializing with professors could be made less painful by literally any force in the universe. She’d turned down the drink, but has been making liberal use of the happy hour setting to take frequent totally-necessary-for-reals trips to the restroom. If anyone were to notice they’d probably think she was sick, but Brienne considers it unlikely that someone would be paying that much attention to either her or her poster.

Leaving the restroom for the she’d-lost-count-th time, she peers across the hotel ballroom toward where her poster is pinned on the far wall and realizes with a start that there’s an actual human there. As she approaches, it becomes clear that not only is there a person, but they are reading her poster, almost as if they are interested in her work. With a furrowed brow, Brienne hurries toward them, tucking her phone and its endless supply of webcomics to read while on bathroom breaks into her pocket and thanking the gods that actually-usable pockets were a side benefit of the men’s trousers she’d brought to make herself look vaguely presentable.

It’s a man at her poster, and definitely a PI. The fanciness of his pants just screams Principal Investigator. Hells, he probably calls himself that unironically when everyone else just uses professor or, honestly, first names like actual human people. The only other thing she can tell from the back is that his hair is longer than most male professors, and not in that I’m too busy scrambling for grant funding to get a haircut way. More in the I have so much money I can do this on purpose way. Brienne circles around him from a distance, trying to decide how to minimize the awkwardness of her arrival. His hair flops over his face, obscuring it, but she sees him raise a hand to rub through his beard. An expensive watch flashes from his wrist.

Maybe she could just go back to the bathroom.

No. She can do this. As an undergrad at Crown Tech, she’d learned the importance of communication skills from Dr. Goodwin. And Randyll had helped her prepare over the last week, all the while impressing upon her how important poster sessions could be-- both for information-communication and for (shudder) professional networking.

Besides, if only one person at this godsforsaken conference is interested in her work the least she can do is to see if he has any questions.

Deep breath. Time for the direct route. Someone as physically large and socially small as Brienne can’t afford to attempt subtlety.

“Hi, I’m Brienne Ta--” she breaks off as the man turns. Oh balls. He is unreasonably attractive.

Hot, rich, and a professor. The only way he could be more intimidating would be if he was somehow armed, like with a machete or something. Or maybe a sword….

Oh gods that image only increases the hotness problem.

She realizes she stopped in the middle of her sentence, her hand frozen, half-extended toward him for the firm and professional handshake she was usually so careful to provide.

“This is my poster.” Brilliant.

He considers her for a long moment.

She stares back.

Something in her brain begins to scream.

“I’m Jaime Lannister,” he says, and she stumbles to execute the handshake she’d aborted earlier. “I’m at Westeros University these days.”

“Brienne Tarth.” He already knows that because she’d just said it. And her name is on the poster. Fantastic. She rubs her palm on her leg hoping it hadn’t been weirdly clammy during the handshake. “I work with Randyll Tarly at U of S.”

Something between a smile and a smirk pulls at his lips. “You seem to have gotten some compelling results,” he comments. “And I must say I’m intrigued by your suggestion that this might indicate a role for both target and small RNA secondary structure in the silencing process,” he adds, gesturing toward the box of text that houses her conclusions.

“These results are still fairly preliminary,” Brienne hedges, feeling the blush climb her throat and up her cheeks. Maybe Dr. Fancy Guy won’t notice, or if he does hopefully he’ll chalk it up to the cheap chardonnay that’s being served. “And there’s loads of work to do before I can even hope to address the structure question with that level of detail.”

He looks at her oddly, cocking his head. “We’ve been working on RNA silencing for a number of years in my lab,” he says. “If you’re right about the role of small RNA secondary structure we could improve our knockdown efficiency by--” he glances at Figure 5 of Brienne’s poster and his eyebrows go up, “--quite a lot.”

Brienne blinks. This guy not only read her poster but is thinking of ways to apply and expand upon her findings. Her publications to date hardly ever get cited, though Dr. Goodwin always assures her during her periodic crisis-of-confidence calls that they will be soon-- basic research just takes longer to get noticed, he says. But here she is, being taken seriously by a person whose tie cost more than her plane tickets to get to this conference.

Dr. Lannister has turned back to her poster, running a finger along the caption to figure 4. His hair hides most of it but she can see his lips just barely moving as he reads. Fear that she has overstated her results suddenly seizes her as the silence stretches. She doesn’t want anyone to get the idea she doesn’t know her place in the basic research dungeon. Even if she likes it there, she does not relish the idea of being told that her work is actually far less important than even she thinks.

“Have you thought about looking at the kinetics of the interaction?” he asks as his gaze returns to her.

“Actually, I started looking into that last week,” she answers, gratified-- if a little startled-- that not only did he grasp the necessary next steps but that she had something to talk about. “Titration gel-shift assays seem to show a two-phase binding curve--”

“No kidding.” His eyebrows shoot up. “My company is just starting drug discovery experiments assuming a simpler interaction.”

“Your company?” Brienne can feel her mood curdling. They’d been getting on so well-- she’d been more or less participating in the conversation at least, which is rather a win in her mind-- but if he turns out to be one of those one-foot-in-pharmaceuticals profs she’s rapidly going to resent any time she might have wasted on him.

“Well, my latest one.” This is only getting worse. “I have two others but we just spun Kingslayer Pharmaceuticals off in the last couple months to specifically focus on small RNA anti-cancer therapeutics.”

Brienne grinds her teeth, knowing she should let it go. There are plenty of profs with decent, reasonable research who manage startups on the side. Probably. Surely there must be a few somewhere. But she just can’t imagine being so confident in your lab’s abilities that you’d move into pharmaceuticals with no actual basic understanding of the mechanics underlying the system you hope to fix. “You started an entire company to make drugs when you don’t even know how binding specificity works?”

He shrugs and it is absolutely the worst possible response. He doesn’t even care enough to argue. “We don’t need to know the details in order to start high-throughput screening of candidate molecules for tumor-suppression activity.” He grins. “And it sounds like by the time we’ve narrowed it down to a few good leads you’ll have figured out the basic stuff.”

Brienne stares at him, the seething feeling blocking any attempt to continue the conversation.

“Though I do have a suggestion for you,” he continues as if she hadn’t failed to respond to his backhanded dig at her work.

Gods save her from constructive criticism. She braces for the attack.

“You should be proud of this work.”

Of all the things she might have expected to hear-- of all the critiques she’d already weathered-- that was certainly not one of them.

“But I--” she stammers. “What makes you think I’m not?”

“You’re hardly selling it here.” He gestures at her poster again. “I only read past your abstract because I happened to be able to make the three or four steps in logic to figure out what your findings could mean to my own research. Nobody else would put in that effort.”

Is he trying to be as offensive as possible? “It’s science. It shouldn’t need to be sold.”

“Fine then, think of it as standing up for your work. You know the implications and all the different diseases that could be treated with specifically designed small RNAs-- there’s no reason not to state them outright.”

“Or I could just focus on doing the work and wait for a prof like you to recognize that you need it.”

“Not a great plan. There aren’t a whole lot of professors like me.”

Well that’s certainly true. Brienne just can’t decide if it’s a point for or against Dr. Lannister.

While she’s still deliberating a sudden commotion erupts on the other side of the ballroom. A slightly weaselly-looking young man appears to have cheap chardonnay dripping from his bright blond hair as a brunette grad student storms away toward the women’s bathroom.

Lannister groans from behind her. “I’m going to need to go deal with that.” When Brienne looks back at him questioningly he grimaces and avoids her eyes. “That kid is... an undergrad in my lab. Not my choice,” he hastens to add, “his mother forced him on me. Regardless, he’s my problem.”

He’s half a step away when he turns back to her, and she sees the irritation drain from his face. “This was nice.” His smile, against all odds, seems genuine-- on top of nearly blinding her through sheer force of attractiveness-- as he hands her a business card. “You really are doing good work. Shoot me an email when you get those kinetics titration results cleaned up, I’d be interested to hear what you find.”

“O-okay.” Brienne has never been accused of thinking fast on her feet, but this conversation has reversed itself so many times she can’t figure out whether it’s been constructive or some sort of joke at her expense.

“And think about what I said. There’s nothing wrong with having pride in your work.”

Chapter Text

Jaime already has his shirt half-off when the storage room door clicks closed behind him. It’s late, he’s exhausted, his father has been up his ass for weeks now, and he just wants to lay down on the shitty couch the grad students think profs don’t know about for a few hours and quietly hate life. Is that too much to ask?

Apparently so.

As the single panel of fluorescent lights flickers to life it is accompanied by an angry groan from the back of the narrow and windowless room, a sound that brings to mind the specific image of an irritated hibernating bear. He hurriedly shoves his arm back through the sleeve of his button-down and is about to beat a hasty retreat when his adjusting eyes manage to make out the long body flailing into a sitting position on the couch. Is that--?

“Brienne?”

She groans again, rubbing a broad hand over her face, fumbling for her glasses where they lie on top of a stack of beer cases. Once retrieved, she digs her phone out of her pocket, peers at it for a moment, and lets out one last, particularly expressive groan.

When his brain finally kicks into gear he manages to ask the obvious question. “What, and I mean this in a friendly way, the fuck are you doing here?”

Jaime had said something similar a year or so ago when he nearly collided with her outside the four-degree coldroom on the third floor of the Pycelle building. Though, to his lasting regret, he’d forgotten to add the friendly part.

She’d apparently been working in Renly Baratheon’s lab on the third floor for six entire months before their near-collision and Jaime had had no idea they were even on the same part of the continent. They’d exchanged sporadic emails for a year or so after the Bitterbridge conference, shared some data-- she’d even been fifth author on one of his lab’s publications after teaching one of his post-docs the protocol she’d personally optimized for gel-shift binding assays. But then she’d defended her thesis and gotten a postdoc and their communication fell off after his last congrats-on-the-PhD email.

Except then it turned out her postdoc was in Renly Godsdamned Baratheon’s lab. A fact she’d managed to hide one bloody floor beneath Jaime for half a year. Renly wasn’t particularly popular among the WU biology division faculty, both for the inherent sketchiness of his happening to get hired to fill the vacuum left by Robert (his older brother, what a coincidence) as well as for his overly ambitious research goals. The polite term might be quixotic, but Jaime was tempted to label the hotshot young assistant professor a flat-out crackpot with delusions of grandeur.

Even more confusing was the fact that Renly’s research had almost nothing to do with what Brienne had done for her thesis. Her meticulous research on RNA secondary structure had been some of the most thorough and precise work Jaime had seen, even if it lacked a bit in the flash department for his taste. So what was she doing tying herself to Renly’s absurd theories about pathogenesis of the greyscale bacterium? Was she really not pursuing the potentially paradigm-shifting hypotheses she’d developed in grad school? What was so great about Renly that made her give up on all that?

She’d told him they had been friends at Crownlands Tech when Renly was a senior and Brienne a frosh, so when Renly found his tenure application deadline looming and his lab’s research lagging behind his expectations he’d recruited his famously diligent friend to help crank out results for a few last-minute publications to bolster his tenure file. Jaime has some distinct ideas about who is getting the better end of that bargain, though he’d kept them to himself for the most part in the ensuing year. Partially out of respect for Brienne, even if Renly himself hadn’t done much to earn Jaime’s respect, but also because he didn’t want to look too hard at the ugly and unwanted feelings the situation was bringing out in himself. Or, more distressingly, the feelings that might underlie the jealousy.

“It’s the grad student storage closet,” she yawns. “Profs aren’t supposed to know about it. Or at least not about the couch…” she trails off, blinking unfocused eyes in the general direction of his chest.

He glances down to find that he hadn’t managed to entirely rebutton his shirt. “That doesn’t answer my question,” he points out, pulling the two sides together with one hand and trying to look nonchalant about it. “Didn’t you say last week that you renewed your lease? Do you need a place to stay?” He has the space, and he certainly wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time with her--

“I’m not homeless, Dr. Lannister.”

“Jaime.”

“I just,” she continues to avoid eye contact, arching to stretch her back, which makes Jaime look away as well though for entirely different reasons. “I started a three-hour incubation at nine so I thought I’d crash here rather than walking all the way home and all the way back at midnight.”

“In the middle of the night.” She nods, slouching back into the couch. He narrows his eyes at her. “You do that often?”

“I mean, yeah, it’s pretty much always dark by the time I go home.”

The idea of Brienne walking home alone in the dark every night bothers Jaime on a number of levels. It’s not the safest plan ever, though if anyone could fight off muggers or drunken frat boys it would be her. But more than that… well, Jaime knows the feeling of returning to an empty home after too many hours of thankless work. She’d argue but he knows she deserves better than that.

And Renly certainly doesn’t deserve better.

“Hold on.” She looks pointedly up at him and that’s not a good sign. If she’s catching up on the conversation he’s about to lose his advantage. “Why are you here?”

Jaime takes it as an invitation, flopping down onto the couch beside her as she yanks the hoodie she’d been using as a pillow out from under his ass. He runs a hand through his hair, tugging just a little to wake himself up a bit, and she stares at him. Apparently he’s not getting out of this encounter with the moral high ground. “I’ve been in my office for coming on twelve hours and I have at least another six to go,” he sighs, slouching down to lean his head against the back of the couch. “I spent all day fielding emails from investors in Castamere Labs and calls from my sister who I’m supposed to be setting up as CEO of Baelor Biotech, and putting off both the grant renewal that’s due in three days and the quarterly report my father needs for King’s Hand Pharmaceuticals….” He trails off, staring at the ceiling and scratching at his neck where his undershirt has been bothering him all day. The room is starting to feel warm and a little close with two people respiring into it and it’s making him feel even sleepier. He rolls his head to the side to look at Brienne and it occurs to him she hasn’t made a single sarcastic comment about his business dealings even though he’s given her a pretty obvious opening for them.

“You look terrible,” she declares.

Jaime can’t help but laugh, which then turns into a jaw-cracking yawn. “I look awesome.”

Her cheeks look pinker-- the crappy fluorescent light must have finally warmed up. “You have a couch in your office,” she asserts.

“Good observation. No wonder you’re a scientist.”

“Fine.” She glowers at him a little. “You have a much nicer couch in your office, a location that also has the advantage of windows and actual ventilation. What are you doing here?”

He sighs again, slipping his fingers under his glasses to rub at his eyes. “My office has my name on the door and, more to the point, contains my officially-listed phone line. Not great for hiding.”

She tilts her head in acceptance of the premise at least, but Jaime can tell she remains skeptical about something. He can wait for her to come out with it.

A few moments later than he’d predicted-- she must still be sleepy-- she shrugs and says, “Just seems weird to me that you’d choose to relive the postdoc experience when we’re all doing our damnedest to grow out of it.”

She’s not wrong. He doesn’t miss the low pay and perceived expendability, not to mention being subject to his PI’s whims. His chest gives a little clench at the thought of his time in the Targaryen lab. No, he definitely wouldn’t choose to go through all that again. Brienne had taken her own share of lumps as a grad student in the Tarly lab, but at least she had gotten her start in a reasonably supportive environment. Jaime loves her stories about Dr. Goodwin and her time as an undergraduate at bizarre little Crown Tech, but they do tend to leave him just a touch jealous.

“Okay, sure, you’ve got me there,” he admits and he doesn’t miss the little flash of victory in her eyes. Usually he doesn’t give in to her arguments so easily, at least the scientific ones. “But I haven’t even put on gloves in years, let alone done any actual lab work. That’s what I miss. My entire job now is the shit I hated when I was a grad student. Writing-- so much godsdamned writing-- and all the salesmanship shit. That’s not me. Maybe I should have stayed a postdoc.” And found a non-megalomaniacal PI, but that’s neither here nor there.

She chews her lip for a moment. “So why do you do all that? The startups and the patents and whatnot.”

“Legacy,” he intones, then gives up the facade with a chuckle. “Or something to that effect. I’ll ask my father why I’m doing it at the next stuffy and stilted family dinner. It’ll be a great conversation starter.”

“Then why not choose something you do care about?” She looks legitimately confused, the sweet summer child. Trying to explain the complexities of Lannister family expectations and duties would take all night and he’s not about to drag Brienne into that morass.

“Like what? You’re not exactly making the postdoc gig look terribly attractive at the moment.”

She winces and ducks her head to hide her face, pushing her glasses back up on her nose. Shit. Poor choice of words, and something he should have known Brienne would hear differently than he meant. How is it he can charm the crankiest of Reviewer #3s to his side but he’s constantly chewing on his own shoes when Brienne’s there to see?

“That’s not… I meant, I prefer to remember the hypothesizing and experimenting and discovering from my pre-professor days and not, you know….” He waves a vague hand. She doesn’t know the half of it, because he hasn’t told her. Maybe he should.

“I thought profs were immune to working late at least.”

Maybe it’s just that his thoughts happened to have strayed to the theme of shitty PIs, but something about the way Brienne said that gives Jaime an upsetting inkling of the real picture of the Baratheon lab. “Isn’t Renly hustling his ass off at this point? You said he’s so busy it takes him days to respond to your emails.”

“Well, sure, but I meant prof busy. Staying until seven, coming into the office an hour or two on weekends.”

Jaime feels his eyebrows shoot upward. “That’s what you think constitutes busy? When was the last time you didn’t work a least sixteen hours on a weekend?”

“I mean….” she trails off, looking trapped.

He eyes her for a long moment and she shifts uncomfortably, hunching her shoulders. Jaime suspects she knows where this conversation is going and she’s regretting her choice of words, but he’s not going to let her escape the conversation someone should have had with her a year or more ago. Her dedication is admirable to an extent, and it’s not as if she has no interest in her lab’s research topic. It may not be her desired subject, but she’s still more enthusiastic about it than Jaime has been about anything since he got into UKL for grad school. But it’s not okay for Renly to take advantage of that dedication and enthusiasm.

“Listen,” he’s honestly trying to be gentle but she looks like she’s being attacked. “I know you don’t want to hear it but Renly is out of line making you work these absurd hours, particularly if he’s clocking out on a nominally healthy schedule. You could have frozen your experiment overnight and picked it up tomorrow morning, but instead you’re catching a nap on a couch older than you are so you can go back to work at midnight. You know that’s not a job requirement, right?”

“Renly doesn’t make me do anything,” she growls defensively. “I choose to work this hard. It’s worth it. There’s nothing I’d rather be doing that working with him to cure greyscale.”

Jaime can’t help but roll his eyes. Leave it to her to turn kindness into an endurance sport. Renly probably didn’t need to say anything more than help me Brienne, you’re my only hope-- hells, he may not have had to say anything at all-- for her to start pulling twelve hour days or worse.

“A few hours so you can go home and sleep isn’t going to make the difference. To curing greyscale--” which Renly isn’t anywhere near, Jaime doesn’t add, “-- or to Doctor Baratheon’s tenure package.”

She flinches again but doesn’t respond, glowering at the floor between her feet.

He can practically feel the walls she’s putting up around herself on the issue, but something-- his sense of justice, maybe, or just his resentment of Renly’s strange thrall over Brienne-- makes him incapable of letting it go. He has to get through to her. He’s worried about her. “And where do you think Renly is at the moment?” He can’t help the sour taste the man’s name leaves in his mouth. Her scowl grows a shade darker. It makes him suspect she’s aware, but she’s letting it happen. Ridiculous. “You’re wasting years of your academic life on a project someone else chose for you. And worse than that, you’re wasting those years with a PI who treats you like a piece of lab equipment.”

“So who should I be spending that time with? It’s not like I have anything else going on in my life!” she practically shouts.

“How about me?” The words are out of his mouth before he can think. She’s blinking, confusion written plainly across her face. He stumbles to continue. “I mean, coffee with me. At least once a week so I’ll know you’ve at least left your lab bench for that long.”

“Fine,” she mumbles, her blush creeping ever higher along her cheeks. “But only if you stop bothering me about my work ethic in between. And you’re buying.”

He registers the victory for a fleeting moment before his brain is off planning how to talk her into ordering something more interesting and expensive than Crownlands breakfast tea. He’s interrupted when the lab timer hooked on her belt starts beeping as if the world’s ending. She slaps at it as she gets to her feet, stretching again such that her shirt rides up just a little.

With a start Jaime realizes he’s staring at the strip of skin exposed at her belly. “Back to work,” he says, looking away and trying to fill the silence that suddenly makes the back of his neck itch.

“Just be grateful you get the couch to yourself now,” she mutters, gathering her hoodie and phone.

He stretches out across the couch, sighing with theatrical pleasure that belies the spring digging into his lower back. “Just try not to be too jealous of how much more sleep I’m getting.” He grins, she rolls her eyes, and the door clicks shut behind her.

Chapter Text

“I don’t need a drink, I just need to wait until Renly’s appeal process runs its course.”

Even to her own ears, Brienne’s voice sounds a little hollow. Certainly unconvincing. She picks at the ancient names carved into the top of the picnic table as Jaime plunks down a pitcher of beer with more force than strictly necessary, sloshing a little over the edge.

“It’s certainly not worth wasting beer over,” she adds with a glance up at him, trying for sardonic and landing somewhere around Marvin the robot.

He’s glaring down at her and it just makes her feel even more tired. What does he have to be so worked up about anyway? He’s been happily tenured for several years now. His lab is productive and functional.

Which is why he could take the time out of his afternoon to accost Brienne at her desk and inform her they were going out. Which in turn is how she finds herself out back of the shitty biker bar up in the hills behind campus-- the one Brienne loves, with the big lawn and the rectangular hamburgers and the weirdly addicting fries that taste like no other fries in the world because they probably haven’t cleaned the deep fryer since a Targaryen sat on the throne-- staring listlessly at the lengthening shadows while Jaime scowls at her.

He slides onto the bench next to her. Not across from her, she notices, which would have been prime glaring real estate. As he begins rolling his sleeves up with the jerky movements of a huffy child she takes a moment to thank any gods who happen to be listening that it’s a white shirt today, and not the dark red one that had haunted her dreams in the months since he’d barged into her nap closet with with it half-buttoned.

His pants, on the other hand, are a problem for her continued functioning. As usual. Honestly, tailors shouldn’t be allowed to make pants fit that well, it’s obnoxious and obscene and probably other things that start with O.

It all stands in sharp contrast with Brienne’s ill-fitting jeans and the stretched-out five-year-old tank top she has to keep pulling up her shoulder awkwardly. Jaime always stands out in a crowd-- in a comfortable, self-assured way that Brienne can’t relate to at all-- but he’s especially prominent here among the bikers lounging around the other tables in leather and cutoffs and enjoying the late summer evening. But of course he doesn’t seem overly concerned about fitting in with the bar’s regular crowd. No, his concerns are entirely focused on Brienne today and it’s making her neck tingle.

His wordless presence beside her feels odd. It’s not the quiet of sympathetic solidarity she might expect from Margaery, or the general air of silent done-with-your-shit-ness of Margaery’s terrifying professor-emeritus grandmother. It’s more a-- she looks over at him, noticing the white of his knuckles around the handle of the pitcher--

--simmering rage.

“Brienne. It’s been two weeks.”

They’re the first words he’s said to her since he kidnapped her from lab when she could have gotten in another three or four hours of work. Though in fairness, which she will absolutely not be admitting out loud, it’s not like she’s getting much done now that they’re running out of reagents. The freeze on new purchases is getting in her way almost as much as the vague sensation of misery and hopelessness that’s been hanging like miasma over the lab for the last two weeks.

Ever since the tenure committee passed their judgement on Renly.

Jaime pours beer into two thin plastic cups and shoves one at her. “Brienne, this isn’t patience, it’s moping.”

“I don’t see why it can’t be both,” she retorts, earning her an indelicate snort. “He’s appealing the decision. There was something sketchy about the decision that looks kind of like Stannis set out to kill Renly’s shot at tenure. The committee will see that. We just have to wait.”

“Would you look at me?” He asks that as if looking at him wasn’t half of her problem lately. He waits for her to actually meet his eyes, but then he hesitates. The anger drains from his face but the eye contact is weirdly intense and Brienne can feel her cheeks heating in discomfort. “Appeals never succeed, particularly when your entire case is shadowy conspiracy possibly involving my probably-jealous brother. Stannis is my third-least-favorite faculty member of our department so far be it from me to defend the guy, but I don’t think he’s to blame here. Renly is prolonging the inevitable and dragging you down with him. You need to accept that the Baratheon lab is dead and move on. Escape while you can. You don’t want to be there when things get ugly, trust me.”

“I’m not going to abandon him.” She knows she probably comes across as a stubborn toddler stamping her foot, but that’s the least of her worries right now.

“Brienne. How many papers has your lab published in seven years?”

“Two,” she mutters, but rushes ahead to add, “--plus the paper we coauthored with the Tyrell lab. And all his conference presentations really should hold more weight. He was-- is-- very sought-after to give talks.” She really does believe that. Presenting and sharing work is hugely important and Renly is extremely good at it. Even if she doesn’t want to examine how his going off to talk to people invariably resulted in him developing a momentary enthusiasm for yet another side project for the lab that took valuable time away from their actual research topics, or to what extent his constant traveling impacted the publication process.

Jaime snorts again and is clearly about to harangue her further when the cook yells their order number from the bar’s back door. With a we aren’t done here glare he gets up to retrieve their dinner. Brienne feels herself perking up at the imminent arrival of food. The kitchen here can be slow but in her expert opinion it’s always worth the wait. Though she wonders whether Jaime will be disappointed with greasy bar food when he could be off eating… whatever it is they serve at the faculty club. Capon? Probably. And some ridiculous laundry list of side dishes.

He drops the red plastic baskets onto the table-- one each for their burgers, one for shared fries-- dislodging a couple fries in the process. Brienne brushes them onto the ground and two crows appear almost before the food hits the ground. She feels the need to protect Jaime from whatever strange microbes reside on the table’s thin but very much present layer of grime. And besides, it’s never a bad idea to be on the good side of a corvid.

Jaime starts in on her again before his ass even touches the bench. “Aren’t you even a little upset?”

She lets out something between a groan and a sigh that is distinctly unladylike. “Of course I’m upset, the committee made a totally unfair judgement.” She still feels a little nauseous at everything this whole process has exposed to her about the personal and political machinations behind the sterile scientific front. “But what good would me stomping around and glaring at crows do anyone?”

“I didn’t mean about the committee’s decision, and I suspect you know that, but I suppose I’ll take it over the moping.” He snatches a fry and makes to pop it into his mouth.

“No don’t--!”

She’s too late. He’s already bitten through the golden, greasy crust to release the lightning hot innards onto his vulnerable flesh and now he’s cursing up a storm. She allows herself a small, smug smile, hidden behind the rim of her cup as he drains his own beer to counteract the burning. Primly, she sets down her cup and explains, “Something about the crinkle cut or the weird fryer oil makes the fries retain heat. We tell all the grad students to be careful when we bring them out here.”

“And yet you let me suffer?” There’s no real heat behind his glare. It’s more of a pout if anything.

“I’m sorry I allowed you to come to harm,” she says lightly. “I’ll do a better job of protecting you in the future.” Without any real input from her brain, her hand comes up to pat his back comfortingly.

And then it stays there, resting between his shoulder blades.

It’s mind-boggling, really. Ordinarily she would have fretted and worried and worked herself up to near panic just thinking about touching someone like… like this. Not that she’d had many opportunities. But that’s the point-- she has no practice doing this sort of thing, and now it’s just happened. As if it’s a normal thing to just reach over and touch Jaime.

She should probably do something about the situation. It’s probably getting weird. It must be.

It’s been a while, hasn’t it? She thinks maybe she felt his muscles tense for a split-second at first, but he hasn’t budged since. But it’s got to be weird by now.

It doesn’t feel weird though. At least not to her. It feels warm and grounded in a way she hasn’t been in a long time, too busy always up in her own head, ignoring the physical body that carries said brain around. It’s... pleasant, this small point of connection.

But it probably is weird for him.

She pulls her hand back, a little reluctantly, and he offers her a smile that on anyone else might be considered shy as he nudges her burger basket toward her.

They sit side by side in silence after that, eating their burgers and polishing off the pitcher, watching the sun sink behind the summer-browned hills. It’s nice, if she can set aside literally everything else about her life, which Brienne manages for a solid couple of minutes.

But it’s hard to keep the ruminations at bay as darkness begins to fall. The grossness of faculty politics. The injustice of their decision. The frustration of waiting out the appeal process. The sheer amount of work she has done, only for Renly to--

She bites down on that line of thought. It’s unproductive, and it’s unfair to Renly.

But Jaime certainly agrees with that whinging part of her brain. Even if his anger wasn’t helpful, even if he’s wrong about Renly, there’s something stomach-warming about him getting worked up on her behalf. His heart is in the right place.

At that thought she registers that he’s turned to face her, his elbow on the table as he regards her, rubbing at his designer stubble. He seems somehow closer, even though he’s just twisted a bit in his seat, and she feels herself blushing again. The alcohol must be hitting her bloodstream.

Jaime’s phone buzzes once in his pocket, shattering the warm calm, but he ignores it. “Listen. Has Renly done anything to help you all find new jobs?” She opens her mouth to argue but he interrupts. “Even just as an emergency backup plan? He owes you that much. You worked your ass off for him.” She looks up to find his eyes softer than before, but he turns away after the moment stretches, his busy hands tearing bits off his cup. “I mean, he could at least leverage that network of connections on your behalf. He spent enough time cultivating it.”

“He hasn’t,” she admits quietly, running a thumbnail along the table’s grain.

“Then you should.” His phone buzzes again and he ignores it again, reaching a hand out to rest on her forearm and stop her movement. “Especially if you want to find a place somewhere else at WU.” His throat works for a moment before he adds, “Assuming you want to stay, I mean.”

She would like to stay at Westeros University. It had been an awkward adjustment period but she’s grown to love it there. She was just starting to feel like she’d found her place in the world when everything came crashing down. The problem is that it seems like a long shot to find 1) a WU prof who’s 2) doing research Brienne is qualified for and 3) has a job opening and funding for a postdoc.

Her chest clenches. Even outside of how daunting the task looks, it feels like betrayal to Renly to even consider job hunting.

She can wait.

His hand is still resting on her wrist. With her unoccupied hand she reaches for one of the last fries, but it’s been long enough that it’s gotten cold and soggy. Gross. Eating it at this point would be a mistake. She’s feeling weird enough without adding that on top.

She tosses it to the crows. Jaime’s fingers are warm where they still graze her skin.

She can wait.

Chapter Text

Not even a month later Jaime arrives to their weekly coffee da-- get-together-- meeting-- to find Brienne taking up an entire table near the front window, surrounded by her laptop, notebook, and a pile of printed-out journal papers. There are two empty cups beside her and her leg is bouncing under the table at a worrisome frequency. He hasn’t even sat down yet and he’s already fighting an urge to lay a quelling hand on her knee, yet her obvious distress has a distinctly suppressive effect on his general enthusiasm for seeing her.

The many hours he’d spent with her at the biology complex’s coffee shop since their chance meeting in the graduate students’ beer closet had been delightful on a number of levels, one of which was that she had helped reawaken the scientific spark he’d thought long gone. Their spirited debates-- of course he’d found ways to take the opposing side on as many points of scientific contention as possible regardless of his actual opinions-- had reminded him of what it was like to actually care about his work, to actually be curious about how things work and to feel the thrill of new discovery. Now that he’s finally sorting out his priorities, he had been looking forward to finally sharing some good news with her. He would tell her how he submitted his resignation from his position at Kingslayer Pharmaceuticals and offloaded most of his Kingsguard LLC duties onto that ambitious Tyrell kid, and that once the transition is ironed out he’s going to minimize his involvement in the rest of his family’s web of companies in order to direct all of his focus toward the two projects he actually cares about: his university lab and Honor Analytics. And then she’d be proud and he’d feel even better about his choices and it would just be a delightful afternoon for everyone.

But one look at her, hunched in on herself and staring blankly at her screen, makes him instantly decide to put that conversation on hold.

“This seat taken?” he asks, pulling out the chair opposite her. He half expects her to leap out of her seat at the interruption to her concentration, but instead it takes her a full thirty seconds to tear her eyes from the screen. They’re red at the edges, and dulled, which turns out to be the most disturbing symptom Jaime has yet observed. A far cry from the bright and active-- if wary-- gaze that had brought him up short at the Bitterbridge symposium. He’s been barely seen her outside of these stolen hours at thecoffee shop thanks to the numerous and diverse drains on his attention lately, but this Brienne is a decidedly new look for her.

“You want something to drink? Something more, that is.” He eyes those empty cups suspiciously. There’s no sign of tea bags, either in the cups or elsewhere on the table. If she’s actually resorted to coffee…. She nods vaguely and looks back to her screen, fingers still unmoving on the trackpad.

He returns a few moments later with a cup more whipped cream than mocha (his) and a cup of still-brewing peppermint tea (hers, and a deliberate change from her usual order of black tea in the interests of her continued functioning), with an almond croissant on a small plate balanced precariously on top.

As he distributes his bounty on the table Brienne eyes the pastry owlishly. “What’s this?”

“Protein. Gotta keep your stamina up. Almonds are healthy, right?”

“Jaime, there’s like half an almond total in this. The rest is just almond flavoring.”

“You really know how to let the air out of my gallant gestures, you know that?”

She doesn’t even glare at him, just staring forlornly up at him. Oh this is bad. This is very extremely bad.

“Soooooo,” he draws out the vowel as he settles in across from her, scooping whipped cream out of his cup with a coffee stir-stick and licking it off, “Whatcha doin’?”

Her unfocused gaze leaves his mouth to look back at her screen, a blush creeping up her cheeks. “Job hunting,” she mumbles.

Shit. Renly’s tenure appeal must have been officially denied. That’s the only thing that would result in Brienne seeking other employment, not to mention looking as miserable as she does now. His stomach sours around the whipped cream. He must have missed the department gossip while he was holed up in his office dealing with the mountain of paperwork necessitated by his occupational makeover, which would have left Brienne to face the news all on her own.

He should say something, but it seems the floodgates have opened and she plunges ahead. “I might have a strong enough resume to get a postdoc at Crownlands Tech-- it could be nice to be back there again, and Dr. Goodwin could put in a good word for me.” Jaime groans inwardly. Returning to the land of her undergrad days would just end in her wallowing in old Renly memories. His displeasure must be obvious because she rushes to continue. “I talked a bit with Dr. Martell at Sunspear University at a conference last year, Margaery said he spoke highly of my work,” she blushes a little and Jaime grits his teeth. He just bets Oberyn spoke highly of her. The man has spent the last five years snaking the best postdocs away from Jaime’s lab and Jaime will be damned if he lets Brienne fall to the same fate. “There’s also a lecturer job at Oldtown College that I could probably handle. I don’t have a lot of teaching experience but maybe I just need a change of pace from lab work for a little while. Or--”

“I can’t help but notice that all of these involve places that are distinctly not here.” It’s a struggle, but Jaime thinks he got that out with a light, offhand tone.

“Nobody here has any postdoc openings. I heard Roose Bolton needs a lab manager, but--”

“No!” Jaime doesn’t even bother to hide his revulsion at the thought.

She gives him a long-suffering look. “--Obviously that’s not an option. Do I look desperate enough to sign up for that kind of torture?”

No, she doesn’t look desperate, but Jaime’s starting to feel some desperation of his own. She can’t just leave, not when they’ve gotten so… whatever they are. Okay, sure, he’s known for a while that he has distinctly non-collegial feelings for Brienne-- it would be silly to deny it after the disproportionate rage Renly’s treatment of her had provoked, not to mention all the things their developing habit of exchanging casual touches has done to him. But he also hasn’t been in any particular rush. Or hadn’t been, until now.

But he’s not sure what to do about it. He can’t just barrel ahead and shove his feelings in her face and consider the problem solved. Not enough people treat Brienne with the gentleness she deserves. She may be able to bench press Jaime’s bodyweight but she’s… delicate. She’d punch him if he said it out loud, or more likely just assume it’s an insult, then look at him with those big sad eyes and let it quietly eat away at her for the rest of time. But he doesn’t mean it in some paternalistic way that’s intended to keep women from doing anything interesting or from taking up any space. No, she’s delicate like… like an ultracentrifuge that has to be perfectly balanced, but it’s worth putting in the time and being patient and diligent because it produces such good data.

Gods, this is absolutely going to be a problem if he’s thinking in simile. Lab equipment simile no less. Maybe it’s not punching he should worry about so much as the fact that there’s no chance of her believing he’s serious if he ever said half this shit out loud.

The obvious solution to The Job Problem (which is a much better title than The Oh Gods Please Don’t Let Brienne Leave Problem) would be for Jaime to hire her. Even with fewer companies on his roster he still has his hands in enough pies that he could easily find plenty of opportunities she’d be a perfect fit for and that would be lucky to have her.

It’s also the worst idea in the history of ideas. As much as he wants Brienne to stay in or around Westeros University, making her his employee would immediately preclude any further progress in their relationship. Which is rather the opposite of his goal. Sure, if she said her dream job was to work in R&D at Goldcloak or something he’d set her up in a heartbeat, and be content with their friendship. He doesn’t want to dwell on the thought too long, but he’s confident he could do it rather than be That Guy They Warn You About in the HR Videos.

“It’s very complicated,” she says, and he jerks his head up wondering how she read his mind.

“What is?”

“The job hunt?” She’s using that tone that means she thinks she’s saying something obvious but now that someone has asked she’s worried it might somehow be wrong. “It’s such a complicated problem, finding labs that I could be useful to and that are hiring, but also trying to cross reference posted salaries with cost of living in the area.” She glances up, makes the briefest of eye contact before looking away, blushing and admitting, “I made a spreadsheet.”

Of course she did. Always organized with her data. It’s predictable and endearing and somehow also very sexy but it breaks through his rapidly spinning-up thoughts. She needs a complete data set-- maybe he should just put all his cards on the table here and now and let her make her decision about moving, about a job, and about him all at once.

Except the thought nearly sends him into a panic. The status quo has been comfortable, and perturbing the system carries objectively terrifying risks-- what if she’s not ready? What if he’s not ready? What if he’s massively misinterpreted their relationship and she thinks he’s toying with her-- because heaven forbid she believe someone might want her-- and he ends up hurting her far worse than if he’d just let her leave and take a perfectly fine job with perfectly fine Oberyn?

No, honesty now would only complicate her already too-complex decision process. It would definitely make a bad situation much, much worse by introducing two people’s worth of feelings into the mix in addition to salary, location, living expenses, and everything else. The worst possible data to have. She doesn’t need that burden.

“It’s too much,” he blurts, before catching himself. “The spreadsheet, I mean.” Excellent save, Lannister, totally not weird. “All this work--” he flips his thumb through the pile of papers. He has to stall her job hunt until he can have a moment to file through his mental database of professional connections. He can’t possibly be expected to do that while having anything approaching a normal conversation with her. Especially when she’s looking at him with those eyes of hers. “What you need is a vacation,” he asserts.

She stares at him blankly. He may possibly have overshot on the casual act.

“Take some time off, I mean.” He’s fumbling badly and the only thing that saves it from being absolutely mortifying is the fact that she is so burnt out that she wouldn’t notice if he threw himself bodily at her. In fact, that burnout is just another reason she shouldn’t try to make any kind of life-altering decisions-- about her job or about Jaime-- so perhaps he’s onto something honest with this line of thought. “It’s been a long couple months for you. You deserve a break. Time to, you know, regroup. Or something. Time for that self-care thing I hear so much about.”

She pushes her glasses back up her nose, a familiar gesture that brings his attention back to her eyes. The sheer fatigue there is very nearly painful for Jaime. That’s not how her eyes are supposed to look, damn it. His mind spins off, still grasping at ways to get that bright and always-observing spark back, such that he only belatedly realizes she’s narrowing said eyes at him. Or possibly squinting to bring her vision into focus. “Weren’t you the one telling me I needed to hurry up and get on the job hunt like a month ago?”

“Yes, but--” Okay, she has him there. Shit. Someday he’s going to kick Past-Jaime’s ass for that kind of short-term thinking. The problem is that he can’t think of anyone to hire her within twenty leagues who isn’t either horrible or related to him. Or both. Arthur Dayne would have been the perfect choice had he not retired five years ago-- they would have gotten on like a house on fire.

She’s waiting for him to finish the sentence, confusion clouding her eyes. Gods, she looks exhausted. It’s not fair she has to feel like that when she’s done nothing wrong in her life but be a truly excellent scientist. Who does he know that treats postdocs like human beings but wouldn’t make it look like he’d called in a favor?

“--but it seems I was wrong about that.” Dear gods she didn’t even gloat a little at his admission. “You should know better than to get me drunk and then accept life advice.” It had been half a pitcher of beer, and the only thing impeding his judgement had been his irritation about how Renly treated her. Well, that and her hand on his back and their hips pressed together on the bench--

No, he needs to concentrate. His leg is bouncing below the table. There must be a solution somewhere--

“Jaime, are you feeling alright? You seem… scattered.”

Catelyn! She had the same no-nonsense approach to science and to life in general. If anyone could rescue Brienne from the crime scene of Renly’s short-lived professorship, it would be Cat. And she even works on RNA viruses, which might give Brienne the opportunity to get back to the RNA-interaction hypotheses from her grad work that she never got to test. Cat’s lab is housed in a frigid subbasement but at least it’s two buildings over in the Aemon complex, a comfortable distance away from any bad associations Brienne might have with the Pycelle building. It’s perfect, except for the fact that Cat hates him.

“Hm? Oh, no, I’m fine.” He buries his face in his coffee cup to stall for time. Actually, now that he thinks of it, it’s perfect because Cat would never be accused of doing him any favors. Plus Brienne’s general amazingness should be more than enough to counteract any Jaime-related negatives in Cat’s eyes. It would absolutely be worth her while to move some funding around to make a nice tidy space for someone as skilled and dedicated as Brienne. He pulls out his phone and makes a show of checking an email he just received. “Ah, I need to deal with this. But think about it for a sec, yeah? Think of all the things you could do if you put that laptop away and took a few days for yourself. Hells, maybe even a week.”

He scrawls a message to Catelyn, too in-public-- and too in-front-of-Brienne-- to use speech-to-text and too rushed to worry overmuch about typos:

Pls donot delete this I have a propsoiton. Brienne Tarth-- Renly’s psotdoc with the blue eyes, you know, the one who did all teh work-- needs a job. SHes my friend but you’d like her anyeay. She does graet work-- won that award at Bitterbridge conf a few years ago, you were there. Just talk to her youll see. -JAIME

Gods, Cat will never let him live this down. But it will be worth it.

“Now, where was I?” Having taken some action he’s already feeling better, very nearly back to his glib self. “Ah, yes, self-care. I suggest a spa day. Or two. Sit in a dimly-lit room, get your chakras aligned, maybe a good long massage.” Oh, bad move. He does not need this kind of naked and oiled up mental image taking up mental real estate while he’s already trying to have two conversations at once.

But it does seem to have gotten Brienne’s attention. He’s filing that information away for later when his phone buzzes. Yes! If Cat has already--

Automated reply from Dr. Catelyn Stark: I will be out of the office for the week of Smith’s Day. Urgent communications can be set to my admin: r.cassel@wu.edu.

Smith’s balls. Can he stall Brienne for another week and a half? Jaime considers haranguing the poor admin but discards the idea as not conducive to getting anywhere near Cat’s good side.

“I don’t know, Jaime,” she begins, but it’s a tone he clearly recognizes as the one she uses when she wants help arguing herself into something. That’s progress. “A spa day, maybe, but a week? What would I even do with that kind of free time? I haven’t had more than a couple days to myself since I was in high school.”

Jaime is running out of both ideas and patience, but he knows he has to sell this. “I don’t know, get yourself a copy of Knights of Old Valyria and spend a few days hacking virtual bad guys into pieces with a laser sword?” He’s got her interest now and oh, she’d make an excellent tank in KOV, wading into the thick of things and keeping damage away from the DPS. Maybe he should consider re-upping his own years-lapsed subscription. After all, he might have a little extra time on his hands now. “Or, here’s a weird idea, how about getting some sleep? I bet you’ll feel like a new woman after two or three days in bed.” Godsdammit he needs to get control of these slips of the tongue, but he rushes ahead anyway. “Or camping!” he blurts, remembering her lament that she has barely been outdoors since coming to WU.

And yes, that seems to have done the trick. He just has to push a little more and he’ll have the time he needs. “Anything, honestly, as long as you consider it rest. Even on top of getting over your burnout, applying for jobs sucks on a good day. You might as well wait until you’re in a better mood to deal with it.”

She purses her lips and he knows she’s almost there. She just needs permission to not do the thing that was making her miserable, and he’s happy to give it to her. Her fingers begin to tap restlessly against the cardboard of her cup and he can practically hear her winding up to argue. Without thinking, he reaches a hand out to still her caffeine-fueled agitation. Her hand relaxes instantaneously under his and he feels a rush of warmth in his chest.

But then she cocks her head and considers him for a long moment. “Why are you so hung up on this?”

He’d been hoping to avoid that question. He’s burned out all his doubletalk circuits so he’s going to have to go for the truth, if only part of it. He gives her hand a pat before letting go, picking up his own cup and taking a long sip to buy a fraction of a second to gather his thoughts. “You need some rest,” he begins quietly. “You’ve more than earned a break, but left to your own devices I know you won’t take it because you don’t think you deserve it. But you do. The world owes you a break and the least I can do is make sure you know that.”

Her eyes go wide and for a moment it looks like she might cry. If she does Jaime knows he won’t be able to stop himself from leaping over the table to wrap her up in his arms and comfort her. But she bites her lip and takes a deep breath and the moment passes. Jaime isn’t at all sure whether he’s more disappointed or relieved.

“I’ll think about the spa thing and the camping idea,” she says quietly. “But…” a shy smile creeps onto her face, “maybe tell me more about Knights of Old Valyria?”

He doesn’t even bother hiding his grin behind his coffee.

Chapter Text

“What do you want, Brienne?”

The sirens going off in her head in response to Jaime’s question are very distracting. Yes, obviously she can’t say you, naked and dipped in cheese but between that image and the overall sense of panic her brain is too preoccupied to come up with an actual answer.

Stalling for time, she tosses a handful of pumpkin seeds toward the edge of the pond and watches the ducks swarm around them. She wishes it were earlier in the year-- seeing some ducklings would really hit the spot right now. Both to distract her from life in general and from this conversation in particular.

Of course she knows he’s asking about what she wants from her new job, but those aren’t the words he used. Stupid literal scientific brain.

The problem with the question he’s actually asking is that she’s anxious when she should be happy. Content. Excited, even. She’d hardly even started the horrifying prospect of job hunting when she got an email from Dr. Catelyn Stark actually recruiting her, sparing her the entire painful process. It still boggles Brienne’s mind a little-- Dr. Stark’s lab is home to the last remaining samples of the Great Spring Sickness virus on the planet, so vacancies on her roster don’t stay so for long. But she has some theories about the structure of the virus’s RNA genome, and needs a dedicated molecular biologist. In fact, she mentioned that if she’d known that Brienne was a free agent she would have snapped her up weeks ago. Apparently Brienne’s propensity for flying under all possible radar had been detrimental.

Just like Jaime had told her all those years ago at the Bitterbridge symposium.

Not that she will admit it to him, of course. As if he needs more reasons to be smug.

But the point is Brienne has a job. Starting in a week. She even gets to stay at WU and in her apartment.

But mostly she just feels vaguely nauseous.

Can she really do this again? She’s heard good things about Dr. Stark as both a scientist and a boss, but... Brienne is scared enough of getting herself into another high-stress, breakneck-pace, guilt-motivated, burnout-causing work situation that the relative unlikeliness of that eventuality doesn’t even register.

Jaime bounces a seed off the head of a particularly mouthy mallard and chuckles at the bird’s confusion. He looks over at her again. She should keep her eyes on the waterfowl but finds herself meeting his gaze.

Bad plan.

The question is still in his eyes, and that just brings her back around to all the things she absolutely should not tell him she wants. Starting with tackling him to the grass and pinning him down with her hips. She knows it won’t happen-- either the tackling or any kind of dating-type thing. She knows it’s hopeless and pointless, because he’s him and she’s her, and at this point she’s mostly just holding her breath and trying not to do anything weird while waiting for this crush to burn itself out. She has plenty of experience living with futile crushes on too-pretty people, and she hopes that if she just waits it out she’ll get over this one too. Not that waiting had ever worked in the past, but maybe this time, now that she’s a little older.

Maybe it’ll be easier next week, once she’s busy working instead of lounging on a park bench looking deep into his eyes. Not to mention she’ll be two buildings over from him and two floors underground.

There’s a flurry of flapping and quacking at the edge of the pond and Brienne is grateful for the distraction that allows her to turn away from him. These increasingly-common staring contests she’s been getting into with Jame lately are confusing to say the least.

He’s been largely avoiding her for over a month. Sure, she’s been spending her days anywhere but campus-- she still feels a spike of anxiety when she thinks about stepping foot in a lab of any kind-- but she’d still made time to see him for coffee at their usual time. And yet he kept emailing to raincheck or cancel altogether, always encouraging her to go out and do something fun for herself instead. At this point the last time she’d seen him in person for even a moment was a couple weeks ago, and lately their text conversation seems to have dried up as well.

Then there’s the problem that she suspects Jaime had something to do with Catelyn Stark’s suddenly-available postdoc position. Catelyn said she hadn’t known Brienne was looking for a job until she found out second-hand, which had immediately raised Brienne’s suspicions. Who else would have been speaking to Catelyn and happened to mention Brienne’s employment status in passing? In her less secure moments-- which, in fairness, is most of them-- it feels like maybe his goal was to get rid of her. Out of the Pycelle building and out of his way. Out of sight.

She’s relatively sure he’s distancing himself from her, physically and otherwise. Even now, he’s keeping a strict few inches of separation between them on the bench, a space occupied by the bag of seeds she’d brought-- to her horror he’d suggested bringing bread for the ducks, so she’d offered to bring healthier provisions-- acting as a barrier. Whether it’s conscious on his part or not, Brienne knows it would be best to prepare herself for him to slide gracefully out of her life.

Even though she wants to keep him there more than she’s ever wanted anything in her life. But that would be selfish. He’s got a life-- several, it often seems-- outside of the time he spends with her.

And it makes sense that he’d want to devote more of his time to that life and less to entertaining her. He’s a professor and CEO-- and she thinks also CTO but that corporate talk always makes her glaze over a little-- and he’s just completely out of her league. He’s too pretty, too confident, too much for boring, awkward Basic Research Brienne.

“Come on, you must want something.”

She wants to reach across the space between them and run her thumb over the jawline that has haunted her since she met him. Instead, she reaches into the bag between them on the bench for another handful of seeds and reminds herself of the “...out of your job” he keeps forgetting to append. He’s trying to help her work through her new-job anxiety, not asking for her sweaty fantasies of him. “I want to not work seventy hours a week,” she grumbles.

He chuckles. “I want that for you too. I’m reasonably sure Cat won’t ask of you anything that would cause you to burn out.”

“I mean I don’t want to feel like I have to work seventy hours a week.”

“Mm. That’s a harder one. But you’re getting a fresh start next week. New boss, new lab. New leaving-work-at-a-reasonable-hour Brienne.” She knows he’s too kind to mention that the working hours-- the ones that left her a charred husk of a human by the time Renly’s tenure appeal was finally denied-- were entirely of her own volition. But the problem had been that any hours she had spent outside of lab during that time were invariably wracked with worry about ongoing experiments and guilt that if she wasn’t working she was failing Renly. “What else is on the wish list?”

“How about to not feel like just another piece of lab equipment?”

“Cat definitely won’t do that. I hear she makes soup for her lab members when they get sick.” Brienne had overheard Renly saying that once, but Jaime lacks the mocking undertone as he passes along the rumor now. She has to admit, it sounds awfully nice-- both the soup itself and the idea of working for someone who cares about her lab members that way.

Tossing a few more seeds, Brienne considers the question again. “I want to not have my projects switched around all the time depending on what the new hotness in the field is.”

“Well I’m positive you’ll be fine on that. Cat has never been on-trend a day in her life.” Jaime pulls that mock-solemn face he’s so good at, before it morphs into his more accustomed I’m-so-funny grin. “That’s why she’s still working on a globally eradicated disease. But the thing I can’t help noticing is that everything you’ve said so far is stuff you want to avoid. That’s different from affirmatively wanting.”

Oh there are plenty of things she affirmatively wants. None of which should be attempted in a virology lab. She shoves the thoughts away yet again and attempts an idle shrug. “I want a job. But I have that lined up. So.”

“Just a job?”

“A job where I get some say as to what I pursue, where I have time and space to test my own theories. I still want to prove that secondary structure is key to small RNA silencing someday.” The more she talks the bleaker her time in the late and apparently-unlamented Baratheon Lab looks in hindsight.

“Come on, you can do better than that. Something specific,” he goads her, absently pushing back the hair that the breeze had dislodged from his short ponytail before sitting back to rest his elbow on the back of the bench between them and eyeing her expectantly.

She wants to see the look on his face as she slides her fingers gently into his hair, and how it might change when she then curls her fingers into fists and pulls ever so slightly. “An Oathkeeper fluorometer with a microplate reader and automatic substrate injectors.”

“There it is,” he grins, jabbing a finger into her ribs until she grabs his wrist and presses it firmly back toward his lap. “I knew you had normal human wants in there somewhere.”

She just wants Jaime.

And it hurts, but it’s a survivable hurt. She knows it’s selfish to be milking their dwindling time together for all it’s worth when she could just let Jaime be rid of her. But the little ache she feels in her chest when she thinks about all this being over, that makes her want to draw out the tail end of the curve, is more convincing than any concerns about selfishness.

He’s still watching her. She rolls her eyes, and wonders if he understands the sheer concentrated fondness she packs into the gesture. “What if I want you to be less obnoxious?”

“Ah, alas, we can’t always get what we want.” He grins at her and offers her the last of the seeds in the bag.

A week later, on Brienne’s first day of work in the Stark Lab, she finds the very first Oathkeeper2™ fluorometer off the factory line being installed in the Aemon building’s subbasement, two doors down the hall from her lab, courtesy of some philanthropic organization called the Goldenhand Foundation.

Chapter Text

“... well, I’d be a lot further along if I could get more time on the Oathkeeper.” Jaime watches Brienne peer at the nacho platter before picking out the best chip. He knows it’s the best one-- optimally covered with melted cheese and just a little bit of every topping-- because he’s had his eye on it. He follows its path as she extracts it from the plate and pops it effortlessly into her mouth.

He really needs to stop staring at Brienne’s mouth.

She catches him and blushes all the way down past the collar of her t-shirt. The worst part is he knows what she’s thinking-- he knows she’s projecting all manner of displeasure and disapproval onto him for her eating habits, just like she always assumes the hardest-on-her interpretation of everything no matter how good Jaime’s intentions-- and there’s not a damn thing he can do about it. It’s not like he’s going to say oh, no, it’s not gross or weird or unladylike that you love nachos and can fit a whole one in your mouth, in fact those things are absolutely in the top 20 things I love about you, but the problem is that the nacho just brought my attention to your mouth and then my brain conjures the most interesting images of other contexts for said mouth, not to mention for my own mouth, so don’t worry at all because it’s not judgement it’s just uncontrollable lust. The scientific part of him kind of wants to try just saying it though, just to see what might happen.

The scientific part of Jaime can be a real jerk. And it’s definitely not fair if that part is going to be joining forces with his dick.

Not thinking about dicks and mouths right now Jaime. He focuses over her shoulder at the tap list scrawled on a chalkboard behind the bar. He’d really thought that a trip to the local Crownlands-style pub would have been a harmless, low-key way to celebrate her first full week in the Stark lab. And all-you-can-eat nacho night seemed like a suitably nonromantic thing that friends would do to celebrate, so she wouldn’t be stuck wondering if it was a date (or worse, a joke at her expense) and he might manage to distract himself from his attraction to her. To just enjoy hanging out with her. But apparently he’s gotten to the phase of infatuation where absolutely nothing is unsexy enough to divert his focus.

Fantastic.

But at least he’s finally getting to see her again. That alone is a relief. It’s been two weeks since he’s even been in the same room with her, and he’d been having trouble forcing freedom into his schedule for weeks before that. Outside of his almost-finished but far-too-time-consuming disengagement from Kingslayer Biotech and Cersei’s seeming determination to use her role as CEO to burn down Baelor Biotech for some reason-- he can’t tell if she’s under orders from their father or whether this is a Cersei Original plot, but either way it’s taking up far too much of his attention-- it had taken some work to set up the Goldenhand Philanthropic Foundation so quickly, and he’d had to cancel coffee with Brienne more than once in order to pull it off.

But it had absolutely been worth it. She’d used a truly gratifying number of emojis when she texted him-- with no idea of his involvement, thank the gods-- about her amazing luck that a top-of-the-line fluorometer happened to be delivered to her department and happened to be installed in an unused supply room that happened to be right down the hall from the Stark Lab. And she’s finally-- finally-- got the resources and support she needs to pursue the theories she’d been so passionate about all those years ago at the Bitterbridge Symposium.

Except now she’s sitting here, telling him that she hasn’t been able to test those theories yet because she isn’t getting sufficient time on the machine. Only two hours a day really isn’t enough; Jaime knows that struggle. In grad school his approach had just been to sign up far enough in advance that he could monopolize whatever equipment he needed-- he might have to plan two or three weeks ahead, but it was worth it to get a solid three days of uninterrupted FACS time.

“The machine belongs to your lab.”

“We’re in charge of its upkeep,” she corrects him. “It belongs to the Biology division.”

“Nuance. My point is: you should get priority on the signup schedule.” His stomach was full two nacho refills ago but he still scrapes a chip along the plate to gather the last of the jalapenos. Maybe making himself sick on pub food will take his mind off everything else.

She looks at him like he’s speaking Dothraki. “Why would that give me special privileges?”

Jaime grits his teeth and wonders what it would take for Brienne to actually assert herself on her own behalf, to take what she wants, nobility be damned. It’s a constant struggle to convince her that she deserves anything nice. At this point, he’s half-convinced the reason he thinks so highly of her is because she seems incapable of doing it for herself. “Okay, ignoring that, how much time have you booked so far?”

She pulls up the Oathkeeper signup on her phone. “I had two hours each day this week, and two hours on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday next week. I should probably take a week off it after that-- the last thing I need is to become known as the stuck up postdoc who hogs the good machinery all the time and doesn’t care about anyone else’s work.”

On what planet would anyone ever think of Brienne that way? Sometimes Jaime wonders how their views of reality can be so disturbingly disparate.

The thing is, he knows that averaged over a year-- maybe even a month-- she’ll take up less time than anyone else, because she will have meticulously prepared each experiment and won’t need to do three extra attempts because of bad planning or forgotten control samples or assorted other mistakes. He knows this. And it’s not that he particularly loves the idea of her stuck in a dark room for days on end-- fluorometer experiments have to be protected from light of course, but it’s dreary as all hells-- but she has work that can only be done on the Oathkeeper and she’s got the experiments prepared, so he’s having trouble seeing why she’s holding herself back.

“You’re allowed to take up time on the fluorometer, Brienne,” he urges her. “It’s your lab’s machine, and you have all the reagents ready to go. If other people--” he breaks off as something occurs to him. He turns fully toward her, leaning an elbow on the bar as he narrows his eyes and engages his stern voice. “Brienne.” She flinches, going pink in seconds. “Are there even any other people signing up for time on the Oathkeeper?”

She’s avoiding his eyes again. Still. “A few,” she hedges, then signals the surly and scarred bartender for another plate of nachos.

Jaime reaches across her body to snatch her phone from her distal hand, scrolling through the Oathkeeper calendar. There are a handful of other people signed up for two- and three-hour blocks scattered around the month, but it’s hardly booked solid.

“Did Cat rule that you aren’t allowed to sign up for more than two hours a day?”

“No, it’s just basic politeness.”

“So general principle means that a shiny new Oathkeeper”-- that Jaime went to great lengths to secure, he doesn’t add-- “is sitting unused for half the day?”

“It wouldn’t feel right to eat up more time than that. What if someone needs it at the last minute?”

How is he even having this conversation yet again? Sometimes it seems their chats are entirely composed of him trying to convince her to want things and to actively pursue them. To take up the space she deserves, just as a human being but beyond that as Brienne. Good, thoughtful, hard-working, broad-shouldered Brienne.

No wait, not that last bit. Of course it’s a fact but it’s not a reason he can use to talk her into standing up for herself and going after what she wants.

Her shoulders are incredible though. It’s a good thing autumn has arrived because Jaime isn’t sure he could survive watching the strap of that tank top she loves slip off a freckled shoulder even one more time without combusting.

If he’s honest with himself-- which contrary to popular belief he is trying to do-- it’s possible that even outside the Goldenhand Foundation and his work woes he might be subconsciously sabotaging his time with Brienne. The problem is that he’s completely shit at being attracted to her without going completely off a cliff with it. And that’s not good for anyone concerned, of course. Jaime knows he’s too much, just in general. He’s been told; he’s seen it in how people react to him sometimes. Sure, his intensity has been useful in science, but outside of that it’s never done anything but hurt Jaime and evoke awkwardness-- or worse-- in the people unfortunate enough to be stuck around him.

He wishes he could say the near-miss with Brienne’s job search was what changed things, that the thought of her leaving Westeros University and being somewhere else was what turned a harmless, gut-warming, stupid-grin-spawning crush into something deeper than he wants to examine. But he’s pretty sure he would have fallen this hard this fast regardless.

At first he’d wanted to move slowly, not necessarily considering a shift in their relationship as inevitable, but still being fairly sure they were close to the same page of that particular book. And she’d responded so, so readily to his little prods and pokes-- physical and rhetorical-- that he’d allowed himself even more confidence. Which opened the gates for the sweet, light feeling of his early attraction to transform into something less comfortable. More risky. Bigger.

He’d hated watching what Brienne went through with Renly’s lab, from the way she’d upended her life and devoted every waking hour to her college friend’s crusade, to how much Baratheon took advantage of her dedication, to her unfortunate front-row seat to the petty political underbelly of academia. She hadn’t even hesitated to sacrifice her own comfort. Renly had needed her help and she helped. It wasn’t fair to her that nobody on earth was worth her devotion, to say nothing for the monsters willing to capitalize on it for their own ends.

Everything that makes her Brienne also makes her vulnerable to the worst of academia. He’d tried to encourage her to be a little less virtuous at every turn, yet he realized that her staunch insistence on what’s morally right or scientifically provable was… inspirational, in a way he hadn’t expected. Especially compared to the way he’d allowed himself to be yanked around for most of his life-- by his family, by the vagaries of departmental politics and grant requirements, by investors and seed funds. Who might he be today if he’d been as strong as Brienne all along?

Would that person have been good enough to love her? Someone focused and determined and really contributing to the field, not scattered across three companies and a lab, always fielding phone calls and emails from people he needs to please or manipulate. He’s started to make changes to that model of existence, much to the chagrin of every other Lannister in the world, but will it be enough? Or is it too late and he’s just going to be That Guy forever? That Startup Guy. That New-Science-Hotness-Chasing Guy. She doesn’t need That Guy following her around and distracting her.

She’s got such a good shot at starting over in Cat’s lab, with a PI who isn’t a total douchebag and a project she actually cares about. She has better things to do than spend hours over coffee with Jaime, and she definitely does not need his particular brand of smothering intensity taking up more of her time. It had been a pleasant few months of casual touches and connection but maybe now it’s time for him to take his pining act and do it from afar so she can live her life.

He’s still not wrong about the Oathkeeper signups though.

“Just sign up for the time you need on the machine,” he insists. “That’s the whole point of having signups. As long as you don’t schedule yourself for a solid week nobody will care, and even then you could probably get away with it as long as you did it more than twenty four hours in advance.”

She doesn’t look convinced, because of course she doesn’t. He’s not sure he’s ever convinced her of anything in his life. Stalling her job hunt had required frankly superheroic efforts-- he’s reasonably sure that if he hadn’t been able to move as quickly as he did, doing everything short of throwing Brienne bodily at Cat and pulling ludicrous extra hours setting up Goldenhand to allow him to surreptitiously donate the Oathkeeper machine, she’d have been halfway to Dorne without even saying goodbye.

The fourth plate of nachos arrive and she tucks in with an air of surly rebelliousness. “Have you ever noticed that all of your advice revolves around getting me to be more of a jerk?”

“That’s not…” He breaks off to take a calming breath, forcing patience into his tone. She has a point, even if he wouldn’t phrase it like she had. “Brienne, you are so far from jerk you’re not even on the same scale. You have leagues to go before you even approach neutral, let alone cross over the gray area of amorality and thence into jerkishness. Trust me, I will warn you if you ever get anywhere close.”

“You’re the expert,” she grumbles around a mouthful of guacamole.

A laugh bursts from him, the warm and familiar feeling of their give-and-take bubbling over. It feels like relief, to have her next to him again as she pushes back against his needling. “I’ll take that as acknowledgement that I have a finely honed sense of the balance between vice and virtue. Which I do.” He preens a little for her amusement and she rolls her eyes. He feels it like a tug behind his ribs, pulling him toward her. “How much time could you use if you didn’t concern yourself with other people’s hypothetical poorly-planned last-minute fluorometer experiments?”

She considers a moment. “One full day, maybe two, and I’d have all the preliminary results I’d need to plan the second phase, maybe even enough data to start planning in vivo work.”

He’s still holding her phone, so he scrolls through the signups. It’s booked off and on next week, except for-- “Thursday and Friday are all open except for the two hours you have on Thursday.”

“I’m not going to--”

“Too late. I signed you up from ten o’clock to five o’clock both days.”

“Nothing about that is too late,” she retorts, snatching her phone back from him. “I can delete myself just as easily as you signed me up.”

“But you won’t.” He grins with the absolute certainty that he is correct. If there’s one thing he’s learned about Brienne, it’s that sometimes she just needs external permission before she can feel comfortable being at all selfish.

She eyes her phone as he hands it back, then glances over at him with a strange sort of wariness in her eyes. Jaime feels his brow furrow-- it’s an expression he hasn’t seen on her, and it confuses him. It’s not quite shyness, he’s seen that emotion on her face plenty of times.

“It means I won’t be able to meet you for coffee.”

“Who cares?” he bursts out, louder than he meant to, with a laugh he can’t hold back because why on earth is she worrying about missing an hour or two of tea and argument with Jaime when she has nothing standing in between her and finally testing the theories she’s had since she was a graduate student?

But her face falls, and something about her posture suddenly makes her seem smaller than a moment ago, and Jaime’s heart drops through the floor. What just happened? He’s hurt her, that much is clear. Even the cranky bartender picked up on it, glaring at Jaime and stalking over to ask Brienne if he should call her a cab so she can ditch This Fucking Guy.

Shit. Fuck. How had this conversation gone off the rails so quickly?

Brienne quietly declines the cab offer, and the bartender makes one last attempt to murder Jaime through sheer force of his stink-eye before stomping off to take orders at the other end of the bar.

“There’s nothing wrong with holding back a little.” Her voice is so small it physically hurts Jaime to hear. And it’s his fault. He has to find a way to salvage the situation.

“Tell that to the nachos,” he tries to joke. It fails, and Brienne crumples further. “I mean you ate all the nachos you could,” he’s rushing, grasping, hoping against all hope and previous experience that he can get back on his feet. “And it was great, right?”

“Um,” she’s folded her arms across her stomach and hunched over them. “Actually I’m not feeling so well. I think I’m going to call it a night.” She hasn’t made eye contact since he took the liberty of signing her up for extra time with the Oathkeeper and he already misses it. She’s backed away from him in every possible way in the span of a few moments.

Because he’s hurt her.

He watches her pull her hoodie over her head, pushing her arms into the sleeves but keeping her hands retracted into the cuffs. It’s not that cold, so Jaime can only imagine the gesture is defensive. She’s putting on armor.

Because he’s hurt her.

“Brienne--”

“It’s fine.” She tosses a few bills onto the bar and Jaime stares at them like they’ve insulted him. “I’m going to catch a bus, get some rest. I’m sure I’ll be fine in a bit.”

“At least let me pay.” He’s practically begging, nudging her money back toward her. “We’re celebrating you, after all.” She shoves her cuff-covered hands into the belly pocket of her hoodie. Double defense.

“I’ll see you around.”

Jaime nods and can only watch as she all but flees the pub. It feels much more permanent than her words alone would indicate. How had the evening gone so wrong? He’d overdone it, as usual, run his mouth without engaging his brain. She’s incredible and here he is lecturing her on how to be more like himself. He should have been more temperate, like he’d meant to-- take up less of her time, keep his presence in her life small and incidental until specifically invited to do otherwise. Instead he’d barged past the walls of her obvious discomfort and now she’s gone.

She absolutely, definitively deserves better than Jaime. Even more than she deserves two full days of fluorometer time.

Chapter Text

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.

Like now.

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?
Or call
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
clarify boundaries.

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:

??? no!

I mean no I dont want u to not hang
out with me

Fuck.

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

Forever


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.

Nooooooooooooooo

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 no

Thats not

I mean ur welcome but

Fuck

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?”

“Me?”

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.