Jaime’s shirt sticks to his back as he swings the machete. The air is humid and filled with the stench of green, growing plants and probably the stench of all the living things that want to kill him, which is pretty much everything on this godsforsaken island…or so he’s assured the seven men at his back.
Still. Cutting his way through the jungle at the height of summer is not his idea of a good time.
“Come to Piratas Island,” he mutters as he whacks at a particularly thick vine, “we’ll have a few laughs.”
“What’th that, Lannithter?”
Jaime rolls his eyes. “Nothing,” he says.
“Didn’t sound like nothing to me,” another of his companions growl and Jaime’s grip tightens on his machete as he stops and turns to eye the seven men with him. The Brave Companions, they call themselves, and Jaime reminds himself that while the name is pretentious as fuck and these men are as thick as castle walls, neither of those things make them any less dangerous.
Jaime says, “I was simply lamenting the fact that I could be sitting in a half-heartedly air conditioned bar drinking lukewarm beer rather than struggling my way through this jungle shit.”
The leader, Vargo Hoat, gives him a smile that chills him to the bone.
“You agreed to take uth to the ruby mine,” he says, “for a price few have the ballth to athk from uth. What are you complaining about?”
Jaime’s smile is almost as cutting as the edge of his machete. “I complain about everything on this godsforsaken island, Hoat. Outside of drinking and fucking, it’s the only other way to pass the time.”
“Well, keep your mouth shut and keep moving.”
It takes all of Jaime’s bravado to turn his back on his companions and once again begin cutting his way through the thick jungle growth. As he does, he seriously questions his life decisions that have put him in this situation.
Yes, the men behind him have agreed to pay him a king’s ransom for leading them to the mine where Prince Rhaegar Targaryen’s famed rubies were supposedly discovered, but he knows they have no intention of paying him. He just doesn’t know why.
The journey is long, arduous and exhausting. They’re paying him a king’s ransom, after all. They deserve to get their money’s worth.
Hoat watches Jaime with narrow, suspicious eyes from across the small fire they’ve built for comfort against the thick darkness of the night. Jaime takes a sip of the whiskey in his metal mug.
Hoat’s eyes narrow even more. “Why is this journey taking tho long? We’ve been walking for weekth and this island ithn’t that big.”
“It’s been twelve days,” Jaime says, “and the island is filled with swamps and quicksand, especially the deeper inland you go. In some places, there’s only one safe way through the jungle.”
Jaime calmly meets Hoat’s suspicious glare and wonders how much research he and his men did before they arrived here.
Hoat finally grunts what sounds like acceptance and leaves the fire for his bedroll. Jaime hides a snicker behind his cup at Hoat’s high-pitched scream when he finds the snake Jaime tucked inside it while they were making camp.
“You knew that wath there!” Hoat shouts.
“Knew what was there?” Jaime shouts back.
“You didn’t even jump when I yelled or rush to thee what wath going on!”
“Neither have any of your friends,” Jaime says, “although they’re exhausted enough, they must not have heard you.”
Hoat stomps back into the firelight, his expression murderous. “If you’re fucking with me,” he growls, “I’ll make thure you regret it.”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “I have absolutely no doubt you will,” he says. “I’m not fucking with you, but you’ve screamed every time you’ve found something in your bedroll since we began this journey. I would think you’d be used to the night creatures by now.”
Hoat shudders and turns back to his bedroll. “How you can stand thith place with all its thnaketh...”
“I’ve endured far worse,” Jaime says and gulps down the last of the liquor in his mug.
Four days later, they finally break through the jungle to stare at the dark, gaping maw of a cave located half-way up a gently sloping mountain.
“That’th where Rhaegar’th Rubieth came from?” Hoat demands, skeptical.
Jaime shrugs. “So the legends tell me. Not that you’ll find them scattered on the ground like pebbles. The stories also say they mined that vein dry and no one has discovered a new one, no matter how hard we try.” He turns and gives them a curious look. “You’ve never said why you’re so desperate to get to this dried up old mine.”
Desperate enough to resort to threats and intimidation in an effort to force someone to bring them here, Jaime thinks but knows better than to say.
Hoat’s smile is cold before he turns to his companions. “Zollo, thtay here and help our guide make camp.” He turns to the others. “The retht of you, come with me.”
Jaime watches them clamber up the loose rock and disappear into the cave’s mouth then turns to Zollo.
“So,” Jaime says, “how long do we expect to stay here?”
Zollo is fat, even after all these days in the jungle, and even less forthcoming than Hoat.
“Set up camp,” he growls, “and stop asking fucking questions.”
Jaime sets up camp with one eye on Zollo and the other on the cave mouth, waiting for Hoat and the others to reappear. Zollo seems to be watching him just as carefully and Jaime raises a mental eyebrow. Whatever it is these men are after, he doubts they plan to search for rubies in a played out mine.
Finally Hoat reappears and begins his descent, his men following after him. Zollo straightens, like a well-trained dog coming to attention, and walks to the edge of the sloping gravel to meet them.
It’s the moment Jaime’s been waiting for.
“By the godth, you fat fucking idiot! All you had to do wath watch him!”
Hoat’s rage is as amusing as it is chilling. Jaime watches and listens, hidden in the thick upper branches of a tree on the edge of the campsite.
“He can’t have gone far!” Zollo says.
“Far enough, you fool! Look around you! We have no way of knowing which way the bastard went!”
“What does it matter?” Shagwell says. “He doesn’t know anything.”
“No witnetheth. Thothe were our orderth! Do you want to tell the Mountain we let the fucking man who led uth here ethcape?”
Jaime frowns. These assholes really didn’t do their homework. Piratas’ tourism economy is built around Rhaegar’s Rubies, after all, although whether this is the actual mine where those legendary rubies came from is still hotly debated. Some historian even wrote a book a few years ago claiming the real mine was on an island a thousand kilometres to the north. It took some fancy advertising to lure the touries back after that one.
The mine Jaime led them to was a ruby mine at one point and it’s only the morons from Westeros who believe the legends of Rhaegar and his magic rubies and endlessly scour the island searching for something that’s been lost to history, if it ever truly existed at all.
Of course...he’d been just such a moron when he first arrived on the island and decided to stay.
Only the most fanatical believe Rhaegar’s ruby mine holds anything other than rubble and mayhaps one last gem or two.
Nothing worth killing for.
Jaime considers his arguing former companions and debates if he should spend the night in the tree; see if they say anything that might tell him what they’re hoping to find.
“What’s in there?” Zollo says, almost as if he read Jaime’s mind.
Hoat glares. “Nothing. Jutht a maze of caveth that will have uth join the rankth of the lost if we’re not careful.”
No shit, Jaime thinks, rolling his eyes. It had once been a working mine, burrowing deep into the mountainside. Did Hoat think the rubies had been simply sparkling on the ground, waiting for Rhaegar to wander by?
“We need more equipment,” Timeon says, “and supplies. It will take time to search those tunnels, much longer than the Mountain thinks.”
Hoat nods. “You and Pyg will have to go back to the village to get thupplieth.”
There’s sudden, charged silence following Hoat’s words and Jaime bites his lip so hard to keep from laughing that he tastes blood.
“...do you know where the village is?” Pyg finally asks.
It’s almost dawn when Jaime strolls into the village bar.
Melisandre raises an eyebrow then draws a pint from the spigots in front of her. “You’re back,” she says as she puts the frosty glass filled with frothy beer in front of him.
“I always said you were the most observant person I know,” Jaime grins and she shrugs.
“I’ve been up all night,” she says, “you can’t expect wit from me now!”
He gulps at his beer and gives her a beatific smile as he lowers his mug. “No judgment,” he says. “I’ve been walking through the jungle for the last three hours. It’s not like I’m going to be very witty, either.”
“And the first place you came was here?”
He lifts his mug with a grin. “I’ve been out there with only men for weeks. I needed beer and the sight of your pretty face.”
She rolls her eyes. “Flattery will get you everywhere,” she says, her voice dry. She leans closer and lowers her voice. “Where did you leave them?”
Jaime glances round the almost-empty bar and tilts his head towards the only other people in sight. Two young women, a redhead and a brunette, are arguing drunkenly while a large man with a scarred face slumps in his chair, head tilted back, eyes closed, mouth gaping. Jaime can hear his snore from here.
“What’s the story?” he asks.
Mel shrugs. “Typical touries. Don’t worry; they’ve been passed out most of the night. Where did you leave them?”
“At the mine,” he says after he drains his mug and hands it to her to be refilled. “Hopelessly turned around and believing the island is three times larger and filled with five times as many deadly creatures, quicksands and swamps than it actually is. I didn’t try to convince them there were cannibalistic tribes hiding behind every tree because I knew I was going to have to abandon them at some point and I didn’t want anyone getting hurt.”
Melisandre places another mug of beer in front of him. “How long should we wait before we rescue them?”
He frowns. “They’re dangerous men, Mel. I don’t know what they’re searching for but they’re willing to kill to keep it secret.”
Mel raises one impeccably groomed eyebrow. “So we should let them die in the jungle?”
Jaime ponders the question, drinking his second beer much more slowly than his first. Finally, he sighs. “It’s tempting, not going to lie. Just another group of treasure hunters, lost in the thick jungles of the island.” He shakes his head. “Still, I don’t want to be responsible for it. Let them wander far enough away from the mine they can believe their rescuers don’t know where they’ve been, then scoop them up. The sooner we can get them off the island, the better.”
Mel nods. “I’ll put it on the coconut telegraph. And you should go get some sleep.”
The sun is just above the horizon when Jaime finally walks into his apartment. The air is heavy with heat and humidity, and his bed smells musty and feels like heaven.
Her bosom heaved with some emotion she was too frightened to name as Ser Lancel clasped her in his strong arms and yanked her flush against his broad, firmly muscled chest.
“ Insolent wench, ” he growled, and she gasped with outrage. “ I ’ ll teach you to tease me so unmercifully! ”
His lips descended towards hers and she wondered if he could feel her wildly fluttering heart, her trembling fuelled in equal measure by fear and forbidden desire . Her breasts tightened, her breath caught in antici —
“Godsdamnit!” Brienne yelps as her phone rings, making her jump and breaking her out of the first torrid sex scene in the latest Aurora del Moniko Age of Magic bodice ripper. The novels are her guilty pleasure during the first few days of every academic break she gets even if the historical inaccuracies make her grind her teeth. Still. The heroes and the torrid sex scenes are second to none.
While Brienne may not personally know anything about torrid sex, she definitely knows guilty pleasures, and she has the chocolate stains and cookie crumbs to prove it.
Her phone rings again and she scrambles for it, wiping one hand against her chest, leaving yet another chocolate stain on her t-shirt as she picks up her phone with the other.
She peers at the number and frowns.
She presses the phone against her ear while she fruitlessly tries to brush the cookie crumbs from her lap.
She’s not sure why she feels so embarrassed by her appearance since Catelyn can’t see her anyway. There’s just always been something about the older woman that makes Brienne feel like she’s somehow let her down.
“Ah, Brienne. Good. You’re not busy.”
Brienne fights the urge to roll her eyes and just says, “I was reading.”
“Like I said: not busy.”
Brienne pinches the bridge of her nose and this time fights the urge to sigh. “How are you?”
“Oh, same as usual. Listen, I need a favour.”
Of course you do, Brienne thinks. It’s the only time you call.
She immediately feels guilty. Catelyn is one of her oldest friends, practically a second mother to her.
Mayhaps it’s that guilt that makes Brienne say, “Anything for you, Catelyn, you know that.”
“That’s good, because I need you to go to some tacky tourist trap of an island and drag my erstwhile daughters back home.”
Brienne scowls down at the book on her lap as she does her best to process the words before finally saying, “...sorry?”
Catelyn heaves an impatient sigh. “Please put the book down and focus, Brienne! I’m desperate! Sansa and Arya went on holidays to some stupid little island they found online and have decided they like the life. They’re refusing to come home.”
“Arya I can see, but Sansa?”
“She says she’s in love. Again. I swear to the gods, that girl falls in love every five minutes. I need someone to go and drag them back.”
“Why can’t you or Ned—?”
“We can’t possibly leave now! Robb’s at a very delicate point in his latest hostile takeover and without us to help him keep his head, he’ll lose not only his shirt, but also the family’s fortunes. I warned him that Tywin Lannister plays for keeps. No, my only hope is to send you after them.”
“But my research partner is back the day after tomorrow and we—”
“Are you saying no?”
Brienne bites her lip at Catelyn’s incredulous tone.
“Of course not,” she hastens to say. “I’ll...I’ll work something out with him.”
Which won’t be difficult, she thinks bitterly. Hyle will be only too happy to be rid of her although she will deprive him of the ability to embarrass her while they research their topic. His idea of ‘historical’ research into Prostitution During the Age of Magic is to try and drag her to any number of modern brothels in order to, as he claims, understand the current context of the issue. With anyone else, Brienne might be inclined to agree with the idea but not Hyle.
The man is dull and not even subtle in his contempt for her, and he’ll be more than happy to take the project and ‘research’ it on his own. She only agreed to work with him because she was warned by the Dean, Dr. Randyll Tarly, that she needs more publications to qualify for tenure and he refuses to support any more of her solo research projects since her last one ended up being “a distraction for his office and an embarrassment to the faculty”, end quote. Hyle’s the only colleague willing to work with her...probably because he’s the only one who, like her, doesn’t yet have tenure and has fewer publications than she does. Not that it really matters. He’ll still be more than happy to help her pack up her office and wave good riddance with all the others as she’s escorted from the building.
Catelyn’s voice brings Brienne back to the matter at hand.
“Good. I owe you one,” that woman is saying, and Brienne can tell she’s already distracted by other things. “I’ve booked you on a flight leaving in four hours. The car will be there in thirty minutes so please be ready. I have to go.”
And Brienne is left listening to dead air.
Catelyn owes me more than one, Brienne grumbles to herself as she walks into the next bar. Her white button-down shirt is sticking to her back, she’s seriously tempted to rip off the sleeves she can’t roll up past her elbows, and she knows she has wide sweat-stains spreading beneath her arms. She also desperately wishes she had brought something lighter than the jeans that are clinging to her legs and chafing the tender flesh of her sweaty thighs.
In her defense, she had no clue where she was going when she packed, but she has still never felt so out-of-place in her life, and considering she’s never once felt like she belonged wherever she happened to be, that’s saying something. It doesn’t help that she towers over everyone she’s seen so far on the island and her clothes just make her stand out even more when she’s surrounded by lithesome beauties in short shorts and bikini tops.
Well, it can’t be helped right now.
She walks up to the bar and gives the beautiful, red-haired woman standing behind it a brief smile. The woman gives her a professional welcoming smile in reply even as her gaze slowly travels down the length of Brienne’s too large, too awkward, too sweaty body and back up again, her expression never changing from one of polite interest despite what Brienne knows is her ridiculous appearance.
“What can I get you?” the bartender says.
Brienne hesitates. She doesn’t drink much but she’s been walking all day again and the bar isn’t much cooler than being out in the full sun and she feels she’s about to melt away into a giant puddle of sweat topped with a mop of straw-like blonde hair.
“Beer,” she says, pulling herself onto one of the bar stools. “As cold as you can make it.”
The frothy beverage appears in a frosted glass that feels like heaven against Brienne’s sweaty palms. She takes a careful sip, then a deeper draught, and sighs with relief as the cold liquid slides down her throat and pools in her belly.
The bartender chuckles. “Just arrived, have you?”
Brienne shakes her head. “This is my third day here. I just didn’t do enough research about the weather before I packed.” Not to mention Catelyn never told her which tacky tourist island Sansa and Arya were on. If she’d known it was a tropical island…
Catelyn owes me one times a thousand, she thinks.
The bartender cocks her head to one side, her eyes thoughtful. “Three days? Research is fine but from the look of you, you still haven’t learned to pace yourself in this climate while wearing those clothes.”
“Well,” Brienne says, “I wasn’t planning on staying long enough to have to pace myself.”
The bartender raises an eyebrow. “Oh? That’s unusual. Most tourists are here for at least one or two weeks.”
Brienne takes another swig of beer and shakes her head. “I’m not a tourist. I’m here looking for someone. Two someones, actually.”
The bartender’s eyes narrow and she leans closer. “Oh? That can be difficult here on Piratas. Except for a treasure hunter or two, most people here who can’t be found don’t want to be found.”
“These are young women who are used to a comfortable life in Westeros. They arrived a couple of weeks ago and for some bizarre reason decided to stay. Their mother asked me to find them and convince them to come home.”
“Well, that might be difficult, too. Most of the island’s population started out as tourists who liked it here and decided to stay.”
Brienne snorts into her mug. “Criminals, you mean. Most of the island’s settlers—past and present—couldn’t return to their homes because there were warrants out for their arrest. That’s definitely not the case for these two.” She finishes her rapidly-warming beer.
The bartender raises an eyebrow. “Well, I see you did some research at least.”
Brienne gives her a long-suffering look as she puts her empty mug on the bar. “The island is named Piratas, after the pirates who settled it. That was my first clue.”
The bartender laughs and her smile this time is real. “Good point.” She gestures at the empty mug. “Another?”
Brienne pauses, considering, then nods.
The bartender returns with another frosty beer and says, “So, who are you looking for?”
“Two young women, like I said. Early twenties. White. Sisters. Sansa’s a redhead, Arya’s a brunette.” Brienne pulls out her phone and shows the bartender the picture Catelyn sent her. “They’re not at their hotel and haven’t been seen for several days. I spent the last two days asking around their hotel and nearby bars and restaurants to see if anyone knew where they’d gone. No luck. I started going farther afield today.”
The other woman looks at the picture and frowns. “Have you gone to the police?”
Brienne nods, scowling. “This morning. The police told me not to worry. The girls told their parents they wanted to stay on the island and didn’t seem to be under any duress when they spoke to their mother. Besides, the police said they could be anywhere on the island, most likely somewhere in the interior that’s apparently only accessible on foot. Tourists disappearing into the jungle for weeks on end seems to happen often, so they tell me.”
“Well, that’s true enough,” the bartender says. “Jungle adventures are part of what draws the tourists to Piratas in the first place. Hunting for a mine filled with magic rubies is a pretty irresistible idea.” She sticks out her hand. “I’m Melisandre, by the way, but you can call me Mel.”
Brienne swipes her sweaty palm on her jeans then shakes the woman’s hand. “Brienne. Do tourists often go missing here?”
“Not missing, exactly. Like I said, we have a fair number of tourists who fall in love with the place and decide to stay and they’re not all criminals...unless my parents lied to me, of course!” Melisandre grins then shrugs. “They’re people who are tired of the life they’re living or bored with it or they just don’t want to go home and face their problems. Sometimes, yes, they’ve broken the law in their home country and want a place to lay low. Most of them find themselves a village they like and settle down until they get bored with the life here, which happens far more often than people expect.” She laughs. “For the most part, the residents here started out as expatriated citizens from somewhere else.”
Brienne stares at her. “I just can’t believe people want to stay here. No offense.”
Melisandre takes in the expression on her face and laughs again, even louder this time.
“None taken, and you’d be surprised. The place grows on you.”
Brienne plucks at her damp shirt and grimaces. “Like mold, the way I’m going.” She shakes her head and gives Melisandre a slight smile. “I’ll take your word for it.”
Melisandre chuckles and says, “Let me see that picture again.”
Brienne hands her the phone and Melisandre cocks her head to one side and frowns as she studies it.
“You know, I think I have seen them.”
Brienne puts her beer mug down with a thump. “Really?”
“I’m not positive. I mean, all the touries look alike after awhile, but I think they were the two girls with that guy.”
Brienne frowns. “That guy? What guy?”
Melisandre shrugs. “Some guy who had half his face burned off. It’s why he was so memorable. That, and his size! He’s not quite the largest man I’ve ever seen, but he’s damn close to it! He was passed out in the corner and there were two young women with him, and they were a redhead and a brunette.”
“Is he somebody who lives here on the island?”
Melisandre shakes her head. “Never saw him before and never heard of him, either, and sooner or later, we all hear about everyone who’s on the island for any length of time. He has to be a tourie, just like the girls.” She stops and frowns, thinking. “That was last week sometime, when I was working the night shift. You think they’ve gone into the interior?”
“I don’t; the police do. They say everyone wants to go to Rhaegar’s Ruby Mine and they think the girls are likely no different, especially since they haven’t checked out of their hotel yet. I believe it of Arya, but Sansa doesn’t like getting dirt under her nails, so I don’t know what to think.”
Melisandre’s eyes are thoughtful. “Well, people do try different things when they’re on vacation, especially here. If they did go to the mine, then they wouldn’t have gone alone...although you need a guide to get there and nobody worth their salt would take them right now.”
Brienne frowns as she takes another sip of beer. “Why not?”
“There was some trouble in the interior about a week ago. We’re still cleaning up the mess.”
Brienne scowls and sits up straight.
Melisandre hastily says, “It’s an island thing. Don’t worry about it.” She taps a thoughtful finger on top of the bar. “Let me ask around.” Her smile is quick and rueful. “Trust me, if anyone took them into the jungle, somebody will know.”
Brienne tells Melisandre where she’s staying then tiredly clomps her way back to her room where she gratefully strips out of her stifling jeans. She changes into a fresh button-down shirt and rubs soothing lotion on the heat rashes forming on the inside of her thighs.
She lays down spreadeagled on the bed and decides she’ll give herself a few minutes to air out and then by all the gods, she’s going to find somewhere to buy some shorts and tank tops and a portable air conditioner and anything else that’s going to allow her to actually survive on this fucking island long enough to find Catelyn’s wayward daughters.
Her eyelids droop beneath the weight of the heat and the two beers she drank on an empty stomach.
She drifts into sleep.
It’s early evening when Jaime saunters into the bar, surveying the latest crop of touries before he gives Melisandre a smile as he slides onto a barstool.
“About time you got here,” she says as she puts a frosty mug of frothy beer in front of him.
He raises an eyebrow. “Oh? You’ve heard something about our wayward gang of ruby hunters?”
“No, and that worries me, but that’s not why I need to talk to you.”
He groans. “Why do I have a feeling I’m not going to like this...let me at least have a drink first.”
Melisandre impatiently taps her foot as he chugs his beer.
“All right,” he says, setting the empty mug on the bar in front of him with a satisfied sigh, “what’s going on?”
“I’m not sure. A woman came in about an hour or so ago, looking for a couple of tourists who have dropped off the radar.”
Jaime shrugs. “That’s not unusual.”
“I haven’t found anybody who knows where they may have gone.”
Jaime frowns. “Nobody?”
Mel shakes her head. “Of course, they could still be in the village but so far, no luck. The police think they likely went hunting for Rhaegar’s Ruby Mine.”
Jaime’s frown deepens. “Not without a guide, and everyone knows to keep the touries away from the mine until further notice. Why would the police think they went there?”
Mel shrugs. “Probably because all the touries want to hunt for the mine and it’s as good an excuse as any to give someone who’s looking for people who may not want to be found.”
“Do you think woman may take into her head to go after them if she can’t find them in one of the villages?”
“Well, she’s still dressed in jeans, for the gods’ sakes, and she’s been here three days!”
Jaime winces. “And not light summer jeans, I take it?”
“No! And a button-down shirt! With long sleeves!” Mel shakes her head. “She’s not prepared for this climate but seems too stubborn to buy new clothes so gods only know what she’ll do if she can’t find them.”
“Well, she’d be hard-pressed to find any guide willing to take her to the mine. They know they would have to answer to me if they did.”
“Still. Do you think we should be worried about these missing tourists?”
“Who are they?”
Mel shrugs. “Two young women barely into their twenties. You saw them the night you got back from the mine. They were sitting with that huge man with the scarred face.”
Jaime wracks his memory, thinking back. “I remember the man...”
“He’s pretty unforgettable.”
“True. I vaguely remember the women with him. A redhead and a brunette?”
Mel nods. “That’s them.”
Jaime sighs. “What do you want me to do?”
“Help this woman out. Take her to the other villages, maybe, if you can’t find the girls here. But for the gods’ sake, keep her away from the interior until we find those ruby hunting rat bastards and neutralize them.”
Jaime scowls. “I should have killed them while I had the chance.”
Mel puts a hand on his arm. “Not your fault, Jaime. Everyone knew they were dangerous.”
Jaime picks up his empty mug then sets it down again, wishing for another beer.
The guilt weighs heavy on him. Two days after he abandoned Hoat and his friends in the jungle, two island residents, Pia and Jos, approached the group at the mine, explicitly going against the directions sent out by Mel on the coconut telegraph. They haven’t been seen since but given the situation, everyone knows their fate.
Jaime shakes his head.
Pia and Jos were young and in love and new to the island and just wanted to help. Their disappearance has left the residents of Piratas scouring the island for Hoat and his crew while simultaneously doing everything they can to hide the situation from the tourists.
Mel gives his arm a comforting squeeze then lifts her hand away.
“You know we have to keep the touries away from the area,” she says.
Jaime sighs. “I know. I also know that if those girls have gone to the mine, I’ll have to go in after them.” He frowns. “It’s strange no one noticed them go.”
Mel’s smile is both cynical and a little worried. “It’s been a strange time on the island all the way around.”
Jaime grimaces. “Where can I find this woman of yours?”
“She’s staying at the Piratas Baelish Hotel. Room 301.”
Jaime slides off his bar stool. “Does she at least have a name?”
Jaime wonders why the name sounds so familiar as he nods and strides out of the bar and into the street.
A/N: With apologies to the Stark Family Fans in the group. Sometimes I just need to have some characters be a bit more extreme than what's in canon.
A/N1: Mild violence and non-graphic mentions of blood.
A/N2: I'm afraid the next chapter likely won't be posted nearly so quickly. This fic is about 3/5 written but there are some major gaps between events. I'll be aiming to post once a week if not more often. :)
There's somebody in her room.
Brienne reluctantly pulls away from the handsome Aurora del Moniko hero she's been kissing in her dreams and groggily fights her way through the cotton wool of sleep and heat and humidity to open her eyes.
She stares, uncomprehending, at the two male figures wearing ski masks standing beside her bed. One is tall and broad with bulging biceps and well-defined chest muscles straining against a t-shirt emblazoned with the island's tourism logo of pirates and rubies. The other is shorter, his stomach round and protruding, and his t-shirt says 'Hot Doggers Do It With Relish'.
The moment is so surreal she wonders if she's still dreaming...at least until the men lunge for her.
She lets out a shout and rolls away and off the other side of the bed, landing on the floor with a painful thud. She's on her feet before the cursing duo make it around the bed but she's still trapped against the wall and readies herself on the balls of her feet as Muscles and Hot Dogger skid to a halt to size up the situation.
They stand suspended, staring at each other then she darts a glance towards the door, trying to gauge if she can make it across the bed and out before they can catch her.
She's too obvious because Muscles snarls at his companion, “No! Get on the other side of the bed!” and Hot Dogger scrambles to get into position.
She keeps Hot Dogger in her peripheral vision while keeping Muscles firmly in her sights. There's no sign of any weapons at least, but Hot Dogger might be stronger than he looks so it’s better if he doesn’t get her in his grip. Still, there’s a bed between them and Muscles looks like the one to beat. He also appears to be the one in charge, and for once, Brienne blesses her six-foot-three frame, the muscles she's built along with it, and her parents, for insisting she take those godsdamned martial arts classes all those years.
“What do you want?” she demands. “My purse is over there. Just take it and go.”
“We don't want your fucking purse,” Muscles growls. “We're here to tell you to get the fuck off the island and don't come back.”
Her jaw drops. “What? Why? Who are you?”
“Doesn't matter who we are. Just...leave!”
Brienne's eyes narrow. “And if I don't?”
Muscle's eyes flash to Hot Dogger and Brienne is relieved to see what she thinks is a moment of consternation in what she can make out of his expression. He turns back to her with obvious bravado and says, “Then we'll make you sorry you stayed.” He leans closer, and drops his voice to a whisper. “We got in here without you noticing. Can you sleep with one eye open?”
Brienne's eyes narrow even further. “Come any closer and we'll see how well you sleep with both eyes swollen shut, asshole.”
Now he looks startled before he growls and rushes her.
Well, she thinks, he's brave even if he is beyond stupid.
She steps into his rush and smashes the ball of her hand into his nose.
He screams in pain as blood gushes out and Hot Dogger starts screaming in response to...well, she thinks it might be the sight of the blood, but before she can do much more than use Muscle's staggering backwards to shove her way out from between the wall and the bed, the hotel door splinters open and over the wreckage leaps the most beautiful man she's ever been privileged to see in real life.
Not that she has any time to truly appreciate him since now Muscles and Hot Dogger are screaming at each other to get out! run! out the window! and before she can blink, Muscles throws a lamp through her sliding doors, shattering the glass, and then both he and Hot Dogger are on the balcony and over, and she hears them land in the pool with heavy splashes.
The beautiful stranger rushes to the balcony and leans over the rails while she slides over the bed to grab her shoes from in front of the door.
Not that that's any better, with splinters from the broken wood door scattered across the floor.
“What are you doing?” the strange man snaps and she turns to glare at him.
“I have bare feet!”
“You're thinking about that now?”
She rolls her eyes. “There's no point in injuring myself if I don't have to. Besides, I'm not about to jump off the balcony after them!”
To her horror, she feels the adrenaline wear off and reaction set in. She staggers back to the bed and plops down on the edge of it, putting her head between her knees.
“Don't you dare pass out on me now, lady!” her would-be rescuer snaps. “What the fuck was that all about?”
She lifts her gaze enough to glare at him. “How the fuck would I know?”
“They attacked you!”
“I wasn't the one screaming!”
“I noticed that!”
“You should be impressed!”
They stop and glare at each other, and Brienne realizes that she no longer feels faint, he really is the most incredibly handsome man she's ever seen...and she's sitting on her bed in her sleep-wrinkled, now blood-spattered white button-down shirt, grey cotton granny panties...and nothing else.
She blushes a bright, furious red as she hastily scrabbles at the corner of the blanket and throws it over her bare thighs.
Now it's his turn to roll his eyes but before he can say anything, a member of the hotel staff skids to a panting halt in the frame of Brienne's shattered door.
“What in the seven bloody hells--” she sputters then catches sight of Brienne's visitor. She immediately softens. “Oh. It's you.”
He nods. “I'll take care of it, Margaery.”
Margaery beams, nods...and leaves.
“Hey!” Brienne yelps, jumping to her feet. “What about me?”
“You heard me,” the stranger snaps. “I'll take care of it.”
Brienne spins around, her hands clenched into angry fists. “I don't know who the fuck you are or if you're any better than those two assholes who just jumped off my balcony!”
She stomps towards him, heedless of any glass that might be in her way.
To the stranger's credit, he stands with one brow raised and watches her approach.
“Who are you?” they demand in unison.
She closes her eyes and prays for patience.
“In case you didn't notice,” she grits out, “I am the victim of a break-in, threats, and attempted assault. You broke down my door when you heard the screaming, remember? Now. Who. The fuck. Are you?”
Up close, he's even more gorgeous than he is at a distance, only slightly shorter than she is, with large green eyes, cheekbones that could slice bread, an obviously-broken-but-still-equally-sharp nose that only adds to his arrogant air, and deeply tanned skin that sets off his sun-bleached golden hair that falls almost to his shoulders.
Straight out of an Aurora del Moniko novel, she thinks again, suddenly giddy, and here I am in all my awkwardly ugly glory.
All her anger and bravado drain out of her in an instant and she steps back to plop down on the corner of the bed once again.
His eyes flicker with what might be guilt...or sympathy…or simply annoyance.
“Let's try this again,” he says with a sigh. “My name is Jaime Lannister. I'm here to rescue you.”
Her lips twitch into a slight smile at the familiar words. “Aren't you a little short to be a Kingsguard?”
His perfectly formed lips curve into a smile for the first time.
“I feel like I've just fallen into a spy movie,” he says.
“I feel like it's a horror movie, myself.”
He sighs again. “I'm sorry. I didn't expect to walk in on an assault in progress.”
“I didn't expect to wake up to one.”
“Let's try this again,” he says and steps forward with his hand outstretched. “I'm Jaime Lannister. Melisandre sent me. She thought I might be able to help you track down those two girls you’re looking for.”
Brienne slowly reaches out and grasps his hand. “Brienne o’Tarth...and it looks like I need all the help I can get.”
A/N: Mentions of blood and past violence. Nothing graphic.
The flat nosed, jowly police officer just looks bored as Brienne finishes making her statement. She had insisted on calling the police even though Jaime had assured her it would be a waste of time, which, of course, simply made her more determined to involve the police. Now, she’s not so sure.
Still, those assholes are still out there and she wants some assurance that someone official is going to search for them.
The cop finishes writing in his notebook then gives her a skeptical look.
“'Hot Doggers Do It With Relish',” he says, his voice flat and disbelieving. Brienne grinds her teeth as he glances at Jaime. “You can corroborate this?”
Jaime shrugs. “I didn't see the t-shirts,” he says, “but I definitely saw two men in ski masks post-attack. Or mid-attack. Hard to know for sure.”
Brienne glares at him. “You saw them!”
Jaime glares back. “Of course I saw them! I heard them, too, which is why I broke down the bloody door! They were already bleeding and screaming when I arrived, and jumped out the window before I could do more than realize they were there and obviously suspicious.”
Brienne snorts. “What was your first clue?”
“Ski masks on a tropical island,” he snaps. “Tourists or residents who can afford to get far enough North they actually run into cold weather.” He turns to the police officer. “Write that down.”
Now it's the cop's turn to glare. “I know how to do my job, Lannister,” he growls.
“Of course you do, Boros.”
Boros closes his notebook with a snap. “I think I have everything I need,” he says with a pompous air. “Come down to the station tomorrow to sign your statement, Ms o'Tarth, but chances are, we'll never find these two. Even if we do identify some suspects, we'll likely never be able to prove their connection to the alleged incident."
Brienne raises an eyebrow. “You have DNA for one of them,” she says, waving the blood-stained shirt she had neatly folded and sealed in the plastic bag she used to bag her liquids when she boarded the plane to get to this godsforsaken island. “Not to mention they weren’t wearing gloves, so their fingerprints will be on the lamp they used to break the balcony window. I also likely broke Muscles' nose, judging from the blood.”
“And the screams,” Jaime says with a helpful lilt to his voice. “Mayhaps he'll go to a clinic or hospital for help.”
Boros is impassive although the look he flashes Jaime’s way is withering.
“Certainly, Ms o’Tarth,” Boros says with an obvious effort, “and if we ever get a DNA lab on the island, I'll make sure your shirt gets analyzed. And we’ll sweep for prints if we ever rehire our forensics tech.”
Brienne clamps her lips against the words that want to spill out as Boros takes the bag and saunters towards the shattered door.
“What time will my statement be ready tomorrow?” she calls after him.
Boros turns and gives her a pitying look. “Noon,” he says and glances at Jaime. “You need to explain to her how this island works.”
Brienne turns and glares at the infuriatingly handsome man who is now looking almost as bored as Boros.
“How this island works?” she says, her voice flat and dangerous.
Jaime shrugs and checks the hallway. He saunters back to her and says, “We don't really use the official channels for much. We find we get a lot more accomplished if we go through the coconut telegraph instead.” His grin is almost feral. “Community policing at its finest.”
“So why have the cops at all?”
“It makes the tourists feel better…well, except when they get Boros instead of, say, Loras, who at least tries to appear competent. Besides, it gives some of the residents a chance to make more money from bribes and such.”
Brienne closes her eyes and prays for patience. “This is a fucking nightmare,” she mutters.
“It has its good points.”
She opens her eyes and scowls. “Like what?”
“Like complete freedom to find those assholes ourselves.”
Her eyes narrow. “And do what with them?”
“Well, find out who sent them, for one. After that...” he shrugs. “Pretty much whatever you want.”
Jaime sees Brienne pale, her freckles standing out even more on her face, and nods to himself in satisfaction. If he frightens the woman enough, he could have her safely on the next plane off the island. He doesn't know who those men were or why they attacked her, but if they're connected to Hoat and his gang of raging maniacs, and she's become their target for some as yet unknown reason, well...the sooner she's out of harm's way, the better.
Then again...if Hoat is behind this and Jaime can use Brienne to draw them out into the open...
He suddenly remembers they still haven’t found Jos and Pia and he clamps down on that idea. He has enough blood on his hands due to his misjudgment; he doesn't need any more.
“Everyone in this place is mad,” Brienne says as she returns to shoving clothes into a duffel bag, “or is it the heat that drives everyone over the edge?”
“Well, it's certainly uncomfortable if you're dressed the way you are,” he says, nodding at her far too heavy jeans and long-sleeved white button down shirt that looks identical to the one she handed to Boros as evidence. “Didn't you know what the climate was like before you came here?”
She flushes and shifts in embarrassed silence, and Jaime can almost see her flipping through responses in her mind.
What is she hiding, he wonders, suddenly suspicious.
“I knew what it was like in theory,” she finally mutters. “I didn't realize just how hot and humid it is.”
“It's actually quite pleasant once you get acclimatized,” he says, “and if you don't need to cut your way through the jungle.”
“Cut—you mean there aren’t any roads on this island either?”
“Of course there are roads but that’s not why the tourists come here. They're here for the adventure of trekking through a thick jungle in search of lost treasure.”
Brienne snorts as she zips up her duffel bag then slings her purse over her shoulder, the strap angling across her chest. “Rhaegar's Rubies. Please.”
“You don't believe in a remote mine filled with magic rubies?”
“Oh, there's a remote mine but there's nothing magical about the rubies except the ability to sucker tourists into spending huge amounts of money for nothing. No, Rhaegar’s Rubies are just myth and legend and entertainment.”
Jaime crosses his arms over his chest and thoughtfully considers her. “Really. And you're certain about this because...why?”
Brienne picks up her duffel bag and raises an eyebrow. “Because I literally wrote the book on it.”
Jaime gapes. “Wrote the…oh, gods! That’s why your name was so familiar!”
For the first time since she woke up to see two strange men in her hotel room, Brienne smiles. “I’m flattered you know my work.”
“Lady, I live on Piratas where our island’s entire economy is based on touries and their desire to search for a lost mine filled with magic rubies. Everyone knows your work! Our economy teetered on the edge of collapse after your book came out so if anyone asks, you may want to say you’re a different Brienne o’Tarth!”
Brienne hides a wince. Dr. Tarly has lectured her often enough about this very thing, reminding her at every opportunity that the fallout from her book put the faculty and the university in a very bad light. But just like with Dr. Tarly, Jaime’s criticism makes her hackles rise.
“I stand by my conclusions,” she says, her voice cold. “The book is based on solid and thorough historical research.”
Jaime laughs. “Right,” he says, “and you’ve never bothered to step foot on the island until now.”
“I didn’t need to,” she snaps. “All the documentation I needed was in the archives of the Red Keep.” She’s struck by a sudden thought and her eyes widen. “Are you saying there are other documents here on the island that have never been examined?”
Jaime stares at her like he can’t believe his eyes or ears.
“What?” she demands.
“There’s more to the story of Rhaegar’s Rubies than what can be found on some dusty old pieces of paper in a dank basement, Doc.”
She rolls her eyes. “In the case of Rhaegar and his ‘magical’ rubies, I have all the evidence I need.”
“Such as his private diaries and contemporaneous accounts.” She glares. “Are we going to stand here all night and just hope those two assholes don’t come back or what?”
Jaime stares at her for another long moment then seems to shake himself out of his thoughts. “Or what,” he says and turns around. “Come on.”
He leads the way out of her damaged hotel room door and Brienne adjusts her duffel bag on her shoulder and thinks rather bitterly that he probably would have offered to carry the thing for her if she was five foot three and pretty instead of six foot three and...well...plain. She probably could have gotten away with having hysterics, too.
She bites back a growl and hurries to catch up to him.
Jaime doesn’t even last five minutes after they leave the hotel.
“Come on,” he says, “let’s get you out of those clothes.”
Brienne stumbles to an awkward stop. “What?” Her surprisingly lovely eyes are wide beneath her already-sweat-dampened forehead.
Jaime snickers. “Don’t worry, Doc, that’s a different island.”
She blushes a fiery red that he can see even in the darkness of a tropical night. “What’s wrong with my clothes?”
He rolls his eyes. “If you don’t know, then there’s not much I can tell you. I will tell you that you won’t last much longer in those jeans and that shirt. You’ll die from heat exhaustion or drink yourself into a stupor to escape the discomfort. Come on, you don’t seem like a stupid woman! You must have known you weren’t bringing the right clothes for this climate, especially if you’re an expert on Rhaegar’s Rubies!”
Brienne’s gaze shifts away and a strange look flits across her face before she rallies and says, “I didn’t think I’d need to be here for more than a day. Two, at most.”
Jaime’s disquiet grows. “You mean you came to Piratas expecting to only be here for a day or two? What kind of tourist are you?”
“I’m not a tourist at all! I’m only here as a favour for a friend.”
“The two girls you’re looking for?”
Brienne nods. “This is the kind of life that would appeal to Arya, but Sansa is probably already hating it but doesn’t know how to tell Arya she wants to go home. I would be the bad cop, here to force them to return to Westeros. That way Sansa can get what she wants, even if Arya decides to stay a while longer, but Arya is mad at me, not Sansa. Sansa would return with me and Arya would eventually come creeping back on her own initiative.”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “Sounds like you’ve been here before.”
Brienne’s mouth turns down at the edges. “Too many times,” she mutters then sighs. “I promised their mother I’d always look out for them, so here I am.”
Jaime’s eyebrow creeps higher. “Is their mother dead?”
“No, just...busy with other things.” Brienne shakes her head and wipes the sweat off her forehead. “Okay, I’m willing to take your word for it about the clothes. Right now, though, I need a new place to stay. Preferably somewhere my visitors won’t be able to easily get to me.”
“Ah,” Jaime says, “well, about that...”
Brienne follows Jaime into his apartment and wonders if she’s completely lost her mind.
Yes, he’s drop dead gorgeous, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less dangerous than Muscles and Hot Dogger, and he seems to be some kind of...known person on the island, judging from the way everyone so far has treated him, including that sorry excuse for a police officer.
“I have some shorts that might fit,” Jaime says as he closes the door and strolls towards what she assumes is the bedroom, “although probably not very comfortably. Do you want a t-shirt or a tank top?”
“Whichever one works,” she mutters, trying to hide her curiosity as she puts her duffel bag down by the couch and looks around.
He turns and critically eyes her, and Brienne thinks he’s sizing her up in more ways than one.
“The t-shirt will be just fine for this time of night,” he says. “Besides, it’s only until the stores open tomorrow and we can get you clothes of your own.”
She snorts. “Are we going to find clothes in my size? I’ve seen the people in this town. Not too many women over six feet tall.”
He grins. “We’ll find something,” he says with casual confidence, and motions for her to follow him.
She hesitates then thinks she can probably take him if she has to fight him off, and obeys.
The bedroom is small, the bed large and comfortable looking, and for a moment, she’s suddenly frozen with the thought that she’s standing in a bedroom with a man who looks like Jaime Lannister. She allows herself a moment to savor the experience and lets her hormones enjoy themselves, especially when he bends over to rummage through a chest of drawers to pull out a pair of light cotton shorts then reaches inside a closet to pull out a t-shirt.
“Here,” he says, startling her as he holds the clothes out to her.
She blushes as she realizes his eyes are gleaming with amusement and his perfectly-formed lips are curved into a knowing smirk.
She snatches the clothes from his hand. “Thanks,” she mutters, kicking herself for being as obvious as a love-struck teenager. She’s a grown adult with a semi-successful career, for the gods’ sakes! She also just fought off two attackers. She can deal with being this close to the person who might just be the most beautiful man on the planet without devolving into a blithering idiot.
“I’ll let you have the bedroom,” he says, sauntering to the door. “Once you get changed, we’ll go talk to Melisandre. If she can’t stay with us tonight, she’ll know somebody who can.”
Brienne frowns. “Stay with us?”
He gives her a pitying look. “You’ve just been through a traumatic event and you’re going to be sleeping in a strange man’s apartment. You may not realize it now, but you’re going to be glad to have somebody else around.”
The place is filled with tourists and islanders, and Jaime seems to exchange greetings with all of them as he keeps her firmly beside him while they wind their way to the bar. Melisandre already has two beers in frosted glasses waiting for them when they finally make it there.
“Good thing you’re both so tall,” she says cheerfully, “otherwise you would have had to wait like all the other smallfolk.”
Jaime raises his mug with a smirk. “Thank the gods for small favours,” he says and takes a drink.
Brienne does the same then closes her eyes and almost moans from how good it tastes and how good the cold liquid feels as it slides down her throat. Even in her borrowed clothes, she still feels almost unbearably hot.
She opens her eyes to meet Jaime’s wide-eyed, disbelieving stare and she flushes.
She puts the mug down and gives Melisandre a determined smile. “Tastes good,” she says.
Melisandre smiles. “Glad to see you’re wearing better clothes for the climate.”
“They’re Jaime’s,” Brienne says, then hastily drinks more beer as Melisandre’s eyebrows shoot up to her hairline and she turns a knowing smirk in Jaime’s direction.
“That’s fast, even for you,” she says and, to Brienne’s surprise, a dull flush rises in Jaime’s cheeks.
“Not what you think,” he says. “And be nice to Brienne. She’s had a trying night.”
Melisandre snorts a laugh and he rolls his eyes.
“Two men broke into my hotel room and assaulted me,” Brienne says, far too loudly, and hides her embarrassment behind her mug.
Now it’s Jaime’s turn to snort. “Tried to, you mean. From what I could see, I’d say you pack a mighty fine right hook…or left hook, I suppose.”
“Just good aim with the ball of my hand,” she mutters and takes another slug of beer. She needs to slow down, she thinks as she lowers the mug, or she’ll be collapsing into an unconscious heap on the floor.
She slides a glance at Jaime.
Or doing something that will only end in humiliating rejection.
“Are you serious?” Melisandre says, snapping Brienne’s attention back to the matter at hand.
“Like a septon preaching the Stranger’s sermon,” Jaime says, “although the attackers are the worse for wear.” He raises an eyebrow. “You didn’t notice two men come in here, soaking wet, and one with a bloody nose?”
Melisandre raises her own eyebrow and casts a speaking look around the crowded bar. “Half these people arrived straight from their last swim of the night,” she says drily, “and if they didn’t have bloody noses when they arrived, they probably will by the time they leave.”
Brienne’s eyes widen. “Are you serious?” she says.
Melisandre shrugs. “Welcome to Piratas.”
Jaime laughs. “Stop scaring the tourie.” He turns to Brienne. “Relax. If it were that rough here, we wouldn’t have any tourists at all.” He turns his attention back to Melisandre. “We’re here to see if you can spend the night back at my place when your shift ends. Brienne obviously can’t go back to her hotel and until we know who those assholes are, I’m not sure she’ll be any safer in any of the others.” He leans closer. “We’ll bunk her at my place, at least for the night, but you know, she’s had a pretty traumatic experience and would feel safer with another woman in the place.”
Brienne rolls her eyes but doesn’t bother to correct him.
Melisandre’s eyebrows creep up her forehead as she stares at Jaime. They seem to be communicating silently because she blinks, and says, “I already have plans that I can’t break. How about Lysa?”
He rolls his eyes. “That is not even remotely funny,” he growls.
Melisandre grins. “Depends on who you are.” She sobers. “I’ll make a few calls, see if I can rustle up someone.”
“I don’t really—” Brienne begins, but Jaime stops her in mid-word with a speaking look.
“Are you really going to feel comfortable sleeping in my apartment with only me to guard you?” he says.
Brienne bites down on the urge to tell him she’s more worried about what she’ll do to him than the other way around.
She shakes her hormones back into their cubbyholes and says, “I think I could take you.” Jaime’s grin is wicked and she blushes even as she scowls. “You know what I mean!”
“I know,” he says. “Doesn’t mean it’s not funny.”
Melisandre is watching them with a thoughtful air. “Maybe I can change my plans,” she says. “This seems more interesting.”
“I’ll be sure to tell Stannis that.”
She grins. “He won’t be surprised.”
Brienne stares in disbelief, wondering how she managed to drop into this whole situation, and finishes the last of her beer.
In the end, Melisandre keeps her date with Stannis but sends Arianne Martell home with Jaime and Brienne.
“This isn’t much better,” Jaime mutters to Melisandre when Arianne arrives, low enough that Brienne knows he didn’t want her to hear him.
Melisandre’s chuckle is wickedly knowing. “Might end up having a very interesting evening, Jaime.”
Jaime snorts but greets Arianne with a charming smile and every indication of pleasure at the sight of her.
Arianne is coolly civil to Brienne as they walk back to Jaime’s apartment. Much to Brienne’s chagrin, she finds she’s not nearly as hot as she was earlier in the day, although that may have more to do with the fact it’s creeping up to two in the morning than any actual acclimatization. Regardless of the reason, it’s still a relief.
Once back at Jaime’s apartment, Brienne picks up her duffel bag with a mumbled good-night and starts for the bedroom. Jaime stops her with a word.
“What did you bring to sleep in?” he asks.
She stares at him, a blush creeping up her cheeks.
His jaw drops. “Oh, gods, don’t tell me you brought flannel pajamas!”
Arianne laughs. “To a tropical island?”
Brienne’s blush deepens and she curses Catelyn for the hundredth time for not telling her where she was going so she could have been better prepared.
Jaime’s watching her face and he groans. “Oh gods—you did!”
“No, I did not,” Brienne snaps. “I don’t sleep in pajamas.”
His eyes widen. “What do you sleep in?”
“None of your godsdamn business!”
He laughs at that. “Well, just in case you’re telling me the truth, I’ll give you something to wear so you won’t shock my delicate sensibilities.”
Arianne snorts. “Oh, please.”
Brienne says, “It’s not like you’re going to see me—”
Jaime rolls his eyes. “We don’t know who those men were who attacked you in your hotel room or if they’re following you. If they show up here, you’re going to want to be able to make a quick exit from this place without needing to stop to put something on. Trust me: running naked through the streets is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Arianne snickers. “And you would know.”
Brienne scowls, eyes darting from one to the other, before she shakes her head in defeat. “Fine,” she growls. “I just want to get some sleep.”
Jaime rummages through his dresser and finds her a tank top and boxerss, then he leaves her to make herself comfortable and get to sleep on his bed.
The thought intrigues him more than it should, considering the woman in his bedroom is no one’s idea of a beauty. She’s presentable enough, and her eyes are truly lovely, but she’s slightly taller than him, and he’s six-two in his stocking feet, and if there’s a feminine bone in her body, he has yet to see it...and he’s seen quite a lot of it. Her body, he means. He has a sudden memory of that white button-down shirt that reached just below surprisingly shapely buttocks. That shirt was ridiculous in this heat but there was something oddly attractive about it when paired with her decidedly unsexy underwear and even more decidely sexy legs.
He realizes Arianne is watching him with a raised eyebrow and an amused smirk.
“What?” he says, and knows he sounds more defensive than he should.
“No place else where she could have spent the night? Really?”
He glares. “Never mind that,” he growls. He doesn’t know himself why he insisted she stay at his place. He’s Jaime fucking Lannister, after all. If he can’t find a safe place for someone on this godsforsaken island then no one can. He strolls to his tiny kitchen and pulls out two beers. “What have you learned?” he says as he returns to the living room.
Arianne shakes her head as she takes the proffered bottle. “Not much. The girls are staying at the Baratheon and were usually seen in the company of a large man with a scarred face, most likely the man you saw in Melisandre’s bar. The man was last seen at the harbor six days ago and most likely left on that afternoon’s ferry since he hasn’t been seen since.”
Jaime shakes his head. “I’m glad to see the coconut telegraph works at top speed even at—” he glances at his watch “—two-fifteen in the morning.”
Arianne grins and winks. “Why do you think touries love this place so much? Piratas never sleeps.”
Jaime grins. “Well, Piratas may never sleep but I definitely need to. You take the couch. I’ll take the floor.”
“Always the gentleman,” Arianne teases and he chuckles as he heads to the linen closet for some bedding.
Brienne creeps back to the bed and crawls beneath the thin sheet that passes for a blanket in this godsforsaken climate. She stares up at the ceiling and ponders what she overheard.
Obviously, the man Melisandre told her about—whoever that man may be—was seen around town with Sansa and Arya often enough to ping on people’s memories. The fact he was seen at the harbor but not the girls chills her blood. Coupled with Muscles and Hot Dogger breaking into her hotel room and threatening her...
She scowls up at the ceiling, trying not to panic.
If Boros is any indication, the police here are worse than useless and she still doesn’t know if she can actually trust this Jaime Lannister and whoever or whatever it is that makes up this so-called ‘coconut telegraph’. If she’s being honest, everyone she’s met so far seems...odd...or mayhaps she’s just tired and still shocked by her encounter with Muscles and Hot Dogger...
...and the fact the last time she drank this much or was awake this late without frantically writing a paper due for publication was...
Never, she admits glumly. She’s never done or experienced anything like this before…or drank so much beer in one day.
Not that it matters. What matters is finding the girls as soon as she can.
She resolutely closes her eyes and fervently hopes she’ll find Sansa and Arya tomorrow so she won’t need to call Catelyn and let her know that whatever’s going on with her daughters may be much more serious than their usual rebelliousness.
Brienne sleeps lightly, waking at every little noise and creak of the floorboards. At one point she thinks she hears Jaime creeping round the living room but she’s too tired to slip out of bed and press her ear to the door to see if she can overhear anything else.
When she finally fully wakes, the day is already bright and sunny although it’s—she glances at the watch on her wrist—barely six o’clock. Then again, this is a tropical island. Almost every day is bright and sunny...when it isn’t hurricane season.
She groans and buries her face into a pillow that already smells far too familiar for her peace of mind. Even with her constant waking, she still slept better than she expected and there’s a tendril of excitement curling in her belly at the thought of walking out of this room and seeing Jaime...who cannot possibly be as handsome as she remembers. Her reactions to him yesterday were nothing more than a combination of adrenaline and shock and beer.
She rubs her face against the pillow, breathing in his scent, then rolls out of bed.
The sooner she finds the Stark girls, the sooner she can leave this bizarre place and even more bizarre people.
Jaime already has the coffee on and is sitting at the tiny kitchen table reading his phone when Brienne cracks open the bedroom door and peers out.
He glances up and grins then points at a door to her right.
She nods and quietly slinks into the bathroom.
He is as handsome as she remembered.
Arianne is awake by the time Brienne emerges from her shower and wishes her a cheerful good morning. Brienne gives her an awkward nod and feels her shoulders blush even though she’s fully covered by the fluffy bath towel that had been thoughtfully left on the back of the toilet.
She can’t sidle into the bedroom fast enough.
Jaime gives her a quick once-over when she emerges from his bedroom for the second time then nods.
“Good,” he says, gesturing at the shorts and tank top she’s wearing, “you’re learning.”
“The fact somebody snuck in and took my duffel bag guided my decision making,” she says, her voice dry.
Arianne laughs while Jaime simply gives her an arrogant smirk and says, “Well, it’s obvious somebody has to save you from yourself, Doc. We’ll go shopping today for your own clothes.”
“I would rather search for the girls.”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “Who says we can’t do both?”
Brienne understands what he means as he guides her into store after store after store. Most of them are tiny stalls that cater to the tourists who are already filling the streets, wandering around with eyes bright with interest, their mouths curved into wondering smiles. Each stall is dark and crowded, with narrow rows between bins and shelves packed almost to the brim, filled with knickknacks and cheap souvenirs, t-shirts and shorts and bathing suits, cups and shot glasses and ornaments, and far too many things emblazoned with pirates and rubies. In each stall, the hawker greets her with a predatory smile which softens and becomes more sincere as soon as they realize she’s with Jaime.
Despite herself, she’s fascinated with the treasures on display, the themes of them, the determined cheerfulness of the sales people, scrambling to make a living.
“Why is Rhaegar the big draw?” she asks after yet another stall filled with ruby-encrusted objects and t-shirts imprinted with pictures of the tragic Targaryen prince and maps to the lost mine.
Jaime shrugs. “People liked the idea of a lost mine filled with magical rubies more than pirates.”
She gives him a doubtful look and he laughs.
“At least until that movie came out last year. We’re currently running about fifty-fifty in terms of what the touries want to see and do. It helps they filmed a lot of the scenes on the east coast of the island. That’s usually where the pirate fans end up. The magic fans still end up here.”
She digests his words in silence then says, “You do take the tourists to a real ruby mine, don’t you?”
“Of course,” he says. “And despite what you think, it really is where Rhaegar’s rubies came from.”
She rolls her eyes. “Then why does everyone still talk about it as a ‘lost’ mine?”
His smile is thin and cutting. “You tell me. You wrote the book on it, remember?”
She rolls her eyes. “I wrote a book on the history of Rhaegar and his rubies, not a book on the modern person’s ability to delude themselves for the sake of adventure!”
His smile becomes even sharper. “You’ve answered your own question, Doc. People want adventure and it’s made all the sweeter if there’s a hint of magic. They don’t realize it’s that desire for adventure that’s the real magic.”
Brienne opens her mouth to tell him people are far too easily entertained...then she remembers her love for Age of Magic bodice rippers and realizes she has no room to judge.
“I suppose,” she mutters instead.
Jaime chuckles and gestures for her to precede him into the next stall.
By the end of the morning, Brienne has identified the pattern.
Very few people they talk to remember seeing the girls but they do remember the large man with the scarred face. Those who did recall seeing all three of them together only have vague recollections of Sansa and Arya since the man commanded most of their attention. An even smaller number are certain they saw the girls after the man was last seen on the pier.
Jaime frowns as they stroll towards a small, Westerosi style store on the edge of the town square.
“I’ll send out a message on the coconut telegraph about this man,” he tells her. “If nothing else, we’ll be able to find out his name and from there, mayhaps discover where he went.”
Brienne nods, feeling glum. “At least we know the girls didn’t leave with him.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” Jaime sighs. “At least he’s memorable.” He holds open the door to the store for her. “You can pick up some clothes in here.”
“Right,” she mutters as she brushes past him. “Where’s the men’s section?”
He raises an eyebrow. “We cater to all kinds of touries here, Brienne. Come with me.”
To Brienne’s chagrin—and gratitude—Senelle, the shop owner, is a miracle worker...or at least has enough clothes in the back to fit even a woman of Brienne’s height and bulk.
Senelle gives her a broad smile as Brienne pays for her purchases and gives an even bigger one to Jaime.
“Come back tomorrow,” she says. “I should have a new shipment in.”
“I hope to be on a plane tomorrow,” Brienne mutters, “but thank you anyway.”
Jaime and Senelle exchange a rueful glance before he rolls his eyes and shrugs.
When they’re outside once more, Jaime says, “Mel texted while you were shopping. She says she has information for us.”
The beer is as tasty as it was yesterday even though Brienne doesn’t feel nearly as hellsishly hot.
She slides a glance at Jaime, who has his head tilted back, his golden hair brushing his collar as he drains his own mug.
She hates it when he’s right.
Jaime sets the empty mug down with a satisfied sigh.
“You have something?” he says to Melisandre.
Mel glances around the almost-empty bar then leans closer.
“Somebody saw two young women, a redhead and a brunette, in the Baelish Emporium stocking up on camping equipment. They heard them say they were heading into the jungle with ‘the guides’.”
Jaime stills and Brienne watches with rising suspicion as he and Melisandre exchange significant but silent looks.
Brienne leans closer, forcefully bumping her bare shoulder against his.
“When was this?” she demands.
Mel turns to her. “Four days ago.” She glances again at Jaime. “They bought enough supplies to last them for weeks.”
Jaime closes his eyes and groans.
Brienne glowers at each of them in turn. “So what? At least we know they’re all right and the man we’re searching for didn’t do anything to them before he left the island.”
“There’s more,” Melisandre says.
“Of course there is,” Jaime says, his voice dry. “Will I need another drink?”
Mel’s smile is mocking as she grabs his empty beer mug and refills it.
“Godsdamnit,” he growls.
“Lysa hasn’t been seen on Caraline Street for the last three days.”
Jaime and Mel once again stare at each other and Brienne grits her teeth to keep from screaming at them.
“So what?” she snaps. “What does any of this mean?”
“It means they’re heading to the mine,” Jaime growls, turning to glare at her, “with Lysa fucking Arryn as their guide.”
“Again: so what? Isn’t that part of the attraction of Piratas? Find a guide and trek into the jungle to search for Rhaegar’s mythical magical mine o’rubies?”
Jaime pauses and Brienne can almost hear his brain grinding through all of his possible responses.
“Lysa hasn’t been an active guide for years,” he finally says but his gaze slides away from hers, “so there’ll be hell to pay when I find out who gave them her name. Besides, there’s an island-wide moratorium on jungle treks.”
She glowers at him. “What aren’t you telling me?”
He gives her a smirk. “So many, many things, Brienne.”
Melisandre snorts and Jaime gives her a warning look. She grimaces and turns away.
He turns to Brienne and says, “If I told you to stay here while I went looking for them, would you listen?”
“What do you think?”
He shakes his head and picks up his beer. “Exactly that,” he mutters.
A/N1: Sorry for the delay, everyone. I could have sworn it’s only been a couple of days since I posted the last chapter…I have completely lost track of time. o.O
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“You know,” Brienne grumbles as she follows Jaime, “trekking through the jungle isn’t nearly as much fun as movies make it out to be.”
There are some things better than the movies, she silently concedes as she watches Jaime rhythmically swing his machete, his well-defined shoulder and back muscles flexing beneath the thin, sweat-soaked grey t-shirt that clings to his torso in a way that makes her body tingle and her mind nervous. She tries not to think about where they’re going to sleep if they don’t make it back to town before dark like he promised, especially since they’re not carrying any camping gear.
Brienne realizes he’s said something and she starts, shaking her head.
“Movies make everything seem more fun than they really are,” Jaime says, glancing over his shoulder at her with an amused gleam in his eyes.
“True,” she sighs and whacks half-heartedly at a vine with her own machete. She only hopes she won’t end up cutting her leg off with the bloody thing. “Where, exactly, are we going?”
“We take tourists to certain landmarks on the way to Rhaegar’s Mine.”
“Well, if there’s a set route, why are we cutting our way through the jungle? Why aren’t we taking a path?”
Jaime laughs. “Touries don’t want a path, Brienne! They want an adventure! Roughing it in the jungle is half the fun!” She gives him a speaking look and he shrugs. “Well, you may be the only exception I’ve ever met. Anyway, every guide has their own route to the mine, some longer, some shorter, and we each have our own way of showing the touries a good time.”
“I’ll just bet you do,” she mutters then flushes when he laughs.
“Touries are off-limits…most of the time.” He gives her a wink and a wicked grin over his shoulder.
She rolls her eyes and hopes he thinks her cheeks are getting redder because of the jungle heat.
“I still don’t know why we don’t just follow Lysa’s trail,” she says. “We should be able to quickly catch up with her if she’s already hacked a path through the jungle.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure, Doc?”
Brienne snorts. “Adventure is over-rated. Just like jungles. And don’t think I haven’t noticed you’re doing your best to avoid giving me a direct answer, Jaime.”
Jaime stops, his shoulders tense.
Brienne scowls at the back of his sweat-darkened golden head and waits.
Finally, Jaime turns and gives her a sheepish shrug.
“I guess you’ve learned something from teaching those classes of yours.” He sighs. “Look…Lysa hasn’t been a guide for years, like I said. It was never really a good fit for her for many reasons not least of which are the voices in her head. When we say she lives on Caraline Street, we mean she’s literally living on the street most of the time. When she was guiding, she usually only took on those touries who wanted to spend a few hours in the jungle and be back in time for dinner. Lysa, for all her...well, faults, I suppose for lack of a better word, understands that touries are the island’s bread and butter, and she knows she’s fragile so she never guides alone.”
Brienne stares at him, expressionless. “So...you’re telling me Sansa and Arya have gone into the jungle with a guide who is...? What? Dangerous?”
Jaime grimaces as he shakes his head. “She has her good days and bad days and going half-mad days but she’s never deliberately harmed anyone. She must have been having one of her good days when they left because trust me: you know when she’s isn’t.”
Brienne shakes her head. “This entire island is half-mad! Likely from the heat.”
Jaime’s smile is sharp as a knife. “Or mayhaps Rhaegar has cast a curse on the rubies that drives all those who seek them insane with greed.”
She rolls her eyes then gives him a hard stare. “What else aren’t you telling me?”
Jaime sighs. “Like I said: Lysa has never guided alone. All the other guides are accounted for and if she’s gone into the jungle within the last year, she’s managed to do it without causing the coconut telegraph to kick into high gear. Which is odd all on its own. Even more odd: we are following Lysa’s old path.”
Brienne blinks at him, feeling her heart sink. “They’re at least four days ahead of us. The jungle grows back that quickly?”
She knows it’s a stupid question but thankfully Jaime just shakes his head again.
“That’s the point,” he says. “Whatever route she’s taking to get to the mine, it’s not the one she always used.”
“So where are you taking me?”
“Her path may have changed but maybe her landmarks are the same. We may find her and the girls at one of them or at least some sign of them.”
“Why don’t we just go to the mine and wait?”
Jaime’s eyes flicker away then back. “It can take days or even weeks before a guide gets the touries to the mine. I thought you were in a hurry?”
Brienne’s eyes narrow. “I am. But that’s not the reason, is it?” She searches his face then says, “She’s been gone for days…and she used to only spend a few hours in the jungle. Is that it?”
His eyes flicker again before he nods. “If there’s been an accident, well. We have to start looking somewhere.”
Brienne’s heart sinks even lower as she gives him a grim nod. “Lead on.”
Jaime listens, half-amused, to Brienne’s mutterings behind him. This time, her words are too low for him to understand, although he does hear her wondering if she should have called the girls’ mother before traipsing into the jungle with him.
He’s not really listening, though. He’s too busy keeping his eyes peeled for any signs of recent passage through the jungle, listening for any sound of Lysa or the girls, and wondering where Hoat and his crew may be. The islanders lost sight of most of them after Jos and Pia disappeared, although Melisandre confirmed to him this morning that Zollo, at least, is still camping at the mine.
Not for the first time, Jaime curses his decision to leave Hoat and his brave companions at the mine without securing them first. It’s a miscalculation that will haunt him forever. While the island isn’t nearly as large or as dangerous as Jaime made it appear while he was dragging Hoat and his crew around, the jungle truly is thick and difficult to navigate. People like Hoat and his men can disappear into it and not be easily found, even by someone like Jaime. He’s led enough search parties trying to find those treasure hunters who decided they didn’t need no stinkin’ guides; he knows just how difficult it is to find anyone in this godsforsaken place if you don’t know where to start looking.
He steals a quick glance at Brienne then finds himself momentarily struck by the play of muscles in her arms as she pushes aside the heavy foliage, and in her legs as she steps over a fallen tree. They had argued half the night until she finally told him he was not going to talk her out of it before she walked into his bedroom and slammed the door.
Something about the look on her face told him it was more than his life was worth to even think about leaving her behind.
Brienne glances at him and frowns.
He gives her a half-smile then turns his attention back to the jungle in front of him.
He’s not about to tell Brienne just how difficult it’s going to be to find Lysa’s trail and he sure as shit doesn’t want to tell her he’s more worried Lysa and the girls have run into Hoat and his men than that they had a random accident. If he needs to pull together a search party, well…Jos and Pia’s disappearance has made everyone nervous and he’ll only call on the most experienced of guides to help. Jaime curses himself again for not making certain Hoat and his men were contained at the mine.
Maybe he should have poisoned their food, like Mel suggested. Make them sick enough to believe they had jungle fever and then ship them off the island before they were any the wiser.
But Jaime still doesn’t know what it is about the mine that’s worth killing for and if he can’t learn that, there’s no guarantee that Hoat and his men will leave and stay gone.
He whacks another vine, scowling as he pushes a huge, thick leaf out of his way, so focused on his thoughts about Hoat and his brave companions as well as worrying on where to go next if there’s no sign of Lysa and the girls at the landmark that it takes him a moment to realize he’s staring into the eyes of two of the ugliest men it’s ever been his misfortune to see.
Jaime stops so suddenly that Brienne stumbles into him, automatically grabbing his left shoulder to steady herself. He knows the moment she, too, sees the men because she stills, pressed close, the heat of her comforting against his back.
They stand in frozen silence as recognition dawns on both sides, then the large, bald one smiles, slow and wide enough to show the tips of his sharpened teeth.
A/N2: If anyone recognizes the Jimmy Buffett references in this chapter, you deserve virtual cookies!! ;P
Shit, Jaime thinks. Shit, shit, shit!
“You!” shouts the hairy one—Rorge, if Jaime remembers right—and the bald one’s grin grows even wider.
For a split second, Jaime considers brazening it out but the hitching sound as Brienne’s breath catches in her throat decides him. In a flash, he grabs her arm and yanks her behind him as he pivots to his left and takes off as close to a dead run as an overgrown jungle allows.
She yelps but doesn’t resist and he lets her go in order to concentrate on showing her ways to sprint through this jungle fast enough to put some distance between them and the two men behind them. He can hear her behind him and a quick glance back reveals grim determination on her face and surprisingly graceful footwork for such a large woman. Even in this moment, a part of him appreciates her long, toned legs and he’s grateful she seems in good enough shape to run for a while…and that she’s coordinated enough that she’s managed to avoid stabbing him with the machete she’s still carrying in her right hand.
What he doesn’t appreciate is the sound of the two men lumbering in pursuit and still too close for Jaime to fade into the jungle with Brienne without being heard or found.
He hears Rorge yell, “Whatever you do, don’t kill them, Biter! We need them to get us the fuck out of here!”
That makes Jaime smile even as he desperately tries to think of a way to get Rorge and Biter off their trail long enough so he can get Brienne to safety. Ideally, he’d be able to contain them enough that he can then come back and force them to tell him what they did with Jos and Pia’s bodies. Of course, just trying to stay ahead of them isn’t giving him much time to come up with a plan.
Then he remembers Rhaegar’s Slide.
He glances behind him and sees Rorge and Biter are momentarily out of sight. He comes to an abrupt stop. Brienne is wild-eyed and panting as she stares at him. He sheaths his machete and Brienne follows suit, her gaze darting behind them where Rorge and Biter’s progress is getting louder and closer.
Jaime gives her an approving nod.
She’s quick, he thinks, and not just on her feet.
At least now they don’t have to worry they’ll accidentally stab each other or themselves if one of them falls in their haste.
He pulls her close so he can whisper in her ear, “Let them catch sight of us then follow my lead.”
Not that she has much choice. The men aren’t that far behind them and Biter lets out a roar when he catches sight of them and the crashing of jungle foliage gets louder and faster.
Brienne’s eyes are wide and nervous but not, Jaime notices, filled with blind terror.
Brave, too, he thinks, then there’s no time for additional thought. Biter and his companion are almost upon them and he has to make this look good. They’ll only have one shot at this and it’s a long one at that.
He grabs Brienne’s hand again and guides her to the right then lets her go as they once again start to run. He sets a slower pace this time. He wants Rorge and Biter to think they’re catching up with them, that they’re tiring, and Jaime wants them to get over-confident.
The thrashing behind them gets faster and louder and closer although he’s worried one or the other of the men is going to drop dead of a heart attack if their harsh, ragged breathing is anything to go by. He glances over his shoulder. He can hear them but can’t see them.
Perfect...and thankfully it’s not that far now—twenty paces, ten—
He stops and grabs Brienne’s arm and points to his feet. She frowns then nods and he keeps his hand on her arm as he guides her through a quick curve to the right then back to the left before he once again comes to a stop. From the look she’s giving him, he’s pretty sure she’s going to strangle him once they get out of this mess.
But it works.
Rorge catches sight of them, points them out to Biter, and they charge straight towards them…and step out into the nothingness hidden by the jungle growth. There are shouts, then thuds, then the slide of dirt and rock, then silence.
Jaime and Brienne stand frozen, listening for long moments then Brienne says, “Are they...dead?”
Jaime shrugs as he cautiously edges closer. Brienne follows and they part the large leaves hiding Rhaegar’s Slide from view.
Brienne’s head is whirling as she peers into a deep pit. All around the edges is a vertical drop of about ten or fifteen feet, followed by a shallow fall of gravel and dirt. She can see the trail the two men left as they slid to the bottom. The two men in question are tangled together in a motionless heap at the bottom.
As they watch, both men begin to stir, and Brienne can hear their groaning from here.
Jaime shakes his head.
“Not dead,” he says, “but hopefully they’ve broken a bone or two.”
He glances at her then jerks his head in the direction he wants to go and strides off.
She hesitates, her gaze flicking between the men in the pit to Jaime’s rapidly disappearing back before she unlocks her muscles and hurries after him.
“Who—?” she says as she reaches his side.
“Treasure hunters,” Jaime says, his voice clipped and pitched low. She wonders why he’s speaking so softly then a shiver runs down her spine at the realization that those men might not have been alone.
Brienne struggles to keep beside him as they scurry through the jungle, avoiding trees and bushes and vines as much as she can while noticing Jaime’s doing his best not to leave an easily followed trail.
“You know them,” she hisses.
“We don’t have time right now.”
She grits her teeth and struggles against the urge to stop in her tracks and scream at him...but there had been something in that bald man’s eyes when he’d looked at her...or maybe it was just his sharpened teeth...
She says, “Will you at least tell me where we’re going?”
Jaime slows as he gets to a particularly dense part of the jungle, a wall of trees with trunks as wide as cars looming in front of them, bushes and grass and vines growing thick and dark and impenetrable at their feet. He glances up at the trees then smirks at her.
“Can you climb?” he says.
Her mouth slowly sags open then she turns her gaze to the trees, her eyes travelling up and up and up until it seems the trees are actually touching the sky.
Brienne closes her mouth and gulps, then looks at Jaime. She takes in the challenging gleam in his eyes, and straightens her shoulders. “I draw the line at swinging on vines.”
He chuckles. “We really need to work on your sense of adventure, Doc, but in this instance, you’re safe.” He reaches up, grasps a branch and pulls himself up into the tree. He peers down at her, his handsome face framed by wide, fat leaves. He grins. “No vines. Come on. Let’s go.”
She gapes up at him for another long moment, her stomach sinking into her shoes.
“I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” she mutters then clambers up to join him.
They climb up through thick branches covered in moss and giant leaves and more bugs and snakes and birds than Brienne has never hoped to see. They finally emerge into an upper canopy, where the branches are slightly thinner and the leaves are not quite as dense and where they can poke their heads above the trees and see the sky. Brienne sees that at this level, there are thick, rope-like branches braided together like twine and wide and sturdy enough they can use them as bridges to move from tree to tree.
Jaime cautiously leads the way and it’s not until they’ve made it to the fourth tree that Brienne says, keeping her voice pitched low in case there’s somebody below them, “This isn’t natural.”
“Oh, hells, no,” Jaime says and he sounds disgustingly cheerful for someone who’s been running for his life a half hour before and is now clambering through trees like he’s lived in them all his life.
She grinds her teeth. “When we get back on solid ground...”
He turns and gives her an amused grin. “I’m just glad you don’t have a fear of heights,” he says. “Besides, you won’t have to wait that long. We’re here.”
‘Here’ turns out to be the largest, most elaborate treehouse Brienne has ever seen...and she can only call it a treehouse because it’s a literal house located on a literal tree. Several of them, in fact. The owners of the treehouse welcome them with surprised pleasure and after a quick visit to the washroom to clean the worst of the dirt off their hands and face, Sam and Gilly hand them each a beer and offers to show them around.
“This is the best place to observe the stars,” Sam is saying with understandable pride as he finally leads them out to the flat roof of the house where a telescope takes up almost half the space. The other half is filled with couches and chairs obviously woven from branches of the trees all around them.
Brienne frowns. “I didn’t think there was so much light pollution on Piratas that you’d need to build at the top of a tree to see the stars.”
“Oh, no, it isn’t just the light pollution, it’s the foliage and I wasn’t allowed to clear a space on the mountain top.”
“And the coasts are too filled with touries,” Gilly says, “and hotels and bars.”
Brienne doesn’t truly understand it but both Sam and Gilly seem pleased as punch with their home and lifestyle and really, who is she to judge?
Besides, she admits as she wanders to the glass railing that encircles the edge of the rooftop, the view is spectacular. From this vantage point, the tops of the trees in the distance look like green clouds. The mountains in the north end of the island are rising in front of her while the setting sun glints off the ocean to the left.
It’s beautiful, tranquil, quiet except for the sound of birds and the wind and the chattering of an animal or two.
Speaking of animals...
Brienne turns and looks at Jaime, who’s sprawled on one of the sofas. “Are you going to tell them or am I?”
Jaime blinks at her then lifts his beer in salute. “We don’t need to tell them much,” he says.
Sam straightens on his own sofa. “You’ve found them?”
“Only two. They’re down at the bottom of Rhaegar’s Slide, hopefully making their hands bloody trying to crawl their way out.”
Gilly gives a short nod as she stands. “Good. I’ll get the word out. Where do you want us to put them?”
Jaime scowls, thinking. “The usual place,” he finally says, “but we’ll need to reinforce it. These guys are huge. They’re also crazy and not the usual harmless crazy we’re used to with treasure hunters. Start with double the guards and take it from there.”
Brienne stares from one to the other of them.
“Who the fuck are you people?” she exclaims. “And who the fuck are those guys?”
Jaime, Sam and Gilly turn expressionless faces to her and she gulps, her eyes widening.
I’m dead, she thinks in a sudden panic. I am literally going to die. I swear to the old gods and the new, I am going to haunt the shit out of Catelyn and Sansa and Arya for this.
Even awash in sudden fear, she can’t help herself.
“Oh gods...are you a drug cartel?” she groans.
That makes them burst out laughing and she doesn’t know if that relieves her or not.
Jaime gives Sam and Gilly an amused glance and says, “Get on the coconut telegraph and get those men contained. In the meantime, well, I guess it’s time I shared a few of our island secrets with Brienne.”
Jaime strolls across the roof-top patio and stops beside Brienne. He grasps the steel rail topping the glass bannister and leans into it.
Good, he thinks. Solid and chest high so if she tries to throw me over, it’ll take some doing.
He glances at Brienne and ruefully acknowledges that her glower is doing nothing to mar the beauty of her eyes. He wonders what they would look like if she was ever pleased with him.
He blinks the unexpected thought away and says, “We are not a drug cartel.”
He sighs and turns his attention to the magnificent view and wonders where to even begin.
“You’ve met a member of our police force,” he finally says.
He sees her nod from the corner of his eyes.
“They’re mostly all like that: incompetent or corrupt or just too damn lazy to do their jobs. Our livelihood depends on the tourists, making sure they have a good time but also making sure they’re safe.”
“So we’re what you might call a civilian police force.”
Brienne tilts her head to one side, her scowl deepening. “So you’re what? A band of vigilantes?”
“Something like that.” He turns towards her so he can watch her face. “Those of us who live here like it here. We like the beaches and the heat and the lifestyle and we even like the touries...to a certain definition of ‘like’. Our cops are worse than useless and in the pockets of our equally useless politicians who only maintain their power because they’ve corrupted the system. Oh, the island is stable enough. No one wants a revolution! But there are gaps in what the authorities are willing to do, especially when it comes to the touries and crimes against island residents and the activities of…hm…‘outside business interests’ who have bought and paid for the privilege of establishing themselves on the island. So, we stepped in. Call us vigilantes if you want, but we patrol the jungle and the mountains and if we find something that needs to be fixed, a message goes out on the coconut telegraph and we take care of the problem.”
“Take care of the problem. How?”
“However we need to.” Her eyes widen with alarm and he gives her a reassuring smile even if his words are not. “We’re not violent...most of the time. If we can, we capture, contain and deport.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Well, then we make things very difficult. And sometimes painful.”
Brienne is silent and Jaime can almost see her brain whirling as she processes what he’s told her.
“Sounds dangerous,” she finally says.
Jaime shrugs. “Not really. Most of the time we’re dealing with drunk college kids or people who believe a little too much in the hype that Piratas is a lawless paradise. They just need a little tuning in to what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Every once in a while we run into somebody trying to make a profit off shit we don’t want on our island. Those can get a little touchy, especially if we interfere with the bribes going to the cops or our politicians. Still, we haven’t let that stop us yet.”
“And you have these problems a lot, do you?”
Jaime shrugs. “No more than most places in the Summer Isles. It helps when you have basically every permanent resident on the island keeping a close eye on things.” He smiles. “We’re not policing people to make sure they’re living life the way we think they should. We just want to make sure any dangerous elements are contained. Our tourists are our life’s blood here, after all, and the only thing worse than a book debunking our number one tourist attraction would be news that we’ve been invaded by drug cartels or a serial killer. Which is why anything we do is done as quickly and as quietly as possible.”
Her eyes narrow as she searches his expression. “And where do you fit in with all this? You’re more than just another coconut on the telegraph, aren’t you?”
Jaime grins at that then says, “I used to run a private security firm back in my previous life. One of the best. I came here after...well.”
In an instant he’s back in that horrible and horrifying time: the brutality of it all, the horror of it, the press of the media, the flash of cameras, the contempt of those men who should have supported him and left him to face it all on his own. It took a long time but he doesn’t think about it very often anymore. It helps that the people now in his life and he calls friends either don’t know about it or, more likely, don’t care. Still, the fact Brienne hasn’t recognized him is a minor miracle in the shit show that’s been the last few weeks.
He shakes off the memories and gives Brienne a grim half-smile. “Let’s just say I needed a well-deserved, overdue binge and where better to do that than on Piratas, the land of pirates and tavern wenches and magic rubies. When I regained consciousness, I had an apartment and friends and a problem that needed solving. I’ve been here ever since.”
She frowns and opens her mouth then closes it again before saying, “So those two men today...they’re part of a drug cartel?”
“Not as far as I know. They appear to really be treasure hunters.”
“More dangerous than our usual group of treasure hunters, true, but treasure hunters nonetheless.” He has a sudden image of Jos and Pia’s laughing faces and the guilt is suddenly back, pressing in on him from all sides. “They also seem better funded than normal and they’re definitely working for somebody else.”
“And what ‘treasure’ are they hunting?”
He barks a short, harsh laugh, and he doesn’t know if his sudden rage is fueled by grief or frustration or his memories or all of the above. “This is Piratas. What do you think?”
Brienne’s jaw drops. “Rhaegar’s Rubies? They’re seriously hunting for Rhaegar’s Rubies? They’re a myth!”
“Their magic is a myth; their existence is not. You should know that better than anybody, Ms ‘I-literally-wrote-the-book-on-it’!”
She rolls her eyes. “It doesn’t matter if the rubies actually existed! The mine is both played out and not on this island!”
“If you believe the correct mine has never been found then how can you know that for sure?”
Brienne throws up her hands. “Because I’ve studied the official Royal archives! I’ve combed through document after document and followed every clue to its source. All of the evidence points to an island a thousand kilometres north of here! Even then, there is no such thing as magic!”
Jaime throws up his own hands as he abruptly turns away and stalks around the small rooftop space before stopping in front of her to glare into her admittedly amazing eyes.
“It isn’t the rubies’ magic that brings people here,” he snaps, “willing to trek through the jungle for a few hours or even weeks on end! It’s the magic of adventure! It’s the thrill of the hunt, the lure of the unknown, the excitement of gambling on finding something that could literally change your life! It’s the opportunity to do something more than just sit in a library and read about somebody else’s life!”
“I don’t see how wasting your time chasing a lie is somehow better than researching it before you go haring off!”
“Oh? And have you hared off to search for the mine on this other island?”
That makes her pause, blinking and scowling, and he laughs, harsh and mocking.
“I didn’t think so,” he growls.
There’s a flash of hurt in her beautiful eyes and as suddenly as his rage came upon him, it’s gone, leaving him feeling deflated and oddly guilty.
“I’m sorry,” he mutters, taking a step back. “Nothing that’s happened in the last few weeks is your fault and I have no business taking out my frustrations on you.”
That makes her pause again, her scowl turning to a confused frown. She blinks almost uncertainly at him before giving him an awkward nod.
He turns away, raking his hand through his hair. “Look. Whether you’re right or not about the mine, ‘those guys’ do believe the mine is on this island and they seem determined to murder anyone who may have seen them or—”
Jaime stops in his tracks at Brienne’s high-pitched screech and closes his eyes with a groan.
He had not wanted to tell her that.
He stands with his back to her, unmoving, his shoulders tense.
“Jaime?” Brienne demands, her voice sharp.
He slowly turns to face her, scrubbing a hand over his face. Finally he mutters, “Two of our people have gone missing after a run-in with those guys.”
Brienne closes her eyes and prays for strength.
“Of all the irresponsible, boneheaded—what the fuck were you thinking? You knew about this group of murderous assholes and never bothered to tell anyone about it? You never bothered to tell me about it before dragging me into this godsforsaken jungle?”
“The right people knew about them,” Jaime growls.
“But not the tourists?”
“Tourists are not the right people.”
Brienne grits her teeth and calms herself with an effort. “Well, at least we’ve got the guys trapped in that pit, right?” Then she frowns. “Wait a minute. You told Sam and Gilly we’d only found two of them. How many more are out there?”
Jaime shrugs. “If those two haven’t managed to claw their way out of Rhaegar’s Slide? Five.”
Brienne closes her eyes and groans. “And now we have two young women running around that jungle with them.”
Jaime grimaces. “Lysa may be the only guide who either didn’t know or, more likely, didn’t remember the jungle is off limits to touries until we can neutralize the danger.”
Now there’s an edge of uncertainty in her anger. “Neutralize? Neutralize how?”
His smile is sharp and feral and causes a shiver to go down her spine. “They’ve hurt two of our own,” he purrs, “so like I said before: we’ll neutralize them however we need to.”
“And you can do that armed only with a machete?”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “I managed it quite well an hour or so ago. Besides, as far as I know, they only have machetes, too. They also just happen to be armed with murderous intent.”
“Oh, well, that makes me feel ever so much better,” she mutters. Now it’s her turn to pace.
“Look,” Jaime says, “Gilly will take you back to town. You can stay at my apartment and Melisandre and Arianne will look out for you.”
That reminds her of how she got mixed up with this idiot in the first place. She spins round and blurts, “Muscles and Hot Dogger! Are they two more of those guys?”
Jaime shakes his head. “Not as far as I know. Too young, judging from their ability to leap off a third storey balcony and escape before we could do more than stare after them. Plus their body shapes don’t match any of the seven men I led into the jungle.”
“Wait! You led them into the jungle?”
Jaime quickly explains how he took Hoat and his men on a weeks long, meandering excursion through the jungle before finally depositing them at the mine and deserting them there.
“We didn’t expect them to scatter so quickly and disappear so thoroughly,” he says, his face and voice grim. “By the time Addam got there to gather them up, only Zollo was left guarding the camp and even then, Addam and the people with him barely escaped with their lives. Pia and Jos, well...”
For a moment, Brienne’s heart clenches. “Not so lucky?”
Jaime bows his head, hiding his handsome face behind a curtain of golden hair and if that wasn’t a line straight out of an Aurora del Moniko novel, she didn’t know what was.
I’m losing my damn mind, she thinks as Jaime straightens his shoulders and lifts his head to meet her gaze.
His eyes are steady and determined as he says, “We haven’t found them yet, but we will.”
He strides back to the railing and leans on it, staring out into the darkness of a tropical night.
He says, “We’re safe here for the night. Sam and Gilly have their own ways of protecting themselves.”
She rolls her eyes. “Is everyone on this island paranoid or what?”
Jaime smirks. “We’re all running from something, Brienne.”
Brienne frowns then shakes her head. She’ll delve deeper into that later. “I’m not going back to town to cower in your apartment.”
“I can’t really picture you cowering at anything.”
She eyes him, suddenly suspicious because that sounded almost like a compliment. Like his earlier apology, it’s not something she hears very often. She decides to ignore it and says, “Sansa and Arya are out there in that jungle, basically alone, with five murderous thugs on the loose.”
“At least we know where one is.”
“Better than none.”
She sighs. “Fine. Better than none. It seems to me, though, we need a plan to find these men and, as you say, neutralize them.”
“The plan is to find them first.”
“Well, we know where they’re going to end up: the mine.”
“If they can find their way back. I spun them around pretty hard and they truly believe the island is much larger and more dangerous than it is. Although I’m sure Hoat is still screaming at every creepy crawly that catches his eye.”
“Are there any venomous creepy crawlies on the island?”
“No, but the bites are still painful as all seven hells.”
“Well, at least I don’t have to worry about the girls in that respect, then.”
Jaime laughs. “You’re practical. I like that.”
She frowns. That sounded like another compliment.
“Even if you are an academic,” he says and winks.
She rolls her eyes.
Good gods, Jaime thinks, that was more seriously flirtatious than I planned.
Judging from Brienne’s expression, though, he managed to save face.
“Well,” he says, “we appear to be at an impasse.”
She raises an eyebrow. “Only because you obviously don’t have a search grid laid out to either help me find the girls or to find the last of the murderous thugs loose on your island.”
“If I prove to you you’re wrong, will you go back to town with Gilly?”
He sighs. “That’s what I thought.”
To Jaime’s surprise, Brienne doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to join Sam and Gilly inside the house and have him prove they’re capable of systematically searching the island. Instead they stand in surprisingly companionable silence as the moon rises and the stars come out.
Brienne tilts her head back to gaze up at the night sky, moonlight bathing her face in mysterious shadows, making her appear almost beautiful.
Jaime realizes he’s staring when she half-turns her head and gives him an almost bashful look from eyes that are even more amazing when seen by the light of the moon.
“Do you really think the girls are all right?” she says.
Girls? he thinks, bemused. What girls? Then he remembers where they are and why and that Brienne is just another tourie who’s going to be gone soon.
He clears his throat and nods. “The island really is very safe.”
“Except for murderous thugs, hidden pits, and creepy crawlies that bite.”
“But they’re not venomous, so there’s that. And you can eat them if you get desperate. The creepy crawlies, I mean.”
For a moment, it looks like she’s struggling against a smile before she abruptly turns her face away.
It’s her turn to clear her throat. She says, “You said you have a plan to find those guys.”
“No, I said we have a plan on how to search the jungle.”
She turns back and raises an eyebrow. “Aren’t those the same thing?”
Jaime slowly shakes his head. She truly does look almost beautiful in this light. “We’ve always had a plan on how to search the jungle. Treasure hunters go missing all the time. The fact we’re going to use it to find those guys is just a bonus.”
She blinks at him and Jaime feels like he’s suspended in time which is...odd. He’s been out in the jungle moonlight with women before, many of whom—all of whom if he’s being brutally honest—more beautiful than Brienne o’Tarth. But for a moment, they all pale in comparison to the tall, powerfully built woman beside him with eyes like deep, tranquil pools of water shimmering silver in the moonlight and a frame that looks more womanly now than it had seemed when he first saw her in her white button down shirt and underwear and long, long legs, standing fierce and proud with her attacker’s blood spattered over her breasts.
Good gods, a distant part of him thinks, I sound like something out of a trashy Age of Magic romance novel...
…not that I would know, of course.
Brienne tilts her head to one side and now her almost-smile turns into the more familiar frown.
“Are you all right?” she says.
He blinks and straightens. “Of course. Why wouldn’t I be?”
She shrugs. “I thought maybe the run through the jungle finally caught up with you.”
He slowly grins. “I’m the one who runs through the jungle for my livelihood, Doc. You’re the historian who’s usually crouched over dusty tomes in a windowless dungeon. I’m surprised you haven’t collapsed into a snoring, boneless heap at my feet.”
She abruptly turns away again, her hand to her mouth, her shoulders shaking, and for a moment, Jaime worries he’s gone too far. Then he hears what sounds suspiciously like a giggle and he grins.
“Are you laughing, my lady?”
For some reason that breaks her, and she’s suddenly bent over, laughing so hard that when she turns to look at him, he sees tears glistening in her eyes before spilling onto her cheeks.
He has a brief moment to savor the sight and sound and then he’s laughing with her although he doesn’t truly understand why.
Brienne wipes the last of her tears from her cheeks and grins at Jaime. She doesn’t know what came over her since really, it wasn’t truly as funny as all that.
The stress of the last few days has finally caught up with me, she thinks as she leans against the glass balcony, staring out over the treetops, that’s all. The last time I laughed like that since I left home was...never. Absolutely never.
Jaime leans on the railing beside her, his shoulder brushing against hers. In the warm darkness, it feels more comforting than it has any right to be.
She’s suddenly more frightened by that than by their run through the jungle. She desperately searches for something to say and comes out with, “What was that place where you trapped those men?”
“Where we trapped those men, and it’s called Rhaegar’s Slide. It’s one of the tourie sights on the way to the mine.”
She turns to him, frowning. “Why?”
Jaime turns to face her, his gaze steady on hers, his eyes deep and dark and mysterious in the light of the moon and the stars. He says, “In the early days of the mighty rebellion that toppled the Targaryen Dynasty, Rhaegar, the Prince that was Promised, embarked on a great quest, a search for mystical rubies imbued with more magic than anyone had ever seen.” Jaime’s voice is pitched low and silky smooth, an almost hypnotic cadence to his words. “Sent in pursuit was a Lord Commander loyal to the Great Usurper. Rhaegar searched and searched and searched and wherever he went, the Lord Commander followed. From field to mountain to jungle, from dawn until the sun once more fell from the sky, from the snowy peaks of the Vale to the golden shores of the Summer Isles, Rhaegar searched and the Lord Commander followed until finally they met. Here. On this spot. The island echoed with the thunder of hooves, the clash of steel, the screams of men, until finally there were only two left alive, facing each other. With one mighty blow, Rhaegar cleaved the Lord Commander in two and his blood soaked the ground, smoking and burning and when Rhaegar dropped one of the magical rubies he had been gifted to guide his search, the gem began to glow with a harsh, red light. The light grew and grew and grew until Rhaegar was blinded by it, and still it grew, brighter and hotter until it exploded and the blood-soaked land beneath it...disappeared...and all that was left was the Slide. Pray you never fall into the Slide. Men go in but can never get out.”
Brienne’s eyes widen as she listens, his voice sliding across her nerve endings and down into the hollow of her back like a warm, stroking hand. She stares, mesmerized, into Jaime’s eyes and has a sudden feeling of vertigo, a sense that the jungle is pressing in from all sides. The light spilling onto the patio from the house flickering in her vision like a tiny campfire whose flames cause shadows to leap out at her from the corners of her eyes but if she were to turn to look, they would retreat into a darkness that hides secrets and treasures and ghosts and magic.
Try as she might, she cannot look away from Jaime’s eyes…until he slowly smiles and says, “Or it’s a collapsed mine shaft. No one really knows for sure.”
Brienne returns to reality with a thud and judging from Jaime’s smirk, he knows it, too. She flushes and blurts out the first thing that comes to mind, “You realize Rhaegar Targaryen never left Westeros, right?”
Jaime laughs. “And he died on the Trident, his rubies scattered in its waters and lost to time and treasure hunters. The true history doesn’t matter here, Doc. What matters here is the adventure we’ve promised our touries.”
“True history does matter,” Sam says from the patio door.
Jaime and Brienne turn towards him and Brienne smiles at the earnest expression on Sam’s face.
“Thank you, Sam,” she says. “I’m glad somebody on this godsforsaken island cares about historical truth.”
Jaime rolls his eyes. “Well, when this is all said and done and before you return to Westeros dragging the Stark children behind you, we’ll come back and you and Sam can discuss history all night.”
“Sounds like fun to me,” Sam says.
“Me, too,” Brienne says and gives him a tentative smile.
“Well, that’s for later,” Gilly says. “I, for one, am just glad to see you haven’t thrown Jaime over the balcony.”
“Yet,” Brienne mutters and then flushes as Jaime laughs.
He shakes his head as he picks up their empty beer bottles and says, “Well, break time’s over, I guess.”
“Sadly, yes,” Gilly says as Brienne pushes down her disappointment and follows them inside. “Addam extricated the two men from Rhaegar’s Slide and they’re on their way to the usual place. He is not pleased with you, Jaime.”
Jaime grimaces. “How bad was it?”
“The bald one took three shots before he finally went down.”
Brienne stops in her tracks. “Shots?”
Jaime says, “In this case, I think Addam’s talking about either punches or tranquilizers.”
“Both,” Sam says over his shoulder and Brienne hurries to catch up with them as they walk into a wood-panelled room dominated by a large, round table in the centre of it.
“They needed the men conscious, of course, to get them out of the Slide,” Sam says as they fetch up at the table. “Subduing them once they were back at the top was another thing entirely. The hairy one was reasonable enough but the other one went berserk when he realized Addam and his crew hadn’t simply stumbled upon them and were trying to rescue them out of kindness.”
Brienne scowls. “How do you know all this?”
“We do have cell phones,” Jaime says, his voice dry. “The fact it costs touries a fortune to use theirs is an issue with their phone companies, not us.”
Brienne flushes. “Oh. Right.”
“Anyway,” Gilly says, “both men are unconscious and on the trucks. The doors may need to be reinforced at the centre, though. Are they all like that?”
Jaime frowns and Brienne can see he’s mentally flipping through his memories of the seven men he escorted to the mine.
“Well, they’re all dangerous,” he mutters, “but Rorge and, especially, Biter, were the only ones who seemed that strong. Zollo might take some doing as well.”
“Addam’s already keeping an eye on him, at least,” Sam says.
As one, they look down at the table and Brienne’s mouth slowly drops as she realizes she’s looking at a glass overlay that has a map of the island etched on to it. Or rather...
Sam taps something in front of him and a red light appears at the base of one of the mountains on the north side of the island.
“That’s Zollo’s location,” Jaime says and gives her a smug grin.
She closes her mouth with a snap. “Fine,” she growls. “You’re actually high tech spies while also being a civilian vigilante group.”
Jaime laughs. “Not as high tech as all that. If we were, I would have planted GPS trackers on those fuckers while I had the chance.” He sighs. “No, all we’re doing here is plotting their last known locations so we know where to begin our searches.”
Gilly nods. “The priority for the two of you right now are the Stark women, right?”
Brienne nods. “They’re not equipped to be traipsing through a jungle with a guide who’s not quite sane and murderous thugs around every corner.” She pauses, considering. “Well, Sansa isn’t, anyway.”
Jaime raises an eyebrow while Sam and Gilly chuckle, then Gilly says, “This is Lysa’s usual route to the mine.”
A red line appears on the map, snaking from the town on the coast towards the base of the mountain where it loops around in a circle, reconnecting with the original path at the foot of the mountain, right at Zollo’s location. There are several blue circles dotting the route.
“Lysa doesn’t like the jungle,” Jaime says. “Her tours were short and straightforward. It can be done in about two hours if you’re in a hurry and it’s daylight.”
“That close?” Brienne says, surprised. She really should have done some research at the airport once she knew where Catelyn was sending her.
“We like to keep touries confused about just how big the island is,” Jaime says, “so we tend to take the most scenic route possible. We can have them out there for weeks, depending on what the touries want to experience.”
“Don’t they get suspicious once they start comparing notes with other tourists? Or once they check travel review sites?”
Jaime grins and shrugs. “We just tell them the rubies are magic. They make the island bigger on the inside.”
Brienne rolls her eyes and turns her attention back to the map.
“What are the dots?” she asks.
“Tourist attractions,” Sam says.
Gilly touches on each one in turn and says, “Rhaegar’s Slide, the Ruby Tree, Dragon’s Gate, the Falls, and finally, Rhaegar’s Mine.”
“So what’s the plan?” Brienne says.
Jaime shrugs. “We’ll hike our way to each of these sights and see if we can pick up any sign of Lysa and the Stark women.”
“And if we can’t?”
“Then it’ll be time for Plan B.”
Sam taps on the screen and a grid appears over the map of the island. Jaime then reaches out and taps one of the boxes. A list of numbers appears.
“We mobilize the coconut telegraph,” Gilly says.
“But this time we arm them first,” Jaime says.
Brienne is quietly thoughtful, her mind whirling as she follows Gilly to the spare bedroom. That map is one of the most high tech things she’s ever seen, like something out of one of those superhero movies her colleagues believe she’s too serious to watch.
Gilly gives her a rather shy smile as she opens the door to reveal a prettily decorated room with a large bed that makes Brienne realize just how tired she is.
Brienne thanks Gilly, then stops her as she’s closing the door.
“How do you pay for all of this?” she asks.
Gilly’s smile widens. “Magic,” she says and laughs. “Good-night.”
Brienne’s dreams are a mix of a fair-haired prince drenching the soil with the blood of a dying man which thankfully morphs into intensely erotic dreams starring Aurora del Moniko heroes, all of whom, dream!Brienne realizes with a shock, look exactly like Jaime Lannister. She jerks awake from one such dream, not sure if she woke because of a noise or arousal or embarrassment.
She rolls over, buries her face in her pillow and groans.
She’s asleep again before she has time to think about it too much.
Sam and Gilly feed them a magnificent breakfast although Brienne finds herself wondering if the scent of bacon floating through the jungle air will bring Hoat and the rest of his crew to their doorstep.
Jaime leans back with a satisfied sigh, licking his lips, and Brienne has a sudden flashback to one of her dreams and almost chokes on her coffee.
Jaime watches her, his eyebrow raised, until she stops coughing. Then he says, “You still make the best breakfasts on Piratas, Sam.”
Sam beams then sobers. “We’ve pulled together the gear you need if you’re going to be out in the jungle for the next couple of days.”
Jaime nods. “We should be back in town before dark but…well. Hoat and his goons are still out there and we have to find the women before they do.”
“What about Zollo at the mine?” Brienne says.
Jaime sighs. “We left him there so if his partners returned, they wouldn’t get suspicious. Zollo, I think, would follow orders rather than bring Hoat’s wrath down on his head. Hoat may be scared of every living thing in this jungle but he scares me. We may have waited too long as it is.” He shakes his head and turns to Sam and Gilly. “Send word to Addam to take Zollo in. It’s time.”
The Ruby Tree turns out to be an oddly disturbing yet oddly beautiful tree whose bark and leaves are the colour of the blood.
Brienne stands and gapes at it, peering up at its leaves and branches that soar above everything else around it.
“Well?” Jaime finally says with an amused smirk on that handsome face that haunted her dreams last night.
Brienne shakes her head. “It’s...weird. I’ve never seen anything like it. Why is it called the Ruby Tree? I mean, is there a reason besides the colour?”
Jaime shrugs. “Calling it the Tree of Blood makes the touries uncomfortable.” He thoughtfully surveys the tree with a critical eye. “It’s really quite beautiful, once you get over the shock of it.” His head snaps around and he gives her an oddly startled look before he frowns and glances away. “We’re not quite sure what it is. There’s literally no other tree like it on the island and we’ve never found any seedlings from it either.”
They stare up at it. Even from this angle, Brienne sees that, besides towering over its surroundings, its colour is almost shocking when juxtaposed against the mass of greens and browns she’s been seeing for days, or even the rare, unexpectedly vibrant flowers they stumble across. As she peers at the tree, she notes that its leaves are a red a shade more vibrant than the bark, and they look like the leaves of the trees that line the streets of King’s Landing. Everything about the tree screams it was transplanted into this tropical environment, a place against everything in its nature.
Yet it thrives, Brienne thinks, and the heat isn’t near as oppressive as yesterday...or the day before.
She shies away from the thought and says, “So, what’s the story you tell the touries and how historically wrong is it?”
Jaime turns to look at her and grins. “Since you asked...” He clears his throat and when he speaks again, it’s in the same, mesmerizing story-telling tones of the night before.
“Rhaegar, the Prince that was Promised, was gifted five magical rubies by the Red Priestess to guide him on his quest. The stones drew him here, to Piratas, an island empty of humankind in those last years of the Age of Magic, filled only with jungle and snakes and spiders the size of a man’s head. No machete could cut fast enough, no fire burn hot enough, to clear the growth that barred the paths of mortal men. Yet, wherever Rhaegar walked, grass parted, the branches rose, and a path became clear in front of him—the very path we’re on right now. But the jungle closed in behind him and his men, leaving only the way forward and no way of knowing which way they had come or even where they were. They had no choice but to keep walking, so walk they did until they arrived here, at this clearing in the heart of the jungle.
“The sun set and darkness fell, deeper than any darkness they had ever seen before, and rustling in the jungle growth, waiting to spring, were monsters... unknown...unseen...terrible and terrifying. In the face of monsters, they did what men have always done: they kindled a fire and Rhaegar stared into the flames and prayed.
“He prayed to the Seven, to R’hllor, to the old gods and the new, and when he finished, he took one of the rubies and dropped it into the embers...and behold! In an instant, from those embers sprang this tree, full grown, bright as the sun, and from that moment forth until Rhaegar once more left the island, this tree acted as a beacon and a guide, it’s light shining into every corner of the island.”
Brienne stares at him, unable to look away as Jaime weaves his tale of fear and magic. It’s not the words so much that mesmerize her but the tone of his voice, the rhythm of his words...and the wicked gleam of amusement in his green eyes. She feels a softening in her bones and she has to fight against the urge to whisper a breathless ‘oh, my’ once the tale is done.
She’s suddenly very aware of the muted jungle sounds that are all around them: the dampened sound of the breeze through the leaves of the Ruby Tree, of rustlings in the undergrowth that surrounds them, rustlings she assumes are some form of animal stalking its prey and that thought makes her shiver, breaking the spell.
She clears her throat. “You do know not a single word of that is true, right?”
“Piratas isn’t about truth, Brienne. It’s about magic and adventure.”
She slowly shakes her head. “Adventure is over-rated.”
Jaime smiles then looks up at the tree and says, “You’d be surprised how many people want to be married here, in front of this tree.” He gives it a fond pat on its bark. “Regardless of the truth of how it came here, it is truly unique and we truly love it. We know it’s at least a thousand years old, one of the oldest trees in this part of the world, and that, at least, is true. We consider it an island treasure and we do what we can to protect it when we see squalls out on the gulf stream.”
Brienne gives him a puzzled look.
“They’re a sign a big storm is coming soon,” he says. “Anyway, Sam thinks it’s a form of weirwood and he’s hoping to find a way to grow another one once this one does fall.”
Brienne peers intently at the tree. “Weirwoods had white bark,” she says, “plus they all died out after the Age of Magic, likely during the first year of the reign of the first Lannister King and his Queen.” She flushes as she suddenly remembers the names of those monarchs...and the name of the man beside her.
Jaime seems to have the same realization.
“o’Tarth,” he murmurs. “A distant relative?”
She nods without looking at him. “Through their second son,” she mutters.
“So you’re in line to inherit the Isle of Tarth?”
She snorts a laugh. “Very far down the line. Unfortunately, I’m descended from his second son and the Tarth family tree doesn’t really turn back on itself that often.”
“Lucky you,” Jaime says. “Wish I could say the same about the Lannister line.”
Brienne huffs a chuckle at that. “All Lannisters are related to the King, just like the Tarths,” she says. “Where are you in the line of succession?”
He half-snorts, half-laughs. “Completely outside of it, as far as my father is concerned. I’ve been living on Piratas for ten years now and he’s never forgiven me for it.”
She frowns. “Why? What does he have against Piratas?”
Jaime’s smile is bitter. “It’s not the island. He thinks I’m just too craven to return to Westeros.” He abruptly turns away. “Come on. Let’s take a look around; see if we can find any sign of Lysa and the others.”
Jaime kicks himself as Brienne stands still for a long moment then begins prowling around the tree.
Idiot, he growls to himself. A few dreams you shouldn’t be having and you lose all sense. You don’t want her to recognize you and then you drop that shit on her? What are you trying to do?
He doesn’t know. He does know he seems to be getting addicted to the way she looks at him when he’s telling her the touries-only myths of the island. There’s something about those innocent albeit skeptical eyes that...he shakes his thoughts away. He’s being ridiculous. Her eyes are pretty. That’s all. She’s really quite attractive once you get used to her...that’s normal. She’s smart and stoic and doesn’t waste time asking stupid questions. That’s it. And I need to learn to keep my bloody mouth shut.
He stops as he spies a trail of cut branches and broken leaves.
But not yet.
“I think I’ve found something!” he calls.
Brienne hurries to his side and together they survey the damage.
“Machete?” she says.
“Looks that way. Not that old.”
“How can you tell?”
He glances at her and sees she’s genuinely curious. He gestures for her to give him her hand. She frowns, her cheeks turning almost as red as the Ruby Tree as she hesitates then puts her hand in his, as delicately as any highborn lady.
Her fingers are rough, calloused, warm, and the touch of them is feels as ephemeral as a butterfly’s feet. She looks like she’s ready to snatch her hand away at the first sign of danger and there’s something almost bewilderingly heartwrenching about the fragility of her trust.
He realizes he’s staring. He gives her a half-smile then turns back to the damaged plants. He rubs his finger along the cut edge of one of the large, thick leaves then touches his finger against the back of Brienne’s hand.
She looks startled. “It’s sticky!” He grins at her reaction and the red in her cheeks deepens. “Can you tell how long ago these cuts were made?” she says.
“Less than an hour,” he says. “Over an hour, the leaves wouldn’t be sticky at all.”
“So we’re very close behind them.”
“We’re very close behind somebody,” Jaime says. “Lysa and the Stark sisters aren’t the only people in the jungle.”
Brienne blinks her remarkable eyes at that. “Right,” she says.
He tilts his head in the direction of the cut foliage. “Still. Want to go see who we find at the end of the trail?”
“It’s why we’re out here, isn’t it?”
They share a half-smile in surprisingly comfortable agreement. Jaime’s eyes drop to his hands and he realizes with a start that he’s still holding Brienne’s hand. She follows his gaze down as well and her smile turns to an almost puzzled frown. Her eyes fly back to his, startled and confused, before she—reluctantly, Jaime hopes...thinks—slides her fingers from his grasp.
He clears his throat and adjusts his backpack before he unsheathes his machete.
“Well, Doc,” he says, “at least they’re heading in the right direction.”
“Really?” she says as she falls in beside him, her own machete at the ready. “What direction is that?”
“The Dragon’s Gate. Just wait until you hear the story about that one.”
They follow the trail cut through the jungle and as they go, Brienne frowns at the back of Jaime’s head, wondering how long it would take him to notice if she just...melted into the jungle floor from embarrassment.
The touch of his fingers on hers...she shivers at the memory then bites back a silent scream of frustration.
You’re an idiot, she fumes silently. A couple of dreams you shouldn’t be having and you lose all sense.
Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice her reaction except at the end when he realized she was still holding his hand. There had been something in his eyes when he looked back at her...
Right, she sneers. ‘Something in his eyes’. Haven’t you learned by now? You should know better than to trust anything you think you see in a man’s eyes.
She mentally squirms and for a moment, she’s willing to do literally anything except have to face him again.
Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thinks. You should have let his hand go as soon as he finished demonstrating how sticky the leaves were. What were you thinking?
That’s the problem: she isn’t thinking; she’s trusting, and she doesn’t understand why. She knows nothing about the man, after all. His name, and the fact he’s quick on his feet when needed. Thank the gods.
She shudders at the memory of Rorge shouting at Biter to keep them alive.
If she had stumbled on them by herself...
She shudders again and shies away from thinking about those men and instead returns to her thoughts about the man walking in front of her, cutting away any remaining branches and leaves in their path...
…and looking mighty fine as he does so.
She shakes the thought from her head. His physical beauty is no excuse for the way she’s feeling at the moment. There are still too many odd things about this island, not least of which is the treehouse they left behind this morning. A treehouse with a state-of-the-art computer generated map of the entire island, complete with a grid system and people assigned to every square on that grid. It smacks of...
Paranoia. Not-quite-legal activities. Control issues. Micromanagement. Nerd-dom dialed up to one hundred…or maybe that’s just Sam.
She scowls again at Jaime’s back, a distant part of her mind admiring the interplay of muscles moving in those broad shoulders as she worries at all she’s been through over the last several days.
Then there’s what Jaime said about his father and being too craven to return to Wes—
She stops dead in her tracks.
No! It can’t be!
Jaime glances at her over his shoulder.
He must see something in her expression because his friendly albeit puzzled look freezes in place before he slowly turns to face her.
“You’re that Jaime Lannister?” she whispers.
Jaime’s face immediately smooths into a cool, expressionless mask. He sheathes his machete as he strolls back to her—thank gods; didn’t he stab...?
“Yes,” Jaime says without flinching, his eyes steady on hers.
Brienne’s head is spinning and she feels almost faint even as rage grows inside her.
“Why didn’t you tell me from the start?” she hisses.
Jaime raises an eyebrow then nods towards her hands. “I think I’ll feel more comfortable having this conversation if you put that away.”
She looks down and stares at the machete she’s holding in her hand. Her grip has tightened to the point where her knuckles are so white, they almost seem to glow in the dappled shade of the jungle trees. She takes a deep breath and stows it away with shaking hands, then returns to glaring at him.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she snaps.
“I don’t tell anyone,” he says. “I came to Piratas to escape my past not remind every random tourie about it the minute I set eyes on them.”
Brienne ignores him. “Do they know? Melisandre and Sam and Arianne and Gilly and...and, well, everyone?”
He shrugs. “Of course. They don’t care. We’ve all come from somewhere. You’ve said it yourself: the people who stay here are criminals or running from something. In my defense, I was acquitted.”
“You murdered the King!”
“He was insane, he committed heinous crimes, and when I tried to arrest him, he refused to allow me to take him into custody. I did what I had to do.”
“You were hired to protect him!”
“Which part of ‘he was insane’, ‘he resisted arrest’, and ‘I was acquitted’ don’t you get?”
She grits her teeth, her hands clenching into fists. “And your father is Tywin Lannister!”
“To my regret, yes.”
“And he’s in a vicious corporate takeover battle with Robb Stark!”
“So? He’s always in a vicious corporate takeover battle with somebody.”
She closes her eyes and tries not to scream with frustration. She opens her eyes and says, very slowly through gritted teeth, as if speaking to a particularly stubborn child, “Sansa and Arya Stark are Robb’s sisters.”
“So are you behind their disappearance? Do you have them tucked away somewhere while you’re leading me on this wild goose chase through the jungle, telling me all these stupid legends that aren’t even remotely true?”
That rocks him back on his heels and he blinks owlishly at her for long moments then says, “Why the fuck would I do that?”
“Because it helps your father by distracting the Starks!”
“Distract them how? I don’t see any Starks here, looking for their daughters or their sisters! Just their lapdog, running to do their bidding!”
She gasps with outrage but before she can think of a properly scathing retort, she hears a loud crack and something whizzes past her ear to plow into the tree over Jaime’s right shoulder, chips of bark flying up and out, making them both duck.
“What the fuck?” Jaime says even as he’s moving, grabbing Brienne’s hand and pulling her with him as he dashes to the right.
Brienne hears another crack and automatically ducks.
Jaime drops her hand as he breaks a path through the jungle ahead of them. She hears crashing behind them and cursing and she puts on a spurt of speed, staying on Jaime’s heels.
“Can’t you go any faster?” she yells at him.
She thinks she hears him laugh before he speeds up and she blesses her long legs and her hours in the gym as she does the same.
Jaime doesn’t stop until he thinks they’ve put enough distance between them and whoever the fuck was shooting at them.
He bends over, panting for air, and Brienne is doubled over beside him, doing the same. Sweat has soaked her tank top and he takes a moment to admire her well-toned legs, remind himself not to stare at any other body part lest the lady knock his head from his shoulders, and to thank all the gods she listened to him about her clothing. Running through the jungle in those jeans she brought with her would have had her dropping dead of heat stroke before they’d gone more than five steps.
He gulps in a breath then says, “Well, at least now we know what Hoat was searching for in Rhaegar’s Mine.”
She scowls at him, a sight made less intimidating by the fact she’s bend double, her hands on her knees, and her hair is plastered against her forehead. “Rubies?” she asks and he grins.
Jaime sends a text to Sam while they catch their breath, then takes stock of their surroundings.
If he’s right, they’re several miles east and north of the Dragon’s Gate and would have to circle back into the path of whoever is behind them to get there. They’re also east of the Falls but they can get there without needing to double back.
“Can we make it back to the treehouse?” Brienne asks.
Jaime shrugs. “If we could go in a straight line, sure. But we have to either make a large circle around or go back where we just came from. If we go back, we’re going to run into whoever shot at us and probably sooner rather than later.” He nods at the trail of broken leaves and branches behind them. “It’s not like we’re going to be hard to find.”
Brienne puts her hands on her hips and glares. “So what’s the plan?”
He wonders what her eyes would look like if she were ever pleased with him. He has a sudden memory of the way she’d looked at him in the moonlight, her face alight with laughter, and to his chagrin, his body stirs.
Well, this is a complication we don’t need right now, he thinks and hopes she doesn’t notice. Even so, he can’t seem to tear his gaze away from hers.
He blinks and clears his throat, then looks up at what he can see of the sky. “It’s still early,” he says, “but with somebody out there with a gun and most likely hunting us, we’ll never make it back to town before dark. Plus, again, we would have to either go in a large circle or go straight towards them to get back there at all tonight.”
“So...let’s head to the Falls. When we get there, we—”
He’s cut off by the crunch of a branch followed by low cursing and before Jaime has a chance to react, Brienne grabs his hand and takes off running.
Jaime calls out directions, telling her to trend right or left as they run, and this time they don’t stop to catch their breath, only slow to a walk or a jog. He’s impressed with her stamina and her ability to navigate so quickly through the jungle, even with her machete still safely stowed at her waist. Jaime appreciates how graceful she is on her feet.
Even as they hurry to put distance between themselves and their pursuers, Jaime wonders which of Hoat’s crew is behind them…and keeping pace.
It can’t be Hoat himself. He would have been down for the count long before now. Addam should have picked up Zollo and even if not, Zollo would make far more noise than whoever is behind them. Shagwell is in worse shape than Hoat and always lagged behind the rest of the group. That leaves Pyg and Timeon, and while neither seemed like they could run through the jungle, he and Brienne are leaving a trail wide enough for even Shagwell to follow without much additional effort.
Jaime curses as they once more slow to a walk but he, at least, needs the break. There’s a roaring in his ears that’s either his rushing blood or—Brienne slows down and shoots him a puzzled frown—or rushing water.
“Thank the gods,” he mutters with relief. “The Falls.”
They step out from the jungle brush and Brienne gapes up at the magnificent waterfall cascading down the mountainside in front of them. The water disappears behind the flat edge of the cliff they’re standing on. Jaime knows that over that edge is a fifty foot drop into a deep pool hidden by the mist and turbulence churned up by the rushing water. The sight is wild and beautiful and is one of the things that made Jaime fall in love with Piratas along with the people and the fact none of them seemed to care who he was or what he had done.
Jaime can’t help but grin as he watches Brienne’s face while she edges to the cliff’s edge and peeks over.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jaime shouts over the roaring water as he joins her.
She nods, wordless. “Why isn’t this on all the t-shirts?”
He shrugs. “Give us time. Our tourism industry is still trying to recover from this book that came out, taking away our magic rubies.”
Her mouth snaps shut and she rolls her eyes at him. “That was years ago! Get over it!”
He laughs but before he can say the witty retort that’s on his lips, she shouts, “Now what? Which way do we go?”
His grin widens but before he can say anything, they hear the sharp crack of a gun and Jaime feels the burning pain as the bullet grazes his right arm.
“Fuck!” he yelps, clamping his hand to the wound.
Brienne starts towards him but he frantically shakes his head.
“Trust me,” Jaime says, “and I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? For what?”
“This,” he says and tackles her over the edge of the cliff.
Brienne screams in his ear all the way down, stopping only when she gulps a breath of air before they hit the water, which, while roiling, is still clear enough to see each other beneath the surface.
Jaime thanks all the gods that Sam and Gilly didn’t overload their packs because they stop falling soon enough and bob back up. They break through with grateful gasps, whipping water from their faces.
“You could have warned me!” she yells but whether it’s in rage or in order to be heard over the roar of the water is anyone’s guess.
He starts to motion at her to follow him when something makes him look up.
On the edge of the cliff, looking suitably nervous, is a man.
And in his hand, at the ready, is a gun.
Jaime notices Brienne’s one lightning glance towards the top of the cliff before, as one, they dive back beneath the water with no unnecessary questions.
She’s quick, I’ll give her that. Still, he curses to himself as they swim towards the opposite shore, hoping the mist thrown up by the Falls will make them a more difficult target to see and even more difficult to hit. Jaime lets the current sweep them downstream a little, to where the opposite bank isn’t quite so steep.
So close to a hiding spot and yet Pyg is too damn close to sneak into the cave without revealing where we’ve gone. And considering how close Pyg was when he shot at Jaime...Either he’s the worst shot on the planet or...
For a moment, rage engulfs him. Herded through my own fucking jungle…talk about adding insult to injury! He doesn’t know why he’s certain they were forced in this direction and that he doesn’t dare reveal the existence of the cave system hidden behind the rushing waters of the Falls but if there’s one thing Jaime Lannister has learned in his years as private security to Kings and as the guardian angel to an entire island, it’s to trust his instincts.
They scramble out of the river and Jaime looks back only once to see Pyg holster his gun and turn away.
“Where to now?” Brienne asks as she’s cleaning the wound on his arm.
They’ve been walking and jogging for at least an hour, maybe two and there’s been no sign of pursuit. They’ve done their best to avoid using the machetes and leaving as few broken branches and leaves behind them as possible. Brienne also hopes that whoever was shooting at them will need several hours to work their way across to pick up their trail.
She cocks her head to one side as she finishes cleaning the wide, shallow wound on Jaime’s upper right arm. Thankfully the bullet just grazed him and, even more thankfully, Sam or Gilly had thought to put first aid kits into their packs. At least those, the flashlights, and the matches had stayed in their waterproof containers after the jump into the river. The bread...not so much. At least the fruit is still edible.
Jaime winces a little as she applies antiseptic then he says, “Honestly? I’m not sure. We need to warn the others that at least one of Hoat’s men has a gun and—”
Brienne frowns at him. “That surprises you? They’re criminals!”
“They’re criminals who came onto the island as regular touries,” Jaime says and gives her a ghost of a smile as she finishes taping the square gauze bandage to his arm. “We have very sophisticated scanning equipment at the airport, you know.”
The words jar her out of her contemplation of his biceps...her work, she means, and she gives him a doubtful frown. “I don’t remember anything all that sophisticated,” she says, but now she’s trying to reconcile the run-of-the-mill, rundown little airport she arrived in with the state-of-the-art computer system in Sam and Gilly’s treehouse.
“You weren’t supposed to,” Jaime says absently as he cranes his neck to look at his bandaged arm. “It’s so effective because no one knows it’s there and therefore aren’t actively trying to fool it.”
“Everyone knows they’re going to be scanned.”
“True,” Jaime says, “but scanned using at least three different wavelengths? In at least four different locations? After all stages of clearing customs?”
Brienne gapes at him. “How on earth...?”
Jaime gives her a thin smile. “Turns out being the son of the second richest man in the world has its perks.” He rises gracefully to his feet and holds out his hand. She hesitates then and allows him to pull her to her feet. “Besides, my brother is the most creatively evil-minded bastard it’s ever been my misfortune to meet.”
Brienne’s eyes widen. “He’s a criminal?”
“Oh, gods, no! We’re too rich for that! Pity, really. I think Tyrion would have enjoyed living by his wits. As it is, he helps our father with all the corporate jungle bullshit and in his spare time he helps me with all my literal jungle bullshit. Gods only knows which one he enjoys more.”
Brienne opens and closes her mouth then shakes her head. “We are going to have a very long talk once we’re no longer running for our lives,” she mutters.
Jaime stills and her eyes meet his and in an instant, the only things that matter are his eyes and the sound of her heart beating.
“Yeah,” he breathes then glances away, breaking the spell. “But first we have to escape those murderous assholes.”
Brienne nods. “Where to next?”
Jaime sighs. “Well, I can’t take you where I wanted to take you, at least not right now.” He peers up at the sky and shakes his head. “We’re too far from town and the treehouse to get to either place before nightfall, and that’s assuming we don’t run into one those assholes again on our way back.”
“So we’re stuck camping out and hoping they don’t find us?”
“Well, we’re stuck camping out but I think I can find a place where we’ll be able to sleep in peace.” He eyes her. “We’re going to be a little cramped, though.”
She shrugs. “Safety first.”
Jaime reluctantly raises his opinion of Brienne yet another notch. She’s a trouper, if nothing else, and she follows without complaint as he leads her—cautiously, now that he knows at least one of Hoat’s men could already be back on their trail—to another thick growth of of trees with an almost impenetrable wall of thick, spongy-leaved plants between the trunks. He leads her west, skirting the edge of the overgrown copse until he finds the mark he’s looking for. With a teasing smirk at Brienne, he drops to his stomach and, with his pack in front of him, slithers beneath the giant leaves and vines until he finally emerges into a tiny clearing.
Brienne joins him a moment later and he helps her up while she tilts her head back and gapes.
He was telling her the truth: the clearing is tiny, irregularly shaped, and no more than ten feet long and four, maybe five feet wide at its widest points
“We won’t have room for a fire,” Jaime says, his voice hushed more because of the magnificent trees towering over them than from any fear of being overheard.
He’s struck by the sheer awe on Brienne’s face as she stares around the space, her beautiful eyes filled with wonder. He looks around himself, trying to see it the way Brienne is seeing it.
The clearing is already in shadows, with the sun beginning to dip below the tree tops. A thick blanket of grass and fragrant flowers covers the ground and the air seems to vibrate with the buzzing of insects busily finishing their daily chores before the sun disappears entirely.
“It’s so beautiful,” Brienne breathes, and for a moment, Jaime is once again so struck by her that it takes him a moment to speak.
“Yes,” he finally murmurs, “it is.” He clears his throat. “We won’t have room for a fire,” he says again.
Brienne’s lips curve into a half-smile, her head tilted back as she looks up at the small patch of sky above them. “It’s a tropical island. I think we’ll survive the night temperatures.”
Jaime chuckles. “Well, body heat will help, too.”
That startles her and he watches with interest as her cheeks bloom red.
“Oh,” she mutters, looking around the clearing again, obviously trying to figure out how they could both lay down in it and keep a respectable distance between them.
“Head to foot?” she asks with a hopeful lilt.
“If you want. It gets pretty cool in here, though, once the sun is completely down.” He gestures at the giant leaves that surround them. “We can use these for mattresses and blankets but nothing they’re not really warm.” He shrugs. “Up to you.”
Brienne’s eyes narrow and she peers at him with a suspicious scowl. “Body heat,” she growls. “Fine.” She glances around the clearing. “What about toilet facilities?”
Jaime grins. “You’re the most practical person I’ve ever met,” he says with an admiring air. He gestures to his left. “I’ll take this side, you take that side. Don’t go too far or you’ll be outside this clearing and we don’t want to draw attention to ourselves in here.”
She nods even as she scans the thick jungle surrounding them. “How are we going to get out of here without being noticed?”
“Very carefully. But that’s tomorrow’s problem. Come on, let’s make camp.”
It doesn’t take long.
They empty out their packs, spreading out what they can to dry things out, including Jaime’s cell phone. They eat some of the surviving food, mostly fruit, then separate to cut down several of the large, spongy leaves and layer them on the grass for a makeshift mattress, then several more for a blanket. Still, it doesn’t take long to make themselves a surprisingly cozy nest in the clearing.
The light is almost gone when Brienne returns from her side of the clearing and drops down on the ground beside Jaime with a thankful sigh. It’s been a long, long day.
Companionable silence stretches out between them until, finally, Brienne says in a quiet, solemn voice, “I still don’t know if I trust you.”
Brienne listens to the sounds of a jungle moving from day to night and thinks there’s something strangely soothing and almost familiar about it all.
She says, “Do you swear you had nothing to do with Sansa and Arya’s disappearance?”
Jaime rolls onto his side to face her, his head propped up on his hand. She turns to look at him, and in the deepening dusk, he’s exactly like a mysterious, beautiful rogue who has stepped out of the pages of an Aurora del Moniko novel...only he’s a thousand times more dangerous for the simple reason he’s real and beside her and she’ll be sleeping next to him all night.
She gulps a little as he leans a little closer and says, his voice soft and intent, his eyes never wavering from hers in the growing darkness, “I swear on my mother’s grave that I had nothing to do with Sansa and Arya’s disappearance.”
Brienne stares up at him and has a sudden, wild vision of herself lunging up and kissing him...and immediately clamps down the insanity. She quickly averts her gaze back towards the sky.
“All right,” she mutters.
“That’s all you have to say?” he murmurs with a lilt of amusement.
Brienne struggles to keep herself under control and says, with forced lightness, “Well, I’m in the middle of a jungle with only a vague idea of which direction to go if I had to make it out on my own.” She gives him a faint smile. “Yes, that’s all I have to say. For now.”
He chuckles and to Brienne’s disappointed relief, he lays back down on his back. He puts his uninjured arm behind his head and stares up at the sky.
“How are you at stargazing, Doc?” he says.
She frowns. “Why?”
“Well, night is falling and we have no television or even my damn phone. We’ll want to get moving at first light, but until we fall asleep, we need to talk about something and the stars are probably the least contentious subject under these circumstances.”
Brienne chews on her lip. She has so many more important questions to ask him, so many things that need answers, not least of which is what really happened with King Aerys. Jaime was acquitted, yes, but public opinion in Westeros is that he got away with murder because of his father. No one believes the son of the second richest man in the world was ever going to be found guilty of murder.
To be honest, Brienne barely remembers the case. She was finishing her Master’s thesis at the time, elbow deep in researching the impact of war on the family during the Age of Magic. She had no time for anything other than research and teaching, writing and sleep. Brienne has some faint memories of Catelyn and Ned Stark scandalized reactions to the crime, the trial, and the subsequent verdict and while she’d been vaguely shocked by it all, her focus had been on events thousands of years in the past, and not on the events of the present.
“Not now, Brienne,” Jaime says with a weary sigh. “Please. When this is all over and we’ve put the Stark girls on a plane back to Westeros, I’ll take you out for the best dinner on Piratas, and then we’ll go back to my place and I’ll tell you everything you want to know. You can ask me anything then.”
Brienne turns her head and stares at the sharp, clean lines of his profile, now almost hidden by the deepening darkness. “What? Why would you offer that?”
He half-smiles. “Because you know when not to ask questions...and I owe it to you for leading you into a mess I should have cleaned up a long time ago.”
She stares at him, unblinking, then says, “I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of running.”
She’s surprised by the cold, hard note in her voice.
He nods. “So am I.” He looks back up at the sky. “But that, too, is a tomorrow problem.” He points up. “There’s the Moonmaid. Do you know the legend behind the name?”
She stares at him for another long moment then says, “I’m an historian who studies the Age of Magic. Of course I know the legend!”
He turns his head and smiles. “Good. It’s your turn to tell a story.”
She huffs a soft chuckle and begins.
Brienne tells him the legends of the constellations for an hour, mayhaps two, then, by unspoken agreement, they once more visit their sides of the clearing and when they return, they arrange themselves on their bed of leaves using their still-damp packs as pillows.
Jaime is on his uninjured side, pressed close against her back, his arm slung over her waist. Jaime’s arm feels as comforting as it does alien and to her own surprise, she immediately relaxes. She’s trusting him again, Brienne knows, but at the moment, she doesn’t have the energy to worry about it.
She drifts into a light, semi-awake doze then a sudden thought makes her eyes pop open and she stiffens.
“Jaime?” she whispers.
He hums in response, making her shiver.
She says, “Are there really spiders the size of a man’s head here?”
His chuckle is almost silent, rumbling against her back. “As sure as Rhaegar and his men set foot on this island.”
She cringes then her expression clears. “So, no, then.”
“You really are an historian. We may not have spiders the size of a man’s head, but we do have some man-sized problems to deal with when it gets light. Get some rest, Brienne.”
She knows he’s right. Brienne heaves a small sigh and closes her eyes.
WauryD: I know this isn't exactly what you wanted but I hope you enjoy it anyway! ;P
Her bosom heaves with some emotion she’s too frightened to name as Jaime clasps her in his strong arms and hurtles them off the cliff. She clings to his broad, firmly muscled chest as they gracefully plunge into the water below the Falls. They pull themselves from the river, her heavy brocade gown clinging to her voluptuous curves, leaving nothing to the imagination. She blushes prettily at the realization and blushes even more when she lifts her eyes and is caught by Jaime’s admiring, heated gaze.
He steps closer, sliding his arms around her slender waist and tugging her close, sliding his hands past her hips to press her against him. There is no mistaking how strongly he is affected by the sight of her and the feel of him, pressing insistently against her belly, turns her blood to liquid gold.
“Brave wench,” he purrs. Her lips part and her breath quickens as he lowers his head, her eyes fluttering shut in antici—
—wait. Staring up at him? Voluptuous curves?
Brienne wakes with a start, and Jaime rumbles a protest before he relaxes again. His arm is warm and heavy across her waist and she doesn’t think either of them have moved since they drifted off to sleep. Their little nest is dark and quiet, except for the odd rustle of the wind in the branches that surround them. It’s definitely cooler than she expected; her nose feels like an ice cube and, as Jaime sleepily nuzzles his own nose against her neck, she understands why he wanted to be the big spoon.
Big spoon, she thinks, fighting the urge to break into hysterical laughter as the weight of everything that’s happened to her on this godsforsaken island crashes over her. She’s never been either spoon before! Her rare forays in sharing a bed with a man were all brief and disappointing and never even made it to cuddling let alone spooning, let alone sleeping beside him all night. She’s mildly surprised she hasn’t kicked him away by now.
Snippets of her dream return to her and she grimaces.
She’s an idiot...and pathetic. The fact she dreamt herself as a delicate, beautiful maiden from an Age of Magic bodice ripper makes her suddenly, intensely sad. If she actually looked like that, Brienne has no doubt she could have experienced that kiss in real life rather than in her dreams. Well, almost experienced it.
Still, if she actually looked like that, she has no doubt she could roll over right now and Jaime would gladly welcome anything she wanted to offer. As it is...
Stop it, she growls to herself, suddenly angry. I may be no one’s idea of a beauty, but that doesn’t mean I am so desperate as to throw myself at the first handsome man who hasn’t run in the other direction! The man is a murderer, acquitted or not! And nothing I’m feeling is real! I’m just caught up in the romance of all of this and when I get back to King’s Landing, I’ll see this for what it is and get on with my real life!
“Brienne?” Jaime’s husky voice rumbles in her ear.
She holds her breath.
He chuckles. “I know you’re awake. Did you hear something?”
She gives a small shake of her head.
“Ah. Are you uncomfortable? Do you need to roll over?”
Brienne realizes she is aching a little from being in one position for so long. She nods.
“Okay.” He slips his arm from her waist and she’s instantly, achingly aware of its absence. Stupid, she curses herself again. He rolls onto his back and she does the same with a sigh that’s half-relief and half-regret.
She stares up at the starry sky in silence. No sign of dawn yet.
“What’s wrong?” Jaime murmurs.
A million possible replies flit through her mind, each more ridiculous and more humiliating than the last.
“I need to be on my other side,” she finally mutters and thinks, I never see these kinds of conversations in the books I read. The heroine just naturally fits against the hero’s body and they know how to fit together without needing to talk about it.
...not that we’re going to be doing this again…or want to…or—
“Okay,” Jaime says, breaking her out of her nonsensical thoughts. There’s a lilt of amusement in his voice that makes her flush with embarrassment.
Brienne hesitates for another long moment then she decides the gods hate a coward and rolls onto her side, facing him.
She can barely make out his face in the darkness but she can see the soft smile curving his lips. She hitches the leaves they’re using as blankets a little higher over her shoulder and shivers. It really is chillier than she expected.
“You can get closer, if you’re cold,” Jaime says, his amusement stronger than ever.
Brienne opens her mouth to tell him she’s fine, then shivers again. Pride and embarrassment be damned, she tells herself, grimly defiant, I’m cold.
She carefully places her hand on his flat stomach and snuggles as close as she dares without actually spooning him the way he had spooned with her.
“Thanks,” she mutters and closes her eyes.
She just hopes she doesn’t have any more embarrassing dreams.
Jaime knew he made a horrible mistake even before Brienne gave in to the chill and snuggled closer to take advantage of his body heat.
Her hand is resting flat against his stomach, her fingers spread slightly apart. He’s half-sure there’ll be an outline of that hand, including every callous and scar, on his skin in the morning, the feel of it is so vivid. If he closes his eyes, he can envision it, too, down to the shape of her knuckles, her blunt and broken nails, and the red skin where blisters are forming.
That’s...weird, but it reminds him to check her hands in the morning. Brienne’s been using a machete like a champ the last few days—when they haven’t been running or climbing or jumping for their lives, of course—but a woman more used to books than a weapon in her hand will develop blisters no matter how stoic she may be about it.
Brienne’s breathing slows and deepens and she relaxes against him as she drifts back to sleep, while Jaime’s body is reacting not only to the dream he just had about those endless legs and that long neck and those small yet perfectly shaped breasts that had been all-too-clearly outlined by her shirt after they escaped the river, and the way her plump lips felt beneath his, and—he stops. Things are uncomfortable enough without making it worse. Besides, dream-Brienne isn’t nearly as arousing as real-Brienne’s soft breath wafting across his collarbone or the weight of her hand on his stomach. All he can do is pray to every god he can name that she doesn’t accidentally move her hand any lower.
And if it wasn’t accidental? He grits his teeth against a groan as he has a sudden image of Brienne sliding her hand down...and down...
Stop it! She’s right here, and she would definitely not appreciate this. At all.
He stares up at the stars and forces himself to visualize Hoat and his men, to think of poor Jos and Pia, of his trial...and to his relief, his arousal eases.
Still, he can’t help but be amazed by his own reactions to the woman sleeping peacefully beside him. It’s ridiculous that Brienne is affecting him so strongly. She’s no one’s idea of a beautiful woman, yet...like with the Ruby Tree, there is beauty there, once you get to know her. Her legs are long and well-toned, and she’s fearless. Opinionated. Stubborn. Determined. Her eyes are deep enough to drown in and she’s not afraid to cut him down to size when needed.
He sighs then holds his breath, wondering if he’s woken her. She doesn’t stir, and he slowly lets his breath out.
Trying to understand it isn’t helping, he thinks, plus it’s useless to linger on everything I find attractive about her.
While Brienne might have moments of attraction to him, she would never allow herself to act on it. Not anymore.
The press dubbed him the Kingslayer, which is accurate but only part of the story, and Brienne obviously believes the picture the media painted about what happened with Aerys.
Besides...she’s a tourie. She’ll be returning to Westeros as soon as they track down the Stark girls.
And Jaime has no interest in just another casual fling.
Brienne snorts a snore and snuggles closer, her hand sliding across his stomach as she flings one leg over his.
Jaime bites back a groan as his body instantly reacts.
This really was a mistake.
He closes his eyes and tries to relax because boner or no boner, he needs to get some rest. Tomorrow is going to be another dangerous day.
Brienne hitches her leg a little higher against his.
In more ways than one.
If Brienne has more dreams, she doesn’t remember them, and she doesn’t truly wake again until the light of day filters its way through the trees and into their shady nest.
She rolls onto her back with a loud yawn and Jaime wakes with a start. He lifts his tousled golden head and looks at her with sleepy green eyes.
“Can we just take the day and sleep?” he groans.
She bites back a smile. “I’m willing if you are,” she says, then stills as his eyes change from sleepy to intent and seem to pin her to the ground.
Then he blinks and she can move again. She flushes and hopes he doesn’t notice. Her reactions to him are embarrassing enough; she doesn’t need him realizing it or worse: pitying her for it.
Jaime heaves a deep sigh and gives her a rueful smirk. “Sadly, saving an island from murderous assholes can’t wait.”
Reality comes crashing back, waking her like a cold dash of water in her face.
They clamber to their feet then go to their respective sides of the clearing before returning to dig through their packs and pull out what’s left of the food Sam and Gilly gave them.
As they eat, Brienne says, “Any ideas what to do or where to go next?”
Jaime chews thoughtfully then swallows before saying, “You said you were tired of running.”
His smile is positively evil. “So am I. We head back to the Falls.”
Jaime says, “I think Pyg deliberately herded us there. Which means he’s looking for something in that area.”
Brienne’s eyes widen. “Lysa and the Starks?”
Jaime shrugs then winces as the movement pulls at the graze on his arm.
“Maybe. I don’t know...but it seems the most likely answer. No one else has been in the jungle since Jos and Pia disappeared...rather, no one who hasn’t been armed and ready for anything.”
“We weren’t armed and ready for anything.”
Jaime pulls a rueful face. “True, and that was bad planning on my part. I honestly didn’t expect Hoat’s men to have wandered this far from the mine.” He frowns. “Although if they’ve wandered this far, I wonder why they haven’t found their way back to town...?” He shakes his head. “Mayhaps they stumbled on Lysa and the girls, but Lysa managed to give them the slip at the Falls.”
Brienne nods. “Like we did.”
“Well, not exactly like we did,” Jaime says.
She raises an eyebrow in question and he smiles.
“There’s a cave system behind the waterfall,” he says. “A big one, with lots of large caverns and tunnels. It’s a popular party spot for the kids on the island. It’s hidden away, it’s unique, and, of course, most of the kids forget their parents have been here since they were young and know exactly where their kids are going.”
Brienne rolls her eyes and shakes her head. “Of course it would be a party spot,” she says, her voice dry. “Could they hold out there for a few days? And what about food? If they only planned to be out in the jungle for a few hours, they probably didn’t bring anything more than lunch.”
“There’s a stash of snacks in the cave.” He shrugs at her disbelieving stare. “It’s a very popular party spot as in there’s always a party going on or being planned. There’s always something left behind or brought in advance.”
She frowns. “Where have the kids been partying since Hoat and his men got loose in the jungle?”
“Probably closer to home,” Jaime says, “or else they’re going to Captain Tony’s on the other side of the island.”
“He lets them drink?”
Jaime laughs at her scandalized expression. “Captain Tony’s is the name of the cove where the pirates used to shelter their ships.”
Brienne shakes her head. “This island...”
“Has more to it than you can see at first glance, yes.”
She rolls her eyes. “That, too. Do you have any other hidden pits or caves or cliffs you want to lure Pyg into or over?”
Jaime pops another piece of fruit into his mouth as he considers the question. “Sadly, no. And we don’t have any shovels to dig a pit and fill it with sharpened stakes.”
Brienne’s eyes widen. “I don’t want to kill the man!”
“I’m kidding! Contrary to what you may believe, I don’t particularly like killing people either.” He picks up his phone and scowls. “I thought these things were waterproof,” he mutters.
“They are,” Brienne says and takes it from him. No matter what she does, however, the screen stays stubbornly blank. She shrugs. “Maybe the battery’s dead.”
“Well,” Jaime sighs as he takes it back and slips it into his pack, “at least I got the word out about the guns.”
Brienne nods. “Where’s the meeting location?”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “Meeting location?”
She gives him a pitying look. “I think I’ve seen how you operate long enough now to know that you have plans within plans. Lose communications in the field, you would have a set meeting point and a deadline to make it there.”
Jaime’s smile is slow and admiring. “For a fusty historian, Doc, you’re good at this field work.” He nods. “We have forty-eight hours to make it to Rhaegar’s Mine for pickup.”
He shrugs. “We’re an island that caters to tourists. We’re sometimes out here for weeks, giving our touries the adventures of a lifetime. We don’t just panic when someone isn’t around. Well, except for Lysa. She’s been known to go off the rails on occasion.”
Jaime laughs. “She’s harmless, just...a little scary. Anyway, if there is a reason to worry, we have forty-eight hours to get to the Mine after contact is lost.”
“And sending a message about gun runners is definitely a reason to worry.”
“Definitely.” He shakes his head. “So, we have Pyg around the Falls. Addam should have picked up Zollo by now but we won’t know that until we get to the Mine. That leaves Hoat, Shagwell, and Timeon.”
Brienne nods. “And other than the cliff around the Falls, there are no other geographical features you’re thinking of using?”
“Well, whatever we can, of course.”
She looks up at the towering trees but Jaime shakes his head before she can ask the obvious question.
“There’s only one treehouse,” he says, “and those branch bridges have been carefully cultivated for years. Long before my time or even Sam’s. They’re why Sam built the treehouse where he did.”
Brienne gives him a wry look. “And you don’t have a legend about Rhaegar and his rubies to explain them?”
“We will, if we ever let the touries know about them.”
She can’t help but laugh at that.
“All right,” she says with a grin, “that leaves what we’ve got down here.”
They stare thoughtfully at the trees and bushes, vines and grass, flowers and buzzing insects.
Brienne says, “We just need to incapacitate and contain them until we can get to the Mine and connect with Addam, right?”
She eyes the vines. “How are you at building snares?”
Warnings: Non-graphic violence and mentions of blood.
Brienne changes the dressing on Jaime’s arm then he insists on taking a look at her hands, which she finally allows only after Jaime settles cross-legged on the ground with the first aid kit in his lap and refuses to follow her out of the clearing.
“You’re impossible,” she mutters as she kneels in front of him and holds out her hands, palms up.
“I’m impossible?” he snorts as he gently inspects the scratches and blisters on her hands. “You're the one who needs to learn to let people help you.”
“I have been letting people help me,” she snaps, “and I’ve ended up running for my life!”
Jaime gives her a fulminating look as he pulls out what’s left of the antiseptic and the last of the q-tips.
“That’s the problem with you touries,” he growls. “You’re never satisfied.”
Brienne snickers which immediately changes to a wince as he applies antiseptic to the blisters and scratches.
“Well,” he says, feeling absurdly guilty that he’s caused her even this minor amount of pain, “at least you won’t need to use the machete for a while.”
She nods. “How are we going to sneak up on this...Pyg, if we don’t know where he is?”
“The same way we’re going to be leaving this little clearing…”
“Very carefully,” they say together and share a smile.
Jaime feels something give way inside him, like a wobbling stone finally falling from the top of a wall and taking its brethren with it. He can’t seem to look away from Brienne’s wide, bottomless eyes, looking back at him with all the forthrightness and innocence of a child. His fingers tighten on her hand and he suddenly wants to tell her, tell her all of it: about Aerys and his madness and the horrors he planned to rain down upon his own people. About the Kingsguard who stood by and looked away as the King committed atrocity after atrocity. How those Kingsguard did all they could to avoid taking action and left him, Jaime, alone in an impossible situation. Aerys’ refusal to listen, to understand, to surrender. The struggle.
He opens his mouth then snaps it shut. She’s a good person, he thinks. It practically radiates from her like heat from the sun. Why burden her with that? Especially here, in this place that has been his oasis of peace since he settled on the island, this quiet clearing filled with the scent of wildflowers and the buzzing of bees. Not even Melisandre or Sam know about it.
Brienne cocks her head to one side, her smile changing into a frown. “Jaime? Are you all right?”
He nods, still unwilling—or unable—to look away or release her hand, only now he’s not thinking about Aerys. He’s remembering the feel of her hand on his stomach, the slide of her leg against his, her breath ghosting across his skin, the heat of her pressed against him. His body stirs.
“Maybe we should just stay here,” he hears himself say. “Spend the day resting and then head to the Mine in the morning.”
She blinks. “What about Pyg? And the rest?”
“Maybe I need to let other people help me, too,” he murmurs because he can’t say he doesn’t care about Pyg and the rest at this moment. Jos and Pia are dead, and if Sansa, Arya and Lysa are at the Falls and still undiscovered, then they’re safe enough for now.
The quiet presses in on them and he feels like he’s falling into her eyes, eyes that are puzzled then grow wider as she recognizes what must be emblazoned on his face. Those magnificent eyes grow puzzled again as red rushes into her cheeks and she jerks her hand away and scrambles to her feet.
“Well,” she says, trying for brisk but heading towards babbling, “even if we wait until tomorrow and just head to the Mine, we will still need to deal with Pyg and anyone else who might be in our way and we need to get going because we still need to cut vines and make what we need for the snares.”
She stops and bites her lip then glances at him and she looks...embarrassed? He feels another flash of guilt and has a sudden horrifying thought that mayhaps she isn’t single.
Idiot, he thinks. Now you’ve made things awkward. I wish I would have thought of this last night. I could have asked some questions before I made a fool of myself.
Still, he gives her a practiced smile and says, “Well, fighting crime won’t wait, so while I could definitely use a day to snooze in the sun, you are, as always, right.”
Brienne turns away with a relieved sigh and he frowns as he packs up the first aid kit and whatever garbage they’ve created.
Well, at least he didn’t actually make a pass. He can salvage a bit of his pride, at least.
Brienne crawls out of their tiny clearing with mixed emotions. She had been far too tempted to take Jaime up on his offer to spend the day there, resting, but she’s glad he agreed with her that they couldn’t take the chance.
She barely restrained herself as it is and if she were to spend another day, or worse, another night, in such a small space with him, she wouldn’t be responsible for her actions. A woman can only take so much and when Jaime had looked at her with those green eyes, warm and teasing, she almost convinced herself he was suggesting something...else...and she only just managed to stop herself from flinging herself into his arms.
She follows close behind him—no machetes today since they’re trying to leave as few signs of their passing as possible—and eyes his broad shoulders.
I would have bowled him over, more likely, she thinks, and probably cracked a rib or two for him, too, and mentally squirms with embarrassment.
Well, I didn’t tackle him to the ground and he let it go even though you made it awkward. Besides, she thinks with a shock, you don’t even know if he’s really single.
She looks at him again, at his long legs, broad shoulders, golden hair, and perfectly formed buttocks, and gives herself a mental shake.
A man who looks like that? Of course there's a woman somewhere ... or a man … or both.
She bites back a sudden urge to start giggling.
I’ve been out in this fucking jungle for too long, she thinks. I’ve finally lost my mind.
She knows it’s not the jungle, though, that’s driving her crazy, and she almost runs into a tree when Jaime bends and twists to slip past a low-hanging branch.
They harvest vines as they come across them and when they get closer to the Falls, they go to ground in a particularly secluded area so Brienne can show Jaime how to build a snare.
They smooth the vines and twist the thinner ones into a cord while Brienne tells him about engines and hook triggers and bases and how it all works together. Jaime’s fascinated, both by what she’s teaching him and by her.
They make several hook triggers and bases, the machetes clumsy for such delicate work, and Jaime practices setting the snare until Brienne gives him a nod of satisfaction.
“You’re a quick learner,” she says as they pack everything away.
Jaime’s smile is fleeting. “Want to tell my old teachers that? Not to mention my father?”
“I’m dyslexic,” he says with a shrug. “Unidentified, though, for most of my school years. ‘Quick learner’ was definitely not something I heard very often.”
Brienne blinks at him and there’s a flash of sympathy in her eyes.
He grins as he pulls his pack on. “It was a long time ago, Doc. My father has other reasons now to be disappointed in me.” He leads the way out of their secluded little clearing then says, “I’m more interested in where you learned how to build snares. Is your significant other a hunter?” He’s rather pleased with how casual he sounds.
Jaime’s hopes rise at the sheer disbelief in Brienne’s voice. He glances over his shoulder and smirks.
“You know: boyfriend, husband, wife? One or all of them?”
She laughs but there’s no humour in it. “Good gods, no! I don’t even know why you would think—wait a minute...are you saying the only way I could know how to build a snare is because I learned it from a husband or boyfriend?”
He grins, both at her offended tone and because the weight of the world has suddenly lifted from his shoulders. “So how did you learn?”
“I taught myself!”
She sounds so insulted he stops walking so he can turn and look at her as he laughs. “Why did you teach yourself? Are you a hunter?”
“No! I was studying the food sources for smallfolk during the Age of Magic, and snaring small animals was something they did on a regular basis. I wanted to understand how snares worked and how difficult it would have been for people living in such poverty to find the materials to build them.” She shrugs. “The best way to do that was to build them myself, out of whatever I could find. I spent a week in the Riverlands, practicing.”
“Really? Did you trap anything?”
She shakes her head. “I triggered them by using a stick.” She shrugs. “I have no need to hunt for my food. I just wanted to understand the struggles the smallfolk faced during the Age of Magic.”
“Well, I, for one, am grateful for your curiosity.”
Brienne’s reluctant smile is shy, and he feels the final rock fall from those already-crumbled walls inside him.
They fall silent as they near the river, but they don’t find Pyg or anyone else.
They swim across and Jaime leads Brienne back to the top of the cliff before heading in the direction of the Dragon’s Gate. They set the snares not far from the Falls but Brienne can’t help worrying that the men they’re after are watching them set their traps and this time, they’re just going to shoot first and ask questions later.
She and Jaime creep onward, cautious and alert for any signs of Pyg, and even then, they come upon him without warning. Jaime steps into a small clearing and stops short. Brienne peers around his shoulder and finally gets a close look at the man who tried to kill them the day before. She only has time to note he’s neither handsome nor ugly enough to be memorable before Jaime shouts, “Run!” and she turns and sprints back in the direction they just came from.
She hears Jaime keeping pace behind her. She concentrates on watching her step as they jump over fallen branches and crash through the jungle undergrowth. She risks a quick glance over her shoulder and sees Pyg is still on their trail.
She turns away and smiles.
It doesn’t work exactly the way they planned, but it still works like a charm.
Jaime follows Brienne as she leads them right back to where they had hidden their snares. Two, just in case the asshole managed to miss one or if they found two assholes at once.
Pyg triggers both traps. He steps into the first one, stumbles as it tightens round his ankle, then steps in the second one which causes its tree to whip around and whack him solidly between his beady little eyes. He goes down like a stunned auroch.
Jaime and Brienne creep cautiously back and peer down at the motionless man.
Brienne heaves a sigh of relief and says, “He’s still breathing.”
“Pity,” Jaime murmurs as he slips off his backpack and crouches down beside the fallen man.
He grins up at Brienne as he pulls out the rest of the vines they had gathered. “I’m kidding,” he says, and she rolls her eyes. He quickly ties Pyg’s hands and feet then stands and says, “Well, it didn’t work out quite the way we thought.”
“It worked, that’s all that matters,” she says with vicious satisfaction. For a moment, Jaime wonders if she’s going to kick Pyg in the ribs, she looks so ferocious.
“Remind me never to piss you off,” he says but he can’t quite hide the lilt of pride in his voice.
They frisk Pyg for weapons and Brienne hands Jaime the gun she finds. He wraps it in one of the plastic bags that had once held bread and stows it in his backpack. Brienne then helps him roll Pyg into the underbrush where they cover him with leaves and jungle floor debris to hide him from casual sight.
“Think we’ll remember where he is?” Brienne asks when they’re finished.
Jaime shrugs as he brushes the dirt from his hands. “Not sure I care.”
“I’m kidding!” he says, turning. “You really need to—”
He stills as he realizes he’s staring into the barrel of a gun. On the other end of it is—
“Timeon,” he says, forcing himself to flash a wide, toothy grin even as his life flashes before his eyes, “long time no see.”
Timeon’s face contorts with rage. “You fucking—”
That’s all he has time to say before Brienne kicks the gun from his hand, grabs his other arm to yank him towards her then drives her elbow into his nose with a sickening crunch.
Timeon goes down twice as hard as a stunned auroch.
Jaime gapes from the unconscious man at his feet to Brienne, standing tall and magnificent in the jungle gloom, her hands clenched, her chest heaving, her teeth bared in a feral snarl.
Is this what a spontaneous orgasm feels like, he wonders, because I’ve never been as turned on as I am right now.
She turns towards him, her eyes blazing, and he’s torn between mad respect, mad fear, and a mad urge to open his arms and say, ‘take me, I’m yours.’
They stare at each other in charged silence then Jaime says, “Have you considered moving here?”
They take Timeon’s gun, tie him up, prop him up against a different tree, and cover him with branches and leaves.
They head off towards the Falls and Brienne says, “You realize they’re just going to scream for help when they regain consciousness.”
“At least we’ll be able to find them then,” Jaime says and is rewarded with her laugh.
They stand on the cliff and peer over the edge. Jaime gives her a half-smile and turns away to lead the way down to the river.
“Where are you going?” she says.
He turns back with a frown. “Where do you think?”
She tilts her head to one side. “Don’t you guys regularly jump off this cliff?”
“Yeah. How did you know?”
“You seemed very sure we weren’t going to kill ourselves on the rocks yesterday,” she says and looks down at the water with a thoughtful look.
“Wait,” Jaime says with a laugh, moving closer, “are you thinking about jumping off the cliff again?”
She raises an eyebrow. “I grew up on Tarth. Cliff jumping is a thing there, too.”
Jaime’s grin is slow and teasing. “Why, my prim and proper Doctor Brienne o’Tarth, I do believe you have an adventurous soul after all.”
She rolls her eyes. “Are we going to do this or what?”
This time, the screams are more like whoops and they’re both laughing when they break the surface of the river. Jaime leads the way past the falling water and into the cave hidden behind it, a cool space of watery pale light and shadows that turn pitch black at the back of the cave.
They climb out of the water and Brienne flops down on her back, still laughing. Jaime forces his gaze away from her once-again-see-through clothes and drops face down beside her and prays his erection goes away before she notices…although she’s been pretty oblivious all day, so he’s hopeful he’ll be able to get through the next few minutes with his pride intact.
She sits up and struggles to pull off her pack while she looks around.
“It’s beautiful in here,” she says.
“Beautiful,” he breathes, distracted, “yes.” Brienne is apparently unaware of the fact she’s now starring in a wet t-shirt contest and he’s right there...at...eye...level...
He abruptly rolls over and turns away, shrugging off his own backpack. The movement reminds him of the wound on his arm. He glances down at it and he’s not surprised to see the bandage is gone.
Brienne notices too, her smile wiped away in an instant. “Let me take care of that,” she says.
“It can wait,” Jaime says, almost desperately. His body was just beginning to calm but now, at the mere thought of the touch of her fingers against his skin…
Could you be any more pathetic? he wonders.
She frowns. “It won’t take long,” she says.
He surrenders to the inevitable although he does his best to keep his lower body angled away from her.
Brienne makes short work of drying then applying antiseptic to the wound then finishes taping another square of gauze to his arm with a satisfied nod.
It’s pure, glorious torture.
He gives her a glimmer of a smile. “Thank you,” he says and makes a show of inspecting her work. “You’re more than just a pretty face, Brienne.”
Jaime immediately knows he’s said the wrong thing. Her face flushes even as she closes down, right before his eyes.
“Don’t mock me,” she says, her voice flat and cold.
“It...I didn’t intend...” he stumbles to a halt then sighs. “I’m sorry although I’m not certain why, exactly, I’m apologizing.”
She shrugs. “Thank you,” she says, her voice stiff, but she refuses to look at him as she finishes stowing the first aid kit in her pack. Then she looks down at herself and Jaime watches as she realizes just what the water has done to her clothes.
Her jaw slowly drops then she gasps and hastily crosses her arms across her chest and turns away from him.
He quickly averts his eyes and shifts so she can’t see that his body has reacted...again, godsdamnit, and if she’s embarrassed now, he doesn’t want to think how she’ll feel if she finally notices that…well…he’s noticed…all fucking day.
They sit in awkward silence then Brienne lets out a gusty sigh and puts one hand over her face. “And I thought this trip couldn’t get any more humiliating,” she groans in a muffled voice.
“I’m not complaining,” Jaime mutters then hopes she didn’t hear him. He barely resists the urge to kick himself. He doesn’t want to make this any more uncomfortable for her than it is already.
He realizes she’s sliding him a rueful, self-deprecating glance from the corners of her incredible eyes before she turns away with a grimace.
“I realize I’m not much to look at,” she sighs, “but I suppose I should just be grateful you never noticed anything.”
His mouth sags open. “Never noticed? Why do you think I’ve been keeping my back to you?”
That spins her back to face him, a shocked scowl on her face. He can almost hear the gears turning in her head as she processes his words.
He groans and rubs his forehead. “Who’s humiliated now?” he mutters.
There’s silence in the cave except for the rush of the waterfall and Brienne’s harsh, rapid breathing.
Jaime shakes his head and gives her a rueful smirk. “Well, I guess silence speaks volumes.”
She blinks and shakes her head. “That makes no sense.”
“What? It’s a pretty old saying that you must have heard in Westeros—”
“No, you idiot! What you said...did you say...are you implying...what?”
“I’m not implying anything,” he says with as much dignity as he can muster, “just stating a fact. We’re both adults. We can just acknowledge the situation and then act like grown-ups and move on.” He gets to his feet and holds out a hand to her. “Come on. We should get going.”
She slowly puts her hand in his and allows him to pull her to her feet. She’s still looking shell-shocked and utterly, adorably confused but she clings to his hand as he loosens his grip.
“Jaime,” she almost whispers, “it makes no sense.”
He re-wraps his fingers around hers. “Does it have to?”
Her eyes are wide and bottomless and guileless and utterly beautiful in this light. “To me it does.”
He half-shrugs. “Some things just are, Brienne, like...like the laugh of a child or the scent of rain on the horizon or the heat of the sun against your skin or the glitter of rubies. You can explain them but how people react to them, well…there’s magic in that, don’t you think?”
“And you believe in magic?”
He reaches out and gently brushes a damp strand of hair off her forehead. “More and more every day,” he says.
Her eyes widen at his words and he can see she’s struggling to believe him. Then she bites her lip and says, “I know we have to get moving, but...would you...k-k-kiss me?”
He smiles as he slides his fingers into her hair and covers her lips with his.
Jaime’s lips are warm and supple, and there’s a sweetness in his kiss that Brienne isn’t expecting. This is nothing like the angry-passionate kisses that are peppered throughout Aurora del Moniko’s Age of Magic bodice ripping novels, nothing like anything she’s ever experienced before in real life.
She melts against him, her hands sliding up his arms to cling to his shoulders and the back of his neck.
…this...really is magic.
Brienne doesn’t know how long they would have stood there, kissing in the silvery half-light filtering through the waterfall, but they’re startled apart far too soon by the sound of a skittering pebble near the back of the cave.
They spin to face whatever fresh threat may be in here with them.
Jaime’s jaw drops as the slight figure rushes from the dark shadows and flings herself against his chest.
“ Pia? ”
It is Pia and Jaime isn’t prepared for the relief crashing over him, making his knees weak. He wraps his arms around the girl and hugs her back.
“I thought you were dead,” he mutters into her hair.
“We were beginning to think we were,” she says.
“We?” Hope joins with relief, making him dizzy. “You mean Jos?”
Pia pulls away, nodding. “He’s in the party cavern. He broke his leg when we jumped off the cliff.”
“Broke his leg?” Brienne says and glares at Jaime. “I thought you told me the water was deep enough to be safe!”
“It is,” Pia says hurriedly. “We had to go over the Falls, though, in the river, and that’s where most of the rocks are.” Her smile is blindingly besotted. “Jos put himself between me and the rocks. He could have died.” She catches Jaime’s eye. “We didn’t have a choice! We barely got away as it is.”
“And you haven’t been able to get word out to us?” Now that the initial shock and joyful relief is wearing off, it’s being replaced with anger. “It’s been weeks, Pia!”
“Has it?” she says and blinks her pretty brown eyes. “We’ve lost track of time.”
“How have you been feeding yourself?” Brienne asks. “And where have you been sleeping?”
Jaime and Pia exchange a glance.
“She’s okay,” Jaime says and flashes Brienne a warm, teasing smile. “A little too uptight but if she stays on Piratas long enough, she’ll learn to relax.”
The grinding of Brienne’s teeth is almost louder than the water rushing past the cave’s mouth.
Pia gives him a searching look that morphs into a faint smile.
“If you say so,” she says, and gestures for them to follow her.
Brienne isn’t sure why she’s surprised when Pia, after leading them into the darkness at the back of the cave, clicks on a small flashlight to reveal the darker outline of a tunnel. While the light isn’t very strong, it’s enough for them to follow her through a narrow passageway with a gradual but noticeable downward slope that eventually turns sharply right then left then left again. In front of them, now, is the flickering glow of a fire.
They step into a cavern that’s difficult to see but Brienne has an impression of a vast, cool space with a soaring ceiling. In the middle of it is an open iron barbecue, sitting squat and heavy on four sturdy legs that end in lion paws. There are two couches arranged on opposite sides of it, with a young man sitting on one of them, his leg crudely splinted and propped up on a stack of pillows.
Jaime’s face breaks into a broad smile. “Jos!”
Jos looks up at him and gives him a sheepish smile. “Sorry about this, Mr. Lannister.”
“How many times do I have to tell you Mr. Lannister is my father,” Jaime says as he falls to his knees beside him, pulling Jos into an awkward hug. “We thought you were dead.”
“I was pretty worried myself, for a minute or two,” Jos says, and even in the dim light of the fire, Brienne can see he’s blushing.
Jaime releases him and takes a critical look at the splinted leg. “Why didn’t you call for help?”
“Well, I was out of it for a while,” Jos says. “Besides breaking my leg, I also hit my head. Pia had her hands full getting me in here and then taking care of me until I could be left on my own for a while.”
“Plus we lost our phones in the river,” Pia says.
“Pia’s been keeping an eye on our unwelcome touries at the Mine, too,” Jos adds. He frowns. “How long have we been gone?”
“Just over two weeks,” Jaime says, his face grim.
Jos groans. “We’ve lost all track of time in here. I should have sent Pia for help once I could take care of myself again.” He grimaces. “If nothing else, I could use some good painkillers.”
Brienne peers around the cavern with a frown, trying to make things out in the shadows that deepen into pitch blackness outside the light cast by the fire.
She says, “What have you been eating? Or do I want to know?”
Jos gives her a puzzled smile and a questioning look at Jaime, who quickly introduces her, then says, “There’s a generator at the end of a tunnel that leads to another entrance into the cave system. We run cables from the generator into this cavern.” Jaime points to his left and says, “Hidden in the darkness over there is a little kitchen area complete with a hotplate, and not far from there is the common area, filled with pillows, more couches and blankets. There’s a pantry cupboard filled with snacks and drinks, even canned goods and pastas, that sort of thing. Anything, really, so long as it doesn’t need to be kept in a fridge, although we have thought of using one of the lower caverns for a cooler.”
Brienne stares at him. “You’re kidding.”
Jaime shakes his head. “There’s usually a never-ending party in here. It’s sometimes the only place on the island without touries ... no offense. It’s usually just the kids but we’ve all gotten very, very drunk in this place at one time or another. The couches are for us older ones ... and we don’t ask what consenting adults do in here when no one else is around.”
For a moment, Brienne isn’t sure if she’s intrigued, impressed, or revolted. Maybe a bit of all three.
“Is there at least something protecting the couches?” she blurts and Jaime laughs.
The generator has not been used since Jos and Pia made it to the safety of the party cavern.
“It’s loud,” Pia explains as she shows Brienne around while Jaime inspects Jos’ injuries, particularly his splinted leg. “You can hear it running from outside if you’re close enough.”
Brienne nods. Smart, she thinks. Quick on their feet, just like everyone else she’s met on this godsforsaken island.
She inspects the generator, which is larger than she expected, and the cables snaking from it have been duct taped to the walls of the tunnel so no one can trip on them in the dark.
“Well, we’ve got two of Hoat’s men stashed under some trees,” Brienne says, distracted as she moves past the generator to look at the entrance to the outside, cleverly protected by what looks like a stone door.
“Dead?” Pia asks and there’s a vicious hope in her words that gives Brienne pause. She gives the younger woman a searching look.
“Is everyone on this island bloodthirsty?”
Pia’s smile is thin. “Well, it was founded by pirates.”
“And a warmongering prince searching for magic rubies, yes, I remember.”
Pia laughs. “So, no generator tonight either?”
“Not if Pyg and Timeon’s friends are wandering around looking for them.”
Pia sighs. “It would be nice to go to the bathroom without needing the flashlight.”
Brienne blinks at her. “Bathroom?”
“If you’re partying down here, you don’t want to always have to go outside,” Pia says. “Come on. I really only wanted to show this to you so you’d know where one of the emergency exits is.”
Brienne slides the beam of her flashlight over the smooth wall of the cave and says, “And the exit would be where, exactly?” She can feel air coming in but she can’t see where or how.
Pia beams. “This is one of Sam’s clever ideas,” she says, walking to the solid cave wall and ... brushing it aside.
Brienne’s mouth drops as Pia giggles as the late afternoon light pours into the short tunnel hidden behind the curtain, leading to a low opening criss-crossed by a lattice-work of branches and leaves.
“Just an optical illusion,” Brienne murmurs, inspecting the stiff canvas-like material that’s been painted to look exactly like the cave wall it’s pretending to be.
Pia nods. “More to keep any touries wandering around on their own from stumbling on the place. Not that there are many, of course, and if they hear the generator and find us, well, they’re welcome to join the party. It’s just ... it’s nice if some things belong just to us, you know?”
Brienne looks at her, incredulous, and nods.
The bathrooms turn out to be two more tunnels that end in small caverns divided by wooden stalls in what is, ultimately, a glorified outhouse. Brienne points her flashlight down one of the toilet holes but the beam doesn’t manage to pierce much of the inky darkness beneath the seat.
“There’s another cave down there,” Pia says. “It goes beneath both bathrooms. We don’t really use these much but it’s nice to know they’re here if it’s raining outside or you’re just too out of it to make it outside and back again.”
Pia shrugs. “It’s mostly liquid, anyway, and as far as we can tell, the cave below doesn’t connect to the river.” She pauses, her pretty face scrunched up in a frown. “Although this mountain is filled with tunnels and caverns and little cubbyholes like this one. Who knows what might happen if we get a really huge hurricane someday and this place floods out?”
“Has the cave system been completely mapped out?” Brienne asks as they head back to Jaime and Jos.
“I think so,” Pia say, “although Sam was talking a few weeks ago about bringing in laser scanning equipment, so maybe not.”
Brienne stops to peer closely at the sheared surface of the tunnel wall. She strokes a thoughtful finger along the smooth surface then looks up to see Pia frowning at her. She gives Pia a reassuring smile and hurries to rejoin her.
“Just wondering,” Brienne says as they step back into the party cavern, its darkness softened by the flickering light of the fire. She looks up, shining her flashlight in that direction, but the ceiling is lost to view.
“Wondering what?” Jaime says. He’s stretched out comfortably on the second couch while Jos is on another one, his leg re-splinted and propped up in front of him. Pia’s face lights up and she hurries to Jos’ side.
Brienne says, “I was wondering if the cave system has been thoroughly mapped.” She rather diffidently perches beside him.
He raises an eyebrow. “We’ve mapped a lot of it,” he says and she raises her own eyebrow at his bland tone.
His green eyes are calm and challenging and warm, and her gaze flicks to his lips and back again and for a moment, she’s incredibly sorry there are two other people in this cave with them.
Jaime’s beautifully shaped mouth curves into a smirk and she blinks, blushes, and says, “So you do know these caves and tunnels aren’t natural, then?”
There’s silence then Jos says, almost whispering, “How do you know that?”
Brienne frowns. “Beside the fact the passageways are all the same width and height? The tool marks on the walls.” She turns back to Jaime. “I’m assuming this is also a designated shelter during a state of emergency?”
Jaime’s smirk turns into a grin and then a laugh. “Yeah,” he says. “It’s why we want to get the laser scanning done so we can see if we’ve managed to map the entire system. We haven’t had to use this place yet but if we do, we don’t want people getting lost. Don’t get me wrong, we originally moved the generator here and set this place up because we wanted somewhere we could have fun without tripping over tourists, but once we understood the sheer size of this cave system and where it went, well, it only made sense to set it up to shelter everyone on this side of the island if need be. Maybe everyone on the other side of the island, too, if it’s big enough.”
Brienne can’t help her own faint smile as Jaime talks. He’s quietly yet obviously pleased with himself.
“You’re the one who thought of it?” she says.
Jaime shakes his head. “Only the generator. It’s been a group effort from there.”
Brienne’s smile widens. “Right,” she says, softly, and for a moment, she can’t tear herself away from the warmth in his smile and the heat in his eyes.
“So, are you guys hungry?” Jos asks, too loudly and with far too much amusement.
Brienne starts and turns, wide-eyed, to Jos and Pia, and blushes at the far-too-knowing smirks on their faces.
“Famished,” Jaime says and leaps to his feet. He holds out his hand to her. “Let’s go raid the kitchen.”
The kitchen is far enough away they need the flashlights, and Brienne hopes the shadows playing over them hides her red cheeks. She can hear Pia whispering to Jos as they leave the circle of firelight behind.
Brienne’s suddenly overwhelmed with doubt and embarrassment over what Pia and Jos must be thinking.
Could I be any more obvious? she thinks. Plus Pia must have seen us kissing.
Brienne suddenly remembers what she looks like in the cold light of day, and how it must look to anyone observing her and Jaime, and cringes.
They’re going to think I’m just another pathetic tourie who ’ s fallen for their local roguish pretty boy.
She jumps a little as Jaime touches her hand.
In the light and shadows cast by the flashlights, the look in his eyes seems ... shy?
“There’s no way to talk about this without it getting awkward,” Jaime says and Brienne’s heart stutters to a cold stop.
She braces herself for the ‘I don’t know what I was thinking’ speech. She’s heard it at least once before, the only guy who had been kind enough to tell her to her face she wasn’t attractive enough for him to sleep with twice. Unlike the other two, who just never bothered to call her again.
Brienne grits her teeth and straightens her shoulders. She can deal with anything Jaime has to say. After all, it was only a kiss.
Jaime takes a deep breath and says, “There are two couches down here that pull out into beds. Jos and Pia have one over by the fire. I’ll show you where the other one is and I’ll sleep on one of the others.” He ducks his head, his hair falling in his eyes and for a moment, he looks so beautiful he takes her breath away. Then he looks up at her and says, his voice pitched low, “I just don’t want you to think I’m expecting ... you know ... anything.”
For a moment, Brienne can do nothing but stare, and her eyes only widen more as Jaime’s expression turns anxious.
“I don’t know what’s going on between us,” he says, his voice pitched low and deep and husky, sending silvery shivers down her spine, “but I do know I don’t want to mess it up.” Jaime traces the line of her jaw with the tips of his fingers, and says, “I mean, I’d love nothing more than to pick up where we left off before Pia interrupted us, but we’re in a cave system that I know much better than you and that might not be the most comfortable situation to be in, if you were to change your mind. Besides, we also have company now.”
They turn their heads toward Pia and Jos, whose own heads snap back towards the fire when they realize they’re looking at them. Brienne bites back a smile and turns back to Jaime, who’s openly laughing at the pair.
She lets her smile widen to a grin.
She says, “Can you turn off the flashlight for a second?”
He raises an eyebrow but does as she asks.
They stand in the dark, so close she can feel the heat of him. She breathes in his scent then puts her hands on his biceps. His skin is smooth, his muscles firm. She slides her palms up to his shoulders, his neck, the back of his head and gently tugs him to her.
This kiss is just as sweet as the first one and tastes of something she’s not sure she trusts but which thrills her nonetheless: promise.
All of this is insane, she thinks. It’s my own form of jungle madness.
It’s also glorious.
She ends the kiss and whispers, “I won’t change my mind, Jaime.”
Her eyes have adjusted now to the dark, so she sees the flash of his smile before he kisses her again.
This time, there’s absolutely nothing sweet about it. It’s hot and carnal, deep and searching, and nothing like the rather perfunctory kisses she’s experienced before. She wraps her arms around him and meets his passion with her own and forgets they’re standing in a cave with—
“Get a room!” Jos yells.
They break apart and Brienne buries her face against Jaime’s neck even as they both laugh.
“Come on,” Jaime says with a regretful sigh, “let’s raid the kitchen.”
They find potato chips, pretzels, and beer that’s surprisingly cool, and while it’s not exactly nutritious, it’s at least filling.
“Why haven’t you filled this place with emergency supplies?” Brienne asks.
“We don’t want to tie up supplies that may not be needed for years, if at all.”
She gives him a skeptical look. “You mean you haven’t officially convinced the islanders to use their party cave for a shelter, have you?”
“Yet,” Jaime says and grins.
The four of them chat over their makeshift meal, and Brienne sees that while Jos is still in pain, the worst of it all does seem to be over.
Jaime praises Pia’s splinting skills and while he’s no expert, he tells her he thinks the leg won’t need to be re-broken. The pretty young woman preens with pride at his words.
“So what’s next?” Brienne says. “We need to get to the Mine tomorrow.”
Jaime nods. He’s sprawled on the couch beside her, another beer in his hand. There may not be much in terms of real food, but there is, at least, plenty of beer.
“What about us?” Pia asks.
“If you haven’t been found yet, you should be safe for another day or two,” Jaime says. “Once we get to the Mine, we can get word out on the coconut telegraph and get you two evacuated.”
“It’ll be nice to see sunlight,” Jos says with a rueful grin.
“This is all well and good,” Brienne says, but how are we going to get to the Mine? Pyg and Timeon may have been found by now if there are any more of their gang wandering around out there.”
“We’ll worry about that once we meet up with Addam,” Jaime says.
“They’re between us and the Mine,” Brienne says, her voice flat.
“Sure. If we were going above ground.”
Brienne turns and gives him a hard stare then realization dawns. “The reason this isn’t a natural cavern ... ”
“Is because it’s part of Rhaegar’s Mine, yes.”
Warnings: Violent scenes. Not very graphic, but mentions of blood.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Brienne helps Jaime move the other hide-a-bed beside the fire, along with one of the tiny tables scattered throughout the common area as well as some chairs. They play cards with Pia and Jos while Jaime shares some of the lighter island events that have happened since they went into hiding. After losing five games of rummy, she returns to the generator’s tunnel with Jaime and they see it’s now dark outside.
“Time to go to bed?” Brienne asks then realizes what she’s said and blushes.
Jaime chuckles. “Probably a good idea. We don’t have any alarm clocks or watches for that matter. Here’s hoping we won’t sleep through the day tomorrow.”
Brienne avoids Pia and Jos’ knowing smirks as they set up the hide-a-bed and she tries not to feel guilty that she’s also avoiding Pia’s sly attempts to get her alone. The younger girl doesn’t seem to be mean-spirited but while Brienne isn’t ashamed of what’s going on with Jaime, she also doesn’t feel ready to talk about it, let alone with a girl she only met a few hours ago.
Still, Brienne blushes as Jaime slips beneath the blanket with her and she catches Pia’s twinkling eyes and smirk. But it’s been an exhausting day and she’s asleep before she can get too embarrassed.
Brienne wakes several times, opening her eyes to deeper and deeper darkness as the fire burns down and dims. When she wakes and the fire has gone out completely, the utter darkness pressing in on her is disorienting and claustrophobic. She panics, scrambling reflexively for the flashlight she placed on the floor beside her when she crawled into bed. She lets out a silent sigh of relief when her hand closes around it. She carefully lets it go and lies back against her pillow.
“Better?” Jaime whispers, his arm tightening around her.
She grimaces. “Sorry,” she breathes, trying not to wake Jos and Pia.
Jaime sleepily nuzzles his nose against her cheek. “Don’t be. I’ve checked for the one on my side three times already.”
For some reason, that strikes her as funny and she begins to laugh, silently, shaking, her face buried against Jaime’s shoulder. He hugs her closer and laughs, too, even as they each try to hush the other.
The giggles subside and they listen to the sound of Pia and Jos’ quiet breathing.
“They’re still asleep,” Brienne breathes.
“Good,” Jaime says, and kisses her.
This kiss is different yet again, something done simply because they want to but with none of the reckless passion she felt earlier. A distant part of her knows there are many things she’s ignoring right now: he’s the Kingslayer, a man who literally got away with murder; her own emotions; his motivations. But right now, in this moment, in this absolutely lightless cave, nothing matters except this.
This is comfort in the dark, the promise of safety, warm and slow and searching.
They might have kissed for hours or only minutes, learning the feel and the taste of each other, but eventually, reluctantly, Brienne whispers, “We need sleep, Jaime.”
“I know. Doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
That deserves one last kiss before Brienne closes her eyes and drifts back to sleep.
Brienne doesn’t wake again until she hears Pia helping Jos from their bed then supporting him as she takes him to the bathroom. While they wait for the pair to return, Brienne holds the flashlight while Jaime builds a new fire then it’s their turn to use the bathrooms. When they return, Pia confirms it’s light outside as she hands them more pretzels, which are only slightly better than potato chips for breakfast.
“I’d kill for coffee,” Jaime groans, scowling at the glass of water in his hand.
“I just want real food,” Brienne sighs.
“How do you think we feel?” Jos grumbles.
“Oh, stop,” Pia says. “We’ll be out of here soon.” She looks at them with her big brown eyes. “Right?”
Jaime smiles. “Right.”
“So what’s the plan?” Brienne asks.
“We go through the tunnels to where I left Hoat and his gang,” Jaime says. “If we’re lucky, Addam and his crew will already be there by the time we get outside.”
“And if they aren’t?”
Jaime’s smile is filled with confidence. “Well, then we’ll just have to deal with that when we get to it.”
They pull on their packs, throw in an extra set of batteries for their flashlights then say good-bye to Jos and Pia and head out.
Time has little meaning as they travel in darkness, going from tunnel to cavern to tunnel again. Brienne never complains and Jaime’s already high opinion of her goes even higher.
“It’s really not that far to the other half of the Mine,” Jaime says at one point. “It just feels like forever in the dark.”
“Comforting,” Brienne says, her voice dry, and Jaime laughs.
Still, his sigh is as relieved as Brienne’s when they navigate a curve in the passageway and he sees the tiny opening that leads to the mouth of Mine he watched Hoat and the others disappear into weeks ago. Even the small amount of light leaking into the tunnel is a welcome sight after the oppressive darkness they’ve been walking through.
He exchanges a grin with Brienne before they hurry to the opening of the tunnel, half-filled with boulders and pebbles from a long ago collapse, or mayhaps done deliberately since there’s been no other collapse in living memory. They’ll have to crawl out on their bellies, but they’re also currently hidden from the sight of anyone who might be in the cave’s mouth.
Jaime clambers up the fall of rock and peers out. The mine opening is wide and the sunlight streaming in illuminates the entire area, including the openings of the four other tunnels that splay out from the cave like a giant’s fingers. The inside of the tunnels are pitch black but he can see at least a few feet into them. He inspects each one in turn.
He’s not surprised. It’s been two weeks, Hoat and his men obviously found what they were looking for. Given Rorge and Biter, Pyg and Timeon’s wanderings, they’re most likely still trying to figure out how to get out of the jungle and then find the best way off the island.
Still. It doesn’t hurt to be cautious.
He glances at Brienne and nods before he strips off his pack and slithers out of the opening. The packs and Brienne quickly join him.
They creep to the cave opening and peer out at the camp Jaime helped set up at the base of the sloping rockfall in front of them.
Deserted. No movement, no smoke from the last of the night’s fire. Nothing.
He turns his head toward Brienne, pressed against his shoulder and staring down at the camp with a scowl on her face. He smiles and opens his mouth but something catches the corner of his eye.
He turns back and scans the area until his gaze is drawn to something in the trees surrounding the campsite. He squints and then, like an optical illusion, he can see someone is perched in the branches of the trees, then another someone and another.
Addam and his crew are here.
“Oh,” Jaime whispers, “this can’t be good.”
Brienne’s seen enough action movies to recognize the sound of a gun being cocked when she hears it. She slowly turns, her hands in the air. Jaime, on her left, does the same.
They stand in frozen tableau and Brienne prays with every fibre of her being that the three men facing them will decide they are more valuable as live hostages than as dead bodies blocking their way out of the mine.
“You!” spits one, glaring at Jaime. “You lying bathtard!”
“What lie?” Jaime says, his voice mild. “I brought you to the Mine, didn’t I?”
“We’ve been trying to find our way out of here for weekth! I should shoot you right now!”
Jaime’s smirk is only half as mocking as his raised eyebrow. “Then you still wouldn’t know the way back to town.”
The man’s smile is chilling as his eyes sweep over Brienne. “We have thomeone elth now.”
Jaime gives Brienne an incredulous look then laughs. “She nothing but a tourie! She’s so turned around, I bet she couldn’t tell you which way is north right now.”
Brienne nods, and hopes she looks more terrified than she feels although she’s not sure how that could be possible.
“Listen,” Jaime says, taking a step towards them, “why don’t we—” All three guns come to bear on him and he stops cold, raising his hands even higher. “Sorry, sorry, sorry! I was just going to say, why don’t we sit down and work this out.”
“You deserted us,” growls the fattest man Brienne has ever seen.
Fit enough to last for weeks in the jungle, she reminds herself. Don’t underestimate him.
He’s the closest one to her, too close for her peace of mind, although that may be because he’s unfortunately shirtless. What she assumes was once his shirt is now nothing more than a bloody rag wrapped around his left bicep.
“I overheard you guys talking, Zollo,” Jaime says with a shrug. “I’m just a guide, trying to make a living. I don’t deserve to die just because I took some touries to Rhaegar’s Mine to search for magic rubies!”
“Magic rubies,” snorts the third man and waves the gun he’s holding under Jaime’s nose. “Does this look like a fucking magic ruby to you?”
“For fuck’th thake, Shagwell! Be careful with that thing!”
Jaime nods vigorously. “Please. My bowels would appreciate it. And while it’s not a ruby, it’s magic nonetheless. Piratas has extremely strict gun control...or as strict as anything gets on this island.”
Shagwell snorts. “Strict, yeah, that’s why we have a whole ship—”
“Shut up!” Hoat snaps and Shagwell glares but stops speaking. Hoat turns back to Jaime and Brienne, shaking his head.
Jaime smirks. “Help these days, right?”
“Help?” Zollo snarls and rushes forward, pushing Shagwell aside like a bowling pin. Shagwell stumbles against Hoat.
There’s the crack of a gunshot, deafening at such close quarters but Brienne doesn’t have time to think about that. She steps forward, grabbing Zollo’s left arm, and drives her fist into his wound. He bellows and clutches at his arm, the barrel of his gun far too close for her comfort. She grabs his hand, squeezing the fingers against the gun, hoping to hear the bones crack even as they struggle. The man may be fat but he’s also strong and she’s not just in the fight of her life but in a fight for her life. Zollo shakes her off and sends her sprawling with a blow to her temple. She sees stars and through them, Jaime landing blow after blow on Hoat and Shagwell.
She doesn’t have time to appreciate Jaime’s skill: Zollo is lumbering closer, raising his gun…which is suddenly sailing out of his hand and over his head, thanks to a lightning fast kick from Jaime before he returns to his struggle with Hoat and Shagwell.
Brienne’s mouth is gaping as wide as Zollo’s before she gets back on her feet and once again launches herself at Zollo.
Zollo bellows again, this time with rage, as she lands a solid kick to his midsection, sending him stumbling back. He swings at her again, although his left hand is still dangling at his side, blood oozing down it. She dances away from him then presses in, hammering blows against his face, his wounded arm, his chest, and finishes with another kick to his gut that sends him stumbling back out of the mine. The loose gravel of the rockfall leading to the mine gives way beneath his feet, sending him sprawling and sliding down the slope, where he’s intercepted by half a dozen people already half-way to the mine.
Brienne doesn’t have time to determine if these new people are friends or foes. She spins back towards Jaime in time to see Shagwell collapsed in a heap on the ground and Jaime kicking Hoat square in the chest, sending him flying.
Jaime spins around, bouncing a little on the balls of his feet, hands at the ready, then relaxes a little when he sees her.
Several people burst into the Mine and skid to a stop. They glare from the two fallen men to Jaime’s wild-eyed, battle-fueled beauty and Brienne wonders how anyone could possibly resist him when he looks like that.
She shakes her fanciful thought away as Jaime slowly lowers his hands and relaxes.
“Addam,” he says. “About time you got here.”
Addam doesn’t waste any time, ordering the two men and one woman with him to handcuff Shagwell and Hoat and drag them out of the mine and back to the camp.
“We heard a gunshot,” he says as he watches his crew work, “and we got here as fast as we could. I see the Lannister luck is still holding.”
“Where on earth did you come from?” Brienne asks, scowling at them.
Addam gives her an appraising look. Jaime walks over to her and puts his arm around her shoulders. That makes Addam’s eyebrows shoot up to his hairline but he knows better than to ask any questions...yet.
“We were in the trees,” Addam says. “Zollo, as you may have noticed, got away from us and we knew he, at least, was in the mine. We were waiting him out.”
“By camping out in the trees?”
“Well, we had a camp on the ground so we could take turns getting some rest but otherwise...yeah. Good vantage point from up there.”
Brienne stares at him then turns to Jaime.
“Everyone on this island is insane.”
Jaime chuckles as he turns her towards the entrance. “Every day’s an adventure, that’s for sure. You know, you really should think about moving here,” he says and walks her outside.
They stand beside the cold remains of the last campfire Zollo had kindled, waiting for Addam and his crew to bring Shagwell and Hoat from the cave. Zollo is already handcuffed and sprawled on the ground, his back resting against a tree.
Brienne stops scowling at Zollo only long enough to scowl at the cave mouth.
“What’s wrong?” Jaime asks.
“This is all well and good,” Brienne says, “but where the fuck are Sansa and Arya and Lysa?”
Jaime’s smile is almost feral. “Well, we’ll just have to ask these gentlemen now, won’t we?”
A/N: Seriously: why do I insist on writing stories with fight scenes?? Why??
Hoat glares at Jaime and Addam, his bruised and swollen face looking even worse beneath the harsh lights of the interrogation room.
“For the latht time, I don’t know thith Thantha or Arya or Lytha!” he spits.
Addam and Jaime exchange a glance then, by mutual unspoken consent, they turn and leave the sparsely furnished room to rejoin Brienne behind the observation mirror. They stand side-by-side, thoughtfully considering the man sitting at the table, glowering at everything and nothing.
“What do you think?” Addam finally asks.
Jaime frowns and shrugs. “I hate to say this, but...I believe him.”
“You believe him?” Brienne yelps. “Why?”
“Because he’s already given up his boss,” Jaime says, “as have his men.”
It’s true. Hoat and his cronies began singing like canaries the moment they stepped into the interrogation rooms. Timeon’s singing was a little soggy due to his broken nose, and Rorge’s was more like bellowing at the top of his lungs but even he confirmed what all the others had said: Gregor Clegane, the most notoriously brutal gangster in Westeros, ordered them to come here and pick up a shipment of guns. Smuggled onto the island in the dead of night by one of Clegane’s rivals, stashed in one of the caverns deep in Rhaegar’s Mine, it’s a fortune just waiting to be made. Hoat’s mission was to find the shipment while Clegane’s brother ‘acquired’ a boat then came to the island to pick them up from some place called Captain Tony’s.
How they were supposed to transport the guns from the Mine to Captain Tony’s seems to have been something they hadn’t considered until Jaime and Addam asked them about it.
The men are all adamant they’re only on Piratas to steal the guns from their criminal rival. They wanted to eliminate any witnesses because they needed to ensure no one knew where they had gone while on the island, or what they had done. Competitors in their line of work are not known for their forgiving natures. They’re also all adamant they know nothing about the three missing women.
Jaime says, “Besides, none of them have anything to gain from lying to us now. Believe me, Gregor Clegane is not someone you betray lightly.”
“If they murdered the women then they have plenty to gain by hiding that fact,” Brienne says, her voice dry and cold, “not to mention one or two of them could have done it and not told the others.”
Addam glances at Jaime. “The lady has a point. Two, in fact.”
“I’m not a lady,” Brienne growls, her eyes sparking blue fire, “not about this. This island is lawless—beat the truth out of them!”
Jaime doesn’t know if he should be terrified that his prim and proper history professor has become so bloodthirsty she looks like she could happily take on that task herself, or if he should ponder his own soul because the surge of pride and lust he feels at her willingness to do whatever it takes to get answers almost knocks him off his feet.
Then he reminds himself she is a prim and proper history professor with a kind heart and he wants to keep it that way.
“I don’t think we need to go quite that far,” Jaime says.
“This time,” Addam murmurs but too low for Brienne to hear if her puzzled scowl in Addam’s direction is anything to go by.
Jaime clears his throat and says, “Look, maybe we followed a bogus lead about Lysa and the Stark girls. There was no sign of Lysa on her usual guide route even before we were so rudely sidetracked by these assholes.”
“So we just let them go?”
Jaime raises an eyebrow, his smile thin and sharp as a knife. “Do we look like we’re going to just let them go?”
There must be something in his eyes because her own widen and she visibly gulps.
“This is my island,” he says, cold and harsh, every inch the arrogant Lannister his father raised him to be. “They broke my laws. We have to find out what happened to Lysa and the Stark women and then...”
“And then we make sure none of them get away with this.”
Now she audibly gulps. “What do you mean?”
Jaime laughs. “Prison, of course.”
Brienne visibly relaxes.
“Prison,” Addam mutters, again for Jaime’s ears only, “right.”
Night has fallen by the time they finish interrogating Hoat and his men and catch a ride back to town with Addam. The three of them share a meal at a restaurant along the marina, where they discreetly check out every boat docked there. The number of crates retrieved from the Mine calls for a fairly large boat and they note each one that seems large enough yet innocuous enough to transport such cargo without suspicion.
“Why don’t we just ask the marina owners for the list of people who have docked their boats here?” Brienne says as they stroll back to the main street.
Jaime and Addam exchange a glance and Jaime shrugs. “I doubt Clegane’s brother used his real name. It would be recognizable, even here. Plus...well, you have to know who to trust on this island.”
Brienne frowns. “You mean the marina owners...?”
Jaime nods. “Those guns got on the island and into that mine somehow and without our knowledge.”
Addam’s face is grim as he, too, nods. “We have gaps in our coconut telegraph.”
“Or bad coconuts,” Brienne says.
Both Jaime and Addam can’t help but laugh at that.
Addam leaves them to head to Melisandre’s bar to give her an update while Jaime and Brienne stroll along the tourist-filled streets and from there to the non-tourist-filled side streets leading to his apartment.
The closer they get, the shyer Brienne becomes until she’s walking in awkward, tongue-tied silence beside him. The noise of the main street fades away until there’s only the sound of their footsteps and the ocean waves breaking against the sandy beach Brienne has yet to step foot on. She has a sudden nostalgic yearning for the beaches of Tarth and clear blue of its ocean waves.
She feels like harsh reality is starting to crash in on her, just like those waves.
What am I doing, she thinks in sudden panic. He’s the Kingslayer. I don’t do flings! My previous sexual encounters were, well, what they were, because that’s what they wanted more than what I wanted...although I certainly have no regrets they all ended so quickly. Still, this is an attraction born from fear and more adventure than I’ve ever experienced before in my life. I’m a novelty to him: bigger than him and ugly. For the gods’ sake, all those beautiful young women traipsing out of the bars and restaurants back there are what he’s used to and I can’t compare or compete with them! What feels perfect in the dark can’t survive once we’re back in the light of real life.
Jaime opens the door to his building and leads the way up the stairs to his apartment.
She follows, her eyes riveted on the firm contours of his ass and the muscles flexing in his long legs as he jogs up the steps in front of her.
Then again...he ’ s a novelty for me, too … and I don ’ t want to go to my grave wondering what might have been.
By the time Jaime closes the door behind her and drops his keys on the hall table, Brienne’s panic is gone as quickly as it arrived, replaced with nothing but delicious anticipation. He gives her a half-smile before wandering into the living room where he turns to look at her, his green eyes filled with as much uncertainty as she had been feeling on their way here.
Jaime rubs his palms against the seat of his shorts and says, “You can have the bedroom.”
Brienne gives him a startled look, frowning at the way he’s shooting glances at her almost...bashfully? Could that be right?
“Okay,” she says slowly.
“It’s a bit musty in here, but I’ll open the windows and it’ll air out in no time. I should also get you some fresh sheets...”
She tilts her head to one side. “Are you nervous, Jaime?”
“Nervous? No. Terrified? Yes.”
“Terrified? About what?”
He sighs and lifts his head to meet her gaze and she almost takes a step back from the intense heat in his eyes.
“I don’t want to fuck this up,” he says.
“What’s ‘this’?” she asks with a nervous laugh. For a moment, remnants of her previous panic flicker at the corners of her mind.
“I don’t know,” Jaime says. “I just know I don’t want to fuck it up.”
“I’m leaving as soon as I find the Stark girls, Jaime.”
“I know that, too.”
There’s a flash of something in his eyes, on his face. Disappointment? Regret? Grief? She can’t quite name it but it makes her heart hurt, for him, for her, because she knows what they’re feeling right now is a form of jungle fever, nothing but adventure-induced lust and need, and cannot last past this moment.
She may, for once in her life, truly feel like a heroine in an Aurora del Moniko novel but sooner or later, those novels end on happily-ever-after, and in her reality, her day-to-day life, she’s not the kind of woman who can face down armed criminals without flinching. She’s a history professor who is always in danger of losing her job, reads trashy historical romance novels, and spends a week in the Riverlands learning how to set snares in order to better understand the smallfolks’ lives during the Age of Magic.
And that’s all right. Because right now, in this moment...
Whatever this is between them, no matter how fleeting, it’s beautiful.
And it’s enough.
Brienne steps close to Jaime, her eyes steady on his, and smooths her hands flat against his chest. She feels his heart beating beneath her palms and, for a whimsical, wistful moment, she wonders if this is what it means to hold someone’s heart in her hands.
“You won’t mess this up, Jaime.”
He lifts his hands and rests them on her waist, his fingers curving warm and sure over her hips. Her body thrums from just that small contact.
“No?” His mouth is twisted in a half-smile that’s more skeptical than hopeful.
Novels end...but this one’s not over yet.
“No,” she whispers and kisses him.
Jaime tries to keep their kisses slow and thorough, putting all the promise he can into them, knowing she’s leaving as soon as she finds the Stark girls and she won’t be coming back...unless he can convince her that what they have is something that will last longer than a holiday on the island. He doesn’t know what this is between them but he does know he doesn’t want to think about its end.
How many days has it been since I met her, he wonders in amazement as he strokes his hands down the long, strong lines of her back, kneading those muscles that mesmerized him as they moved beneath a water-soaked shirt while she cut a way through the jungle in front of him, and he thinks if he dies right now...he’ll scream bloody murder at the Stranger until the Stranger agrees to extend his life long enough for him to explore every inch of her, giving her all the pleasure she deserves.
But it’s more than just sex. It’s beautiful blue eyes in the moonlight. Scowls and frowns and teeth bared in feral rage at the criminal she’s battered to the ground. It’s confidence in her own work and conclusions, it’s quick thinking and a take-no-shit attitude, and he’s never met anyone else like her and never will again.
He doesn’t know what this is but he does know it’s intense.
And he’s not going to let her slip away without a fight.
I can’t mess this up, he thinks as Brienne mewls a little against his mouth and arches against him. Doing this right may be the only way to convince her to join me in an entirely different adventure.
Brienne mewls and presses closer, trying not to crush Jaime or scare him away with just how much she wants him.
Her arms tighten around him, her fingers clinging to those muscles that had so mesmerized her as he hacked the way through the jungle. His hands, stroking down her back, kneading her own tired and sore muscles, leave a trail of fire in their wake and when he slips his hand beneath her shirt and splays his hand against the bare skin of her back, any half-formed idea of maintaining control goes abruptly out the window.
Buttons pop, clothes tear, and when they tumble onto his bed, bumping noses as they try to touch and taste every part of the other person, laughing as they get in each other’s way, their only thoughts are of this moment.
The future can take care of itself.
Later, sated and exhausted, Jaime curls around Brienne and she sighs, feeling relaxed and content and at peace.
She’s drifting towards sleep when Jaime nuzzles his nose against her ear and sleepily murmurs, “I’m serious, Brienne. I think you should consider moving here.”
Brienne is up and out of the bed before she even has time to think.
“Don’t be cruel, Jaime,” she snaps.
He scowls up at her, blinking in the semi-darkness of the bedroom. “I’m not being cruel. I’m being serious.”
“You’re being ridiculous!”
“Come back to bed, Brienne.”
Jaime sighs then sits up and snaps on the light beside the bed.
He smooths the blankets and rests his hands in his lap. “I am not being cruel,” he says, his green eyes calm and clear as he looks at her.
Brienne is suddenly aware she’s completely naked and this time there’s no lust in Jaime’s eyes to soften the harsh lines of her body, to hide her over-plump lips and far too many freckles and barely-there breasts. The memories of the other men she’s been with and their indifference if not outright mockery once they had what they wanted—or sobered up—are suddenly there, crowding out everything else in her head.
She looks around the bedroom with an air of desperation, and grabs the bathrobe hanging on a hook beside the door. She quickly pulls it on and turns back to Jaime, who heaves a regretful sigh as she cinches the robe shut before he lifts his gaze to steadily meet her eyes.
“You are being cruel,” she says with a growl, planting her hands on her hips. “It was a joke before but now you’re just saying that because you know I won’t take you up on it.”
“Why not? Because it’s insane, that’s why! We barely know each other!”
“I think we know each other better than you seem to think we do. We were thrown into a situation where we had to depend on each other for our very lives. You’ve saved my life more than once and I’ve saved yours a couple of times, too, I like to think, and we’ve definitely had the adventure of a lifetime the last few days. Plus we’ve learned to trust each other in other ways.” His smile is wickedly teasing. “I think we proved that a few minutes ago.”
“Don’t you dare use sex to manipulate me!”
His smile is instantly wiped away. “I would never try to manipulate you at all,” he says, his voice and eyes deadly serious. “Whatever you do, I want it done of your own free will or not at all.”
Brienne barely hears him. She’s in full-blown panic mode now, pacing around the bedroom, restlessly running her hands through her hair.
“Brienne,” Jaime says, his voice sharp. “I am seriously, honestly, sincerely asking you to consider moving here, to Piratas. You don’t need to say yes right this minute but I want you to think about it.”
“Why would I even want to move here?”
She catches the fleeting look of hurt on his face but her guilt is drowned out by her panic.
He gives her a cool smile. “The climate, the people, the lifestyle. And if you stay here with me, I guarantee every day will be an adventure.”
“Adventure isn’t everything, Jaime!”
“Oh, and sitting in some fusty dungeon of a library reading about other people’s lives is?”
“You don’t know anything about anything!”
Brienne feels her face turning an ugly, mottled red and that just reinforces her panic and her conviction that she’s doing the right thing. I’m ugly, she thinks, and boring and if I stay, it’ll only hurt all that much more when it’s over.
Jaime leans back on the bed and spreads his arms with an arrogant smirk and he’s so godsdamn beautiful it makes her ache...and the seven-times-cursed bastard knows it, judging from the gleam in his eyes.
“Go ahead,” he says, lifting his chin in challenge. “Enlighten me. Tell me one adventurous thing you’ve ever done in your life before you met me.”
“Adventure isn’t everything, Jaime!”
“You’ve already said that. I’m assuming that means I’m right.”
“Were you born an asshole or did you have to work at it?”
Jaime raises an eyebrow. “Well, that hit a nerve.”
It takes a moment for Brienne to realize the grinding noise she’s hearing is her teeth. She forces herself to relax. She’s been dealing with asshole men since she learned to talk, she thinks. One more isn’t going to matter...even if he is the most beautiful man she’s ever been privileged to meet in real life and even if he’s just shown her just how much fun sex can be.
If he would just sit in the corner and look pretty, he’d be perfect.
Well, and leave his corner to make love to her on occasion. Then he’d really be perfect.
Right now, though, he’s watching her with bright-eyed interest and a skeptically expectant smirk.
“I’ve been building a career,” she finally grits out.
“Ah...and the world of academia is filled with excitement and adventure.”
All of her panic and anger drains out of her, leaving her exhausted and forlorn. Her shoulders slump and she walks to his side of the bed and drops down on the edge of it. He moves his legs to give her room but otherwise he doesn’t budge and he never takes his eyes off her.
She gives a helpless shrug. “The work is exciting and challenging and wonderful, and I love it.”
His mocking smirk slowly disappears. “What is it you don’t love?”
She bows her head, her eyes on her clasped hands and wonders why she wants to tell this man about her life. He won’t care anyway, not really, just like Catelyn doesn’t care and Catelyn’s daughters don’t care and all those people who are supposed to be her colleagues don’t care until her work embarrasses them or interferes with what they think she should be doing.
She glances at Jaime, thinking if she sees anything sneering or pitying or mocking or...anything really, in his expression. she’s going to get up and walk out of this apartment and find Sansa and Arya on her own and then get on a plane and never look back.
She searches his eyes and sees only honest curiosity.
“Publish or perish,” she says, “and my...colleagues, for lack of a better term, have no use for a woman studying the Age of Magic.”
Jaime frowns. “Why?”
Her lips twitch into a faint smile at that. “Because the Age of Magic is also known as the Age of Heroes. There were more Glorious Battles to Save the World than there are stars in the sky, it seems. What does a woman know about military strategy and the Glory of Warfare?”
Jaime’s mouth curves into a full smile. “I gather you’ve had that argument thrown at you quite a bit over your career.”
She grimaces. “Too often. It doesn’t help that I’ve also always been interested in the social history rather than the military history of the era. Studying and writing about anything other than the generals and battles and military strategies and armies of that time period? What’s the point? Who cares?”
“Thus a book on Rhaegar’s Rubies, which, it turns out, many people cared about but for all the wrong reasons.”
Brienne nods. “Exactly.” She gives him a faint smile. “I stand by my conclusions.”
He smirks. “Well, I stand by mine. I’ll bet you that Rhaegar’s Mine really is here on Piratas.”
She snorts and shakes her head. “You’ll lose that bet.”
Jaime grins. “We’ll see.” He sobers and leans forward, his eyes intent on her face. “You love what you do. Do you love where you live?”
She frowns, thinking on it. King’s Landing is big and busy and there’s always something to do if she ever had the urge to do it. There’s also Old King’s Landing with its beautiful, historic buildings and streets that date back to the Reconstruction, those years immediately after the city was destroyed that marked the end of the Age of Magic. Even better, though, are the archives at the Red Keep, filled with the most primary sources from the Age of Magic outside the Citadel. She loves researching and writing and teaching. One bright kid like Podrick Payne who hangs on her every word makes up for those who smile to her face then sneer behind her back. But King’s Landing itself? As a place in which to live?
“It’s King’s Landing,” she finally says with a shrug.
Jaime grins. “That tells me something right there. Are you tenured?”
She shakes her head. “Dr. Tarly has consistently refused to grant me tenure. He says I need more publications.” She grimaces. “Publications that don’t cause nearly as much controversy as my last book. I was supposed to be working on a paper with Dr. Hyle Hunt, a fellow untenured professor, before Catelyn called and sent me here.”
“Well, his loss is my gain.” He sighs. “It looks like we’re at yet another impasse.”
Brienne looks away and tries to make her shrug look careless. “Not really. I’ll leave once we find Sansa and Arya, and you’ll continue looking after the people on this island and everything we’ve been through will fade into memory.” She gives him a half-smile. “A really great memory.”
His eyes are steady as he searches her expression.
“Why are you so afraid?” he asks, his voice soft and warm and coaxing.
She can’t withstand that voice and she silently curses the hot tears that prick at her eyes. She ducks her head, focusing on her hands resting on her lap.
“I’m...this will never work, Jaime.”
“It’s been working pretty good so far.”
She shakes her head. “You’re an adventurer, Jaime. You live on a tropical island with a real jungle and you protect the people who live here from real, dangerous criminals. I’m a history professor, for the gods’ sakes! I teach about the Age of Magic and I sit in musty rooms and pore through even mustier pages to find evidence of heroes dead a thousand years. When I’m not teaching or researching or writing, I’m eating chocolates and potato chips while dressed in stained t-shirts and sweat pants and reading about fictional torrid love affairs! I’m not exciting, Jaime!”
Jaime tilts his head to one side and she knows he hasn’t once looked away from her. He says, “You’re more than exciting enough for me, Doc. We wouldn’t be here if you weren’t. And you may not be naturally adventurous, but you don’t run away from it, either. You stood your ground and fought most of those criminals yourself, you know.”
She refuses to look at him, her head bowed. “This isn’t going to last,” she whispers.
Jaime sighs. “Maybe you’re right,” he says, sitting up. He puts his hand on her chin and gently urges her to look at him. He searches her eyes then presses a gentle kiss against her lips. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth the risk.” He slides one hand beneath the folds of her bathrobe, his fingers warm and soothing as he strokes his way up her thigh. “Jump off the cliff with me, Brienne.”
She shivers as he drops soft butterfly kisses up the length of her neck and to her ear.
“Come back to bed,” he whispers.
A long time later, in the soft warmth of Jaime’s bed, he lifts his head and says, “Wait a minute. Did you say Dr. Tarly?”
They make love again in the morning, and Brienne’s body is aching in very pleasant ways that put a giddy smile on her face as she showers. She walks out of the bathroom to find Jaime, dressed only in a pair of boxers, flipping pancakes. His hair is sticking up in tufts, tousled from sleep and her fingers. The boxers ride low on his hips, and he’s more delicious than even the scent of frying bacon.
Her stomach growls.
Although bacon is a very close second.
He glances up and catches her grin, and gives her a slightly confused smile of his own.
She walks over and kisses him, sliding her arms around his waist and sighing against his mouth at the sleek feel of his skin beneath her hands.
She leans back and says, “We still have a lot to talk about.”
“You promised me the best dinner on the island and then you’d answer any question I had.”
“Well, I’m going to hold you to that.” He smirks and she gives him a small smack on his far-too-perfect butt before she kisses him again then says, “You know what I mean.”
“I do. Tonight?”
She nods. “If we find the Stark girls today, I’ll want to leave with them as soon as possible.”
“You do know you can’t force them to go, right? They’re adults.”
She sighs. “I suspect Sansa is ready to leave the wilds of Piratas and return to civilization. At least that will be a start.”
“And if you can’t convince them?” Jaime says.
“Then they need to talk to their parents themselves.”
“In either case, you could stay for a few more days?”
Brienne hesitates then nods. “I could stay for a few more days.”
Jaime’s face lights up and she reaches over and turns off the stove.
Turns out, bacon is a very distant second.
It’s well past noon by the time they wander into Melisandre’s bar, hand-in-hand because Jaime simply reached for her hand and refused to let go once they left his apartment. Not that she tried very hard although she did become adorably bashful the moment they stepped out in public and she’s still flushed as they stroll up to the bar.
The red in her cheeks deepen as Melisandre looks at their locked hands, raises an eyebrow, says, “This calls for the good stuff,” and places two bottles of beer in front of them.
“About time, Jaime,” Melisandre adds and raises her own bottle in a toast.
Now it’s Jaime’s turn to flush even as he grins at Brienne’s discomfort and confusion.
Brienne sees his amusement and glowers. Still, she clinks her bottle against Mel’s and Jaime’s without comment.
Jaime smacks his lips and says, “That’s the best beer I’ve tasted in days.”
Mel smiles then says, “Jos is resting comfortably at the hospital. They’ve put him in a cast, of course, but he’s going to be fine. The doctors just wanted to leave him in for observation.”
Jaime nods. Addam had sent the word out on the coconut telegraph right after they had secured Hoat, Shagwell and Zollo.
Melisandre reaches under the bar, pulls out a cell phone and places it in front of him.
“Try not to break this one when you out in the wild, okay? We were all worried sick about you.”
He picks it up with a grateful smile.
Mel looks thoughtfully at Brienne and says, “I suppose we’ll need a new one for you.”
Brienne’s cheeks glow red again. “I’ll be going back to Westeros once we find the Stark girls.”
“For now,” Jaime mutters and gives her a toothy grin when she answers him with a glare.
“Ah, yes. The Stark girls,” Melisandre says.
Jaime's and Brienne's gazes snap back to her.
“You’ve learned something?” Brienne asks, her face eager.
Mel nods. “That huge, scarred man who was seen with the girls? He came back while you were traipsing around the jungle breaking cell phones.”
Jaime rolls his eyes and Mel laughs.
She says, “He docked at the marina in a private boat piloted by a second man. Then the two men and the red-head—”
“Sansa,” Brienne says.
Mel nods. “Sansa. They left the island again that same day with Lysa Arryn in tow.”
Jaime sits back and stares. “What?”
“Sansa and the large man returned the next morning on the ferry. No Lysa. No second man.”
“They were followed, I hope,” Brienne says.
“Please. They’re at a campsite in the jungle about a half-hour hike from town, along with a brunette woman we assume is Arya and a young man who has a lot of muscles, bruised eyes, and an obviously broken nose.”
Brienne is still fuming as she and Jaime crouch in the thick jungle foliage and observe the four people at the camp site.
It’s exactly as Melisandre described: two large, comfortable-looking tents, a fire pit, and four lawn chairs near the fire. Sitting on the chairs are Sansa and Arya Stark, a massively large man with a mass of scars over half his face, and another man, young and handsome, with rippling muscles straining the seams of his t-shirt, yellowing bruises around his eyes and a swollen nose that still looks painful.
Good, Brienne thinks with vicious satisfaction, then grimaces. She’s absorbed more of the island subculture than she thought.
Jaime glances at her. “Ready?” he says.
They stand and stroll into the camp site.
“You’re in a lot of trouble, young ladies,” Brienne snaps in her best professor voice.
The large man scrambles to his feet, pawing at his waist and coming up empty. Muscles and Arya leap up and spin to face her, hands in defensive positions. Brienne’s pleased to see a flash of fear in Muscles’ eyes when he recognizes her.
Sansa simply stares, her mouth sagging open.
She recovers first. She turns to Arya and snaps, “I told you she wouldn’t give up!”
The story is simple, really, once told.
Sansa and Arya met Sandor Clegane at one of the bars their first night on Piratas. Both Jaime and Brienne exchange a quick glance at the name. The man himself watches them with a contemptuous sneer.
Sansa and Sandor hit it off immediately, even though he only introduced himself by his nickname, the Hound. Still, she somehow felt safer on an island with Piratas’ reputation with such an intimidating figure by their side. Arya met Gendry two nights later, and to say they hit it off is an understatement. They basically left Gendry’s friend, Hot Pie, to his own devices while they spent the next few days in Gendry’s hotel room.
Meanwhile, Sansa kept a promise to their mother and went to visit their Aunt Lysa, on Caraline Street.
“Oh,” Jaime says.
Arya glares. “Don’t you feel sorry for Aunt Lysa!”
“I don’t. I feel sorry for you, to have to see her like that.”
“When did you decide island life was the life for you?” Brienne asks.
“About an hour after meeting Sandor,” Sansa says with a rather shy albeit utterly besotted glance at the large, glowering man.
“About an hour after meeting Gendry,” Arya says with a lascivious smile at the man in question.
“Whose idea was it to try and scare me off the island?” Brienne says.
Everyone’s eyes turn to Arya, who at least has the grace to look momentarily chagrined.
Then she lifts her chin and says, “We’re adults! We can do what we like!”
“In that case, you should have talked to Brienne instead of sending Gendry and Hot Pie to threaten her,” Jaime snaps with a roll of his eyes. “That’s the thinking of spoiled little children, not adults.” He turns back to Sansa. “Where’s Lysa now?”
“Omboru,” Sansa says. “Sandor left to get our cousin who lives there, while we stayed with Aunt Lysa and tried to keep her in one place. She ran off into the jungle at one point and it took us a little while to bring her back. Sweet Robin—our cousin—came on his boat and then Sandor and I helped him coax Aunt Lysa onboard and took her to a hospital. We came back on the ferry the following morning.”
“And after Sandor left the first time, you and Arya went and bought all this camping gear and supplies,” Brienne says.
Sansa nods. “We knew our mother was going to send you after us. She always does. We figured we’d need enough supplies to stay in the jungle with the guys for however long it took until you gave up and went back to Westeros. Hot Pie was supposed to stay with us, too, but you scared him. He went back to Westeros a couple of days ago.”
Brienne sighs and rubs her aching forehead. “You know, if you would have just talked to me about all this...”
“Oh, what?” Arya sneers. “You would have convinced our mother to let us stay here?”
“No, you would have convinced your mother!” Brienne pulls herself up short and takes a deep breath. “Well, what’s done is done. Although the next time you send someone to threaten me, Arya, I will not take it kindly.”
There must be something in her eyes because Arya’s widen before she says, “Noted.”
Jaime’s been watching Clegane with a calculating air. “Does she know who you are?” he asks with a jerk of his head in Sansa’s direction.
Clegane’s smile is almost a snarl. “Yeah. Do you?”
Brienne’s eyes narrow because she knows the man’s words are more a threat than a question.
But Jaime’s smile is thin and sharp, his eyes like green shards of ice. “Oh, yes.”
Sansa’s eyes widen. “Wait—what’s going on?”
Jaime says, “Let’s just say we have information for your boyfriend that might change his life.”
Jaime settles everyone in a hotel then leaves Brienne to persuade the Stark sisters to at least call home while he takes Sandor for a chat. He drives Sandor to the same location where they’ve stashed the rest of Gregor Clegane’s men. There, he and Addam put Sandor in an interrogation room and lay out all the evidence Hoat and his crew provided.
“You have a choice,” Jaime says once they were done. “The Kingsguard will be here tomorrow to take custody of Hoat, his men, and the guns. You can be arrested with them or...” He spreads out his hands in a shrug.
“I’ve done nothing that’s against the law,” Sandor growls.
“Well, except register a false name at the marina when you docked your boat. Still, you can probably come up with a story for that and plead ignorance when the Kingsguard try to pry the truth out of you about your brother’s activities here and elsewhere. But you do know who your lovebird’s father is, right? Eddard Stark? The most honorable, ultra-tight-assed multi-billionaire in the world? He doesn’t look too kindly on any...hm...questionable activities. Of any kind. For any reason.” Jaime’s eyes are steady on Sandor’s. “So, you have a choice to make. You can provide King’s evidence and send your brother away for a very long time and maybe get on the good side of your lady love’s family...or you can take the fall with him and lose it all.”
Sandor sits and stares, silent, impervious, and almost preternaturally still.
Then he shrugs.
“Fuck ‘im. I never liked my brother anyway.”
Jaime returns to his apartment to find Brienne stretched out on his couch, blinking sleepily as he walks in.
“Sorry,” he says as he crouches beside her, “I didn’t mean to wake you.”
She smiles a little and strokes his cheek. “It’s all right.”
They kiss and it’s still new and different and precious and Jaime savors the moment.
Brienne leans away and says, “Is everything settled now? With Sandor?”
Jaime nods. “Beauty has well and truly tamed the Beast, it seems. Sandor’s willing to give King’s evidence against his brother. Still dangerous, of course. Besides his own brother sending hitmen after him, if Gregor Clegane goes down for this, even for a few years, it’s going to cause a power vacuum in his organization and between the various crime families in Westeros. Sandor swears he has no interest in taking over his brother’s organization and, in fact, all he wants is to disappear to some quiet isle and settle down with Sansa to have babies who will hopefully look like their mother.”
Brienne’s sour expression makes Jaime bite back a laugh.
“Sansa is just as determined,” she says, “and Arya is even worse. Still, I managed to convince them to at least call their parents so they won’t worry.”
He raises an eyebrow. “Does this mean you won’t be leaving immediately?”
She blushes and nods.
He grins and kisses her.
Later, they scavenge something to eat from his fridge and he says, “I promised you the best dinner on the island tonight.”
Brienne snickers around a mouthful of peanut butter and jam sandwich. “This is not it, Jaime.”
He laughs. “If you’re staying for a little while longer, do you think we can safely leave the Stark girls to their own devices for twenty-four hours or so?”
Brienne frowns, giving him a suspicious look. “What are you planning?”
He winks as he takes another bite of his sandwich. “Trust me,” he says.
Brienne wrings a solemn promise from Sansa and Arya that they won’t disappear again before she and Jaime return from...wherever it is he’s taking her. He’s been remarkably secretive and all she knows is they’re hiking back into the jungle, this time with sleeping bags, food, water and wine, but Jaime has promised they’ll be back sometime the next day.
“Do you think Sansa and Arya will still be there when we get back?” Jaime asks as they set out.
Brienne sighs. “I’m not sure I care.”
He laughs. “This island has definitely rubbed off on you.”
The clearing is as beautiful as Brienne remembers it, a hidden, peaceful place. They spread out their sleeping bags then build a fire and Jaime warms the food they brought. It’s not quite how Brienne imagined being fed the best dinner on Piratas, but the food is incredibly delicious and the setting is something out of a romantic dream.
There’s still light in the sky when they finish eating. They clean up and then Jaime turns to Brienne and says, “Ask me anything.”
So she does.
Jaime tells her about Aerys. He tells her about the atrocities he learned the King had committed, about the Kingsguard who allowed them to happen. He tells her of trying to convince the man to surrender, the King’s refusal, the struggle. The death.
He tells her about the horror of the act itself and then of its fallout. The way the Kingsguard of the day all refused to take any responsibility for their failure to rein in the worst of Aerys’ behaviour. How Aerys’ son, another Rhaegar, has never publicly acknowledged his father’s madness or his atrocities.
He tells her of the relentless media coverage after Aerys’ death and during the interminable trial. Once Jaime was acquitted, his brother Tyrion whisked him here, to Piratas. No one on the island seemed to care all that much about him or what he’d done...or maybe they did but by the time Jaime was sober enough to notice, the novelty of having the Kingslayer in their midst had worn off.
Besides, there had been a greater threat than him on the island at the time: a ruthless, sadistic killer who relished hunting women through the thick underbrush of the jungle. The police were corrupt and useless, the residents were terrified, the touries were avoiding the island like it had greyscale...and Jaime realized he still had a purpose.
“That was the beginning of the coconut telegraph?” Brienne asks, in the quiet of the now dark clearing. The sun had set a long time ago and now the stars are out. Jaime, sitting beside their tiny fire, has, in turn, been defiant and angry, bewildered and betrayed, confused and beaten, rueful and almost reluctantly proud of himself.
“It was tiny,” he says with a slow smile. “Melisandre, of course, and Addam, and Sam, and through them, maybe a half dozen others. It still took longer than I would have liked. Three more women died before we found him.”
“But find him you did.”
“And what did you do with him?”
He stares into the fire, unmoving, his expression unreadable in the shadows thrown up by the flickering flames.
“There isn’t really a prison on Piratas, is there,” Brienne says.
It’s not a question.
Jaime’s lips quirk into a half-smile even as he turns and steadily meets her eyes.
“There is,” he says. “Now. Then? No.”
Brienne’s breath catches in her throat and Jaime’s half-smile turns into a laugh.
“We held the monster in the first iteration of the holding facility where we currently have Hoat and his men until we could work out an arrangement with Westeros. King Rhaegar could not publicly support me, but behind the scenes, he knew my actions were justified. He owed me. He owed my family. He soon understood that all I wanted was an agreement between the so-called government of Piratas and his government, an agreement to provide us with law enforcement assistance when needed, including allowing us to send those who break our laws to Westeros for trial and imprisonment.”
Brienne lets out a whoosh of relief.
Jaime’s smile turns bitter and sharp. “Don’t feel so relieved, Brienne. We had to have Ramsay Bolton captured and tried publicly. The touries knew about him, about what he was doing. We had to be sure they also knew he was caught and was the man responsible for the murders. The island’s economy and our livelihoods depended upon it.”
She raises an eyebrow. “And if you hadn’t been able to reach an agreement with King Rhaegar?”
He shrugs. “There are usually sharks in the ocean north of the island...but we didn’t want to poison the poor creatures. They’d done nothing wrong.”
Brienne pulls in a sharp breath and Jaime laughs.
“Luckily for Bolton, King Rhaegar came through.” He shrugs. “Still, the sharks are always there if we need them.”
They talk long into the night, then make love slowly, exploring each other like they have all the time in the world.
Decisions still need to be made.
But not tonight.
The next day they make love in the bright warmth of the sun, in the sweet fragrance of flowers, surrounded by the buzzing of bees, their skin dappled with the shadows of the leaves and trees that surround them and hold their secrets close.
After, Brienne listens to Jaime’s heart beating beneath her ear and says, “I still have a contract with the university, and I love my work.”
He pauses then continues lightly stroking her back. His arm tightens around her shoulder. “We’ll have to start our own university, I guess,” he says but she can hear the strain in his voice.
She fights a smile as she lifts her head to look at him. “You’re allowed back into Westeros, aren’t you?”
He frowns as he searches her eyes. “Yes.”
“Then let’s take this year. You can come stay with me in King’s Landing, and I’ll come to Piratas on my breaks. If...if you’re still...” She stops takes a deep breath and says, “Let’s give this until the end of the academic year, and talk about it then.”
His frown slowly turns to a smile. “Not perfect,” he says, “but I’ll take it.”
One Year Later
Her bosom heaved with some emotion she was too frightened to name as Ser Galladon clasped her in his strong arms and yanked her flush against his broad, firmly muscled chest.
“Bold wench,” he growled, “you have more courage than sense!”
She gasped with outrage even as his lips descended towards hers. She wondered if he could feel her wildly fluttering heart, her trembling fuelled in equal measure by fear and forbidden desire . Her breasts tightened, her breath caught in antici-
Brienne jumps as there’s a loud clatter in the kitchen followed by Jaime’s colourful cursing.
“Need help?” she yells.
“Got it, everything’s fine!”
She snickers at the mild panic in his voice but doesn’t stir from her position on the couch. She and everything she wanted to keep arrived from Westeros yesterday and were placed here, in their new house on the beach. It’s much bigger than Jaime’s old apartment, with a couple of spare bedrooms and a strategy room on the second floor where members of the coconut telegraph can gather if they can’t immediately get to Sam and Gilly’s treehouse. Taking up the entire third floor is a library-slash-den for Brienne’s books and desk where she can do her work when she’s not teaching at the newly established University of Piratas or being an active member of the island’s coconut telegraph.
The house is beautiful, as is the view, but not as beautiful as Jaime’s face when, after a day of unpacking and moving furniture and entertaining a steady stream of island residents coming to help and welcome her into the madness, he presented her with the latest Aurora del Moniko novel, complete with a bright red bow perched on the cover while in his other hand was a matching box of chocolates and a bag of cookies.
“It’s pretty good,” Jaime said as he held them out to her, “no spoilers.” His smile was both hopeful and bashful as he shrugged and said, “Unpacking can wait.”
So could the book, Brienne discovered as she practically tackled him to the ground.
But today it’s all about the epic, unforgettable love story of—she checks the back cover—Galladon and Rhaena. She gets more comfortable, pops another chocolate into her mouth, and returns to her book.
Jaime walks out of the kitchen and pauses on the threshold of his new living room.
Brienne is stretched out on the couch, book in hand, framed by the ocean waves sweeping onto the beach outside their window. She’s covered in cookie crumbs, the box of chocolates resting on her stomach is almost empty and she has stains on her ragged t-shirt and sweatpants that look to be at least a hundred years old. Her hair is sticking up in tufts, her eyes are filled with romantic stars, and she’s barely spoken to him all day.
He grins as he turns and heads back to their new kitchen.
Maybe there’s something to this magic thing after all.
Chapter 22: Author's Notes
Damn works in progress! There were a couple of plot twists I thought of too late in the posting process. I intended the guns to be in the “Islanders Only” part of Rhaegar’s Mine—which would mean somebody on the island was in on it—but since I also wanted Hoat and his goons to be a little stupid, I didn’t want them to have found them there. Unfortunately, by the time I thought of it, Pyg and Timeon already had guns and, well, so much for that. Even if I had managed it, I also hadn’t dropped in enough islanders to have a viable suspect (other than Boros, I suppose) and it’s just not satisfying storytelling to pull a random bad guy out of my ass (IMO, of course).
I also intended Jaime to be revealed as Aurora del Moniko but—again, by the time I thought of it, I hadn’t dropped enough hints for that to be a satisfying plot twist. That, too, had to end up on the cutting room floor.
The story was also supposed to have a much longer epilogue, ending with Jaime and Brienne finding the real Rhaegar’s Mine exactly where Brienne said it would be: on a different island a thousand kilometres away from Piratas. I wrote it all, too...and realized I hated it. If Jaime was right, it put Brienne’s skills/expertise as an historian into question and I didn’t want that. If Brienne was right, it destroyed the entire mythos of Piratas (at least as it related to Rhaegar’s Rubies)...and I didn’t want that, either. I’ve become overly fond of that crazy little island with its crazy people and hidden nooks and crannies and vigilante civilian police force, and I didn’t want to hurt it (so much for Stephen King’s writing advice to ‘kill your darlings’ - LOL).
Ah, well. I’m still rather pleased with how this one turned out, even though I feel a little bad about exaggerating the Starks’ self-centred tendencies. But I needed a Mcguffin (or two) to start the story engine, so creative license needed to be taken. ;D
As for the Jimmy Buffett references (and believe me, I could have loaded this fic with more of them but forced myself to behave):
The coconut telegraph is, of course, from the song of the same name. It’s just another way of saying ‘grapevine’ but when your story is set on a tropical island, well, you gotta go with Jimmy.
You can hear ‘em on the coconut telegraph
Can’t keep nothin’ under their hat
You can hear ‘em on the coconut telegraph
Sayin’ who did dis and dat
Dis and dat, Dis and dat.
Lysa is a woman going crazy on Caroline Street, from the song of the same name. I tried to find the Westerosi spelling for Caroline but it doesn’t seem like GRRM has used that name yet, so I came up with Caraline. Drat...just realized it probably should have been Caryline instead. *facepalm*
There’s a woman goin’ crazy on Caroline Street
Stoppin’ every man that she does meet
Sayin’ if you be gentle, if you be sweet,
I’ll show you my place on Caroline Street
Jaime’s line that Lysa has good days and bad days and going half-mad days is from If the Phone Doesn’t Ring, It’s Me, and that line is just a perfect description for so many things. I use that quote a lot in real life - LOL. Don’t let the title fool you, though: the song is really rather heartbreaking (at least in my opinion, of course).
I have good days and bad days
And going half-mad days
I try to let go but you’re still on my mind
I’ve lost all the old ways
I’m searching for new plays
Putting it all on the line
Jaime’s story of how he ended up on Piratas in chapter 9 and his “well-deserved, overdue binge” is from The Weather is Here, Wish You Were Beautiful. This one is just as much fun as the title implies - LOL.
Well, now, that’s just the start of well-deserved, overdue binge
Meanwhile back in the city certain people are starting to cringe
His lawyers are calling his parents
His girlfriend doesn’t know what to think
His partners are studying their options
He’s just singin’ and orderin’ drinks
Jaime’s reference to “squalls out on the gulf stream” in Chapter 11, when they’re talking about protecting the Ruby Tree from storms, is from Trying to Reason with Hurricane Season.
Squalls out on the gulf stream
Big storm comin’ soon
Passed out in my hammock
God, I slept till way past noon
Stood up and tried to focus
I hoped I wouldn’t have to move far
Sure could use a bloody mary
So I stumbled over to Louie’s back yard
And finally, Captain Tony’s comes from the name of a bar (that used to be?) in Key West and is also referenced in the song, Last Mango in Paris.
I went down to Captain Tony’s
To get out of the heat
Then I heard a voice call out to me
“Son come have a seat”
I had to search my memory
As I looked into those eyes
Our lives change like the weather
But a legend never dies
I wanted to work in a reference to Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw (or A Love Song From a Different Point of View) but I couldn’t quite make it work and I wanted some A Pirate Looks at Forty and Treat Her Like A Lady references in there, too...as well as God’s Own Drunk, Come Monday, Fruitcakes *record scratch*
See what I mean about having to behave myself?
Finally, for the record: I adore historical romances, whether bodices are ripped or not, just like I adore all kinds of romance novels and, well, every genre really. But I have to be honest: I’ve read some truly horrendous ones, too (I still get flashbacks whenever I see the word ‘alabaster’ used to describe skin…so much bad in less than five pages…*shudders*). Anyway, Aurora del Moniko (in my head) tends towards the “so bad it’s fantastic” side of the equation...and now I kinda want to raid my bookshelves and re-read some of my favourites. ;D