Hope you'll enjoy reading this chapter as much as I enjoyed writing it :)
The last five days had been fruitless, and she was finally allowing herself some down time with Jon. This past week, she'd spent all her mornings drinking coffee and then having lunch with Gendry at that damn café, all her afternoons visiting places that had told her nothing, and all her evenings and part of her nights tracking down Johanna Waters' acquaintances. She was running on too little sleep and too much caffeine, not to mention a great deal of irritation. At least her research about Gendry's mother hadn't been too useless. She'd managed to locate two of her ex-coworkers who still lived in the area. Now all she had to do was meet with them. Her father's case was much less encouraging. No one she'd talked to had remembered him, and none of the places he'd been to in the weeks before his death had seemed significant. After failing to gather information herself, she'd sent a message to Yoren, telling him Littlefinger's real name was Petyr Baelish and asking him if he knew anything about the man. The cop hadn't answered yet.
Her brother had been surprised when she'd called and told him that she was free tonight for a bout of online gaming, after she'd told him a few days ago that she was going to focus entirely on her cases, but there was nothing she could do right now. She'd go to the café again tomorrow morning, and tomorrow afternoon she would try to get in touch with Johanna Waters' ex coworkers. Until then, she needed to relax for a while.
Jon's voice in her headphones brought her back to the game.
"Friend or foe?"
"Let's find out."
Their characters walked together to meet with the man outlined against the grey sky at the end of the road. Another player, who most certainly had his own agenda. They just needed to discover if they could build an alliance with him in order to defeat the ones who were tracking them, or if he was another enemy. As they got closer, the focus shifted and she noticed the helm he was wearing. She couldn't help but smile when she saw the bull horns that adorned it, remembering Gendry's words about his childhood nickname.
The new character attacked before they could talk to him, which was a stupid move since there were two of them and he was on his own, and he ended up running away.
"Well, that answered my question."
She nodded before remembering he couldn't see her.
"Come on, we have a magical weapon to find."
They played for another two hours, until Jon had to leave to go to class. It was a good thing too, she probably wouldn't have gotten any sleep at all otherwise. She took the laptop off her knees to place it on her small coffee table, yawning and staring blankly at the screen as the end credits rolled down. She wasn't really seeing anything, until one name caught her attention. Her eyes shot wide open.
That's where she knew his name from! When he'd introduced himself, she'd been sure she'd seen it somewhere, but she hadn't been able to place it. A small smile crept up her lips as she took her cell phone and typed a quick text.
You worked on The 5 Kings?
Despite the late hour, the reply arrived almost instantly.
You know that game?
Hell yeah. Love it. You weren't playing it tonight, by any chance?
Ran into a player wearing a bull's head helm. Thought of you.
She could almost hear his laugh.
I usually don't play the games I've worked on. Annoys me to see the flaws. But yeah, the bull's sort of my signature. I try to sneak it in when I can.
Nice touch. And nice job. This game's gorgeous.
Thanks. Let me guess. You're Lady Williams.
She smiled. When Jon and her had started playing and had to choose their characters out of the thirty or so possibilities, he'd known even before her who she was going to pick. It wasn't too hard given the character's description. 'Lady Williams' was a 20-year-old highborn girl who'd run away from home to escape the fate her birth destined her to. She could fight but was hopeless at politics and manners. The connection had been easy to make.
'Course I am. She kicks ass.
That she does.
"Jon's never going to believe me when I tell him I know the guy who created the Dark Forest."
"My favorite brother."
"How many do you have?"
"That explains a lot."
She could have pretended she had no idea what he was talking about. Instead, she kicked his shin under the table, effectively proving his point, and she grinned.
"I guess it does."
"Don't like her very much?"
"She's my sister. I love her. I just can't stay in the same room for more than five minutes without feeling the urge to strangle her."
He let out a low chuckle. They were sitting at what was now their usual table, keeping an eye on what was happening around them, but she didn't hold much hope that they'd come up with anything interesting. Most likely, whatever her father had wanted to observe here was long gone. She would give it another day and then she would have to give up this lead, it was taking up too much of their time for too little results.
"Why do you work as a freelancer? I don't want to inflate your ego or anything, but your work really is amazing. You could get a job anywhere."
He smiled his thanks at the compliment and shrugged at the question.
"I like the freedom. I'm not after money, though I'll admit that might change if I can't find my father on my own. I may have to get a better paid position in order to hire someone full time."
She took a sip of her coffee to hide her instinctive reaction of guilt at the mention of his investigation. She'd decided not to tell him she was working on it. She didn't want to get his hopes up, and she didn't want him to feel like he owed her, she knew he wouldn't like that. She'd talk to him if she ever found a clue. Still, even if she knew her reasons were rational, she didn't like hiding this from him, especially knowing how much it meant to him.
"Have you made any progress?"
"Not really. I went to the hospital where I was born, even managed to find someone who worked there at the time and remembered my mom, but she didn't know anything about my father."
She'd thought about doing this very thing, had decided against it for this very reason. It wasn't that the records were sealed and someone might have known at some point, his mother had just never told anyone. Still, Arya would have gotten around to the hospital eventually, after she'd gone through all the other options.
"It was a good idea. What's your next move?"
"I might try the bar where she worked. I don't think any of her old colleagues still work there, but maybe some of the regulars knew her. I'll show her picture around and see if anything happens."
"You're getting good at this."
Her phone vibrated, signaling a new text. Yoren.
Starbucks on 6th. Now.
Her eyebrows shot up. The urgency was clear even through the written words. This wasn't like him. She typed a short reply while motioning for Gendry to follow her, she left a few bills on the table and she got up, Nymeria trotting next to her to keep up with her quick strides.
"I don't know," she admitted as she started the car and sped through the morning traffic, anxious to find out what Yoren needed to tell her.
She made it to the Starbucks in record time and considered asking Gendry to stay in the car since she wasn't sure the cop would talk to her if she wasn't alone. But she didn't say anything when he got out of the car and followed her. She'd face the problem if it came up.
Yoren was sitting in a sofa near the furthest wall. She strode straight to him and sat down across from him. He put his newspaper down, frowning when Gendry took a seat next to her.
"A friend you trust?"
"More or less," she replied, ignoring Gendry's fake offended look.
He probably thought she was joking, but her answer was a serious warning to Yoren. She didn't want him to say anything about the fact that the murder victim was her father, she hoped he understood. She did trust Gendry. She just wasn't ready for him to know about this. It was the most personal and heartbreaking thing she'd ever had to go through, she had loved her father so much... The wound was still as raw as it had been after that first terrifying phone call, and talking about it made things worse. She knew, she'd tried with her brothers and even with Sansa. She'd never dealt with his death on an emotional level, she couldn't remember if she'd even shed a tear. She knew it wasn't a good thing, but she just didn't know what to do about it. And what she was doing right now, investigating and focusing all her energy on finding who was responsible, worked for her. As long as she managed to see this as just another case, she could handle it. Anything else and she might break down.
She suddenly realized that Yoren was talking and she focused her attention on what he was saying.
"I only got your message today. Petyr Baelish... Don't mess with him, Arya."
"Who is he? All I found is his driving license. I couldn't find anything about what he does or..."
"He owns half the shady businesses in town. He deals mostly in strip clubs, prostitution and gambling. I didn't know he went by Littlefinger."
The word strip clubs rang an alarm bell in her brain.
"Yep, that's him. How'd you know?"
"He owns pretty much anything with a 'Girls' in it. They say he's not a violent man himself, but he knows how to make problems disappear."
"Why would our murder victim have met with him?"
"No idea. But you might find it interesting to know that Baelish has links with the Lannisters."
It was interesting. Robert Baratheon's wife was a Lannister. Or used to be, before she married him. It meant Littlefinger probably had links with Robert as well... And maybe with her father's reasons for coming to his friend's rescue. This was a connection, the best lead she'd had in months.
"How do I get in touch with him?"
"You don't. Seriously, Arya, this guy's dangerous. Stay away from him."
"You can't tell me something like this and expect me to just let it go."
"I'm not kidding. Do you know what we found of the last guy who so much as looked at Baelish the wrong way? One hand. That's all."
"Good thing I have no intention of looking at him the wrong way then. Thanks for the tip."
She left before he could stop her, Gendry and Nymeria close behind her. She didn't go straight to her car. Instead, she stopped at a newspaper stand and brought a few papers. Only then did she get to her car and drive back to the café. Once they were sitting at their table again, she took the papers out of her bag and ended half of them to Gendry.
"Here. Look for anyone hiring dancers or something like that."
"You're not thinking what I think you're..."
"Spare me the clichés. I am and you know it. Now shut up and look."
He looked like he was about to protest, but he reconsidered, sighed and got to work. After a few minutes, she'd already circled three interesting ads while keeping an eye on everything that went on around her. She got to the end of her newspapers at the same time Gendry finished his. He didn't wait for her to ask, just handed her a page, pointing at a circled ad.
"This one looks promising. Auditions are tonight."
She lit up at that. The ones she'd found had not been for another week.
"I have some shopping to do."
She cringed as she looked at her reflection. It wasn't that she looked bad, but this wasn't her. The black lace bra and matching panties were anything but practical. But they were sexy, especially since she was wearing high leather boots and nothing else with them. She'd let her hair loose, the brown, wavy strands falling around her face and caressing her bare shoulders, and she'd even put make-up on. She'd gone with a smoky style that made her look almost exotic, for the first time ever thankful for the hours of lessons Sansa had put her through during their early teenage years. Deciding this wasn't going to get any better, she put on a short leather skirt instead of her usual jeans or shorts, and she chose a bright red shirt out of the three low-cut tops she'd bought in the afternoon. Once the ensemble was finished, she cringed again. Really, who was that whore in the mirror?
She'd have given anything not to have to deal with Gendry tonight. For the first time since she'd met him, she was uncomfortable with the idea of him watching her work. She'd gotten really good at ignoring the sharp pangs of attraction that made themselves known every once in a while, but she had a feeling tonight wouldn't help with the whole bury-your-head-in-the-sand strategy she had going on.
She'd gone so far as to ask him not to come, but he'd said he wouldn't miss it for the world, and underneath the amused smile and teasing eyes, she'd seen something deeper, a concern he was trying hard not to show. He didn't just want to make fun of her new look, he wanted to be there in case something went wrong, though he knew better than to say so out loud.
She'd left him at his flat since he didn't need to be with her for her shopping session, and she briefly entertained the idea of leaving him there and going to the club on her own, but since he knew where she was headed, he would just find her there anyway.
Nymeria growled disapprovingly at the sight of her, which did nothing to ease her growing nervousness. This was a new area for her, she had no idea what she was doing, she wasn't a particularly good dancer, and she'd certainly never tried dancing around a fucking pole. Not only was she going to make a fool of herself, she was taking a big risk with this undercover thing. If Petyr Baelish was as dangerous as Yoren and Jaqen had told her, he might suspect something, and then... Well, she didn't want to think about what would happen then.
Not to mention, Littlefinger might not even be here tonight. It was entirely possible he left the auditions matters in the hands of his staff, provided this club was even his to begin with.
She made a stop on her way to Gendry's and once she got there, she called him and hung up after just one ring, as usual. He was there in less than a minute. She slid from the driver's seat to the passenger's seat. When he opened the door and raised an eyebrow, she simply said, "You're driving".
He shrugged and complied. As he maneuvered the car in the empty streets, she opened the bottle she'd bought earlier and downed a large gulp of tequila.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Taking the edge off. I guess it's a good thing you came after all."
"Are you sure it's a good idea?"
She rolled her eyes.
"I'm not trying to get drunk. I just want to forget I'm gonna have to dance."
"Half-naked," he added with a smirk.
She punched his arm.
"Not trying to."
The rest of the ride was silent, and Arya placed the bottle on the floor after two smaller sips. Dancing wasn't terrifying enough that she'd risk losing control in order to feel more comfortable with it. Gendry parked the car a block away from the strip-club. She'd read a few articles online about the place and had been glad to note it didn't seem to be a front for anything else. There had never been any trouble with the police or troubling disappearances, nothing out of the ordinary. It was good, since not knowing if she was going to meet Baelish tonight, she might need to actually work here for a while, until the owner graced the club with his presence.
"Fuck, Arya, that's short!"
She was confused for a second, until she realized that in the darkness of the car, he hadn't been able to really see her outfit, but now that they were out with the street lights surrounding them, he could take a good look at her. She fidgeted with the tiny piece of fabric that the saleswoman had called a skirt.
"Yeah, well, I'm not trying to infiltrate a convent, am I?"
He shook his head and she saw him swallow hard.
"No, I know, but still..."
His disapproval angered her. She couldn't deal with this right now, she needed to focus.
"Who the hell do you think you are? My brother? Look..."
"Definitely not," was the immediate answer, effectively cutting her off mid-sentence.
She felt her cheeks grow hot at the implication, her anger instantly turning to something akin to shyness as she tried to regain some sort of control.
"Don't come in with me. They probably don't approve of applicants coming to auditions with male company. Wait for a few minutes before you follow me in."
He nodded wordlessly. As she walked past him and felt his gaze follow her, she admitted to herself that she was going to have to deal with whatever this was. She'd tried to pull away from him just a few days ago (God, had it really only been a week?) because she'd sensed he could be dangerous to her. That had failed miserably, and after spending so much time with him, she was left with feelings she wasn't quite sure she understood or wanted.
As she covered the short distance to the club, she managed to regain control of her nerves and to push these distracting thoughts to the back of her mind. She was feeling more confident when she pushed the door open, even if her feet were already killing her. Damn high heels.
She saw him as soon as she entered. He looked exactly like she'd have imagined even if she hadn't seen his picture: smart, clean-cut, and wearing a shark-like smile as he looked at one of the dancers almost clinically, one hand pensively caressing his short black beard. Since it was Friday night, the strip-club was crowded, yet he immediately waved her over, seemingly not even taking his eyes off of the woman who was now hanging upside down, her legs around the pole. She walked up to him, her hips slightly swaying to the music as she tried to get in character. Once she was in front of him, he spoke without looking at her.
"You're here for the job?"
"How much experience do you have?"
Her frankness earned her his full attention. She almost took a step back, unsettled by the severity of his gaze, but she firmly held her ground, even lifted her chin in an attempt to show him she wouldn't back down.
"What makes you think you're the one I need? I have a dozen experienced girls just waiting to..."
"I'm a fast learner. And I'll work harder than any of them."
His eyes slowly travelled all the way down her body and up again, and she fought hard not to squirm under his cool, professional gaze. Then he focused on her face. For a second, she thought she saw something flicker on his face, but it might have been a trick of the light.
A single wave, and the dancer he'd been watching stepped down from the elevated scene.
"Show me what you can do."
At first, she didn't realize he was talking to her. When she understood, her eyes went wide with surprise and what she hoped could pass for mere nervousness, but was closer to horror.
He sighed impatiently.
"Yes. Get to it, I don't have all night."
"Clients are a better judge than anyone. They like you, you get the job. They don't, you get out. Now, clothes off, moves on."
Still dazed from the knowledge that she was going to have to dance in front of dozens of customers, she swallowed over her protest and bought trembling hands to the hem of her top to lift it over her head. She let it fall to the ground and stepped out of her skirt in the next instant, fighting hard to ignore the stares of the four men sitting around the scene. She tried to read Littlefinger's expression, but there was no approval, no disgust, nothing that could give any indication of what he was thinking. As she placed her foot on a high stool to use it as a step to the elevated individual scene, she caught movement near the door out of the corner of her eyes and she briefly closed them in embarrassment. She knew she should have come without him, though she'd never in a million years suspected she would have to dance in the middle of the crowded room, and more to the point in front of him. Opening her eyes, she gave him a quick begging glance, praying he wouldn't do anything stupid, like try to get her out of here before she could at least try to convince Littlefinger. She'd hoped she would get to audition in front of the owner, and the owner alone, and that would give her a chance to try and get some information out of him, but now the chances of that happening were slim to none. She could only hope she'd get the job and it would give her an opportunity to talk to Baelish later.
To his credit, Gendry didn't even bat an eye at the sight of her clad only in black lace and leather, perched on a circular scene with four men focusing entirely on her, and more stealing glances her way between gawking at the strippers who were closer to them. He went straight to the bar to order a drink, and only after that did he turn his attention to her, as if he was just another client come to enjoy the show. She sent him a silent thank you for his coolness, and wished he would just look away for the next five minutes or so.
Her lips stretched up in an almost relieved smile when the music changed and she recognized the first chords. At least her first attempt at pole dancing would be to something she knew and liked.
"What are you waiting for?"
The slightly irritated voice shook her out of her reverie and she gripped the pole just as David Coverdale claimed he didn't know where he was going.
As she began moving in time with the music (at least she hoped so), everything seemed to blur and she forgot where she was for a moment. She wondered how Jon would react if he ever found out about this. She felt herself chuckle at the thought of her mother being here right now. She imagined Sansa's indignant squeal. In her mind, she saw Robb punch Littlefinger and every single man who was watching her. She didn't doubt for a second what Bran would think: he'd tell her that if this could lead her to their father's killer, she was right to do it. And Rickon... Well, she hoped her youngest brother never found out about this, or the teasing would never cease.
She jumped and stopped dancing abruptly when she felt cool fingers on her skin, just below her stomach. Out of pure instinct, she slapped the hand away, and just then the music stopped. Finally coming back to her surroundings, Arya became aware of the fact that only one light remained, the one trained on her, and that every single person in the club was watching her, including the other dancers. She searched for Gendry but couldn't find him, the spot he'd previously stood in now empty. Feeling something tickle her stomach, she looked down to see a 100 dollar bill tucked in her panties. She took it and looked at Littlefinger, the question clearly written all over her face.
"Consider this an advance. You start on Monday. But be here tomorrow morning at 10, sharp. You need to learn how to use the pole better. And you'll have to try some outfits on."
Her mind completely blank, she nodded, slid to the ground, gathered her clothes and quickly put them on, barely hearing the whistles and calls. Then she bolted for the door, anxious to get out of here before she ruined her success by twisting an ankle or hitting Baelish for the way he'd touched her. The fresh air seemed to clear her head a bit and she nodded her goodbye to the bouncer before she started walking in the direction of her car.
"Sorry. I couldn't stay."
She jumped at the voice, but relaxed when she realized it was Gendry. He'd been waiting for her in the shadow of a doorway, probably ready to run back in if she hadn't gone out just a few minutes after him. She gave him an uneasy smile.
"I got the job."
"Never doubted it."
The silence seemed to stretch on indefinitely as they walked side by side towards the car and he unlocked it. He opened the driver door, but before she climbed in the passenger seat, Arya asked, her voice slightly shaky, "What... What happened in there? I sort of spaced out."
"I noticed. Littlefinger noticed. Everyone noticed. You were in your own little world. It was... enthralling."
Not what she had expected him to say. Only then did she notice his tightly clenched fists. Fully coming back to her senses at last, she also took in his tense stance and dark gaze. She frowned. He'd known what she was going to do, the fact that it had happened in public instead of just in front of Baelish shouldn't have annoyed him so much. They got in the car, but she stilled his hand before he could put the key in the ignition.
"Why are you mad?"
He jerked his hand away and gave her an incredulous look.
"You're joking, right?" She shook her head in confusion, and soon found out what real anger looked like on him. "Damn it, Arya! Did you see the way those guys were looking at you?" She opened her mouth to answer, but he wasn't done. "And do I need to remind you that not one, but two very intimidating men warned you off Baelish and you're still going after him?"
"I'm not! It's not like I'm trying to kill him or anything. I just want to know what my murder victim wanted with him."
"Yeah, I'm sure that'll make a difference when one of his men is disposing of your body."
"I'm not going to get killed." He looked like he was about to argue, but it was her turn to cut him off as the realization dawned on her. "Wait a minute. You're not angry. You're worried."
A humorless laugh preceded his answer.
"Worried? Arya, I'm fucking terrified! Do you have any idea how much danger you're in? Those people... Half of them would sell you to Baelish, and the other half would rape you first. If he ever finds out what you're up to..."
"You have no way of..."
"He won't," she repeated, her voice firm, yet soothing.
And for the first time since the beginning of this conversation, he looked at her. Some of the tension seemed to leave his body as he drank in her calm and got his fear under control.
"Look, I just... Whatever the client's paying you, it's not worth it."
Her confusion returned full force and she frowned, until she remembered. Oh, right. He still thought that she was doing this for someone else. She sighed and shook her head.
"Believe me, it is."
A small wave of her hand was enough to make him listen to her. When she spoke, her voice was raw with emotion she didn't try to conceal for once.
"I can't do this tonight. There's too much I need to... It doesn't matter. I never intended to listen to anything you had to say about this case, but I'll promise you this: I'm going to talk to you tomorrow, and if you still want to convince me I should give up, I'll let you try."
His smile was equal parts baffled, hopeful and bitter.
"But you don't think I'll succeed."
"No," she answered honestly. "It's the best I can do, Gendry. And you have no idea what this much is costing me."
It was his turn to sigh. He kept looking at her like he wanted to say more, but after a minute, he seemed to decide it could wait. He drove her home and called a cab to go back to his own flat. When she kicked the door open, Nymeria greeted her with a small lick to her fingers, and Arya fell to her knees in front of her, hugging her for comfort as she tried to wrap her head around the fact that tomorrow, she would have to find a way to tell Gendry about her father without breaking down.