"And you, Stark."
He pulled Jon into a hug, gripped him so tight Robb hoped it would be hard enough to break bones so he wouldn't be able to leave. There were snowflakes melting in Jon's hair, and it took everything in him not to brush them off. In no time at all, he let Jon go, looking into those gray eyes he used to envy for what felt like the last time. Before it could reach the point where he wouldn't be able to look away, he turned around and marched off, away from his brother, with Grey Wind tottering beside him.
This is wrong, he thought. He hated the idea of Jon leaving the moment he heard of it. From Theon, of all people. It still rankled that he didn't hear the news from Jon first, that he wasn't important enough for his brother to tell him in person about going off to die in some frozen waste for reasons Robb couldn't even guess. The Night's Watch always sounded so honorable in Uncle Benjen's stories, tales of how even thieves, rapers, and the bastards of the most disgraced lords could find glory and honor hunting wildlings and giants beyond the Frostfangs. Those stories always held more interest for Jon than they ever did for Robb.
But they were just stories. Now Jon was going to be a part of them and, without the childish filter that made those tales seem more grandiose than they actually were, Robb realized how those stories always ended: in blood, death, and a cold grave.
He always meant to talk about it with his brother. But with everything that had been going on, the King's arrival and Bran's fall, he couldn't remember the last time he'd been alone with Jon. That didn't seem right, among other things. He thought he had time. They'd always had time. He'd been with Jon since before they could walk and would be with him still all the years after, as constant as winter. Except now their time had run out, and he was walking away.
He kept on walking, hoping that when he made it across the yard these thoughts would stay on the other side and disappear along with his brother. If he looked back now, he knew it would be too late. But it was exactly this thought that made him stop.
If I don't say something now, then it truly will be too late.
He turned, and their eyes met. Jon was still there standing beside his horse, watching Robb go, and his eyes widened slightly, as if he didn't expect Robb to glance at him again. That hurt Robb more than he could fathom, which made marching right back to Jon that much easier. "We need to talk," he said in a strained voice, grabbing Jon's arm and hauling him across the yard.
Jon was too confused and astonished to resist him with much force. "But Uncle Benjen—"
"He'll wait. He won't leave without you." Robb secretly hoped that wasn't true.
He pulled Jon straight through Winterfell, to the godswood where they first learned to swim in the hot pools when they were children and first prayed together by the heart tree when they could comprehend what a heart tree was for, learned not to be frightened of that gnarled, white face. He shoved Jon too roughly against that face now and stood before his brother like he was about to pass judgment. A true lord in that. He hoped that Jon realized this was a holy place, that whatever answers he gave would have to be the truth.
He noticed the direwolves weren't with them. Probably playing in the yard or giving them space. Those pups were smarter than anyone gave them credit for.
"Why are you doing this?" he said, barely able to contain his emotions now that they were finally face to face.
Jon didn't seem to hear the question, rubbing at his arm where Robb had gripped him like a vise. "Uncle Benjen said we're to leave right away..." he muttered, looking everywhere but at Robb.
"I don't care what Benjen said!" The volume made Jon flinch, but Robb gave that little attention before rushing on. "All I care about is what you say now! Why do you want to join the Night's Watch? Why do you want to leave Winterfell? Has Father agreed to this? Why didn't you talk to me? And why won't you look at me?"
A single red leaf fell from a branch above them and landed softly on a shallow puddle by their boots. It was a wonder the leaf didn't catch fire from the strength of Jon's gaze. "Father didn't say anything to me about it, one way or the other. He has more important things to think about than what I choose to do with the rest of my life," he said to the leaf.
Robb was shocked and angry at their father in turns. His mother was nothing less than glacial when it came to Jon, but he had always assumed their father loved Jon just as much as he did his trueborn children. Jon said no more, ignoring his other questions. Was the one of their father the easiest to answer?
"And is that why you're leaving? Because Father doesn't care what you do? Well, bloody hell, Jon," he said, trying very hard to understand despite Jon's silence.
Somehow that brought Jon around, and Robb was surprised to find anger in his red-rimmed eyes. "You have a habit of bulling yourself into my reach in the practice yard. You swing your shield into place like you mean to hit me with it, and you give no consideration to where a blow comes from. You put little stock in tactics and it works well enough since you're stronger than I am, but I never thought you stupid."
Robb blinked. "What did you say?"
Jon scowled. Actually scowled. "If I must spell it out for you... I hate this place. I hate everyone in it. I can't wait to go to the Wall and die at my post, so long as it gets me far away from here. Dorne is farther, but there's no one going to Dorne, and I'll be buggered trying to find a way there without becoming a hedge knight. That can only bring Father even more shame. There you have it. Does that answer your questions, my lord? Am I free to leave this wretched castle?"
He didn't know what hit him more, Jon's words or the tears that were just starting to form in the corners of his eyes. But at least he wasn't looking away. "I know I may be stupid," he rasped, stepping closer towards Jon, leaves crunching beneath his boots. "But I'm not so daft that I wouldn't know if you're lying." That got Jon to hesitate. Good. "Most of what you said is a lie. I know you don't hate Winterfell. You don't hate Father, Arya, Bran... or me." He gripped Jon's arms, forcing their eyes to lock, ensuring Jon couldn't run, that he was trapped...
Trapped... That must be it.
Maybe he was stupid, after all, if it took him this long to see. "You don't truly want to take the black, do you?"
For all that they were the same height, the same build, the same in nearly every way but in their hair and eyes, Jon looked infinitely smaller when his shoulders bowed and his head dropped. But Robb's strong arms kept him from falling. "This is why I didn't tell you. I know you would try to stop me. You're a fucking brute but, for all my maneuvers, you always win in the end..."
"This isn't a game, Jon. This is your life." And if you fucking talked to me first, you'd know how precious that is to me. "Please speak to me. I don't like it when you don't tell me what's going on. You've been so surly lately... I just thought you were being you. But this... You can't leave like this."
Jon shook his head and batted away Robb's arms, but he didn't bolt like Robb expected. He stepped back against the heart tree, using it to support him while he sagged against it, his head turned up towards the red and white canopy, faint shadows flickering across his face. Robb wouldn't be surprised if it was to hold tears back. "I have nowhere else to go, Robb."
"I know you think that's true—"
"It is," Jon said with an almost lazy conviction. "One day, Rickon will have a holdfast of his own, will marry some southron lady and whelp half a dozen trueborn children... and... and Bran, too, when he wakes. Arya will wed a powerful southron lord, one who won't be a prat and will be able to keep up with her as she deserves. And Sansa is already pledged to that foul prince and will make three foul royal children with golden hair. And you..." Jon's voice became softer, and Robb was more relieved than he could say to find no malice there. "You will be Lord of Winterfell and, though you spar like a barbarian, I know you will be a great lord, and I'll be proud of you... I am proud of you."
Jon didn't say anything more for several moments, walking by him to stand at the pool's edge, looking past the steaming spring to the copse of pines on the other side, northward. Robb didn't have to ask where he was looking.
"I know how they look at me. They ask each other who could have dishonored the great Lord Eddard Stark, as if I'm the one who did it. If I only knew myself, then maybe I could tell them, and that will stop the glares. Or maybe I can tell Lady Catelyn. Will that make her despise me less or more, if it comes from me and not her husband?" Jon turned to Robb at last, and his face was full of pain. It was all Robb could do not to hold his brother, like he always did when they were little and Jon cried, though Robb never knew why. "I'm tired, Robb. I'm tired of the whispers and the glances, and I'm tired of taking my meals at the servants' table when Father is away because there's no one to stop your mother's glares. And I don't blame her. I just want to be someplace where I don't have to hide, where I cannot fit just like everyone else..."
And that was when Robb knew all would be well. He took Jon into his arms, in a far more gentle embrace than the one they'd shared earlier, when they'd convinced themselves that nothing was wrong. Jon muffled a gasp into his brother's neck like he used to, Robb's gloved hand solid but comforting in his hair. "You'll always have a place here, Jon." He breathed into Jon's ear, as close as a kiss. "Godsdammit, Jon! I'm your brother! It's my duty to make certain you don't feel like this! “Where have I been all this time?
"It's not your fault..."
"Yes, it is! I swore to protect you, even when I don't know what I'm protecting you from." His arms tightened around his brother, the traveling leathers Jon wore squeaking from the pressure. "But now I know. I don't care what Mother thinks. And, as far as I'm concerned, those scullery maids can shove their whispers. Arya loves you. Rickon loves you. Bran will be looking for you when he wakes. Sansa... Never mind Sansa. And I know Father keeps his feelings far too guarded, but that's his fault. He cares for you—anyone can see that. And Maester Luwin also, Jory and Ser Rodrik, Hullen, and—"
Jon chuckled, though it sounded more like a choke, pressed as closely as he was to Robb. "Robb, Robb, stop. You can stop. I hear you."
"No, you don't. And that's the problem. I love you. And I want you to stay."
Jon's arms grew lax and, after a moment, he stepped away from Robb's embrace. Jon was a mess, with his hair wilder than usual, his eyes bloodshot and his mustache soggy. But there was a nobility to his pose that was at odds with his condition. Robb had always admired that about him. He was not what most said about bastards. He looked very much like a king. "It's not a question of how many love me. It's a question of my place."
"Then I will secure for you a place." He spoke as sure as he felt. He knew how much Jon needed the answer, and he wanted to give it with full confidence. "I am the heir to Winterfell. You can be what I want you to be, if that's how you'll have it. I assure you that I'll make much better use of you than the Wall."
"And when will that be? Father will live to a ripe old age, gods willing."
"Then he'll grant you a station, or I will by his command. I'm sure that Father has not put adequate thought into why you're joining the Night's Watch. He probably thinks that is what you truly want. He won't object if you remain close. You can be a knight sworn to our service, a guardsman, or a bloody maester if you're feeling bookish. I'll request you personally when you finish your chain. It's not unheard of, Jon."
Jon seemed skeptical, but Robb knew him well enough to see his natural pessimism at work. "But... Lady Catelyn..."
"Is powerless to stop us," Robb grunted, already tired of this argument. He and his mother had much to discuss. "And, besides, you haven't heard the most compelling reason."
Jon quirked an eyebrow, looking amused despite the somber façade he was trying to uphold while searching for flaws in Robb's logic. "Oh, and what is that?"
Robb smirked. "If you don't stay, we will have a trial by combat. As you said, I'm stronger than you, and you are no match for my stupid attacks."
It took a few seconds, and he admitted that Jon fought valiantly, but in the end his stone face cracked and he laughed, a laugh filled with relief and joy and silent longing. Robb couldn't help but do the same. A cold wind blew from the north, rustling the leaves and blowing the steam in their direction, and Robb liked to think it was the sigh of the Wall as it lost another member. The Night's Watch's fight was just as important as anyone else's, but it didn't have to be his brother's. Not now. Not ever.
When they had both relaxed sufficiently, Robb gripped Jon's shoulder. "So, what do you say? I'm not going to lie. With Father and the girls leaving, Bran's condition, Mother in mourning, I sorely need you right now. I need you. I can't promise that I can give you the place you want right at this moment or even soon, but if you don't stay, then there's nothing I can do." Robb turned away and sighed, wondering when talking had become so difficult. It was usually Jon who fumbled. "Just... Stay. I'm probably being as mushy as Sansa right now, so say yes quick and spare me further humiliation."
Jon smiled before shaking his head, then made a sigh that was all but thunderous in its depth. He covered Robb's hand on his shoulder with his own and squeezed tight. "Very well. You win. I'm convinced. Now, where's Ghost so I can tell him the good news..."